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ABRSM have not had the best of press recently. I was one of many who experienced problems making my exam entries online this session, and that, along with technical issues with their marking software, Marcato, prompted a fierce letter to the Chief Executive from members of their examiner panel. I, and others, have been accused of ‘ABRSM bashing’ in the past, and whilst we have certainly levelled criticism at them, it is often from a desire that they should, once again, become the prestigious and respected exam board they once were. Therefore, whilst the new ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24 isn’t released against the best of backdrops, it’s a reminder that, above all, it’s the music itself which is at the centre of their work.
The revised ABRSM Piano Syllabus seems to come round alarmingly quickly. It doesn’t seem long ago since I reviewed the 2021-22 ABRSM Piano Syllabus, one which many of us are only just beginning to use. Whilst there were some major changes last year, notably to the scale requirements and the introduction of the new Initial Grade, this year feels comparatively low key. The repertoire has been refreshed and new books of Selected Pieces published, but in the main, it’s business as usual.
As in previous reviews, I will cover each grade in turn, offering my top three pieces from each of the repertoire lists. As before, I select these mainly from the books of Selected Pieces (which are those sent to me for review), but as ever, the alternative lists are always worth a look. A new Teaching Notes publication has been released to accompany the new ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24, and I cover that in the summary at the end of this post.
ABRSM Initial Grade
ABRSM’s Initial Grade for piano was introduced at the last syllabus change, and from what I hear, has been popular with teachers. In my view, and in the view of many others too, it is far more useful than the Prep Test. Two years on, there’s a sense that this new grade has found its feet, with a good mixture of pieces to choose from, many of which will appeal to adult learners as much as to children.
I have written quite extensively recently about poor arranging, but I’m pleased to say that whilst it’s not a name I’ve come across, David A.T. Önaç’s arrangement of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ in List A displays all the hallmarks of an accomplished arranger. In my nostalgic way, it was nice to see ‘Swans and Ducks’ by Fanny Waterman and Marion Harewood included in List B. Their books were the mainstay of my early piano lessons, yet their music has been largely left out of exam syllabuses. Naomi Yandell’s ‘Secret Footpath’ and Kerstin Strecke’s ‘The Waltz of the Toads’ show that even at this first grade where many skills are still in development, it is possible to play satisfying and effective pieces.
I noted that the staff size at Initial Grade is larger than normal. This will not only benefit children, but also fills the pages of the book more effectively. There are a large number of alternative pieces to choose from too meaning that unlike the Prep Test, Initial Grade is open and accessible to all ages of learner. Overall, Initial Grade for the ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24 is, in my view, a great success.
My top three:
- A2 – Trad. arr. Önaç: What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
- B3 – Yandell: Secret Footpath
- C2 – Strecke: The Waltz of the Toads
ABRSM Grade 1
I was highly critical of the Grade 1 pieces at the last syllabus change, but I’m pleased to say the 2023-24 ABRSM Piano Syllabus tells a very different story. This time, all nine pieces are original works rather than arrangements, and four out of the nine are by living composers. Bravo, ABRSM! This is a huge improvement.
Whilst the Diabelli ‘Allegretto in C’ has done the rounds of all the boards, it’s still a firm favourite. Marjorie Helyer’s ‘Dragonflies’ is also a pleasant, characterful piece at Grade 1. It’s good to see some of Editions Musica Ferrum‘s pieces making their way into exam syllabuses, and Andrew Eales ‘Fresh Air’ is a lovely, calming piece on List B. For any piano teacher whose students choose Rajasekar’s ‘Virginia Hall’, it could be the piece which drives you mad with its insistent, repetitive D, F and A patterns! Martha Mier’s ‘Sneaky Business’ will always be a crowdpleaser, but in actual fact, Caroline Tyler’s ‘Little Whale Explores the Calm Sea’ is a really nice alternative. It does require the pedal to be held down for the whole piece (less three bars), but the effect is endearing.
