ABRSM 2018 singing syllabus: more choice?

A few weeks ago, ABRSM released its revised singing syllabus for use from 2018. This is the first update to the syllabus since 2009.

ABRSM state that they have ‘refreshed’ the repertoire and ‘increased that choice still further by allowing any song to be sung in any key from Grade 1 to Grade 8.’ A new series of songbooks will also be available.

The biggest change in this syllabus is perhaps the removal of the requirement for a song to be sung in a language other than the candidate’s own at Grades 6-8. This change has also necessitated the removal of the fourth song at the higher grades to bring the syllabus in line with other instruments. The lists at Grades 6-8 have been expanded into Lists A to E, with songs required from three of those five lists.

Personally, I think this is a disappointing change, and in some ways, as has been highlighted in some of the comments I’ve already read online, a retrograde step. Whilst I can appreciate the argument that singing in another language is traditionally associated with classical singing, and not everyone wants to follow that path, I think that these days, with LCM Pop Vocals, LCM Music Theatre, RockSchool and Trinity Pop & Rock, there was space in the market for ABRSM to retain a precedent here. Whilst singing in a foreign language is tricky, it is an excellent challenge, and one which many learners are fully committed to meeting. That said, it is what it is. The option to sing in another language still remains, though is avoided by choosing songs from Lists A, C and E. Apparently, ABRSM consulted ‘widely’ on this change.

Firstly, let’s talk numbers. The first thing which struck me as I began to look through the new syllabus was that lists appeared to have shrunk. This appeared to be at odds with the supposed increase in choice. Indeed, a bit of calculating later, a total of 91 pieces have been lost at Grades 1-5, with every list apart from Grade 1B being reduced in the new syllabus. That said, in contrast, the lists at Grades 6-8 have increased by 44 items, though overall, there is a reduction across the eight grades.

Of course, it’s not necessarily about numbers, but about content. It seems to me that the biggest changes have occurred in List C at the lower grades where a number of musical theatre items have been added. This has meant that some previously List C items have moved to List B, and indeed, some previously List B items have moved to List A. From my point of view, finding songs suitable for adult learners at the lower grades has always been problematic. I’d hoped that the new syllabus might have provided a little more choice in this respect, though I can’t help but feel ABRSM have missed the point. For example, Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ has been added at Grade 4: not quite what I had in mind.

That said, some of the newer musical theatre shows are represented, for example, MatildaSeussical the Musical and Jekyll & Hyde. Also added are a number of songs from Changing Voices, a selection of songs for teenage male singers. These will be useful for that particular group of singers. As previously mentioned, a new set of ABRSM Songbooks (the ‘Songbook Plus‘) has been published offering a selection of pieces from each list at Grades 1-5.

At the higher grades, it’s fair to say the lists have been expanded, perhaps again notably List E which is now comprised of music theatre and opera. For example, ‘Popular’ from the musical Wicked now appears at Grade 8. As has been noted by other teachers online, it’s a shame that with the reordering of the lists, pupils can no longer choose to sing both a music theatre song and a song from an opera as both these now appear in the same list. Again, this feels like a limiting of choice.

It may seem that my review is overly critical, and whilst I have reservations, there have been some improvements to the syllabus. Overall, I think ABRSM have missed the point in some cases. Once again, there’s been some ‘tinkering around the edges’, though it might be fair to say, this is perhaps part of a wider discussion which we need to have about how we assess singers when there is such a varied repertoire available.

