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.


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


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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Setting the tempo: working with accompanists when there is no rehearsal time

David Barton Music student, Ruth Carlyle, has taken part in two local festivals and has also worked with many other accompanists on fairly limited rehearsal time. Thank you to Ruth for sharing her experiences of and tips for working with an accompanist. I’m sure they’ll be useful to you all.

As a singer or instrumentalist there will be occasions when you need to perform with an accompanist without the opportunity for a rehearsal, such as if you are performing in a competitive music festival. These are my personal reflections as a singer on working with accompanists in such circumstances; I would welcome thoughts from others, including pianists or others who accompany.

Preparing the music…

Providing a copy of the music is your first interaction with the accompanist, even if you do not know who will be the accompanist for the event. It is your opportunity to make the accompanist’s role as easy as possible, and to help them to promote your performance. These are my tips:

  1. Provide a clear copy: a basic factor, but if the music is difficult to read, it makes the accompanist’s life much harder.
  2. Label the copy: write your name, the date of the event and any relevant information (such as a time or a festival class number) that may help the accompanist to identify when the performance is taking place.
  3. Number the pages: you want the accompanist to be able to play the music in the correct order. I tend to follow the format 1 of 5, 2 of 5 etc. where 5 is the total number of pages.
  4. Remove any instructions that you are not using: if there are any printed instructions that you are not using in the performance (such as repeats) cross these out clearly and make a note at the top of the music to indicate that you have removed an instruction.
  5. Add any changes: if you are changing the dynamics (particularly if a forte passage is now piano) mark this on the copy.

Before you perform…

Arrange to arrive at the venue before you are due to perform, so that you have an opportunity to meet the accompanist. Introducing yourself before the performance means that the accompanist can identify you. It is also more than a simple courtesy, as it is your first interaction in person and establishes a working relationship. Introducing yourself gives you the opportunity to:

  1. Check that the music copy reached them safely and whether they have any questions.
  2. Let them know whether you will be introducing the piece before you start to perform.
  3. Let them know the speed at which you take the piece and any changes of tempo during it.

During the performance…

Once you come to the performance, it is a collaboration between you and the accompanist. It is important to stand where they can see and hear you. You should consider whether you need to be able to make eye contact with the accompanist, particularly if the accompaniment and the voice/instrument both come in together at the start of the piece.

At the end of the performance…

Do acknowledge and thank your accompanist. They have shared their skills to support you, and you may want to work with them again.

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March 2018 New Discoveries

Here’s my monthly round-up of new music, pieces and resources I discovered in March.

Three Pieces for flute, oboe or clarinet and piano (Tim Knight)

Published in 2000, I’ve only recently discovered these lovely pieces by Tim Knight. Like my own Three Holiday Sketches and Three Country Pictures, they are published by Phylloscopus Publications (distributed by Spartan Press). The first thing to say is that these pieces are flexibly scored, the melody line being playable on either flute, oboe or clarinet (all three parts are included as separate sheets).

The set opens with a lilting ‘Allegretto Pastorale’, but for me, the two other movements, both ‘Celtic Tunes’, are the stars of the show. Both these are movements in which the melody instrument can really sing out. I can’t speak for the oboe or clarinet parts, but the flute parts would suit a player of around Grade 4 level, and the three pieces would make a nice set to learn. The pieces are available to purchase from Spartan Press (PP332), and you can find more information here.

Ten Short Pieces for solo piano (Alex Nikiporenko)

It is true, that in my own teaching, finding music to suit adult learners of piano has not always been easy. As Alex himself says:

‘I have been teaching piano for many years now, and have been made aware of the shortage of easier pieces targeted towards adults. In an attempt to fill this gap I have composed and published my first book – Ten short pieces for solo piano. My goal was to write musically rewarding pieces in a contemporary, minimal style that would be relatively easy for an amateur. They are all quite short – the longest one is four pages, and there are three pieces that are only a page long.’

