It used to be possible to joke that piano exam syllabi, like busses, arrived three at a time. But with the addition of the Music Teachers’ Board to the mix and fresh arrival of a “classical” syllabus from RSL Awards (Rockschool), students and teachers have five fully and equally accredited UK boards to choose between.
A disclaimer at the start. Eagle-eyed readers will soon spot that in the nine RSL Classical Piano books the name Andrew Eales appears as a “syllabus consultant”. While I didn’t actually contribute directly to the syllabus, I did offer a little feedback in the later stages of its conception.
On the plus side this perhaps gives me particular insight, but at the same time I will try to maintain distance, as ever avoid bias, and focus on providing the independent factual outline that you need in order to evaluate for yourself whether the syllabus might be the right fit you.
So let’s take a look…
Unpacking the box of review books, the most immediately striking thing I noticed is how glossy their appearance is.
While many opt for an “educational” vibe, RSL have gone for photographs of musicians in the spotlight, nicely emphasising performance and achievement.
Following a fairly typical formula, those taking an RSL exam perform three pieces from a varied list, prepare a set of technical work, and take unseen supporting tests. Candidates can alternatively opt for a performance-focused assessment in which they simply offer five pieces.
So far, so familiar. But it proves to be the points-of-departure where RSL deviates from other boards that are particularly interesting…
Publisher Hal Leonard’s RSL books are sturdy and superbly presented, with between 40 pages (Debut) to 92 pages apiece (Grade 8), more than twice the content of the familiar ABRSM alternatives.
There are several reasons for the RSL publications being so much larger:
- The books include ALL the material needed for the grade, not just the pieces. No other purchase is required.
- Notation is well spaced, with a strong, larger music font in earlier grades.
- Each piece is preceded by a full page of written support, delivering engagingly presented and inspiring Fact Files, preparation tips and performance suggestions.
- With RSL’s more generous exam durations, longer pieces can be included. Thus Alexis Ffrench’s highly appropriate and lovely Bluebird is in the Grade 3 book even though it is three pages long.
Content delivery is superb throughout, with outstanding music engraving, tasteful music editing and useful fingering suggestions.
The books have cover prices ranging from £16.99 to £18.99, which includes the audio recordings which can be downloaded using a code. This may at first seem expensive, but deserves fair comparison.
Including the audio and scales, here’s how major boards stack up:
|ABRSM||Trinity College||RSL Classical|
Of course, whether any of these publications represent good value really depends on whether you are switched on by the content, so let’s take a look…
RSL have given top priority to curating an imaginative, inclusive and musically engaging range of pieces for each grade, and I believe that these collections will prove genuinely inspiring.
Across the syllabus, there is a fabulous mix of truly “core” classics, jazz and contemporary music, the accessibility and cosmopolitanism of which is striking. RSL’s partnership with Hal Leonard gives them the ongoing advantage of instant access to a huge catalogue of modern music, and they certainly haven’t held back in playing their trump card to maximum effect.
And while more than half the included pieces have previously been selected for the same grades by other exam boards, meaning that the benchmarking overall is beyond doubt, RSL clearly also had no qualms about including a smattering of more aspirational, challenge pieces.
Any experienced teacher will confirm that students can make surprising progress when their intrinsic motivation kicks in, and I’m pleased to see RSL deliver these sparks to light pupil enthusiasm. And these “must-play” pieces significantly raise the value of the books as ongoing sources of pleasure.
Even at “Debut” grade we find such hits as Tiersen’s Valse d’Amélie, Einaudi’s Una Mattina and Debussy’s Clair de lune in easy arrangements (which were mostly supplied in-house by Hal Leonard) alongside the more obvious Martian’s March from Pauline Hall’s Piano Time Pieces 1 (such a longstanding favourite!) and Bartók’s Play.
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven et al thus nestle alongside the music of best-selling contemporary artists Yiruma, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter, John Williams, and Disney’s Frozen 2. Even at Grade 8 it’s wonderful to see Miles Davis and Scott Joplin included alongside established classical favourites.
