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Whilst the ABRSM Piano Syllabus changes on what feels like a fairly regular basis, we have to wait a little longer for a refreshed ABRSM Flute Syllabus. 2022 sees the introduction of the latest syllabus, and it is worthy of note that this syllabus currently has no end date. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this; however, I wonder if this indicates a move away from the traditional syllabus format, perhaps to a continually refreshed online version, updated as needed? I would certainly welcome that option.
ABRSM state that the:
‘enriched woodwind syllabus [is] designed to inspire the curiosity of learners and spark interest in music from all corners of the world and by people of all backgrounds’
In particular, ABRSM state they are seeking to widen the syllabus in a way which is no longer ‘constrained by a narrow, traditional curriculum’. ABRSM’s Chief Executive, Chris Cobb, sums up the syllabus’s aim, saying they have sought:
‘to celebrate the best work, old and new, from the four corners of the globe.’
This is quite a lot to live up to!
The scale and sight-reading requirements remain unchanged, as do the aural tests; however, ABRSM have made a number of changes to the way pieces are organised within the lists:
- Lists are now defined by musical characteristics, encouraging candidates to play a balanced selection of pieces and demonstrate a range of skills;
- Unaccompanied solos are now optional. They are included across the lists, according to their musical characteristics, and candidates may choose to perform up to two of them;
- A duet option is offered at Grades 1 to 3.
Unlike the recent changes to the ABRSM Piano Syllabus, no Initial Flute Grade has been introduced, and to my knowledge, there has been no update to the Prep Test. I hope that in time, ABRSM will replace the Prep Test with Initial Grade in a way which suits learners of all ages.
The syllabus is supported by a range of publications including, as in previous years, flute exam pieces and flute exam packs (Grades 1-7 only). These are further supported by the introduction of a range of digital downloads as well as the Woodwind Practice Partner App (Grades 1-5 only).
It is worth noting that pieces from the current 2018-21 syllabus can be used up until 31st December, 2022.
In this review, I’m going to be considering the content of each grade individually, as well as selecting my top picks from each list. Whilst the focus is on the books of selected exam pieces, I have also, where I had the books available, selected from the alternative pieces too.
ABRSM Flute Grade 1
Grade 1 is always tricky because you really want get candidates off to a good start. Of course, it used to be the case that there were no lower grades for flute, and in some ways, I can see why. I think it’s always hard to choose pieces when technical and musical skills might be considered limited. I have to say, I found the selection at Grade 1 somewhat uninspiring. There is, inevitably, a focus on pieces which are most-suited to younger children. ABRSM have talked about diversifying the syllabus, but I’m not sure this comes across at this Grade. Whilst there are arrangements of traditional music from other counties (e.g. the traditional Japanese piece, Sakura, in List A), it feels a little bit as if that’s where it stops. Perhaps there is an over-reliance on arrangements? Indeed, at Grade 1, 50% of the repertoire is an arrangement. Some of these are very effective, and indeed, mean that some more popular tunes can be accessed by players at the beginning of their playing journey. Perhaps there’s a challenge here for composers? Alongside that, I might also ask where the contemporary repertoire is? Yes, there are arrangements of popular tunes from musicals, some jazz pieces and contemporary pieces drawn from what is unkindly referred to as the ‘educational market’, but I think we can all do better than that. This is a challenge for all of us, and all exam boards, not just ABRSM.
My top three:
- List A: Sancho – Le douze de décembre (A3)
- List B: Sherman & Sherman, arr. Iles – ‘Feed the Birds’ (from Mary Poppins) (B2)
- List C: Long – Spooked (C1)
ABRSM Flute Grade 2
Overall, I felt that Grade 2 offered a stronger selection of pieces. Tanaka’s haunting Once Upon a Time sits alongside Alan Bullard’s arrangement of The Arethusa, familiar to many for its inclusion in Henry Wood’s sea songs selection played at the Last Night of the Proms. There is a fair range of difficulties at Grade 2; for example, compare C2 and C3. Once again, 50% of the pieces included on the syllabus at Grade 2 are arrangements. That said, Grade 2 offers more scope for older learners, and a selection of pieces which if explored fully, could make for some effective programming decisions.
My top three:
- List A: Soussmann – Study in D major (A2)
- List B: Tanaka – Once Upon a Time (B2)
- List C: Watts – Goings On (C10)
ABRSM Flute Grade 3
On balance, I felt Grade 3 offered the most variety of the three foundation stage exams. It is clear that from Grade 3 onwards, an increasing awareness of stylistic considerations is necessary. This is particularly obvious in Charpentier’s ‘Prelude’ (from Te Deum, H. 146) (A1) with its careful, and in my view, essential ornamentation. It is interesting to see that quite a number of pieces which appeared in previous syllabuses are ‘recycled’ in the alternative lists, notably Arrieu’s Chanson de la pastoure and Luypaerts’ Cinq Sets appear again in List B. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it means that it limits the inclusion of new works. It would certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons if pieces were not permitted to appear on consecutive syllabuses! Probably applicable at all grades, but the alternative pieces are always worth a look, and can often offer a little more variety and surprise than those pieces included in the ABRSM-published books (which, like the Piano Syllabus, tend to play safe). Again, just under 50% arrangements at Grade 3.
