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

The ABRSM has announced the launch of a new performance-only Diploma, the ARSM (“Associate of the Royal Schools of Music”). This will be an “entry level” Diploma, somewhat lower than the DipABRSM, and intended to “bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM”. Details are sketchy at present, but the ARSM will consist of a 30-minute performance consisting of music selected from the current DipABRSM repertoire list and own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 standard. At present, it is not clear whether candidates will be required to produce programme notes, but there is no sight-reading/quick study element to the ARSM, nor a viva voce.

Currently, the gap between Grade 8 and the Associate level Diploma (DipABRSM, ATCL, DipLCM etc) is very wide. At Grade 8 candidates play three pieces lasting approx 10-12 minutes in total. They may play a single movement of a sonata by, say, Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart as part of their Grade 8 programme, but at Associate Diploma level, candidates are expected to play a full sonata (for example, Beethoven ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, Mozart Sonata in F K332, Schubert Sonata in A, D664). The candidate’s standard of playing, musical insight, musicianship and general level of attainment is expected to be considerably higher than at Grade 8, and the time taken to study for and complete a diploma can be around 2-3 years. The first, Associate, diploma is an equivalent standard to the first year’s study in conservatoire, while the highest, Fellowship, diploma is equivalent to a Masters module.

There is quite a lot of snobbery surrounding Diplomas, with the ABRSM diplomas being considered “better”, in no small part due to the ABRSM’s longstanding reputation and its royal affiliation. In fact, the repertoire lists for Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship diplomas across the main exam boards are almost identical, and all carry the same QCF and EQF points, providing candidates with a recognised professional qualification which can be used as a pathway to further study, for example at conservatoire or university. Ultimately, the choice of diploma and exam board should be based not on snobbery but on the candidate’s personal preference, which Diploma syllabus is most appropriate/ beneficial for the candidate and so forth.

So what will the new ARSM offer to candidates? Already some of my piano teaching colleagues have commented that it will be “Grade 9 without the scales, aural and sightreading” or that is it simply a “money spinner” for the ABRSM. Some anxieties have also been expressed about whether this new diploma will lead to further dumbing down or devaluing of the higher diplomas. However, a number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have expressed interest in the ARSM and regard it as a useful opportunity for those seeking a challenge post-Grade 8 but who do not feel ready to attempt the Associate diploma.

Further details about the ARSM will be available next month and I will share them here. Meanwhile, I would be very interested in people’s views on this new diploma – please feel free to leave comments below, or contact me direct with your views.




No pianist’s alphabet would be complete without an entry on the Étude or “study” – the short piece, often considerably difficult, designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique.

The practice of writing études developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano études has continued into the modern era with composers such as Ligeti, Cage, Kapustin and Glass.

The opening of Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op 10, No. 3

Many people swear by études and studies as part of their daily practise regimen and some sets of études enjoy near-legendary or infamous status such as those by Czerny, Hanon and Brahms. Easier études by Heller and Burgmüller, which suit the intermediate pianist, offer technical challenges within an interesting and enjoyable piece. Debussy pokes fun at Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum in his Dr Gradus ad Parnassum but he also wrote a series of études which present different technical challenges within each piece, thereby following in Chopin’s footsteps.

Exercises should never be practised mindlessly. Try to play even the most dry exercises musically and appreciate how such exercises relate to actual repertoire. Having submitted to exercises by Cramer and Czerny as a young pianist, I now eschew such studies and prefer to create exercises out of the music I’m working on, though I have found Brahms’ studies useful.

Chopin’s études are incredibly satisfying to play because of the composer’s deep appreciation of the mechanics of the pianist’s hand and the desire to play beautiful music.

Frances Wilson


To do them, or not to do them? As a piano teacher, I’m amazed how the word can cause a pupil to shiver, even before they know what it’s like to take a music exam! It seems that human instinct often hones in on the negative feelings before the positive ones, and in the case of music exams, this is clearly not helpful.

