The latest ABRSM piano syllabus for 2019-2020 was published in early June.
Much discussion has already taken place about the new syllabus – and how it compares to previous years as well as to other exam boards. Facebook forums and the “blogosphere” have been set alight with lively, sometimes heated, discussions. Detailed reviews of the repertoire selections have already been written, for example:
This review is not intended to duplicate these others. Rather, it aims to provide a general overview of the new syllabus and then consider for what type of student it may be suitable.
Finally, I provide some ways in which selected pieces from the syllabus can be approached in a creative way to enhance the enjoyment of the pieces, deepen understanding of them, and make them relevant to today’s students.
Firstly, some very general comments. The consensus is that the current 2017-2018 syllabus has been considerably harder than usual – particularly at the lower grades. It is certainly the case that the new syllabus has addressed this problem and the overall standard is more in line with expectations.
In fact, a student progressing from the existing 2017-18 Grade 2 syllabus to the new Grade 3 one might find that there is a very little jump in difficulty. This is welcome. (Although it should be said that there is little in the way of laid-down criteria about what constitutes a ‘grade x’ piece and therefore this can be somewhat arbitrary).
There has been some attempt to include arrangements of music in a popular style, which is another positive.
Of particular note is the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at Grade 3, albeit in a slightly straightforward and unimaginative arrangement. However, by and large, the repertoire selection is relatively traditional with plenty of composers from the classical cannon and contemporary choices largely in line with previous years.
This is no bad thing – composers such as Pam Wedgewood, Christopher Norton, Heather Hammond and Nikki Iles all write enormously popular and appealing music.
There is also the welcome addition of June Armstrong at Grades 2 and 3 as well as Andrew Eales’s gorgeous ‘Head in the Clouds’ at grade 1 and Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s intriguing ‘Commuterland’ at Grade 7.
However, it would have been beneficial if the contemporary composer choice was widened to include a greater number of International composers such as Elissa Milne and Daniel MacFarlane, both of whom write music which is enormously popular with children and adults. Further, as has been pointed out in other reviews, a brave choice would have been to include minimalist composers such as Philip Glass, Einaudi and Yiruma whose music is also so popular with many teenage and adult learners.
To my mind, the question is not about whether we, as individual teachers (who have chosen to make music our career), like or approve of particular repertoire selections. To me, the crucial question is whether this syllabus is right for our individual pupils – and how we can teach it in a way that is relevant for them.
And the answer will be different for each one of them.
Before even asking whether this syllabus is right for an individual student we should first ask whether any exam is right for them. I believe that entering students for exams should be an active choice on behalf of individual students, rather than the default option after a number of months or years of study.
For those students who work best when a tangible goal is presented to them, who thrive on learning pieces to a very high level and are prepared to give the time needed to prepare for the exams, then they can be an excellent motivator and lead to a real sense of achievement when completed.
But there are other students who don’t need this extrinsic motivation, who may feel unnecessary pressure if put on this path, and who may be happier creating their own music, arranging pieces of their choice or just learning a much greater volume of pieces.
And, whether we like it or not, many students just don’t have the practicing regime necessary to prepare for an exam; this is not to say that they don’t enjoy the piano and shouldn’t be taking lessons, but the place it holds in their lives may not allow for this level of commitment. In my own studio, only two out of my twenty adult students and about half of my child students have chosen the exam path.
And of course, the arguments against using a diet solely based around exams and the detrimental effect that this has on all-round musicianship have been made many times.
So if we do decide to enter an individual student for an exam, to what type of student will the ABRSM’s current syllabus appeal? And how can we teach it in a way that is creative, encourages all-round musicianship, and is relevant for our students?
The ABRSM requires students to select one piece from each of three lists. The first list generally includes composers from the Baroque-Classical eras and often the second list will include those from the Romantic era – although contemporary pieces may also appear here.
Therefore someone taking an ABRSM exam will be studying a programme where at least a third of the pieces are from the classical (in the broadest sense of the word) cannon. (By contrast, Trinity College’s syllabus allows total free choice below Grade 6, as does the London College of Music’s (LCM) Recital and Leisure Play grades).
The scales and supporting tests required by ABRSM have been unchanged for some time and are, arguably, the most demanding of the main exam boards.
Further, it is the only one of the UK’s main music boards which currently requires a pass at Grade 5 Theory before practical exams of Grade 6 and above can be taken. Some students might prefer to have a freer choice of programme and may be deterred by rigorous supporting tests – and for those, a performance-only exam offered by other boards may be more appropriate.
For some, Trinity’s option (check out Tim’s podcast on Trinity exams here) to take a supporting test in improvisation, as well as the chance to present their own composition as part of their programme, may appeal.
