ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2019/20: an overview

I shall preface this overview by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that learning an instrument is not solely about taking exams, and indeed only a small number of my pupils opt to sit them. An exam syllabus, contrary to what some teachers seem to believe, is not a curriculum; yet, even for those of us who use the exams fairly lightly, it does offer a range of repertoire suggestions, and is often a good way to expand our repertoire knowledge. In that sense, a refreshed exam syllabus is a good thing.

I’m grateful to ABRSM for providing me with a set of the new books: rather than review them (others have done that extensively already, especially Andrew Eales and Karen Marshall, whose excellent review can be found here), I shall provide an overview of my highlights from each of the eight grades. I’ve also tried, where possible, to offer some highlights from those pieces not found in the ABRSM books themselves.

Syllabus

The new piano syllabus covers the period 2019/20, and candidates can opt to use the new pieces from the A Period 2019. There are no changes to the scales, sight-reading or aural requirements for the next two years, although I continue to hear rumours of expected scale changes from 2021. Overall, the syllabus contains 158 pieces, of which 75 are included in ABRSM’s own books of selected pieces.

Grade 1

On List A, it’s nice to see William Duncombe’s Minuet in C which also features on the new LCM piano syllabus (although there, it’s called Trumpet Tune), but also Heather Hammond’s arrangement of the 15th-century Agincourt Song which I mentioned in my May 2018 New Discoveries blog post. As ever, List B feels like the poor relation, and I was surprised to see Oesten’s The Echo appear again as in syllabus terms, it appeared in the 2005/6 syllabus (where I note it was titled Das Echo…).

In List C, Ian King’s Happy Day will surely be a hit with pupils, although my personal favourite is Kevin Wooding’s The Egyptian Level which will well serve those pupils who like character pieces. Of the alternatives, Andrew Eales’s Head in the Clouds is well worth a look on List B. Overall, the selection is much more appropriate for the level, so ABRSM have clearly listened here to teacher feedback.

My picks:

  • A3 – English, arr. Hammond: Agincourt Song
  • B5 – Eales: Head in the Clouds
  • C3 – Wooding: The Egyptian Level

Grade 2

The selection of List A pieces at Grade 2 is, in my view, especially worthy of commendation, as all three pieces offer useful introductions to styles and genres which will feature at later grades. The ornaments in Diabelli’s Lesson in C, whilst optional, are quite fun and fairly manageable. The inclusion in List A of the anonymous Musette in D and in List B, Burgmüller’s Arabesque are what we might call ‘old favourites’, but in the latter list, Neugasimov’s Lazy Bear really stands out: another great character piece.

In comparison to some of the other pieces, Dusty Blue in List C, a solid blues number, seems on the easier-side, and Brian Chapple’s Petite valse is technically more challenging. That said, I think Grade 2 is triumph. There is something for everyone, and on all three lists, I think we’re spoilt for choice.

My picks:

  • A1 – Diabelli: Lesson in C
  • B3 – Neugasimov: Lazy Bear
  • C3 – Chapple: Petite valse

Grade 3

It’s good to see the inclusion in List A of a pre-baroque work in Pell’s arrangement of Praetorius’s Bransle de la torche: this is one which I think pupils will really enjoy. What’s perhaps lacking in List C at all three of the lower grades is something in terms of contemporary works which aren’t blues or jazz. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Diversion comes close, but I think ABRSM could perhaps have made more use of the Spectrum series of books to fill this gap. Overall, I felt a little underwhelmed at Grade 3.

My picks:

  • A3 – Praetorius, arr. Pell: Bransle de la torche
  • B1 – Carroll: Shadows
  • C2 – Bennett: Diversion

Grade 4

I’ve often found Grade 4 to be the poor relation when it comes to exam syllabuses; however, I think that on this occasion, a good mixture of pieces is offered. Pupils who like a challenge will enjoy the crossing over of hands in Benda’s Sonatina in A minor on List A, whilst on List B, David Blackwell’s arrangement of Elgar’s Chanson de matin is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the syllabus: it’s also serves as a useful reminder that we shouldn’t judge the difficulty of a piece by speed and number of semiquavers alone!

Another syllabus highlight must surely be William Gillock’s Holiday in Paris on List C. Remember that pupil who likes crossing over hands? They will also enjoy Sluka’s Rytmická on List C. I have to say that personally, I found the other List C piece, Richard Michael’s A Kwela for Caitlinone of the weaker pieces on the syllabus which is a shame: perhaps a cliché too far? Also worth a look on the alternative list is Ben Crosland’s Sleepytown Blues, and if you have a pupil who likes jazz and blues, I think this is a better option than the Michael.

