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London College of Music Examinations (LCME hereafter) bill themselves as a progressive, friendly exam board offering a wide selection of graded music exams and professional diplomas. Founded as far back as 1887, the board arrived on the scene two years before ABRSM, and ten years after the first board, Trinity College Exams.
LCME pride themselves on continuing to lead the way in developing exam options that are relevant to today’s global world. Indeed, the performance grade options that other boards have introduced in the last year follow a blueprint LCME laid down years ago.
Uniquely, having become part of the University of West London, LCME are now the first and only exam board whose qualifications are awarded by a University. Conducting exams in more than 80 countries around the world, LCME retain their traditional qualities while being widely praised for fielding examiners known for being warm and approachable, ensuring candidates are put at ease and able to perform to their full potential.
With such particular strengths, it is perhaps odd that relatively few teachers are aware of their offer, but the recent arrival of the 2021-2024 Piano Syllabus and accompanying Handbooks offers a timely opportunity to take another, closer look…
Introducing the New Piano Syllabus
Blurring the lines between syllabus and curriculum, LCME introduce their Piano Handbooks with the following suggestion:
“This handbook is part of a progressive series of handbooks, primarily intended for candidates considering taking LCME’s exams in piano. The series also provides a solid foundation of musical education for any piano student, whether intending to take an exam or not.”
There are eleven books in the new series, one for each of the eight Grades, and one for each of the three (that’s right, three!) pre-Grade 1 assessments that LCME offer (Pre-Preparatory, Step One and Step Two).
LCME exams are available in three formats:
- Graded Exams take place in person and include all components detailed in these Handbooks.
Alternatively, Recital Grades and Leisure Play exams both offer regulated exam options with a primary focus on performance:
- Recital Grades require performance of four pieces (including one from each of the three published lists) and the choice of either a fifth piece, a discussion with the examiner, or sight reading.
- Leisure Play consists of four performance pieces, three to be taken from the current syllabus’ repertoire (with no requirement to pick pieces from different lists) and the fourth an own choice piece
All three exam formats are available either in-person or remotely, the latter either as Online Exams or as Recorded Exams:
- Online Exams are conducted in real time following the same format as in-person exams. They are assessed remotely by LCME examiners.
- Recorded Exams can be done whenever you like, submitted and uploaded to the LCME website.
Feel free to read all of that again slowly! It’s hopefully clear though, that LCME offer a range of assessment options to suit different players.
What is new for 2021?
You can (and should) download the full LCME Piano Syllabus 2021-24 specification here.
LCME claim that their new syllabus features their most varied ever selection of pieces by composers past and present, from over 37 different countries, and showcasing an exciting and diverse mix of musical styles “from classical favourites to fresh new discoveries and iconic film scores”.
More than 30% of pieces are by living composers, and apparently 28.8% are by female composers. LCME note that they have listened to feedback from their previous syllabus around inclusion of film themes, popular tunes, and more options from the Romantic era.
Practice and performance tips are included throughout the handbooks, providing helpful information about each piece and insight into its composer and context, as well as technical advice to support players and teachers.
LCME’s many happy existing customers (they received excellent user feedback in the recent Pianodao survey here) will want to note the following points which the board flag up in their blurb:
Technical work: LCME have retained their option of traditional scales and arpeggios OR a study.
Discussion: this component has been revised, including more questions tailored to piano players, encouraging greater depth of knowledge on the instrument.
Sight reading: alongside the specimen tests the new Handbooks include a handy new list of parameters at each grade for clearer guidance.
Aural tests: a new set of specimen tests are included in the Handbooks.
Digging In: The Publications
The eleven books in the new Handbook series share the same design. I find these covers a step up from the previous series, but rather wish LCME could shake off the aesthetics of a higher education institution:
The covers have a classy matt finish, and the books are bound with staples up to Grade 3. Thereafter they have stiff spines which need some persuasion to stay open but seem durable. The pages within (ranging from 24 at Pre-Preparatory to 108 at Grade 8) are on white paper and spaciously presented.
The aim with these Handbooks is to provide everything needed by the exam candidate in one cost-effective volume.
