General overview of syllabus: Murray McLachlan & Karen Marshall
During the pandemic, Rockschool Ltd (RSL) has spread its proverbial wings impressively by offering a new series of ‘classical’-based grade examinations. Having already had a popular piano syllabus in place, RSL claims that teachers have been asking it for a classical syllabus too! It’s curious to note that the books have a title of RSL Classical Piano, a wise marketing move as Rockschool and classical piano may be perceived as incongruous bedfellows by some. Time will tell how popular the new classical syllabus proves to be. The syllabus certainly offers lots of variety, though there are some options that seem much harder than set pieces from parallel grades in ABRSM, Trinity and LCM exams. Perhaps these hard challenges can be balanced out by the fact that RSL allows for two own-choice pieces to be offered? Certainly, that goes a long way to ensure that the teacher is able to help the pupil construct an exam programme tailor-made to their individual needs.
RSL is particularly proud of its diversity within the syllabus, with a large complement of female composers. There is also a refreshing mix of music from outside Western Europe, although this is not consistently balanced in each grade. But there is no question that the overall representation in terms of diversity and indeed variety of styles should be praised highly. Publishers Hal Leonard (with their gigantic load of copyrights) have helped RSL Classics in no small part by offering them permission to use some exciting material from their catalogue. This includes music by the likes of Einaudi, Yiruma and Alexis Ffrench.
In all a total of ten pieces appears in each graded album. There are no separate lists, so those used to Trinity or ABRSM exams (the latter, of course, well established with lists A, B and C in every grade) may initially feel surprised at RSL’s innovative format. Core Classical pieces are very much from the standard canon overall, though there are some (pleasant!) surprises en route. However there is also much on offer here that seems to stretch prospective candidates. Overall the selections tend to lean towards a contemporary/20th/21st-century emphasis. Music by some of the Great Composers is not so plentiful…. but then again what can one expect in albums that only have ten pieces per grade.
As reviewers we felt that this syllabus was best suited to the teenage market. This seems especially true at lower grades (debut, Grade 1 and Grade 2). Debut would seem a very motivational exam for a teenager of something that is ‘trendy’ and more adult-like. A big plus throughout are the audio features (via an online link). Another advantage is unquestionably the fact that you can buy everything in one package per grade: all material needed for an individual exam is included in one book: technical exercises, scales and limited examples of sight-reading and improvisation tests, ear tests and general musicianship questions. There are also fact files, notes on each piece (including how to prepare), piano notation explained (at every grade), exam guidance and, finally, the marking scheme. The insightful preparation notes included at all grades are useful to teachers and perhaps older learners; younger students will need a teacher’s help to make full use of them, especially in the lower grades.
For adults and teenagers this syllabus offers a great deal and could be a game-changer for some.
Structure of the examination:
RSL is offering two different types of examination, with various methods of taking them: face-to-face after the pandemic; live digitally; and recorded.
Certificate examination: Just five pieces, two from the album and three own choice.
Graded exam which includes:
- Three pieces – up to two free choice (at the same level) but one from the graded album. No A, B or C choice.
- Technical exercises (three components) – Group A - Scales, Group B - Broken chords and arpeggios, Group C – Technical Study. All need to be completed.
- Supporting tests – Sight-reading OR Contemporary improvisation and interpretation, Ear tests (just one test here of melodic recall from Grade 2 onwards and recognising high and low previously), General Musicianship questions (five questions to be answered).
Any specific observations on these additional elements will be included in each grade, however some interesting general features should be noted.
