Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

“If we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must arrive, this thinking begins to cut out all that makes a point worth having.
It is as if instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I gave you just the two tiny ends of the banana – and that would not be, in any sense, a satisfactory meal”.

Alan Watts: What is Tao?

Over the many years I have been teaching the piano to children, one of the most common enquiries from parents is this:

“What goal can my child be working towards?”

More often than not, it turns out that they would like me to move their child onto an exam-driven footing rather than simply allowing them to wander more freely in the meadows of musical wonderment.

Interestingly enough, far fewer adult learners make this point.

We should consider why, and how useful goal setting actually is…

Continue reading Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

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

Piano Star Theory

Sheet Music Review

ABRSM’s Piano Star series of books for children have been warmly received since their introduction a couple of years ago, their pieces regularly appearing in student concerts, festivals, the Prep Test and Grade 1 exams.

Last year the original series of three progressive books of fresh new repertoire grew to include a book of “Five Finger Tunes at the entry level, and a “Piano Star Grade 1 book at the upper end (reviewed here).


And now there’s another addition: the Piano Star Theory primer is published this week. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading Piano Star Theory

ABRSM: New Directions 2019

Exclusive Interview with Michael ElliottChief Executive, ABRSM


Having attended a few ABRSM conferences in recent years, the 2018 event was notable in many ways. On a visible front, it was noticeable that the venue was teeming with enthusiastic professionals.

More subtly, it seemed to me that ABRSM as an organisation was invigorated, the spring back in its collective step, its message an especially positive one, in spite of the challenges which presently face music education.

Against this backdrop, it was unusual too that in his welcome address, ABRSM’s Chief Executive Michael Elliott refrained from listing a string of achievements and announcements for the future, as has typically been the case.

Happily, I later in the day had the chance to sit down with Michael, together with ABRSM’s new Communications Officer Kerry Sheehan, to follow up on a few announcements from previous years and other rumours doing the rounds.

Michael gave generous and full answers, outlining his vision and a raft of forthcoming developments which will undoubtedly please readers here. And he was happy for me to audio record our interview and publish this full transcript, in which I hope readers will capture something of his enthusiasm and positive message!

Continue reading ABRSM: New Directions 2019

Finchcocks Reborn

For 45 years, Finchcocks – a beautiful Georgian manor house situated in Kent – was home to Richard and Katrina Burnett’s impressive collection of over 100 historical keyboard instruments (some 40 of which were fully restored), including harpsichords, clavichords, early fortepianos, square pianos, and more.

These instruments could not only be seen by visitors whenever the house was open to the general public – they could also be heard in performances there, and even played. Finchcocks was one of the few collections where visitors could avail themselves of the chance to get a feel for playing earlier repertoire on authentic instruments.

When the Burnetts retired in 2015, and the museum closed, with many of its instruments auctioned off for charity, there was naturally some sadness among aficionados of historical performance practice.

Enter new owners, by Neil and Harriet Nichols

Continue reading Finchcocks Reborn

Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Pathways for Teaching

In the minds of many students (and in the case of children, their parents), two questions are constantly lurking –

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

I believe teachers should routinely answer these questions, but how best to frame those answers? As a general principle I would suggest that pupils will gain confidence if they have a clear, honest perception of their progress, and goals which are detailed and encouraging.

Graded exams can offer one way – and an important framework – for pupils to gain the meaningful, quantative answers that help foster confidence.

While exams are certainly not without their issues, most of the concerns I see raised relate more to their misuse than to their appropriate use. 

In this article I will consider both, and offer a personal perspective on some of the most common concerns. And in conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the question: Graded Exams – Friend or Foe?

Continue reading Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Why Bother with Scales?

Pathways for Teaching

“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”

Anthony WilliamsThe Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber, 2017, p.31)

Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …

In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:

  • What are the benefit of learning scales?
  • Is it important to use consistent fingering?
  • What are the benefits of cumulative learning vs. exam preparation?
  • How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?

Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…

Continue reading Why Bother with Scales?

Exploring “Mosaic” with Nikolas Sideris

Editions Musica Ferrum have recently brought out two volumes of pieces in a new series called Mosaic, featuring original music by a dozen or so composers, organised by difficulty level and suitable for beginner to early intermediate players.

I have enjoyed the privilege of contributing to the project, with two of my own compositions included in each book so far, and more to come!

I decided to catch up with Editions Musica Ferrum founder Nikolas Sideris and ask him more about the project…

Continue reading Exploring “Mosaic” with Nikolas Sideris

The Graded Piano Player

Sheet Music Review

The Graded Piano Player is a series of three books from Faber Music, comprising arrangements of well-known tunes specially arranged by leading educationalists for pianists from around ABRSM Grade 1-5 level.

Published back in 2016, the books return to the spotlight as two of these arrangements, Close Every Door from Book 1 and Wouldn’t it be loverly from Book 2 – have been selected for ABRSM’s 2019/20 syllabus (reviewed here).

When pieces are selected from the “alternatives lists”, there’s always a danger that a pupil might be expected to purchase a separate book from which they will only ever play a single piece – so teachers, parents and students will undoubtedly be interested to hear what the rest of the book is like, and in this instance the rest of the series.

With that in mind, let’s take a look …

Continue reading The Graded Piano Player

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2019-20

Sheet Music Review

So here it is; ABRSM, the world’s leading instrumental examination board, today announces the 2019/20 syllabus, and as promised Pianodao can bring you the world’s first in-depth review of the full package.

My much-read review of the 2017/18 syllabus suggested that it was a somewhat mixed affair, and teacher reactions have been similarly mixed. If there was some disappointment with the 2017/18 syllabus, this only heightens anticipation for its replacement.

So have ABRSM this time delivered the goods and struck a balance that teachers and students around the world will be more enthusiastic about? Let’s find out!..

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2019-20

EVC @ the RAH

Pictured (from the left) – Andrew Eales, Elena Cobb, Lindsey Berwin and Heather Hammond.

We often hear of a decline in music education within UK state schools – and without doubt, over the last 25 years of teaching I have witnessed a steady but undeniable diminuendo in the musical life of local schools here, often despite best intentions.

How wonderful, then, to see buoyant evidence of enthusiasm for music among young people – as was most certainly and robustly the case when I attended the Elena Cobb Star Prize Event at the Elgar Room in London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall last week.

Here was a showcase of great playing delivered by young people from around the UK and beyond, each performing and clearly relishing music by a host of living writers, and in many cases in the very presence of those composers.

Continue reading EVC @ the RAH