ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2019/20: The Big Reviews

Sheet Music Review

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 – and second! – in-depth review of the full package.

  • First comes my own review, focusing on the overall trends in this brand new syllabus, and assessing the overall product.
  • This is followed below by Karen Marshall’s in depth look at each grade in turn, commenting on the suitability and appeal of the selected pieces.

Karen and I have also jointly produced a FREE printable download in which we each list our Golden Selections of our favourite pieces from each of the eight grades.

You can print this off and use it alongside the syllabus as a resource to help with repertoire selection, and for your own interest. There’s also space for you to add your own Golden Selection in conjunction with the full syllabus, available now from the ABRSM website.

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.

Piano Grade 1 with CD

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 (find out more here).

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.

The Recordings

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.

ARRANGEMENTS

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’ great 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.

BENCHMARKS

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 the 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 in the Grade 8 syllabus).

One quirk that might arouse comment is the inclusion at Grade 5 of Handel’s Aria in G, a slightly simplified version of which was previously set for Grade 4 and appears in Encore Book 2. The version required here is that found in Handel: Selected Keyboard Works Book 1 (ed. Richard Jones, ABRSM), which includes additional ornamentation and leaves dynamics and articulation to the performer’s discretion.

My Conclusions

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.

When compared side-by-side with their main international competitors, meanwhile, I feel that ABRSM have with these repertoire selections risen from the bottom of the “leader board”, given the less-than-enthusiastic response to their 2017/18 syllabus, to the top.

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.

Teachers and students the world over – REJOICE!

And now, over to Karen Marshall…

Karen Marshall’s Review

thumbnail_karen-marshall

My overall impression of the ABRSM 2019-2020 is that it IS exactly what is says on the tin. Teachers can be confident that the Grade on the front is truly reflected in the pages within!

Yes, some grades do have some trickier repertoire in there, but overall there is always a pathway for the less able student.

A big improvement in this syllabus is particularly Grade 1 and 2. A topic very close to my heart, we need to make the starting step on the ladder accessible. These pieces are rich in content to contribute towards a sound foundation for the piano-playing journey.

Across the grades, this syllabus is a safe pair of hands to guide players through the wonderful journey of piano repertoire (if responsibly used by an able teacher, who doesn’t make this their sole curriculum).

No syllabus however is ever perfect, so here are a few observations to hopefully save teachers a bit of time and energy and particularly highlight some of the alternative pieces that may make the grade a better fit for a student.

GRADE 1

This syllabus is firmly in the grade 1 boundaries. Hand shifts are manageable and infrequent, semi-quavers and 6/8 time are barely there. Most importantly though, core skills are explored e.g. alberti bass, musical patterns and chords, keyboard geography, articulation – legato/staccato – and fostering expressive playing through a relatable title.

The music is not too sophisticated. Character pieces including The Echo by Oesten, The Lonely Road by Swinstead, Who Said Mice? and The Egyptian Level encourage expression, because what is required is obvious.

Looking at the alternatives, it’s good to see Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Close Every Door arranged by Alan Bullard on the B List, a familiar melody which I believe will be popular with those wanting one. Quadrille by Haydn is a hugely accessible piece for List A, and Andrew Eales’s own Head in the Clouds (also on List B) I’ve found to be a hit with teenage girls.

It’s good to see great composers such as Haydn, W.F. Bach, Bartók and Duncombe along with 21st Century educational composers represented. And in List C, rugby fans will enjoy Heather Hammond’s In the Scrum. Gospel Song by Kember is tricky but I think a little bit special here – so worth the work!

GRADE 2

The List A pieces here are perhaps the most challenging, but I believe the Musette from the Anna Magdalena Bach book will be hugely popular, as well as being incredibly useful. It’s good to see the Telemann, which encourages 6/8 time to be played in time!

In the B list, Burgmüller’s Arabesque is a foundational piece that I use with all my students. I think Lazy Bear is challenging but at that tempo manageable. Gurlitt’s Night Journey is well worth looking at from the Alternative List.

