The Future of ABRSM Grades?

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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In the last couple of weeks I have come across two well argued letters in the music press, the first by Alex Aitken and published in the September 2021 issue of Music Teacher magazine, the second by Pauline Carter and appearing in the October issue of the BBC Music Magazine.

Both letter writers lament a perceived decline in music education, singling out ABRSM as being uniquely responsible for this malaise. Their charge is probably unavoidable, and not without merit bearing in mind that ABRSM are in their own words,

“…the UK’s largest music education body, and the world’s leading provider of music exams.”

The diametrically different solutions each of the two propose points to the serious challenge ABRSM now face in charting a path that reconnects with all of their stakeholders, wins wide support, and restores confidence in their ability to (as they put it) “inspire musical achievement”.

It is certainly beyond doubt that many in music education are reflecting anew on the role, relevance and value of music exams:

What is the future of ABRSM grades?

I am coming to the view that it’s time to focus on a live performance assessment and scrap divisive “support tests” and other prerequisites from grade exams. Done well, this could raise a bar which does seem to have been steadily slipping in recent years, while better matching the real-world priorities of the 21st century.

When ABRSM announced their “Performance Grades” a few months back, I admit that I was skeptical. But having listened carefully to a range of opinion, I now believe that making the performance of music the whole focus of graded assessments could prove unifying, and makes a lot of sense for a variety of reasons. Let’s consider three of particular significance…

Continue reading The Future of ABRSM Grades?

Which Piano Exam Board 2021?

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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Taking grade exams on the piano has for many been a rite of passage, and many teachers and parents convey an expectation that they are an important landmark in any pianist’s journey. Whatever one’s view of this, it is no surprise that so many of the questions, comments and requests made on internet forums concern the different exam boards available.

Five equally accredited boards operate internationally from a UK base, giving rise to endless comparisons and discussions, often generating more heat than light. This article is a sincere attempt to offer the latter, providing a level playing field for each of the five boards to present themselves in their own words, outline what they offer and their recent developments.

The following pages, one for each board, will supplement this information with links to Pianodao’s independent syllabus reviews, and a representative sampling of the customer feedback users of each board have generously provided in response to the recent Pianodao reader survey.

Continue reading Which Piano Exam Board 2021?

Your Next Steps at the Piano

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“For 30 years I have had the pleasure of helping students of all ages and abilities take their next steps at the piano. I would love to support your journey at the piano too, and very much look forward to hearing from you – do please get in touch.

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Borislava Taneva: Sound Stories, Riddles, Puzzles and Plays

SHEET MUSIC REVIEW • by ANDREW EALES
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The brilliantly inventive music of Bulgarian pianist and composer Borislava Taneva has steadily become one of the jewels of the Editions Musica Ferrum catalogue.

Taneva’s music appears in all three Mosaic books (which I have featured here and will revisit as the series continues to grow), and she has three titles of her own: Sound Stories (2016), and two volumes entitled Riddles, Puzzles and Plays.

Taneva’s music is strikingly creative, and the seam of pedagogy running though it is not simply good: it’s truly inspiring. So read on for a full review and overview…

Continue reading Borislava Taneva: Sound Stories, Riddles, Puzzles and Plays

Musicians Who Teach

THE PIANODAO BOOKSHELF
Books for piano players, teachers, students and enthusiasts


Faber Music’s latest publication is a slim book called The Essential Handbook for Musicians Who Teach.

Written by singing teacher, researcher and lecturer Dr. Kerry Boyle and Diane Widdison, formerly National Organiser for Education and Training at the MU, the book is aimed at any musician teaching in the UK, whatever the context, and offers a wealth of generic advice covering the many practical aspects of earning money from instrumental/singing teaching.

I’ll look at the content in detail, and let’s find out whether this new handbook is indeed “essential”….

Continue reading Musicians Who Teach

June Armstrong: Take Ten

SHEET MUSIC REVIEW • by ANDREW EALES
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June Armstrong is not only one of the UK’s most creative composers, but one of the most prolific. Having only reviewed her Dreams and Dragons last December, she’s already now back with her next publication, Take Ten.

Capitalising on the immense popularity of her piece Dusty Blue, recently a Grade 2 favourite here, Armstrong’s new book delivers 14 brand new ‘Jazz Miniatures for piano solo, suitable for elementary players.


