Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey
Written by ANDREW EALES
It’s hardly a secret that I have long had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards graded music exams. Certainly, many of my students have found them positive, and over the years it’s been a joy to watch players that I have taught getting distinctions, with plenty of success stories across all eight ABRSM grades and beyond.
But while supporting independent assessment for its recognition and celebration of achievement, I am less enthusiastic about the extent to which a syllabus can skew the curriculum and compartmentalise learning. Worse, pressure (explicit or implicit) to take regular exams can for some cast a long shadow over what should be a joyous journey.
When it comes to Graded Anthologies, I have a more unequivocally positive view. As a general rule, these seem to me to offer most of the benefits of a progressive graded system, with few of the problems that mitigate against effective musical learning, and none of the exam-based issues that can so easily discourage and demotivate players.
Without further ado, here are four key benefits of using Graded Anthologies which I value, and which students have clearly found helpful over the years:
1. Appropriate Levelling
One of the key skills of a good teacher is the ability to find and match the right repertoire for each player based on their level. Players can easily lose heart when trying to learn music which is too difficult, but can equally lose interest when pieces don’t develop their musical mind, body, and soul.
The system of eight grades, flanked by beginner music on one side and diploma qualifications on the other, offers level banding that is sufficiently narrow to provide a sensible guide to the difficulty of a piece, though not so precise as to exclude either challenge or consolidation within each grade.
It is worth noting that a piece may appear set by an examination board for one grade level, and then return set for a different grade by the same or another board. For example, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata is currently an ABRSM Grade 8 piece but was previously set by them at Grade 6. Schumann’s First Loss is currently on the ABRSM Grade 4 list and LCM Grade 3 list simultaneously.
These anomalies make life more difficult for those of us compiling Graded Anthologies, as indeed they do for teachers concerned to know the “correct” level of pieces. We also need to remember that not all music suits the exam room at all, for example because it is too long for the allocated exam time.
The “benchmarking” of pieces by exam boards is, we must conclude, an inexact science. However, it certainly offers a useful guide to approximate difficulty, and one which has served learners extremely well over many decades.
The availability of Graded Anthologies makes this important benefit immediately and fully available to players everywhere, whether or not they choose to take exams regularly, occasionally or never at all.
2. Charting Progress
When teaching students, giving consultation lessons or advising those who use my video feedback service, the most common concern players have is this: how well am I doing?
Graded exams attempt to give a concrete answer to this question, albeit an incomplete one. But even without the experience of taking exams, the improving player can chart their course by progressing from one Graded Anthology of music to the next. The step difficulty of challenge is a tangible token of progress.
Most players will, of course, want to use additional material, not just graded music. But including one Graded Anthology per level is invariably beneficial. I have long observed that for many, this is sufficient to give proof of passage, and confidence that they are on the right path.
It seems to me entirely reasonable that many parents want to see such evidence of their children’s advancement as players, and that many adults are equally concerned to know how far they come in their journey.
3. Musical Balance, Variety & Quality
Until recently, the ABRSM exam syllabus grouped pieces into three “Lists”, the first generally offering baroque and classical pieces, the second comprising Romantic and more expressive pieces, and the third devoted to jazzy pieces and contemporary music.
Recently this structure has been replaced, and other boards have tended to be less prescriptive all along. All boards tend to offer a balanced range of music in their syllabus however, and these days stylistic considerations are increasingly matched by appropriate gender and global inclusivity to ensure that repertoire selections are as widely representative as possible.
Regardless of the balance of a particular syllabus, pieces that appear in most graded anthologies will cover a range of periods and styles, so offering a nourishing mix of music to help players develop their understanding, technique and expression.
It is also the case that music selected to feature in an ABRSM, Trinity, LCM or RSL exam syllabus, or which is considered suitable for inclusion in a Graded Anthology by a major publisher such as Hal Leonard or Faber, will have passed a certain quality threshold. That isn’t necessarily the case with pieces published in other contexts, delivered online, or self-published as digital downloads.
4. Value for Money
Having considered the issues discussed so far, it remains to point out that Graded Anthologies typically offer better value for money than other publications. Where funds are limited, we can have some confidence that a graded anthology will include a balanced variety of great music, carefully selected for its suitability by level.