- Sight-reading – From the limited examples shown (just two) it appears to be more difficult to predict the type of material likely to be presented in the exam. More support material isn’t available at present - which is also something we very much hope RSL will provide given time. We understand they are currently working on this. Other exam boards’ tests seem within more predictable parameters (especially at lower grades). Keys are given, increasing in sharps and flats per grade. For example, Grade 1 has one sharp and one flat (major only), Grade 2 requires two sharps or two flats (major only). Note that minors are not included in any grade until Grade 6 plus. Students are unlikely to have played much repertoire in B flat at Grade 2 level. Hence a valid question is whether a minor key more commonly used in repertoire at that level like A minor or E minor could be preferable? This approach goes up to Grade 5 with five sharps or flats, and then for Grade 6 and above the criteria are not key specific. In fact it’s not terribly clear what the criteria are. A bonus is that, at all grades, 90 seconds’ preparation is given rather than 30 seconds’ in some other boards. This is an excellent move and most welcome!
- Contemporary improvisation – The material is wonderful in terms of content and potential benefit to the student but may not be realistically within the current skills of some teachers to prepare the candidate. Up to Grade 5, the keys are dictated by what is used in sight-reading so a student at Grade 2 needs to improvise in B flat major or D major. The chords are very limited to just the tonic and supertonic with a 7th added in Grade 2. It is hoped, in time, that CPD from RSL will be made available to help teachers deliver this element. If teachers give this a try it will no doubt benefit students greatly.
- Ear tests – Just one test here: melodic recall/pitch identification. Which at every grade does seem manageable for those who have good auditory memories or in the first two grades can recognise higher and lower. Even at higher grades there are only two bars and in early grades the melodies are not challenging. So perhaps for many a doable task (but not all). Note that someone with specific learning difficulties such as working memory problems (diagnosed with dyslexia or other condition) may really struggle with this test. Teachers should contact RSL for alternative arrangements if this is the case.
- General Musicianship questions – This includes excellent content and is asking predictable questions about things students should be learning about with good teaching at each level.
- Technical work – More specifics will be mentioned in each grade but some of the content is curious. Pentatonic scales on a classical syllabus may be questioned by some, but others (including Murray McLachlan) are delighted to see these, along with octatonic scales for Grade 8. Jazz and popular music (not surprising as it is ‘Rockschool’ after all!) do appear to influence the choice here. It can’t do any harm, though, and is excellent for improvisation. The exercises have good content but do need an experienced teacher to administer even at the intermediate grades. Some (if used incorrectly) could result in injuries. Scales build in keys (similar to Trinity) but workload takes a big leap, from six shapes in Debut to 16 in Grade 1; in contrast, Grade 5 requires 19 shapes. At Grade 8 you can basically be expected to have to play any that have previously been covered across the grades, which has to be a good thing at the end of a student’s examination journey. Some valuable content in here.
The books include all 10 pieces (no A, B or C lists), access to full audio of pieces, scales, exercises, and very limited examples of sight-reading and aural tests. Everything is well presented and at a very high quality. Hal Leonard the publisher has done an outstanding job here.
They start at £16.99 for debut/Grade 1, moving to £18.99 or £19.99 (depending where you purchase). For a quick comparison, Trinity’s Initial/Grade 1 extended version costs £12.99, moving to £27.95 (page number is massive and with 21 recordings). All have 21 pieces included, access to full audio of pieces, all scales and exercises. There are not limited aural or sight-reading examples included.
LCM Graded Piano Albums include exactly the same items as RSL Classics but include no audio (you can find most of it on YouTube). Their Grade 1 is £7.95 to Grade 8 at £12.95.
ABRSM don’t provide comparable products so haven’t been compared here.
Debut: Karen Marshall
Some absolutely lovely repertoire but this is clearly for teens and adults. I really wouldn’t recommend using this syllabus in place of an ABRSM Initial, Trinity Initial or LCM Step exam with a 7–10 year old. It demands pedal use in a number of pieces (these little people’s legs are not long enough and most won’t have access to a pedal extender). All in all, apart from one piece by Pauline Hall, this music is too sophisticated and about a grade ahead. Little hands also will battle with the finger 3 to 4 stretch in pentatonic scales included. Other scales are very manageable. Being able to improvise in C, A minor, F then back to C is a tough ask for some students at this level when in the early stages of learning, but a wonderful thing to be able to do. Sight-reading appears to be above the first two-octave range of notes and not in predictable hand positions. Exercises are all very manageable. See introduction for comments about aural. There is no repertoire here from the Baroque, Classical or Romantic periods. The only great composer original work included is Bartók. There is an arrangement of Clair de lune by Debussy. Popular music and contemporary choices included are likely to be much loved and very motivational. As already said, perfect for teens and adults.