My top three:
- A1 – Diabelli: Allegretto in C
- B1 – Eales: Fresh Air
- C3 – Tyler: Little Whale Explores Calm Sea
ABRSM Grade 2
In 2021, I described Grade 2 as a ‘triumph’. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far this time round, but nevertheless, there are plenty of pieces to choose from to suit all ages and tastes. I have to confess I’m not a huge fan of Beethoven’s ‘Écossaise in G’ in List A, but Dussek’s ‘Gavotte in F’ is a really nice choice with some lovely interplay between the hands.
Stephen Duro’s ‘Forget-me-not Waltz’ will be a winner in List B, I’m sure. I could happily have chosen any of the pieces in List C. Elissa Milne’s ‘Mozzie’ has been a firm favourite before, and I’m sure will continue to appeal to adults and children alike. David Blackwell’s ‘Railroad Blues’ is fun and satisfying to play, especially for those who like to make a bit of noise at the piano. The favourite for me was Kristina Arakelyan’s ‘Daydream’ which, perhaps with some subtle pedalling, is a beautiful piece.
One thing which is a shame is that quite a lot of the pieces which are to be found in the books of Selected Pieces are taken from ABRSM’s popular publications Encore and Piano Mix. This applies to four out of the nine pieces at Grade 2. I have nothing against the pieces themselves, but as with the previous syllabus, it feels like a missed opportunity to include previously unpublished works.
My top three:
- A2 – Dussek: Gavotte in F
- B1 – Duro: Forget-me-not Waltz
- C1 – Arakelyan: Daydream
ABRSM Grade 3
Last time round I described Grade 3 as the one which missed the spot; it’s never good having to choose the best of a bad bunch! Once again, and maybe it’s just a Grade 3 ‘thing’, nothing excited me. The anonymous ‘Minuet in G’ and the Clementi on List A are standard fodder, and I was underwhelmed by Gasieniec’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’. Nancy Litten’s ‘The Sad Ghost’ on List B was an interesting and evocative piece, in contrast to Loeschorn’s ‘Study in F’. Nakada’s ‘The Song of Twilight’, also in List B, appeared on the most recent LCM Piano Syllabus, and this can’t have escaped ABRSM’s notice. In fact, I described it as the standout piece of the entire syllabus. I chose the Litten on the basis I’ve chosen the Nakada elsewhere.
Like me, I’m sure many teachers might sigh at the inclusion of Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ in List C, although the arrangement, another by Önaç, is effective. In the end, I went for William Gillock’s ‘The Spanish Guitar’, not one I knew, but nevertheless, an interesting choice.
Overall, Grade 3 felt a little flat.
My top three:
- A2 – Clementi: ‘Vivace’ (third movement from Sonatina in C Op. 36 No.1)
- B1 – Litten: The Sad Ghost
- C2 – Gillock: The Spanish Guitar
ABRSM Grade 4
After the 2021-22 ABRSM Piano Syllabus, Grade 4 had a lot to live up to, and overall, I think it succeeded. I liked the Pescetti in List A, though at three pages, it feels long for Grade 4, despite obvious repetition. Louise Farrenc’s ‘Mouvement de valse’ was very pleasant, and set at a good level for Grade 4. Some effective pedalling is likely to be needed, but it is satisfying and tuneful to play.
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‘Billie’s Song’ is a familiar favourite, and indeed, it appeared at Grade 4 on the last LCM Piano Syllabus. Cècile Chaminade’s enchanting ‘Idylle’ is a nice find for the Grade, again requiring some careful and subtle pedalling. In List C, George Nevada’s ‘Ninette’s Musette’ was delightful, and there’s great joy to be found in Florence Price’s ‘Ticklin’ Toes’, also in List C. We should feel spoilt for choice with these two pieces alone. Overall, and once again, Grade 4 is a real triumph.