September 2017 New Discoveries

In this new monthly series, I’m hoping to share with you some of the new music and resources I come across in the course of my work. There’ll hopefully be a mixture of both flute, piano and singing things, but also general music, education, theory etc. I hesitate to call these ‘reviews’, as above all they’re about sharing these new discoveries with you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

The Intermediate Pianist, Books 1-3 (Karen Marshall & Heather Hammond)

For a number of years now, I’ve found the Hal Leonard Adult Piano Method to be great for adult beginners. These books present a varied mix of styles and genres which is so useful, especially when adults are often unsure of what they want to learn. The Intermediate Pianist series, recently published by Faber Music, will, I believe, provide a good progression from the those books. Whilst the focus is primarily on repertoire, an emphasis is also placed on the development of technical and theoretical skills. These books can be used effectively alongside expanding a pupil’s repertoire beyond the early stages. They will also prove useful for those with some previous piano experience, and I also believe they could be useful effectively with older children and teenagers. They are very clearly presented which is a huge bonus, and in writing this book, Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond have filled a long-standing gap in the market.

Selected Pieces for Flute and Piano, Volume 2 (Ernest Tomlinson)

A lovely discovery in September, was this book of four pieces by Ernest Tomlinson, arranged by K. Roberts for flute and piano, and published by Forton Music. Perhaps the most well-known is the ‘Little Serenade’ which still plays on Classic FM, but the gem in this collection is ‘Pastorella’, or sumptuous lyrical solo, so suited to the flute. These are tunes which you and pupils will go away humming. The presentation is excellent, and they’d suit players of around Grade 5 level.

Sea Fever (John Ireland, freely arranged for piano by Roderick Williams)

I’ll admit, I was sent this as a review copy (a first for me!). I’d seen it advertised, and I admit, I was sceptical. ‘Sea Fever’ is such a gorgeous marriage of text and music, I couldn’t see why anyone would want to play it as a piano solo…but…how wrong I was! What I’d failed to realise was that this wasn’t just an arrangement of the vocal and piano part condensed into one, but rather a completely free arrangement which I believe breathes new life into the setting. The opening very much reminds me of Percy Grainger’s arrangements, where the tune weaves between the hands. It’s challenging to play: big chords, pedalling and voicing are all tricky in places. The cascading demisemiquavers on pages 4-5 are also tricky. Overall, it’s a gorgeous arrangement, and well worth the effort in terms of learning. Although it’s only four pages long, I’d say it’s a Grade 8 or Grade 8+ level piece.

Enjoy Theory (Sofie Kay)

Sofie Kay (who many of you will know through her Enjoy Piano resources) has produced a new site, Enjoy Theory. For just £3 a month (with the first month free) you’ll get 12 new theory printables delivered to your inbox each month. There are, of course, many sites out there with free printable worksheets, but what I like about these, is each month is a surprise. There are worksheets here for beginner, intermediate and advanced pupils, but the thing I like most, is that they’re seasonal. Included with October’s bundle is both an ‘Autumn Matching Game’ and ‘Halloween Wordsearch’. The sheets come in two versions: one with UK, and one with US terminology. They’re clearly and attractively presented, and for such a small amount of money, a really lovely addition to our resources. I applaud Sofie for coming up with such a lovely new idea!

Taking Part in a Festival

Thank you to Ruth Carlyle for allowing me to reproduce this article which she contributed to my end-of-term newsletter in December 2016:

Have you thought about taking part in the Lichfield Festival of Music, (or indeed, another Festival closer to you), but not been sure what to expect? I had my first experiences of both stewarding and performing at the 2016 Festival. I am sharing my reflections in the hope that they will encourage others to take part in future years.


The competition depends upon people volunteering to act as stewards, welcoming participants and ensuring that there is no background disturbance when people are performing. I acted as a steward on the first day of the Festival in 2016, which gave me a sense of the layout (the adjudicator sits at a desk facing the performer, with audience members in chairs either side) and the process. Each steward has a specific task for half a day, so it is a manageable time commitment.

Adjudication Process

The adjudicators listen to each performance in a class, taking notes between each performance. At the end of the class, they provide general feedback and specific comments to each of the participants. Depending on the number of participants in a class, there are up to three awards (first, second and third), but all participants receive written feedback from the adjudicator and a grading (fair, moderate, merit, commended, distinction or outstanding). The tone of the feedback is encouraging and is intended to help performers to develop their skills.