But for a student who is interested in exploring a wide range of music, including the classical cannon, or for a younger student who may be planning to study music at further or higher education, the ABRSM offers a great choice of repertoire and a rigorous assessment of performance skills and musical knowledge and ability.
Like it or not, not all of today’s students find that classical music is particularly relevant to them. But if we want to address this on way to do so is to make connections between music of the past and popular music that they may already know.
Various activities can help bring these pieces to life for them, and make the process of preparing for an exam fun and creative, whilst providing opportunities to put into practice skills that are not subject to assessment such as improvisation and arranging. Using a selection of pieces from the lower grades of the new ABRSM syllabus, here are just some ideas for taking a creative approach to exam preparation.
Question: Is working to exams ‘anti-piano’?
Many of the pieces lend themselves readily to analyse their chord progressions, tying in nicely with any 4-chord composing activities that the student may be undertaking. One of my favourite things to do with chord progressions in classical pieces is search on Hook Theory for the same progressions in popular music.
For example, Thomas Attwood’s Theme at Grade 1 (List A) uses chords 1, IV and V in D with a brief modulation into A. A quick search on Hook Theory reveals that the same chord progression (in D) can be found in Abba’s “Waterloo” and Pokemon’s “Red and Blue”.
And of course, countless other songs will also use these chords. Likewise, the chord progression in Hook’s Allegro at Grade 3 (List A) also appears in the “Tell me more” refrain from Grease’s Summer Nights. And the opening chords of Gurlitt’s Allegretto (Grade 3, List B) are the same as those from Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time”.
Encouraging students to improvise different melodic ideas over existing chord progressions – either in their original form or changed as suggested above – is another way that exam pieces can be used creatively.
For example, Gurlitt’s Allegretto (G3, List B) has a beautiful broken chord progression in B minor which lends itself well to improvising over. At Grade 4, ‘A Kwela for Caitlin’ (List C) uses a straightforward I – IV – V progression in D major and then the same in the relative minor so this is would be a good opportunity to explore chord progressions in different tonalities.
By exploring the basic chord progressions and melodic ideas of the pieces, we are encouraging our students to really ‘get inside’ their pieces and develop a deep understanding of their core elements – whilst being creative and having loads of fun in the process.
Where pieces do contain straightforward chord progressions, the student could experiment with using different left-hand patterns of the same chords.
Attwood’s Theme could be played with blocked chords (a good way to practice anyway) but also with open voicing – maybe using a root – fifth – third pattern – immediately creating a more modern feel which may appeal to many, as I have done here:
Burgmuller’s Arabesque (Grade 2, List B) could be played with a broken chord pattern instead of the blocked chords which changes the feel of the piece.
This is also a great piece for exploring A minor sus chords alongside Tim’s ‘epic’ chord progression!
Armstrong’s Dusty Blue (Grade 2 List C) could be played with a left hand walking bass – something any student of a creative teacher should be readily able to do if they’ve followed Tim’s 12 bar blues course!
In this video, I have changed the block chords in the main section of the Arabesque to a broken-chord pattern and vice versa for the midsection. I’ve also made changes to the melody line:
Changing some of the chords in a progression could also be explored – perhaps using relative minor chords of existing major ones to see the effect this has on the overall mood and character of a piece. Or adding seconds and sevenths to existing chords using ideas from Forrest Kinney’s Puzzle Play books (read a review of Forrest Kinney’s new books here).
Where a student is playing one of the arrangements in the syllabus this could be used as an opportunity for working on alternative arrangements of the same piece. Alternatively, these pieces could be used for ideas about arranging which they could use to arrange a piece of their own choosing. Forrest Kinney’s excellent Puzzle Play series has a wealth of ideas about how to arrange.
For the right student, preparing for an exam can be a rich and rewarding experience. A chance to really engage with their pieces and get to know them in-depth.
Using creative activities as part of this preparation can help alleviate the boredom that may come with spending months on just a few pieces, as well as ensuring that wider skills are used other than just those that will be examined. Exams are not right for all students and the ABRSM exams will not always be the most suitable for some students.
With the right approach and for the right student the 2019-2020 syllabus provides a great choice of repertoire with plenty of opportunity for creative activities to enhance the learning experience.
Rebecca is a piano teacher based in Teddington, South West London, UK. After spending 15 years in the corporate world as a Finance professional she left to set up her own teaching practice five years' ago. She now has about 50 students - about 30 children and 20 adults. She is committed to providing all her students with a well-rounded and varied musical education. She is also a keen, but novice, gardener.
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