Sheet Music Review by Karen Marshall
November has seen the London College of Music present their new piano syllabus.
Due to staff changes the last time the syllabus was changed was back in 2013. So I was very excited to see what LCM were offering – especially as many of my colleagues Andrew Eales, David Barton, Francis Wilson and Melanie Spanswick have consulted on the main albums.
As a teacher who actively uses LCM, along with Trinity and ABRSM, Andrew asked me to write the review (to maintain impartiality).
As my first full syllabus review on Pianodao, I have worked really hard to get a broad collection of voices – many thanks to my piano teaching colleagues who have helped me shape this review.
I must say that the overall impression is that this is a job very well done by LCM, and a big step up from previously piano syllabi in terms of pedagogical content, variety of repertoire, quality of editing and presentation of the publications. Huge congratulations to William Alexander, David Duncan and the rest of the team at LCM for this achievement.
Now here’s my review, and in true Pianodao style, it is equally as detailed as Andrew’s! I really hope it proves helpful to teachers and pupils.
There are 8 Graded books – one for each grade – as well as three pre-Grade 1 publications. which Andrew has reviewed here. There is a single “handbook” per grade, and unlike ABRSM or Trinity, recordings will only be available (at a later date) as MP3 downloads; no CDs are planned.
Technical Work (including both scales and studies) is included in each book, along with Sight reading, Aural and Viva preparation. A full page of programme notes is given before every piece (much praise for this feature by teachers and students I spoke to). These are written by highly regarded pianists and teachers such as Melanie Spanswick, Daniel Grimwood, Kirsten Johnson and Zubin Kanga; a lovely touch is that living composers such as Alan Bullard, Nancy Telfer, Tony Pegler and Rachel Grimes have written the notes for their own pieces.
Having everything in one book is a big hit with students and teachers, reducing the opportunity to forget books and the cost of taking an examination.
The only criticism given here was that there weren’t many sight reading or aural examples so other material would need to be purchased anyway. My own thoughts here are that it’s good to have something to start with!
As for the design – well this is pretty different to any other music cover for an exam syllabus. It’s been a huge hit with students, although teachers I’ve asked are a split jury on this one. Personally, I really like them.
Here’s a little bit of background from David Duncan at LCM:
“We have been working with a variety of exciting young artists to develop an approach to cover artwork which goes beyond stock imagery of instruments and gives learners something more individual and exciting — as we spend such a long time practising with each book we feel it’s important that each learner can feel a real attachment to them.
In Piano, our initial inspiration came from the hammers of the instrument, and so we settled on a pattern of percussive marks, which form the illusion of smooth flowing sound. And as the grades progress more patterns are introduced and the colours become more sophisticated. This work is by the artist and illustrator Joe Cruz.”
So now for the syllabus itself…
Teachers and students seem united in agreement that this is a very attractive selection.
It’s good to see pieces from core repertoire such as Minuet in G by Mozart from Nannerl’s Music Book along with Quasi Adagio from Bartok’s For Children book 1. The Minuet in G from the Anna Magdelana Bach book also appears in the alternatives. The Diabelli and Attwood pieces are both musically and educationally rich – yet I would say a little hard! Teachers looking for an easier choice in List A should check out the alternatives, which include the very manageable Gavotta by James Hook (Music Through Time OUP – page 9), also in ABRSM Encore Grade 1 & 2 and Get Set! Piano Tutor 2 (you may already have these).
List B provides two very accessible pieces in Adair’s The Flying Trunk and Bartok’s Quasi Adagio. Flying Above the Clouds has previously been featured in Grade 1 ABRSM and Grade 2 Trinity. It’s a stunning little piece, but perhaps for the more able Grade 1 student.
The List C pieces – well I have to say I think this group has been pitched at the top end of the Grade. Both the fabulous Baby Bouncer (Pam Wedgwood) and Jazz! Goes the Weasel (Rebekah Maxner) require a good size hand, and a sense of syncopation. As much as I love Rhyme Time (Elissa Milne) I think it is too hard for the Grade. Teachers wanting more accessible choices should look to the LCM Piano Anthology Grade 1 & 2 – Cheerful Cha Cha Cha (Pauline Hall) comes to mind.
