Review: ABRSM Flute Syllabus 2018-2021

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).