With so many competing publications in this territory, and the prevalence of jazzy pastiche, it’s inevitable that Take Ten is a less musically distinctive collection than some Armstrong publications.

But I have no doubt that it will be a best-seller, and deservedly so, because it’s excellent and has some cool twists…

So read on for my detailed review…

Continue reading June Armstrong: Take Ten

Who needs piano lessons anyway?

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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As UK Chair (at time of writing) of the European Piano Teachers’ Association, Mark Tanner seems an unlikely cheerleader for shunning expert tuition in favour of “teaching” oneself to play the piano. And yet in his new teach-yourself-book for older beginners, The Piano in Black and White (Faber Music, 2021), this is the path he advocates, enthusing:

“Learning to teach ourselves gives us the advantage of becoming masters of our own universe.”

Tanner ignores the obvious point that our own universe, without the guidance and insights of those more experienced and knowledgeable than us, might well prove to be a rather limited, small universe.

Tanner’s teach-yourself book is just the latest in a plethora of new apps, YouTube channels, books and videos claiming that adult beginners can learn to play the piano without the help (and expense) of a teacher.

Popular though these DIY attempts seem to be, and welcome though a diversity of educational resources are, most of us truthfully recognise that we are better off letting an expert guide take the lead. We realise, too, that while a one-size-fits-all app or book might set us off in the right direction, without the benefit of a personal guide who understands the terrain, the quicksands may well swallow us whole.

We can cite examples of those rare geniuses who succeeded as pianists without being able to access tuition due to geography, generation, genes or genre. But within most musical traditions, historically and globally, instruction from a teacher has been and remains the norm. There are many compelling reasons for this.

The idea of “going it alone” in preference to learning from an experienced practitioner is neither heroic nor wise. This is true in any field, whether basket-weaving, developing a good golf swing, or learning to play the violin. Piano playing is no lesser a skill, no mere “button pressing”, and must not be portrayed as such.

Those of us who have learnt from good teachers will appreciate and be grateful for that privilege. We naturally support the teaching profession, having ourselves experienced the elevating qualities of a good music education, and are eager for others to enjoy the same benefits as we have.

In this post, I will explore those benefits.

Continue reading Who needs piano lessons anyway?

RSL Classical Piano

SHEET MUSIC REVIEW • by ANDREW EALES
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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…

Continue reading RSL Classical Piano

Piano Scale Mnemonics

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES • review by ANDREW EALES
Supporting your teaching • PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING


Recommending a no-fuss scale book used to be a simple matter: just get a copy of the ABRSM Grade 5 book as was, and all the keys were there, clearly presented in order. But following ABRSM’s 2021 piano scales revision this is no longer the case, their new graded scale books offering a shockingly slight smattering of just a few scales, as limiting as they are limited.

Good teachers everywhere are inevitably (if sadly) left looking for more helpful alternatives, and thankfully a number of well-known writers are presently forming an orderly queue to occupy the educational high ground that the exam board have so perplexingly ceded.

Paul Harris’s revised Improve Your Scales books look to a composite of all the exam boards for common sense, while Karen Marshall’s Piano Trainer series from Faber Music will soon add an all-purpose scales book specially devised to fill the gap. I will be reviewing both these resources in the coming months.

Meanwhile, here’s a new book from Catherine McMillan, whose unique take on learning scales will particularly appeal to children, and whose stunningly presented Piano Scale Mnemonics book is now a studio essential.

Continue reading Piano Scale Mnemonics

Active Repertoire: The 2021 Challenge

ACTIVE REPERTOIRE PROJECT
Music you can play, any time, any place


For piano players, like everyone else, 2020 has been a huge struggle.

We have needed to re-evaluate our goals and quickly change many of our plans. But in the midst of the turmoil, many of us have found a renewed enthusiasm for piano playing, while many more have returned to the piano or taken up playing for the first time.

We enter 2021 with growing numbers of pianists and teachers embracing a fresh direction and revitalised piano goals.

Whether disenchanted with a dull exam-driven formula or eager to disentangle from over-prescriptive methodology, many are now hungry for a more inspired musical approach.

We want to embrace a more motivated, positive version of ourselves at the piano!

Thankfully, there is an answer…

Continue reading Active Repertoire: The 2021 Challenge