The new ABRSM 2021-22 Piano Syllabus Publication Launch Day Review from EPTA UK
EPTA UK is delighted to present a collaborative review of the new ABRSM piano syllabus on its official launch day, 9 July 2020. Commentary comes from a team of five members of the EPTA UK management committee:
We are thrilled and excited to present an initial review and commentary on the new ABRSM piano syllabus. There have been huge changes for piano in 2021-22, with the introduction of a new pre-Grade 1 exam, as well as the option to choose to play duets instead of solo pieces in the early grades. But perhaps the biggest change involves technical work. The scales, arpeggios and broken chords section of each exam has undergone considerable modification at every grade. This manifests itself mainly in terms of a reduction of requirements.
All grades have increased the selection number of pieces - from six possible choices in each list in 2019-20 to an impressive ten for 2021-22. This is because of an amplification of the alternative lists and is most welcome. It is wonderful to see ABRSM continuing to lead the way with even more contrasts, music from all corners of the globe, and a steadily increased number of works by female composers. However, the otherwise admirable and lucidly professional Teaching notes on Piano Exam Pieces by Sharon Gould, Julian Hellaby and Anthony Williams makes no mention whatsoever of any of the alternative choice repertoire. This is a great shame, as more than a few of the alternative choices are decidedly uncommon. How often do you encounter Chen Peixun’s Thunder in Drought Season(Grade 8) or C. Hartmann’s Nocturne (Grade 6)? Indeed, conversations this week with a very well known retailer who always likes to stock all of the alternative ABRSM options showed concerns: they were finding it hard to obtain the actual music of several of the listed pieces on the lists.
As mentioned above, Duets appear for the first time on Initial, Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3. It is well worth exploring in particular the attractive ABRSM publication ‘Piano Star Duets’, with 26 contrasted numbers for Initial–Grade 2 level. Duets from other easily accessible volumes published by the likes of Faber, Breitkopf, OUP and Boosey are also included…. but sadly none appears in the main exam albums.
Of course there will always be gaps and a syllabus should never be confused with a curriculum of study. Teachers will notice quite a number of major composers and core repertoire selections which appear to be either absent or cut back on. Names who are rather neglected this time round include Clementi and Chopin. Satie is just in Initial, Kuhlau appears only once as an alternative in Grade 7, Grieg once only too (in Grade 8). Educational composers do tend to be a powerful presence. Nothing wrong with that per se, though it would have been good to have even more selections from internationally respected composers of our time, such as Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan or Ronald Stevenson. Beethoven appears curiously rarely - perhaps because 2020 was his 250th anniversary? On the other hand, Bartók does appear eight times across the syllabus, and proves unquestionably to be one of the favourites in this new selection.
Re-inventing expectations: New Scales/Arpeggios and omissions of classical repertoire
Clearly the radically shortened scales/arpeggios/broken chord syllabus changes completely the nature of preparation for all of the ABRSM piano exams. Though this has been done to make for parity with other instruments and though this certainly makes ABRSM piano exams much closer in this corner of the syllabus to Trinity exams, there is no question that it leaves a number of holes/gaps for those candidates who choose not to follow religiously from one grade exam to the next. Traditionally it was essential for players in the Grade 5 list to learn all of the scales and arpeggios. This is now no longer the case. Also out for 2021-22 is the need for classical repertoire at Grades 4–5. Previously it was considered the norm for nearly all Grade 5 pupils to prepare a sonata movement by a classical composer. The sense that this is no longer considered an essential is evident with this new syllabus, which appears to make it possible for the first time in living memory for candidates to completely avoid sonatas/sonatinas – and indeed all classical repertoire – after Grade 3 until Grade 6!
Blurring the edges between lists A, B and C
The changes in scales and also the blurring of lists A, B and C are of particular interest as ABRSM provide their new Performance exams. Will teachers provide a varied diet for students to perform in this new exam? As there are no longer the full scales to play in Grade 5, if a student alternated from performance grade to full graded music exams (with all the supporting tests) their scale knowledge is likely to become rather patchy at best. With the new grade 5 syllabus it is vital for all teachers to show extra consideration, sensitivity and creativity so that any perceived ‘gaps’ can be filled. This is vital for a balanced curriculum, and the need for fluency in all scales and arpeggios cannot be over-stressed.
When you begin to look at the syllabus as a whole, you will see subtle changes in tradition everywhere. It is no longer necessary to think in terms of chronology, and assume that list A will be Baroque, list B Classical and list C Romantic and/or modern. To be fair there has been a move away from this 20th century approach for many years, and 2021-22 is no exception! For example, it is possible within Grade 4, if the Kabalevsky from the A list is selected, not to play any Baroque, Classical or Romantic music when taking this grade!
The A, B and C lists have become increasingly more fluid, with A lists always featuring contemporary composers as well as Classical and Baroque composers. B lists also include some surprises, with C. P. E. Bach appearing, with less emphasis on Romantic composers and Bartók and Khachaturian also sitting in these lists. There are a number of pieces which certainly seem interchangeable with grades immediately higher or lower. This seems to apply especially to the new Initial level/Grade 1 as well as to the repertoire lists in Grades 4/5 and 7/8.
Benchmarking – Undoubtedly there will be many who find choices controversial, with the new Initial grade featuring a number of pieces that many teachers would view as Grade 1 standard. These include Bullard’s Dodgems, Praetorius Gavotte in G (arranged by Jones) and Satie’s What the Little Princess Tulip Says. Chris Norton’s Inter-City Stomp in Grade 2 is far easier in our opinion than the beautiful Salley Gardens arrangement by David Blackwell in Grade 1. The stunning Richard Jones Salut d’amour by Elgar in Grade 3 we feel is edging towards Grade 5, and with the Telemann in Grade 7, it is our common belief that this was previously accepted as Grade 6 and a much easier alternative to the Bach and the Beethoven sitting next to it. Grade 7 appears very near to Grade 8 in standard - if you pick the right pieces. Teachers should be aware that the Wells Courante duet which appears in ABRSM Grade 1 was actually set as a Grade 3 piece in another duet syllabus from a rival board!
Repetition/Duplication from previously years’ syllabuses – Teachers will be pleased to see quite a number of pieces arriving back from later years, with Grade 6 seeing many returns, from Arnold’s Buccaneer and CPE Bach’s Solfeggiettoto Harvey’s Rumba Toccata. Dello Joio also returns with his Prayer of the Matador. March Hare is back in Grade 2 from 2004 and Innocence by Burgmüller is back in Grade 3 from 1999/2000.
Substantial number of transcriptions – Arrangements from great classical pieces feature once again and in 2021-22 include some specially-commissioned from Richard Jones and David Blackwell. These are a wonderful way to introduce students to the wider world of classical music. Missing on this syllabus are some of the more popular favourites that appeared previously from the shows or pop tradition. The Lion King does get a look in over two grades and some would argue Moon River is in that category but there aren’t popular pieces like Hallelujah, Wouldn’t it be loverly and Close Every Door as in the previous syllabus.
Superbly professional performances of the repertoire on the accompanying CDs are magnificent, with many younger generation artists including Yulia Chaplina, Mei Yi Foo, Dinara Klinton, Robert Thompson and Richard Uttley. The recordings are made with sympathy to the tempos expected from examination candidates, but are often extremely sensitive and caring. Excellent professional sound quality. Clarity and focus is always to the fore, and this is unquestionably a wonderful resource for candidates.
Alan Bullard’s new Scale Explorer books for the early grades are also useful. They give patterns and exercises and ideas around the scale fingerings for each grade, and so are similar to the highly successful, and even more extensive ‘Improve your scales’ series from Paul Harris (Faber Music). But unlike the Harris books, the Bullard inevitably are more limited, simply because they follow the new, less extensive, ABRSM scale syllabus requirements. Teachers should beware of using the smaller number of scales and arpeggios for a particular exam as the limits for their own expectations with pupils. With this in mind, they can and indeed should go way beyond the (admirable) suggestions and exercises set by Bullard and the new syllabus.
As mentioned, the Initial Grade is a new addition to ABRSM’s suite of performance exams. Positioned as pre-Grade 1, the Initial Grade is intended to sit alongside the ungraded Prep Test. With the addition of the traditional marking scheme and supporting tests, it provides a different entry route to Grade 1.
New for this syllabus is the expansion of the repertoire, with a total of 30 pieces at every grade including six duets at each level from Initial Grade up to Grade 3. It is perhaps not surprising that the Initial Grade is dominated by arrangements and educational repertoire from contemporary composers such as Armstrong, Blackwell, Bullard, Hall, Hammond, Haughton, Iles, Tanner and Wedgwood.
Parke’s A Marching Tune trips along merrily and is likely to prove popular despite a rather daunting spread over two pages. Hands are in a fixed position for the most part although there is a surprising leap for both hands in the final bars which will need to be carefully prepared to avoid an uncomfortable pause. Care will need to be taken to keep the accompanying chords suitably staccato with a light touch.
