“From a small office in West London in 1991, RSL (Rockschool Ltd) had a dream to change the landscape of formal music education, and sought to become the first viable alternative to the traditional offerings available in Britain at the time.”
So says Rockschool founder Norton York. And from these small beginnings, Rockschool has grown into a major international examining board, offering grade exams, teaching and performing diploma qualifications, vocational qualifications and performing arts awards in 9 different disciplines, and in more than 40 countries.
Rockschool recently launched their new 2019 Piano syllabus, which you can download in full from their website here, as well as publishing nine music books, one for each of the usual 8 Grades as well as “Debut”, their pre-Grade 1 offering. The music books are brought to us by industry leading Hal Leonard publishing, ensuring worldwide availability.
Note that the syllabus document does not actually list the pieces. For that reason, I will list them below as I believe readers will be particularly interested in this information.
Looking at the books, I think there are two potential markets here:
- Firstly, some will be interested in following this syllabus for the core learning structure it provides those specifically wanting to play rock and pop piano styles.
- Secondly, I suspect many players will be interested in dipping into these resources alongside more traditional music and methods for the breadth and perspective they bring.
For this review, my main focus will be on the published resources. I will include a concise syllabus overview, but a more in-depth consideration of the pedagogic pathway it offers and its benchmarking against traditional alternatives is beyond the scope of this article.
To be clear, too, I have never entered a student for the Rockschool exams; the assessments are fully accredited, but pianists and colleagues I’ve chatted with have given mixed feedback.
And I should also preface the review by pointing out that the Rockschool exams should not be confused with Trinity College London’s Rock and Pop syllabus, which I have reviewed here.
So let’s take a closer look at the Rockschool 2019 Piano syllabus…
Syllabus and Exam Overview
As mentioned above, the syllabus and publications cover nine levels: Debut followed by 8 Grades. At each level, the Grade Exam syllabus components are:
- Three pieces (chosen from six) 60%
- Technical Exercises 15%
- Improvisation or Sight Reading 10%
- Ear Tests 10%
- General Musicianship Questions 5%
As an alternative, candidates can opt to take the Performance Certificate, in which they play 5 of the pieces, without any supporting tests.
The publication for each grade includes all of the above in a single book, which is very handy. The resource includes full audio tracks, which come in MP3 format and must be downloaded from the RSL website by setting up an account and using an included code.
It’s worth noting that the publications are pretty expensive. At the time of writing they range from £16.99 for Debut up to £18.99 for Grade 8. Length-wise they range from 40 pages to 84. But all include just six pieces, making them a rather expensive option for those only interested in the song arrangements.
According to RSL:
“For Rockschool’s 2019 Piano series we have commissioned arrangements of titles reflecting popular music’s rich heritage in all its forms. The music has been arranged and performed by top session musicians and was recorded at Abbey Road Studios.”