Teachers should note that pedal is optional in all Grade 1 pieces, including the study. Best not to view the study as an easy alternative to scales here. The Wind by Chee-Hwa Tan is a keyboard geography feast, along with a five-ledger-line note.
Excellent to see the Petzold Minuet in G minor from the Anna Magdalena Bach book alongside a delightful Fanfare by Couperin and Courtly Dance by Margery McHale. The Musette in D (also from Anna Magdalena Bach book) – available in lots of publications including The Best of Grade 2 (Faber) and ABRSM Encore Book1 – is also a very good choice from the alternatives.
In List B, A Little Song by Kabalevsky is very accessible, as is Watermark by Louise Chamberlain (really Pam Wedgwood). To stretch Grade 2 students, The Lonely Traveller by Evelyn Glennie offers a brilliant work out for the left hand, but I am a little perplexed that Romantic composers seem to be overlooked here.
The C List includes one of my all-time favourites to teach – The Somersault King by Schoenmehl. Homework Blues by Pam Wedgwood and Celebration by Gaudet offer very contrasting alternatives, both accessible at the level. Don’t forget about the alternatives, which include some gems by Ben Crosland, In the Pink (Chappel) and Seiber’s Tango both in the LCM Anthology.
The Prelude in C by J S Bach is another favourite, a very accessible List A piece, packed with lots of patterns and ornaments that can improve long-term playing. The Mozart Allegretto is another fantastic choice – I’ve had many student’s play this and absolutely love it! The Cossack Air is a good contrast, and List B again offers a very high standard of music.
Khachaturian’s A little Song was one of my childhood favourites, and is very playable. The two other choices here – Max Richter’s From the Rue Vilin (a good stretch needed) and Dancers of Taranto by Beaumont are harder, but also excellent repertoire.
List C, however, I’m less keen on, mainly because Clowns (also set for ABRSM), though fantastic repertoire, does require very strong fingers to play evenly. Try getting your student to stress the right-hand quavers – 1 & 3 – if this is sounding uneven. Children love Elissa Milne’s Grouch, and it’s great for keyboard geography. However, I suspect Cicada Sketch will not be a common favourite in exam rooms. With many teachers challenged even by Bartok’s dissonance, I do wonder!
There are some real highs in this list – but also some unusual choices.
In List A, I find the Podgornav nice enough, but I think Clementi, Kohler and Kuhlau (in the alternatives) provide stronger offerings at this level, and a better foundation for playing Mozart Sonatas. I’m not overly impressed with the Invention by Ethel Smyth, and I wonder if its selection has more to do with LCM’s bias towards female composers than musical merit. The star in this A List is the J C F Bach Solfeggio in D. I am certainly going to be digging out the pieces by Beethoven, Kuhlau, Hassler and Diabelli on the alternatives.
I feel that List B stronger – but challenging. The attractive Dedication by Granados looks simple, but really isn’t, and is currently on TCL Grade 5. An Ancient Tale is a lovely offering, but a large hand is required for Brown’s Señorita.
From List C comes one of the most stunning finds: Nancy Telfer, you really have composed a beauty In When Rivers Flowed on Mars. As one of my pupils put it, “it’s better than Einaudi”. This will be hitting my pupil concert list, and I have students who have already chosen to play it!
The Prokofiev is good standard repertoire, and Billie’s Song is great for large-handed, Jazz-loving students!
Dig into the LCM Piano Anthology too, which has some absolute gems including Burgmuller’s ever-popular Ballade, Hengeveld’s Argentijnse Tango, Mike Cormick’s Two Part Invention from Easy Jazzy Piano Book 1 and Warm Up (Roy Stratford) from Piano Time Jazz Book 2. Lazy Days (Brian Chapple) is another much loved favourite. And on the alternative list, Pam Wedgwood’s Spider in the Bath stays for another two years (it was in the main album previously). And check out Bartok’s Jeering Song (from For Children – also on the alternatives).
List A here includes the most gorgeous Arne Presto. The Mozart Allegro requires a very talented little star, but Amy Beach’s attractive Polka is more standard.
