Sometimes, like buses, exam syllabi arrive more than one at a time. If it seems as if it were just last month that I wrote my bumper review of the 2021-2 ABRSM piano syllabus, well… that’s because it was.
And now here is the new syllabus from Trinity College London. TCL tell us that this is their biggest ever piano syllabus, so there will be a lot of ground to cover in this bumper review.
Although I am going to integrate my material, I will tackle the review from two perspectives, trying to answer questions and pick up on the headline news for:
- existing TCL exam users; and
- those new to grade exams, or considering a switch to TCL from ABRSM or another board.
So let’s discover the big stories in the TCL Piano Syllabus 2021…
Before looking at changes to the overall syllabus in 2021, here’s a short promotional video TCL have produced which reveals the ethos of their exams:
In their press release, TCL mention several landmarks within the new syllabus, drawing attention to features including:
Candidates can choose from the largest syllabus list to date, which includes 35 pieces per grade, a range of international composers and a selection of popular pieces from the 2018-2020 syllabus.
There are now a minimum of 12 pieces available in each grade book, with 21 pieces included in the Extended Edition (nine via an additional ebook). Both editions include detailed performance notes while the Extended Edition also includes scales, arpeggios and downloadable audio.
Young Composers’ Competition
Aspiring composers can take inspiration from the inclusion of one new piece per grade written by the winners of our Young Composers’ Competition.
Candidates can personalise their exam, with the option of performing their own, original composition, a duet at grades Initial to 3 and their own choice of supporting tests.
A range of free, online support resources, produced with professional musicians and educators, help develop performance skills and musical knowledge.
Within the syllabus booklet, which you can download here, they further unpack the changes that distinguish this new syllabus from their previous one.
And on their Piano Exam page, TCL also tell us,
For now we can only speculate whether these will be similar to ABRSM’s new Performance Grades, or whether they will offer the flexibility and syllabus rigour of the innovate MTB exams which I recently covered here.
Lastly in terms of “what’s new”, TCL have announced that while the parameters for the tests will not be changing, they will be publishing a brand new set of three sight-reading books this Autumn. Written by James Treweek, the series is intended as a progressive sight-reading method; ten lessons per grade each lead step-by-step to a duet to read from sight with the teacher.
Having considered the strategic changes to the syllabus, let’s move on to the actual books and content…
The 2021 Syllabus
First things first: the covers are high quality matt card, comparable with their predecessors, but the inside pages are printed on a higher grade paper with a more luxurious ivory shade than the previous syllabus books. This its very welcome, and brings me neatly to the point that the engraving and legibility is superb throughout.
As previously noted, there are two versions for each grade…
Firstly, there’s the standard Piano Exam Pieces Plus Exercises 2021–2023 book, which offers:
- 12 exam pieces
- Performance notes
- New technical work exercises
Three points to note here:
First, this book doesn’t include the scales and arpeggios (these are available separately as two books, covering Grades 1-5 and 6-8 respectively).
Second, these books do however now include the performance notes for the first time, which is a useful addition.
And thirdly, the inclusion of 12 pieces is a welcome increase from the 9 of previous years.
TCL also bring us Piano Exam Pieces Plus Exercises 2021–2023 | Extended Edition.
These versions include all of the above PLUS:
- 9 additional pieces included as a downloadable ebook
- Performance notes for all 21 pieces
- Scales and arpeggios
- Downloadable audio for all 21 pieces
There’s a few points to make about this “Extended” package, too.
Firstly, the 9 additional pieces which are included as an ebook are essentially the 2018-20 syllabus pieces, with only minor exceptions. Teachers will perhaps already have these, and not everyone will like the ebook format. However, for those new to Trinity they remain an excellent bonus, and have the added benefit of meaning that TCL’s superb and colourful Piano Stories books also remain current for younger players.
But with a whopping 35 pieces set for each grade, even the Extended Edition leaves some 14 additional pieces which completists would need to purchase separately should they choose to. And it is worth noting that the Performance Notes and audio content only include the 21 pieces and the exercises included in the Extended Editions, not the further alternatives.
I am pleased to report that once again the recordings are superb.
Featuring a range of top concert pianists and high-level teachers such as Yulia Chaplina, Irina Lyakhovskaya, Linda Nottingham, Peter Wild and John York, the demonstration performances this time are enjoyably engaging and inspiring. The excellent recordings were made in a number of real concert settings, and nicely capture the natural ambience and presence of a performing venue.
The audio content includes the six exercises included within each grade syllabus (more about which shortly), as well as (usefully!) minus-one recordings of the duet parts, which appear in the syllabus up to and including Grade 3.
The Performance Notes are written by Martin Ford, Owen Barton and Frances Wilson. Like the ABRSM equivalents, they are fairly concise but are engagingly written and offer useful insights.
I think it is both generous and entirely appropriate that this content is included within the books themselves for all, rather than requiring a separate purchase.
Determining which of the two versions you would prefer to purchase will depend on several factors…
- Students who have the scale books and are happy with the 12 pieces in the standard version will find this the obvious and most cost-effective choice.