Jones’ arrangement of Gavotte in G from Praetorius is the only work in the selected pieces that pre-dates the 20th century. Although the melody and accompaniment sit comfortably in the hand there are a couple of awkward changes for the left hand which will require careful negotiation. Careful attention to the articulation is needed to capture the dance-like nature of this piece.
This old man arranged by Blackwell seems to be the most appropriately aligned in terms of technical difficulty. A firm touch will be needed to create even tone in the scale passages and the use of lyrics will help to secure the quaver rhythms. Also arranged by Blackwell in ABRSM’s Piano Star 2, John Ryan’s Polka features on the alternatives list and is always popular in my studio.
The three selected pieces from the B list are all of a melancholy style although the alternative pieces do provide some more uplifting options. The Lost Bone by Adair features a legato melody in the left hand, whilst the right hand accompaniment features pianissimo, staccato chords. This delicate balance between the hands and contrasting articulation may prove challenging for students at this level.
Armstrong’s Under the Acacia Tree again calls for long legato lines. The melody moves by step and sits comfortably under the hand, with minor positional adjustments required. The two-part notation of the accompaniment may cause some initial confusion but the repeating pattern should be relatively quick and easy to learn.
Dialogue, from Bartók’s collection First Term at the Piano, completes the B list trio. Melodically and rhythmically simple, with repeated patterns throughout, this is an accessible option with opportunities to demonstrate nuanced dynamic shading and well-shaped phrases.
Whirleybird from Wedgwood’s Up-Grade! Piano Grades 0–1, is a cheerful waltz in F major which has long been a firm favourite amongst my students; the simple, sustained accompaniment allows the performer to focus on the dance-like melody and there is the opportunity to add articulation to personalise the performance.
Bullard’s Dodgems is sure to be a crowd-pleaser with strong dynamic contrasts ranging from ppp to fff and plenty of detailed articulation. As Hellaby points out in the teaching notes, there is ‘a definite licence to bash!’ There’s a lot of movement in this piece which I suspect will have students looking intently at their hands, so this will probably be a piece to teach by rote.
The Elephant Parade by Iles looks relatively simple on the page but presents some subtle challenges. Whilst the rhythms appear to be accessible it is difficult to feel the metre of this piece and therefore meticulous counting will be needed – perhaps using rhythm words. The rests in the left hand will also need to be carefully observed as it is tempting to mimic the right hand and hold on to the end of each phrase.
The style of Loudová’s The Long-Eared Bear may be unfamiliar but the story behind this piece will likely capture the young pianist’s imagination. Although appearing simple on the page, there are some co-ordination issues to overcome in the middle section accompanied by a long crescendo from piano to forte which will require careful judgement.
Featuring on the alternatives list, The Grand Waltz duet by Sebba is a real crowd-pleaser and the humour of the teacher reaching over the student to play the extremes of the piano has been well received at my student recitals. However, it will require some careful choreography and a good dose of courage to take this on under exam conditions. Whilst in the Prep Test the examiner will play the duet accompaniment if required, there is no indication that this is the case for the graded exams and so I assume, much like other instruments, candidates will need to arrange an accompanist. It will be interesting to see how duets will be managed in exams in a COVID-safe environment.
Several pieces from the Prep Test repertoire books, including ABRSM’s Piano Star 2 and Party Time! On Holiday, are featured, which reinforces the assumption that the repertoire for the new Initial Grade was intended to align with the existing Prep Test.
However, the difficulty level of the pieces is wide-ranging. For example, Armstrong’s Butterfly, from Piano Star Duets, features a fixed-hand position, with just four notes in each hand passing the melody and never playing together. Notwithstanding the skills needed to play with a partner, this piece is significantly less challenging than others on the syllabus and could be perceived as a safe bet. At the other end of the spectrum, Martin’s Boogie No.1 features hands playing together throughout, hand stretches and passing the thumb for position changes. With accidentals, syncopated rhythms and two consecutive three-note chords, Boogie No.1 would sit more comfortably on the Grade 1 list.
Scales and arpeggios
The technical exercises are centred around two keys: C major and D minor (natural or harmonic or melodic). D minor is an interesting choice and one can’t help but wonder if the relative A minor might have been a more logical partner. Whilst one-octave scales provide a gentle introduction, teachers may question the value of limiting the contrary-motion scale and arpeggios to the range of a fifth.
The sight-reading tests have been limited to 2/4 or 4/4 time in a fixed-hand position starting on the tonic in either C major or D minor. Dynamics and articulation are binary: forte and piano, legato and staccato. Basic note values of minims, crotchets and paired quavers are used with whole-bar rests only. 3/4 time and dotted minims are notable by their absence.
The aural tests are broadly in line with the existing Prep Test ‘listening games’.
• Wide and varied selection
• Useful duet material
• Welcome surprises along with old favourites
I’m delighted to say that the new Grade 1 selection manages to include something for everyone. There are fantastic essentials that we all know will do wonders for co-ordination, tone production and variety of touch (Schumann’s vitally important Melodie B:1, from Album for the Young) as well as unexpected delights such as Lajos Papp’s Szöcske C:2. This seems to take off from where Joan Last left in the first book of her classic ‘Freedom technique’ series of exercises, providing in contemporary idiom a wonderful challenge to young players in developing crisp and co-ordinated staccato in open fifths and triads.
At the other range of the historical perspective, it is super to see the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book represented with A Toy, Anon A:1. What pleasure the music box sonorities will give a young player! The excellent interaction between the hands here also makes for good pedagogical development and improved co-ordination within the five finger position. Let’s look at the remainder of list A: Mozart’s Minuet in C K.6 A:2 is unquestionably more of a challenge in terms of discipline, refinement, attention to detail and care. Young players may well have to be constantly reminded not to add accents when resolving all those dissonant appoggiaturas: let’s hope they remember to listen when they take their exams…! A:3 Parson’s Farewell is totally different again, with wonderfully large spacing between the hands for much of the time. This is excellent for giving confidence, as the piano symmetry will feel good and reassuring when the notes are assimilated. The fast tempo and contrasted colours do require discipline and facility, however, so this may not be quite as ‘safe’ an option as some of the other pieces in the list.
In the alternative A list, Dennis Alexander’s upbeat and positive five finger Sonatina A:4 is unquestionably more straightforward. It brings duets into the Grade 1 exam room for the first time and seems to take off from where Diabelli in his early duets left. A:5 attrib. Bach Deal with Me, Lord, BWV 514 is fantastic for rhythmic discipline and fingering and very much in the great Grade 1 pedagogy tradition. I adore Gurlitt and all of his opus 117, so do check out the energy, colour and wit in A:6 The Chase (not perhaps for those with very small hands). A:7 Handel Gavotte in C is an indispensable old friend, favourite and Grade 1 essential that needs no introduction here, and the A list concludes, via Helyer and Türk, with a beautiful dancing duet, A:10 Courante, that has already proved popular and effective in numerous competitive festivals in recent years.
As mentioned, Schumann’s Melodie B:1 is a fantastic piece for development. Legato, tone, co-ordination, phrasing and balancing can all improve beyond recognition through this music. Chee-Hwa Tan The Swing B:2 may be much less familiar to many, but is in fact a beautiful recital piece which exploits different registers, uses the pedal but retains simple patterns that could be easily retained. Those with small hands may find the left hand major seventh stretch a little too much. Bravo David Blackwell for giving us immediate tactile pleasure in his effective arrangement B:3 Down by the salley gardens, complete with directions to silently depress a few left hand notes for exotic reverberation at the opening. This will develop cantabile and legato in the playing of many a young Grade 1 candidate unquestionably. Other choices from the alternative B list are equally enterprising and exciting: the duet B:4 Reflections in popular style deserves to be widely chosen, and it is encouraging to see that shockingly neglected English composer William Alwyn represented again - B:5 The Trees are Heavy with Snow. Grechaninov is one of the most important Russian composers of children’s music so I am delighted that his extremely useful Fairy Tale Op.98 No.1 B:8 features on the list. This is great for reinforcing confidence and dexterity in contrary as well as parallel motion between the hands at the centre of the keyboard. Helen Madden’s imaginative The Forgotten Forest B:9 presents another attractive duet and the list concludes with Borislava Taneva’s Small Valse B:10, charming and elegant music well worth exploring.
Diversity and contrast certainly continues apace in the ten pieces on list C. Having already mentioned with gratitude the inclusion of Lajos Papp’s Szöcske C:2, alternatives worthy of consideration include many laudable educational miniatures in popular style such as the swinging C:1 Cockatoo from Elissa Milne, the atmospheric but rather challenging digital right hand manoeuvres in C:3 The Detective (Pam Wedgwood), not to mention C:8 Jazzy Dragonfrom Barbara Snow and the highly persuasive C:10 Mango Walk from ABRSM regular Mike Cornick. If you want something a little more ethereal or dreamlike, then do try out the post Walter Carroll delights of C:4 Sunlight Through the Trees (June Armstrong). Alison Mathews will have your pupil tapping in imitation of a woodpecker on the piano lid during her programmatic, charming and user-friendly duet C:6 Woodland Folk Song and the animalistic evocations certainly continue apace with C:5 The Frog (Elias Davidsson). Jane Sebba makes us all want to take part in ‘Strictly’ through her dancing C:7 Latin Laughter. Much more restrained and serene is the exquisitely gentle duet arrangement by William Chapman C:9 Tu tu Gbovi, a really ravishing number from the new Piano Star Duet ABRSM issue.
