A Creative Review of the ABRSM 2019 – 2020 Piano Syllabus

A Creative Review of the ABRSM 2019 – 2020 Piano Syllabus

I was very pleased to be able to write a review of the new ABRSM 2019 – 2020 syllabus for the excellent blog by Tim Topham.

Tim is an  internationally-renowned music educator, piano teacher, writer and presenter.

Through his blog and podcast  at timtopham.com, he regularly inspires more than 20,000 teachers across the globe to become better educators for their students.  He has also set-up an international community of dedicated and creative teachers – his Inner Circle – of which I am very pleased to be a member.

Readers of my blog will know my views on the place of piano exams in a musical education.  Whilst exams can be an excellent motivator for some students, too much focus on exams can be detrimental to the development of all-round musicianship and, at worst, can put a student off playing the piano altogether.  Many of my students choose not to go down the exam route and I will only enter students for exams when they are fully ready.  Please refer to my ‘Guiding Principles‘ for more information about my approach to piano exams.

You can read my review here.



On Exams & Creativity: Notes From An American Teacher – A Guest Post

I am very pleased to present this guest post from Oregon-based teacher Doug Hanvey.  Contrasting the UK and US approach to learning the piano, Doug has written a really interesting post about the importance of creativity in piano lessons and how this is not always compatible with an approach that solely focuses on formal exams.

I’m delighted to write this guest post for Rebecca sharing an American perspective on the graded exam approach to piano teaching and alternatives to it.

As is easily observable from my website and blog, I take a highly-creative approach to teaching piano. Even in the U.S. – which from Rebecca’s posts contrasting the British exam process to ours may appear to offer a slower-paced, more creative approach to piano teaching – I am definitely an outlier among my colleagues.

Perhaps the closest thing to the British exam process in Oregon, where I teach, is the 10-level “Syllabus” program that covers technique, music theory, sight reading, rhythm reading, and repertoire. The Syllabus program is offered by the Oregon Music Teachers Association, a division of the Music Teachers National Association. (I am a member of both organizations.) The program includes the usual adjudications (our euphemism for “exams”) to measure students’ progress.

While the main Syllabus program does not incorporate creative activities such as improvisation, we are fortunate to also have a special Jazz Syllabus that does include improvisation.

At this point, I don’t use make use of either Syllabus program, though if I did, I would probably use the Jazz Syllabus, if only for its creative requirements. Like Rebecca, I believe that teaching students with an emphasis on passing formal examinations, while certainly valuable in its own way, can also feel restricted and lacking in creativity. I strongly believe in the value of teaching musically creative activities such as arranging, composition and improvisation. Now it’s true that the more time given to these skills, the less time there may be for developing high-level performance skills. Still, at least for most of my students, I believe it’s well worth it. There is, after all, a glut of virtuosic pianists in the world today. For that matter, the average piano student is not going to aim for, let alone attain, a virtuosic level. Why not offer such students a broader musical education that allows them to express themselves creatively in more ways than just learning to interpret others’ music, stimulating their enjoyment of piano lessons as high as it can go?

Like Rebecca, as a child I was never formally taught to improvise or compose. Instead, I taught myself until I received formal training later. As a teen, I even stopped taking piano lessons for a few years because I wasn’t enjoying the emphasis on the performance of classical repertoire. If someone had asked me if I wanted to study with a piano teacher who would also teach me how to compose or improvise, I would have been thrilled. In fact, when I was about 16 I took matters into my own hands by seeking out and studying composition with a doctoral student at the Indiana University School of Music.

Like Rebecca, I now teach my students the way I wanted to be taught. My students can learn to play by ear, to improvise, to compose, and to arrange – creative activities that stimulate musical engagement and provide additional options for personal musical expression. (This isn’t to say I have anything against the classical canon, which I also deeply enjoy playing and teaching.)

As the majority of my students are adults, I don’t have to decide about using the graded Syllabus program. Few, if any, of my students would be interested. Instead, with beginners I most often use a standard method such as Faber or Alfred along with materials I’ve personally developed.

To keep things interesting and creative for both myself and my students, sometimes I’ll take a piece in the method book and have a student compose an original arrangement of it (a procedure I’ll be explaining to interested teachers on my blog later this month), or use it as a launching point for improvisation.

Like any teacher, I want to develop good players. More important for me is developing good players who also have a broad set of creative musical skills. But most important to me is that my students become musicians who love music so much that they play piano and are creative with music for the rest of their lives.

Doug Hanvey is a piano teacher in Portland, Oregon.

Piano Exams: A Tale of Two Piano Students

This week I was delighted to receive the news that one of my 11-year old students had passed her Grade 1 piano exam with a very good distinction.  The student started with me as a complete beginner 2.5 years’ ago at the age of 8.

Although she doesn’t come from a musical family, she has always been really enthusiastic about learning the piano and has great support at home.   She has always shown a real interest in music and loves writing her own compositions as well as learning a variety of pieces.   After nearly two years’ of learning the piano we talked about whether she wanted to prepare for her Grade 1 and she was very keen to do so.  Over the course of about six months’ she worked really hard preparing her pieces, scales and practicing for the sight-reading and aural tests.  It has to be said that during this time we did less work on other aspects of her musical education – such as improvising and composing – as the exam preparation took priority.  However, the exam did provide the opportunity to prepare three pieces to a really high standard as well as developing the other skills necessary to succeed in the exam.

