ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

The launch of ABRSM’s biennial piano syllabus is always a significant event in the piano education world: particularly in the UK and Far East, where the exam board’s offerings remain hugely popular and influence much of what is taught.

For their 2021-22 syllabus ABRSM are heralding several structural changes:

  • A new Initial Grade, providing a pre-Grade 1 assessment that follows the same structure, content and marking criteria as their other graded music exams 
  • Completely revised repertoire lists and scales requirements
  • A revised list structure, with lists defined by musical characteristics rather than period of composition
  • More choice and variety of repertoire (30 pieces per grade)
  • A duet option from Initial Grade to Grade 3
  • A one-year overlap period, with the 2019 & 2020 syllabus valid until 31 December 2021.

The new Scales Syllabus and supporting publications are reviewed separately here.

ABRSM have also announced a “remote” alternative to their Practical Grades. Although these video-based alternatives are dubbed Performance Grades this is somewhat a misnomer; unlike the Practical Grades, where candidates must face performing live to an examiner, these new assessments take the form of a submitted recording of four pieces, including three from the Grade syllabus.

This Review

With a whopping 270 pieces included in the new syllabus, including 81 published in ABRSM’s nine Piano Exam Pieces books, even this in-depth review can’t cover every piece, and as always I recommend readers download the full syllabus lists from ABRSM’s own site.

However, as in previous years I will look at particular trends within the syllabus, the direction of travel, highlighting those general features which will interest teachers and players alike.

I will bookend the review with a more detailed look at two specific grades: Initial and Grade 8, representing the start and end points of a student’s journey through these assessments, and in which the broader changes in the syllabus are writ large.

And finally, I will offer a personal list of some of the highlights selected from each Grade in turn. So let’s jump in…

The Product Range

As in previous years I’ll begin with an outline of the product range, which is available to purchase from 9th July 2020. The books themselves prove once again that ABRSM’s publishing business are able to turn whatever the syllabus department throw at them into a gorgeous work of art:

  • There is one Piano Exam Pieces book for each grade
  • The publications are beautifully presented, with a gorgeous cover illustration that will appeal to players of all ages
  • While the syllabus now includes 10 choices for each List, ABRSM still only include 3 of each in the Exam Pieces books, making up nine pieces per publication
  • Notation is clean, generously sized, and well edited
  • Sensible, appropriate fingering is included throughout all nine books, as are project editor Richard Jones‘ 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 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.

Business as usual then, with the exception of the Teaching Notes, which this time around only include brief tips for the 9 pieces in each ABRSM publication, and none of the many Alternative Pieces. While the 2019-20 book sported 104 pages, this reduced content leaves the new 2021-22 booklet with just 58.

Before moving onto the syllabus content itself, this would be a good moment to highlight the brilliance of this years’ recordings, which include all 30 pieces per Grade, and can be bought as included CD’s with the music books, or as individual digital downloads from ABRSM’s website.

These feature performances by such as Yulia Chaplina, Charles Owen, Mei Yi Foo, Dinara Klinton, Robert Thompson, Richard Uttley, Vanessa Latarche and Nikki Iles. They are beautifully recorded, and include performances which I found notably more inspiring than in previous years.

Initial Grade

As we move onto the content, let’s take a detailed look at the new Initial Grade which offers a prelude to ABRSM’s formal grades. Candidates are required to play three pieces, as well as offer scales, play at sight and take aural tests.

As with the later grades, candidates select from 30 pieces spread evenly across three Lists, choosing one from each. Of the nine pieces in the published collection, seven are 20/21st century compositions, while the other two are recent arrangements.

The pieces are commendably varied, although this has also led to a noteworthy disparity in level. The easiest in the book, Bartók’s Dialogue could certainly be learnt as the composer intended during the student’s First Term at the Piano; other pieces here will be more formidably challenging for smaller players.

June Armstrong’s delightful Under the Acacia Tree is contingent on use of the sustain pedal effect at the end for its full aesthetic, which might prove out of reach for some, while Alan Bullard’s entertaining Dodgems mostly comprises triad chords in both hands, which those without sufficient finger development will find frustratingly difficult to pull off.

The Praetorius Gavotte in G includes frequent hand position changes, only some of which are indicated with fingering, suggesting ABRSM assume that pieces here will be taught by rote, at least in part. Elsewhere, Nikki Iles’ The Elephant Parade and Dorothy Parke’s A Marching Tune stand out as musical highlights.

Overall, I think that Initial Grade is a welcome innovation which strengthens ABRSM’s overall assessment offer. It will certainly suit the confident learner, who I think will gobble up this material. As for the younger or more steady learner, the distance from the easiest to hardest piece could easily occupy a year’s developmental effort, and maintaining a sense of fun and momentum may be more of a challenge.

The Expanded Syllabus Lists

Given that so few candidates explore the Alternative lists, we might wonder why ABRSM have chosen to expand them. However, their decision to do so certainly makes it easier for them to meet the many musical interests and demands of the educational community.

