Sheet Music Review
Of the accredited music exam boards in the UK, LCM (London College of Music) Exams offer the most diverse and perhaps most interesting range of graded and other assessments for piano players, and although perhaps less well-known than their main competitors ABRSM and Trinity College London, their brand new piano syllabus for 2018 may go a long way towards altering perceptions and the appeal of LCM.
As with ABRSM and TCL, LCM Exams offer a series of eight Grades, followed by a range of professional diploma exams. I was bowled over by the quality and content of the excellent new diploma anthology published back in the summer, which I reviewed here.
The new series of Piano Handbooks for the eight Grades are, in my view, equally stunning, and leave no doubt that LCM have set their sight on being the best in their field.
Not for me to review those books here, however, as I must openly state that I acted as a syllabus consultant for the 8 Grades, advising LCM on repertoire selection and editorial questions. Karen Marshall is therefore kindly stepping in, with an in-depth and independent review of those books for Pianodao.
In the meantime, I offer this review of LCM’s pre-grade one assessments, which are rather more extensive than the other examination boards’ …
A General Overview
For a full and detailed overview of all that LCM offer for piano, do make sure that you check out their syllabus here.
Prior to Grade 1, there are three steps as follows, and the published Piano Handbooks include all the requirements for each:
Candidates must offer:
- The full set of 6 published exercises
- Any two of the 5 pieces in List A
- Any two of the 5 pieces in List B
- A note reading test (for which candidates need to name five notes selected from ten specified, which are Middle C up to G in the treble clef, and Middle C down to F in the bass clef).
In each of Lists A and B, one piece includes a duet part, but this is not to be played during the exam. However, as the syllabus document puts it,
“In order to reassure candidates, a parent or teacher is allowed to be present (in a silent capacity).”
- Any five of the 10 published exercises
- Any two of the 5 pieces in List A
- Any two of the 6 pieces in List B
- “Questions on Rudiments” – based on music theory knowledge and notation reading, involving recognition and identification of staff, bar lines, clefs, pitch names, note types and values, and rest values, all relating to the music performed.
- The Scales of C, G and D major (one octave from memory, hands together)
- Any five of the 10 published exercises
- Any two of the 6 pieces in List A
- Any two of the 7 pieces in List B
- “Questions on Rudiments” – now also including dotted note values and knowledge about the position and purpose of the key and time signatures, accidentals and basic dynamic signs.
There is much to say about these requirements, and the new publications. I am going to cover as much of that ground as I can, summarised under four headings:
- Purpose – the who and why? of the exams
- Pedagogy – how well does this scheme fit alongside our teaching?
- Product – what are the new books, and the pieces in them, like?
- Pieces – what of the music itself?
This is really a philosophical question, but an important one because LCM Exams have taken a different route to the other boards:
Is it really necessary to put a pupil through three exams before she or he even reaches Grade One?
I regularly hear teachers say that Grade 1 is too difficult (regardless of exam board), and that easier steps need to be offered. Simultaneously, teachers and parents frequently bemoan the amount of testing in education. Oddly, I sometimes hear the same voices make both of these contradictory complaints!
If it is necessary to offer three exams prior to Grade 1, it rather suggests that the level of Grade 1 is amiss. But fixing that problem is more difficult that might be assumed, because the three boards mentioned are all accredited by Ofqual, and their examinations must have parity and neatly fit into an overall qualifications framework. Lowering any bar can quickly lead to accusations of “dumbing down”.
Given the time it takes some children to reach Grade 1, there is a good argument to be made for some form of testing earlier on, and this can generate a sense of progress, momentum, and build confidence before more formal examinations begin.
With this in mind, ABRSM offers its popular “Prep Test”, while TCL also has an “Initial Grade” prior to Grade 1. These are a step easier than Grade 1, but not a large one. Their main emphasis is on introducing the student to the world of exams at a point where they are ready for assessment, but perhaps not quite ready for Grade 1 itself.
Offering three progressive exams prior to Grade 1 is a particular distinctive of LCM, however, and one that is potentially fraught.
The danger is that including so many assessments into the earlier stages of learning will significantly impact on curriculum content and essentially limit or prescribe methodology.
So let’s consider that point …
The LCM syllabus describes the three difficulty levels in the following terms:
Pre-Preparatory: Five-finger position, without hand shifts. No accidentals.
Step 1: No shifting from the 5-finger position, except for a very occasional slight extension. Mostly simple time signatures with the quaver as the shortest note and principally using white keys.
Step 2: The music will be in the same keys as the scales, with occasional accidentals, passing of the thumb under the third finger, and third finger over the thumb, shifting of the hands, and occasional easy intervals.
There’s nothing hugely controversial about this structured progression (although the heavy emphasis on notation will trouble some) until we look at the detail…
One would hope that Pre-Preparatory might be accessible once a pupil has completed their first tutor book. But as I explained in my article The Problem with Method Books, there are many popular and potentially successful approaches to learning how to read music.
The Pre-Preparatory level requires candidates to read (or at least play by rote) some exercises in which the LH is in the five note position from F to Middle C, as well as others where the LH is in the lower five note position from C to G. Both these note ranges are also used in the List A and B pieces, although here there are options.