The three Pre-Grade 1 Handbooks contain the exercises and pieces needed for each level, together with sample discussion questions, composer and contributor biographies. The presentation is unremittingly adult, and I expect some children, parents and teachers will find this an awkward fit.
From Grade 1, the more traditional feel of these books seems more fitting, each book now beginning with a growing selection of scales and studies, followed by the main Performance section, in which we find three pieces from each of the three lists, and four per list in the Grade 8 book.
The scores themselves are beautifully engraved, albeit with a minimal, almost austere urtext approach; as LCME explain:
“Editorial input has been kept to a minimum in order to reproduce the composers’ intentions as clearly as possible. Any fingerings included are purely suggestions and candidates are encouraged to add the fingering that works best for them.”
As a general rule, but not always, suggested dynamics are not added in baroque pieces even at lower grades; so for example the Bach Minuet in Grade 2 has no dynamics at all (although Telemann’s Très Vite in Grade 3 does). Unlike some boards, LCME give no indication of how ornaments should be realised.
Perhaps offsetting this, the teaching and performing notes for each piece are generally afforded a full page prior to each piece, and include two columns: “About” and “In performance”. They are superbly written by esteemed practitioners Melanie Spanswick, Katharine May, Ateş Orga, Nils Franke and Daniel King Smith.
To the rear of each Handbook there are sample Discussion Questions, Sight Reading and Aural Tests. I will come to these soon.
Lastly, I must mention that LCME have compiled YouTube playlists for each Grade from 1 to 8, including the published pieces as well as the many alternatives not included in the Handbooks.
These are certainly a very welcome boon (others take note!), and free to access on the LCME YouTube channel here.
Digging In: First Steps
LCME’s three assessments prior to Grade 1 are:
- Step One
- Step Two
It could be debated whether any or all of these are necessary, and teachers will want to consider that on a student-by-student basis. But the existence of all three carefully-tiered levels offers the advantage that it should be possible to match the level of assessment very precisely to the beginning player’s needs.
Overseeing and compiling the three Handbooks, Melanie Spanswick observes,
“Each Handbook contains eight tailor made exercises, focusing on particular technical elements, of which four must be presented in the exam (five at Pre-Prep). All three exams include general music recognition questions asked by the examiner. Five-finger scales are introduced at Step 1, progressing to full octave scales at Step 2.”
The pieces are divided into two Lists, and in the exam candidates should play two from each list. They include original pedagogic pieces contributed by Spanswick herself, as well as several leading educational composers including Marcel Zidani, Rosa Conrad, June Armstrong, Olly Wedgwood, Barbara Arens, and in the Pre-Preparatory book a short piece by some bloke called Andrew Eales (but please note, I had no other involvement in this syllabus).
Pieces include arrangements of popular tunes such as Happy Birthday, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Polly Put the Kettle On and The Wheels on the Bus, as well as contemporary favourites Under the Sea (from the Little Mermaid) and Let it Go (from Frozen).
A smattering of old classical pieces are also included, and each of the three levels includes a Duet piece (which can be performed in the exam with the teacher or another student), rounding off the nicely varied and enjoyable mix.
While these books don’t replace a method book or provide a comprehensive musical education, they are certainly a useful educational resource, whether you are interested in LCME examinations or not. It’s just a slight pity that the books themselves are not more child-appropriate.
Digging In: Repertoire
When it comes to the all-important Grade One syllabus, there’s a notably more serious tone than in the Pre-Grade 1 material. I think it’s fair to say, too, that the promised “classical favourites” and “iconic film scores” are conspicuous in their absence from the Handbook, which features:
Johann Scholze (1705-50): Dance Song
Charles Henry Wilton (1761-1832): Andante from Sonata in G op.5/3
Diane Hidy (b.1959): October Song
Elie Siegmeister (1909-91): Song of the Dark Woods
Chee-Hwa Tan (b.1965): My Shadow
Friedrich Baumfelder (1806-74): Das Kind ist müde
Anne Corsby Gaudet (b.1968): Boogie Woogie Bear
Elias Davidsson (b.1941): Yerevan Mourns
Louise Garrow (b.unknown): Tricky Traffic
Some teachers will no doubt welcome the fresh material this selection brings, and I enjoyed playing through the nine pieces. That said I am not entirely sure what factors characterise each of the three lists; nor do feel that the Grade 1 selection offers consistency, either in level or musical quality.
