ABRSM: Pop Performer!

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

There has long been speculation that at some point ABRSM would launch a pop piano syllabus, but they have perhaps sensibly resisted any call to do so.

The wide disparity and significant difference in approach taken by Rockschool Piano and Trinity Rock and Pop Keyboards illustrates the difficulty in creating a syllabus that is both helpful and true to the skills required by keyboard players in the contemporary commercial sphere.

Some forget, too, that the four Royal Schools of Music affiliated to ABRSM don’t offer specialist courses in this field. And then there’s the issue of copyright clearances: ABRSM simply don’t have access to the latest chart material without permission and significant cost.

Happily, ABRSM have now addressed this last hurdle by teaming up with Hal Leonard, the world’s largest sheet music publishers, who represent the rights to an unparalleled catalogue of commercial hits. It is certainly to the board’s credit that they can both recognise their own core strengths and collaborate with so prestigious a partner.

Enter Pop Performer!, two books of solo piano arrangements of contemporary pop standards and chart hits carefully graded for players from Initial to Grade 5 level. These striking publications look like the work of ABRSM, with songs arranged by examiners and looking little different to the pieces in their official exam repertoire books. But with Hal Leonard’s stamp equally evident in the songs, not to mention the inclusion of their online audio Playback+ software, it’s clear that this is an equal and exciting partnership.

Pop Performer! is neither a new syllabus, nor a hint that one is on its way. On the contrary, these are arrangements that can be played for enjoyment by those taking ABRSM’s traditional grades, and the board makes much of the important point that they can be used as ideal fourth pieces for their recorded Performance Grades.

In other words, what we have here is the option to include commercial popular hits, carefully curated, arranged and benchmarked, alongside and within ABRSM’s existing exam offer.

I’ll state upfront that I think this is a brilliant concept, am impressed with the books, and anticipate that they will be the most essential “must-have” purchase for piano teachers and students in this new academic year. So let’s take a much closer look…

36 Great Songs…

Starting with the basics, the first book (32 pages, white paper) includes the following 20 song arrangements suitable for Initial Grade to Grade Three:

Initial Grade
• Clocks [Coldplay]
• Lean On Me [Bill Withers]
• Shotgun [George Ezra]
• Love Is All Around [Wet Wet Wet]
• Astronomia [Vicetone and Tony Igy]

Grade One
• We Found Love [Rihanna ft. Calvin Harris]
• Imagine [John Lennon]
• Be My Baby [The Ronettes]
• Let It Go [from Frozen]
• Can’t Stop the Feeling! [Justin Timberlake]

Grade Two
• We Don’t Talk About Bruno [from Encanto]
• The Joker and the Queen [Ed Sheeran ft. Taylor Swift]
• My Girl [The Temptations]
• We Are the Champions [Queen]
• Make You Feel My Love [Bob Dylan]

Grade Three
• Both Sides Now [Joni Mitchell]
• Three Little Birds [Bob Marley & The Wailers]
• Love Yourself [Justin Bieber]
• Hallelujah [Leonard Cohen]
• No Time To Die [Billie Eilish]

Some may balk at the idea of a book covering four grade levels, but personally I think it makes for a superb investment in a player’s development, with enough material to keep most happy for a long time. As for the price, with twenty pieces included (and audio tracks) this collection offers far better value than ABRSM’s nine-piece grade exam books.

I also suspect that many purchasing this book when they are Initial or Grade One level will more quickly progress as a result of their enthusiasm to play later pieces in the collection. What better way to foster intrinsic motivation?

Most of the arrangements occupy a single page, but We Are The Champions (Grade 2) and the Grade 3 songs take up two pages each. This is in line with the classical pieces presented in the main exam grade books.

The second book (44 pages) includes 16 more songs, this time suitable for Grades Four and Five, and ranging in length from two to four pages:

Grade Four
• Easy On Me [Adele]
• Titanium [David Guetta ft. Sia]
• Don’t Know Why [Norah Jones]
• Scared to Be Lonely [Martin Garrix & Dua Lipa]
• Song for Guy [Elton John]
• All Of Me [John Legend]
• (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman [Carole King]
• Dancing Queen [ABBA]

Grade Five
• God Only Knows [The Beach Boys]
• I Wanna Dance With Somebody [Whitney Houston]
• Attention [Charlie Puth]
• She [Laura Mvula]
• King of Anything [Sara Bareilles]
• If I Ain’t Got You [Alicia Keys]
• A Thousand Miles [Vanessa Carlton]
• Just The Way You Are [Billy Joel]

These are impressive, engaging piano adaptations of each song’s source material, and beyond their immediate pedagogic and exam use would make great concert pieces.