As a teacher, I will often introduce a graded anthology as a “sampler” that broadens a player’s experience and allows them to hone their more precise musical taste, interests and playing strengths. I consider the goal of enlarging and developing a player’s cultural understanding and engagement one of the basic responsibilities of teaching music.
Having selected and edited pieces for graded collections of music by William Gillock and Naoko Ikeda, I should add that even where a graded anthology focuses on a single composer it has the benefit of bringing together their best pieces curated for players at a specific level, reducing the likelihood that those who purchase the book will find a lack of suitable material within.
What about exams?
Many who come for lessons express interest in graded exams because they offer a carefully structured route for progression and (they assume) a balanced framework for learning and attainment. We have seen that simply using graded anthologies can actually deliver many of these benefits.
We can add to this the point that, provided the learner has lessons with a good teacher, they are likely to cover other elements of a graded exam, developing their aural ability, technique and understanding in relevant ways (indeed, often more so).
They may also have the opportunity, if interested, to develop skills not always necessarily tested by the grade exams, such as playing by ear, from chord notation, improvising, composing, and playing progressive range of duet material.
It’s also fair to point out that taking exams is becoming very expensive. Many seem interested until I tell them the cost, which rises year by year and has reached a level where all but the wealthiest now think twice about entering.
What then is the purpose or value of taking an actual exam?
To answer this question we need to consider the “added” benefits they offer, which include:
- performing live to an expert examiner
- receiving independent feedback about your playing
- receiving a quantitive mark and (hopefully) certificate
- if happy with the result, a sense of achievement
Some parents might also suggest that a folder stuffed with certificates will improve their child’s chances in life. I would question the realistic extent to which this is true (and it is certainly contextual), but naturally applaud any parent wanting the best for their children.
Some would further suggest that taking exams motivates learners, but in many cases it seems that what they actually mean to say is that the deadline instils self-discipline and forced time-management. But these are not the same as motivation; nor are they indicative of an enjoyment of music, which is a topic I address in this article.
The most obvious and widely available graded anthologies here in the UK are inevitably the excellent graded exam piece books published by the exam boards themselves. Currently, ABRSM and Trinity College share a commanding lead in terms of musical breadth, editorial quality and value for money.
ABRSM also offer several series of graded anthologies bringing together repertoire selected in previous years. Of these, the Encore series has proved particularly useful in my studio. ABRSM’s Core Classics series deserves a look too, especially the volumes covering the higher grades.
ABRSM have produced various other graded collections, including Piano Mix (which brings together graded piano solo arrangements of popular classics and other music), Pop Performer, where the focus is on more contemporary chart material, and Nikki Iles and Friends, a superb set of jazz books.
Other exam boards and some major publishers also offer graded anthologies. The new series from Edition Peters is particularly notable, offering wide selections from ABRSM’s current Grades 5-8 syllabus and superb value.
In my studio, Faber Music’s Best of Grade series has long been a favourite with learners of all ages. These books bring together some of the most popular exam pieces from previous years, and are a treasure trove of great music, although the books themselves are rather basic.
Boosey & Hawkes’ Grade by Grade Piano series offers an interesting alternative, with predominantly 20th century music and holistic support activities (aural, scales etc) thrown in for good measure. The series covers Grades 1-5, but as mentioned in my review, the lack of included fingering is potentially problematic.
For those keen to find graded arrangements of contemporary songs, mixed with classical favourites (in some cases, simplified arrangements), Chester Music’s Graded Piano Solos series is a popular recommendation.
I have already mentioned my own graded anthologies of music by the brilliant William Gillock and Naoko Ikeda. Similar anthologies will undoubtedly follow, but it is also worth noting that many publishers state grade level on all their scores. EVC Music can be particularly commended for this practice.
The Pianodao Music Library
The Pianodao Music Library groups ALL music by grade, with each level comprising two grades.
Readers will be well aware that I recommend a lot of superb music, and I try to meticulously identify and specify the appropriate grade lever using the expertise I have gained as a consultant to the major exam boards.
Those who come to me for lessons will often use a Graded Anthology alongside the music which most appeals to them in this library. It is all accessibly by level, so why not make this your first port of call, too?
You can access the whole library here:
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