Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

In Part One of this major feature I interviewed Music Teachers’ Board Chief Examiner Mark Kesel. The article certainly generated a lot of interest, and as a piano teacher I am myself very excited by the innovation and stimulating vision promised by the MTB.

For one thing, the idea of being able to take a graded exam any day of the year is a real boon for those of us who don’t want to spend months working on and listening to the same three pieces ad infinitum. I feel that this simple innovation could revolutionise teaching and learning, providing scope for students to develop better momentum, engagement, and to progress far more quickly without being held back by the schedule of an exam board

Combine this with the no-fuss ability to take graded exams using a simple app in the lesson, and the fact that the MTB allow candidates to play any three pieces of their own choice so long as they are appropriate for the grade, and here is an exciting opportunity for learners to move away from an exam-driven mentality and embrace their own personalised piano journey, without losing the benefits of independent, fully accredited assessments along the way.

But I’m not one to simply jump on every latest trend or fad; ABRSM have been a friend on my musical journey for more than 40 years and I have used their exams almost exclusively with my students. Were ABRSM continuing to meet the needs of my students, I wouldn’t lightly make a decision to switch board.

When looking for advice and support, the Pianodao Tea Room is the natural place to ask, its members always willing to share their experiences in a friendly way. I knew several members had tried MTB exams with their students in recent months, and several were willing to share their experiences…

Here then are five teacher interviews I arranged, which answered my own questions and will, I hope, help you find answers to yours…

Continue reading Discovering MTB Exams (part 2)

Prestige: Does it Matter?

Guest Post by Katrina Fox

The pandemic has accelerated change in almost all walks of life, and music education is no exception.

The release of the new ABRSM Piano syllabus has coincided with massive changes in the delivery of their practical and theory exams, which have been met with mixed responses from piano teachers, parents and pupils.

In a recent discussion on an online forum, the “prestige” of ABRSM was cited as a significant reason for continuing with their examinations. This point really struck a chord with me and left me feeling uncomfortable, and for the last few days I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

The Oxford Dictionary defines prestige as,

“widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.”

Is prestige a good thing?

Does it confer any benefits in real terms to users?

Does it benefit the majority, or a privileged few?

These questions made me reflect on my own educational experiences, and the impact of prestige in my own development.

Growing up in a working-class family (not poor, but certainly not “well-off”), prestige was something my parents valued enormously as they felt it would give their children better opportunities. However, in these last few days I have realised it has been something I have come to resent. 

Looking back, opportunities that I would have loved to participate in were closed off to me either due to finances or resources, or by attitudes I found alienating. My own teacher was both understanding and generous: understanding that my parents could not afford the longer lessons that were required as I moved up the grades, but giving me that time anyway. I was lucky. 

This was all three decades ago. But in 2020, should prestige even be a consideration in the education of our young people?

Continue reading Prestige: Does it Matter?

ABRSM: ‘Piano Star’ Duets

Sheet Music Review

ABRSM’s popular Piano Star series, which originally aimed at bridging the gap between the pupil’s first tutor book and ABRSM Grade 1 piano, continues to grow.

The seventh and latest book in the series, Piano Star Duets offers 26 newly composed or arranged piano duets for ‘early beginners to Grade 2 level’, compiled and edited by David Blackwell and Karen Marshall.

With five of these pieces also selected as duet alternatives in the 2021-2 ABRSM Piano Syllabus, which I recently reviewed here, the book is likely to tempt teachers and students looking for a one-stop collection of duets that they can dip into over a couple of years of lessons.

That the pieces have been commissioned from some of our leading pedagogic composers further adds to the attraction.

Before taking a look, full disclosure. I contributed a single piece each to four previous titles in the series. However, I receive no ongoing royalty income from those, have absolutely no vested interest in the series, and chose not to contribute to the Piano Star Duets collection. I write here with full independence.

So, with that out of the way, let’s jump in with all four feet…

Continue reading ABRSM: ‘Piano Star’ Duets

ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

Sheet Music Review

With the publication of their 2021-22 Piano Syllabus (reviewed in full here), ABRSM have given their scales requirements a significant overhaul, also publishing new scales books and resources.

In this review I will consider three main areas of this development:

  1. The new syllabus requirements
  2. The new ABRSM Piano Scales & Arpeggios books
  3. Scale Explorer for Piano – a new series of five graded books written for ABRSM by Alan Bullard

Let’s get straight to it…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Scales 2021

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Sheet Music Review

The launch of ABRSM’s biennial piano syllabus is always a significant event in the piano education world: particularly in the UK and Far East, where the exam board’s offerings remain hugely popular and influence much of what is taught.

