With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus (reviewed in full here), ABRSM have given their scales requirements a significant overhaul, also publishing new scales books and resources.
In this review I will consider three main areas of this development:
- The new syllabus requirements
- The new ABRSM Piano Scales & Arpeggios books
- Scale Explorer for Piano – a new series of five graded books written for ABRSM by Alan Bullard
Let’s get straight to it…
Towards a Revised Syllabus
ABRSM have been planning to revise their piano scales syllabus for some years, and their proposals were the subject of two online consultations, first in November 2017, then again in April 2019. Their basic stated aim has been to “reduce the preparation load”; in other words, to sanction a significant reduction in the teaching and learning of scales, arpeggios and broken chords.
Most teachers have said for some time that the present scales requirements in ABRSM grade exams are excessive and need, if you’ll pardon the pun, scaling back a bit (especially in the higher grades).
At the same time, experience shows that a secure knowledge of scale and key are fundamental to musical nourishment and growth, and that arpeggios and broken chords provide a foundation for harmonic understanding as much as they do for technical development.
And it is easily observed that without cumulative development and ongoing reinforcement, scales rarely “stick” during the crucial intermediate phase. That’s why ABRSM’s long-established commitment to assessing all keys at Grade 5 is such an important watershed moment in any pianist’s development.
More Information & Advice: Why Bother with Scales
The challenge of managing preparation load while also supporting established pedagogy has inevitably placed ABRSM in a somewhat impossible position where they can’t please everyone.
Even so, I’m surprised that the syllabus now published is virtually identical to the proposals ABRSM invited teachers to give feedback on back in April 2019, all of which they have apparently ignored. I suspect colleagues who freely gave their time and professional advice to respond to ABRSM’s detailed and lengthy questionnaire may feel less generously inclined to offer such support in future.
So What’s Changed?
First, the good news. ABRSM have succeeded in sensibly rationalising the scales syllabus from Grades 6-8, with less unnecessary repetition, and with a key scheme that cleverly ensures that relative major/minor keys and tonic major/minor keys all appear together at each level.
The overall reduction in demand is likely to be welcome by most. But once we begin to take a closer look at the details, problems soon emerge. For those using the syllabus, I will try to offer some solutions and advice here:
• Beyond a single-octave in Grade 1, the scale of C major hands together in similar motion doesn’t appear until Grade 8. Teachers will need to compensate for this odd decision, and one way to do so would be to use the Dozen A Day exercise books, which include plenty of material to properly help players develop coordination hands together in this most common of keys.
• D major has been removed from Grade 1, although the key has often been used in past exam repertoire, and regularly appears in music published for this level. When introducing pieces in D major, it would help to teach the scale and arpeggio, even if no longer assessed by ABRSM.
• Relative major and minor keys, though linked in higher grades, are rarely introduced within the same grade (notable exceptions being Ab major/F minor in Grade 4, and Db major/Bb minor in Grade 5). Teachers can reinforce these relationships and key signatures by demonstrating and explaining them carefully, even though necessarily diverging from the syllabus to do so.
• At no point in the syllabus are students asked to play scales using different dynamics (this is a standard requirement with other boards, and has been frequently requested by teachers). Suffice to say that whatever the level, it is useful to practise scales musically, using a range of dynamics and articulations, rather than as an abstract exercise.
• Arpeggios hands together in root position in the keys of C major, G major and A minor no longer feature in any grade, which seems very bizarre. I recommend that teachers add these into their programme with players at Elementary level.
• Broken Chords have been entirely dropped from the syllabus, even though they appear in real-world repertoire far more frequently than either arpeggios or scales. To help our students develop harmonic understanding it would be useful to introduce simple broken chord patterns each time an arpeggio is introduced. This will also pave the way for the otherwise random introduction of arpeggio inversions in the later grades.
• The delayed introduction of keys in the early grades impacts the sight-reading syllabus. From Grade 2 to Grade 5 (inclusive), candidates are expected to sight-read hands together in keys where they have only just learnt the scale hands separately. To foster key awareness and coordination, encouraging students to try all scales hands together will give them an advantage when sight-reading and learning repertoire.
• The delayed introduction of keys widens the gap between practical piano grades and ABRSM’s Music Theory grades. Teachers might want to consider carefully how to realign the teaching of theory and practice in order to encourage effective holistic and simultaneous learning.
• Those using ABRSM’s Practical Musicianship Grades are left adrift by the new scales syllabus. For example, in the Grade 1 Musicianship exam the candidate is expected to play by ear in the key of D major, even though they are no longer expected to know the scale! How do the syllabus writers at ABRSM suppose this is possible? Teachers will need to revert to introducing some scales and keys sooner if choosing this very worthwhile option.
I could go on, as there are plenty of other illogical quirks in this syllabus that need creative strategies for circumventing.
For example, why is E major not initially introduced hands separately as other keys are? It first appears in contrary motion in Grade 3, completely disappears in Grade 4 (although B major is here introduced), then returns in similar motion in Grade 5, where the arpeggio is also finally introduced (later than the harder ones that appear in Grades 3 and 4).
With this growing chasm between the requirements for scales, repertoire, sight-reading, theory grades and practical musicianship, it is becoming ever more difficult to identify a holistic and coherent way of working through ABRSM’s disparate materials and suite of assessments. The syllabus as a whole is starting to feel broken as an educational tool.
A True Assessment?
But what about as an assessment tool? Here, the biggest issue is undoubtedly that at no point does this syllabus offer a snapshot to check whether a student has properly assimilated all keys. According to ABRSM:
“The expectation that candidates should be familiar with all keys by Grade 5 remains, and is built into the key scheme across Grades Initial–5 where every key is covered at least once.”
