ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021/22: Repertoire Review

In addition to a refreshed and more varied repertoire selection, 2021 will see a number of changes to the ABRSM Piano syllabus, including:

  • A new Initial Grade providing a more formal pre-Grade 1 assessment;
  • New scale requirements;
  • A revised list structure defined by characteristics rather than musical period;
  • A duet option at Initial Grade, and Grades 1-3;
  • A one-year overlap with the 2019/20 syllabus valid until 31.12.21;
  • A range of new supporting publications.

As there are quite a number of changes, I will be dealing with these in two separate posts. This post focusses purely on the repertoire, and tomorrow’s post will focus on the supporting tests and publications.

In this post, I will cover the repertoire selection at each grade in turn, and as proved popular with my review of the 2019/20 ABRSM piano syllabus, my top three picks (generally from the books of Selected Pieces) at each grade.

ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021/22 selected pieces books

ABRSM Piano Initial Grade

The new Initial Grade, much as with LCM’s Step 1 and 2, and Trinity’s Initial exam, is designed to offer a more formal pre-Grade 1 assessment. ABRSM will continue to offer the Prep Test as an informal option in advance of Grade 1. The format of the new Initial Grade is the same as Grades 1-8 with marks apportioned for three pieces(3×30), scales and arpeggios (21), sight-reading (21) and aural tests (18). I shall cover the these in more detail in my next post.

As at all grades, nine pieces are included in the book of Selected Pieces, and a further 21 are given on the alternatives list. Overall, Initial Grade lays the foundations for Grade 1. Pieces are predominantly in a five-finger position, with minimal shifts of hand position. That said, there is a good deal of variation between the difficulty of pieces here. Adair’s The Lost Bone (B1), with staccato chords in the RH and a legato melody in the LH throughout is close in standard to Grade 1.

It is worth noting that the scale requirements do not necessarily match the keys pieces are in. Only C major and D minor are required; however, pieces include G major and A minor. Overall, a candidate who completes the Initial Grade is likely to progress quickly to Grade 1.

My top three:

  • A2 – Praetorius: Gavotte in G
  • B3 – Bartók: Dialogue
  • C1 – Bullard: Dodgems

ABRSM Piano Grade 1

I always think of Grade 1 like the opening lines of a novel: you have to grab the reader’s attention. I’m not sure that ABRSM really hits the spot this time round. Schumann’s Melodie (B1) is noticeably harder when played alongside the other pieces in the book. David Blackwell’s arrangement of Down by the valley gardens opens with an effective passage with LH keys depressed silently; however, this will only be accessible to those with acoustic pianos. I sighed heavily as I looked at the list of pieces in the book.

Of the 30 pieces at Grade 1 one is anonymous, and four are arrangements. Two of the arrangements and the anonymous piece are to be found in the book of Selected Pieces for the grade. I find this a little disappointing. Whilst arrangements are welcome, given many people do not explore pieces on the alternative lists, the books of Selected Pieces could be used to encourage diversity of repertoire. Grade 1 still feels very child-orientated, and a child of the 1950s at that. Once again, the repertoire in the alternative lists is, in my view, far more interesting, so I’m perplexed as to why ABRSM choose arrangements of traditional songs in favour of contemporary and original works (other than, of course, copyright and cost).

My top three:

  • A1 – Anon.: A Toy
  • B2 – Tan: The Swing
  • C4 – Armstrong: Sunlight Through the Trees

ABRSM Piano Grade 2

To my mind, Grade 2 is a triumph. It was genuinely hard to choose between the pieces here, and there are some excellent choices on the alternative list too. I don’t envy a Grade 2 candidate choosing their pieces over the next few years!

In List A, de Gambarini’s Minuet in A (A2) requires careful ornamentation to really make this short piece effective, and several of the pieces at this level would benefit from careful pedalling, even if it is not expected. Grade 2, as it should, feels a step up from Grade 1 and the pieces included clearly demonstrate the techniques required at this level.

From the alternative lists, Crosland’s In My Spot (C4), Einaudi’s The Snow Prelude (C6) and Sculthorpe’s Singing Sun are all worthy of further exploration. As at Initial Grade, and Grades 1-3 a duet can be performed for one of the pieces.

My top three:

  • A3 – Hässler: Ecossaise in G
  • B1 – Madden: The First Flakes are Falling
  • C3 – Norton: Inter-City Stomp
Selected pieces books with a focus on Initial Grade

ABRSM Piano Grade 3

There is often a grade which seems to somehow miss the spot, and I think this time round, it might be Grade 3. I was somewhat uninspired by the selections at this grade, and wasn’t convinced the alternatives offered much better. I found the arrangement of Elgar’s Salut d’amour odd in the key of D. Whilst the original of E major may have proved too tricky at Grade 3, it may have been more effectively included at Grade 4.

I really struggled to choose a top three here (and yes, I had to go to the alternatives). I won’t say these are the best of a bad bunch, but after the fireworks of Grade 2, I found the choice somewhat uninspiring.

My top three:

  • A1 – Beethoven: Ecossaise in E flat
  • B10 – Traditional Irish, arr. Hall: She Moved Through the Fair
  • C9 – Mancini & Mercer, arr. Miller: Moon River

ABRSM Piano Grade 4

Based on previous experience, Grade 4 is often the poor relation of Grade 5, and has, so often in the past, been filled with a fairly uninspiring selection of pieces of bridge the gap. Well, not this time!