I can’t say any of the List B pieces particularly light me up. Gade’s The Boy’s Round Dance is attractive but challenging, while In the Owl’s Turret has grown on me. It’s good to see Schindler’s List on the alternative pieces for List B, but there no other film or showtime favourites, as in previous years.
List C includes the wonderful New Orleans Nightfall by Gillock, so popular when set by ABRSM. Every Morning, Birds requires large hands, but it’s fun and a bit different!
I was expecting just a little bit more light relief here, but overall Grade 5 is rather serious.
The Night by Einaudi and Martha Mier’s Jackson Street Blues will prove popular alternatives on List C. And again, check out Piano Anthology Grade 5 favourites such as Downstream and Am Abend by Hoffman. There are some other VERY easy alternatives in here (a certain piece called Drifting by Bowditch and Cheese Cakewalk by Draper come to mind) but I do try to avoid them as Grade 6 becomes a terrible shock if they are used!
Overall this is, in my opinion, a stronger, more diverse selection, with some fantastic core repertoire.
The CPE Bach Solfeggio is surely a must for all players. The Clementi requires stamina, but fits the fingers well, and is fantastic scale and arpeggio practice. Corroco Molto provides an enjoyable jazzy List A choice. Meanwhile, the Beethoven Andante (from Sonata in G Op.79) is an absolute beauty, included on the alternative pieces list, and an excellent introduction to his style.
In the B List, again some very solid core repertoire, from the well-loved Albéniz Tango to Brahms’ famous Waltz in A flat. The Chaminade Élégie is also very beautiful. The alternatives on the syllabus include the much-loved Chopin Cantabile and Debussy’s Page D’Album.
List C includes the fun Feelin’ Good by Brian Bonsor. I also like Railroad by Meredith Monk, and some of my students do, but a number of teachers have told me they are not so keen! I think Forest Musicians is beyond the Grade in terms of rhythmical difficulties (along with no end of other challenges) – I am very surprised this is on the list.
I don’t think the alternatives in List C – either on the syllabus, or in the Anthology – provide the kind of diversity that previous LCM syllabus have at Grade 6. Currently, He’s a Pirate, the Pride and Prejudice Theme, and Pam Wedgwood’s much-loved arrangement of My Favourite Things could impact some of the less classically-inclined Grade 6 candidates.
Don’t get me wrong though – from a teaching point of view, this is a very strong list. But will it keep the less-motivated playing? I do have concerns!
Trinity Grade 6 provides for these candidates, and I’d also say the current ABRSM Grade 6 is very attractive, with film favourites and popular classics too.
No one will be able to accuse the LCM of “dumbing down” with this syllabus at Grade 7, although thankfully there are some manageable routes through the piece list!
In List A, the Minuet in D by Mozart is much more accessible than Handel’s Fantasia in C or Juli by Fanny Mendelssohn. The alternatives offered provide more Baroque and Classical repertoire, and Bach’s Allemande from the Partita No.1 in B flat is particularly attractive.
In List B, I feel D’un jardin clair demands too much in terms of hand strength and size, so would be inclined to head towards the beautiful Waltz in E minor by César Cui, which fits much better under the hands. Ravel’s Waltz in G minor (No.2 from Valses nobles et sentimentales) is accessible (but again demands a larger hand), though I will also be purchasing the alternative here, the Ladies in Lavender theme by Hess. It’s a gorgeous film score, and I think could prove a lovely choice.
I am not keen on Ginastera’s Tribute to Roberto Garcia Morillo – but I have a small hand, so I would favour Joanna MacGregor’s Lowside Blues (previously set for ABRSM Grade 7), and Bloodroot by Rachel Grimes also appears to be an easier alternative. Again, I have concerns for those with a smaller hand, and perhaps this is something LCM could consider in the future when selecting repertoire?
List B and C alternatives from the LCM Piano Anthology provide some excellent choices; consider Chopin’s Prelude No.26 in A flat, Grovlez’ Petites Litanise de Jésus and the beautiful Ilynsky Berceuse. And from List C check out Elissa Milne’s Wild Mushrooms and (from the Anthology) Christopher Norton’s Prelude from Country Preludes and A Steady Hand from Rock Preludes 2. Linn’s Cat and the Gnat (Le Chat et le Moucheron) has proved popular with my students over many years at Grade 7 (also in the Anthology) – it’s huge fun.
