The new ABRSM Piano syllabus is now available. Here, ABRSM Piano syllabus selector Anthony Williams takes a journey through the repertoire on offer and highlights some personal favourites. One of my students recently said to me: 'I don't want to play that, it's an exam piece.’ As if setting Pride and Prejudice for an A level English literature exam suddenly makes the story dull and uninteresting. But why should he know that ABRSM exam repertoire is the result of more than 18 months’ work? A process that involves playing through hundreds of composers, collections and submissions as well as consulting with teachers to find those musical gems, old and new, that will captivate, motivate and enthuse young pianists while developing their musicianship and technique. A superb piece was cast aside simply because it featured in an exam book; his 'prejudice' had hurt my 'pride'. But I am a teacher, first and foremost, and share with other teachers and students the passion for a colourful, varied, imaginative and inspiring list of repertoire that will provide them with wonderful music to explore. If you can also use it for an exam, that’s a brilliant added bonus! There are some truly fabulous pieces in the 2013 and 2014 lists; a veritable feast of ‘culinary’ delights. There is the amuse-bouche, the cordon bleu, the roast dinner, the sophisticated olive or exotic fruit and, dare I say it, even the occasional candyfloss and burger. The breadth of repertoire covers not only a variety of tastes but also a defined span of ability within each grade. In fact, almost every piece has been chosen with a current or past student in mind. I’m sure I’m not alone though in having favourites – pieces which naturally excite me and that I know will inspire my students.
Highlights at Grade 8
For Grade 8 students, my choice on List C has to be the Lili Boulanger D'un vieux jardin. It is unusual, evocative, colourful and so wonderfully moving when performed by a sensitive pianist. The imagery drips from the printed notes and the challenges of colour, balance and descriptive sense of line reap huge musical rewards. The Skryabin Poème may not immediately appeal to some but I have a student who I hope will play it next year – he's interested in composition and relates instinctively to pieces a little less tonal. The feelings this piece evokes with its variety of touch, articulation and abrupt changes of mood will test his control but above all I know the piece will live with him for years to come. In List A, I'll be looking at the J. S. Bach Praeambulum for those with a good finger facility. It’s a great introduction to the Bach Partitas and exciting to play. It does require careful planning of dynamics and articulation though, and needs a firmly established three-in-a-bar from the start as the opening catches many out! By contrast, the haunting and elusive Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in D with its delicate melodic Prelude and nagging Fugue subject works well with a rather naïve, simplistic approach. Two of Beethoven's early Op. 10 sonatas feature in List B. Their typical mood swings, absorbing drama, persuasive lyricism and inventive, restless development sections provide a backbone to a musically engaging list of Classical repertoire. I am also entranced by the haunting Sonata in Eb minor by Pinto, an obscure but wonderful English composer.
An early grade highlight
At the other end of the spectrum is one of my youngest pupils. Having taken Grade 1 last year, he is now preparing for Grade 3. He has happily (if temporarily, I suspect) ditched his Star Wars theme for one of my favourite pieces – In the Bay by Swinstead (Grade 3, List B). I know that this student can project a line and his pedalling, even for a small boy, is really quite advanced so he will be able to control the legato changes on the bass notes well.
Some attractive arrangements
Alan Bullard's cheeky arrangement of Sullivan's The Policeman's Song (Grade 3, List C) will also prove popular, I hope. I am a real fan of arrangements. Although there is suitable original music for the lower grades, it’s not always appealing and can be rather sophisticated for younger students. Attractive arrangements can motivate students to practise more technically challenging repertoire while introducing them to compositions beyond those of their own discipline. An entertaining and refreshing arrangement is Meet the Flintstones (Grade 2, List C). It might, I know, encourage students (or us) to spend too much time on the cartoon channel, but this arrangement had to go in. Teachers of my generation will love it and be practising their ‘yabba dabba doos', whereas students will be working on their control and variety of detached chords (slightly voiced to the top) with a precise sense of rhythmic control and dynamic shape, yet loving every note. And there’s also Chopin's Wiosna (Spring) on Grade 3, List B, a rare arrangement of a Polish folk song – and it’s beautiful.
Other gems not to miss
A lovely expressive Scarlatti Sonata in G minor features at Grade 4 (List A). It is a very special piece needing musical shading, subtle balance, a vocal expressiveness and harmonic awareness, and would make an excellent contrast to Emmanuel Oriol's Ne tirez pas sur le pianiste! (Grade 4, List C) – a fun rag requiring humour and quite a lot of control in the left-hand jumps. Then again, you ignore the seductive Carl Vine Semplice (Grade 4, List C) at your peril as it’s easy note-wise and a joy to play and perform. MacDowell's To a Wild Rose (Grade 5, List B) never ceases to engage the more sentimental of students. It’s relatively easy note-wise, yet challenges abound in the breadth and balance. Personally I love the Tárrega Adelita (Grade 5, List B), but I have a soft spot for Spanish music. I’m also a bit of a rebel when it comes to choosing pieces from ABRSM’s Piano Exam Pieces books and prefer to look outside for gems such as Arne's Presto from his Sonata in A (Grade 6, List A), an attractive, engaging and cheeky piece of Baroque music.
Grade 7 choices
Finally, I must mention the List C selection at Grade 7. From the desolate anguish of Schoenberg's Leicht, zart, the fantasy of the Shostakovich Allegretto and the exciting rock groove of Christopher Norton's Sturdy Build, through to the seductive Gershwin song Do It Again, the gorgeous Ginastera (Danza de le moza donosa) and caustic Prokofiev (Con vivacità) – there’s the most delicious and exciting choice to make here. Of course, there will be pieces you and your students love and those you don’t. We will always have different favourites and tastes, but there is definitely something here for everyone. Here is a selection of the most varied, imaginative and motivating pieces you could ask for and I, for one, can’t wait to teach them. Oh, and by the way, did I mention you could also perform them for an exam if you wish?
Anthony Williams is a pianist, teacher, ABRSM examiner and ABRSM Piano syllabus selector.
This article was originally featured in the September 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.