The RH, meanwhile, is fixed in the Middle C to G position for the whole book, which doesn’t particularly concern me, but certainly won’t appeal to all teachers.
In the compulsory sight-reading / note naming element of the exam, the candidate must identify notes from Middle C up to G in the treble clef, and Middle C down to F in the bass clef. But these are often not the first notes that a pupil will have learnt to read.
As I noted in my review of the Lang Lang Piano Method books, bass clef Middle C is not introduced until the third book in the series (at which point, pupils would otherwise be far more advanced than LCM’s Pre-Preparatory level). Similarly, the first books of Piano Junior, Piano Adventures, Piano Safari and several other methods don’t introduce the closed Middle C positions as a starting point, either for playing or for reading.
The bottom line is this: using these books might require a teacher to adapt their approach to introducing notation, and depending on the teacher’s favoured method books, the exams may be more or less appropriate and appealing.
An alternative that LCM might want to consider next time would be to leave the choice of LH positions in the exercises to the teacher/candidate (for example, play three of the 6 only), and rethink the note identification section to offer more inclusive options for those learning from the wide range of popular methods.
That said, the note-naming and “questions on rudiments” are, in my view, highly valuable for ensuring that children aren’t simply being taught by rote, but are receiving a proper grounding in musical understanding.
This again may not be a view universally shared, but to my mind the inclusion of these questions lends considerably more validity to the whole assessment process, and will provide valuable insight to teachers and parents.
Looking onward from Pre-Preparatory, I would say that Step 1 is roughly equivalent in demand to ABRSM’s Prep Test, while Step 2 is a quite significant jump, in many ways aligned to Grade 1 itself. The hands-together scale requirement particularly took me by surprise!
The pieces here include three-note chords, syncopation and consistently move well beyond the five-note range. Contrary to the description that LCM offer, I was pleased to see that there are a couple of pieces here in the relative minor keys, and not just the major scales listed. There’s also a couple of rule-breaking (but highly appealing) pieces in F major here!
One thing which I particularly love about all three levels as a teacher is the emphasis on developing varied articulation, phrasing and dynamics right from the start.
Across all three books, the exercises are really well written, and will be especially useful for developing coordination and touch.
If my comments about Purpose and Pedagogy have suggested any caution, when it comes to the product itself I am unequivocally enthusiastic!
The covers, reproduced above, and certainly eye-catching, and personally I love them. The books themselves are very well produced, with slightly larger-than-standard notation (but not huge!), well spaced and cleanly presented. The music editing and overall clarity is outstanding, and special credit must be given to LCM’s David Duncan for his stellar attention to detail.
The only reservation I have about the books (and this must be mentioned not least because I made the same observation when reviewing the TCL syllabus earlier in the year) is that there are no pictures.
These are unquestionably exam books, and some children will no doubt find this makes them less engaging and imaginative.
In this regard, ABRSM are offering the more child-friendly exception, with their brightly coloured and brilliantly illustrated Piano Star books.
“Across all levels I have provided a ‘pick and mix’ of material from traditional melodies and folk songs, alongside some of my own compositions. These include Jazz, Ballads and Latin styles, Classical and Baroque arrangements and character pieces that encourage expression. I hope young pianists enjoy this music as much as I have enjoyed writing it.”
The music here is simply brilliant. Heather has not only succeeded admirably in fulfilling her stated aims, but has in the process provided a fabulous resource of easy pieces which could be used well beyond the remits of the LCM exams themselves.
Pre-Preparatory includes among its selections such favourites as There was an old lady who swallowed a fly (happy memories of singing this to my own two children when they were little!), A Sailor Went to Sea and Pop Goes the Weasel (which naughtily includes a RH A).
From Step 1, my favourites include There’s a Hole in my Bucket, and Heather’s originals Butterfly Lullaby (which is beautifully lyrical) and Tuesday Tango (although I thought this rather harder than the other on offer).
Most of the pieces in Step 2 wouldn’t seem out of place on a Grade 1 syllabus. My top choices would be Handel’s Gavotte, Grass So Green, and I Saw Three Ships (as it’s Christmas at time of writing!). Waltzing Matilda is also very well arranged here, and the pupil is allowed to play using swing quavers.
I have no doubt that the music provided here will appear in school concerts, and wherever families and friends gather round the piano to enjoy a child’s playing.
The journey from taking up the piano to reaching Grade 1 can, for many young children, be a long and at times frustrating one.
There is no doubt that there are children for whom the three-step LCM exam offer will be appealing, and parents who will warmly welcome the independent progress report that an exam provides.
How wonderful then that LCM have produced such a stimulating syllabus to meet the needs of those young players.
Whether used to augment, divert from, or even replace an existing method-based approach, the well-considered range of exercises and fabulous pieces are sure to offer considerable appeal, while the “questions on rudiments” work well to support effective teaching and learning.
The books themselves are genuinely outstanding, too, offering not only some exciting musical material, but a pedagogic foundation that will stand any player in excellent stead for Grade 1 once they are ready.
I warmly recommend that you take a look!
Karen Marshall’s in-depth review of the new LCM Grades 1-8 has now been published here.