Heading to List C, Nikki Iles’ arrangement of Carleton’s Ja-Da is a super prospect, but Lazy Days by Pam Wedgwood provides stiff competition (students adore it!) along with Nancy Litten’s arrangement of Royal March of the Lion (from Carnival of the Animals), where children love the pedal use.

GRADE 3

Now for me, this Grade (using the Exam Pieces book alone) doesn’t have quite the same appeal as the previous two. However, this is compensated by a very well selected list of alternatives.

I do feel List A is a bit of jump from Grade 2. Pretorius’s Bransle de la torche is the most approachable here. The Mozart in the alternatives is a fabulous piece. Haydn’s German Dance is again well worth a look.

Walter Carroll’s Shadows and Gurlitt’s Allegretto grazioso from List B are wonderful for developing expressive playing, but perhaps Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (an attractive arrangement included on the Alternative list) could be the most loved by the younger pianist – when playing this in the car my 11-year-old asked me to order the book! Be aware the book title for this is confusing – it’s the orange one you are looking for, with a subtitle of Broadway and Pop Hits, not just Pop Hits.

List C is more tricky – Dance by Bartók is a fantastic play, but not every young pianist will have the hand strength to play the four note chords. Nikki Iles’ lovely Blues in the Attic is sophisticated for the grade, as is the Bennett Diversion. I think Wouldn’t it be Loverly? arranged by Bullard and Face the Crowd by Christopher Norton may be a better fit for some candidates.

GRADE 4

This is a strong list using some wonderful core piano repertoire.

Bagatelle in C by Beethoven is such a fabulous minuet and trio, commonly nicknamed Happy and Sad (with the major and minor sections). The Benda is truly marvelous – I’ve put this in ABRSM Encore book 2. The alternatives also include the much-loved Diabelli Scherzo.

This list truly is ABRSM at its best!

The list B – well how on earth do you pick here from Kullak’s Grandma Tells a Ghost Story to Grieg’s Arietta (not easy but so beautiful). I like David Blackwell’s arrangement of Elgar’s Chanson De Matin (a lovely tune), but the star here for me is The Reef by Walter Carroll – again a piece I use in my core teaching curriculum, fabulous at developing expression.

List C – William Gillock’s Holiday in Paris is a lovely play (but not the easiest); A Kwela for Caitline by Richard Michaels is my star in this list. Huge fun! Alternatives that could prove to be popular include Ben Crosland’s Sleepytown Blues.

GRADE 5

I think this Grade requires some navigation – especially in the A list, which includes lots of challenging, long repertoire.

I think the Bach and Haydn are moving towards Grade 6, although the Loeillet is more accessible and rather lovely. Good alternatives include the Handel Aria in G, but I would be heading to the Kuhlau Allegretto grazioso – long, but lots of repeated material. It sounds hugely attractive, and is excellent for developing finger work (articulation being foundational work for playing Mozart).

List B includes some much more accessible choices, including the lovely Plauderei by Kirchner. The Frank Poco lento and Bloch’s Dream from the “alternatives” should most definitely be considered, and the Schumann Erinnerung is truly beautiful. However, if you have a gifted student then the Sibelius Joueur de Harpe is stunning – even if super hard!

There are lots of possible choices in the C list too – some tricky material like Lutoslawski’s Rector, but Prokofiev’s Lentamente is much easier (although it does demand expressive playing that could be beyond some – it’s very dark)! Do head to the alternatives. You can rely on Pam Wedgwood for a fab tune – Hang-Up has one. New Orleans Nightfall by Gillock is very special – such an exciting play, this is my choice here.

GRADE 6

A fabulous selection overall here, once again, but List A is quite challenging!

Exciting repertoire in the Exam Pieces album, but for a manageable piece with steady tempo the alternative Minuet 1 & 2 by J S Bach (from the first Partita in B flat) is the place to head. It’s beautiful. The Kuhlau Rondo is also a good alternative, but overall this seems a slightly too advanced List A.

Now the other two Lists … where do I start? To coin a phrase from Ron Weesley in Harry Potter they are bloody brilliant!

In List B, all the pieces included in the Exam Pieces album are wonderful – the Chopin is the most manageable, but the Bruch Moderato and Schubert Scherzo in Bb are really worth playing too. The Grovlez Petites litanies de Jésus is a particular favourite sound world.