My top three:
- A2 – Farrenc: Movement de valse
- B2 – Chaminade: Idylle
- C3 – Price: Ticklin’ Toes
ABRSM Grade 5
I very much enjoyed the Cimarosa on List A, but Chee-Hwa Tan’s ‘Jester’s Jig’ is great fun, bringing an older style to life, albeit written only in 2020. Bernadette Marmion’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ was a lovely addition, though somewhat on the easy side for Grade 5. I found Dorothy Pilling’s ‘Philomela’ intriguing, though again, perhaps on the easier side of Grade 5.
Mike Cornick’s ‘In the Groove’ is an old favourite, but if you’re looking for something new, then David Önaç’s ‘A Distant Star in the Stillness’ may have become my standout piece of the new syllabus. Perhaps visually straightforward, it requires careful voicing of the chords, effective pedalling and a real feel for the sonorous nature of the piano. It’s a piece that is as much about the capabilities of the instrument, as it is about the notes themselves. It’s an outstanding composition from a name I’ve not come across before. I hope he’s someone we’ll see and hear lots more from in the future.
Overall, there are some nice, and unusual choices at Grade 5 mixing new discoveries with old favourites. That said, there are perhaps one or two which feel just a little bit too easy when compared especially to Grade 4.
My top three:
- A3 – Tan: Jester’s Jig
- B3 – Pilling: Philomela
- C3 – Önaç: A Distant Star in the Stillness
ABRSM Grade 6
I always take a particular interest in Grade 6 because I mentor quite a few teachers online who choose to sit the DipABRSM in Teaching. I have to say, I was disappointed. If the previous Grade 6 selection was ‘safe’, I found this one ‘challenging’. Heller’s ‘Prelude in C# minor’ is always a pleasant choice, but I found the other two pieces on List A, the de Gambarini and Kuhlau to be uninspiring. Whilst both are nice enough, I’ll be reaching for the alternative lists. I couldn’t quite get into Dett’s ‘Honey’ on List B, and overall, it felt like a List C piece. Perhaps it just felt wrong having a jazzy piece in List B? Granados’s ‘Vals poético’ is nice enough, though, in my opinion, on the easy side for Grade 6.
I have always enjoyed Richard Rodney Bennett’s writing, and in List C, ‘The Child that is Born on the Sabbath Day’ is quirky, characterful and fun to play. Likewise, Elissa Milne’s ‘Indigo Moon’ is, as suggested, ‘haunting’, though possibly once again, on the easier side for Grade 6. Oscar Peterson’s ‘Jazz Exercise’ is fun to play, though we’ve had this one before, in the not too distant past.
Overall, I was a little uninspired by the choices at Grade 6. My wife commented that it had gone downhill after Grade 5, and I’m minded to agree. There does seem to be some mismatch of levels too across Grades 4-6. As mentioned earlier, some Grade 5 pieces feel like Grade 4 pieces, and some Grade 6 feel like Grade 5. I wasn’t convinced some of the choices at Grade 6 presented sufficient challenge for the level.
My top three:
- A1 – Heller: Prelude in C# minor
- B2 – Granados: Valse poético No. 6
- C1 – Bennett: This Child that is Born on the Sabbath Day
ABRSM Grade 7
Last time round, I was a little underwhelmed by the selection at Grade 7, but I’m pleased to say, this year has seen quite a turnaround. In fact, with the exception of the Vir in List C, I’d happily choose any of the others in my top three.
I’m not generally a Haydn fan, but the ‘Allegro moderato’ from Sonata in B minor is great fun, full of drama and character. Likewise, the Martinu, whilst challenging, is full of energy, requiring real precision of rhythm and coordination. Chopin’s ‘Mazurka in A minor’ is not dissimilar, once again, requiring real precision and a sense of the dance style. ‘At the Evening Window’ by Jan Freidlin was new to me, but a really beautiful piece, requiring a real understanding of phrasing and careful pedalling.
