Review: RSL Classical Piano Syllabus 2020

Best known for the Rockschool assessments, and now in its 30th year, RSL have recently introduced a brand new Classical Piano Syllabus which I feel pretty sure is going to be a big hit with teachers and students alike.

In this blog post, I’m going to be reviewing the nine graded books which accompany the syllabus. Each book contains all the material for the respective grade. Pieces are supported by a fact file and performance notes which give background to both piece, composer and style. In particular, technical issues are highlighted enabling candidates to approach these with confidence and a sense of preparedness.

Two exam options are available:

  • Graded Music Exam: three pieces, technical exercises and supporting tests.
  • Performance Certificate: five pieces.

All graded music exam candidates cover ear tests and general musicianship questions, and can choose between sight-reading and contemporary improvisation/interpretation. Technical work falls generally into three categories: scales, arpeggios and technical studies.

Unlike other boards, pieces are not divided into lists allowing free choice from the 10 pieces included in each book. A free-choice piece is allowed, and I understand there will be additional repertoire lists available on the website.

There is much to explore in the syllabus, and I would encourage teachers and students to find out more and download the syllabus and sample pack from the RSL website. This would be a huge post if I covered every aspect of the syllabus in detail, so I want to focus here mainly on the books and repertoire themselves.

It is also worth noting, as discussed later on, that these books should be considered a useful resource beyond the confines of the syllabus.

A word about prices…

With the books falling into a price range of around £16-£19 each, many teachers will be horrified; however, they are substantial volumes covering 10 pieces, technical exercises, scales, arpeggios, studies, musicianship and sight-reading, as well as full-page notes on each piece. They also include a code for audio downloads. The quality is superb and therefore I consider them to be excellent value for money. Whilst an ABRSM Grade 1 book is half the price, it contains less than half the material found in these. Do bear this in mind.

As in my previous syllabus reviews (ABRSM and Trinity), I will cover each grade in turn.

Fact file and performance notes

RSL Classical Piano Debut

One of the things I liked about this grade is that it is not only aimed at children. Whilst it is akin to Trinity and ABRSM’s Initial Grade and LCM’s Step 2 exam, the pieces will appeal to wide range of ages. There is a good mixture of pieces including music for film and other contemporary works. Debussy and Bartok are perhaps the only works we’d describe as overtly ‘classical’, but nevertheless, this is a diverse selection. Whilst the compilers have brought together some unfamiliar works, pieces are also included from existing publications such as Pauline Hall’s Piano Time series.

My top three:

  • Einaudi: Una Mattina
  • Pearce: Sandcastle
  • Madden: Andante Verde

RSL Classical Grade 1

Again, a diverse selection of pieces and quite an achievement when there are only ten included in the book. Some here are more overtly ‘classical’ with works by Schumann, Holst and Bach. I found Perry’s Orrin and Echo appealing but at the trickier end of Grade 1. The piece is inventive, but a number of the technical challenges may prove troublesome.

My top three:

  • Schumann: Soldatenmarsch
  • Sancho: Le Douze de Decembre
  • Lopez & Lopez: ‘All is Found’ (from Frozen 2)

RSL Classical Grade 2

Whilst Mozart and Beethoven are included, this is more of ‘jazzy’ grade. I felt that on balance, there was quite a wide variety of difficulty here. The arrangement of Für Elise is certainly not without its complexities and is fairly long for Grade 2. By contrast, Sancho’s Christmas Eve is pretty straightforward.

My top three:

  • Ffrench: Together at Last
  • Austin: Tarantella in G minor
  • Sancho: Christmas Eve

RSL Classical Grade 3

Again, a really nice mixture of pieces and in my view, a better balance of difficulty than at Grade 2. It does begin to feel there’s a certain amount of repetition in terms of composers and publishers which is perhaps more noticeable when only ten pieces are included at each grade. Again, those composers we might term to be more overtly ‘classical’, tend to be restricted to Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Beethoven etc.