Alex has included a variety of pieces in this book in a range of styles. These range from the lilting 6/8 ‘epping’ soundscape, to the driving and relentless ‘remind them’. Overall, these pieces would suit adults keen to begin exploring the contemporary repertoire. Whilst, in general the format of the pieces will be familiar to them, there are a few more challenging features, notably ‘a few steps behind’ which has no time signature. Similarly the irregular 7/8 time signature of ‘your place’, and the quintuplets and septuplets of ‘what has this got to do with me and you’. The book is billed as being for ‘easy to intermediate level’. For me personally, I’d say most fall into the Grades 3-5 bracket, perhaps some of them, for their complexities extending to Grade 6. You can hear Alex play the pieces in this video, and they can be ordered via Alex’s website here.

Mosaic, Volume 1 (Editions Musica Ferrum)

Another new release from Editions Musica Ferrum who really are showing themselves to be at the forefront of music, especially piano music publishing at the moment. Mosaic is the the first volume in a new series, and contains 26 easy educational piano works. 13 composers are represented in this volume, including Musical Ferrum regulars, Barbara Arens, Alison Matthews and Ben Crosland.

Overall, the pieces challenge the player to put their own stamp and character into their performances. For example, Sarah Konecsni’s ‘Inside the Pharoah’s Tomb’ requires the player to ‘tiptoe cautiously’, before concluding ‘bravely’. There are technical challenges too, particularly the crossing over of hands in Barbara Arens’ ‘On Tiptoe through the Haunted House’ and Anna Blonsky’s ‘Cross Over the Sea Bridge’. Similarly, Borislava Taneva’s ‘Funny car horns’ requires the player to both knock the wood of the piano, and stomp over the pedal with the foot!

Overall, a lovely characterful mixture of pieces, presented, as always with Editions Musical Ferrum, clearly and with precision. One huge benefit is that unlike some other publishers, they have not fallen into the trap of cramming the pages full of childish pictures which severely restricts their usage. In terms of level, I’d say Grades 1-3, and they’d suit both adults and children alike. At just £8.99, the book is also extremely good value. I understand that volume 2 is already in production, but in the meantime, you can order volume 1 direct from the publisher here.

Find out more in this video:

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The Exam-Life Balance

I’m aware that a number of students across the UK are now fast-approaching their GCSE, AS and A-Level summer exams. I know how important these exams are and how stressful they can be. The pressure to succeed in them is immense. As I wrote in a blog post last year, I am, however, a firm believer that music can be a fantastic way to relieve some of that stress and provide a welcome break from both exams and revision.

Each music teacher will approach this differently, but with the above in mind, here are some guidelines  which I’ve offered my own students affected by these exams this summer:

  1. Personally, and I’m sure this will apply to other teachers, my 48-hour cancellation policy still applies: lessons cancelled with less than 48 hours’ notice will be charged for;
  2. We understand that with the stress of the school exams, practice will inevitably be limited (or non-existent). Please don’t let this put you off coming to your lessons though because there’s still lots we can do and enjoy;
  3. If you feel you have an especially busy week of exams coming up, or a heavy revision period, you might want to cancel the lesson that week. Remember though, it’s much better if you can shift the lesson to a different day or time, or maybe double the lesson length the following or previous week rather than missing the lesson entirely. The lesson could be that welcome break and breather you need;
  4. If you’re not in school during the normal school day, why not change your lesson time to a free daytime slot? There are always a variety of free slots available each week. My pupils can see these, book and switch easily just by logging on to MyMusicStaff;
  5. Above all, don’t let school exams eclipse everything you enjoy doing, especially music. There’s so much research extolling the benefits of music in terms of health and wellbeing. This is all the more important in times of stress;
  6. In the past, pupils have asked if they can take a complete break from lessons during the school exam period. I know that other teachers have been approached with similar requests, and sometimes, this ‘break’ can last up to eight weeks. Whilst we understand the pressure to do this, I don’t encourage it as I believe that there are always ways to work around the exams to keep music part of your life. Personally, with quite a long waiting list, I am not able to keep lesson slots open for pupils who wish to take such an extended break over this period.

I wish you all good luck with your exams, and I, like other music teachers, look forward to working with you to achieve a good exam-life balance in such stressful times.

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Conflicting Wavelengths

I’ve always been slightly alarmed by the attitudes which prevail when it comes to listening to classical music on the radio, especially when it comes to the two big national stations in the UK: BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM. Over the years, I’ve heard such assertions as “Proper musicians listen to Radio 3”, “You can’t know very much about classical music if you only listen to Classic FM”, and “Someone of your musical calibre should be listening to Radio 3!”.