As promised, here is a list of all the pieces included:
- Next to me (Emeli Sandé)
- Imagine (John Lennon)
- Beauty and the Beast (from ‘Beauty and the Beast’)
- Lean on Me (Bill Withers)
- Love Yourself (Justin Bieber)
- La Valse d’Amélie (Yann Tiersen)
- Tattooed Heart (Ariana Grande)
- Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley)
- Can You Feel the Love Tonight (from ‘The Lion King’)
- Wildest Dreams (Taylor Swift)
- Let it Be (The Beatles)
- I’m not the only one (Sam Smith)
- Thinking out loud (Ed Sheeran)
- This is me (from ‘The Greatest Showman’)
- The Pink Panther theme (Henri Mancini)
- Feeling Good (Nina Simone)
- Roar (Katy Perry)
- Walk on by (Dionne Warwick)
- Unfaithful (Rhianna)
- Somewhere only we know (Keane)
- Don’t know why (Norah Jones)
- A whole new world (from Aladdin)
- Skyfall (Adele)
- Paradise (Coldplay)
- All of me (John Legend)
- Respect (Aretha Franklin)
- Let it go (from Frozen)
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John)
- I see fire (Ed Sheeran)
- Livin’ on a Prayer (Bon Jovi)
- A Thousand Miles (Vanessa Carlton)
- Teardrop (Massive Attack)
- Every little thing she does is magic (The Police)
- Dangerous (David Guetta feat. Sam Martin)
- Life on Mars? (David Bowie)
- You’ve got a friend in me (from ‘Toy Story’)
- Defying Gravity (from ‘Wicked’)
- Africa (Toto)
- Cantaloupe Island (Herbie Hancock)
- He’s a pirate (from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’)
- In the end (Linkin Park)
- The way it is (Bruce Hornsby and the Range)
- Rosanna (Toto)
- Live and let die (from ‘Live and let die’)
- A Song for you (Ray Charles)
- Schindler’s List (Theme) (from ‘Schindler’s List’)
- Cornflake Girl (Tori Amos)
- I got the news (Steely Dan)
- Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
- End Credits (from ‘E.T. the extra-terrestrial’)
- Birdland (Weather Report)
- These are the days (Jamie Cullum)
- Spain (Chick Corea)
- Rather be (Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne)
The songs impress on multiple levels:
Firstly, the sheer range and diversity of the music offered here is commendable; the selections feel absolutely contemporary without losing sight of the great songs from previous decades.
Secondly, the arrangements are generally excellent, remaining authentic to the original records while mostly being well-adapted for piano solo with or without backing.
Thirdly, RSL have taken care to ensure that at each level the arrangements include an even balance of three important approaches:
1. Melody & Accompaniment
These arrangements are performed to full band backing tracks, with the piano performing both melody and accompaniment.
2. Solo Piano Arrangement
These are full solo piano arrangements, performed without backing tracks.
3. Vocal Accompaniment
These arrangements cover the skills required of contemporary pianists in ensemble environments, be they on the stage or in the studio. The backing tracks feature vocalists, and the piano parts are reflective of what session pianists would perform live or on mainstream commercial recordings.
Having played a selection of each type of piece from across the grades, I feel that the construct of covering these approaches is very successful, bringing needed musical variety to the syllabus while providing diverse experience of the playing techniques and styles required by pianists in a contemporary popular environment.
This would also be a good point to commend the audio recordings, which contribute so much to the music. They are tastefully and flawlessly executed throughout, managing to both inspire and add confidence to the pianist.
In terms of level, the pieces are challenging across the syllabus, at least when compared with ABRSM grade selections. The pieces set at ‘Debut’ level are easily as hard as the top-end of ABRSM grade 1, and only by Grade 8 does the gap start to close.
If some examination boards seem to be dumbing down of late, RSL seem not to have received that particular memo. The challenges here are at times formidable! I would recommend that when they next revise the syllabus, they consider perhaps making the lower grades more accessible.
Before moving on, I must also mention that RSL allow up to two of the pieces in the Grade Exam (or three in the Performance Certificate) to be ‘free choice pieces’. These can be from a previous syllabus , or else must include backing tracks and meet clearly specified difficulty levels. This is a good way to deal with the question of syllabus overlap and expand the song list of any player, as well as ensuring a level of consistency from one syllabus to the next.
The Supporting Tests
In addition to playing three pieces, Grade Exam candidates must complete a range of supporting tests commensurate to those taken by candidates of the historic boards.
First up, the Technical Exercises are worth 15%, and include a wide range of scales, arpeggios, chord patterns and bespoke studies. The exact make-up of these requirements varies from one level to another, with an emphasis on learning scales in the earlier grades replaced by a move towards groove-based studies in the later ones.
Players whose musical experience has been trapped in a classical bubble may find some of the scales and exercises here mind-bending at first. There’s both a rigour and a musical rationale in this syllabus which some more traditional boards are currently in danger of losing.
In the earlier grades, alongside the expected major scales we find natural minors and pentatonic patterns. From Grade 2 all scales are hands together, and include B flat major and B harmonic minor alongside blues scales. Arpeggios by Grade 2 are also already hands together; broken chord patterns remain present and correct.
