Later this year, Pianodao hopes to publish a major feature, Which Grade Exam Board 2021-2.
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…
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 reviewed Catherine McMillan’s gorgeously presented Piano Scales Mnemonics (read the review here) and Karen Marshall superb Piano Trainer Scales Workbook (and that review is here), both of which are knockout publications.
Joining these excellent resources, Paul Harris has now completely rewritten his popular Improve Your Scales! series, and like McMillan and Marshall has eschewed the 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…
Few professional musicians would question the value and usefulness of sight reading, meaning that skill which allows us to play music that we’ve never heard, just from the notation, and without preparation.
As a teacher who allows my students considerable freedom to choose the music they want to learn and bring along to the lesson, I find myself relying on this skill very regularly. And yet some teachers and students treat the development of sight reading as an afterthought, and a rather dull one at that. Compounding the problem, while sight reading has traditionally been an element of public grade exams, it is decreasingly so.
Trinity College London include sight reading as an optional test in their piano grade exams, but some teachers choose only to introduce it with “serious students” after intermediate level, and on the basis that players will at that point miraculously “get it”.
Perhaps this lack of enthusiasm will change with the launch of Trinity’s excellent new series, Sight Reading: A Progressive Method, a suite of three books offering a clear route for teaching sight reading skills from the get-go.
In common with most sight reading resources the series is linked to the grade exams, but happily it goes far beyond specimen tests and basic exam cramming, and can be used as a powerful resource to actually teach and develop sight reading ability.
As Trinity explain,
“The study of sight reading is valuable because it enables musicians to enjoy music that is new to them, either on their own or in a group. As with any other skill, confidence in sight reading comes with training and regular practice.”
So let’s take a look and see how the series can support teachers and students in those aims…
A couple of years ago I suggested to author Karen Marshall and publishers Faber Music that it would be really useful to have an all-in-one scales manual within the popular Piano Trainer series. And here it is!
According to Faber Music,
“This all-in-one workbook for scales, arpeggios and broken chords includes all the keys and basic shapes piano students should learn. With clear scale notation, easy-to-visualise keyboard diagrams and excellent theory activities to consolidate understanding and underline the importance of writing music. It is ideal for developing a bespoke scale curriculum.”
The Piano Trainer Scales Workbook is certainly all of this, and the 72-page book is chock-full of neat ideas and judiciously selected material, so let’s take a closer look…
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
As I write this, we are starting to consider and look forward to the relaxation of lockdown rules in the coming weeks, with a hope that schools will resume in March and most other activities by Easter. Being cautious, I had anticipated the probability of a return of face-to-face lessons by mid-summer, but it now seems possible that life will begin returning to some-kind-of-normal sooner. Hooray!
But what will we all have learnt in the last year? How will we have changed in general, and as piano players? And in what ways will the teaching and learning of the piano have been fundamentally and permanently altered?
“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”.
Sometimes, like busses, 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) …
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 considering switching to TCL from ABRSM or another board.
So let’s discover the big stories in the TCL Piano Syllabus 2021-3…
In Part One of this major feature I interviewed Music Teachers’ BoardChief 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 four teacher interviews I arranged, which answered my own questions and will, I hope, help you find answers to yours…
For music teachers and students struggling through the last five months, with the UK in lockdown, there has been a significant preoccupation with the problem that music examining boards have been struggling to adapt to the situation.
On the social media platforms and forums where I am active, I have seen regular and very significant complaints about all three of the traditional boards here in the UK. But throughout these challenges, one fully accredited music exam board has stood out from the crowd by a country mile.
Many teachers hadn’t even heard of the Music Teachers’ Board at the start of the year. But this changed overnight with the appearance of effective targeted advertisements online trumpeting a bold claim:
“MTB’s Grade 1-8 exams are to continue without disruption during this difficult period.”
The progression from intrigue to full commitment has been startling, many teachers who were formally loyal to ABRSM or one of the other boards posting online to praise the MTB Exams having tried them out and had hugely positive experiences.
Determined to get to the bottom of this, I tracked down MTB’s Chief Examiner Mark Kesel for this remote interview. And in a second feature I talk to some of those teachers who have tried out these exams with their students, asking them about their experiences.