The bizarre thing about music exams is that they are treated as a permanent record, but they are only measuring one performance at one moment in time. One of the things I’ve learnt as a professional performer is that every performance will be different and that some will be ‘better’ than others, no matter how hard you try to make all of them your best yet.

Exams also invite direct comparison between people, which can be awkward. I’ve had pupils who work hard and play extremely musically and convincingly, yet their fear or lack of enjoyment in performing affects their willingness to perform in public, or their marks if they take an exam. You can tell them ‘til the cows come home that there is as much value in their playing as that of their friend who regularly gets distinctions in exams, but they will struggle to believe you.

On the other hand, some of the best work my pupils have done is when they’ve had the deadline and motivation of an exam. They seem to prefer taking an exam to giving an informal performance amongst friends and peers, precisely because they’ll get a certificate at the end of it! Teachers often tell stories in disbelief of parents who have provided the books for the next grade straight after an exam has been sat. But it was much more memorable when a reluctant performing pupil of mine sat her Grade 1 and straight away asked when she could start on work on her Grade 2.

In amongst studying other repertoire and taking up other opportunities to perform, exams are a great learning tool. As well as motivation, exams encourage disciplined preparation – a valuable skill for life, never mind learning an instrument. I’ve had some of the greatest laughs when a pupil and I have been working in great detail, or at a great pace, because we’re inspired to achieve our best together.

Controversially, I believe the marked results are not the thing. Of course, we all like to know what someone else thinks of our performance, and it’s extremely useful for teachers, pupils and parents to have an independent view on our musical performance. But for me, the best result is the personal and musical development of each pupil, and their awareness of that. I’ve been more proud of a pupil scraping a pass at Grade 5 than others achieving distinctions – because I understand the amount of effort and work that each pupil has put in. You can’t beat the beaming smile of a pupil who realises they’ve worked really hard and it was worth it. If an exam can bring wide grins, then let’s remember that and talk about it instead of shivering and creating anxiety.

Elspeth Wyllie, pianist, accompanist and coach, teacher

Last week, with a degree of heart-in-the-mouth trepidation, I submitted the application to take my ATCL Diploma exam. Since I have not taken a music exam for……um……….30 years, the prospect is slightly unnerving, not least because I still retain a very strong memory of my Grade 8 exam: the empty room, the big black shiny Minotaur of a Steinway grand piano, the silent examiner, the Bach Prelude (D minor) which if allowed to, might run away like an excitable horse, the sturm und drang Beethoven Sonata (Opus 10, No. 1), and the Chopin Nocturne (also D minor) which I loathed….

The good news is that with 8 weeks still to go until the exam, I feel fairly well on top of my repertoire. The pieces are all learnt, quite a lot has been committed to memory (one is not required to play from memory in the exam), and the work now is to finesse and refine. The danger at this point, of course, is over-practice. My students, most of whom seem to specialise in winging it in lessons and do very little practice in the intervening weeks, look at me askance when I mention over-practising, but it does exist. Famous cases of over-practising include Scriabin, who ended up with a hand injury, something I can identify with. On a less dramatic level, the point at which one knows a piece intimately can be, if you’re not careful, the point at which weird and new mistakes start to creep in. These can be the most difficult errors to unlearn and so it is crucial to practice extremely carefully and thoughtfully at this point.

At the piano course I attended last month, we talked about practice diaries, and the benefits of keeping a very detailed practice diary – not just of how much time one spends practising each day, but also notes on what needs to be done, what has been achieved etc., along with a list of questions, which can be applied to each and every practice session, to encourage one to think very carefully about the repertoire one is working on. Here are some ideas for a good practice diary:

Have I warmed up? For quick warm up exercises see my earlier post here

Am I listening as I play? It’s remarkable how easily the mind can wander when you’re working on a piece that is very familiar. Stay focussed, listen, and be strict with yourself about errors, bumpy, uneven or sloppy sections, lazy pedalling, articulation etc.