La valse d’Amélie by Yann Tierson – with extensive counting, balance of melody and accompaniment, hand shifts, 52 bars and 3/4 metre, this piece is for a very competent student. It will, however, be much loved even if more like a Grade 1–2 standard piece. Vignette No. 1 by Zenobia Powell Perry is just 16 bars to master. Definitely a piece to teach by rote as the rhythm is complex for this level. Fun and attractive, though, and worth trying. Good to see core pedagogical repertoire from Bartók here, with Play a previous popular Grade 1 choice in other exam boards. I’m not sure that Una Mattina by Einaudi is one of Einaudi’s most exciting examples but it’s manageable and likely to be popular. In Sandcastle by Elvina Pearce, pedal is needed here, with several hand shifts; it’s attractive and likely to be enjoyed. It’s useful to be able to read easily in different clefs even if a challenge. Martian’s March by Pauline Hall – I’ve taught this many times from Piano Time Pieces Book 1; always popular, useful for chords and staccato. The most accessible by far and in line with other exam boards’ first exams. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, traditional, arrangement anon – challenging for this stage of player in terms of rhythm but also in terms of hand shifts. It’s attractive though, and likely fun to play. Andante Verde by Helen Madden – quite tricky compared to other exam boards’ first exams but very manageable in RSL Debut. Some good pedagogical content and well worth the investment. Clair de Lune, Debussy, arrangement anon – counting and a good sense of 3 time is essential, along with the ability to move hand position easily. It’s likely to be a big hit with adult learners.
Grade 1: Karen Marshall
Again, for variety this grade scores 10/10. Where do you find a piece from the film Frozen 2, an item from Bach’s Anna Magdelana Notebook and a fun, educational piece by Carolyn Miller all in the same place? Again, this is generally a grade ahead of other exam boards with the odd exception. There are four original works by great composers J. S. Bach, August Eberhard Muller, Sancho and Schumann. There are 16 scale or other shapes to prepare (which is similar to LCM but more than Trinity and even ABRSM now). With added exercises (there aren’t any in LCM) it’s a significant workload? Are four pentatonic scales needed along with four broken chords? Aural recall just requires recognising higher and lower notes and is very easy. Sight-reading looks like more regular hand positions used than in Debut level (just in G and F major), which is approachable. Improvisation uses tonic, sub-dominant and dominant chords in G major or F major.
Jupiter – bound to be popular, this is a good arrangement (again anon but I think I know who this is - I’m not telling though!); large leaps here are definitely nearer other boards’ Grade 2 and some boards’ Grade 3. So select for your most able! The Cuckoo by Muller is just right for the Grade and a fantastic choice to build so many technical and musical skills. A bit scary on the page, Orrin and Echo by Perry is rhythmically very challenging but once that’s cracked, along with the call and response between hands, a student should be able to navigate the hand shifts with careful practice. It’s very attractive! Soldier’s March by Schumann – again a very worthy piece for Grade 1; on the harder side to voice well at that level, but well worth the time. Le Douze de Decembre by Sancho again is a very useful play and packed with teaching content. It’s lovely to see new content like this not appearing on an exam syllabus before. Jasmine Flower Song, traditional, arranger anon – sort out the musical effects in this piece, be confident with the interpretation then students will perhaps fall in love with playing this miniature. All is Found from the film Frozen 2, Lopez and Lopez, is long but manageable. Not an easy choice but also not the hardest in the book either. It’s likely to be hugely popular as it will be familiar to many. Cat and Mouse by Carolyn Miller – it’s a surprise to see this within Grade 1. A fantastic piece but demanding a level of independence few can achieve at Grade 1 standard. Lots of hand shifts, staccato against legato with other challenges! Be cautious whom you attempt this with. Minuet in G by J. S. Bach – a wonderful piece of music, with so much to be gained. Playing this, however, compared to others like Jasmine Flower, is a much harder task. It’s been set as Grade 2 and 3 by other exam boards in recent years. Boogie Woogie Bear by Gaudet – if your student has the coordination to do the clicks, likes repeated patterns, and you are happy to rote-teach (the rhythm is tricky), it could be a real winner for your student.