My top three:
- List A: Charpentier – ‘Prelude’ (from Te Deum, H. 146) (A1)
- List B: Mercadante: ‘Andante alla Siciliana (2nd movement from Flute Concerto in D major) (B8)
- List C: Stephen – ‘Hole in My Shoe’ Blues (C9)
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ABRSM Flute Grade 4
I have written previously for other instruments, that Grade 4 tends to be a tricky ‘in-between’ grade. It’s the stepping stone between Grade 3 and Grade 5, and in my experience, is often the grade to be skipped. I have to say that I felt underwhelmed by Grade 4, and this adds to the general feeling that this is a grade to be swiftly bypassed. In fact, I struggled to choose a top three. That’s not necessarily a reflection on the music itself, but rather, a sense of ‘same old, same old’. Despite the realigning of repertoire in the three lists, List A plays fairly safe with Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini and Hook. For me, the standout piece is Roma Cafolla’s Sea Horses on List B; a piece I’d consider a star of the entire syllabus. Once again, previous pieces are ‘recycled’ in the alternatives, notably Bartlett’s Boogalie-Woogalie (List C) and Harris’ Caramel Carousel (List B). Again, this criticism isn’t a reflection on the music, but rather, if ABRSM’s quest is to expand and diversify, then this seems a good place to do it. It is, however, pleasing to see a reduction in arrangements at Grade 4, something which is perhaps inevitable as the difficulty of the repertoire increases.
My top three:
- List A: Bach – ‘Rondo’ (2nd movement from Suite in B minor, BWV 1067) (A6)
- List B: Cafolla – Sea Horses (B2)
- List C: Cliff – Holiday Time (C1)
ABRSM Flute Grade 5
I felt that on balance, Grade 5 offered a nice selection of pieces, including some lesser-known works. I was pleased to see the 2nd movement from Handel’s B minor sonata included on List A, a refreshing change from the normal Handel offerings at this level. The inclusion of Armstrong Gibbs’ ‘Minuet’ is also a nice addition, and indeed, the whole Suite in A minor is worth exploring. I was surprised to find the Arrieu Sonatine in the book of selected pieces as it has appeared on the syllabus at least as far as back when I did Grade 5. So many teachers will already have copies of this, it once again feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity. I note also at Grade 5 that once again pieces from the previous syllabus have been recycled in the alternatives (Meunier’s Au Crépuscule and Peterson-Berger’s Sommarsång). Indeed, the Telemann and Verdi from the previous syllabus appear in the alternatives for List A. That said, the alternative pieces offer a good degree of variety; variety which is perhaps not found so easily in the books of selected pieces.
My top three:
- List A: Handel – ‘Vivace’ (2nd movement from Sonata in B minor, Op. 1, No. 9, HWV 367b) (A1)
- List B: Scott – Mountain Dreams (B10)
- List C: Kelly – ‘Whistling Song’ (from Caribbean Suite) (C5)
ABRSM Flute Grade 6
After my misgivings about some of the earlier grades, Grade 6 was somewhat of a triumph. If we pass by List A which contains a fairly standard selection of pieces (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann etc.), the List B and List C pieces included in the book were all new to me. What a refreshing change that was! Of particular note is Baker’s evocative ‘Nocturne’ (B1) and although the syllabus states that the tremolo and flutter-tonguing are optional, I’m sure both could be accomplished at this level. Gordon Jacob’s On a Summer Evening (B3) was also pretty, offering a nice alternative to the Baker, as does Bonis’ Une flûte soupire (B2). Sally Adams’ arrangement of Billy Mayerl’s Bats in the Belfry offers an attractive jazz option in Grade 6 List C. There are also some interesting alternative pieces, again, notably in List B, which I shall enjoy exploring further. It was hard to choose my top three, but…
My top three:
- List A: Bach – ‘Bourrée anglaise’ (4th movement from Partita in A minor, BWV 1013) (A1)
- List B: Baker – ‘Nocturne’ (No. 6 from Six Poèmes Noir) (B1)
- List C: Büsser – ‘Les écureuils’ (No. 2 from Deux morceaux) (C1)
ABRSM Flute Grade 7
Again, some interesting choices in both Lists B and C at Grade 7 made for a hard choice. Of particular note is Anthony Hedges’ ‘Tumbling Bay’ on List C which is so beautifully full of character and fun. Likewise, Arriagada’s ‘Étude No. 1’ will be a great crowd-pleaser also on List C. Lovely to see Boulanger’s Nocturne on List B, a piece which looks deceptively simple, but will be a great option for a student looking to develop their vibrato. There are old favourites too such as Rutter’s ‘Ostinato’ (A9), Telemann’s Fantasia No. 1 in A (A10), Poulenc’s ‘Cantilena’ (B7) and Norton’s Drunken Sailor (C8). There are some fun alternatives worth exploring too, and overall, Grade 7, like Grade 6 feels imaginative.