Have I noted all the dynamics? Articulation markings? Other signs and symbols? Again, familiarity can breed complacence. It’s worth taking the time to do this detailed work even if it’s a piece you know well.

Am I noting rhythm and pulse properly? Practice with a metronome if necessary until an ‘inner pulse’ is established throughout.

Is my fingering secure throughout? There’s a passage in my Bach Toccata (BWV 830) which gets me every time! Slow, quiet practice (“like a Chopin Nocturne”) can be helpful in these instances.

Am I taking care over phrase beginnings and endings?

And what about shaping, colour, contrast?

Which sections do I need to memorise? For example, for an awkward page turn

Keep a detailed note of how many minutes of practice per piece you have completed each day. Keep a clock by the piano, or use the stopwatch feature on your ‘phone. It’s amazing how this can force the mind to focus, especially if you know you have limited time in which to practice.

What do I need to do tomorrow? At the end of each practice session, make a note of what has arisen out of today’s session and what needs attention tomorrow.

Good luck, and don’t ever let your practice sessions feel like the character in this novel:

Work shaped every hour for him, as regular as a lunar cycle, and the cadence by which he set his life. From the age of sixteen, he had known only this life. Without it, he could feel directionless, without focus. Yet practising, four to five hours every day, practising until you never got it wrong, could be a form of captivity. Often, when he was wrestling with something new and tricky, when the same page of the score confronted him day after day, he felt he did not move forward in the night. Then it really was like prison, though without the punishment, only in the sameness of his days.

(from Music Lessons by Frances Wilson)

And take inspiration instead from Robert Schumann:

So what does it mean to be musical? You are not musical if, eyes glued nervously to the notes, you play a piece painfully through to the end; you are not musical if you get stuck and cannot go on because someone happens to turn two pages at once for you. But you are, if with a new piece you almost sense what is coming, if with a familiar one, you know it completely. In a word, if you have music not just in your fingers, but in your head and your heart.

(from Musickalische Haus- und Lebensregeln)

My keen adult student, Andy, came for his lesson today, the first in nearly a month (he’s been away filming at various music festivals), and we worked on Petit Mystère, a charming, Debussy-esque piece by French composer (and contemporary of Claude Debussy) Simone Plé. This is one of those deceptively simple pieces which requires great control and balance, and a strong affinity for impressionistic music, to create the right mood. It forms part of the current syllabus for the Trinity Guildhall Grade 2 exam.

I’ve recently switched to Trinity Guildhall, after three years teaching the ABRSM syllabus. My main motivation for trying a new exam board is that I have had a couple of run-ins with ABRSM this year, and have found the syllabus requirements very rigorous and unbending. Many early/young students find the scale and sight-reading requirements onerous and uninteresting – and in a couple of instances, downright scary. In the Trinity Guildhall syllabus, students are required to learn only a handful of very pertinent scales and arpeggios, and instead present three short studies to demonstrate technique such as tone, balance, voicing, touch. And instead of sight-reading, at least up to Grade 5, students may opt instead for the Musical Knowledge test. To me, this is a really useful and relevant component of a music exam, and my recent experiences with a new student, and a couple of non-piano students who came to me for aural training who seemed completely unaware of the different genres and styles of music, nor the context in which it was created, have made me even more fervent about ensuring that all my students (and indeed those of others!) have a good, basic grounding of the history of classical music, musical terms and signs, lives of the great composers etc.

These days, with easy-to-access music programmes such as Spotify and LastFM there really is no excuse for broadening one’s musical tastes and interests. Equally, there is a great variety of music available on the radio: tune in to Breakfast on Radio 3 from 7 to 10 am, and you can hear all sorts of interesting music – and not just pure classical either! I quite often make playlists on Spotify to share with my students to give them some “further listening” to help them with their pieces.