It might surprise you to hear, that I predominantly listen to Classic FM. As I type that, I can hear the gasps of surprise ring out around the country. On the basis of much of what I read online, I must not be a proper musician (whatever that is). I must somehow be suffering from limited intelligence to have lowered myself to such depths. Quite frankly, I don’t really care what other people think, but it’s clear from the frequent bouts of Classic FM-bashing which appear online, I would be looked down upon.

Don’t get me wrong, I listen to Radio 3 too. But I tend to tune into particular programmes: I still listen to Choral Evensong each Wednesday afternoon, mum still listens to Private Passions. Perhaps Radio 3 comes into its own during the Proms season, with an almost constant stream of live performances across all styles and genres of music. Radio 3 isn’t immune from this ‘online bashing’; from what I read, many people have reservations about it too, though more often about the format and presenters than the music itself.

Thing is, the way we consume music these days has changed dramatically. We can call up and play virtually any piece from anywhere, anytime, at the touch of a button. Above all though, music is music. The idea that there is ‘Radio 3 music’ and ‘Classic FM music’ is fairly ridiculous. Music is about so much more than that.

That said, it’s worth noting that last year, the under-25 listenership for Classic FM increased by 30%. Read more here.

I think we need to be careful about the way we talk about radio stations such as these, and especially the language we use. If people of any age are tuning in to the radio to listen to classical music, I consider that a good thing. If I might quote Andrew Eales, who writes:

‘The two channels have different target audiences, and both have much to commend them in that context. That said, it delights me that in the age of instant streaming so many still enjoy radio, and the educational aspect it brings to listening. Bravo to both stations for their ongoing success in the current digital age!’

I would hate for anyone to feel looked down on, or belittled because of the radio station they choose to listen to. That’s not what music is about. I for one will continue to enjoy listening to bits and pieces from both, plus an almost exhaustive range of material online.

So, let’s enjoy music however it comes. None of us has a monopoly on dictating how good, musical or intelligent a person is based on the radio station they choose to listen to. There’s enough hurt, conflict and division in the world already. Time to move on.

February 2018 New Discoveries

Welcome to my selection of new music, resources and discoveries for February!

Play: A psychological toolkit for optimal music performance (Ally and Greg Daubney)

Written by Ally and Greg Daubney, and published by the ISM Trust, Play is subtitled ‘A psychological toolkit for optimal music performance’. The primary aim of the ‘toolkit’ is to:

‘…arm you with practical and well-grounded psychological strategies so that you can recognise and effectively handle performance anxiety, and maximise your musical performances’.

The three main sections of the booklet focus on ‘You as performer’, ‘Your musical self’, and ‘Your environment’. In each section, different strategies are presented to help with different areas of your musical preparation and performance. For example, ways to cope with ‘social comparison’ which will have plagued many of us, both as teachers and performers. The really fantastic thing about this book, is that the strategies are provided clearly, with recommendations for when and how long you should practise them.

I’d recommend this book for anyone involved in playing, making or teaching music, at any level. Whilst it’s primarily geared towards performers, much will be useful to teachers, and in many cases, adult learners too. The book is available from the ISM Trust to download for £4 (non-members £5) or to buy for £8 (£10 for non-members).

Doodles (Alison Matthews)

Doodles is a collection of 128 short piano pieces by Alison Matthews, divided into four levels, and published by Editions Musica Ferrum. Described as ‘easy reading pieces’, one’s initial reaction might be that they are to be used in the same way we might use the books of specimen sight-reading pieces. But, this book is about much more than just sight-reading.

Taking a pupil up to around Grade 4 level, each short piece encourages pupils to above all, convey the character of the music. Emoticons are used for each piece rather than titles, for example, an angry face, sad face, dizzy face etc. Whilst directions and ideas are given, pupils are encouraged to make each piece their own. For example, the first piece in the book (prefaced by a happy face) suggests that pupils could play it again at a different dynamic. It’s marked to be played forte anyway, so I expected pupils to play it piano the second time; however, both pupils insisted it could be played fortissimo the second time as that made it sound happier. With some creativity on the part of the teacher, the pieces could be expanded into much longer improvisations.

