New ABRSM piano syllabus 2019-2020

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the teaching notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does slightly depress me to see a piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972!), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, there is a complete refreshment of repertoire and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades. The supporting tests remain unchanged, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the very early grades (1-3) tend towards “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists, but adult learners will enjoy Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s A Memory of Paris (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ Anatolian 08 (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s Dream: No 10 from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a sufficiently broad range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM is very conscious of its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength by offering a syllabus which combines rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website.  The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information

2 Comments

  1. Thanks very much for your very comprehensive yet concise review of the new ABRSM Syllabus. As a piano teacher of over 20 years, I have always wondered why the Trinity Syllabus seems to be one of the best kept secrets in the music exam world overall. Although I like many I suppose, was ‘raised’ on an exclusive diet of ABRSM exams resulting in me continuing the tradition and teaching the very same syllabus when I became a piano teacher, when Trinity changed their syllabus in 2007, I ventured to give it a try. I have never gone back to ABRSM again!!

    I find in Trinity for both the practical and the theory a far more flexible and user friendly format for both student and teacher. The practical exam as you probably already know does not box the candidates into the traditional A,B and C category but rather gives a choice of 3 pieces from either A or B. The auxiliary tests give a choice of 4 disciplines. Aurals are not only more realistic and practical (who really uses the skill of recognising a 2nd inversion arpeggio/chord) for the developing musician, but the dreaded singing bit doesn’t exist! The Musical Knowledge section at least encourages a candidate to know a little more about the piece and its composer than calling the piece A2 or C3. The report that is written during the exam is divided into 3 sections with separate marks for each section – me and my instrument, me and my music and me and my audience – thereby giving both candidate and teacher a far more in depth critique about the performance. Theory is also very user friendly with the popular Question 1 of Multiple choice questions and overall much more practical for today’s musician.

    There are many, many more positive attributes to the syllabus of which I won’t bother to go into as it’s all available to anyone on their website. I will mention though, that whenever I have introduced Trinity to a previous ABRSM student, they have never gone back to AB!!

    Without having to go into more of the differences of Trinity, as I’m sure you are already aware of them, I just wondered why this very well thought out syllabus hasn’t taken a bigger hold worldwide (apart from the Far East)? I would hazard a guess that maybe the reason is due to marketing?? ABRSM has mastered that skill to a fine art, unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Trinity.

    I write this little essay as a teacher from Jamaica and so I can only speak of what happens here and overall in the Caribbean, perhaps Trinity is just as big in the UK? If so, then I stand corrected, but I thought one of the prime objectives of these music exams was to promote their product worldwide?

    • Hello Maxan and thank you for your very detailed reply. I agree with you about Trinity and when I switched my students to Trinity about 6 years ago, we never looked back. When I was taking piano lessons as a child and teenager in the 1970s & 80s, Trinity was considered the “poor relation” to ABRSM, a view largely based on snobbery, I think, because of the “Royal” in ABRSM’s name. There is a certainly complacency in the ABRSM these days, in my view. It seems to be resting on its laurels and its royal association, rather than creating an exam framework which works for students and teachers in the 21st century. I was, for example, exasperated to find a piece in the current Syllabus by Felix Swinstead, which I learnt c1972!! Trinity and the London College of Music exam board seem far more alert to the needs and wishes of students and teachers today, and both cater far better for adult learners than ABRSM, especially in the early grades. LCM also offers different types of exams, for example, the Recital Grade which does not include aural or sight-reading tests. It will be interesting to see how ABRSM responds when the next syllabus is produced in 2020

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