Scales are played in both straight and swing rhythms, and by Grade 5 they are three octaves (four thereafter). Even I blinked to see the C7add4 arpeggio in Grade 5, nestling up to the Cmaj9#11 arpeggio. The “Half-Whole Diminished” scale in Grade 8 is likely to completely confound anyone who finds the very mild ABRSM scales offerings a challenge!
At all grades there are also Chord Voicing exercises, which by Grade 5 have incorporated some pretty fruity extensions and jazz voicing.
On top of all this, there’s the Studies, which are an additional element of the technical requirements, and which appear from Grade 4 upwards. To give a flavour, in Grade 4 the player must choose one of:
- IIm – V – I progressions and walking bass
- Dorian modal study
- Mixolydian modal study.
I’ll leave your imagination to think about what is in Grade 8..!
Sight Reading tests, a few examples of which are included, are fairly comparable to those of more traditional Boards except that they are progressively written in commercial popular and jazz styles.
As an alternative, the player can choose an Improvisation and Interpretation test. This unprepared test incorporates a backing track, and the player has 90 seconds to practice, plus an initial unassessed run-through with the backing track. In the publications, a couple of examples are given for each grade, including the backing tracks within the audio download file.
Ear Tests are very relevant to the developing musician’s needs, and centre around playing by ear. These become pretty challenging by Grade 8, for example requiring players to realise at the piano a dense jazz chord progression after hearing it just a couple of times.
Taken as a whole, the supporting tests in the Rockschool grades are musically coherent, rigorous and relevant. In my view, the more traditional boards have a lot to learn from the example Rockschool set here.
That said, another perspective would be that the Rockschool syllabus is simply too hard; I have sympathy with that view too, and would suggest that those approaching the material bear in mind that Rockschool poses in many respects a more formidable challenge than current offerings from the traditional Boards.
The Rockschool publications are brilliantly presented, and follow the format and image of the previous syllabus, with a glossy cover photo of one of the artists whose music is featured within.
Ample and clear instruction is given throughout, leaving no scope for doubting the syllabus requirements in the supporting tests, for example.
The music is well engraved and spaciously presented. According to the syllabus, all pieces must be played exactly as notated, and although chord symbols are generally included these are for pedagogic support rather than performance.
Fingering, sadly, is rather inconsistent. Often it is usefully included, but there are times (especially in he early grades) where it is sorely needed but regrettably absent.
In Debut exam, for example, Beauty and the Beast includes a RH melody passage which covers a range of a tenth, without any fingering suggestion to help players navigate the position changes. This seems quite wrong at this level, but is just one of several examples I could give.
More positively, each piece is preceded by a “Fact File” of information. These are overflowing with authentic enthusiasm about the music, its creators and history. Exemplary stuff! Furthermore, after the score of each piece there are additional “Notes”, which give more details about particular points in the music, and tips for playing it effectively. Again, very warmly welcome!
The books conclude with a presentation of the examination marking scheme, and the requisite copyright information and exam entry details. A final page explains some of the notations which are particular to popular and jazz music, in case the player is unfamiliar with them.
Some may feel themselves entering something of an alternate reality upon discovering the Rockschool syllabus, but I suggest it’s one which every pianist should seriously contemplate exploring.
The presentation and marketing seem squarely aimed at teenagers and adults; it would be interesting to see them add some entry level resources aimed at younger children.
But it’s encouraging to see that RSL have developed such a high quality of content, both pedagogic and musical. Here is a syllabus that leaves no room for doubt that learning an instrument, and understanding contemporary commercial music, are serious endeavours that require discipline, application, and can be assessed with vigour. This is an exam board which has, itself, truly come of age.
For pianists interested in an approach and syllabus exclusively focussed on success in commercial popular styles, this one clearly deserves a look; it sets the bar high. Meanwhile those who fancy a detour or diversion will likely find much here to educate, inspire and enthuse them.
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