October Song and My Shadow seem to me closer to Grade 2 in level, while the rather dull Das Kind ist müde is quite easy. In terms of enjoyment factor, Boogie Woogie Bear and Tricky Traffic will I suspect be standout favourites.
Across the rest of the syllabus the benchmarking is more solid, although the new Grade 3 syllabus seems fairly challenging and could prove to be a roadblock for those expecting a smooth ride from one Grade to the next.
More notable, perhaps, is the sheer quality and quantity of material here which is genuinely new to the exam room. While the “iconic film scores” prove inconspicuous, LCME certainly make good on their promise to include plenty of fresh new discoveries alongside classical favourites galore.
The Handbook repertoire selections for Grades 2, 4 and 6 especially appeal. Were my studio using the LCME exams, I think I would want to focus on making a beeline for those particular grades, skipping some of the others.
Digging In: Supporting Tests
Those taking the more traditional LCME Graded Exams from Grades 1-8 are required to play three pieces, but are also tested in a number of typical supporting elements of technique, understanding and musicianship.
The breakdown of marks between the five components is as follows:
|Technical Work |
(scales or study)
The scale and arpeggio requirements are fairly traditional and rigorous, and similar to those of ABRSM prior to that board’s recent reduction in demand.
Candidates have the choice of alternatively playing a study. These are again traditional in tone: from études by Köhler and Burgmüller, progressing through the likes of Heller and Czerny, to studies by Louise Ferrenc and Scriabin at Grade 8.
The Discussion element is an interesting and distinctive part of the LCME assessment. Even at the Pre-Preparatory level, the candidate is expected to identify pitch names and by Grade 1 the discussion encompasses all aspects of the music notation used, as well as identifying the mood of pieces and discussing the candidates preferences and response.
At Grade 5, Discussion points embrace recognition of interval number and type, chords and modulations, and by Grade 8 the candidate can be asked about the performers who have influenced their development, and the overall oeuvre of the composers whose music they play.
I think this all delivers an entirely valid (and perhaps more relevant) alternative to a written theory exam requirement (although those are also available from LCME, both for traditional and popular theory). Impressive!
The LCME Sight Reading requirements are comparable to those of other exam boards, but the Aural Tests require special mention. These are clearly and cleverly designed to help the player develop strong links between sound and symbol.
In earlier grades there are two tests, one based on rhythm (e.g. tapping a pulse, identifying the time signature, clapping back rhythms, conducting in time with the music), and the other on pitch (identifying intervals, singing back a melody, identifying simple cadences).
It is disappointing to see singing required in the exam room, however briefly, but mercifully this disappears after Grade 3. At higher grades, the tests are progressively linked to discussion of a short piece played by the examiner, building on the skills previously demonstrated.
Overall, I think these tests are well devised and more relevant than those of most other boards (with the exception of Trinity College London, whose aural tests deserve special applause).
Existing LCME users will I am sure rejoice at this refreshed syllabus and welcome the opportunity to discover and embrace so much excellent new music in their teaching and learning.
The LCME syllabus may also tempt teachers who have used ABRSM exams in the past, but perhaps don’t like ABRSM’s recent syllabus changes and would prefer an exam that retains a more traditional pedagogic foundation, combined with a positive experience offering helpful, encouraging feedback.
And finally, I think that this syllabus will appeal to those of us who like the idea of taking a performance-focussed assessment in a LIVE music-making context. ABRSM currently only offer their so-called Performance Grades via video submission.
It is worth noting in conclusion that with free audio on YouTube and all components of the Grade Exams included in the single, well-edited Handbooks, LCME deliver superb value for money with their publications.
In short, LCME have done a fine job with this new piano syllabus, building once again on their longstanding experience as pioneering educators, and I suspect it will only see their popularity and influence further increase.
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