Bach’s Prelude in C minor, BWV 999 (A1) is perhaps, at three pages, long for Grade 4, though of course, there’s a degree of repetition. Whilst some might say it’s hard for the grade, I liked Kabalevksy’s Etude in A minor (A2). Arens’s Moonbeams is already a firm favourite with my pupils and it’s good to see this represented here (B1). I felt spoilt for choice on List C, with both Crosland’s I Hear What You Say (C2) and Wedgwood’s Shark Soup (C3) both great fun.

This grade in particular shows the way in which repertoire is now divided by characteristics rather than period.

My top three:

  • A2 – Kabalevsky: Etude in A minor
  • B1 – Arens: Moonbeams
  • C2 – Crosland: I Hear What You Say

ABRSM Piano Grade 5

Overall, the repertoire at Grade 5 shows clearly the breath and variety of pieces on offer in this syllabus, from old favourites such as Burgmüllers La chevaleresque (A1) to new discoveries such as Beach’s Arctic Night (B1). I’ve reached the point where I’ve been teaching long enough to remember that the Burgmüller was included fairly recently (OK, it was 2007/08 when I checked).

Perhaps the weak list at Grade 5 is List C, which is unusual. Hammond’s Changing Times (C2) is tricky, but likely to prove popular. On balance, I feel there are some far more interesting pieces on the alternative lists here, all worthy of exploration.

My top three:

  • A3 – Handel: Toccata in G minor, HWV 586
  • B1 – Beach: Arctic Night
  • C9 – Pinto: March, Little Soldier!
ABRSM 2021/22  Piano Syllabus Grade 7 book with repertoire list open

ABRSM Piano Grade 6

In general, Grade 6 felt like a ‘safe list’. The Pescetti (A1) was new to me and delightful. It will, like Nielsen’s Snurretoppen (A3) and Arnold’s The Buccanner, offer plenty of scope for scale and arpeggio practice! Again, it feels as it a few pieces are coming round again fairly quickly. In some ways, this is a shame as there are many excellent and different pieces on the alternative lists which could have been included instead. I appreciate there are no doubt copyright issues here which prevents this, but the Selected Pieces feel a little unimaginative in comparison to the alternatives.

That said, just as with Beach’s Arctic Night at Grade 5, Tanaka’s Lavender Field here is a beautifully evocative piece. Whilst it looks simple on the page, it requires a careful and consistent touch, along with effective pedalling and agile crossing of hands.

My top three:

  • A1 – Pescetti: Allegro
  • B2 – Debussy: Page d’album
  • C3 – Tanaka: Lavender Field

ABRSM Piano Grade 7

I was a little underwhelmed by the selection at Grade 7. List A offers standard fare (Bach, Beethoven and Telemann) and Fauré’s Andante moderato (B1) is the highlight of List B. A far more diverse selection pieces is offered on the alternative lists, including works by Paradis, Rameau, Hensel, Lyadov and Richardson.

I have long been a fan of Madeleine Dring’s music, so I’m very pleased to see her Pink Minor included in List C. That said, Ibert’s Le petit âne blanc is also interesting, full of character, and definitely worth a look. For the more adventurous player, Samuel’s contemporary work noted on three staves, The Therapy of Moonlight (C3), will offer a suitable challenge.

My top three:

  • A3 – Telemann: Vivace
  • B2 – Fauré: Andante moderato
  • C1 – Dring: Pink Minor

ABRSM Piano Grade 8

It is nice to see the return of Clara Schumann’s delightful Prelude and Fugue in B flat (A3), although it only appeared in 2011/12, so feels quickly recycled. I’m not a huge fan of sharps, but nevertheless, I enjoyed Hopekirk’s Air in List B. Poulenc’s Novelette in E minor is also worth a look, although on the trickier side, even for Grade 8.

All three pieces in List C appealed. I particularly enjoyed Bartók’s exciting Rondo (C1) and also Norton’s Jingo (C2). For something a little more calming and evocative, Sculthorpe’s Snow, Moon and Flowers is a welcome addition.

Once again, there are many excellent pieces in the alternative lists, notably Ireland’s Columbine (B6) and Chaminade’s Pierette (Air de Ballet) (C4).

My top three:

  • A3 – C. Schumann: Prelude and Fugue in B flat
  • B2 – Hopekirk: Air
  • C1 – Bartók: Rondo


Two years ago, I highlighted the lack of representation of female composers in the ABRSM piano syllabus. I am pleased to report that ABRSM seem to have taken this on board, and there has been a significant improvement in this respect as the graph below shows (compare it with two years ago here). Whether the syllabus represents a wider diversity of composers beyond gender is perhaps a debate which we’re yet to have.

Graph showing gender balance in the 2021/22 Syllabus

On balance, there is a refreshing and varied selection of pieces. Some grades have excelled in this respect, notably Grades 2 and 4. When ABRSM first started to ‘modernise’ the piano syllabus, these modernisations came in the form a token jazz piece in List C. Quite rightly, this syllabus represents a move away from that to embrace a far greater range of contemporary styles, pieces and composers.

In some ways, the works included in the Selected Pieces books feel the safer of the options. This is understandable as ultimately, ABRSM have to sell them. But for every grade, there are some excellent choices on the alternative lists which I would encourage both students and teachers to explore.

Overall, it is clear that much hard word has gone into the selection of pieces and this syllabus represents a clear move away from the traditional allocation of pieces by musical period. There is, at every grade, something for everyone.

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