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Review of Piano Graded ABRSM By Piano Teacher in Cardiff

Review of the new syllabus (2019-20) ABRSM Piano exam pieces

Firstly I would like to thank ABRSM for sending me the complimentary set of the new piano pieces for me to review.

It is always an exciting time for us piano teachers as we await the release of the set of new exam pieces. In many cases, piano teachers live, breathe and teach these pieces for over two years, and in the more popular early grades, this can become tiring over time. So, there is no wonder we eagerly await and welcome a new set of pieces.

The last syllabus from ABRSM was met with much criticism from many music educators, particularly of the early grades of 1-3. The 2017-18 early grades were in many instances too difficult for the grade concerned. This was a shame for the board to misplace these pieces because music teachers are aware this is a vital time in a students progression and tackling pieces that are too challenging for the grade concerned can be disheartening for the pupil. However, one thing I found was that even those pieces were on the more challenging end, they were still marked at the correct level, and examiners clearly took this into their consideration in their marking. It was evident that certain pieces in the Grade 2 that were touching on Grade 3 in difficultly were still clearing marked at the Grade 2 expected standard.

From the outset, the new piano pieces (2019-20) are clearly at the expected grades and this issue has been resolved. Bloggers and music teachers across the board have welcomed the ABRSM’s return to an interesting, yet achievable syllabus that will challenge, yet excite young learners.

Grade 1 has thankfully returned to the expected standard. We are met with the usual composers at this early grade such as Attwood, Joan Last and Wooding. Kevin Wooding’s “Egyptian Level” will no doubt prove to be a favourite in the selections due to its catchy, distinct middle eastern character. “The Echo” by Oesten is a pretty lyrical piece, however many students will probably favour the more popular Brahm’s Lullaby.

Grade 2 is also packed with many musical delights. “Musette in D” has a famous melody that has appeared in lots of tutor books. “Lesson in C” by Diabelli is a piece clearly within the boundaries of grade 2 standard with an interesting melody and relatively straight forward left hand. “The Arabesque” by Burgmuller will prove to be a clear favourite, as it always has been in the grade 2 teaching repertoire. The jazzy pieces in the C section are all appealing and will please learners at this early grade.

Grade 3 has some interesting selections, but on first glance, probably not as appealing as grade 1 or 2. That said, the “Giga” by Seixas looks very attractive. The less able grade 3 pupil will be drawn to Praetorius’s “Bransle de la Torche”, however pupils should be warned that piece needs to go at a relatively high speed for the tune to sing out. Bennett’s “Diversion” will only appeal to a certain type of learner who likes more interesting jazz harmonies- though with encouragement from music teachers, more may want to select it.

Grade 4 has one of the most exciting selection of pieces I have seen in any syllabus for a long time. The book opens with Beethoven’s “Bagatelle in C” which is a firm favourite and part of the standard Beethoven tutor piano repertoire. Benda offers a good alternative- “Sonatina in A minor”. Pupils will however need to work out appropriate fingering with their tutor in order to execute this piece at the Allegro tempo. Walter Carroll appears in this grade, as well as grade 3. Carroll is a good composer who creates imaginative pieces for young learners that quite often prove favourites in exams. “Arietta” I have a personal attachment to as I played this for my grade 4 exam many years ago. It is a lovely lyrical piece that has a beautiful melody. It is also wonderful to see Elgar’s “Chanson de matin” included in this grade. This great arrangement by David Blackwell captures this piece, originally for violin and piano, very well. All three C pieces by Gillock, Richard Michael and Sluka offer stimulating rhythmic and melodic sounds that will be appealing for the young learner.

Grade 5 which is a benchmark and milestone in any student’s progression at the piano also has a great set of pieces. The syllabus includes a range of attractive pieces that will appeal to both students and their teachers. Bach’s “Aria from Partita No 4 in D” has lots of challenging moments but will appeal to those who favour the baroque keyboard style. Those who favour the tune and accompaniment texture of classical piano will no doubt choose the “Andante in A” by Haydn. This piece is from Haydn’s popular symphony 53, but works equally as well on the piano. Kirchner’s “Plauderei” (chat) is a worthy inclusion in this grade 5 piano syllabus. The interesting antiphonal texture between the right and left hand has been written in a very imaginative fashion that will appeal to many students. It is also great to see the inclusion of a female composer in this years syllabus – Louise Farrenc who brings us “Etude in A minor” full of French colour and sound. I, personally, would not be drawn to Sibelius’s “Joueur de harpe” however, this may appeal to a student who enjoys arpeggios and repetitive harp like sounds. Mike Cornick’s “Film Noir” has some great jazz chords and off beat rhythms that capture the style of Hollywood crime drama. It is also great to see Prokofiev included in this grade with his “Lentamente”. This dream like piece will be played at a slow tempo with some thought-provoking chords appealing to those who like expressive pieces.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, the ABRSM has returned to it’s expected standard with a set of pieces that will enlighten and encourage young learners in their progression. The board should feel pleased with a great syllabus that will help to promote their on going fantastic reputation as the worlds leading exam board.

This article was written by Cardiff based piano teacher, Matthew Clayton. Matthew teaches from his home studio or online through skype lessons. He charges £25 per half hour lesson. To make a booking with Matthew, please email today

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