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?

UK Exam Boards: The Pianodao 2021 Survey

Later this year, Pianodao hopes to publish a major feature, Which Piano Exam Board 2021-3.

The aim of the article will be to support and inform those readers who are considering taking a formal piano playing assessment, and looking for a simple comparative summary of what is available to them from the UK-based international examination boards.

To that end, I have invited the five accredited exam boards to contribute their own content, and am now also asking you to provide user feedback if you have it.

The review form is included later in this article, so if you would like to contribute, then please read on…

Continue reading UK Exam Boards: The Pianodao 2021 Survey

Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

PATHWAYS FOR PLAYING • by ANDREW EALES
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“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 really consider why this is, and how useful goal setting might really be…

Continue reading Rediscovering the Magic of Piano

Meanwhile outside…

The FERMATA SERIESby ANDREW EALES
Taking the time to pause and reflect


“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!

Meanwhile, back indoors…

What cruel irony, then, that this is the very time of year where many young people are cooped up revising, huddled over computer screens, readying to be herded into drab school gymnasiums where rows of identical desks await. It’s not that I’m against assessment; I am really not. But here in the UK we endure plenty of overcast, wet and windy days when studying indoors perhaps makes more sense.

In music education the same forces are equally at work, even though we instrumental teachers, perhaps more than anyone, have reason to challenge these assumptions. Have teachers, pupils and parents become so convinced of an exam-led narrative of education that we are losing our ability to discern the deeper and richer benefits music can bring?

“The Grades” imagine a fixed, artificial destination (or series of mini stop-offs) which can too easily distract us from that all-important scenery that actually makes our musical journey truly rewarding.

So many adults returning to the piano tell me that they quit lessons as teenagers because they hated taking exams so much. I would suggest that we need to very seriously reflect on this.

Meanwhile outside…

For the Daoist philosophers, one of the highest imperatives is for humanity to reawaken to the natural world around us and discover our place within it. Recognising and following the seasons, both in the natural world and our inner journey, is fundamental to our true success.

a picture says more than a thousand words…

Throughout history, the Daoists were keen musicians and artists who demonstrated that far from adding to our sense of separation from the natural world, artistic expression can provide an avenue by which we come closer to it.

As one of the ancient sages explained:

“As a general principle, music is the harmony between Heaven and Earth, and the perfect blend of Yin and Yang. Great music brings delight, enjoyment and pleasure to ruler and subject, parent and child, and old and young alike.”

The Annals of Lu Buwei, 3rd century BCE
Brindley, EF: Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China
State University of New York Press, 2012.

The Natural Musician

As in all things, it is authenticity and balance that we need, and there are many ways we can promote this. For example:

  • Try to learn pieces and techniques at a natural, unforced pace.
  • Learn to be mindful as you practise, and non-judgmental as you critique your own (and others’) playing.
  • Aim to match the repertoire you tackle to your broader life goals, choosing pieces which inspire and enlarge who you are.
  • Always listen to your playing, immersing yourself and connecting with the source of the sounds.
  • Balance time spent working at the piano with time spent playing it; remember Active Repertoire so that your piano playing has a “success foundation”.
  • Listen to your body when practising/playing. And remember to breathe!

For all the hours spent practising, find balance by spending quality time away from your instrument. Even just a walk in the local park can have a positive impact on our wellbeing.

The outside can only harmonise with the inside if we take the time we need to explore both. And there’s really no better time of year to heed the call, and join the party!


Andrew’s essential handbook of practising tips:




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Improve your Music Theory!

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES • review by ANDREW EALES
Supporting Your Teaching • PATHWAYS FOR TEACHING


ABRSM’s CEO Michael Elliott has reportedly said:

“Separating theory from practice can’t be a good thing.”

While this is a great soundbite for those promoting theory courses, the obvious irony here is that ABRSM have themselves, for generations, separated music theory from practice in their own examination syllabus and published materials.

Paul Harris’s new series ‘Improve your Theory!’, written for students preparing for ABRSM Theory Grades 1-5, aims to change this situation for the better. Introducing the series, publishers Faber Music explain that:

“Firmly rooted in Paul Harris’s Simultaneous Learning approach, it will transform how music theory is taught and learnt, improving every aspect of musicianship along the way. Never before has theory been so fun or seemed so natural!”

The books have already been awarded “Best Print Resource 2016” at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence, so let’s see if they live up to the hype…

Continue reading Improve your Music Theory!

“Grade by Grade”

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES


This innovative new series of books from Boosey & Hawkes makes the bold claim to be “the complete resource for the grade ‘x’ pianist”. But does it live up to its aims?

Continue reading “Grade by Grade”

ABRSM’s Encore Series

The PIANODAO MUSIC LIBRARY
Selected & Reviewed by ANDREW EALES


Over the years ABRSM have produced a steady flow of graded piano repertoire books to supplement their exam resources, with series such as A Keyboard Anthology and Short Romantic Pieces becoming standard items in the teacher’s library.

However, one could have been forgiven for wondering whether some of these selections were made up of the most obscure pieces set in previous syllabi rather than the most widely enjoyed. So when Faber Music brought out their “Best of Grade…” books a few years ago, those looking for a one-stop collection of consistently appealing and varied pieces breathed a collective sigh of relief.

This summer ABRSM have responded with the publication of Encore, a set of four books which, based on their own data, include the most popular pieces featured in graded exams over the last decade or so.

Happily these collections include some great in-house pieces and arrangements now unavailable elsewhere. So, might these books play a central role in students learning over the next few years?

Let’s take a closer look.

Continue reading ABRSM’s Encore Series