So here it is; ABRSM, the world’s leading instrumental examination board, today announces the 2019/20 syllabus, and as promised Pianodao can bring you the world’s first in-depth review of the full package.
My much-read review of the 2017/18 syllabus suggested that it was a somewhat mixed affair, and teacher reactions have been similarly mixed. If there was some disappointment with the 2017/18 syllabus, this only heightens anticipation for its replacement.
So have ABRSM this time delivered the goods and struck a balance that teachers and students around the world will be more enthusiastic about? Let’s find out!..
A Recap – the Package
The ABRSM syllabus format has remained largely unchanged for many years.
There are three Lists of pieces, A B and C. Examination candidates must select one piece from each list, thus demonstrating their playing in a range of styles. List A is predominantly Baroque/Classical, List B Romantic, and List C Modern (including jazzy pieces alongside atonal ones, and anything else that’s broadly contemporary).
All other aspects of the syllabus – the scales, sight-reading and aural supporting tests – remain unchanged this year (a proposed revamp of the scales syllabus has been postponed until the 2021/22 syllabus).
The product range likewise remains as before, but for those unfamiliar or in need of a reminder:
- There is one Exam Pieces book for each of the eight grades;
- The publications are beautifully presented, with a gorgeous cover illustration that will appeal to players of all ages;
- While the syllabus includes 6 choices for each List, only 3 of each are included in the Exam Pieces books, making up nine pieces per publication;
- The Alternative Pieces are listed inside, along with source publication details;
- Notation is clean, generously sized, and well edited;
- Sensible, appropriate fingering is included throughout all eight books, as are suggested realisations of ornamentation;
- Each piece is followed by detailed notes that give historical background information, manuscript sources, editing decisions, performing notes, all written in an authoritative but accessible style;
- Professional recordings of all the pieces (including the alternatives) are available, either as MP3s to purchase directly from the ABRSM website, or by purchasing the CD version of the book;
- A book of Teaching Notes is available separately.
I should note for transparency that this time around I had the privilege and pleasure of contributing to the Teaching Notes book. Further, one of my own compositions from the ABRSM Piano Star books has been selected as an alternative List B piece for Grade 1. However, I had no input in the syllabus itself, the selection of repertoire, the publications or recordings under review here.
I have my own independent views, of course, about the piece selections, which I will offer as I consider the overall trends in the new syllabus.
Once again, the Exam Pieces books can be bought without or, for a higher price, with audio CD included. My gut feeling has for many years been that teachers benefit from buying the complete package including the CD, not least because this is the easiest and most inexpensive way to assess the appeal of the Alternative Pieces from each grade.
Recordings published by the exam boards can, however, be a dry affair, with performers stopping short of adding too personal an interpretation. I am pleased to say, then, that on this occasion the recordings are a pleasure to listen to, with helpful and inspiring performances from a starry line-up of concert pianists including Charles Owen, Mei Yi Foo, Robert Thompson, Richard Uttley, Nikki Iles, Dinara Klinton, and Anthony Williams.
How about students? Here, the good news is that for those who don’t want to splash out for the whole set of recordings, there is an option to download individual pieces as they are learnt, or a handpicked set of one piece from each list. This is a great way to keep costs down.
Some Overall Trends
Last time around I pinpointed various trends within the syllabus, and it’s interesting to see that in most cases the new syllabus represents something of a change from the direction of travel noted in the 2017/18 syllabus.
Firstly, there is a distinct move away from the use of arrangements in this syllabus, particularly in the published Selected Pieces books.
I noted that in the 2017/18 published books, four of the nine pieces both at Grade 1 and Grade 2 were arrangements; this time there are just two arrangements in the Grade 1 book, and only one at Grade 2 (Nikki Iles’ enjoyable arrangement of the jazz standard Ja-Do by Bob Carleton).
There is subsequently one arrangement at Grades 3 and 4, and no others across the printed range, although there are a few (fabulous) arrangements within the Alternative Lists.
Among these, the inclusion of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Close Every Door in Grade 1 and Leonard Cohen’s huge hit Hallelujah at Grade 3 will delight younger players with their familiarity and massive appeal, while Lerner & Loewe’s Wouldn’t it be Loverly? (also Grade 3) seems sure to be a big hit with adult learners, who comprise a significant and growing proportion of ABRSM’s market.