Grade 2: Karen Marshall
Some truly wonderful music in here, so much so that it is almost worth having it as a repertoire album for a student to use generally. However, it would be remiss of me not to state that the exam album would be (in my experience as a writer) best signposted as Grade 2–4. I simply haven’t taught a Grade 2 student that could attempt one or two of the choices in here, The River Flows in You even being far harder than a number of the pieces in RSL’s Grade 3 collection. Supporting tests have not jumped up too much from Grade 1 in terms of workload (there is the same number of scales); sight-reading is mentioned in the intro along with improvisation. Do reference this.
Für Elise by Beethoven (the first part) with the added bridge section is featured here. Students will love this, especially adult learners. Taking quite a high degree of skill, this is well worth the effort. Lovely to see Alexis Ffrench with Together at Last. A very approachable play and easy for the grade, it will provide much enjoyment for students. Le chant du pâtre by Simone Plé has been used by many exam boards as a grade 2 piece; it’s a fantastic, expressive play and a great workout for semiquavers and chord voicing. The River Flows in You by Yiruma – this is the most popular piece I’ve ever taught as a teacher but never with a student below Grade 3 and always with the most success at Grade 4 level. Use with the very able! Tarantella in G minor by Austin – again a wonderful piece but with the speed, changes of clefs, 51 bars, ledger lines and all those runs: tricky stuff! The Cheshire Cat by Nikki Iles is much more accessible music, beautifully written and huge fun; this is a piece that will showcase the student. The Pink Panther by Mancini – only 23 bars with lots of solo hands; crack the rhythm and this will be learnt at great speed. A slick interpretation will be required but compared to others it’s got to be seriously considered. Minuet in D by Mozart is a fantastic introduction to classical music and very playable. Helen Madden’s Midnight Swan is beautiful (not the easiest) but perfect for developing pedalling and balance of the hands. Christmas Eve by Sancho is taxing but manageable at Grade 2. It’s a lovely jig-like piece, so attractive and fun.
Grade 3: Amy Wakefield
An engaging and musically ‘diverse’ syllabus here with some really appealing choices. Much of the syllabus provides music from 20th-century/21st-century composers, with only three out of ten pieces composed before 1900.
There seems to be a very ‘healthy mix’ of male and female composers; however, for this particular level there is less racial diversity (90% white Caucasian) as opposed to the Grade 4 syllabus which is significantly more inclusive.
The array of music here would appeal widely to any age group and is notably more accessible than other grades for younger musicians. Titles such as Sniffing Around, Lost Boy Blues and Witches and Wizards may appeal to vivid imaginations. Having said this, there is something for everyone as core classics are included (i.e. Clementi and Haydn). The arrangement from the film The Theory of Everything could be highly refreshing and approachable for an adult learner, though it does, of course, present its own challenges!
There is no particular arrangement with regard to order of pieces in the book (as in past syllabi for other exam boards) but each does include notes and tips on how to prepare and perform which could be very useful for teacher and learner!
This is a lovely album of pieces and is suitable for a wide range of learners (probably more so than the Grade 4 list). It is extremely well designed for inspiring fun in piano playing, imagination and creativity. Definitely a book worth having!