Chief among these, ABRSM have eloquently responded to media criticism that their last syllabus had a dearth of music by female composers. This is especially noticeable in ABRSM’s new Piano Exam Pieces books, which prominently include music by women composers across most grades. And there are some wonderful discoveries to be made.

Among the composers featured in the books: Dorothy Parke, Yvonne Adair, June Armstrong, Nikki Iles, Ivana Loudouvá, Chee-Hwa Tan, Elisabetta de Gambarini, Helen Madden, Simone Plé, Anne Crosby Gaudet, Ailbhe McDonagh, Sarah Watts, Barbara Arens, Amy Beach, Heather Hammond, Johanna Senfter, Martha Mier, Karen Tanaka, Elissa Milne, Pam Wedgwood, Ni Hongjin, Madeleine Dring, Rhian Samuel, Clara Schumann and Helen Hopekirk. And there are many more in the Alternative lists.

ABRSM have also made much of the inclusion of duets this time around, up to Grade 3. Unlike the Trinity College exams, which already include duets, ABRSM have confined them to the Alternative Lists with none in their own exam piece books. There are however duet selections on all three Lists A, B and C, the candidate able to select any one duet if they so wish.

As for benchmarking across this new syllabus, ABRSM seem to have generally favoured accessibility over aspiration. Some will note, for example, that Schumann’s First Loss appears in the ABRSM Grade 4 book, while more challengingly set for Grade 3 by the LCM board.

As a general rule, the expanded repertoire lists have enabled ABRSM to serve up an abundant feast of varied music, much of it never included before, including a wide range of pieces from across history, from Praetorius to Einaudi: yes, he’s finally made it onto the syllabus!

That said, given recent events and the heightened awareness they have brought, it’s impossible to look through this syllabus without noting that it is overwhelmingly dominated by the music of white European and American composers. Why is the music of Scott Joplin, surely one of the most distinctive and beloved piano composers of all time, yet again missing here?

Not that anyone wants tokenism in response to recent debate; rather it has come into focus that there is a rich thread of repertoire composed by BAME composers which merits full and proper investigation, and I very much hope all the exam boards and publishers will give this a more thoughtful and lasting consideration.

A Revised List Structure

A reminder that according to ABRSM, the revised syllabus from 2021 comprises “lists defined by musical characteristics rather than period of composition”.

Looking at the repertoire selections I wasn’t sure what criteria ABRSM had adopted, but helpfully they expand on this in the syllabus booklet:

  • List A pieces are generally faster moving and require technical agility
  • List B pieces are more lyrical and invite expressive playing
  • List C pieces reflect a wide variety of musical traditions, styles and characters.

While the old formula fed a growing, cumulative awareness of the general narrative of music history, developing keyboard styles, interpretive considerations and playing techniques, it is unclear to me quite what the particular benefits of this new approach are.

Using the 2021-22 syllabus, for example, it now seems possible to chart a course all the way up to Grade 5 before having to play a single piece written before the middle of the twentieth century, and I’m not sure that this builds the best foundation for further development.

We must hope that teachers and students don’t use this new flexibility to eschew the less immediately palatable elements of repertoire development, subtly avoiding those pieces and genres which don’t seem to offer instant gratification. One of our primary responsibilities as teachers is to expand our students’ awareness, understanding and experience of great music.

The New Grade 8

Grade 8 has long been seen as something of a pinnacle, the culmination of a journey which has hopefully offered many enjoyable vistas along the way, but which has arrived at a very definite destination: a well developed ability to play classical piano music to a high level.

Traditionally this apotheosis has involved playing a Bach Prelude and Fugue, Baroque or contrapuntal work, followed by a classical Sonata movement, and finally cutting loose in a more virtuosic or emotive Romantic, Modern or Jazz piece, rounding off a concerted performance of serious piano works. Preparing this repertoire for Grade 8 has always been a “big deal” for aspiring pianists, an essential rite of passage.

But in line with their revised list structure, the musical focus of ABRSM’s new Grade 8 syllabus has decisively shifted, Lists B and C devoted to salon pieces and miniatures, all enjoyable and wholly worthwhile, but with just List A offering a single choice of Baroque or Classical core repertoire.

I think that the revised List structure, so much more flexible than before, could very easily have still accommodated the ambitions of those serious classical players who have looked forward to putting together a more traditional programme at the culmination of their study. The denial of this choice seems to me not only a grave error, but a bizarre rejection of ABRSM’s own treasured heritage as a supporter of classical music.

Adding to a sense that ABRSM are now somewhat the ‘easier option’, some of these new Grade 8 pieces strike me as being hardly more challenging than the Grade 7 selections. Several selections may have teachers raising their eyebrows. Some may now question the value of Grade 7; why not jump straight to Grade 8 if the difference is slight?

Lastly, if ABRSM’s Piano Exam Pieces book for Grade 8 feels surprisingly lightweight, it is because while previously the books have included 12 pieces (sporting 6 from List C), the 2021-2 Grade 8 Piano Exam Piece book includes just 9 of the pieces, three from each list.

Like the Teacher Notes book, this has led to a significant reduction in pages, in this case from 72 pages (2019-20) to just 40 (2021-2). In spite of this very significant reduction, the price of the book remains the same.