For Andy’s study of Petit Mystère, I’ve suggested Debussy’s Prélude à l’après Midi d’un faune, The Little Shepherd and Hommage à Rameau, plus the first Mazurka from the Opus 50 by Karol Syzmanowski (a piece I am learning myself at the moment). Hopefully, this will give Andy a greater “feel” for the music he is learning, and will also set it in context for him.

Meanwhile, for him and the rest of my students, I’ve prepared a brief overview of basic musical analysis, something I do with all my students whenever we start work on a new piece. This is a crucial exercise, which should be incorporated into a regular practice regime, before you have played a single note. I do it, usually away from the keyboard, with a pencil behind my ear for annotations.  You can view my helpsheet ANATOMY OF A PIECE. Next term, I will be asking all of my students to prepare a similar basic analysis of one of their pieces. I will publish the best/most imaginative/amusing ones here.

This afternoon a new experience for me: “assessing” the student of another teacher (whom I do not know) to give my opinion as to whether the child is ready to take her Grade 2 this summer. The mother of the child (who is 11) contacted me last week, and I was interested to learn that the other teacher has declared that the child can only take the exam if she can be guaranteed to pass with at least a Merit, or, better still, a Distinction. This revelation interested me, and set me thinking: is this whole exam rigmarole about encouraging our students, or bigging up Teacher’s ego?

I’m fairly new to the exam game: I’ve been teaching for less than five years, and since nearly all of my students came to me as complete beginners, exam taking is a relatively recent endeavour. Interestingly, most children are keen to take a piano exam. In these days of “dumbing down” in our schools, particularly in state schools, where Sports Day is no longer about winning the egg-and-spoon race, and where “everyone’s a winner”, it is cheering to find that children have not lost their competitive spirit, and many of them actively rise to the challenge of taking a music exam. There is no obligation to take exams in my studio: it is entirely up to the student, but I think the children like having some concrete indication of their progress and achievement, and a smart ABRSM certificate, complete with its royal crest, is worth 100 Well Done stickers in the practice notebook.

In my (limited) experience, it takes about two-and-a-half terms’ study (approx. 30 weeks of lessons) of the exam syllabus for a student to be ready to take an exam (early grades). Some children, the quick learners, and the really talented ones, can happily whizz through the repertoire and technical work and can be ready in less time. When I was learning piano as a child, I took an exam once a year, and as soon as I’d completed one exam, instead of spending time working on “step up” repertoire, I would move straight on to the next grade’s syllabus. Thus, exams became a chore and I felt tethered to a deathly dull treadmill.

And here’s the real nub of it, to me: boredom is a great enemy to successful learning – and it was this point that made me agree to hear the child this afternoon. If she does not take her Grade 2 exam this summer, she will have to wait for the winter exam season (November-December), a further six months, and plenty of time for her to grow bored with the pieces. Boredom can encourage sloppy, mistake-laden playing. When you’re bored with a piece, you stop caring about it, and when you play it, you simply go through the motions, typing the notes, instead of playing musically. Mistakes which creep in at this stage can be then incredibly hard to unpick. Equally, any sense of the music can be lost, as one churns through the same bars over and over again.

Of course students want to do well in their exams, and of course I want them to do well. And I admit I was pretty damn chuffed when, last year, one of my adult students, who was extremely nervous on The Day, passed her Grade 1 with a very creditable Merit. However, exam successes are not for the glory of the teacher – that is only a tiny part of it. To me, it is more about encouraging talent and giving students the motivation, and interest, to continue with their study.

A pass, whether a straight pass, a Merit, or a Distinction, is a huge achievement. It is not easy to take a music exam. It is you and the instrument, playing in a strange place, to someone you have never met before. That is nerve-wracking in itself, nevermind remembering to complete all the required technical work correctly, play the pieces accurately and musically, cope with the sight-reading exercise (the bugbear of many a young musician!) and complete the aural tests. So, please, let’s celebrate our students’ achievements, both large and small, and ensure that at the basis of our teaching is encouraging a love of the instrument, and its wonderful and varied literature.

My wonderful students (and their teacher)