To start off this varied syllabus, we have a rather interesting arrangement of A Model of the Universe from The Theory of Everything by Jóhann Jóhannsson. My initial reaction as a prospective ‘Grade 3 onlooker’ would be apprehension. Does it look friendly to a performer of that level? Possibly for the more ambitious or perhaps an ‘older’ learner! Next, some Bartók, with his Dance from For Children, SZ. 42, volume 2. This is arguably easier to portray than the previous piece, though there are many engaging features and lots to work on ‘pedagogically’. Rhythmic vitality is needed, with careful attention to crisp articulation and accents, which of course give this music its ‘quirky’ nature.
Another delightful piece in the book comes from Nikki Iles (who also has pieces in the current Trinity and ABRSM syllabi): Lost Boy Blues is from her set of pieces inspired by Peter Pan. There is lots of interesting context here for the younger learner and a great deal of fun to be had in trying to master the piece! The rhythm needs to be carefully worked out with its jazzy ‘swing’ style. A beautiful and charming little Nocturne by Mona Rejino is featured next, which I have to say I would recommend to a pupil anytime (exam or not!). It has a haunting and expressive melody and a pupil with ‘natural musicality’ would be able to show off their ability to ‘phrase’ and ‘capture an audience’ here.
Next is a piece for dog-lovers! Sniffing Around by Teresa Richert is from the Puppy Inventions. As a dog-lover myself, this already captures my imagination! It is definitely fun to play, youthful and energetic.
A core classic is suitably placed – Clementi’s Sonatina in C Major, 1st movement. This has been used by other exam boards at Grade 3. It is always deceptively tricky to play despite the key and outwardly simple appearance. I do think it is a classic ‘not to be missed’ and will give you many opportunities as a teacher to work with your pupil on crisp articulation, phrasing and finger-work.
Witches and Wizards by Christine Donkin is an ‘easy-learn’ piece, great for those who enjoy patterns and having lots of fun when performing! It needs a pianist with character and ‘spirit’ to ‘pull this off’.
Saint-Saëns’ The Elephant is a lovely choice as it has a fun context; many may already know the melody and it provides good opportunity for voicing work in the left hand. It would certainly be useful to listen to the double bass version here and experiment with creating a bass-like sound whilst balancing the lighter, right-hand chords. Another piece which boasts a gorgeous melody is Bluebird by Alexis Ffrench, which is highly enjoyable to play. One could argue again that this is pitched a little high and could easily appear on a list of Grade 4 pieces. Three pages is rather a lot to learn at this level! Last but certainly not least, we have the fourth movement of the Sonata in G Major by Haydn.A core classic with which to finish, it is a light and engaging choice for any age. Just be aware that it does have left-hand octaves so may not suit every hand size.
Grade 4: Amy Wakefield
There is an enticing mixture of ‘old and new’ here in Grade 4 which could (if the book was used for all three pieces!) provide a very engaging and varied programme for any recital. Benchmarking is varied and, for this grade, particularly high in terms of difficulty. Certain pieces could easily be on a Grade 5 syllabus with their various technical demands and also musically-speaking. The core classics seem accurately ‘benchmarked’, but it seems difficult to decide on level in some of the more modern choices. Teachers, pay careful attention here to the hand size, musical maturity and technical skill of your pupils – choose with caution!
Technical activities are included in this book, which is always useful! The scale choices are similar to what you might expect at this level and the syllabus includes pentatonic scales (though only in the right hand! Why not the left also?). One study is to be chosen from a selection of three, which could be used to prepare for certain syllabus pieces. For example, technical study no. 3 would be a rather good pre-exercise for learning Billie’s Song by Valerie Capers.
Sight-reading and Contemporary Improvisation support is included in the book; however more practice material will no doubt be needed! It could be perceived as a slight shame that the learner knows it will be either E or A flat major for their sight-reading excerpt, as some of the challenge comes from working out the key and whether it is major or minor. Ear tests and General Musicianship are also included, which in some ways is similar to that of other exam boards, though the aural is significantly more limited.
Overall, the choice of music is to be commended! There is plenty of interest here and this book would make an excellent album to have in one’s collection as a very useful resource. Once one is aware of the wide-benchmarking issues, it can also be used in a very positive way, providing the teacher plans the route carefully! I certainly have pupils in mind for some of these pieces already and I am very pleased to see the all-embracing attitude towards diversity!
To start off the selection, we have Burgmüller’s Barcarolle which has been used very recently by another exam board. Burgmüller is always hugely popular with advancing pupils and is very suitable at this level for progression. It is particularly fruitful in terms of technique (i.e. gaining the light left-hand chords whilst co-ordinating the 6/8 metre and rhythms). Haydn’s Allegro in F Major is a delightful little piece, tricky to play but offering plentiful pedagogical opportunities for all. It might be fun as a ‘project’ to try some of Haydn’s other ‘12 easy pieces’ from this set. Next in the book, by way of complete contrast, is Billie’s Song by Valerie Capers with its rich harmonies and adventurous use of chords. There could be a theory opportunity here for working out some of these chords and the different colours they evoke in the listener.
Back in time again to Beethoven! This Bagatelle in C major is a suitable choice and is pitched at the level one would expect at this grade. This piece is also known as ‘Happy and Sad’, which can be a fun title for understanding the contrast needed and the style required for each section. The next piece, Monochrome No. 2 by Bowen Liu, is an interesting choice for Grade 4. Many pianists are eager for more ‘minimalist-style’ music to be incorporated into exam syllabi. This tends to appeal more to teenagers/adult learners. Though there is much repetition here, there are many ‘hidden’ challenges which may not be apparent at the beginning.
Moonlight Rose by Naoko Ikeda is quite simply a beautiful piece with a stirringly romantic title. However, what a challenge this presents for a Grade 4 pianist! It begins with a musically seductive first section with use of the higher register and an enchanting melody. By contrast, Round and Round by Zenobia Powell Perry is fun and energetic and seems rather ‘gigue-like’ with its ‘lolloping’ rhythms. I feel this would attract a student with ‘nimble fingers’ and a talent for light finger-work.
Next comes some rag-style music in the winsome form of Ticklin’ Toes by Florence Price. This could be a suitable introductory work for those pupils who aspire to playing Scott Joplin. Skills are needed in ‘stride-style bass’ whilst providing a syncopated melody. The next work reminds me a little of the piece by Johannsson on the Grade 3 syllabus. In fact, the level for The Arrival (for Tom Prunty) by Lola Perrin is probably very similar in level to this but more suitably placed in Grade 4 than Grade 3. Again, it is much more suitable for a mature learner with a larger hand size (there does seem to be a pattern here!).
Last but absolutely not least we have the suitably chosen Prelude in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. One cannot miss this classic and it is widely chosen for excellent reasons! Theory opportunities here include the study of chords, sequences and perhaps getting the student to add in their own colours and dynamics which relate to the changing harmonies.
Grade 5: Kathryn Page
Stimulating challenges across the board in a highly substantial but potentially intimidating syllabus. Choices and close teacher/mentor collaboration are therefore crucial from the earliest stages of preparation so that potentially stressful/uncomfortable choices of what to play in the exam are not made. To be fair, there is much here too that is completely non-controversial: user-friendly material long associated with this watershed grade, including Bach C major Two-part Invention, BWV 772, Schumann Träumerei from Kinderszenen (as well as William Gillock New Orleans Nightfall and Tan Dan’s ever spritely Staccato Beans). However, challenges such as Scarlatti’s sweepingly arpeggiated E major Sonata K531 would seem more appropriate at Grade 7 or even Grade 8; all the supporting studies are meaty offerings in themselves, and the scales and arpeggios demanded (on top of mastery of those selected for earlier grades) includes keys up to five sharps and flats.
Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 is a must-play number for many pianists, myself included… but it has been set at ABRSM in the past at Grade 6. Is it asking a little too much of a Grade 5 player to cope here? Similarly, and in addition to the virtuoso precision required of the aforementioned Scarlatti Sonata in E K531, Schumann’s tenderly touching miniatureTräumerei, though used by ABRSM at Grade 5 at one stage, risks falling rather flat at this transitional level by anyone except the most gifted and acutely caring of players. Managing the notes is one thing, but coping with the subtleties of legato pedalling, tonal balancing, rubato and so many held notes in such a small space of time could be extremely challenging, to say the least.
‘If in doubt, don’t’ would seem a good motto to remember here… and it is not as though there is a lack of highly satisfying, nutritious and enticing material that can be safely recommended for most players at this level. Staccato Beans from Tan Dun is an excellent exercise in detached and leggiero pianism. Bach’s first Two-part Invention BWV 772 is a fabulous introduction to counterpoint which has always been on my essential list for intermediate students. Similarly, the first movement of Friedrich Kuhlau’s Sonatina in A minor Op. 88 No. 3 has consistently proved a popular and satisfying choice for countless students over the years – a wonderful way to reinforce and strengthen a young player’s awareness of structure via sonata form. William Gillock’s New Orleans Nightfall is a winning choice all round – easy on the ear, simple enough to assimilate in the initial stages, and wonderfully liberating and relaxing as it encourages floating tone and generous but perfectly doable pedalling in the outer sections.
For those in search of enterprising but ‘safe’ material, look no further than Sonate No. 1 in C major, third movement by Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), remembered today as the first classical composer of African descent. Saint-Georges was evidently a prolific composer of operas, symphonies and much else. This three-page Andante is extremely useful for instilling not only Alberti Bass technique and sensitive tonal balancing, but also rhythmic control and co-ordination for ornaments. Strongly recommended. Also, attractive, from a totally different era, is Valerie Capers’ Sweet Mister Jelly Roll which I, for one, will now be heavily promoting with younger players. It virtually quotes excerpts from both The Entertainer and Black and White Rag, dishing them up in a manner that is perfectly approachable for an intermediate player. No mean achievement. Finally, the billion online-stream-selling Max Richterand Andras. One can well imagine fans of this exceptionally successful writer immediately moving to take this technically not insubstantial challenge up under their eager fingers. Certainly, healthy practice and care over posture is vital here as the repeated patterns in the seductively lugubrious tenor range of the piano could lead to discomfort if not mindfully managed by a caring mentor. Certainly, an arresting choice for the enterprising candidate – a 21st-century answer to the first movement of Beethoven’s celebrated Moonlight Sonata.
Grade 6: Kathryn Page
The technical exercises are substantial – more in the nature of additional studies. Wonderful to have pentatonic scales set next to black key and Dominant seventh arpeggios. The repertoire list divides into four drastically contrasted categories of music which some may find extreme: conventionally classical choices sit next to the unfairly neglected, film arrangements and Jazz. All credit to RSL for embracing the diversity, not only of composers, but also showing, through the wide range of repertoire, that they care about the diverse needs of the candidates too. It is wonderful to celebrate and enjoy page 31 – the ending of Pirates of the Caribbean – next to page 32 – the opening of Mozart’s K545 Sonata!
Wonderful to have the fresh optimism of Oscar Peterson’s Jazz Exercise No. 2 on offer here. Though an understanding and a cultivation of tone and rhythm from a jazz pianist’s perspective is essential for conviction here, this would certainly be an inspirational and potentially extremely rewarding choice even for players with no previous jazz experience. The African–American Arkansas-born Florence Price (1887–1953) provides the charmingly syncopated number Silk Hat & Walking Cane, a substantial 110-bar ‘Cake Walk’-rhythmed affair complete with left-hand stride figurations (admittedly most of these are technically manageable for intermediate players) and lots of quasi-orchestral figurations. Indeed, the piece comes from a suite which the composer also orchestrated. Overall, a challenge in terms of stamina and assimilation, but with lots of novelty value and energetic sparkle. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Cambridge, 1963 presents the main theme from the award-winning film The Theory of Everything in perpetuum mobile semiquavers at moderate tempo. As the music consistently moves forward with new colours and different perspectives, it is essential to hold onto the basic tempo throughout. Definitely a worthy exercise in discipline and concentration which will serve many a developing player well. Potentially even more popular – and certainly more straightforward musically – is Klaus Badelt and Geoff Zanelli’s arrangement of He’s a Pirate from Hans Zimmer’s score for Pirates of the Caribbean, though teachers will, of course, always have to be mindful about tension and heaviness here as the writing requires lots of repetitions and staccato finger-work. In complete contrast, the wistful cantabile in Alexis Ffrench’s Shine will appeal widely for both for its accessibility and its memorable character. But C sharp minor may not be the most familiar of keys for players who struggle with notation at this level. The writing is not always easy to navigate for those with less than large, flexible hands, simply because it was originally penned for two players.