- There are some beautiful and imaginative choices and ones I can certainly say I would present to my own pupils with excitement. I think if carefully planned from the teacher’s perspective, a programme could be chosen which has rich pedagogical content, facilitates the progression of technique and also promotes fine musicianship. However, this would need careful attention to ensure there is variety!
- How nice to see female composers being more widely used and not just in contemporary music (at least seven here!)
- I do find myself missing the previously wide range of world music, which provided such interesting context for pupils and also embraced different cultures of music. However, there does now appear to be much more contemporary music - for example, Ludovico Einaudi’s The Snow Prelude No.3 - which many will no doubt fall in love with!
- The syllabus is not always helpfully arranged. The A list in the book seems appropriate but the extra list has a Kabalevsky piece in the midst of it. There seems to me to be not a lot of difference between the B and C sections. Perhaps there is a larger majority of ‘cantabile’ style pieces in the B section? However, one wonders why, for example, the Einaudi was placed in the C section if these are no longer arranged in period/style.
- For me, an absolute must would be to try some of the new duet options DELETE if taking the new performance grade. A duet could be really useful as the fourth piece if taking the new ‘performance grades’, as this would give ample opportunity to work on aural skills, which of course are absent from the actual exam. Arguably, however, duet playing offers a good opportunity to polish these much-needed skills.
So, this is an interesting and on the whole ‘youthful’ selection of pieces for the A list with only one ‘minor’ piece appearing in the extra list! The first is Allegro by Thomas Attwood - a charming piece with opportunities to develop balance between the hands. This would certainly require a good awareness of tone from the performer and a lightness of touch. Teachers may need to be aware that though this may look more like the ‘simple’ option, actually a sound technique and evenness of touch is needed to create a stylish performance here.
Following on is the Minuet in A by Elisabetta de Gambarini, which is a tricky option for Grade 2 with a large amount of ornamentation, though pedagogically speaking this would provide lots of learning contextually and also with regards to technique. It is not written in an easy key so lots of preparation work in A major, including broken chords (not on the syllabus!), is needed. Also, it would be beneficial for the pupil to have an awareness of touch and articulation to gain an appropriately elegant style.
Three very different pieces are included in the book and the Ecossaise in G by J.W. Hässler is no exception. This for me is a ‘fun’ option and would very much suit a youthful and mischief-loving pupil! There is ample opportunity to discuss different types of staccato (including whether to use flicking or wrist action). It also encourages movement around the keyboard, using a larger range of notes for the more adventurous student. Not an easy option, but certainly a piece that will bring your pupil on!
Special mentions from the alternative list:
Let us begin with the Corranto, a very pleasant little piece! The key here is to gain the ‘lilting’ and eloquent nature of the piece. It might be helpful to provide some contextual detail about the time, in particular the Elizabethan court and the sorts of instrumentation which would have been popular in the late Tudor and Jacobean periods. This is a good option for those with a really natural sense of pulse and a good feel for music in three time.
Now for the first duet option, Carse’s Rustic Dance, which would no doubt be an enjoyable choice for teacher and pupil. It requires a rich tone from the upper part to really communicate the ‘earthy’ style and would very much suit a sprightly and perhaps ‘boyish’ personality.
Next, the first glimpse of a minor key - Etude in A minor, Op.36 No.13 by Goedicke. This is a nice study to develop even finger work and could be useful for working on phrasing with its rising and falling arpeggio patterns. It is an appealing choice of piece and well worth considering as a contrast.
As a surprise appearance to the A section, we find the twentieth century composer Kabalevsky with his Galop/Hopping: No. 18 from 24 Little Pieces, Op.39. My feeling is that this was chosen to match the overall ‘youthful’ nature of many of the pieces in this category. Nevertheless, this is a joyful piece and would be relished by many. There is much to be gained technically and musically from learning it and it is certainly worth considering for that long-awaited recital or concert.
Let’s take a look at the clearly more lyrical and ‘song’-like B section, with its mixture of styles and periods from Ravel to Heather Hammond! We begin with the aptly named and beautiful sounding piece, The First Flakes Are Falling by Helen Madden. It has an alluring theme which would cast a spell over any child seeking imagery and those with imagination! However, this piece could easily be placed in a higher grade and I would be wary of giving it to anyone less than ambitious at this level. A good harmonic understanding and methodical learning in parts would be advantageous for preparation here.
Simone Plé’s Le chant du pâtre would suit a mature performer with a very good sense of pulse and rhythm, but with the ability to give time and space. Perhaps devising some words for this song will facilitate the pupil’s ability to project an expressive melody which swaps between hands. Finally, we find the ever-popular O Waly Waly (Trad. English). With a deep left-hand melody needing a full and rich-bodied tone, this is a lovely exploration of harmony for those pupils who like to experiment with different sounds and colours. The long melodic line does require maturity and expression, not an easy requirement for this level, but sure to encourage development in technique and musicality.
Special mentions from the alternative list:
There are TWO duet options here with Raindrop Reflections by Heather Hammond and Ravel’s Pavane de la belle au bois dormant. The duets are both great choices for teacher and pupil - the Ravel with its beautiful and lyrical melody line and Raindrop Reflections with its variety of touch and exploration of sound. Even if not chosen as an exam piece I think it is well worth playing all of these duets together anyway. You could even enter the new performance grades with one or two of these as an option.
Spindler’s Waltz in A minor could be a useful choice pedagogically and could even prove to be inspirational for your dancing pupils! If you would like to work on a piece in three time, I always think a waltz is a great way to start as it’s naturally easier to feel the three time than perhaps in other styles. It has a very appealing melody too, which being in a minor key would contrast nicely with your A piece (if you did not choose the Goedicke).
The ‘C’ list is primarily contemporary, which is of course a more traditional arrangement. However, there is not always a contrast here to the pieces in the B section. Again, teachers must be careful to guide pupils with their choice to ensure their music facilitates progression in a variety of areas. An interesting and carefully chosen set of pieces however awaits you here, starting with the zany and rather wonderful March Hare by Brian Chapple. This is absolutely a ‘performance’ piece and one which is sure to delight pupils! It is comparatively simple when one thinks of the work by Madden from earlier in the syllabus but it is certainly a fun and rather youthful option. Great for working on crisp staccato and chromatic scale work.
I can tell that Anne Crosby Gaudet’s Angelfish will be a hugely appealing option and is also a great study for co-ordination. The obvious feature here is the crossing over of hands, which may be a relatively new concept at this stage for many. Though the notes are relatively ‘easy’ to learn with much repetition and pattern work, the control of sound may be less straightforward. Rather sophisticated pedalling skills are expected here which may again be ambitious for some at this grade.
In total contrast this album concludes with Inter-City Stomp by Christopher Norton. Again, this is a seemingly ‘easier’ choice for Grade 2 (though of course, this depends on the individual). The bass line, whilst being rather simple, would also require a very strong sense of pulse against the right-hand syncopation. Perhaps the left hand should have the footsteps? It is a catchy theme nevertheless and would provide much enjoyment for the performer!
Special mentions from the alternative list:
There are some really fun options to consider on the alternative list! A shining example would be Dinosaur, Don’t! by Sarah Konecsni. This could certainly capture a pupil’s imagination. One can imagine the Dinosaur ‘stomping’ around and pupils will enjoy the use of the lower range on the keyboard. It is definitely a character piece and lots of humour is involved here too!
Many have been awaiting the appearance of some Ludovico Einaudi on the syllabus and, I am excited to tell you, here it is! The Snow Prelude No.3 boasts a beautiful melody and is sure to be a really popular choice with any age group. It is incredibly effective and would be a sure choice for working on a sensitive touch and projecting a cantabile melody.
Lastly, it is important to highlight another lovely duet choice from the fantastic new book ‘Piano Star Duets’ - Sweet Pea by Nikki Iles. This piece boasts a nicely balanced arrangement between the parts as there is equal interest in both. Also, perhaps there is more learning involved here (rather than the earlier mentioned Raindrop Reflections which is textured mainly in unison), as both have some melodic interest, with more detailing in dynamics and articulation.
- Plenty of enjoyment is to be had for your pupils when selecting and learning this fabulous list of pieces. This list is also a great resource outside of exam work for inspiration for new and exciting repertoire, but do watch out for the extremely wide ‘benchmarking’, which at times seems a little confused at this grade. The level of pedalling skill which is needed in a number of pieces for Grade 3 does seem ambitious and one would have to be very wary of giving these to the wrong pupil. Clever management from the teacher is needed and lots of forward planning and preparation.