Here, it is fantastic to see ABRSM taking note of the musical enthusiasms of players of all ages with their selections – a point reflected not only in the inclusion of these arrangements but across the whole syllabus.
Overall, arrangements have often met with a mixed response, and I suspect that many will be pleased to see them taking a slightly less prominent role. There is of course such a wonderful and vast repertoire of original solo piano music worthy of exploration. And this new syllabus, as we shall see, does a great job of delving into that repertoire!
RETURN TO THE CORE
In my review of the 2017/18 syllabus I praised the diversity of music, which included the resurrection of several obscurities, as well as representation of composers from an extraordinary number of countries around the world. At the same time I pointed out:
“… I love to encounter new music in the syllabus publications, but it does ultimately depend on that music being good, and some pieces have been forgotten for a reason!”
The 2019/20 syllabus seems to me to represent something of a return to the core of the popular classical and pedagogic repertoire – there is a healthy selection of music from all the great composers, with Haydn represented in every Grade except 6, and plenty of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Bartók across the grades.
It’s also worth noting here that in their selection of music from the core classical and pedagogic repertoire, ABRSM have also clearly listened to concerns about pupil engagement – this is a syllabus that is brimming with musical imagination at each and every grade.
THE APPEAL OF THE NEW
And this is not to say that ABRSM have eschewed new music – far from it!
Though there are fewer works from lesser-known composers, and little of the avant-garde music that was until recently a firm fixture, the 2019/20 syllabus does include an abundance of music from such popular contemporary composers as Christopher Norton, Nikki Iles, Heather Hammond, Pam Wedgwood, Ben Crosland, Kevin Wooding, Ian King, John Kember, June Armstrong, Vitalik Neugasimov, Martha Mier, Richard Michael, and Mike Cornick.
My one disappointment is that ABRSM have again avoided including the post-minimal music of composers such as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Elena Kats Chernin, Yirumi, Ludovico Einaudi and others. This music finds such overwhelming popularity with players of all ages, and is a particularly firm favourite with teenagers and young adult pianists.
Lastly, in my review of the 2017/18 syllabus I wrote:
“I must note that I was somewhat struck by the difficulty level of some of the material. Standardisation of real repertoire will never be an exact science, but I noticed that – especially in the early grades – the bulk of the material is pitched at, perhaps even beyond, the most challenging end of the spectrum.”
It was a comment that has been echoed by many in the months since, and ABRSM have again clearly heard that feedback, loud and clear.
The 2019/20 Grade 1 syllabus is perhaps the most approachable for years, both in terms of level and appeal; this is not to say the standard has been reduced, but merely that ABRSM have taken particular care not to exceed their own longstanding benchmark standards. Grade 2, similarly, seems pitch-perfect in terms of level.
Indeed, the whole syllabus is an object lesson in benchmarking that reaffirms ABRSM as a clear leader in their field.
That said, some pieces from Grade 5 onwards push toward the upper difficulty limits, such as the Bach Aria in Grade 5 (piece A1), while others may seem easier choices (such as William Mason’s Lullaby, which seems misplaced in the Grade 8 syllabus).
Another quirk that might arouse particular comment is the inclusion at Grade 5 of Handel’s Aria in G, which was previously set for Grade 4 and appears in Encore Book 2.
Overall then, this is a syllabus with plenty of excellent and accessible choices, and I feel certain that teachers will breathe a sigh of relief when they see this return to form from ABRSM.
In the final analysis, I think that the 2019/20 ABRSM Syllabus is one of their best in many years. If they have somewhat “played it safe” this time around, the strategy worked: this syllabus is without doubt a triumphant return to form, and cause for genuine celebration.
Of course, no single syllabus can tick every box, be all things to all people, or satisfy every agenda. But in terms of accessibility, appeal, benchmarking, imagination and musicality, ABRSM have scored a succession of major goals here.
Across almost every Grade, ABRSM’ 2019/20 syllabus really is a clear winning choice.
I am certain that teachers will also now want to explore the new ABRSM syllabus and publications for themselves, and that most will rejoice at the great new pieces on offer. And I hope that you will have as much fun doing so as I have had!
You can download all the full syllabus requirements and repertoire lists here and you can also purchase the Exam Pieces books and all Alternative Pieces directly from the ABRSM syllabus page.
Purchase the exam books from Musicroom here.