Although it is a ‘competition’, it is a very supportive environment in which to perform, as the audiences for the classes consist of fellow performers and their friends or family members. It is also an opportunity to perform in a hall – generally a school hall with reasonable acoustics. I chose a song that I knew I could sing well, ‘Gavotte’ by Herbert Howells.

So how did I do?

I have never taken any singing Grades and my experience is largely of choral and church singing, so the Festival was my first experience of singing a secular solo in public. I therefore wanted to have the performance experience and some feedback. I was utterly amazed to have my performance graded as Outstanding and to be given a First Prize in my class. I was also invited to perform in the festival concert. My reflection is that I had chosen a piece of music that suits my voice and that I could perform well. I would not necessarily expect to receive the same feedback with a different piece on a future occasion, but the Festival provided a valuable focus and I would definitely take the opportunity to participate in the future.

The 2017 Lichfield Festival of Music takes place on Saturdays 11th and 18th November. A syllabus and entry forms are available from the Festival’s website. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Duets: are we missing the point?

I don’t know about other teachers, but I try to make use of duets in my teaching at all levels. Indeed, I’ve written an article previously about the ‘joy of duets’. In terms of their use in lessons, it’s generally two-fold: they’re ‘fun’, and they’re great for sight-reading. I’ll frequently choose a duet where one part is sight-readable by the pupil, and we’ll have a go. There are lots of benefits to this, and it can be a great way to get pupils reading music at sight, without labelling it as ‘sight-reading’.

It occurred to me recently, that in some ways, we’re missing the point when it comes to duets. Yes, they’re fun and they’re good for sight-reading, but that’s not generally why they were written. They were written so that players could play together, and perhaps for pianists this is especially important.

Playing duets is essentially about playing as part of an ensemble. It’s not always the case, but in the main, I’d say the majority of duets published outside of what we might term to be the ‘educational market’ are written with parts of equal level. That means there’s a huge repertoire out there (and I’d be the first to admit it) that’s ignored in lessons.

So, here’s my question…how can we encourage pupils to learn and play duets? I don’t mean in terms of sight-reading them for fun at the end of a lesson, but using them in the way they were intended, as ensemble pieces.

It seems to me the biggest shift would need to be in mindset. Pupils clearly learn and work at solo repertoire pieces, and this is the bulk of what, as teachers, we’re focussed on. Would a pupil be equally willing to learn one part of a duet, in the same way they might approach the learning of a solo piece? I guess that unlike solo repertoire, the satisfaction of learning a duet is found in the putting together of the ensemble rather than in the solo playing. Would pupils be willing to wait to experience that? Maybe.

If this was the case, then it opens up a huge range of learning opportunities which are often sidelined in terms of instrumental lessons. It would certainly take a shift in mindset, away from the idea of learning pieces for solo playing. But, it would open up a huge repertoire which is, in the main, left completely untapped.

Next term, I’m going to try this out. I’m going to try giving pupils duet parts to learn, and approach them in the same way we’d approach learning solo repertoire pieces. Indeed, some pupils have already expressed an interest in learning duets. But I don’t mean duet parts which are necessarily easily sight-readable, but duet parts which are of a similar level to the solo pieces they’re learning. Initially, they can learn them to play with me, but in the future, this could open up opportunities for collaborating with other pupils. I have always believed that music is something to be shared, and this could be a great way of doing that.

So, let’s celebrate the hugely diverse and untapped duet repertoire out there. Yes, let’s keep throwing duets at our pupils for sight-reading, but let’s expose them to the excitement, the challenge and the satisfaction of ensemble playing.

We Pray for Peace

Catalogue Number: PPMO1704
SA Voices & Piano (opt. instruments)
Publisher: Paraclete Press
Difficulty Level: E
Year of Publication: 2017
Duration: 4 minutes
Availability: In Stock

Printed Copy: $2.90
Order from Publisher


Printed Copy: $6.00 (set of parts)
Order from Publisher


To order in the UK, please contact Norwich Books & Music.