For their 2021-22 syllabus ABRSM are heralding several structural changes:

  • A new Initial Grade, providing a pre-Grade 1 assessment that follows the same structure, content and marking criteria as their other graded music exams 
  • Completely revised repertoire lists and scales requirements
  • A revised list structure, with lists defined by musical characteristics rather than period of composition
  • More choice and variety of repertoire (30 pieces per grade)
  • A duet option from Initial Grade to Grade 3
  • A one-year overlap period, with the 2019 & 2020 syllabus valid until 31 December 2021.

I will review the new Scales & Arpeggios syllabus and supporting publications separately within the next few days.

ABRSM have also announced a “remote” alternative to their Practical Grades, which you can read about here. Although dubbed Performance Grades this is somewhat a misnomer; unlike the Practical Grades, where candidates must face performing live to an examiner, these new assessments take the form of a submitted recording of four pieces, including three from the Grade syllabus.

This Review

With a whopping 270 pieces included in the new syllabus, including 81 published in ABRSM’s nine Piano Exam Pieces books, even the most in-depth review can’t cover every piece, and as always I recommend readers download the full syllabus lists from ABRSM’s own site.

However, as in previous years I will look at particular trends within the syllabus, the direction of travel, highlighting those general features which will interest teachers and players alike.

I will bookend the review with a more detailed look at two specific grades: Initial and Grade 8, representing the start and end points of a student’s journey through these assessments, and in which the broader changes in the syllabus are writ large.

And finally, I will offer a personal list of some of the highlights selected from each Grade in turn.

So let’s jump in…

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

Gradebusters: 15 Awesome Solos

Sheet Music Review

Grade exams getting you down?
Who are you going to call?…

GRADEBUSTERS!!

Gradebusters is the cheekily-titled new series from Hal Leonard. Serving up a rich feast of universally popular music that players everywhere will be hungry to play each book is packed with instantly recognisable hits and infectious tunes. The series so far includes books for piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, alto and tenor sax, nominally ‘Grade 1’ level.

The Gradebusters grade 1 piano book includes “15 awesome solos from ABBA to Aladdin”, and is available now. Grades 2 and 3 follow over the next few months.

Here’s a quick rundown of the resource, the music included, and some ideas about who this book would suit…

Continue reading Gradebusters: 15 Awesome Solos

Schott Music’s Mini Maestros

Sheet Music Review

Those looking for good anthologies of easy piano music are fairly spoilt for choice these days.

Latest to arrive (on the same day as ABRSM’s rather disappointing Core Classics series reviewed here), a set of three new books from Schott Music, compiled by the ever-prolific Hans-Günter Heumann, and collectively titled: Mini Maestro.

With each of the three books containing 50 solo pieces and 3 bonus duets, Mini Maestro certainly offers great value and plenty to dig into, so let’s take a look…

Continue reading Schott Music’s Mini Maestros

ABRSM “Core Classics” – The Review

Sheet Music Review

Once in a while, a publication arrives for review which is based on a great concept and is itself essentially a very good product, but where the mismatch between the original intention and its actual delivery is a glaring one, as though at some point in the developmental process there was a communication breakdown.

Core Classics: Essential Repertoire for Piano, a set of seven progressively “graded” solo repertoire books published worldwide today by ABRSM, is a striking example of this phenomenon.

That is a particular disappointment, given that this is actually a beautifully presented and musically interesting series. So let’s find out exactly what Core Classics has to offer…

Continue reading ABRSM “Core Classics” – The Review

Meanwhile outside…

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’”

Robin Williams

The month of May seems to me to be one of the most magnificent of the year, at least here in the UK, where the lingering spring blossom gives way to an explosion of early summer abundance.

The temperature strains upwards towards ideal, but the mornings retain their wonderful freshness. It’s really quite magical!

Continue reading Meanwhile outside…

More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Sheet Music Review

Back in 2008, ABRSM published a series of books called Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests. Although deserving an award for having the most utilitarian and uninspiring titles in my whole music collection, they have nonetheless rarely been out of action in the intervening years.

In short, they were an essential purchase for any piano teacher preparing students for ABRSM’s world-leading piano grade examinations, and have seen very active service over many years.

Since 2008, many others have brought out alternative products to help teachers and students prepare for the sight-reading element of ABRSM exams. Paul Harris’s ubiquitous and respected Improve Your Sight-Reading series has been updated more than once, and now includes audio tracks. Useful and innovative alternatives have also appeared from Alan Bullard, Samantha Coates, e-music maestro and several others.

Now ABRSM return with a new series bearing the slightly-less scary title More Piano Sight-Reading, a suite of eight new books, one to tie in with each of their grades.

A superficial look at the eight books suggests that these aren’t radically different from their predecessors (which, I should add, are still valid, as the syllabus itself remains unchanged). However, a more detailed look reveals several tweaks and changes to the format which, between them, make the new books a step-improvement on the older ones.

For this review, I will focus on five specific improvements which I think make this new series a superior alternative to the previous books.

Continue reading More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM