Review: ABRSM Pop Performer

There are literally thousands of books available for piano of arrangements of pop songs. Some are inevitably more successful than others. The art of arranging a pop song, many of which don’t include piano anyway, is challenging. It requires a good degree of skill to retain the essence of the original song in a solo instrument form. Pop Performer, a new series of two books from ABRSM is, in my view, leading the way where such arrangements are concerned.

Book 1 contains 20 arrangements covering Initial to Grade 3, and Book 2 contains 16 arrangements covering Grades 4-5. A wide range of eras are represented, with everything from Joni Mitchell to Ed Sheeran. The books are billed as including ‘chart-topping and classic pop songs’, but songs from films are also included, such as from Disney’s Encanto. Whilst we could debate whether all the songs included are ‘pop songs’, that doesn’t affect the quality of the arrangements which is what I want to focus on here.

Both Sides Now

In Pop Performer Book 1, five songs each for Initial, Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3 are included. Whilst these aren’t yet on the ABRSM Piano Syllabus (of which you can find my review here) the suggestion is made that they can make good own-choice pieces for ABRSM Performance Grades. There are some classics here including ‘Love is All Around’ (Wet Wet Wet), ‘Imagine’ (John Lennon) and ‘Both Sides Now’ (Joni Mitchell). More modern songs are also included too, many of which I don’t know because I’m not that up-to-date!

In general, the arrangements are very effective. Inevitably stripping back pop songs, originally played by bands and including vocals, for Initial Grade is hard. Overall though, this has been successfully achieved in this book, most notably in Andrew Dunlop’s arrangement of Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’ and Carolyn Miller’s arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Just occasionally, I felt the arrangements went a bit far, so for example, Joni Mitchell’s beautifully simplistic ‘Both Sides Now’ feels a little ‘over-arranged’ here. That’s personal preference though.

Let It Go

Overall, there is a good selection of songs included in Pop Performer Book 1 with styles which will appeal to all ages, notably adults. The arrangements in this book, and indeed Book 2 as well, show that pop songs can be very effectively translated to piano. The compilers have rightfully selected songs which will work well as solo piano arrangements, thus avoiding the disappointment so many arrangements bring.

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Pop Performer Book 2 includes a similar variety of songs, eight each for Grade 4 and Grade 5. As with Book 1, the arrangements are well placed within the graded exam difficulty levels. Perhaps with more scope in terms of difficulty, the arrangements in Book 2 offer the player a little more in terms of both technical and musical challenge. Once again, a breadth of songs are included, from Adele’s ‘Easy on Me’ to Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’.


Harry Baker’s arrangement of ‘Titanium’ was particularly effective in making a strong piano solo out of the song. It avoids the standard vocal line in the RH, accompaniment in the LH. In fact, that is true of many of the arrangements in these books. Nikki Iles’ arrangement of Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’ was equally as successful, with very little being lost of the original song. As the last inclusion in Book 2, it’s three pages, and this again shows the progression through from Initial Grade.

As with all pop song arrangements, it is useful to know the original first. I often tell my students that with all pop song arrangements, the printed music should be seen as a guide because however good the arranger, it’s very difficult to transfer these songs to piano. In the main, the arrangements in both books in the Pop Performer series are both successful and effective, but even then, rhythms in particular can never be totally exact. Of course, if these were being played in an exam, performers would need to play the pieces as written, as otherwise, I suspect marks would be lost for inaccuracy of rhythm etc…but that’s a whole another debate!

Just the Way You Are

Both books in the Pop Performer series are well-conceived and the compilers have selected appropriate songs for the arrangements. The arrangements are skilled and musical, and ABRSM have clearly drawn together those best for the job. As I said above, just occasionally there’s, in my view, a little ‘over-arranging’, but on the whole, this doesn’t detract from the quality and usefulness of the books.

Whether they’re for an exam or not, Pop Performer are good value, appealing to all ages. Can we hope for a Book 3 covering Grades 6-8? That really would be a valuable addition to any teacher’s or pianist’s shelves.

[This post contains affiliate links]

Pop Performer: Initial to Grade 3 is published by ABRSM and distributed by Hal Leonard, ISBN 9781786015112, RRP £12.95

Pop Performer: Grades 4 & 5 is published by ABRSM and distributed by Hal Leonard, ISBN 9781786015129, RRP £13.95

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

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