ABRSM: Pop Performer!

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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…

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ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24

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IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER
ABRSM have selected my original composition 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!

Continue reading ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24

Improve Your Scales!

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Since the ABRSM exam board significantly reduced their piano scales requirements last year (read a full analysis here), many have agreed that their requirements alone no longer provide the solid framework players need for the development of technique, an awareness of keys and assimilation of archetype fingering patterns.

Of the respected educators who have subsequently sought to fill the void with superior learning resources, I have already covered Catherine McMillan’s gorgeously presented Piano Scales Mnemonics (reviewed here) and Karen Marshall superb Piano Trainer Scales Workbook (reviewed here).

Joining these excellent resources, Paul Harris has now completely rewritten his popular Improve Your Scales! series, and like McMillan and Marshall has eschewed the ill-conceived limitations of ABRSM to embrace a more comprehensive and educative approach.

As Harris announces a the start of each of the six books in his new series, which cover the Initial to Grade Five requirements for all major exam boards,

“Scales, arpeggios and broken chords are important. And if taught and learned imaginatively, they can be fun!”

This is another of those moments where a disclaimer is required; Paul invited my feedback on his ideas while developing his vision for the new series, and as a good friend welcomed my help with the proof reading.

The genius in these books is all his though, so let’s see how he’s done things differently from others, and establish why these books stand out as another teaching studio essential…

Continue reading Improve Your Scales!

RSL Classical Piano

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It used to be possible to joke that piano exam syllabi, like buses, arrived three at a time. But with the addition of the Music Teachers’ Board to the mix and fresh arrival of a “classical” syllabus from RSL Awards (Rockschool), students and teachers have five fully and equally accredited UK boards to choose between.

A disclaimer at the start. Eagle-eyed readers will soon spot that in the nine RSL Classical Piano books the name Andrew Eales appears as a “syllabus consultant”. While I didn’t actually contribute directly to the syllabus, I did offer a little feedback in the later stages of its conception.

On the plus side this perhaps gives me particular insight, but at the same time I will try to maintain distance, as ever avoid bias, and focus on providing the independent factual outline that you need in order to evaluate for yourself whether the syllabus might be the right fit you.

So let’s take a look…

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Trinity Piano Syllabus 2021-23

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Sometimes, like buses, exam syllabi arrive more than one at a time. If it seems as if it were just last month that I wrote my bumper review of the 2021-2 ABRSM piano syllabus, well… that’s because it was.

And now here is the new syllabus from Trinity College London. TCL tell us that this is their biggest ever piano syllabus, so there will be a lot of ground to cover in this bumper review.

Although I am going to integrate my material, I will tackle the review from two perspectives, trying to answer questions and pick up on the headline news for:

  • existing TCL exam users; and
  • those new to grade exams, or considering a switch to TCL from ABRSM or another board.

So let’s discover the big stories in the TCL Piano Syllabus 2021-3…

Continue reading Trinity Piano Syllabus 2021-23

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021-22

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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.

The new Scales Syllabus and supporting publications are reviewed separately here.

ABRSM have also announced a “remote” alternative to their Practical Grades. Although these video-based alternatives are 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 this 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