And in List C, Darius Brubeck’s Tugela Rail is rhythmically challenging, but musically – how inspiring! Iberia’s Sérénade sue l’eau is just beautiful, and from the “alternatives”, Eight Maids a-Milking by Bennett is again huge fun!

This list has such wonderful repertoire, which is an excellent foundation to head towards Grade 7, and also start the technique and more sophisticated expression demanded by Grade 8.

GRADE 7 

Again, the List A pieces are challenging, but this is Grade 7, and it’s essential here that technique is developed if a student has the hope to getting through Grade 8.

Gigue by Handel is super – three pages which can be played at a reasonable tempo. The Haydn Tempo di Minuet from the Sonata in E flat Hob.XVI:49 is for the talented. Perhaps head to the Mozart Andante from the Sonata in G major K.283, which is packed with rhythmic and balance challenges, but again at an accessible tempo. The alternative Bach Giga (again from the first Partita) is stunning but tough!

In List B there is Passepied, an articulation masterpiece by Delibes, and an appropriate Mendelssohn Lied one Worte for this Grade. Elizabeth by Parry is the star in this List though – manageable with good lateral wrist work. The “alternatives” here don’t in my view compare to the album, although the Skryabin is worth a look, the Esplá Canción de cuna has a lovely Spanish flavour, and the Gurlitt Moderato grazioso is very pretty!

In List C, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Commuterland (taken from ABRSM’s Spectrum 5) is an exciting play (some may not find so easy on the ears), but I have to say for me the “alternatives” win the day – Dickinsons’s Hymn Tune Rag closely followed by the Khachaturian Allegro giocoso. Norton’s Mambo, with its Latin flavour, will please many.

GRADE 8

I think the very first piece in the book is a gift – Sarabande and Gigue by J S Bach (from the English Suite No.2 in A minor). Other pieces include Preludes and Fugues by Bach, Shostakovich and Fugues by Mendelssohn and Handel. The Scarlatti Sonata in D Kp.214 is stunning, but requires brilliant finger work.

In List B, I suspect most will head straight for the Presto alla tedesca from Beethoven’s Sonata in G, Op. 79. But don’t dismiss the C P E Bach – it’s not fast, but hugely attractive. The Mozart Rondo from the F major Sonata Kv.533 is beautiful, and you’ve two Haydn movements to choose from.

In List C there are a whopping 16 pieces to choose from. I love the Chopin Nocturne int G minor Op.37 No.1 (it’s manageable), Debussy’s Voiles and the Brahms Intermezzo in B flat minor (this, I think is a manageable alternative). The Gershwin Prelude No.1 is a ‘wow’ piece and I love W. Mason’s Lullaby. There’s also an atonal Spectrum piece thrown in if you want to explore that sound world.

Many of piano repertoire’s greatest composers and works are showcased throughout this Grade 8 list.

Conclusions

The great composers are all covered in this new ABRSM syllabus, along with the most important pedagogical works (apart from Bach’s Little Preludes and Inventions). The much-needed Sonatinas are there in the intermediate stages, but there’s also lots of sparkle – new “finds” with some “wow factor”.

However, I think children that enjoy the ‘known’ popular tunes are only catered for in the early grades and with one token piece at each of the first three Grades.

Looking at this syllabus compared to LCM and Trinity College, the LCM still tends to hold it’s own, and does not look like an easy alternative. However, Trinity (although packed with popular repertoire) is in my opinion by far the easiest alternative now, and benchmarked in a totally different place to the other two boards.

As a pianist I have been truly excited by what I have played and listened to over the weekend preparing this review. I would go as far as to say, it reminded me why I love the piano so much.

This syllabus has to me what is the most important ingredient, the contents to encourage our students to love music.

Huge congratulations ABRSM – I do believe we can say this is the “Gold Standard”!

More Information…

The “Golden Selections” of both reviewers, Andrew Eales and Karen Marshall, can be downloaded in a FREE printable resource from here.

We are 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 we hope that you will have as much fun doing so as we 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.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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