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ABRSM 2017 Piano Syllabus Review

The new Grade 5 and Grade 6 selected pieces 2017-2018 from ABRSM is yet again filled with some wonderful delights and challenges. After teaching the 2015-16 syllabus for over two years, I awaited the release of the new syllabus with great anticipation and excitement. Yet again, the ABRSM, the most prestigious international examining board has provided a great array of pieces at Grade 5 and 6.

The Grade 5 repertoire begins with a bright uplifting Prelude by Purcell. Considered and carefully worked out fingering will be essential for success in this piece. Many piano students who have previously studied two-part writing will have a head start in accomplishing this piece. We then move onto Allegro by the lesser-known composer; Carlos de Seixas (1704-42). Teachers will be left to interpret they own dynamics here due to their absence by the composer. In many ways, this piece is less challenging than A1 and will appeal to those who favour the classical style. My personal favourite of the A section is A3: Waltz in A by Weber. Many students will be more familiar with the melody and accompaniment texture, and furthermore the style of a German Waltz from this period. The trio section switches to the minor and is full of drama using the ff dynamic. I think this will prove to be a popular choice.

The B section of Grade 5 opens with Sostenuto in E flat, a wonderfully crafted Waltz with all the hallmarks of Chopin. When teaching this piece I will be ensuring my students achieve much expression in melodic line. Slight rubato will also be welcome in this piece.

B2: Tarantella is a fun piece in compound time at 132 BPM. As much as pupils will want to play the piece as fast as possible from the start, I think it is important that in the early stages of learning, the tempo is reduced greatly in order to achieve all the details such as ped marks, staccatos and dynamics to provide contours in the melodic line. It is fantastic to see the return of Vaughan Williams to the ABRSM syllabus with Slow Air. This piece, similar to B1 should be full of expression. As Vaughan Williams wrote so little piano music we rarely see such works in any graded piano syllabi.

Staccato Beans (C1) is full of reference to old Chinese folk songs by the composer Tan Dun. It is a remarkably compelling selection by the ABRSM, and I would encourage students to view Lang Lang’s performance of this work at this link:

C2 is an interesting Gavotte by Shostakovich. The harmony in this piece is very attractive and the music hints at a variety of various keys as it progresses. No doubt C3: Cool by Stephen Wood will prove to be the most popular choice. Pupils often are drawn to the jazzier option in the C section. This piece will not disappoint with its catchy tune and syncopated rhythm. Overall, the Grade 5 selection of pieces has a wide range of styles on offer. Grade 5 is a definitive milestone in a pupil’s progression and these pieces will no doubt offer an attractive course of study leading to success at the exam.

The new Grade 6 repertoire also has much to offer. Its first piece in the syllabus is Bach’s invention in A minor. This lively invention starts in A minor but swiftly passes through the keys of C major and E minor. Typical of a piece from this period the imitation of parts is at the focus. I will be recommending to my pupils that they highlight using a highlighter pen the sections that need to stand out in the RH and LH. The baroque enthusiasts will be drawn to this piece, however, those who are put off by the fast tempo, will perhaps look to Bach’s Andante in alternative pieces (A4). A2 (Courante by Handel) has far less quick finger movement in the LH, when compared to A1, with most of the motion taking place in the RH. Similar to A1, the dynamics are left to the performers discretion. There are hemiola rhythms to watch for in this piece that will require some attention to achieve the correct rhythmic feel. The Mozart lovers will be attracted to piece A3. Here lies much melodic interest. It is worth noting that this piece was one of Mozart’s last sonatas (Sonata in C, K. 545) and was written for teaching purposes. There is much to learn here such as acquiring a firm, yet even tone for the scale passages, and achieving balance between the hands.

The B section begins with Scherzo by Gade. This is a very appealing piece with plenty of score markings to guide the pupil in the composer’s intentions. A graceful sound can be achieved in this piece with much lightness of touch. B2 (Valse Lente) by Merikanto is my personal favourite of the B section. This slow waltz has a wonderfully attractive melody that sings through from beginning to end. Here, romantic harmonies ring out evoking great emotion. B3 features the popular Russian composer Skryabin with his Prelude in E. Here, Skryabin uses the model of the prelude that dates back to Bach’s era. He wrote over 85 preludes that have provided short works for a variety of piano exam boards over the years.

Bartok fans will however be drawn to piece C1: Joc Cu Bata. We have some great rhythmic variety here that evokes the feeling of a folk dance. Candidates should not fret about the tempo of 100 crotchet beats per minute as the syllabus states that slower tempos of 88 are accepted in the exam. ABRSM are putting in many fun popular pieces in their later grades such as ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ in the last syllabus. Now, we are treated to Cruella de Vil from the Walt Disney film ‘101 Dalmations’. We have some delightful jazz harmonies and off beat rhythms that many pupils will enjoy. My personal favourite is c3: Tanaka’s Masquerade. The composer here has asked the player to imagine a magical masquerade ball at the carnival of Venice. We have some rhythmic variety particularly in the B section of this piece. There is plenty of room for communication from the performer here to display the whimsical mood.

Overall, I must say I am looking forward to getting into the teaching studio and teaching these wonderfully diverse pieces from the new syllabus.

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