Back in 2008, ABRSM published a series of books called Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests. Although deserving an award for having the most utilitarian and uninspiring titles in my whole music collection, they have nonetheless rarely been out of action in the intervening years.
In short, they were an essential purchase for any piano teacher preparing students for ABRSM’s world-leading piano grade examinations, and have seen very active service over many years.
Since 2008, many others have brought out alternative products to help teachers and students prepare for the sight-reading element of ABRSM exams. Paul Harris’s ubiquitous and respected Improve Your Sight-Reading series has been updated more than once, and now includes audio tracks. Useful and innovative alternatives have also appeared from Alan Bullard, Samantha Coates, e-music maestro and several others.
Now ABRSM return with a new series bearing the slightly-less scary title More Piano Sight-Reading, a suite of eight new books, one to tie in with each of their grades.
A superficial look at the eight books suggests that these aren’t radically different from their predecessors (which, I should add, are still valid, as the syllabus itself remains unchanged). However, a more detailed look reveals several tweaks and changes to the format which, between them, make the new books a step-improvement on the older ones.
For this review, I will focus on five specific improvements which I think make this new series a superior alternative to the previous books.
A More Friendly Presentation
While many students will perhaps never be excited by the prospect of the sight-reading book coming out of the cupboard, this new series certainly has a more welcoming and encouraging look and feel, underlined by the gorgeous covers:
The blurb inside the front cover has changed from a dry note to teachers about what “candidates” might expect in the exam room to now being a personal and far more helpful note written to the pianists themselves.
Once we get to the sample sight-reading exercises themselves, the music font immediately struck me as particularly crisp, well-spaced, and readable.
Again I dug out the 2008 books, initially thinking the visible improvement in the new ones is down to a subtly larger font size.
To my interest I discovered that in the old Grade 5 sight-reading book the stave size actually varies considerably from one test to the next, depending on layout considerations. Interestingly, in the new set it’s the Grade 5 book which again has a very slightly busier look than the rest of the series, no doubt due to the challenge of fitting three exercises onto each page.
That said, the stave size throughout all 8 books in the new series is generous, aiding readability (as well as matching the presentation of the exam). Although subtle, I think this is actually a Big Deal, because when developing confidence with sight-reading, visibility and clarity of presentation is paramount.
Upon enquiry, ABRSM confirmed to me that they have been developing their own new music font, engaging a specialist font developer and incorporating various characters from a previous ABRSM style. Such a task is a huge undertaking, and while most users will only perhaps be subconsciously aware that the notation here is superbly presented, I think it makes a massive difference. And of course, sight-reading exercises are a perfect environment for the best fonts to be applied.
My one request here would be for ABRSM to consider using cream paper in future, both for their exam sight-reading and supporting publications. I realise this would be quite a big step, but the benefits of printing on cream paper are well-documented.
A more obvious difference, perhaps, is the inclusion at the start of each book of some Preparatory Exercises. The purpose of these is to provide a transition between one grade and the next.
In the Grade One book, for example, these cover two pages and include 32 short phrases for one hand, mostly just two bars long. They include dynamics but not articulation, and introduce stepwise and then larger intervals within a variety of five-note positions, the last few also incorporating one sharp or flat indicated by the key signature.
In the later grades, meanwhile, they seem to be essentially a few sight-reading exercises levelled to the previous Grade, included for consolidation. They will be especially useful for students who might have temporarily neglected sight-reading and need a manageable route back.
The Preparatory Exercises include no written instruction or advice, so it’s really up to you what you do with them.
They don’t rival the type of structured method offered by Paul Harris and others, but are certainly a welcome addition.
More Musical Content
Next we arrive at the sight-reading exercises themselves.
In the Grade 1-5 books, these are simply numbered, and there’s at least 35 of them per book. From Grade 6 upwards, the exercises have character titles, as in the exams, encouraging a more musically engaging and imaginative interpretation.
A sight-reading test is a sight-reading test, right?
Well yes, but some are more musically interesting than others, and here’s another subtle but highly welcome step-improvement: as soon as I started using these new books it struck me that the exercises here are consistently and noticeably more musically enjoyable to play than those in the former series.
They have all been composed by one of our leading-name educational writers, and the musical pedigree certainly shows. Similarly, consultancy oversight and fingering were all provided by a particularly respected pedagogue; again, it shows.
Both composer and consultant decided with ABRSM to remain anonymous (as is customary with such publications), but they deserve a round of applause for a brilliantly executed job here.
Given what were undoubtedly very specific commissioning criteria for creating these books, the authors have crafted a genuinely impressive musical learning resource.
Finally on this point, the whole series has of course been moderated by ABRSM themselves, which gives users particular confidence in their appropriate levelling.
A Summary of Parameters
There’s one last improvement in the new series, which again could be overlooked: inside the rear cover, ABRSM have presented a Summary of Piano Sight-Reading Parameters.
This is essentially the table one finds in their syllabus, but these days many of us refer to that online rather than having a printed copy in our laps when teaching.
It’s useful to see the parameters so clearly and effectively presented.
- Firstly, for teachers, we can use these as a check when adopting other published resources alongside ABRSM’s own.
- Secondly, adult students (who might not study syllabus documents themselves) will undoubtedly find it interesting to see this roadmap of anticipated progress.
And there it is! The new series is, for the reasons I’ve outlined, superior to the old one in every way, and deserves universal adoption.
Whether these books are best suited for students to use at home, or for teachers to use in the lesson is a matter of choice, of course. Personally I will be using them in lessons in the run-up to examinations, while encouraging students to use Harris’s series (and others) for home and ongoing study as appropriate.
More Piano Sight-Reading is simply a great resource!
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