- As in the Grade 2 list, it is excellent to see a wide variety of music from female composers being more widely used, though I have the same feeling about the lack of ‘world music’ as in the Grade 2 syllabus. The ‘C’ list is very attractive, but perhaps could have had more even more contrast.
- I do wonder about the arrangement of the syllabus as there seems to be two clear categories of A and B, rather than three (B and C being rather similar). I feel this could have been avoided by sticking with the ‘old’ system of typically early, romantic and modern genres.
The album pieces from the ‘A’ list provide a good basis for learning for any pianist of this level, technically but also musically. The book begins with Beethoven’s Ecossaise in E flat. Written just two years before Beethoven’s death, this charming little piece interestingly feels quite early with its sequential writing and it would definitely help the pupil to understand the actual dance so as to provide a suitable character for this sunny-natured piece. The second half is particularly tricky to negotiate with the left-hand jumps, so it may be advisable to recommend this piece to pupils with larger hands.
Burgmüller’s Innocence follows on and it is interestingly placed (in the previous syllabus his Arabesque was placed in the ‘B’ list). It does make me wonder why. However, this is an excellent piece for working on phrasing and to encourage your pupil to feel a sense of ‘moving forward’. To be successful it needs to be incredibly light in touch and would certainly suit those pupils with ‘nimble fingers’. There is so much to be gained from this technically through the teaching of slurs and staccato and it will no doubt bring any pianist on.
The third piece in the book is the Gavotte in G by Handel, which is another lovely choice for the ‘A’ list with a strong melody and again there is so much pedagogically to be gleaned from this. Lots of work on articulation will not only help your pupil with the leaps but also add to creating a stylish performance and the light feeling of this dance. It is an elegant piece and would suit a mature player.
Special mentions from the alternative list:
Again there are some lovely choices but they are rather confusingly arranged and including some Jazz and also more lyrical music as well. The Hornpipe Rondo by A. Hedges is definitely an interesting option and certainly is starkly different to some of the other choices here. It is a substantial duet with lots of interest in upper and lower parts.
Moody Gigue by Vitalij Neugasimov provides a more lyrical alternative, exploring minor tonality but also utilising sudden ventures into the major (which of course explains the title!). This could be an interesting alternative for some. Next up, the Jazz Etudiette by Seiber. Here again we have a surprise appearance of Jazz in this ‘A’ list, perhaps chosen for its light and ‘polka-like’ feel and though I can’t see a hugely logical link, it could be rather an enjoyable choice!
This ‘B’ list is clearly full of beautiful choices and these are so carefully chosen to inspire individuals. However, the ‘benchmarking’ appears to be very wide here and some careful consideration needs to be paid to this by the teacher. The first work in the ‘B’ list is a very good example. Edward Elgar’s Salut d’amour is just a fabulous piece and an absolute favourite of mine. Please beware, however! The skills required here could be easily seen in a Grade 4–5 piece. Very careful attention to pedalling must be achieved so as not to blur the beautiful harmonies while also gaining the rich tone needed (get your pupils to listen to Itzhak Perlman’s wonderful violin solo here) with the different parts in the left hand. A worthy choice of course, but perhaps save this gem for a more mature player.
Next for a HUGE contrast with the Andante from Trumpet Concerto in E flat, second movement by Joseph Haydn and how very interesting to find Haydn in the ‘B’ list! Perhaps this was placed here because of its lyrical nature? It seems rather odd when juxtaposed with McDonagh and Elgar. It’s perhaps not my most favourite of choices, however there is plenty to be used pedagogically. The phrasing could be a potential challenge so to get a smooth and natural sounding melody line lots singing could help!
A haunting melody is to be found in Anastasia by Ailbhe McDonagh which will certainly enchant the listener. This almost feels ‘cinematic’ and it could be fun to make up a story with your pupil about who the character ‘Anastasia’ might be. It is again rather tricky and the difficulty of negotiating the position changes on the third line should not be underestimated. Effective pedalling technique is again required to ‘pull this off’. It is a lovely choice, though, which I’m sure will be very popular with all ages.
Special mentions from the alternative list:
Two duets are included in this category: Autumn Serenade by Dennis Alexander and Arioso by J.S. Bach. It seems an unusual choice to place these two duets in the same list, however they are both beautiful melodies (though perhaps the Bach is even more stunning!). This would be an excellent choice for your pupil to enter the new performance exam as a fourth piece. It also may be helpful for those pupils who might be a little unsure of themselves and could offer a great boost to their confidence.
It perhaps would have been nice to see more traditional repertoire in the actual album and there are some lovely choices on the extra list. I am always a big fan of Gurlitt and his sumptuous melodies are consistently difficult to compete with! Paul Harris’s Indigo has a very stirring melody also. What a gorgeous piece! Both require a beautiful cantabile melody line and a pupil with a good awareness of tone and balance. They could easily be considered when compared with the album choices for this list.
I think there is a really excellent selection of pieces on offer here and so enjoyable too! The teacher will again have to cleverly plan the programme however, as the B and C lists seem rather similar in many ways (it makes me wonder whether they should just have two sections, an A and a B…). Disco Baroque by Alan Bullard is an attractive piece and could be a very good ‘crowd-pleaser’. This would require a performer with a strong feeling for the beat and who is able to maintain a very consistent pulse whilst achieving the accents on the offbeat. I could certainly imagine some of my adolescent pupils really enjoying this style.
Grechaninov’s Riding the Hobby-Horse, for me, has the ‘fun factor’ and would be a great piece to finish a recital with! It needs a light touch and a sprightly feel in two is required. It is sure to facilitate progress technically whilst providing hours of enjoyment whilst stirring a child’s imagination. This is followed by Sarah Watts’s Scary Stuff, which is another very ‘catchy’ piece for this ‘C’ list. It has a very ‘funky’ melody and bass line. Again this would suit any age but I can already think of some of my early teenage pupils who would love to play this! There are few technical challenges here, including the tremolo, which will need a ‘looseness’ of the wrist and a crispness of staccato where appropriate to add to the ‘spookiness’ of the composition’s character. A sure winner!
Special mentions from the alternative list:
Little Rhapsody on Hungarian Themes by Agay is first on the alternative ‘C’ list and what an exciting work it is too, for any pupil to be performing as a duettist in their exam! This is sure to make the examiner smile (and performers alike). It has the wonderful feeling of Hungarian dance, with a variety of styles encompassed within the different Rhapsody themes.
It is nice to see some popular favourites to inspire those pupils who like to play something they are more familiar with. Can you Feel the Love Tonight by Elton John & Tim Rice and Mercer and Mancini’s Moon River are effective and musically written arrangements, though I feel these can be tricky to achieve at this level and you may again wish to save these for your more mature learners. Effective pedalling skills are needed along with long phrasing.
The list is completed with rather an interesting piece, Northern Lights by Karen Tanaka. This could be an inspiring choice for pupils who like to be more exploratory in terms of sound. It could be very effective and has some interesting harmonies and picaresque imagery connected to the theme of the ‘Northern Lights’. It could be a nice ‘middle’ piece in a recital for a change of mood/character, so if you are considering the new performance grades this could be a very worthy addition, bringing a welcome contrast.
- Kabalevsky joins Bach, Schubert and Beethoven amongst others in List A. List B also sees a large number of contemporary composers with Romantic music less represented than in previous years here. Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn wave the Romantic flag here. It’s a surprise to see C. P. E. Bach in the B list at this Grade. Nearly 50% of the entire list is contemporary or educational composers.
- Teachers should ensure that if they don’t plan to use the additional pieces they give other pedagogical pieces to support the student whilst doing this Grade. The main album only includes one piece from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic period. Why not look to standard traditional fare for supplementary nourishment that could create a more balance curriculum? Clementi Opus 36 Sonatinas along with the Anna Magdalena Bach book (as well as easy Schumann and Gurlitt) and Czerny exercises could construct a more pedagogically effective programme of study.
- Though this new list includes many gems, it doesn’t quite hit the highs of the previous Grade 4 syllabus in terms of overall content and balance. The benchmarking is wide with some pieces a very tough gig for a Grade 4 student. On the other hand there are some pieces which seem nearer to Grade 3, with the odd one a bit too accessible for the grade. Overall this syllabus – as indeed is true of all exam syllabuses – should never be used as a curriculum: it is possible to play only contemporary repertoire in list A, B and C, so balance and variety is not necessary to pass the exam. That being said, with careful selection there’s much a student can enjoy here whilst developing their overall musical and technical abilities to the hilt as so much is so challenging.
