I recently reviewed the Rockschool 2019 Piano syllabus (please refer to that review here), and now have the opportunity to tell you about an alternative I mentioned in that review, offered by Trinity College London’s Rock & Pop Keyboard exams.
The disclaimers I made when reviewing Rockschool equally apply here: I haven’t entered myself or a student for the actual exams, and this review is based on the syllabus, publications and resources.
I also had the chance to chat to Trinity’s Head of Product Management Julia Martin and Product Support Manager for Music Govind Kharbanda, to whom I am most grateful for talking me through their syllabus and answering my plethora of questions.
As we shall see, the Trinity Rock & Pop offering has much in common with the Rockschool Piano syllabus, but there are also some significant points of departure. Together they occupy a unique space in the market; comparisons are inevitable, but I will aim to keep them for my conclusion!
Background & Exam Overview
The Trinity College London exam board launched their Rock & Pop syllabus back in 2012. Their original syllabus had a focus on including “real” songs rather than pastiches. The new, current syllabus launched last year, and includes an even more diverse selection of songs, with everything from hard rock to hip-hop, and from jazz-fusion to reggae.
Examinations are offered in “Initial” and the usual 8 “Grades”, which aim to be comparable to the more traditional exams widely promoted by the UK boards, and are regulated at exactly the same level by Ofqual.
While Rockschool bill their syllabus as being for “piano”, Trinity prefer the designation “keyboards”. In reality, a digital/stage piano is usually supplied at the exam venues, although sometimes there is an acoustic instrument as well or instead.
Candidates can alternatively bring their own portable instrument; keyboards should have at least five octaves, full-size keys, a sustain pedal (from Grade 3) and touch sensitivity (also from Grade 3).
For those that want to play keyboards with auto-accompaniment, adding a Bossa-Nova beat to popular classical tunes for example, Trinity have for many years offered a separate Electronic Keyboard syllabus as part of their suite of classical & jazz exams, not to be overlooked.
For their Rock & Pop Keyboards syllabus, meanwhile, Trinity has a dedicated panel of examiners (separate to their Classical & Jazz exams) who will operate the pre-recorded backing tracks, used throughout the exam.
The structure of the examination itself, and consequently the marking, is very different to the usual format (and noticeably different to the Rockschool alternative).
The big news is that there aren’t conventional “supporting tests” of the sort found in the traditional exams. Instead, technical elements are integrated into one of the three songs played, while aural, sight-reading and improvisation are incorporated as “Sessions skills”.
The three pieces amount for 80% of the marks, with the remaining 20% allocated to “Session Skills”; here’s the detailed requirements:
Song One (25 marks)
A song chosen from the current graded Trinity Keyboards songbook, played to a backing track
Song Two (25 marks)
- Either a different song chosen from the current songbook,
- or a song from the additional Trinity keyboard arrangements offered online,
- or an own-choice song,
- or a song composed by the candidate.
If the song is an own-choice, or is composed by the candidate, it may:
- be unaccompanied,
- be played to a backing track (which can be pre-recorded by the candidate),
- include added vocals, performed live by the candidate,
- or include an accompaniment played or sung live by another musician.
Trinity provides guidance in the syllabus to help teachers and students ensure their own-choice songs are at the appropriate level, but does not approve own-choice songs before the exam.
Song Three (30 marks)
A “Technical focus” song chosen from the songbook, containing specific technical elements, played to a backing track.
Session Skills (20 marks)
Either “playback” or “improvising” (more on this later)
A Pathway for Learning?
While the focal point of this syllabus is on assessment, having this number of regular, progressive levels will no doubt result in many teachers and students approaching the syllabus, published and digital resources as a core curriculum.
So, I again think there are two potential markets:
- Firstly, some will be interested in following this syllabus for the core learning structure it provides those who want to play rock and pop piano/keyboard styles.
- Secondly, I suspect many players will be interested in dipping into the songbooks alongside more traditional music and methods, enjoying the breadth and perspective they bring.
Central to the Rock & Pop Keyboard syllabus, there are nine Songbooks, one for each level, providing a wealth of great arrangements at a fairly affordable price.