Because she had worked so hard for the exam, she actually really enjoyed the experience on the day itself.  It was lovely to receive a text from her immediately after the exam saying she thought she had done well and was ‘very happy’.  Two weeks’ later when I received her results I was over the moon as all her dedication and hard work had really paid off.

I have another student, a ten year old boy who started learning the piano at the age of six with his school.  The approach of his school to piano education was one of getting students through their exams as quickly as possible – an approach I describe as the “exam treadmill”.   He took his Grade 1 after only about 18 months’ of study.  His mother is a good pianist herself and worked very closely with him and he achieved a merit.   He was very quickly entered for his Grade 2 and again, with very good hands-on support he achieved another merit.  When I started teaching him he had just completed his Grade 3 – having started down this road soon after completing Grade 2. By this time, he was very disillusioned with the piano and his mother was having a difficult time getting him to practice regularly.  He passed his Grade 3 with a good grade but by this time he wanted to give up the piano completely.  After nearly four years’ of study he had achieved his Grade 3 but had spent nearly all of this time preparing for exams with limited opportunity to explore other repertoire or to learn about other aspects of the piano such as improvising and composting.

After his Grade 3, I agreed with his mother that we would spend time trying to re-engage him with the piano without the pressure of any exams to prepare for.   I’ve spent a lot of time with him exploring chords and chord progressions and how these are used in so many different forms of music – from his exam pieces to current pop-songs.  Whenever we improvise together at the piano he always amazes me with his ability to come up with some really creative ideas on the spur of the moment. He has also shown a real ability to develop these ideas into his own compositions and has composed some really inventive and wonderful pieces.  Most importantly, he no longer wants to give up the piano!

Reflecting on the experiences of these two students I am mindful of both how beneficial exams can be, but also how damaging they can be if used as an end in themselves and if students are rushed into them too soon.  (In fact, many of my students choose not to sit exams because the time taken to prepare and formality of approach does not tie in with their own areas of interest – but that is the subject for another blog!)   I could have entered my 11-year old student for a Grade 1 earlier – but she may not have achieved such a good distinction and she would have had far less opportunity to explore other aspects of the piano – and it would probably not have been the really positive experience that it turned out to be.  Further, had my 10-year old student not been rushed into his exams in the early years of his study, he may not have experienced the same disillusionment that he felt when I first met him.

Looking ahead, I fully expect both students to do further exams.  They represent a good benchmark of achievement and the process of preparing for them is a great motivator and provides the opportunity to really hone skills to a high standard. And, of course, it is a wonderful sense of achievement when the hard work is rewarded with exam success!  My 11-year old, having just finished Grade 1, is in no rush to start on Grade 2 – rather she is now excited by the prospect of spending the next few months working on other pieces and returning to composing and other activities.  We’ll start working towards Grade 2 when the time is right.  And my 10-year old, having had some ‘time-out’ from the exam treadmill, will, I hope, approach his next exam positively, knowing that this is just one part of learning the piano.  But most importantly of all I hope that both students will continue to play the piano throughout their lives and I feel hugely privileged to be part of their journeys.

For more on exams please see :

What is Grade 1? 

Exams: to take or not to take? 


What is Grade 1?

“I am constantly surprised by how hard Grade 1 is”

As part of my continuing professional development I belong to an online community of piano teachers.  Each month we research a specific topic, attend an online seminar (‘webinar’) and discuss the topic in our online forum.   This month the topic was the ‘piano framework’ and – in particular – what skills and concepts need to be in place before entering a Grade 1 examination.

I have blogged before about the pros and cons of piano students taking graded music exams (click here).  However, what really struck me by researching this topic further is quite how hard Grade 1 actually is!

Reviewing the set pieces of the main examination boards’ current syllabuses, we can see that a Grade 1 student needs to show a grasp of the following skills and concepts:

  • Keys of C, G, D and F major and A and D minor
  • Simple and compound time – 2/4, ¾, 4/4, 3/8, 6/8 time signatures
  • Single quavers, dotted rhythms , semiquavers, triplets
  • Syncopated rhythms
  • Triads and all inversions
  • Seventh chords
  • Articulations including 2 and 3 note slurs, legato, staccato, tenuto
  • Full range of dynamics
  • Passing of thumb, stretches up to an octave
  • Direct pedalling

Comparing this to the levels which are common in the US, we can see that many of these are classified as intermediate level skills.

Looking at this extensive list it is hardly surprising that it can take a student 3 years or more before reaching a Grade 1 standard.   I believe that many students are entered for Grade 1 too early before secure musical foundations are in place.  It is quite possible to teach a child simply to pass a music exam – by drilling and teaching by rote.  But if a student is entered for an exam after only 12-18 months of study, it is unlikely that they have a solid grasp of all the musical concepts which are being examined  (although of course there are exceptions to this).  Entering a pupil this early probably also means that they have not had the chance to fully explore the piano through improvisation, composition and other non-exam related activities.

So to answer the question “What is Grade 1?”   It is a demanding assessment of a wide ranging set of skills and concepts which, for most students, require a number of years to learn, develop and secure.  It is not something to be rushed into under the mistaken belief that it is easy – as it is anything but.  For the right student, at the right time, it can be an excellent motivator and lead to a real sense of achievement.  But introduced too early it can lead to unnecessary pressure, rushing through new concepts, and a ‘box ticking’ approach to passing the exam at the expense of encouraging wider enjoyment and creativity at the piano.   And that is why I will never insist that my students take exams but will always support them if they wish to do so – when they are ready.