- Students keen to have audio recordings of the pieces and/or the additional pieces will find that the Extended Edition delivers a superb learning resource.
- Teachers who have the previous syllabus pieces included in the Extended Edition will perhaps decide that the standard book will suffice.
- Teachers who want access to the audio recordings will need to purchase the Extended Edition.
- Lastly, for teachers switching to TCL from another board, the Extended Editions are a no-brainer, offering great value for money.
In all cases, I would say that these resources are keenly priced and offer superb value.
So let’s look at the music, and as always in my syllabus reviews I will identify a few overriding trends. With nearly 200 pieces spread between the nine Extended Edition publications, and well over 300 across the syllabus as a whole, I would soon lose your interest if I discussed each in turn!
To explore the syllabus lists themselves and understand the full scope of the repertoire offered, remember to download the syllabus booklet here.
GRADES Initial – 5
One of the most exciting things as a teacher is to see a student get their new book and have an excited curiosity to delve into its contents. So a frustration I have often felt with exam books is that they have too few pieces within, and that they segregate them onto different lists in a way that can discourage exploring further than one piece per list.
It’s therefore a real joy to find 12 varied pieces here, presented in chronological order, but without being divided into lists to choose just one piece from.
I have previously argued that the problem with this approach is that students can pick an unbalanced programme. However, now that ABRSM have also reorganised their syllabus so that candidates can progress all the way up to Grade 5 without learning anything written before the twentieth century, it is a moot point. And of the two boards, TCL’s selections across all six of these grades are perhaps more appealing.
What impresses most is the well-rounded mix of the core pedagogic classics (within TCL’s standard books up to Grade 5 there are pieces by Türk, Haydn, Kuhlau, Diabelli, Couperin, Burgmüller, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Gedicke, Bartók and many more) and more up-to-date pieces such as a great arrangement of Leiber and Stroller’s Hound Dog, and recent compositions from such outstanding collections as Melody Bober’s stunning Solo Xtreme books (reviewed here) and Nikki Iles’ Tales for Alice (reviewed here).
There’s plenty of brand new arrangements and compositions by such as Peter Wild, Naomi Yandell, Christine Donkin (whose An Autumn Leaf is beautiful), Philip Knowles and Ben Crosland, as well as new editions of forgotten classics such as Maria Szymanowska’s delightful Mazurka (a highlight at Grade 2).
As we move on to Grade 6, there is a clear step up in terms of expectations. From this point, the pieces are divided into two lists, the first of which is devoted to core classics, the second to more recent music.
The chronological and musical variety remains a strong characteristic, and I feel that the TCL 2021 choices are often more inspiring than those being offered by ABRSM.
List A pieces include Bach Inventions at grades 6-7 and Preludes and Fugues in Grade 8, as well as baroque and classical choices by Couperin, Handel, Scarlatti, C.P.E. Bach, Arne, Martines, Paradies, Schubert, Czerny, Kuhlau and Sonata movements by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
List B offers as incredibly diverse a range as one would hope, with a massive choice of Romantic, 20th century, jazz and contemporary pieces. In short, there really is something here for everyone!
Importantly, the Two List format enables the Grade 8 player to offer the traditional programme of baroque counterpoint, classical sonata, and virtuoso showpiece; this has always been an established formula, and while TCL allow combinations which eschew this tradition it is no less easy to stick to it. Alas, the new ABRSM Grade 8 actually makes it impossible for candidates to offer such a programme, however much they may wish to.
It is worth noting that like ABRSM and LCM in recent syllabi, TCL include a wide range of music written by female composers. From Melody Bober to Louise Ferrenc, Amy Beach to Pam Wedgwood, Maria Szymanowska to Nikki Iles, this is a syllabus in which diversity is neither in question nor even an issue.
Unlike some other recent syllabi, here we also encounter a tremendously international and diverse roster of composers.
I am particularly pleased to see that TCL have included several pieces from OUP’s excellent series Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora on their alternatives list, encouraging players to acquire these stunning collections and explore neglected works that deserve a far wider audience.
The previous TCL syllabus included several pieces whose benchmarking I found questionable.
This time, happily, the benchmarking is excellent throughout. Indeed, here again TCL prove themselves to be the standard bearer.
Overall, the benchmarking of Grades Initial to 5, if it errs at all, does so in favour of accessibility. Grade 6-8 meanwhile set high standards and include a wealth of inspiring music whose challenges are in my view spot on for players at advanced level.
Before moving on, a quick word about the music editing and included fingering. These were again matters about which I had a few criticisms in the last syllabus.
Here, editorial dynamics are included in the printed scores up to Grade 5, but not thereafter, which is good news in my view. And where editorial dynamics are included at the lower grades, they are generally far more tastefully done than in the last syllabus. The inclusion of the Performance Notes helps too, as the writers have commented in details about editorial elements and their function.
As for fingering, this is helpfully included throughout, and I found all the suggestions I tried were excellently done.
An exceptional feature of this syllabus is the inclusion of nine pieces by young composers, one in each grade book.