J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C minor is a pedagogical feast with the opportunity to develop fine, even finger work alongside understanding Bach’s majestic harmonic ability. It will no doubt provide a popular choice and be a very useful learning tool for future technical development but challenging. Perhaps more traditionally Grade 5? Kabalevsky’s Etude in A minor may be already familiar to some teachers as it appeared in an old Guildhall Grade 4 syllabus. Chosen here in group A (perhaps for its technical demands), it has repeated patterns and a repetitive bass line that should ensure it is quick to learn. But be aware, the detailed pedalling prescribed by the composer makes this piece much more demanding than first meets the eye. At Grade 4 this is quite an ask and teachers may need to exercise a degree of caution before selecting with some students. It’s the ultimate in musical multi- tasking! Schubert’s Minuet and Trio is an excellent choice to prepare students for the higher grades. Simple in notation but requiring a high level of graceful phrasing, thirds need to be lightly performed and thumbs turned into elegant ballerinas to ensure no un-intended note is accented. Lots of wider listening of the style will really improve the performance here alongside the understanding of dance music (perhaps provide an example from YouTube of the Minuet dance in period dress).
Other alternative A pieces not included in the album worth special mentions include:
Alcock Gavot – as solid choice for the grade with rich teaching content. Take care to ensure the student plays in two rather than four and the ornamentation is light and not pronounced. Beethoven’s Allegro assai is a stunning sonatina movement (very advanced for Grade 4) but with large technical, musical and performance skills developed through its study. Again, for similar reasons, do check out Haydn’s Allegro scherzando in F – much loved by my daughter Rose amongst other students I’ve taught – it’s been a foundational piece for so many over the years. Again, it’s not easy though!
It’s lovely to see Barbara Arens’ Moonbeams appear here. She’s a former student of the Mozarteum in Salzburg (where my eldest son attends), and this piece of music is packed with lyrical musical lines and some lovely dynamic detail which I’m sure will make it popular but also very playable by students. The Moonbeams title should be embraced and communicated throughout the performance to give it a dark, night-time flavour. Pedal should essentially be added here as suggested. Perhaps my favourite in the B list is Frank Bridge’s Miniature Pastoral. A wealth of teaching content here including: part playing, tone production, balance of melody and accompaniment, articulation, phrasing, pedalling and interpretation. The change of tempo and the ability to interpret effectively will need much support for a Grade 4 student but the rewards will be great. Schumann’s First Loss, from any Piano Teacher’s essential collection The Album for the Young, is no surprise to see here. Perhaps not the most popular one from the collection with students, the music is extremely sound and a solid choice.
Other alternative B pieces not included in the album worth special mentions include:
Granados Dedicatoria is a really beautiful piece that some teachers will recognise from a recent Trinity Grade 5 list. It’s excellent for developing part playing and expressive interpretation within the romantic genre. Do also check out Vaughan Williams’ Valse lente with its modal harmony, it’s a real gem! Liszt’s La cloche sonne, too, is worth investigating. Do check out the stunning arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Andante from his Violin Concerto in E minor arranged by Scott-Burt. Very accessible until the last line, the melody is gorgeous.
Bartók’s Teasing Song is the first in the list, a new key for many Grade 4 students with the melody passing between the hands and detailed articulation and rapid finger work required. Even though the notation appears very manageable, be aware that meeting the tempo puts this piece into perhaps the ‘tough choice’ category. I Hear What You Say by Ben Crosland will no doubt prove popular with students - a lovely composition but perhaps some students could struggle to make the bass line varied and musical? The complexity in the treble develops part playing and cantabile legato. Shark Soup by Sam Wedgwood is extremely playable. The detailed articulation and dynamics within a steady tempo and a very obvious genre is very helpful to the less experienced player. Perhaps nearer Grade 3 in level, it will certain be a very helpful selection!
Other alternative C pieces not included in the album worth special mentions include:
Buried Rubies No. 8 by Alison Mathews is very beautiful and gives the student the opportunity to create wonderful sound worlds. Perhaps the star on the whole grade is Arvo Pärt’s Für Anna Maria, which surely will be loved by so many. Packed with teaching content, it’s foundational for expressive playing and quite gorgeous to play and hear. I’m excited to hopefully hear this as I travel festival-adjudicating in the future!
- The A list here is dominated by Baroque and Classical composers. Two Baroque composers included in the main album this time (Arne and Handel). No Classical composers appear in the main album but Beethoven, Haydn, Hummel and Mozart appear on the additional lists. Two Romantic composers do appear with Burgmüller and Tchaikovsky. The B list appears a little more as B lists of old. The balance of material again favours contemporary and educational composers at just under 50% this time. Bound to be popular, Einaudi hits the ABRSM syllabus for the first time, here in Grade 5 but also appearing in Grade 2.
- Again, if teachers plan to use just the main album, Classical repertoire needs to be added; as already mentioned in Grade 4, Clementi’s Sonatinas Opus 36 are very useful along with Minuets and Trios by any great Classical composer. It’s pretty essential in Grade 5 to prepare students for playing future Classical canon in Sonata form if to advance to the later grades.
- The benchmarking within this grade is much more to be expected. However, one cannot think that some of the material on the Grade 4 list is indeed a little more challenging than that on the Grade 5? Heather Hammond’s Changing Times not appearing any more difficult than Ben Crosland’s and Barbara Arens’ offerings in Grade 4? Is Arne’s Presto perhaps a little more manageable than Grade 4 Bach’s C Minor Prelude or Beethoven’s Allegro assai if played up to speed?
The Knight Errant by Burgmüller is from Opus 100 (a must for every piano teacher’s shelf); demanding stamina, this is pretty straightforward as long as a good staccato touch has previously been developed and finger-work is even. Presto by Arne will be recognised from previous ABRSM syllabuses but also another board’s current syllabus. Accessible but still challenging, this piece includes very attractive harmony whilst also developing a light event touch essential for the Baroque cannon. Toccata in G minor by Handel includes some tricky rhythms and a fair amount of ornamentation, but with a very slow tempo it will be manageable for many. A detached bass line gives a stylistic interpretation to this not terribly known toccata.
Other alternative A pieces not included in the album worth special mentions include:
Bach’s famous F major invention requiring much technical control along with an also well-known Beethoven Bagatelle in G minor (excellent preparation for future Sonata playing). Fiocco’s Andante is very attractive and a bit of a musical gem. The Krebs Toccata is attractive and fun, Mozart’s Theme ‘Ah vous dirai-je, maman’ (twinkle twinkle) – just the theme and two variations – is likely to prove popular with many.
Amy Beach is a particularly talented composer for her era. Arctic Night requires a well-developed pianist for this level who can maintain musical interest with a significant amount of musical repetition. It’s a challenging choice in the B list but arguably includes much pedagogical reward compared to others on the list. Starry Dome by Nevada will most likely become a regular for examiners, haunting, attractive, very playable once the counting is mastered and ties accurately realised – it’s rather lovely! Sweet Dreams by Tchaikovsky is pretty standard repertoire for the grade, a part playing/balance and voicing feast with the melody moving between the hands. Light chords are essential; it’s an articulation feast.
Other alternative B pieces not included in the album worth special mentions include:
Many of the alternatives appear to be in minor keys (just two in the major out of seven) so not the most cheerful! Some favourites: Massenet’s Mélodie No. 5 (currently also appearing on another board’s syllabus) is very haunting and students find it attractive. Pachulski’s Prelude in C minor is not easy at this level but very attractive and well worth the effort, and the very famous From Foreign Lands and People by Schumann will no doubt be a hit with many. To play this well does require considerable skill!
A piece that has starred in a number of syllabuses from the old Guildhall to Trinity now hits the ABRSM exam room. Mister Trumpet Man by Gillock at Grade 5 (it’s super manageable), I’m sure, will be a must-play piece. Students would do well to listen to some Jazz ensembles to make their chords sound just like a brass chorus! From one of EPTA’s own, Heather Hammond’s piece Changing Times enjoys a lovely contrasting B section where Jazz waltz rhythms can be explored, again a likely popular choice with some good teaching content! The Tarantella by Prokofiev almost appears a little out of place on this list when the Grade 4 Kabalevsky appeared in list A. Requiring fast finger work, this is perhaps a harder choice than others on the C list.
Other alternative C pieces not included in the album worth special mentions include
Agay Blue Waltz is attractive and playable. A very exciting play, perfect for a concert, is Alwyn’s The Sea is Angry; even though fast, much appears in similar motion making it more accessible with dynamics and articulation plentiful. Victoria Borisova-Ollas offers something very special with Silent Island, a wonderful introduction to something with an atonal palette. Perhaps a very likely popular play will be Einaudi’s Elegy for the Arctic (the first time he appears in an ABRSM syllabus). Do Check out the YouTube video of Einaudi performing his piece in the actual Arctic here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-ZaEU3H3zA
Rollin’s Love Theme has been loved by many students over the years, so it’s lovely to see it appear. A beautiful melody with lovely part writing, bound to make concert appearances as well as being a safe choice in the exam room.
• Welcome return of examination favourites
• Excellent traditional pedagogy repertoire in list A
• Some really welcome unexpected surprises
A1 Pescetti: Allegro
Although written for the harpsichord, this spirited movement sounds well on the modern piano. Decisions will have to made about dynamics by teacher and pupil, remembering that, by tradition, a lively piece like this begins f. Rising phrases may crescendo; falling ones diminuendo while echo effects can add colour. The texture suggests its Baroque roots, but the character and form reveal the later style galant with its emerging sonata form.