As with all their publications, the book is beautifully presented and very good value. Although the pieces are very short, at £8.99, 7p a piece is pretty excellent value! The book is available to order direct from the publisher.

Watch Alison here explaining more about the book:

Choral and Vocal Warm-Ups for Pianists (Nancy Litten)

One of the good things about the Music & Drama Education Expo is not just discovering newly-published music, but also finding things which you’ve simply not come across before. I was therefore very pleased to come across this book published in 2015. As Nancy quite rightly points out:

‘The pianist has to be the most versatile of instrumentalists…they will often be called upon to accompany, especially for choirs…so often the accompanist is expected to improvise something right there and then, in every key! Many can do this effortlessly, but even then it can be difficult to remember what you played from week to week.’

When I looked at this book, I looked at it not through the eyes of an accompanist, but rather from that of a singing teacher. But overall, I think this book has many different uses. There are some excellent, basic vocal warm-ups which any singing teacher should be equipped with. I was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of exercises using the French ‘u’ (as in ‘Tu’) sound for focussing of tone. Just as Nancy says though, this book will be especially useful to pianists, choir leaders and accompanists. Published by Alfred UK (20143UK) it’s excellent value at just £8.95!

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Musical Connections

Take two notes. Play the two notes. Played like that, those two notes might seem unremarkable, but what if those notes had some connection?

You see, the relationships we have, and connections we make with other people are very much like those two notes. Sometimes, we might know someone as a very distant connection: we know each other, but only in the same way as two notes both played staccato. Sometimes, we might have a much closer connection, just in the same way we might slur notes together. There are even times when we might make such a close connection with someone we form a creative partnership, just in the way we might tie two notes together.

I’ve just spent two days at this year’s Music & Drama Education Expo at London’s Olympia. You may be surprised to hear that the thing which draws me back, year on year aren’t the instruments, or the sheet music, or the resources. In fact, it’s not even the talks and workshops. My primary motivation for going, is to meet friends and colleagues, and to make new friends. I refuse to call it ‘networking’ which I consider to be terrible word; one which suggests that we can somehow engineer these connections on an artificial basis.

We live in a world where it’s never been easier to write and publish you own music, to sell your own resources, and even to set up a support group or organisation. Overall, there are many positives to be had from these opportunities, but nevertheless, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially as teachers, by the sheer quantity of material out there.

This got me thinking about how I choose what to use, join and play, not just as a teacher, but as a musician. Thinking about this more closely made me realise that those things I use most, aren’t the things with the biggest adverts, best offers and the celebrity endorsement. They’re the things where there’s some kind of personal connection. That might be knowing a composer or publisher, or it might come from being part of an organisation or support group.

You see, the thing is, just as it’s easy to get me to buy your thing, or subscribe to your site, it’s also easy to lose me too. I feel strongly (and this isn’t just related to music and music education) that I want more than to be just purchasing a miscellaneous commodity, as if picking it up from a bland supermarket shelf. Publishers who know what I teach and the music I use are like gold dust: there’s a connection. Same with exam boards too. Contrast at the Expo, the two I use: one where I’m recognised and my opinions are sought and valued; and one where I’m just another miscellaneous number of thousands.

When I wrote this post (in my head whilst out for my evening walk), there was probably a really good punchline…but it escapes me now!

But, I truly believe that these personal connections and relationships matter. We live in a world where we’re connecting with multiple people and places at the same time, but you see, quantity isn’t always better than quality. Just as they do in the music we play, connections between individuals, organisations and companies matter too.

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January 2018 New Discoveries

Here are my three new discoveries from last month: a book, a CD and some music!

The Piano Practice Physician’s Handbook (Nicola Cantan)

Many of you will know Nicola from her teaching at Colourful Keys, and from the excellent resources she provides via the Vibrant Music Teaching site. Published last year, this great little book offers ‘cures’ and ‘treatments’ for some of the most common ‘ailments’ suffered by piano pupils. To give an example, I have already made use of Nicola’s remedy for ‘Line Limp’, or ‘The belief that barlines are signs for one to stop or yield’. Also covered in the book are bad practice habits; tempo issues; beat and rhythm inconsistencies; symbol and marking oversight; musical insensitivity; and technique and movement problems. The book is clearly presented with a very useful index. I shall also be recommending it to my teaching diploma candidates, and adding it to my recommended reading list. Although this is a book for piano teachers, much could be applied to other instruments and the voice.