My picks:

  • A2 – Benda: Sonatina in A minor
  • B3 – Elgar, arr. Blackwell: Chanson de matin
  • C1 – Gillock: Holiday in Paris

Grade 5

I felt on this occasion, that compared to previous years, and indeed, other grades on this syllabus, Grade 5 felt weak. Loeillet’s Minuetto on List A is pretty, and the ornaments are manageable. On List B, Kirchner’s Plauderei is tricky, but good for a pupil who can confidently balance the hands. On List C, I’m tempted to say thank goodness for Mike Cornick’s Film Noir as otherwise, I can see pupils struggling to choose. Of course, do look at the alternatives, especially as William Gillock’s New Orleans Nightfall, also on the 2005/6 syllabus has reappeared: this must surely be one of the favourite pieces of all time!

My picks:

  • A3 – Loeillet: Minuetto
  • B1 – Kirchner: Plauderei
  • C3 – Cornick: Film Noir

Grade 6

I’m always particularly interest in the Grade 6 lists because of my work mentoring teachers for teaching diplomas. I’m a big Arne fan, so it’s great to see another of his pieces appear on List A (another appeared on List A at Grade 7 several years ago and I’d highly recommend all the sonatas). On List B, I think Bruch’s Moderato and Chopin’s Prelude in B minor will both be popular (the latter perhaps on the easier side for Grade 6). ABRSM have found three really lovely pieces for List C: Darius Brubeck’s Tugela Rail, Jacques Ibert’s Sérénade sur l’eau and Fredrico Ruiz’s Un amanecer en Santa Mata. Add to those Richard Rodney Bennett’s Eight Maids a-Milking on the alternative list, candidates and teachers are spoilt for choice here.

My picks:

  • A1 – Arne: Andante
  • B1 – Bruch: Moderato
  • C1 – Brubeck: Tugela Rail

Grade 7

Now, I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge Haydn fan, but I was quite taken with his Tempo di Minuetto on List A. It was good to see some Mendelssohn on List B, but also Hubert Parry’s Elizabeth which was new to me (it would also be an excellent opportunity for me to produce for pupils my letters signed by Parry!) Another Richard Rodney Bennett number, Rosemary’s Waltz appears on List C, and could offer pupils a really lovely contrast to their List A and B pieces. Also worth a look on the alternative list is Christopher Norton’s Mambo also on List C.

My picks:

  • A2 – Haydn: Tempo di Minuetto
  • B3 – Parry: Elizabeth
  • C1 – Bennett: Rosemary’s Waltz

Grade 8

So, we come to Grade 8, where unlike the previous grades, there are a total of 32 pieces to choose from. It is good to see the inclusion on List A of two movements from Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor as an alternative to the traditional prelude and fugue (don’t worry, there’s one on the alternative list). I have to say, that nothing especially grabbed me on List B, either in the book or on the alternative list: this list, probably more than all the others at the other grades felt the safest.

In List C, Chopin’s Nocturne in G minor will be popular, I’m sure, whilst Debussy’s Voiles is, in my opinion, at the harder end of the Grade 8 repertoire. Nikolay Kapustin’s jazzy Sonatina which was previously on the alternative list at Grade 8 is a great addition. The Martinu is hard, but short, whilst Rachmaninov’s Elégie is hard and long! The piece which really grabbed me was Raymond Yiu’s Lullaby and it’s really good to see something contemporary by a living composer at Grade 8. Of the alternatives, Lili Boulanger’s Cortège is well worth a look.

My picks:

  • A1 – Bach: Sarabande and Gigue
  • B1 – C.P.E. Bach: Un poco allegro
  • C6 – Yui: Lullaby

Conclusion

Overall, I think this is a fairly ‘safe’ syllabus. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with safe, but ABRSM perhaps haven’t taken some the risks they have with previous syllabuses (I’m thinking particularly of the Alwyn and Bridge on the 2015/16 Grade 8 syllabus). I think ABRSM have listened to teacher feedback, and the pieces included at the lower grades now seem, in the main, to be more accessible. Personally, I’m pleased to see a move away from arrangements, especially when there is such a vast repertoire of original pieces. I’d say that Grades 2, 4 and 6 are my favourites this time round.


As a little aside, I did take the opportunity to look at the balance between the gender of composers and arrangers included at each grade:

This is not a piece of scientific research by any means, and is based on only a very quick look through and adding-up of the information easily available. Even so, taking my errors into account, there is a still a huge bias towards male composers.

Now, I’m not one for suggesting ABRSM should be including female composers’ works just because they’re female, and I’m fairly sure that most female composers would rather their works were included on merit; however, it’s perhaps a salutary reminder to us all, that the exam syllabus, and indeed, the music we play, doesn’t reflect the diverse nature of our society, and I think that extends beyond gender alone. We need, not just in terms of an exam syllabus, but as teachers and players, to explore more widely. It’s easy to level criticism at ABRSM for their choices, but we have to look at ourselves: the pieces they choose, in the main, reflect the pieces we play.


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