While the 2021-2 ABRSM Piano Syllabus is packed from top-to-toe with fabulous music, I cannot help but think that overall the new Grade 8 is an anticlimax.

Picking Favourites

I have found over the years that when teaching and playing through the syllabus, my view of different pieces changes over time. It’s easy to grow tired of one piece but fall in love with another. My early favourites aren’t always those I stick with down the line.

Nevertheless, I have produced the following list including those pieces which I have previously enjoyed playing and teaching, those which are particularly happy new discoveries in this new syllabus, come from resources which I think will be more broadly useful, and which deliver a balanced musical diet.

For Alternative pieces, I have provided links to my previous reviews where they exist, so that you can find out more about the publications they are from.

Initial Grade

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A1. Dorothy Parke: A Marching Tune
B3. Bartók: Dialogue
C2. Nikki Iles: The Elephant Parade

A6. Kabalevsky: A Little Scherzo Op.39/6
B5. Pauline Hall: The Secret Garden
C9. Gerald Martin: Boogie No.1

Grade One

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A1. Anon: A Toy from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book
B2. Chee-Hwa Tan: The Swing
C1. Elissa Milne: Cockatoo

A7. Handel: Gavotte in C
B7. Jessie Blake: The Little White Cloud
C8. Barbara Snow: Jazzy Dragon

Grade Two

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A3. Hässler: Ecossaise in G
B2. Simone Plé: Le chant du pâtre
C3. Christopher Norton: Inter-City Stomp

A8. Kabalevsky: Galop/Hopping Op.39/18
B4. Bartók: Sorrow
C6. Einaudi: The Snow Prelude No.3

Grade Three

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A2. Burgmüller: Innocence
B2. Haydn (arr. White): Andante from Trumpet Concerto
C2. Grechaninov: Riding the Hobby Horse

A10. Weber: Scherzo
B9. Paul Harris: Indigo
C9. Mancini/Mercer: Moon River

Grade Four

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A1. J.S. Bach: Prelude in C minor
B3. Schumann: First Loss
C2. Ben Crosland: I Hear What You Say

A5. Beethoven: Allegro assai from Sonatina in F
B7. Khachaturian: A Little Song
C5. Alison Mathews: Buried Rubies

Grade Five

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A1. Burgmüller: La chevaleresque
B2. George Nevada: Starry Dome
C3. Prokofiev: Tarantella

A5: Beethoven: Bagatelle in G minor
B9. Pachulski: Prelude in C minor
C8. Einaudi: Elegy for the Arctic

Grade Six

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A1. Pescetti: Allegro in C
B1. Chopin: Mazurka in G minor Op.67/2
C1. Martha Mier: Opening Night Jazz

A4: C.P.E. Bach: Solfeggietto in C minor
B7. Christian Hartmann: Nocturne
C4. Bernstein: For Stephen Sondheim

Grade Seven

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A2. Beethoven: Bagatelle in E flat
B1. Fauré: Andante moderato
C2. Ibert: Le petit âne blanc

A10. Scarlatti: Sonata in E Kp.380
B4. Alan Bullard: Prelude No.9 (set one)
C4. Bartók: Bagpipers from Sonatina

Grade Eight

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces
A1. Bach: Fantasia in C minor
B1. Brahms: Intermezzo in E Op.116/6
C1. Bartók: No.1 from Three Rondos on Folk Tunes

A8. Mozart: first movement from Sonata in A major K.331
B10. Schumann: Romanze in F sharp Op.28/2
C6. Debussy: Réverie

These highlights really are just the tip of the iceberg: the new syllabus includes a wonderful selection of great music, proving that regardless of the structural and educational decisions that are made, great music is what really matters!

Some Conclusions

ABRSM sit at the centre of our music educational life here in the UK, and their positive cultural commitment and legacy cannot be underestimated. Many of us have benefited so much from their work: in my case, I took ABRSM grades as a child, and have subsequently been entering students for them for a quarter of a century.

With such a proud history, of course, there is a danger of accumulating baggage that starts to look rather dated and worn. For that reason, I hope readers will join me in offering sincere congratulations to ABRSM for their efforts to refresh and revitalise their piano syllabus for 2021-22.

Many of the changes they are making are bold and commendable ones. The launch of an easier Initial Grade, widening of choice and broadening of repertoire, inclusion of duets, and commitment to female composers all deserve raptuous applause.

At the same time, change isn’t welcome for its own sake. It is probably clear from this review that some of these innovations in their first iteration are more successful than others. Hopefully ABRSM will continue to tweak future syllabi to ensure they balance accessibility with the pursuit of excellence.

Looking beyond questions of structure and progression, what we have here is a syllabus brimming with great piano music, from established favourites to sparkling new pieces, offering both happy reacquaintance and novel discovery.

Hat’s off to those who selected the music this time around, as well as to all those who have edited, written about and recorded it. The brilliantly presented publications, support materials and syllabus choices include so many genuine treasures to explore that those who do so to the full will undoubtedly find plenty to delight, reward and inspire.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.