Piano Grades ABRSM syllabus review

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24

images copyright © 2022 ABRSM, used with permission.

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES


IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER
As previously announced here, ABRSM have selected my piece Fresh Air for inclusion in the Grade 1 Piano Pieces book for 2023-24.
I have however written the following review as a fully-independent agent, and as a teacher who has entered students for ABRSM exams for 30 years. Readers will note that my conclusions are entirely consistent with my other writings.

The arrival of a new piano syllabus from ABRSM has become etched in the calendar as a biennial event of important interest for piano teachers here in the UK and in those countries where the board has a significant presence.

The current 2021-22 syllabus, reviewed here, was launched at the height of the pandemic in Summer 2020 and met a mixed reaction, its broadly popular repertoire accompanied by a revision to the scales syllabus that divided opinion.

For this new syllabus, ABRSM tell us that they have refreshed the pieces lists to give a greater choice of repertoire than ever before, including “music by a more diverse range of composers”. Of particular interest:

  • There are now 39 pieces per grade, divided equally between Lists A, B and C.
  • 70% of the 2021 & 2022 repertoire has been retained.
  • The contents of Piano Exam Pieces books have been fully updated with nine new choices per grade.
  • A further nine “new” pieces have been added to the ‘other piece’ lists for each grade.

The 2023-4 syllabus is valid both for the “Practical Grades” (ABRSM’s face-to-face exams) and their recently introduced “Performance Grades” (which despite their name remain video recordings, made at the candidate’s leisure and submitted online).

From August 2022, the Performance Grades are available “on demand”, which should in my view add to their popularity. As with the Practical Grades however, those taking Performance Grades 6, 7 or 8 must first have passed ABRSM’s online-only Grade 5 theory exam or accepted alternative.

The 2023-24 syllabus comes into effect on 1 January 2023, and only then can candidates begin to present pieces from the new lists. There is a one year overlap up to 31 December 2023 but all three set pieces must be prepared from the same syllabus.

For Practical Grades, the scales and arpeggios, sight-reading and aural-test requirements remain exactly the same as for the 2021-22 syllabus.

As in previous syllabus reviews, I will consider the new publications, repertoire trends and content, select some of my favourite choices at each grade, and share some initial conclusions… read on to find out more!


The Piano Exam Pieces books

The nine brand new Piano Exam Pieces books are now available, one for each grade from Initial to Grade 8, each including a selection of nine pieces, three from each of syllabus Lists A, B and C.


These music books are strikingly presented, with joyful covers that will have wide appeal. Within, the notation is clean, generously sized, and well edited. Sensible, appropriate fingering is included throughout all nine books, as are regular editor Richard Jones‘ suggested realisations of ornamentation.

Each piece is followed by short notes that give historical background information, manuscript sources, editing decisions, performing notes, all written in an authoritative but accessible style.

Uniquely among the accredited exam boards, ABRSM’s books only include the pieces. For the scales and other support tests, additional books must be purchased.

Audio Recordings

Professional recordings of all 39 pieces for each grade are available as digital downloads rather than CD as in previous years. They are beautifully recorded, and include exemplary performances featuring the usual cast of high-calibre teachers and artists.

People will be able to access the recordings in two ways. The complete set can be purchased as unique download codes included in the Piano Exam Pieces “book with audio” edition. Alternatively, individual pieces can be bought as an in-app purchase within ABRSM’s free Piano Practice Partner app on iOS and Android.

While the recordings from the 2021-22 syllabus are all now available to stream on Apple Music etc, ABRSM tell me there are no plans at present for the 2023-24 syllabus to be made available this way.

Happily, the books with included audio download codes are less expensive in the absence of a physical CD, making it easier to recommend them to students; even more so bearing in mind there is more audio content now than ever before.

For teachers using the audio as a studio resource, the package also remains attractive. Although 21 recordings per grade are carried over from the last syllabus, those who previously purchased those tracks may nevertheless welcome the demonstration performances of newly added pieces.

The Teaching Notes

Unlike the other boards, ABRSM’s Teaching Notes are available as a separate publication, priced at £8.95.

Bear in mind that ABRSM’s 58-page booklet only includes advice on the nine pieces from their Piano Exam Pieces books. This is disappointing when Teaching Notes for so many of the alternative pieces surely exist in ABRSM’s vaults from their previous syllabus appearances.

How perplexing, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, to find the board asking teachers to fork out for a book that contains a fraction of the relevant material, when all of it could so easily be made freely available on their website to support the teaching and learning of this music.

For those willing to invest, the booklet includes brief insights on each piece, with writing duties shared between Anthony Williams, Timothy Barratt and Sharon Gould.

The contributions written by Gould particularly stand out, impressing with their empathy for younger learners, suggestions for creativity and imaginative engagement, and useful additional listening suggestions across all grades.