Equinox (Voces8)

This new CD release from the choir, Voces8, is just stunning. There are some well-known items, notably Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin and Fauré’s Pie Jesu, but the real gems here are the new works included. Of particular note is Graham Lack‘s This Ember Night and Philip Stopford‘s Ave Maris Stella in addition to their composer-in-residence, Jonathan Dove‘s cycle The Passing of the Year. Of that cycle, ‘Ring out, wild bells’ is just magificent – the CD is worth it for that alone! I think this tweet from former Voces8 member, Emily Dickens, sums up this release:

‘Years in the making & SO much dedication to creating the Voces8 sound in hours of sessions.’

Teen Pop Broadway Collection (Hal Leonard)

This book fills quite a sizeable hole in the market for material suitable for younger voices and teenagers. Not only are the majority of these songs vocally suitable, they are also of generally acceptable subject matters. 28 songs are included in this volume, representing 20 different musicals including Zombie PromBilly Elliot and Bare. This will be a really useful book for singing teachers everywhere! A particular favourite of mine was this song, ‘The Secret of Happiness’ from Daddy Long Legs:

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When I Grow Up?

Some of you may have seen this feature on BBC Breakfast today about 20,000 seven to 11-year-olds who’d been asked to draw pictures of the job they want to do in the future. This got me thinking about my own career aspirations at that age, and how these developed. What did you want to do when you grew up?

When I was at primary school, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do as a job, I’d have said I wanted to be a primary school teacher. In fact, if you’d asked most of us, that would probably have been the most-popular answer. In some ways, this isn’t surprising. At primary school in the late 1980s, early 1990s, we were exposed to very few other professions other than what our fathers did (because of course, in those days, most of our mothers didn’t go out to work). That aside, I can also claim some family connection to teaching; excluding my own mother, the three previous generations of females on her side of the family were all teachers, the earliest stretching back to the mid-1800s. It’s fair to say then that teaching is in the blood.

My great-grandmother (far left), Gertude Helena Hill, as headmistress of Cromford School, Derbyshire

When I went to secondary school in 1995, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do as a job, little would have changed, other than I’d probably have wanted to be a secondary school teacher rather than a primary one! In secondary school, we had careers lessons. The teacher in charge of careers was, in fact, no careers specialist, but rather, the CDT teacher. The careers lessons involved answering a lot of questions on a computer program (in the days when computers practically needed a choke to get them started), and at the end of the ‘quiz’, it told you what career you should pursue. Apparently, I was to be an archivist or librarian. In retrospect, the software was clearly onto something, but at that age, my only experience of librarians were grey-haired old ladies with glasses on a chain around their neck. It’s easy to see why I discounted that potential career option!

I also went through a phase of wanting to do graphic design; I even did work experience in the design department of the Walls Ice Cream factory where I spent the week making a scale-drawing of the office. Trouble is, this was, in the main, pre-computer days, and as I couldn’t draw to save my life, it was probably a flawed plan. I started giving piano lessons when I was in the Lower 6th, but I never considered it a career option. Indeed, despite doing so much music and it being such a huge passion, I never once considered that I’d make a career out of it. I certainly didn’t think that 17 years on, I’d still be doing it!

When it came to the top of secondary school, the expectation was you went to university. The school proudly displayed the destinations of leavers on the back page of the subsequent year’s Speech Day programme. Without any real idea what I wanted to do, and feeling, at that stage, that music seemed to be the only thing I was any good at, I decided to do…yes, you’ve guessed it…music. So it was, in September 2002, I trotted off to Bath Spa University College to do a BA(Hons) in Music. Suffice to say, it took only three months for me to decide it wasn’t for me, that I was totally out of my depth and deeply unhappy. That was the end of that. I guess that afterwards, you could say the rest is history, and all the various music and education things I’m involved with now, have all evolved gradually from that point.