Articulation will involve more debate, but should be agreed before serious practising begins. The quaver upbeats should be detached, of course, and the triumphant recapitulation (bar 54) would sound best f again.
A2 Mozart: Allegro
Mozart wrote home excitedly about the fortepianos that were developing in the 1770s and his keyboard sonatas belong to that instrument. On the modern piano we have to be sensitive about balance and dynamic range. It would be helpful for your pupils to listen to and see Mozart’s own instrument. There is an interesting performance on YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA44wda3prE
At this time Mozart only employed f and p (used formerly for two-manual harpsichord) and the wedge-shaped staccato that could mean either a normal dot or slightly accented. To achieve the vital lightness for the alberti figures, try practising on the key surface, keeping the thumb close to the keys. Many of the slurs are to be played as such, but many are bowing marks (another tradition of the day) and it is best not to break up lines as in bars 3-4, 13 and similar.
A3 Carl Nielsen: Snurretoppen
The piano music of Nielsen is not as well known as his orchestral works, but the Humoreske-Bagateller contain some wonderfully imaginative pieces. With its reference to Schubert’s song Gretchen am Spinnrade, it provides an excellent opportunity for finger dexterity. The left hand has an important descending melodic line, and slight emphasis on the top notes in the first two bars (and similar) adds another layer to the texture.
There are not as many notes to learn as first glance suggests. The first eight bars are repeated, and after the eight-bar middle section, they return just to be altered at the end to bring in a short coda. The glissando is played with the left hand, perhaps indicating the top falling over? Advise your pupil to practise this on the key-surface a lot of the time to avoid scraping the skin round the nails.
In the alternative list A:5 CPE Bach Solfeggietto will unquestionably be a popular choice. Its pedagogical value for articulation and control cannot be over-stressed, and the piece was only recently on the syllabus, so the early return speaks volumes. A:6 JS Bach’s E major two part invention offers a less energised but equally nutritious alternative and of course A:10 Scarlatti Sonata in A K208 is extremely well known and expressively expansive. If you are after more unfamiliar fare then do try the delights of A:7 Cimarosa Allegro or A:8 Handel Fantasia in A. All of these, along with the other alternative pieces in each grade, will be examined in greater detail in the Autumn edition of Piano Professional.
B1 Chopin: Mazurka in G minor
This is one of Chopin’s easiest mazurkas, and provides an ideal place for your pupils to begin learning about the unique character of the dance. Once the notes are learnt, there will need to be an understanding of the role of rubato and subtle changes of tempo. What better way than to hear this played on YouTube by the great Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein.
The pedalling given needs to be expanded, especially in bars 6 and 7 where a direct pedal on the sf chords is released on the second beat of the next bar. The only passage that doesn’t require any pedal is the solo voice at bar 33. In the last bar it is important to retain the bass note, so play the A quietly to maintain the clarity.
B2 Debussy: Page d’album
Debussy’s piano music represents one of the most important stages in the development of keyboard music. A melancholy, dream-like mood pervades the falling melodies and beautiful harmonies. The rubato is indicated by the frequent changes of tempo….cédez, and en serrant, but it is important that the basic tempo is felt throughout.
The pedal should be changed on first beats only except in bars 14, 20 and 34 when a change will be needed on the third beat. It is important to maintain the bass line, even when notes have what appears to be a staccato dot. This is a form of colouring seen in much of Debussy’s piano music. The tempo mark is just a suggestion by the editor, so it could go a little slower if felt suitable.
B3 Senfter: Erster Schmerz
The title immediately brings to mind Schumann and his Album for the Young. Balance is going to be the most important technical challenge. With this texture it is useful to practise the melody with the basic bass notes, so in bar 1 the LH just plays A, then G#, G natural and so on. Then it is discovered that strands of bass melody appear (see bars 6–7 and 13–16). For a few bars (from bar 17) the LH even dominates, but always keep the accompanying chords light.
The middle section is in 6/8, but should maintain the same crotchet tempo. Instead of a smooth legato, here the mood and articulation change. Pedal should only be used for the dotted crotchet chords so the staccato and rests are clear.
The alternative pieces in list B include two regular ‘returners’: B:6 Glière Prelude in D flat (deliciously whimsical) and B:10 Khatchaturian Legend (searchingly expressive). It is good to see the popular B:5 Dello Joio Prayer of the Matador there too (evocatively characterful music which was also set by Trinity for this grade in 2015), along with more intriguing rarities such as B:4 York Bowen A Pastel, B:8 Stephen Hough Little Lullaby and B:9 Howells There was a Most beautiful lady. The riches of British music are certainly explored sympathetically in this part of the syllabus.
C1 Martha Mier: Opening Night Jazz
This is one of those show pieces, ideal for a concert audience, and pupils always enjoy playing jazzy pieces. It would be useful to begin by practising the LH so that a strong support line is established. Thereafter, just add the RH a few bars at a time. There is a generous supply of dynamics to give the piece plenty of colour.
The eventual tempo is fast, so security must be built up slowly at first. It might be helpful to practise with a metronome until the rhythm is relaxed and confident. Gradually increase the tempo until the performance really begins to swing!
C2 Malcolm Arnold: The Buccaneer
Only a bold attack will be suitable for this lawless sailor! It is almost always f or ff, only quietening down for a few bars in the middle before suddenly bursting out again for its rowdy conclusion. Be careful about the “rumpty-tumpty” rhythm from bar 7 onwards, and look out for the bars where three crotchets cut across compound figures (see bars 1, 17, 20, 31 & 36).
The performer must be confident and able to employ a powerful arm technique in order to maintain the stamina required for this piece. Having said that, the piece will be great fun to play and certainly make the audience sit up!
C3 Karen Tanaka: Lavender Field
For the pupil who becomes very nervous in the performance situation, this charming piece may be a good choice. It flows along gently, the melody singing sweetly in the left hand while the right wafts quietly above like a light breeze over the lavender field. The only real challenge will be managing the two-against-three rhythm in bars 3 and 5. In the one or two places where the left hand crosses over the right, the arms must feel relaxed.
The pedalling is indicated throughout and tells us that the touch must be sensitive so that the sounds blend subtly without any harshness. The una corda pedal could be applied from bar 19–22, and again for the last four bars of the coda.
In the list C alternative choice list it is lovely to see the return of the exuberant, memorable and witty C:7 Paul Harvey Rumba Toccata. Almost as popular with teachers is C:10 Prokofiev Cortège de Sauterelles, though those who are after even more adventurous fare could try C:4 Bernstein For Stephen Sondheim, C:5 Casella Galop Final, C:9 Stephen Montague Tsunami (complete with instructions to make loud exhaling breath noises at the end!) or perhaps ease into the expressive jazz world of C:9 Nikki Iles East Coast Blues.
• List A mixture of baroque and classical repertoire
• Adventurous List B
• Extreme contrasts in wide ranging C list
A1 J.S. Bach: Sinfonia No.15
Sometimes referred to as three-part Inventions, this Sinfonia is the last of the set. The three-note figures of the principal theme are best played with a slur followed by two lightly detached notes. This helps a hidden melody to emerge. In contrast, the counter melody is effective played legato. The main challenges lie with the demisemiquaver figures where a reliable fingering must be established, and coordination in bars like 13 and 16.
There are quite a lot of tied notes that must be held to sustain the texture. Again, dynamics and shaping will be important; this was probably written for clavichord which has the capability of varying levels of tone, albeit somewhat limited compared to the piano.
A2 Beethoven: Bagatelle Op.33 No.1
The Bagatelles are a rich resource that helps to lead the way to an understanding of Beethoven’s style and creative world. The wedge-shaped markings are the normal staccato here, indeed many should be light, except at the end where a bolder attack is needed, and for the occasional one marked sf. A great deal of the Bagatelle is marked p, and there the sf attack should be contained within that dynamic level.
The double notes in bars 19–20 and 69–70 will need careful practice, and in bars 21–23 it might be easier to take all the B flat notes with the LH. The music never strays far from the E flat tonality; even the central episode of this rondo is in the tonic minor.
A3 Telemann: Vivace
In this exciting movement many of the quavers should be detached; a useful guide is to play those that move stepwise legato, and those that jump detached (imagine a cellist crossing strings). Separate hands, slow practice will develop security for the runs once fingerings have been settled.
The dynamics suggested are editorial and the performer is at liberty to change these if so wished. The ritornello form gives scope for playing the tutti sections (up to bar 8) f, and from that bar the solo group playing a varied range from pto mf. Within the solo passages there is scope for terraced dynamics and echo effects. The next tutti section is at bar 26 and the last from after the pause. It would be fun to invent a short cadenza at that point before the orchestra rounds off the movement triumphantly.
