Review: ABRSM Songbooks Plus

At the end of October 2017, ABRSM published its new Songbook Plus series, designed to complement the existing Songbook range. There is a new book for each of Grades 1-5, though unlike the previous series, no CDs are included. This brings the RRP to between £8.95 and £10.95 for each book. I have recently blogged about the new 2018 singing syllabus, and you can read that here.

First of all, the overall presentation is attractive and the general design more in-line with recent ABRSM publications. The binding of the books has changed too which does make them lie more easily on the music stand of a piano. In addition to the songs themselves, notes on each piece are included at the beginning of each book. Another useful addition in my view, is the instructions at the top of the songs indicating (if applicable) which verses are required in terms of the new ABRSM singing syllabus.

The books contain a mixture of songs from each of Lists A, B and C. In general, this means some arrangements of folksongs, some classical songs (e.g. German lieder) and some contemporary songs (e.g. from musicals). The selection included is varied, though I suspect that particularly in terms of the List C choices, teachers will already have these pieces in other books and anthologies. Some of the new folk-song arrangements are less successful than others, the danger with folk-songs always being the accompaniments detract from the songs themselves.

Overall, there are some nice choices included, some of which are not readily available elsewhere. Pianists will be familiar with Nikki Iles’s jazz arrangements such as the book Jazz on a Winter’s Night. Her arrangement of ‘Go tell it on the mountain’ in Book 1 is especially attractive, though the vocal line does differ slightly from most of the traditional versions I’ve heard. Her arrangement of the spiritual, ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ in Book 5 is also appealing and sensitive.

A new (to me) Scottish folk-song, ‘The winter it is past’ is included in Book 2 in a lovely arrangement by David Blackwell. Another attractive choice is Dorothy Buchanan’s ‘Peace Song’ in Book 3, and a good example of a piece which will appeal to children and adults alike. Jay Althouse’s arrangement of ‘The Jones Boys’ in Book 4 is also great fun. Alan Bullard’s arrangement of ‘The water is wide’ in Book 5 is perhaps less successful, with a busy piano accompaniment which I feel detracts from the simple melody of this folk-song.

Unlike the previous series, a pronunciation guide (either written or recorded) has not been provided, and I suspect this makes it tricky for songs such as the Icelandic ‘Fuglinn í fjörunni’ at Grade 4. There’s nothing to say that the pronunciation guides will be available separately, so one is to assume this series won’t include these.

Overall, I think the books are good. There are some slightly odd arrangements, and I feel ABRSM could have been more creative in the List C choices included. The lack of a pronunciation guide is disappointing.

As mentioned earlier, the new books do not come with CDs. Instead, ABRSM have added singing to their Practice Partner series of apps for download. Once downloaded, song accompaniments can be transposed into any key, and played at any tempo. The app is free to download, but except a sample song, all other songs have to be purchased and downloaded separately. Downloads of individual songs cost 79p, and there’s a current offer of three for £1.95. It’s also worth pointing out the tracks don’t download directly to iTunes, but instead need to be downloaded to a computer and synced manually.

Now, for a pupil who’s using the books and choosing three pieces purely for an exam, this is good value. However, most of us teachers wish to discourage pupils from singing only three songs, and therefore, would want to make use of other material from the books. This means that for Book 1, a full set of accompaniment tracks will cost £9.48, and for Book 5, £11.06. In practical terms, it doesn’t make these books as good value as the previous series with their CDs included. A teacher who wishes to use all five books and requires the accompaniment tracks for all the songs would be paying over £100. That said, the ability to transpose and alter the tempo of tracks is useful, and perhaps we need to look at the wider picture here. I agree that downloads are the way forward (I no longer have  CD player in my teaching studio); however, in theory, they should make purchases more, not less cost-effective.

That said, overall, I think the books are a useful addition. They’re especially useful for pupils who wish to sing a variety of styles, and in that sense, I can see them appealing to adult learners, even those with no interest in sitting a singing exam. It’s disappointing that the accompaniment downloads couldn’t have been made more cost-effective and this is something I’d encourage ABRSM to explore further in the future.