‘What do you want to do when you leave school?’ is a question which often comes up when talking to my own pupils. Years ago, midwife, zookeeper and vet were the most popular career options; now, vet remains, but science, medicine and psychology appear more frequently. That said, it’s soul-destroying to come across instances where pupils have been discouraged from following music and arts subjects because they are perceived not to lead to a ‘proper’ career. Indeed, only recently a pupil was discouraged both by parents and their school from taking music at A-Level. Instead, they were encouraged to pursue a more ‘lucrative’ career such as law which would lead to a ‘proper’ job. It’s such a shame that even when, like me, music is their passion, they are discouraged by the expectations of society from ever believing it could be a potential career option.

But, there’s potentially a wider question to be asked here, and that is how we, as musicians and educators work to break down these barriers. How can we show that music is a valid career option? It’s true that relatively few musicians will go on to be professional performers, but as we all know, there are so many more opportunities these days. Once you accept that as a musician, you’re unlikely to ever have a regular salary and a standard 9-5 job, a whole world of possibilities opens before you. How can we equip our pupils with the skills to embrace that world?

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December 2017 New Discoveries

First of all, my I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year. There was no ‘New Discoveries’ post in November (sorry!), but here’s some of the books, music and resources I discovered in December.

How to be Free (Tom Hodgkinson)

OK, this isn’t a music book. In fact, it is in no way directly related to music or music teaching at all (other than that the author suggests we should all learn the Ukulele); however, I think Tom’s book How to be Free has so much to offer us ‘creative types’. Yes, he’s a bit of a maverick, but the essence of the book is that there is so much more out there waiting to be discovered, if we seek a simpler and freer way of living. I think this is particularly true for many of us who don’t have ‘conventional’ careers, and for whom the idea of separating ‘work’ and ‘life’ is somewhat alien. Above all, those of us involved in the world of music seek to offer a way, whether it’s by playing or listening, for people to experience the joy and fulfilment that such creative pursuits can bring to life. As the author says:

‘We have a duty to look into our hearts and discover our vocation, find our gift. Once we have done this, we will find the other parts of our life follow quite naturally.’

Seems a pretty good way to start 2018!

Tunes You’ve Always Wanted to Play (arr. Barratt)

Not so much of a new discovery, but rather a rediscovery. These two volumes of piano arrangements of popular classics, Tunes You’ve Always Wanted to Play and More Tunes You’ve Always Wanted to Play were published by Chester Music quite a while back (1990 and 1991 I believe). Indeed, I was playing from them over 25 years ago, and they were probably one of my first introductions to classical music.

If you’ve used Pauline Hall’s Piano Time Classics or More Piano Time Classics (both of which I also highly recommend), these books might be considered a step up; indeed, I’d suggest that most of the arrangements are loosely in the Grades 2-5 area. What I like about these books is that these are quality arrangements. Yes, there are lots of books of ‘easy classics’, but here, Carol Barratt has kept the essence of the music whilst making the pieces accessible to early-stage players. They are also comb-bound which makes for a much easier layout overall.

If you buy them new, then they’re not cheap, though even at around £17 each, they’re pretty good value for nearly 150 pieces. That said, you can buy secondhand copies for just a few pounds so well worth a look.

(There are other books in the series too including Film Tunes You’ve Always Wanted to Play and Jazz Tunes You’ve Always Wanted to Play. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s used these.)

Jazz on a Winter’s Night, Book 2 (Nikki Iles)

This is probably a bit late now, so consider it my recommendation for Christmas 2018. Many of you will be familiar with Nikki Iles’ other books, but I think that Book 2 of Jazz on a Winter’s Night is probably my favourite of the set so far. One of Nikki Iles’ greatest assets, is the ability to create jazz arrangements which not only sound like spontaneous improvisations, but also which have something new to say about the pieces themselves. I think this is especially true of her arrangement of Peter Warlock’s ‘Adam lay ybounden’ and Hopkins’ ‘We three kings of Orient are’. Iles offers great advice in her introduction too, saying:

‘As always in these collections of mine, please feel free to use these arrangements as a starting point: interpret them in your own way and enjoy the ride.’

The more I play, and the more I teach, the more I realise how incredibly wedded to the score we are in the Western classical tradition. I think Bach himself would have wholeheartedly agreed with this advice too.

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