It is particularly good to see that across the two books, a wide range of popular styles, genres and decades are represented. There’s certainly a broad enough range that most will easily find favourites that they can relate to and engage with.

36 Graded Arrangements…

Simplified arrangements of pop songs don’t always go down well with teachers or players, and for a variety of reasons:

  • They are often in different keys to the original recordings, so the player can’t join in with their favourite record
  • Similarly, they don’t always suit the typical vocal range
  • Rhythms are often significantly simplified, either resulting in the player largely ignoring the notation, or else being disappointed with the musical outcome
  • Solo piano renditions are rarely able to include the vocal melody, signature piano and other instrumental lines, and convey the groove of the song

I only occasionally review easy piano chart collections for exactly these reasons; while they certainly have their place and are often enjoyable, the same caveats must invariably again be explained, along with suggestions for the player to aurally adapt the material provided, using it simply as a starting point.

Most of these caveats could apply here too, but there’s an important difference. While many easy pop collections offer song lyrics and chord symbols, suggesting adaptation and so that others can join in, here the pieces are plainly intended as solo piano arrangements to be played (and assessed) pretty much strictly as written.

The arrangements thus include details one would expect in a more classical context, such as dynamics, phrasing and articulation. The rhythms generally work as written too, thanks to the careful song selection and sympathetic arrangements. Basically these are self-contained adaptations for solo piano which can be played more literally; I think that’s a key difference, and perhaps one that a lot of teachers and players are looking for.

The arrangers include several ABRSM examiners, who no doubt kept in mind how the pieces would match assessment criteria when they inevitably make an appearance in Performance Grade videos in the coming months. The names who contributed to the project are: Andrew Dunlop, Kelvin Thomson, David A.T. Önaç, Harry Baker, Natalie Harnett, Meredith White, Carolyn Miller, Alan Bullard, Pete Churchill and Nikki Iles.

So are they good? In a word, yes. I think that the approach ABRSM and Hal Leonard have adopted is very effective, and I enjoyed playing through these arrangements as they are written.

On balance, I would suggest several are harder than the classical alternatives offered in the equivalent grade syllabus, but teachers will realise that players often rise to a steeper challenge when learning a piece they are familiar with and particularly enjoy.

36 Playback+ Recordings…

As previously noted, the audio included with these publications is delivered directly by Hal Leonard (and not ABRSM), and includes use of their excellent Playback+ software online.

For those who have not used this before (likely to be quite a lot of people in this instance), registration on the Hal Leonard site is necessary (and free).

Entering the book codes printed within each of the two publications unlocks access to all the audio, permanently adding it to your “library” on the site. If (like me) you have several other titles already there, these are added to your growing collection. Click on the book cover to access the audio menu.

Some of the titles presently in “My Library” on the Hal Leonard site include video tutorials, backing tracks and more. These books keep it simple, offering just the solo piano demo tracks, which can be downloaded or streamed using the Playback+ widget.

For those not familiar with it, the interface may not be particularly pretty, but it is pretty easy to use and understand. A particularly useful function here is the ability to alter tempo without the audio quality deteriorating. This is a boon for those who want to listen or play along in slow motion.

Playback+ is far from the only tool of its kind, and is not as sophisticated as ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, but I am fond of it. It certainly behaves reliably, and simply delivers on its basic promise.

36 Reasons to Buy This?

Although any one of the songs included in these two books could be the one which tips the balance and persuades you to reach for your credit card, it will hopefully by now be clear that nobody needs 36 reasons to purchase these uniquely useful, innovative books. They offer tremendous value, and far more than the sum of their parts.

Pop Performer! changes our piano education landscape in an instant. For those whose teachers rarely deviate from ABRSM’s market-leading syllabus offerings, the musical terrain officially just got a whole lot more varied and colourful, while those taking a broader musical approach will undoubtedly gain much enjoyment and added enthusiasm from exploring these outstanding books.

While these publications bring ABRSM no closer to unveiling a bespoke pop piano syllabus, with the wide-ranging rethink of core playing skills which that would undoubtedly necessitate, the inclusion of excellent pop song arrangements within the traditional graded piano syllabus has arrived in style.

ABRSM’s partnership with Hal Leonard promises much, and has more than delivered here. Pop Performer! is a triumph.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.