From the publisher’s website:

‘This versatile anthem is scored for treble voices and piano and has optional parts for treble instruments. This is cast in a more popular style and the long flowing phrases and harmonies in thirds and sixths create a lovely atmosphere for the text by English hymn writer Alan Gaunt. A delightful piece for children’s choirs and the instruments could be taken on by children as well.’

Potential Uses

Choir, Church, Worship, Choral, Remembrance



2016/17 Prizewinners Announced

Congratulations to our six prizewinners for the academic year 2016/17. Prizes were awarded as follows:

The Foundation Music Prize

Alex Wilson (Grade 1 Music Theatre)

The Intermediate Music Prize

Amy Cundill (Grade 5 Theory)

The Advanced Music Prize

Osla Campbell (Grade 6 Flute)

The Barbican Prize for Sustained Effort & Improvement

Diana Lundie

The Kings Place Prize for Involvement & Participation

Megan McGinley

The Southbank Prize for All-Round Achievement & Commitment

Sara Coxon


ABRSM Flute Syllabus 2018-2021: highlights

As many of you will know, ABRSM released it’s new flute syllabus this week to cover the period 2018-2021. Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to play through many of the pieces in the new syllabus with a couple of pupils (thank you willing victims). This isn’t a review as such, but rather our highlights from the books of selected exam pieces. Teachers will no doubt be aware that scale requirements and sight-reading have also changed, and more information on those can be found here.

Grade 1

Although arrangements of Brahms’s Cradle Song (A2) and Verdi’s La donna è mobile were popular and catchy at Grade 1, it was List B which caught our eye. Roma Cafolla’s Lazy Sunday (B1) was pronounced ‘seriously catchy’ by a pupil, and I was particularly taken with Mark Tanner’s The Pelican from Heligan. Cafolla is not a composer I’ve come across previously, but a quick look at his website reveals a substantial catalogue of works, many for woodwind and related ensembles. Many will be familiar with Mark Tanner’s writing and music. His excellent book The Mindful Pianist was recently published, and I frequently recommend his series Know the Score for diploma candidates’ Quick Study practice.

Grade 2

Probably what will become the most-played piece in the entire syllabus appears at Grade 2 in the form of David Blackwell’s arrangement of Offenbach’s Can-Can (A1). Both pupils yesterday asked to play it twice, so this is a sure winner! Another favourite will, I’m sure, be David’s arrangement of Prokofiev’s Troika (B3). Although neither pupil recognised the title, both instantly recognised imitation of the sleigh bells in the piano introduction. List C  can often be the poor relation as the pieces are unaccompanied, but ABRSM’s own arrangement of Loch Lomond (C3) was particularly special. As an aside, surely it was arranged by somebody, not the entirety of ABRSM?!

Grade 3

We found Grade 3 to be rather disappointing in terms of repertoire choices. Again, David Blackwell succeeds in writing an imaginative arrangement of The Irish Washerwoman (A2) which we found particularly enjoyable in terms of the interaction with the piano accompaniment. Although one pupil described it as ‘not exciting’ I was rather taken with Luypaerts’s Cinq Sets (B2) a typically ‘French’ piece. Again, not a composer I’ve come across, his website reveals a substantial catalogue of works: something I’d certainly explore further.

Grade 4

I’ve personally always found Grade 4 to be a bit of a oddity, mainly because the step-up to Grade 5 is fairly negligible, and many pupils skip the exam itself. In terms of repertoire, we were disappointed overall. Paul Harris’s arrangement of Malcolm Arnold’s Solitaire (B1) is nice, but overall nothing particularly of note at the grade.

Grade 5

I want to mention especially the Telemann Vivace (A2) at Grade 5, mainly because I did it for my own Grade 5 about 20 years ago! There’s no doubting it’s tricky, but Nikki Iles’s Jive Talk (B1) is a spectacular piece. Many pianists will be familiar with her Jazz in… series of books, and this piece is in a very similar style. She has the great skill of writing jazz pieces which sound like improvisations, and the combination of flute and piano here makes for a stunning performance.