Also in List B, Moszkowski’s ‘Calme du soir’ was new to me, but enjoyable both to play and to listen to. Even though it’s only two pages, the large, heavy chords will require some careful voicing. In List C, Christopher Norton’s ‘New Kid’ is also fun to play and offers an effective jazz option at the Grade. Rahbee’s ‘Prelude: Twilight’ was also new to me, but is a beautiful, delicate piece, requiring a huge degree of sensitivity and control. As for Param Vir’s ‘White Light Chorale’…well, I’m afraid I’m happy to pass this one by. The repeated top A flats and Gs throughout the piece were hard on the ear.
My top three:
- A2 – Martinu: Allegretto
- B2 – Freidlin: At the Evening Window
- C2 – Rahbee: Prelude – Twilight
ABRSM Grade 8
Grade 8 is the pinnacle of any exam syllabus and there are some nice, shall we say, unusual choices this time round. Whilst List A is pretty standard for Grade 8 (Bach, Mozart, Schubert), there’s some real expansion when it comes to Lists B and C (so why not for A?) I thought the Coleridge-Taylor on List B was delightful with some really imaginative writing. Louise Farrenc’s ‘Êtude in D flat’ was pleasing with some interesting technical challenges along the way.
In List C, it was nice to see the inclusion of Debussy’s second ‘Arabesque’, not normally played, but I did love the drama of the Albéniz which has such scope for character and style. ‘Over the Bars’ by J.P. Johnson is an excellent jazz option at this final grade.
As with all grades though, do explore the alternatives too!
My top three:
- A1 – Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B flat, BWV 866
- B1 – Coleridge-Taylor: Impromptu in B minor
- C1 – Albéniz: Rumores de La Caleta
Overall, a good amount of progress has been made since the 2021-22 ABRSM Piano Syllabus release. There has been a reduction in the number of arrangements, and to me, an increase in the number of living composers represented. I no longer feel the need to count up the pitiful number of female composers included, as I think we’ve moved on from that. Overall, the syllabus feels far more diverse than ever before.
In some cases, there is still a reliance on the same old pieces doing the rounds, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these tend to be the ones included in the books of Selected Pieces. This means that these books tend to play safe, and as ever, the alternative lists are well worth exploring. There is a sense at some grades, that ABRSM Is desperately trying to cling onto its ‘gold standard’ past, as exemplified at Grade 8 where on List A, there is little choice beyond Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert Handel, Rameau, Scarlatti and Haydn.
ABRSM have also responded to feedback by no longer including CDs with the books, but rather, these can be purchased with a code to download the audio tracks online. They are also available as books only. The Teaching Notes are an ever-useful addition to the suite of publications to support the new syllabus, though as before, now only include those works in the books of Selected Pieces.
There has been a notable shift in confidence with Initial Grade, and this is now holding its own as a distinct, and in my view, far more valuable assessment than the Prep Test. Similarly, the choices at Grade 1 have also been overhauled, and now feel far more inspiring than previously. There are some notable duplicates from the syllabuses of other exam boards, particularly ‘The Song of Twilight’ at Grade 3. This is not necessarily a negative, but it’s perhaps something to keep an eye on. There are enough pieces out there for everyone.
There are still a few pieces, and indeed, grades, which feel a little bit flat, Grades 3 and 6 in particular, but overall, this ABRSM Piano Syllabus represents a considerable shift in outlook, and I hope it is something which can be built on in the future. ABRSM have taken risks, but they can take more.
Selected Pieces from the ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2023-24, published by ABRSM Publishing in two versions:
– Initial Grade, ISBN 9781786014627 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014719 (book + audio)
– Grade 1, ISBN 9781786013972 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014634 (book + audio)
– Grade 2, ISBN 9781786014559 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014641 (book + audio)
– Grade 3, ISBN 9781786014566 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014658 (book + audio)
– Grade 4, ISBN 9781786014573 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014665 (book + audio)
– Grade 5, ISBN 9781786014580 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014672 (book + audio)
– Grade 6, ISBN 9781786014597 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014689 (book + audio)
– Grade 7, ISBN 9781786014603 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014696 (book + audio)
– Grade 8, ISBN 9781786014610 (book only) / ISBN 9781786014702 (book + audio)
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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