My top three:
- List A: Rutter – ‘Ostinato’ (from Suite Antique) (A9)
- List B: Boulanger – Nocturne (B1)
- List C: Hedges – ‘Tumbling Bay’ (from West Oxford Walks, Op. 143c) (C2)
ABRSM Flute Grade 8
As has always been the case, there is no book of selected pieces available for Grade 8. I can see why because I suspect it would be prohibitively expensive; however, this means it’s harder to include a more diverse selection. I don’t think it should be harder, but it seems to be. Therefore, the repertoire lists at Grade 8 are filled with all our old favourites: Devienne, Hindemith, Mozart, Quantz, Burton, Clarke (Hypnosis again), Poulenc and Rutter. List C is perhaps the one to offer the greatest variety, in fact there are a good number of pieces I neither know nor own. One can’t help but wonder what the Grade 8 syllabus would look like if you removed any pieces which appeared on the previous syllabus, and replaced them with new items? It would certainly be adventurous, and in my view, welcomed.
My top three:
- List A: Hindemith – ‘Sehr lebhaft’ (3rd movement from Sonata for Flute) (A3)
- List B: Burton – ‘Allegretto grazioso’ (1st movement from Sonatina) (B2)
- List C: Muczynski – Preludes No. 2 and 3 (from Three Preludes for Unaccompanied Flute, Op. 18) (C9)
I really wanted to like this syllabus; after all, we’ve waited several years for it. Whilst there are some standout pieces, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed. ABRSM’s intention to diversify and expand the repertoire is to be applauded, but I’m not sure the execution is wholly successful. Firstly, I think there is an over reliance on arrangements at the lower grades. At Grades 1-3, almost 50% of the repertoire comes in the form of arrangements. As I stated previously, many of these are effective and to be welcomed; however, is there: (1) a challenge to composers to write contemporary pieces which are accessible at these levels; and (2) a challenge to ABRSM to include these? We will always have, and indeed need, arrangements, but have we gone a little bit too far that way?
Secondly, there seems to me to be quite a lot of ‘recycling’ of previous syllabus pieces in the alternative lists. As I’ve said previously, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, but is it preventing the inclusion of additional pieces which could have fulfilled ABRSM’s brief to diversify? It will always be the case that pieces will be recycled and included again, but should there be a longer gap before they appear once more? I can’t be the only flute teacher who groans at seeing the same pieces included almost on repeat.
I do however, want to make special mention of Grades 6 and 7 which I think both feel imaginative and refreshing in a way which fulfils ABRSM’s brief.
As part of the refresh of the flute syllabus, ABRSM reworked the three lists. Whilst this certainly offers a greater degree of choice and flexibility, I’m not sure it makes the choosing any easier. To me, it isn’t clear what the aim of each list is, a criticism which was also levelled when the same exercise was applied to the Piano Syllabus. The additional of further unaccompanied pieces and duet options will require careful exploration and application by teachers. I note that some of the pieces included require the purchase of a piano accompaniment part or book separately, and whether this additional expense is justified on the part of teachers is something which will require some thought on an individual basis.
Overall, the syllabus fulfils its brief to bring together old and new. Whether it brings together the best of old and new is, perhaps, another debate. ABRSM state that they no longer feel ‘constrained by a narrow, traditional curriculum’. I think that to a point, the repertoire reflects this, particularly at Grades 6 and 7; however, it feels like there’s still a long way to go. On the one hand, ABRSM have made great strides, but on the other hand (and I might get hung, drawn and quartered for saying this), diversity has to move beyond including out-of-copyright pieces by female composers. There’s a sense that ABRSM, and indeed, all exam boards, really need to connect with what students are actually playing, not what they’re being expected to play. That is a challenge for us teachers too. Perhaps ABRSM also need to explore the wealth of new repertoire which will never be published in a traditional print format. As syllabuses are no longer being made available in print format, perhaps this is an opportunity to have an online syllabus which is constantly evolving as new works emerge?
Full details of the publications which support the 2022 ABRSM Flute Syllabus are available both on their own website and those of other music retailers.
I was sent a review copy of these books free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.
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