Narrowing down three favourites from the ten published pieces could be difficult. Making it even more so, RSL are planning to publish extended and updated lists online, adding fresh up-to-the-minute hits, further classical choice, and regionally-centric repertoire for different international markets.
For even more flexibility, candidates can pick two free choice pieces, which will no doubt be useful for those transitioning to RSL from another board.
RSL was founded and is run by experienced musicians, so it’s no wonder they appreciate the value of technical work. The syllabus aims to offer a rigorous but realistic, and above all useful structure.
At each grade, candidates are thus required to prepare scales, arpeggios/broken chords, and studies. The introduction of new keys follows a fierce logic in which the grade number (from Debut to 7) indicates the number of sharps or flats in the new keys. At grade two for example, we find scales and arpeggios with two sharps (D major/B minor) or flats (B flat major, G minor).
At Grade 8, candidates are then expected to be able to play any scale, having cumulatively learnt them all properly. Within those parameters, the standard permutations and typical grade expectations are all present and correct.
Candidates can choose between natural, harmonic or melodic minor forms throughout, all included in the books. And up until Grade 5, pentatonic scale forms are also included, which will be hugely useful for those exploring the improvisation option (see below).
Meanwhile, the studies commence at Debut with Dozen-a-Day type exercises and build towards quite challenging compositions in the higher grades. Those taking a grade can pick any one study from the book.
For those who have long wanted grade exams to be “modernised”, RSL’s supporting tests are something of a coup d’état.
There are four elements, supported with preparatory materials in the books (which teachers may want to supplement).
Candidates must offer three of these as follows:
- Sight Reading or Improvisation
- Ear Tests (essentially, playing by ear)
- General Musicianship questions.
The Sight Reading option is similar to that of other boards, but up to Grade 5 explicitly written in the latest keys introduced in the new scales and arpeggios. So in Grade 2, returning to our previous example, the tests include either two sharps or flats. Such sensible, joined-up thinking is likely to be welcomed by teachers.
The Improvisation tests also follow the same key scheme. These include a backing track, the player improvising around simple (but progressively harder) chord progressions. What I like about this option is that it provides a very clear structure for developing improvisation appropriate to each grade level.
It would be interesting (and I believe effective) to use this, along with the pentatonic scales learnt in each grade, as a jumping off point for developing a fully-fledged improvisation curriculum.
I suspect that this is something many teachers have long wanted; RSL have just shown us how!
The Ear Training tests are equally innovative and forward thinking. These are designed to test “melodic recall skills” so involve playing back by ear. As with the improvising tests, the simple and structured development from recognising higher and lower pitches to (by Grade 8) playing back short melodic phrases is eminently useful.
The General Musicianship questions can be seen as a practical alternative to written theory exams. From the earliest grades, candidates are asked to identify simple elements of notation. By the higher grades this grows to identifying chords, understanding Italian musical terms, and recognising cadences.
RSL’s first attempt at a classical syllabus is in my honest opinion a genuine masterstroke, delivering the modern approach to traditional piano assessment that many teachers have been asking for, while offering a realistic two-way bridge with their contemporary music assessments.
The repertoire choices may straddle genres and emphasise popular “new classical” pieces, but RSL deliver impressive variety with consistent glitz and polish, and I suspect that many will find their syllabus a lot more inspiring than the alternatives.
The technical development RSL encourages offers some relief to those of us in the teaching profession who have despaired at the declining importance that these crucial foundations seem to be being afforded elsewhere.
And insofar as curriculum and syllabus go hand in glove, the combined impact of RSL’s supporting tests could steer lessons in a more useful and relevant contemporary direction, helping students develop a better grasp of the music they play both by internalising the sound and understanding the symbol.
As for the lavish books that accompany the syllabus, they provide a superb learning resource whether one wants to take exams or not.
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