Repertoire Trends

Looking at the 351 pieces which make up the whole of ABRSM’s 2023-24 Piano syllabus, certain trends are worth noting:

VARIETY & DIVERSITY

Straight up, I think the 2023-24 repertoire selections are going to be hugely popular. ABRSM have claimed that the new syllabus offers “music by a more diverse range of composers”, and their boast is not in vain. The syllabus includes music by 47 composers never previously featured.

To start with, music by women composers accounts for an unprecedented third of all the music in the Piano Exam Pieces books. And there’s more. In my review of the 2021-22 syllabus I noted:

“Not that anyone wants tokenism in response to recent debate; rather it has come into focus that there is a rich thread of repertoire composed by BAME composers which merits full and proper investigation, and I very much hope all the exam boards and publishers will give this a more thoughtful and lasting consideration.”

ABRSM certainly seem to have taken note, and among the many highlights within the 2023-24 Piano Exam Pieces books we find:

  • Florence Price: A Morning Sunbeam (Grade 1)
  • Shruthi Rajasekar: Virginia Hall (Grade 1)
  • Scott Joplin: easy arrangement of The Entertainer (Grade 3)
  • Florence Price: Ticklin’ Toes (Grade 4)
  • Valerie Capers: Billie’s Song (Grade 4)
  • David A.T. Önaç: A Distant Star in the Stillness (Grade 5)
  • Oscar Peterson: Jazz Exercise No.2 (Grade 6),
  • R.N. Dett: Honey (Grade 6)
  • Param Vir: White Light Chorale (Grade 7).
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Impromptu No.2 (Grade 8)
  • J.P. Johnson: Over the Bars (Grade 8).

It seems to me that these fabulous works prove the point that our musical culture is genuinely and immensely enriched when we are mindful of diversity: these are consistently and truly brilliant, colourful musical works which I expect will prove hugely popular with players.

BENCHMARKING

There have long been suggestions from some that standards are gradually being eroded, and that the grades are becoming easier. Is there any truth in this? Repertoire lists from previous decades have been widely circulated online of late, giving us the chance to consider the question more clearly, and without the fog of misty nostalgia.

Regarding the famous milestone that is ABRSM Grade 8, a look through the new syllabus is revealing. Several pieces here have consistently appeared at Grade 8 over the years, suggesting ABRSM have done a fair job of maintaining standards.

However, there are some anomalies, including a few pieces which have previously appeared at Grade 7. More strikingly, the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata now appears among the Grade 8 alternatives, having formerly been set twice at Grade 6.

Related to this, Grade 8 candidates are no longer able to present a contrapuntal List A piece followed by a sonata form List B movement. Despite commendable efforts to give more choice to performers, ABRSM is the only accredited board to deny candidates the option of this more traditional Grade 8 programme.

INITIAL GRADE

When I reviewed the 2021-22 syllabus I welcomed the addition of the new Initial Grade, writing:

“Overall, I think that Initial Grade is a welcome innovation which strengthens ABRSM’s overall assessment offer.”

Two years later, the Initial Grade seems well established within the ABRSM offer, and while the older Prep Test has not been updated since 2016, we are presented with a new Initial Grade book for 2023-24.

Reviewing the 2021-22 syllabus I expressed concern about the wide range of difficulty between pieces, many of which seemed closer to Grade 1 level. I have fewer concerns this time. The new Initial Grade book has pieces at a more consistent level, which seems to me very similar to the Prep Test.

Another innovation to mention: Initial Grade is now available for assessment as a video Performance Grade alongside all the other grade exams. Overall I think that these improvements will be warmly welcomed, but I wonder whether the older Prep Test will soon be put out to pasture.

Exploring the Pieces

With many riches on offer, selecting a programme could prove challenging for any player and their teacher.

In my studio, I personalise recommendations for each player, and my own enthusiasm for different pieces tends to evolve over a two-year syllabus cycle.

However, I will suggest some immediate favourites below, three from each of ABRSM’s Piano Exam Pieces books that merit early investigation and will hopefully inspire.

I will also offer a BONUS suggestion from the ‘other pieces’ lists, in each case selected from publications already in the Pianodao Music Library. Click on the titles to check out my reviews of the source books if you’re interested.

What of these alternative ‘other pieces’ in general?

The first 21 are a direct continuation of the 21 from the 2021-22 syllabus, still appearing as options 4-10 on each List, A, B and C.

This is good news for those who invested in supplementary books, potentially extending and embedding their pedagogic use. It is less good news for those who invested in ABRSM’s own Piano Exam Pieces books for 2021-22, whose shelf life nears its end.

Of particular interest will be the nine new pieces added to the ‘other piece’ lists, appearing as options 11-13. These are all welcome alternatives, and I get the impression ABRSM have consciously used them to further enhance and broaden the musical range of their syllabus. They are excellent across the board.