The books have strikingly attractive covers, following a shared visual theme and in a range of vivid colours. These soft matt covers open out to contain between 40 (Initial) to 80 (Grade 8) pages, presented with excellent and sharp graphics.
At the start of the book, information is provided which outlines the exam at a glance, gives details of the online digital content, instructions for downloading the audio files, and at the rear of the book “Help Pages” which explain how to use the backing tracks, give important information about copyright (useful in the context of “Own Choice” pieces), and tips for choosing songs.
Each book contains eight songs, and even at Initial level these each consume several pages (which will perhaps be a surprise to those used to the short pieces in Trinity’s standard piano Initial Grade). Music engraving is outstanding, and appropriate fingering is included throughout.
Preceding each song, there is an introductory page giving details of the song’s recording history, background, and helpful “Performance Tips”.
Here’s the full list; pieces marked with a “+” sign are so-called Technical Focus pieces – see below for an explanation of this:
- 96 Tears (? and The Mysterians, 1966) +
- Are Friends Electric? (Gary Numan, 1979)
- Blue Monday (New Order, 1983) +
- Get Lucky (Daft Punk, 2013)
- Three Little Birds (Bob Marley & The Wailers, 1977) +
- Gimme Some Lovin’ (The Spencer Davis Group, 1966)
- Hello (Adele, 2015)
- Something to Talk About (Badly Drawn Boy, 2002)
- Crazy (Gnarls Barkley, 2006)
- Gold on the Ceiling (The Black Keys, 2011) +
- Hey Jude (The Beatles, 1968)
- Hold On (Alabama Shakes, 2012)
- Le Freak (Chic, 1978) +
- Love is the Drug (Roxy Music, 1975)
- Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett, 1966)
- Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear, 2009) +
- Born to be Wild (Steppenwolf, 1968) +
- In My Place (Coldplay, 2002)
- Chandelier (Sia, 2013) +
- Miss You (The Rolling Stones, 1978)
- Just Kissed My Baby (The Meters, 1974) +
- Seasons (Waiting on You) (Future Islands, 2014)
- Uptown Funk (Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, 2014)
- Video Games (Lana Del Ray, 2011)
- Back in the USSR (The Beatles, 1968)
- Dancing in the Moonlight (Toploader, 2000)
- Feel (Robbie Williams, 2002)
- I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) (Aretha Franklin, 1967) +
- Knock on Wood (Eddie Floyd, 1966)
- The Great Gig in the Sky (Pink Floyd, 1973) +
- Reelin’ in the Years (Steely Dan, 1972)
- Town Called Malice (The Jam, 1982) +
- I Don’t Like Mondays (The Boomtown Rats, 1979)
- Freedom! ‘90 (George Michael, 1990)
- I Heard it Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye, 1968) +
- Oh! You Pretty Things (David Bowie, 1971)
- Retrograde (James Blake, 2013) +
- Something Got Me Started (Simply Red, 1991)
- The Lovecats (The Cure, 1983) +
- Vienna (Ultravox, 1981)
- Ghost Town (The Specials, 1981)
- Golden Brown (The Stranglers, 1981)
- If I Ain’t Got You (Alicia Keys, 2003) +
- She’s a Rainbow (The Rolling Stones, 1967)
- Shake a Tailfeather (Ray Charles, 1980) +
- Take me to Church (Hozier, 2013)
- Trampled Underfoot (Led Zeppelin, 1975) +
- With a Little Help from my Friends (Joe Cocker, 1968)
- Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel, 1970) +
- Bennie and the Jets (Elton John, 1974)
- Cornflake Girl (Tori Amos, 1994) +
- Easy (Commodores, 1977)
- Street Life (The Crusaders feat. Randy Crawford, 1979) +
- Superstition (Stevie Wonder, 1972)
- The House of the Rising Sun (The Animals, 1964)
- The Logical Song (Supertramp, 1979)
- Cast Your Fate to the Wind (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1962) +
- Dixie Chicken (Little Feat, 1973)
- Good Golly Miss Molly (Little Richard, 1956) +
- Jump (Van Halen, 1983)
- New York State of Mind (Billy Joel, 1976) +
- Rosanna (Toto, 1982)
- Sinnerman (Nina Simone, 1965)
- You are So Beautiful (Joe Cocker, 1974)
- Aladdin Sane (David Bowie, 1973)
- Birdland (Weather Report, 1977)
- Boogie On Reggae Woman (Stevie Wonder, 1974)
- Firth of Fifth (Genesis, 1973) +
- My Baby Just Cares for Me (Nina Simone, 1958)
- Peaches En Regalia (Frank Zappa, 1969) +
- Exogenesis: Symphony Part 2 (Muse, 2009)
- Ready Wednesday (Snarky Puppy, 2010) +
This is an exciting, varied and mature list; although some of the selections are quite UK-centric, and hits from within the lifetime of today’s teenagers are relatively few (indeed, missing completely in Grades 6-7), there is a wealth of fabulous music here. And importantly, the arrangements are mostly excellent.