Further enhancing this fabulous innovation, TCL have used the lockdown year to draw musicians of all ages and nationalities together in a wonderful, global music-making project, #TrinityPlayItForward, as explained in this inspiring and truly moving video:
What is perhaps especially encouraging is that in many cases, the new works of these younger musicians are very often the winning highlights of the whole syllabus.
Trinity’s Supporting Tests
In addition to the three pieces performed in the exam room, TCL exams include a range of supporting tests which are designed to allow each candidate to shine and demonstrate their overall musical development.
I really don’t like making comparisons in my reviews, but sometimes it is necessary to do so in order to answer the immediate and pertinent questions that readers will have.
In this instance I am aware that many may be wondering how TCL supporting tests measure up to those of ABRSM. Those familiar with TCL’s tests might want to skip to my conclusion, while those actively considering a switch from ABRSM to TCL will hopefully find my observations here particularly helpful.
SCALES & EXERCISES
TCL have long included far fewer scales and arpeggios in their syllabus than ABRSM, instead requiring three short studies in addition to a focused selection of scales. The requirements are unchanged from 2021, except that the exercises have been given a full refresh with brand new selections, specially composed.
In previous years I’ve not been a big fan of the exercises, or been convinced by their relevance to the skills needed for the repertoire selections at each grade level. I am however open to persuasion, and found it quite striking that the new exercises are as attractively written as they are pedagogically useful.
TCL’s modest scale requirements, meanwhile, are certainly introduced in a more helpful and logical key order than they are in the new, radically reduced ABRSM scales requirements.
The order is as easy to remember as it is sensible: one sharp and flat in Grade 1, two in Grade 2, and so on up to five sharps and flats in Grade 5. Thereafter, a selection of scales at each grade provide a context for continuing work developing fluency.
The benefits of TCL’s approach here lie in the fact that they feed a growing understanding of key signatures, the circle of fifths, and relative major/minor keys, all of which are established with admirable connectivity.
The downside, to offset this advantage, is that TCL’s syllabus doesn’t always reflect the physical development of the player; quite easy scales such as E and B major are left to Grades 4 and 5 respectively, while the more difficult B flat major is required hands together at Grade 2 (in the ABRSM syllabus this has been pushed back to Grade 4).
In my view though, the strengths of TCL’s syllabus here significantly outweigh any disadvantages. In fact their order of introducing keys matches that which I have long used with students using my own scales fingering charts, and in my Keyquest books, written two decades ago.
TCL’s sight-reading requirements quite closely resemble those of ABRSM.
One thing I dislike, however, is that TCL’s tests in the higher grades remain abstract and untitled. It seems to me a real advantage for sight-reading material to have an imaginative element that fosters creative engagement with the piece.
On the plus side, in my recent review of ABRSM’s new scales requirements I noted that they have rather fractured the important link between keys introduced in technical requirements with those expected in sight-reading. Not so with TCL. Here we can observe a gap of a grade between learning a scale and being expected to have assimilated the key sufficiently to sight-read music.
This is far more realistic and helpful!
Trinity’s aural tests, meanwhile, are strikingly different to the ABRSM ones in that they neither include singing from memory nor sight-singing. For many, this will not simply be a relief but a singular attraction.
We all know that the human voice changes over time; by eschewing singing in their aural assessment Trinity have provided tests which are unquestionably age- and gender-neutral.
Trinity’s tests demonstrate that aural can be assessed with equal rigour but considerably stronger musical relevance, and theirs is a model that other boards really should take a closer look at.
In addition to these familiar supporting tests, TCL offer two alternatives. At Initial to Grade 5, candidates choose two supporting tests from four options:
- Musical Knowledge
At Grades 6–8, all candidates are assessed in sight reading, and choose either aural or improvisation for their second supporting test. This flexibility is, according to TCL, designed to allow candidates to demonstrate their musical skills in different ways, while recognising that sight reading is an important skill at higher grades.
The syllabus includes more detailed information about these options, and the TCL website includes additional support materials that teachers will want to consult.
While an exam syllabus doesn’t and shouldn’t provide a complete teaching and learning curriculum, it seems to me that by introducing all four of these support test activities with students we can offer a more obviously well-rounded musical education.
Goodness! There’s so much to take in with this bumper new syllabus, and TCL have certainly lived up to their promise of providing their biggest ever. I would go further and suggest it’s perhaps also their best.
Existing TCL users might balk at the fact that several pieces have been recycled from earlier syllabi. However, there certainly seems to be plenty of brand new material here, and of a high quality. I also find that pupils often find it hugely inspiring to play pieces which they heard more advanced players performing in a concert 2-3 years previously.
Meanwhile those of us considering a switch to TCL from another board have plenty here to keep us busily engaged for the next three years, much of the material being new to us. And for those switching from ABRSM, I think that the solid benchmarking, attention to detail and pedagogic solidity of this TCL syllabus may well seem like a warm homecoming.
There are many considerations that teachers will rightly want to think on before entering any of their students for a grade exam; parents and the students themselves often don’t see the whole of this picture. And different boards offer alternatives that will perhaps suit one student more than the next.
When it comes to syllabus design that supports educational and musical excellence, it now seems to me that TCL have delivered a new gold standard here, a winning choice that pretty much ticks every box.
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