Here, then, are my immediate recommendations:

INITIAL GRADE

from ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces:

A1. Little Playmates (F.X. Chwatal)
B2. Swans and Ducks (Fanny Waterman & Marion Harewood)
C2. Waltz of the Toads (Kerstin Strecke)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
C4. Butterfly (duet) (June Armstrong)

GRADE ONE

A2. Dragonflies (Marjorie Helyer)
B3. The Quiet Wood (Michael Head)
C2. Sneaky Business (Martha Mier)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
B11. Fountain (Agnieszka Lasko)

GRADE TWO

A3. Tarantella (Agnieszka Lasko)
B2. Lullaby (Stanford)
C2. Mozzie (Elissa Milne)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
C11. Kukułka I (Cuckoo) (Mirosław Gąsieniec)

GRADE THREE

A3. Hansel & Gretel (Mirosław Gąsieniec)
B3. The Song of Twilight (Yoshinao Nakada)
C2: The Spanish Guitar (William Gillock)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
A6. Moody Gigue (Vitalij Neugasimov)

GRADE FOUR

A2. Mouvement de valse (Louise Farrenc)
B1. Billie’s Song (Valerie Capers)
C3. Ticklin’ Toes (Florence B. Price)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
C5. Buried Rubies (Alison Mathews)

GRADE FIVE

In my view the 2021-22 Piano Exam Pieces book included more inspiring choices, which can still be used throughout the overlap year.

From the 2023-24 book:

A2. Minuet and Trio (Haydn)
B1. Philomela (Dorothy Pilling)
C3. A Distant Star in the Stillness (David A.T. Önaç)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
C11. Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen, arr. Nikki Iles)

GRADE SIX

A3. Allegro from Sonatina in C (Kuhlau)
B2. Vals poético No.6 (Granados)
C2. Indigo Moon (Elissa Milne)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
B7. Nocturne (Christian Hartmann)

GRADE SEVEN

A1. Allegro moderato from Sonata in B minor (Haydn)
B2. At the Evening Window (Jan Freidlin)
C2. Prelude: Twilight (Dianne Rahbee)

Note: A1 is difficult for Grade 7.
Avoid combining B2 and C2 in a Performance Grade programme as their mood is too similar. For variety, consider B1 or C1 as alternatives, or how about:

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
B13. Jamaican Dance No.2 (Oswald Russell)

GRADE EIGHT

A1. Prelude and Fugue in B flat (J.S. Bach)
B1. Impromptu in B minor (Coleridge-Taylor)
C2. Arabesque No.2 (Debussy)

Bonus: (click title for a full review of the source publication)
B11. A Hermit Thrush at Morn (Amy Beach)

These selections barely scratch the surface of a syllabus crammed with superb music. Taken as a whole the 2023-24 repertoire selections are in my view some of ABRSM’s best in recent years, and they surely deserve loud applause for the new publications.

With a mixture of pieces from the core piano pedagogy repertoire, previous exam favourites, catchy pieces from some of today’s best educational composers and imaginative fresh commissions, there really is something here for everyone.

You can download the full syllabus here, and I hope you enjoy exploring it!


The Elephant in the Room

It would be easy to conclude here with this glowing recommendation. But bearing in mind that these publications are linked to a broader syllabus and examination offer, glossing over the perplexing difficulties and unpopular decisions ABRSM have thrust on teachers and learners since I reviewed their last syllabus would lack balance, and so be unfair to readers.

Many will be wondering whether the new syllabus is sufficiently enticing for ABRSM to win back lost support. There really is no easy answer to this. Anyone can (and I hope many will) learn to play these truly wonderful pieces of music, and even use them as a benchmarked guide to their progress.

But when taking exams, attractive repertoire is not the only consideration. Concerns with the scales syllabus, compulsory singing-at-sight in aural tests, online theory assessments, recent experiences of booking and taking an exam, the quality and tone of examiner feedback… these play on our minds as issues of supreme importance. Teachers, learners and parents will rightly want to consider them with care, and deserve support in making informed choices.

My syllabus review exists against this backdrop, and within the context of it becoming increasingly difficult for me to recommend ABRSM’s grades to my students with quite the same enthusiasm and professional confidence that I used to.

As a long-time customer and friend of ABRSM, I sincerely hope they can make good progress towards resolving recent problems by the time I write my next syllabus review in a couple of years.

Closing Thoughts

In the meantime, the new Piano Exam Piece books are a goldmine of great music, and can be greeted with genuine positivity.

Whether you are interested in preparing for an ABRSM exam, looking for graded material for use in assessments elsewhere, or simply enjoy exploring the syllabus as a programme of progressive piano music, these books can be very warmly and most highly recommended.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published composer and author based on Milton Keynes UK.

4 thoughts on “ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24”

  1. Even though I have no interest in taking exams, and am not a piano teacher, this was a truly fascinating review. I do have to give a shout-out to “Sneaky Business,” an amazing piece I first heard performed by a student in an online learning platform I belong to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn3tRFg6pk8

  2. That seems like a very fair and balanced review, Andrew, thank you. I’m looking forward to checking out this edition. I usually buy them and from your review I guess that’ll be the same this time, even though I definitely won’t be entering students for ABRSM exams (once you’ve switched to MTB it’s hard to imagine going back!)

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