Given that the Trinity approach is to ensure skills development is integral to the songs themselves, it seems perfectly apt and to be welcomed that the songs here cover so much stylistic ground, and it seems to me that there’s something here for players of all ages.
The sheet music itself is presented with melody/vocal line (with chord symbols), with the assessed piano/keyboard accompaniment that is to be played scored out below.
This is excellent in terms of matching real-world keyboard playing, but comes at the price of the player rarely having the main tune in some of the songs.
From Grade 5, some songs include vamp bars in which the player is expected to improvise their own rhythm accompaniment in the stated style, using the chords shown. I think this is a particularly useful and intelligent syllabus addition. Even by Grade 8, however, it is not a standard feature of all songs, and full notated arrangements remain the norm.
The backing tracks are delivered as a free download using a code printed within the purchased publication. These tracks can be streamed or downloaded as mp3 files from the SoundWise website and/or using the iOS SoundWise app. The quality here is pretty good, and having played along with several of the tracks, the player really can feel like a member of the band.
Trinity offers extended functionality through their own Trinity Rock & Pop app, mentioned towards the end of this review
One of the striking features of this syllabus is that Trinity have integrated technical work into the songs themselves. So how well does this work?
The three songs identified as “Technical Focus” pieces within each grade are preceded by a short note outlining the two technical focus elements which are featured.
Using Initial Grade as an example, 96 Tears includes thumb-under crossing and spilt stave writing (meaning the thumb holds sustained notes while repeating quavers appear above). Blue Monday includes repeating quavers in the LH bass line and some syncopation at the end. And in Three Little Birds, there are some offbeat chords, and a need to distinguish between staccato and tenuto articulations. One of these three pieces must be included in the exam, and is awarded extra marks to reflect its difficulty.
At the far end of the spectrum, the same pattern applies at Grade 8. Here, Firth of Fifth includes changing time signatures, and semiquaver triplets. Peaches En Regalia features “contrasting musical characteristics” and semiquaver broken chords. While in Ready Wednesday, the melody is spread between the hands, and there articulation is more detailed.
It’s certainly helpful to have these technical challenges explained within the songbooks (and all the other pieces include “Performance Tips” as well, which is most useful!).
There are compelling arguments for integrating technical work into the songs, as well. But whether these examples adequately replace a thorough knowledge of scales and chords is another matter, and I suspect some educators will be unconvinced.
For those dipping into the Trinity Rock & Pop materials alongside other more traditional learning, the approach taken here is certainly welcome, but those using these materials as their core learning resource will likely want to supplement the content with a more thorough focus on technique and music theory elsewhere.
“Session Skills” (worth 20% in the exam) are an essential part of the syllabus. According to Trinity:
“They are designed to help players develop the techniques music industry performers need.”
Sample tests are available in the Session Skills books, and free examples can also be downloaded from the Trinity Rock & Pop website here.
Across all nine levels, exam candidates must choose between either Improvising or Playback.
My recommendation would be for those working through this syllabus to learn both, as they are of genuine importance to any player wanting to succeed with this music.
For the Improvising test, the player must improvise in a specified style over a recorded backing track that they haven’t seen or heard before.