There is a really solid, invaluable and varied selection of 18th century fare in the alternative list A selection, including the neglected A:4 CPE Bach Allegro (sonata in F minor), A:8 Paradies Allegro (6th Sonata). This is presented alongside the much more familiar- and regular ABRSM returner A:10 Scarlatti Sonata in E K380. Its super to see the French baroque represented at this level too with A:9 Rameau Les sauvages. The collection is completed with A:5 Haydn Sonata in E Hob. XVI:31 ( once a choice back in the 1990s for Grade 5!) A:6 Kuhlau (always a beneficial composer to study) and the quirky, witty angularity that is A:7 Mozart Gigue K574.
B1 Fauré: Andante moderato
The melancholy beauty of the piece will make it a popular choice. For ease of execution, the rising arpeggio figure that begins each phrase can be shared between the hands, left hand playing the first three or four notes (fingerings adjusted). The melody rises and falls in expressive curves and this should be reflected in the dynamics. At bar 9, play the accompaniment’s F double sharp with the right hand, and immediately start rolling the left hand chord (be sure to catch the bass note with pedal) and play the octave G# with the B#.
The second section (dolce) begins tenderly, but becomes more passionate as the music rises. Notice the enharmonic change in bar 13, and begin to urge the music forward a little towards the climax in bars 16–17. The speed can then unwind gradually back to the original tempo, making way for the ending that reposes warmly in the major key.
B2 Grieg: Sarabande (Holberg Suite)
Before beginning the piece, it would be good for your pupil to listen to this on YouTube in its orchestral form. The rhythmic feature of the Sarabande is the emphasis on the second beat; not all, but wherever there is a minim or dotted crotchet. There are some awkward stretches, and in the score there are brackets (L) to show where notes could be taken by the right-hand.
If a pupil has difficulty with the upper mordents (bar 4 and similar), an acciaccatura is an acceptable substitute, and certainly better than delaying the flow. The change of tempo at bar 9 is only very slight; the mood is still calm, but as it begins to slow down at bar 23, the mood becomes more passionate for a few bars. The given metronome marks work well.
B3 Ni Hongjin: Cradle Song
Don’t let the key put your pupil off from playing this charming lullaby. Much of this is pentatonic and played on the black keys, the rocking accompaniment suggesting the mother singing her baby to sleep. Clearly time needs to be spent practising the left-hand part until it feels comfortable. Adding the melody then is comparatively easy. However, there are one or two bars that will require attention. In bar 22 the 4 against 6 may cause difficulty, although playing 2 against 3 should not be a problem by now, and if you divide the bar into half it suddenly appears as 2 against 3 played twice!
Apart from the pentatonic passages, there is some chromaticism and a few unexpected dissonances where maybe the baby stirs and whimpers a little before falling asleep.
In the alternative list B selection there are some especially welcome surprises and discoveries. B:4 Alan Bullard Prelude no. 9 is a freshly minted creation, full of character and tactile pianism. B:5 Hensel Mélodie op. 4 no. 2 is delightful too, as is the much more famous B:6 Liszt Consolation in E, which will require care with phrasing, balancing and pace. B:7 Lyadov Mazurka in F minor is full of character and expressivity. But there are so many other worthy possibilities for consideration here, whether of a more unfamiliar nature (B:9 Richardson Sonatina- once very popular with younger players) or from the great romantic composers (B:8 Mendelssohn Song without words op. 19 no. 1, B:10 Schumann Kinderscenen op. 15 no. 12)
C1 Madeline Dring: Pink Minor
Pink Minor comes from Madeline Dring’s Colour Suite (Five Rhythmic Studies for Piano). Although it does not indicate whether the piece should be straight or swung, the latter seems to be the most likely, especially as triplet figures appear from time to time. The rondo theme is stated simply at first, but is embellished more with every appearance, and the textures become thicker.
Some extra attention will be needed for the left hand part at bars 21 and 53, where jumps and full chords need to be negotiated cleanly. Pedal will be useful in a few places, mainly on straight crotchet chord passages and longer chords (e.g. bar 17). Once the notes are secure, performers will greatly enjoy the exuberance of the music.
C2 Ibert: Le petit âne blanc
Who can resist this brilliant picture of a donkey contentedly trotting along a country lane? In the key of F# major, a lot of this is played on black notes. The metronome mark is not the composer’s, so a slightly slower tempo may be preferred for the first section (crotchet c.64?) to allow for the impact of the faster middle section. Does something startle the donkey, or does he suddenly feel like kicking over the traces and having some fun? Whatever the reason he trots along faster, throwing up his head and braying loudly.
Crisp staccato is required throughout the piece, with just a few dabs of pedal as indicated in the score. After the excitement of the middle section, it gradually relaxes and resumes “with the same peaceful humour as the beginning”.This is a piece that performer and audience will love.
C3 Rhian Samuel: The Therapy of Moonlight
This is a piece for the pupil with imagination and a fascination for exploring new sounds and colours. There is something disturbing about the music, the calmness obscuring some danger lurking in the shadows, perhaps. A wide keyboard range is employed as well as a dramatic use of dynamics from pp to fff . For those passages marked ped. lightly, try using half-damping (the dampers only slightly lifted so they just tickle the strings) to create a mysterious, hazy sound. In an exam situation this would be a passage to try out before the exam begins.
There are many changes of tempo to look out for, but once the notes have been learnt, this is not a difficult piece to play.
Space forbids more than a cursory mention of the alternative list C pieces, but it is wonderful to see the inclusion of C:4 Bartók Bagpipers, C:5 Chen Yi Bamboo Dance (one of the more familiar numbers from the ‘Spectrum’ series of contemporary miniatures) as well as C:6 Ginastera Tribute to Roberto Garcia Morillo (not uncommonly heard in festivals played by young players). The charm of C:7 Grovlez Chanson du chasseur deserves to be as popular as C:8 Kern Smoke Gets in your eyes and C:10 Norton Pop Bossa- the latter a definite ‘showstopper’ that could prove invaluable in recitals.
Some general 2021-22 ABRSM reflections and comment before a Grade 8 summary
As this long read comes to a close, here are some reflections based on the positive suggestions, observations and comments made above by team EPTA UK! As I sit here editing what they have written at very short notice, I feel sure that there is much to stimulate and inspire all our students in the new ABRSM syllabus. And I also look forward to further review symposiums in the near future in this forum - Trinity will be launching their new syllabus very soon, with LCM following in due course too. Watch out for our return!
I have distant memories from the 1970s of terrifying lists of scales, complete, twenty-minute-long sonatas, and stern Calvinistic Scottish piano teachers who insisted on their students taking two hyper-disciplined, labour-intensive complete academic years to prepare for Grade 8. Occasionally these recollections merge with dreams that interrupt my sleep with mild terror! Back in the twentieth century, Grade 8 for many teachers was something of a quest – an ultimate goal in their pedagogy – if not quite the holy grail of music making. I like to think things have changed a bit for the better now, and that quality is generally considered by the musical community to be far more important than quantity. Whilst Grade 8 was unquestionably a massive undertaking in terms of stipulated requirements for candidates of the past, things have steadily been easing off. There is a real concern that parity should exist between different instruments and for pianists this has meant that gradually the numbers of scales and the durations of set pieces, particularly in the B list, has decreased considerably.
This new 2021-22 syllabus unquestionably takes parity even further. Is ABRSM emulating Trinity in terms of scales and arpeggios? Have they also been trying to match Trinity by blurring the differences between lists of pieces so that you can play nothing but 20th and 21st century repertoire for all three repertoire choices in an exam if you so choose and wish? Should we be worried that you only have four keys now to prepare for most of the Grade 8 scales and arpeggios whereas there were eight in 2020? Is there cause for concern that the lovely Scottish-American, turn-of-the-century composer Helen Hopekirk’s gorgeous Air (B:3) is arguably more appropriate for inclusion in Grade 7 than Grade 8? This kind of talk amongst teachers is common, and can lead to a sense of outrage and concern. My own view is not to panic. It is up to each and every one of us to maintain standards, and always to remember that standards come from the first lesson. It is not the level of difficulty that determines how artistic, magical and beautiful playing can and should always be. Let’s therefore not become overly concerned about mechanical challenges and quantities of scales on lists.
Of course there will be many teachers who do worry - change tends to induce stress and concern. We should all remember that ABRSM never existed to provide a curriculum in itself. Trinity, ABRSM and London College exams are wonderful, vital and vibrant tools for an existing curriculum and should be seen as useful musical signposts along the individual artistic journeys that all our pupils undertake. Just because you do not have to play D flat major in thirds and sixths in ABRSM Grade 8 now on the day of your exam does not mean that you should never learn how to do so! All teachers of integrity and standing will allow for this, and encourage their pupils to explore and experiment beyond any syllabus currently in operation.