Grade 6

We found there to be a number of enjoyable choices at Grade 6Tambourin (A1) attributed to Gossec is an instantly recognisable piece: what I’d describe as a ‘good play’! Many teachers and players will be familiar with Paul Hart’s City Life. No. 3 has been popular on exam lists previously, but here, ABRSM present No. 2 (B3), a much more laid-back, bluesy piece in comparison. Pupils who enjoy this should certainly be encouraged to learn Nos. 1 and 3 too. Again, List C, the poor relation, includes the especially catchy Twisted Tango (C2) by Richard Michael. Pupil describes this as an ‘upside down version of A Hint of Lime‘, Paul Harris’s solo which appears on the current Grade 6 List B.

Grade 7

So here at Grade 7, we come to the last of the books of selected pieces. Both pupils and I felt that the selection here was disappointing, and as a teacher, I immediately see far more potential on the alternatives list (notably the Berkeley (B4) Fauré (B5), and Poulenc (B8)). There’s certainly potential in Mel-Bonis’s Scherzo (B1) but perhaps not immediately accessible on sight-reading alone. Likewise, I felt that there was much atmosphere to be created in Blaž Pucihar’s Moonlit Blue (B3).

Grade 8

Of course, as has been the case with the previous two issues of the syllabus, no selected collection is published at Grade 8. It’s interesting to note that an unusually large number of pieces have been carried forward at this grade:

Devienne: 1st movement from Sonata in E minor (remains at A3)
Mozart: 1st movement from Flute Quartet No. 1 in D (A6 to A5)
Mozart: 3rd movement from Concerto No. 2 (A7 to A6)
Clarke: Hypnosis (B2 to B3)
Poulenc: 1st movement from Sonata (remains at B8)
Rae: 1st movement from Sonatina (A10 to A9)
C.P.E. Bach: 3rd movement from Sonata in A minor (C1 to C3)
La Montaine: Jaunty (C6 to C8)

Grade 8 clearly needs much deeper exploration, but good to see the inclusion of more extended techniques, especially in terms of Edward Greyson’s Fertility Dance (B5) and Christopher Ball’s Pan Overhead (C5).

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Repertoire: beyond exams

Instrumental teachers know how easy it is to become trapped on the exam treadmill, learning a few pieces, sitting an exam, then moving to the next grade. Encouraging pupils to play repertoire beyond the exam syllabus can be challenging. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, I’ve inherited a good number of pupils from other teachers. They’ve prepared three or four pieces for an exam, sat the exam, then started on three or four pieces for the next grade. They know no different. I’ve inherited two pupils in the last year who’d been working on the same three graded exam pieces for 18 months: one at Grade 3, one at Grade 6. The idea that they should play anything else is totally alien to them. Both were flummoxed by being asked what they’d like to play.

Secondly, some pupils (and indeed, parents) are surprisingly unwilling to invest in new music. This is despite the relatively low cost of sheet music (and I’d say it’s come down in price quite a lot over the last 10 years). In that sense, it’s easy for the teacher to become trapped in the same pieces for too long.

With that in mind, I’ve consciously, over the past year, been trying to make sure my own pupils play as many pieces as possible between exams (and indeed, if they’re not working towards exams too). Here’s an example:

This pupil sat the LCM Step 2 exam in December last year. Following the Christmas break, I’ve logged 13 pieces which we’ve worked on, in addition to continuing work on developing a wide range of other musical skills including improvisation. We’ve also worked on previous pieces in preparation for school performances. Last week we began to look at Grade 1 pieces. One of these has been learnt almost note-perfect within the space of a week:

You might say that 13 pieces in the space of six months is not many, but I’d say that’s a pretty good number in addition to the development of other skills.