This is perhaps one of the most original Grade 8 syllabuses I’ve ever seen.
It is also a tough syllabus in terms of standards, and some pieces here have previously appeared on Diploma syllabi. Teachers need to carefully select for less able students, although I’m sure LCM will not expect the same standards of performance at Grade 8 compared to Diploma level.
In List A, it’s good to see a full Bach Prelude and Fugue (D minor from the WTC Book 1), The Allegro from Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor Op.2/1 and Franz Schubert’s Allegro (many will recognise this from the Sonata in A minor which has been on ABRSM Grade 8 previously) – all are excellent standard Grade 8 repertoire.
Moderato by Marianna Martines – not very sisterly of me – but I really feel the bias to female composers is misguided here. I also have concerns that unlike the other boards, LCM have not provided suggested realisations for the ornaments. I fear this piece will be just avoided due to its ornamentation and rhythmic challenge, coupled with the fact that no teachers will actually know it.
I also have some concerns about the B list. The Chopin Nocturne in F minor Op.55/1 is not his best, and requires maturity that I fear many students will not have. Venise by Teresa Carreño is a better choice, and will appeal to many. The Cortège by Lili Boulanger is frankly too hard for Grade 8.
Teachers should look at the Anthology here. I suspect that Bartok’s Dance No. 3 (Bulgarian Rhythm), Berkeley Prelude No. 5 and Granados Andaluza will provide much more accessible alternatives. And for a very easy List B option, head for the Schmitt Valse Viennoise in the Anthology, which is nearer Grade 7 than 8 in my view.
List C, meanwhile, includes some real show-stoppers. The Man I Love by Gershwin is much easier than it looks, and wonderful music. The Barnyard Song (Alwynne Pitchard) is a real fun find, although I will be avoiding Sofia Gubaidulina’s difficult The Drummer.
Looking at the alternatives in Lists B and C, I would consider The Darkened Valley by Ireland (very beautiful) and I also like Poulenc’s Nocturne. For the Grade 8 Jazz lover though, head to the Anthology for Norton’s Sturdy Build or for an impressionistic favourite, Debussy’s Minstrels.
I think some further, lighter, alternatives should have been provided in this C List. As much as the List is stunningly original, some teachers and students may be looking for some more familiar favourites.
That said, if you combine the whole syllabus (including the Anthology options) for B and C there is something to appeal to everyone – and this really is an exceptionally strong list!
Some concluding thoughts
The LCM have raised their bar and the material is pedagogically very sound.
As I write this I do wince, but it is clear now that the current Trinity piano syllabus is a different type of piano exam, and the odd one out from ABRSM and LCM. For students with less time to prepare, or who want a very accessible, “fun” alternative, then the Trinity option is there. But is it fair that they carry the same UCAS points? Trinity is in my opinion the easier option – and the teachers and students I spoke to all agreed with that assessment.
Perhaps there is a whole other debate to be had about benchmarking of Graded examinations between the boards. Thankfully it’s not my job to solve that one!
I do think LCM moving forward should consider the following:
- Listing all the alternative pieces on the syllabus in the main albums.
- Fingering is strong (although there are places where a little more would have been helpful), but not including example notation for ornaments is something lacking.
- The bias towards female composers: as much as it is a noble gesture – and I write as a female educational composer myself – I think the quality of composition should come before gender bias.
- Balance of the periods could be better addressed – some lists are heavily weighted to certain genres.
- The lighter alternative, high-quality arrangements should be brought back in greater numbers – it must be remembered that the average piano student (and many of their teachers) haven’t experienced large amounts of contemporary classical sound worlds. And a great ‘tune’ will always be much wanted and always a hit. We want students to keep playing!
- Within the main album their needs to be a wider range of difficulty. The current albums are difficult, with some easier pieces included, rather than a steady breadth. That said, if you use the alternatives and the Anthologies, that breadth is achieved.
All in all, I believe the syllabus has a huge amount to merit – and I give my congratulations to all involved.
Further information – LCM Exams website