In regard to levels of difficulty, it is always important to mention that many pieces on the syllabus can be transformed from one grade to another by the manner in which they are performed. If you choose to play C:10 Villa-Lobos O polichinelo in the way that Artur Rubinstein did (it was one of his favourite encores) then the music becomes diploma level rather than Grade 8. Likewise, here is me with C:7 Khachaturian Toccata live a few years back: https://youtu.be/SxRBkwcSxk8 taking speeds that would not be expected by a Grade 8 candidate, but having a lot of fun nonetheless!
So this is the message from Grade 8, and also from earlier grades in this most fascinating, varied and rather revolutionary change of syllabus: we can all feel scandalised about differences of difficulty between pieces in the same grade and worry about benchmarks, but ultimately the criteria for examining that the board uses remains sound. There is no point in being distrustful or suspicious: we should place our trust in the professionalism and integrity of our examiners to assess our candidates accordingly and teach our own bespoke curriculums with confidence and assurance.
Grade 8 at a glance
Let’s finish with a whistlestop tour of the rest of the Grade 8 lists, with the promise that the autumn issue of Piano Professional will provide further commentary and insight into the syllabus as a whole.
A:1 Bach Fantasia in C minor is an imposingly impressive and virtuoso showpiece that has long held a place as one of the more technically challenging Grade 8 works. For those with determination and patience it will be a rewarding choice. Needless to say, it is inadvisable for those who struggle with co-ordination and who find it hard to practise regularly… A:2 Haydn Sonata in A flat first movement is an undisputed masterpiece of the sonata literature and a very ambitious choice for Grade 8, requiring taste, rhythmic cohesion, good co-ordination and the ability to colour and shape within a classical framework. As a whole the sonata is a stalwart of the diploma lists. A:3 Clara Schumann Prelude and Fugue in B flat is an rare gem of a find - beautiful and memorable music in a Mendelssohnian idiom that is perfectly approachable for students ready to tackle their first ever fugue. Charles Owen on the accompanying CD gives an exquisitely elegant and poetic account, highlighting possibilities via tasteful and sensitive articulation contrasts. Indeed it is worth mentioning as an aside here that performances on the accompanying CDs inserted into each grade book are not only consistently helpful – never straying beyond tempos that candidates could conceivably manage – but also often very artistically beautiful in their own right. The team of performers ABRSM has used includes many of the brightest names from the younger generation including Yulia Chaplina, Dinara Klinton, Robert Thompson and Richard Uttley. Bravo to all!
Back to the chase. In the alternative A list, Bach G major Prelude and Fugue book two is a substantial and challenging task for a Grade 8 player, and one that many teachers would expect their students to undertake. It seems strange to have this as a choice next to A:5 Beethoven Sonata in E major, Op.14 No.1 (first movement), always a standard Grade 8 set choice: Clearly the old days when you did a classical movement in list B and a contrapuntal or Baroque piece in list A are long gone. A:6 Handel Prelude and Fugue turns the piano into a proverbial organ and provides an alternative option to the A:4 for those wishing to stick with Baroque counterpoint in their exam programme. A:7 Martínez Allegro/Moderato from Sonata No.3 in A is an absolute gem of a discovery and a choice that should really have been presented in the main booklet. It is relatively straightforward technically but ravishingly poetic and poised, providing Mozartian cantabile and grace with minimum stress levels in terms of technically demanding corners. I cannot stress strongly enough how useful this particular piece could be to many candidates. A:8 Mozart Sonata in A K331 first movement is much more familiar and will doubtless be a popular option, even if the subtlety required could prove quite elusive and challenging. To be approached with caution. A:9 Rameau Les cyclopes is a beautiful piece, but the challenges of coping with the refined ornamentation, not to mention the considerable co-ordination and facility required for a number of the passages, may make this too challenging for many players. A:10 Scarlatti Sonata in D K443 has appeared previously on the Grade 8 list and for many may prove a safer option, its ceremonial and optimistic character never requiring outsized keyboard pyrotechnics. A lovely sonata that will give much tactile enjoyment as well as a sense of musical substance.
Moving on, B:1 Brahms’ Intermezzo in E Op.116 No.6 hardly needs an introduction, though a gentle word of caution may be appropriate for some - late Brahms requires considerable sensitivity as well as the ability not only to phrase with sostenuto and expansion but also to produce tonal colours that are appropriately rich, dark, resonant and magisterial. It almost goes without saying that it is never enough just to play all the correct notes in this repertoire. B:2 Hopekirk Air has already been mentioned as arguably belonging on the Grade 7 list, but that is not to take away from its immediacy, charm, impressive sense belonging on the keyboard, not to mention its wistfully quasi Celtic character. A real find and one that could prove reliable and enjoyable for many. B:3 Poulenc Novelette is much better known, and is the ideal choice for candidates who feel comfortable with pedalling and using rubato freely and naturally. Though relatively slow and reflective, this is not music for shrinking violets and requires personality and performance élan to take flight. On the alternative list, less confident players may warm more to B:4 Arensky Nocturne in D flat Op.36 No.3. This is an exquisite miniature that seems close to early Scriabin with its chromaticism and post Chopinesque phrasing. The filigree virtuosity may prove challenging to players who cannot play delicately at speed in ornamental flourishes. B:5 Chopin Mazurka in A minor Op.17 No.4 is extremely well known and looks simple on the page - but please do not release this for performance on players who are musically in need of development. The rhythmic subtlety and precision required is considerable. Pedalling balancing and phrasing need to be gauged and experimented with over and over again in the practice studio if stylistic integrity is to be achieved. A dangerous choice in that the superficial ease disguises the long-term complications and potential problems. B:6 Ireland Columbine is striking in a wistfully introverted way, and requires care, reflection and stylistic sensitivity. B:7 Janáček In the Mists(first movement) is another choice that looks far easier than it actually is. Controlling the space between notes, the phrasing, capturing the brooding volatility of the characterisation, and balancing the improvisatory demands against the written text will lead to much fascination and intrigue in preparation. What extraordinary music this truly is! B:8 Rachmaninoff Moment Musical in D flat Op.16 No.5 is one of the best-loved Russian recital pieces, a work that we all know and cherish. It requires a great sense of line, the ability to balance textures with tonal sensitivity, and to pedal with awareness and care. This music may be relatively quiet but it is quasi orchestral, making the piano so much bigger than it actually is. B:9 Schubert Impromptu in A flat D935 and B:10 Schumann Romanze in F sharp are much more familiar but different in terms of accessibility. The Schumann is initially forbiddingly complex on account of its key signature (so many sharps!) but when assimilated, can prove a reliable and deeply satisfying choice for a Grade 8 player. In contrast, the Schubert is relatively easy to assimilate in the early stages of learning, but can prove frustratingly elusive as phrasing, balancing, pedalling, rubato and articulation are gradually refined.
C:1 Bartók Rondo is a safe choice: charming, contrasted and memorable music that does not over-stretch in terms of stamina and facility but which requires care, sensitivity and precision in order to really leap off the page and sound characterful. C:2 Norton Jingo from ‘Rock Preludes 1’ will give fun, satisfaction and street cred with young listeners almost immediately. But a word of warning: in this type of music, discipline and precision are easily lost as familiarity increases. It is vital that regular pianistic and musical MOTs are taken to ensure that all of the details on the printed page are faithfully in place come examination day! C:3 Sculthorpe Snow, Moon and Flowers is something of a surprise choice as it comes from a suite that has regularly appeared on the DIPABRSM list for many years. It requires careful preparation but will be rewarding for intelligent, reflective pupils who enjoy exploring hushed sonorities and varying their tonal palettes at a sub mezzo piano level. From the alternative list C:4 Chaminade Pierette (Air de Ballet) takes us back to the Victorian Music Hall with much charm, optimistic sweep and eloquence. C:5 Chen Peixun Thunder in Drought Season is another great discovery, requiring neat and sparkling fingerwork in a style that sounds like Chinese Scarlatti. C:6 Debussy Rêverie has always been a popular Grade 8 choice - and for good reason. Its ravishing textures and instantly memorable right-hand melody makes it one of the most popular of all piano pieces. Do be careful with isometric rhythms between the hands, though, which can upset the characterisation and send the performance into uncertain territories if not fully mastered. C:7 Khachaturian Toccata has already been discussed - but just to add that this is not a good choice for candidates with small hands. C:8 Uwe Korn Caballos Españoles from the South German-based teacher and composer renowned for educational music is a delightful smiling homage to the Argentinian Tango of Piazzolla and a strong choice for energised candidates. In total contrast C:9 Cecilia McDowall Vespers in Venice is reflective, expansive and full of atmosphere and suspense. Wonderful evocations of bells and final quotations of Monteverdi (Vespers and opening of Orfeo) amongst much else. Adventurous candidates need look no further for their list C choice! Finally C:10 Villa-Lobos O polichinelo which has already been mentioned - a great piece that can be taken far from the examination room and played at a transcendental tempo by virtuosos! But those with less experience – and smaller hands – could well enjoy preparing this exciting piece. If there is enough time to practise, sufficient determination and spirit, then ‘Punch’ ( to translate the title) most certainly fits the bill!