The backing track consists of a passage of music played in a loop. In the early grades the loop follows a simple three primary-chord sequence across four bars. By Grade 8, the loop is 16 bars, including a choice or mixture of vamping rhythmic chords or improvising a melody solo.
The Playback test is particularly innovative in my view. Here the player is told:
“In the exam, you will be given the song chart and the examiner will play a recording of the music.You will hear several phrases on the recording: you should play each of them straight back in turn. There’s a rhythm track going throughout, which helps you keep in time.There should not be any gaps in the music.”
Essentially, this test combines playing by ear with sight-reading, all to the accompaniment of a backing track. Once again, as expected, the difficulty progresses from very simple 2-bar phrases with single notes at Initial, right through to highly complex chord vamping and 8-bar phrases at Grade 8.
Supporting the exams and published resources, Trinity have created an impressive range of digital offerings.
Firstly, there is a bespoke website for the Rock & Pop syllabus. This is superbly presented and laid out, and includes sections for each instrument and grade, offering syllabus information and example Session Skills tests. There are also embedded Spotify playlists for the whole syllabus.
From here you can also follow the links to purchase the sheet music and backing tracks for individual songs from the 2015-17 syllabus, which are suitable and benchmarked for use as “Own Choice” selections (for Song 2, see above). Many of these songs will have particular appeal, and even those who otherwise ignore Trinity’s Rock and Pop syllabus might enjoy trying out their great arrangements of these popular favourites.
You can browse the full list here.
Next up, don’t miss the “Practice Room” section of the site, which includes instructional and inspirational videos, as well as links to a really stunning array of support materials for players and teachers. And it’s all free! Check it out here.
Last but certainly not least, the multi-award winning Play Trinity Rock and Pop app, available for Apple and Android devices, which provides a stunning interactive practice and playing experience. To save on words, here’s the promo video:
It’s really an understatement to labour the point that these digital offerings hugely add to, indeed multiply, Trinity’s Rock & Pop syllabus.
How, then, does the Trinity Rock & Pop Keyboard syllabus compare to the Rockschool offering? In short, each has its particular strengths, and both are great!
Rockschool’s appeal firstly lies in their more structured approach to supporting skills, such as learning scales and chord voicing, which it seems to me are vital for all musicians. Secondly, I like their mixture of approaches in the songs, with some played solo, some as solos with backing, and others as a member of the backing band.
And the songs in the present Rockschool syllabus generally seem to me fresher, more deliberately contemporary, and with plenty of “quick win” songs that are bound to be hugely popular with teenage learners.
Trinity ultimately offers a far broader range of musical material, meanwhile, and an integrated approach that some will undoubtedly prefer. The Session Skills are an innovative and excellent addition. Their song choices are likely to appeal to a wider age-range, and there are eight tunes per book (compared to Rockschool’s six). Their books cost noticeably less, too.
An obvious contrast is that with Trinity, the player is an accompanist more than soloist. This is very much more of an ensemble experience, albeit a virtual one.
Underpinning all of this, Trinity’s digital offerings are simply stunning, and worth exploring straight away in their own right.
Some readers will want to press me to state which of the two boards I am more likely to use. The answer is either or both.
Either: because for those who want to “dip in” rather than use the syllabus as their core learning curriculum, the choice will almost certainly depend on their preferred songs.
Both: because for students who are serious about playing in bands and/or as future session players, it makes sense in my view to actually use both Rockschool and Trinity side-by-side for their complementary strengths. Used together, they would pack a powerful punch!
One last point – both these syllabuses set a pretty high bar in terms of attainment. Of the two, the Trinity offering is the more realistic in my view.
To summarise, then, I am hugely impressed by Trinity’s Rock & Pop Keyboard syllabus.
Here is a resource that combines inspiration with true innovation; the educational thinking that holds it all together shows not just commitment to the cause, but immense care, ensuring that this is a syllabus that will command broad appeal while offering a solid framework for successful learning.
Any player keen to explore Rock and Pop Keyboard styles owes it to themselves to get hold of a set of these books; teachers, whether interested in rock and pop or not, should certainly purchase the early grades, which offer an invaluable teaching and learning resource.