Spoilt for choice: ABRSM piano syllabus

Fiona Lau
Thursday, October 1, 2020

Fiona Lau rounds up a selection of new piano resources from ABRSM.


Selected new resources

Piano Exam Pieces ABRSM Initial to Grade 8 
Piano Scales and Arpeggios Initial to Grade 8, from 2021
Initial Grade Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests
Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces 2021-2022, ABRSM Grades Initial-8
Scale Explorer for Piano Grades 1-5, Bullard
Piano Start Duets: 26 duets at early beginner to Grade 2 level, complies and edited by Blackwell and Marshall

The excitement surrounding ABRSM's new piano syllabus this year is heightened by the inclusion of an Initial Grade, a duet option for Initial to Grade 3 (a great nerve steadier), and a new set of scale requirements. Although teachers may baulk at the thought of yet more change, the new requirements come with supporting material including an updated Practice Partners app, and a new app: Piano Scales Trainer for Grade 1-5 requirements.

The new syllabus with the new scale and arpeggio requirements begins in January 2021. However, the old syllabus with the old scale and arpeggio requirements is still valid for the whole of 2021, instead of the usual one term. Please note that you cannot mix and match new scales etc with old pieces!

There are now 30 choices of pieces for each grade; nine in the books and 21 ‘other’ pieces per grade. This does mean that Grade 8 loses two choices, but there is so much more choice elsewhere – in the books, but also out of them. A deal with Hal Leonard Europe means that individual downloads of syllabus pieces are available online, too.

Initial to Grade 3 candidates can choose to perform a duet as one of their three pieces. Several of these choices can be found in the Piano Star Duets book, and are listed in the ‘other’ pieces. The other duets are found in well-known duet books such as Duets with a Difference, The Microjazz Duets Collection, Mixed Doubles, Piano Magic Duets, The Joy of Piano Duets, etc.

The scale and arpeggio requirements have been seriously pruned. The most welcome is probably at Grade 8, where there are only four major and minor keys. The most surprising change is that at Grade 5, the so-called ‘gold standard’ of every scale in every key has disappeared. The syllabus now plods logically towards every key being covered. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is a syllabus and we must devise our own curriculum.

An Initial grade has appeared. It is examined and marked in exactly the same way as the other grades, with three pieces, scales and arpeggios (all of which will be asked), sight reading, and aural tests. It is a sound and logical step from tutor books to Grade 1.

Pieces are now selected by musical characteristics rather than period composed. So, for example, we now see Burgmüller's La Chevaleresque in list A, rather than list B, of Grade 5. ABRSM says that it has included pieces from more female composers and musicians from around the world. It has. However, no grade list manages 50 per cent women yet and the international composers are there but the BAME ones less so. Where is Joplin or Coleridge-Taylor? There's still a way to go.

I do like the increased choice for all grades; it includes something for everyone, from music by Praetorius to Einaudi. I am a little concerned that in the standard Grade 8 exam my pupils cannot choose the classic prelude and fugue, sonata movement, C list piece. However, we must not forget the new Performance Exam option, where you could perform this (NB there are no technical requirements).

From the supporting material I would suggest that your pupils hardly need the Piano Scale and Arpeggio books for Initial and Grade 1, and that the attractive and useful Scale Explorer books might be preferable. In these, scales and arpeggios for each grade are included alongside exercises, pieces in the relevant keys, and improv ideas. I would certainly suggest that teachers have copies.

The Teaching Notes book is the slimmest volume seen for a while, and only offers guidance on pieces included in the Piano Exam Pieces books. However, in the books, the footnotes to each piece by Richard Jones, and this time, Sally Cathcart, are of immense practical worth.

So, an embarrassment of riches or too much too soon? If you bought everything immediately, with the CDs, and all the new books, it would be expensive. (Although it's worth noting there are offers from retailers of a variety of bundles of music and resources.) With the technical requirements reduced and the detailed explanation at the back of every book, you/your pupils do not need every scale book for every grade. I like the wider choice of pieces, especially taken in conjunction with the new Performance Grades, and I have no doubt that my pupils will appreciate the reduced scale requirements as well as finding much to enjoy in the music.