With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus, 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
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”, realistically meaning to sanction a reduction in the exam-led teaching and learning of scales, arpeggios and 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 and globally respected commitment to assessing all keys at Grade 5 was such an important watershed moment in any pianist’s development.
More Information & Advice: Why Bother with Scales
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.
This really is a huge improvement, and one which teachers and learners everywhere will welcome with a smile. The overall reduction in demand is both rational and overdue, and is likely to be welcome by most.
But once we begin to take a closer look at the details in the lower and intermediate grades, problems soon emerge, and serious ones at that.
For those using the syllabus, I will try to offer some insight into these, solutions and constructive advice:
• Beyond a single-octave in Grade 1, the scale of C major hands together in similar motion doesn’t appear until Grade 8. Teachers may need to compensate for this to help players develop coordination and fluency hands together in this most common of keys.
• The key of D major has been removed from Grade 1, even though it 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 appearing together in higher grades, are not synchronised when first appearing in the formative stages of learning prior to Grade 4. 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 (a standard requirement with other boards, frequently recommended by teachers). Suffice to say that 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 odd. I recommend that teachers add these into the teaching programme at Elementary level.
• Broken Chords have been entirely dropped from the syllabus, even though they so frequently appear in real-world repertoire. To help learners develop harmonic understanding it would be useful to introduce 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 a real advantage.
• 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 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. Teachers will certainly need to introduce scales and keys sooner if choosing this very worthwhile option.
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, disappears in Grade 4 (although B major is introduced), only appearing in similar motion in Grade 5, where the arpeggio is also finally introduced (later than the more difficult ones that appear in Grades 3 and 4).
• The F minor scale was previously introduced hands together at Grade 4 (and still is by the other accredited boards). ABRSM now introduce it hands separately in Grade 4 (legato) and again in Grade 5 (staccato), finally including it hands together in Grade 6. No student needs to continue practising this scale hands separately for the years this could be seen to imply.
• B flat major, which appears hands together in Trinity and RSL Grade 2, is only now introduced by ABRSM hands separately in Grade 3, and not together until Grade 4. However, ABRSM have often included pieces (hands together) in the keys of B flat and even E flat major in Grade 2. Why not the scale?
While teachers and exam boards will naturally disagree on smaller details at times, the wholesale dumbing down, disconnected thinking, and ABRSM’s fundamental lack of pedagogic care when putting together this scales syllabus is more deeply perplexing; the cumulative impact of so many bizarre decisions amounts to a pretty serious problem.
And for those who will quickly remind us that the syllabus need not be used as the basis of our curriculum, I have depressing news: ABRSM’s new Scales Explorer books seek to do exactly that.
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 Meaningful 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?
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 now very significantly easier and lighter than those of the Trinity College and LCM boards. It will be interesting to see what the market makes of that, reputationally, in the longer term.
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 urge Pianodao readers to opt for the very sensible “alternative fingering”, which is both more musically supportive and physically safer to practice.
The old Grade 5 scales book has long 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 sadly 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 (with no shortage of superior alternatives) I cannot in good conscience recommend these books as a necessary or worthwhile 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 creative approach, varied content and attractive presentation will suit most ages.
For those who are struggling to find their way through the scales requirements of ABRSM’s graded exams, these clever books could certainly prove useful. In fact, for exam preparation I think they are very significantly better than the basic scales books reviewed above.
For everyone else however, the Scale Explorer books sadly suffer from being saddled to a curriculum which as we have seen lacks a strong, progressive rationale for introducing new musical keys, understanding and technique.
Despite Bullard’s brilliant work, the ABRSM syllabus itself proves to be an Achilles heel that results in this resource having far less educational value then could have been the case.
ABRSM’s original vision for updating, rationalising and refreshing their scales syllabus was one most teachers fully supported. Unfortunately, the outcome is one that presents a whole series of new problems, leading to a sense that the board has lost its way.
It seems to me 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. While their graded repertoire selections are excellent, this update to their technical syllabus amounts to a significant drawback to using their Practical Grades for piano.
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