My top three:

  • Jóhannsson: A Model of the Universe
  • Rejino: Nocturne
  • Ffrench: Bluebird
RSL Classical Piano Grade 5

RSL Classical Grade 4

This grade, perhaps more than any other, reflects the breath of styles covered in the RSL Classical Piano Syllabus, here, literally everything from Bach onwards. In fact, it was pretty hard to choose between the pieces at Grade 4. My only slight criticism is that some of the pieces presented on one page feel a little crowded, and it does highlight the fact that pieces at this grade vary in length between one and three pages.

My top three:

  • Liu: Monochrome 2
  • Ikeda: Moonlight Rose
  • Price: Ticklin’ Toes

RSL Classical Grade 5

This grade featured more what we might term ‘classical’ pieces than others: Bach, Kuhlau, Schumann, Scarlatti and Satie. There are also some ‘old favourites’ such as New Orleans Nightfall, Sweet Mister Jelly Roll and Staccato Beans which will be familiar to many teachers.

My top three:

  • Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1
  • Richter: Andras
  • Bach: Invention No. 1 in C

RSL Classical Grade 6

Again, a really varied selection of pieces here, and definitely something for everyone. If I was doing Grade 6, I would certainly find it hard to choose. One thing which is perhaps more noticeable in these three higher grades is how useful (and good value) these books would be as general collections of pieces. Even for pianists not working towards these exams, they offer a wide selection of different styles, not always found in such higher grade collections.

My top three:

  • Ffrench: Shine
  • Debussy: The Little Shepherd
  • Peterson: Jazz Exercise No. 2

RSL Classical Grade 7

Of all the grades, I felt Grade 7 was perhaps the least inspiring. For books which contain only 10 pieces, it felt odd to have two Chopin works included at this Grade 7. This means that in my opinion, we’re missing a jazz option at this level which will be disappointing for some candidates.

My top three:

  • Coleridge-Taylor: They Will Not Lend Me a Child
  • Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
  • Schubert: 3rd movement from Moments Musicaux
Le Douze de December by Sancho

RSL Classical Grade 8

Anyone hoping for an easy time at Grade 8 is in for a bit of a shock! The first thing which struck me at Grade 8 is that a number of pieces included here have previously appeared on first-level diploma syllabuses, notably Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 and Poulenc’s complete Mouvements Perpétuels. This suggests that RSL are setting high standards at this top grade and this is reflected across the range of pieces included. Perhaps also, this grade feels more overtly ‘classical’, the only non-classical works being Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and Miles Davis’ and Bill Evans’ Blue in Green. In that sense, after the huge variety at previous grades, this top grade feels a little underwhelming and heavyweight.

My top three:

  • Debussy: Arabesque No. 1
  • Poulenc: Mouvements Perpétuels
  • Grieg: Papillon


On balance there was a good mix of pieces at all grades, though some may feel certain grades lean towards a particular musical period. In some ways, the repertoire is not surprising and broadly in line with other boards. The majority of pieces have appeared on other syllabuses at one time or another. An outsider may also suggest that with only 90 pieces included across the books, certain composers and publishers are favoured more than others.

RSL brand this as a ‘classical piano’ syllabus, although virtually every conceivable style is included from Bach right through to jazz, ragtime, contemporary and film music. In some ways, the ‘classical’ label perhaps does this syllabus a disservice. Similarly, technical requirements reflect a broader range of styles, for example, the inclusion of pentatonic and diminished scales. On the whole though, the supporting tests are well-conceived and much thought has obviously gone into the overall balance of the syllabus.

I was a little disappointed not to find details of the arrangers of many of the pieces included. Besides the fact the I always feel arranging doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, this information is always valuable and worthwhile.

The books themselves are excellent. They are clearly presented with a huge amount of information included in addition to the pieces themselves. The typesetting is clear and with the exception of the odd awkward page turn, the books are very well laid out. The performance notes on each piece are very informative and offer useful, practical guidance for both teachers and students.

Overall, the syllabus is impressive and it is clear much work has gone into its development and production. Whilst I don’t think there’s enough to say this will become the ‘go to’ piano syllabus, it will certainly sit well alongside the other boards’ offerings, and both teachers and students alike will benefit from that additional choice.

RSL Classical Piano Syllabus 2020 is published by RSL Awards and Hal Leonard, RSK200138 to RSK200146, prices from £16.99.

I was sent review copies 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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