But how will we ever know whether this expectation is met, if there is no longer an assessment? This is the foundational principle of formal assessment.
Compare and contrast this with their approach to Music Theory assessment. In the Grade 5 Theory exam, ABRSM quite rightly test candidates’ knowledge and understanding of all the concepts, terminology and notations introduced throughout Grades 1-5 cumulatively.
Why shouldn’t the same apply in Grade 5 piano scales, bearing in mind that they encompass the core playing technique and musical understanding that all intermediate players should systematically develop?
It is this commitment to assessing acquired knowledge which distinguishes a syllabus from a curriculum. Without that, I have to wonder whether ABRSM’s new scales syllabus leads to a genuinely meaningful assessment.
Concluding this section, it remains to also note that a fair comparison quickly confirms that the new ABRSM technical requirements are very significantly easier and lighter than those of the Trinity College and LCM boards at this point, which will come as a surprise to many.
The Piano Scales Publications
As ever, ABRSM’s publishing business have pulled out all the stops to deliver beautifully presented resources for use alongside the revised piano scale and arpeggio syllabus.
The striking covers are colourful and immediately inviting:
It is worth noting that the colour scheme is the same as for the books they replace; pupils will need to take care to purchase and bring to lessons the correct version.
Within, each scale is carefully presented; with such a slight syllabus now, most pages are more spaced out than previously. However, it will soon be noted that these are now very thin books!
The Initial Grade scale book for example contains just 4 pages (i.e. one folded sheet), of which only two include the scales content. Some will surely balk at the £3.50 asking price. Speaking of cost, the prices for the new 2021 Piano Scales and Arpeggios books are identical to the previous ones, even though they contain so much less (Grade 7 has literally half the number of pages, down from 24 to 12, but stays the same price).
As before, the books do not always show scales with the full number of octaves required. This is particularly irksome in the case of two-octave scales with only one-octave shown, because the transition must be conceptualised without the support of the notation.
I must note my concern about the fingering suggested for the Eb major scale in double-thirds in the Grade 8 book; suffice to say that I strongly urge Pianodao readers to opt for the very sensible “alternative fingering”, which is both more musically supportive and physically safer to practice.
The Grade 5 scales book has always been my go-to, containing all the major and minor scales and arpeggios in one handy volume. At just 8 pages, the new Grade 5 book will only be of use to those preparing for the exam. An alternative will now need to be found for those of us who found the previous version so broadly useful.
I recognise that these are challenging times and that ABRSM have to balance their books, but so do the students and families I work with. In some cases, the quotient between price and content simply doesn’t work here, and I cannot in good conscience recommend these books as a necessary purchase.
Having so often told us that their syllabus should not be used as a curriculum, it is surely ironic that ABRSM have now done exactly that, publishing a curriculum entirely based around their syllabus!
According to ABRSM:
“Scale Explorer for Piano is a creative resource for students learning their scales and arpeggios. This book covers ABRSM’s new syllabus requirements (from 2021) and includes engaging activities that bring scales to life through short pieces, improvisation, composition and exercises.”
They go on to list the key features of the series:
- Workouts to help establish the fingering patterns by breaking each scale and arpeggio into small sections
- Tips and hints to encourage students to remember the characteristics of individual scales
- Short, tuneful pieces that incorporate scale and arpeggio patterns, showing how they are used in music and providing reading and playing opportunities
- ‘Tune Factory’ activities, where students can compose their own melodies and improvise within the scale key
- A chart with tick boxes, to help students with their scale and arpeggio revision
All this is great, and even more so given that the books have been written by the consistently brilliant Alan Bullard, surely one of our best composers and educational writers.
The books are absolutely packed with useful study material, all beautifully delivered in a joined-up way, and with considerable enthusiasm and genuine expertise. The content and presentation will suit most ages, although the pages are rather crowded for younger learners.
Ultimately however, the plethora of brilliant ideas Bullard festoons us with are stymied by the problem that they are saddled to a pedagogically problematic syllabus.
No space is given either to drawing a link between relative major and minor scales, or to consolidating previously learnt keys. So, for example, the on/off introduction of E major and other issues already mentioned are all writ large in these books.
For those who are struggling to find their way through the scales requirements of ABRSM’s graded exams, these clever books are nevertheless a must-have. And for students who are skipping grades, or switching between the Practical and Performance grades, they will be essential for filling in the gaps in the scales syllabus.
Indeed, for these students the Scale Explorer books are a considerably more worthwhile purchase than the main piano scale and arpeggio books.
For everyone else however, I can’t help feel they are emblematic of that danger that ABRSM tried so hard to protect us from: preparation overload. Working through this material, superb though it is, could be a considerable distraction from more rewarding repertoire and music-making.
In reviewing ABRSM’s 2021-22 Piano Syllabus, I concluded:
“Many of the changes they are making are bold and commendable ones.”
I believe that the same is true here, and that ABRSM’s original intention in revising their scales syllabus was one most teachers would fully support.
Unfortunately, having ignored feedback, the outcome is one that presents a whole series of new difficulties. I rather fear that the mistakes here not only outweigh the improvements, but have a detrimental impact on the usefulness and quality of ABRSM’s broader overall offer.
We must now hope that ABRSM will urgently take a strategic look at the mismatch of keys required across their scales syllabus, sight-reading expectations, repertoire resources, music theory syllabus, and practical musicianship exams.
In so doing, I believe they should be able to make their whole suite of assessments and learning resources a far more complementary and attractive one.