One huge advantage has been using the MyMusicStaff software to track repertoire. As well as tracking pieces ‘completed’ and ‘in progress’, we can record what level the pieces are if they appear on an exam syllabus. Again, being able to see your repertoire list build up is hugely motivating. Pupils are also finding it useful when considering Andrew’s idea of ‘Active Repertoire’.

Of course, it’s not all about exams. It’s also interesting to see the repertoire building up for more advanced pupils. Although I’ve indicated the level of the pieces learnt, the pupil has no intention, at this stage, of sitting an exam:

I think this also illustrates the wide range of styles and genres being covered.

These days, fewer pupils are interested in sitting exams, and I think this makes it even more important to give them a sense of achievement in terms of building up their repertoire.


Music Lessons and Revision

We’re just entering exam season here in the UK. The bulk of AS and A-Level exams begin this week, and GCSEs soon after. Virtually all 16-18 year olds are affected in some way by this, and it can be a stressful time for everyone.

The trouble is that music lessons are, rightly or wrongly, being increasingly affected too. The impact of school exams on instrumental lessons appears to be on the increase, and I believe that this is a conversation we need to have going into the future, especially as the arts subjects are ever-increasingly squeezed in society.

As I say, exams, and revision for exams can be a stressful time, especially at an age when young people experience many stresses, far beyond those of school. When I was studying for my GCSEs and A-Levels just under 20 years ago, it was stressful too, but I didn’t miss any of my music lessons; indeed, I did my Grade 8 Flute at the same time as my A-Levels. I might have been an anomaly, but I loved my lessons so much, I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing them. If someone had suggested I should miss lessons in favour of revision, I suspect there would have been serious outcry!

Not only did I love my lessons, but they were a welcome relief from the revision itself. Balancing the demands of revision and exams, with health and wellbeing is something which we all have to learn to do. It’s a good age to learn it, but it needs support from parents and schools too.

As we approach exam season, I’ve already lost one pupil for four weeks who wishes to concentrate on revision, and another pupil has given up completely due to the demands of school work. On social media, other teachers report similar issues:

‘I’m having a cull of those who aren’t interested. (Missing lessons because of gcses.. Really? no-one revises all day & night or shouldn’t).’ @nikkiw650 on Twitter

‘Highly irritating. If you haven’t paid attention all year 4 weeks of cramming & neglecting everything else won’t help.’ @SusiejeanLow on Twitter

‘I get cancellations this time of year due to exams as some students feel they need to concentrate on their revision which is fair enough!’ @willhaypiano on Twitter

‘That’s the summer term for you! Frustrating, isn’t it?’ @ScaleBoxApp on Twitter

On the one hand, there’s a business consideration as a self-employed private music teacher. Pupils wishing to miss lessons due to revision generally expect you to keep their slot open for their return. This means than unless you can fill the slot temporarily, or you charge a retainer fee (which I feel uncomfortable with), you can lose that income. This month, I shall be down £180 due to this. But, one also has to remain sensitive to pupil needs too. Exam season is stressful, and entering into a battle with pupils and/or parents about missed or cancelled lessons can add to that stress.

Another important consideration is that music lessons can and should provide a welcome break. It’s unhealthy to be revising all day and night. Balancing various demands on one’s time is a useful skill to learn.

‘I believe music should be a nice break from the revision. I’ve had several pupils get all A* and not miss a lesson for public exams.’ @nikkiw650 on Twitter

‘I told my students to regard music as something enjoyable & relaxing.’ @CrossEyedPiano on Twitter

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s different for everyone, and there are other issues at play too (travel, for example); I certainly don’t want to ‘get’ at anyone in this post. I think we all accept that even for those who carry on with lessons during school exam season, practice might be reduced. But, I too have had past pupils get strings of As and A*s and not miss a lesson.

I wholeheartedly believe that music lessons should be see as a positive part of that revision and exam process. A welcome distraction, light relief – call it what you will, but rather than push the enjoyable things to the sidelines in favour of wall-to-wall work, we should embrace all that music can offer our mental and physical wellbeing.