Of the more well-known options here, Debussy’s The Little Shepherd has been shown as a top choice time and time again. With the minimum number of notes and supreme mastery of fermatas, tenutos and rests, Debussy inspires through atmospheric exoticism that is a sure-fire way of beguiling both the listener and player. Invention No. 13 in A minor, BWV 784 from J. S. Bach is regularly set by other examination boards with good reason: it is an engagingly dramatic piece which will do wonders for co-ordination and an understanding of fingering. And RSL also echoes syllabus decisions by including what is perhaps the most celebrated sonata-allegro movement of them all: Mozart’s Sonata No. 16 in C major K.545. Beware of classical movements that begin simply! This is a movement that requires nimble and co-ordinated leggiero semiquaver passagework, and though it may be a popular choice, caution is most definitely offered to those who may step into confirming this as a choice for an exam too early. Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 24 No. 3 presents a completely different range of challenges, albeit ones that demand just as much focus and discipline over rhythm, voicing and phrasing. Finding the natural dance-like idiom in this music is the most important consideration from the earliest stages through to the last. This would be an ambitious Grade 6 choice, but for eagerly responsive students prepared to listen to more than just the set Mazurka, artistic stimulation will most certain be inspirational. The Tango in D Op. 165 No. 2 of Isaac Albéniz is another very famous number. It can cause problems with younger players who may find it hard to project the triplet rhythms naturally. Right-hand position shifts within the mainly two-voiced texture in the treble clef may also present frustrations, so this is an option for the quietly patient student who is willing to take time to iron out the angularities.
Grade 7: Murray McLachlan
Grade 7’s chosen ten pieces are particularly diverse and contrasted, though there is nothing from the Viennese Classical sonata literature on offer, which seems a shame. Many will be surprised to see the two contrasted Chopinnumbers presented side by side, as the celebrated E flat Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 is often considered to be at least at Grade 8 level. The equally famous Schubert F minor Moment Musical has challenges for players at all levels in terms of precision and refinement, as indeed does the Scarlatti Sonata. Wonderful to have neglected gems on offer from the Romantic era, alongside equally attractive music from the cinema and chic 20th-century Paris. The exoticism of learning A sharp natural minor scale may risk suspicion from classically-schooled players, but the needs of popular music certainly embrace scales with maximum numbers of sharps and flats – even when enharmonic equivalents may prove easier to process. Disappointing, though, that arpeggios are only asked for over a range of two octaves – at this level, working with a minimum three-octave range could prove useful. Technical studies are substantial and useful, with a particularly meaty broken chords number that will doubtless require careful mentoring to avoid stiffness and physical tension that may arise.
Scarlatti’s B minor Sonata K377 has always been popular with younger players and requires rhythmic tautness allied to nimble, co-ordinated dexterity when negotiating the copious semiquaver runs that are pasted through the piece. Finger independence, the ability to articulate with crisp yet lyrically charged sounds, and an excellent awareness of tonal balance between the hands, are requisite qualities here if a convincing performance is to arise. Sommervisefrom the Norwegian composer Agathe Backer Grøndahl (1847–1907) is one of over 400 pieces she penned, and is a real find, bringing tactile pleasure within its quasi-impressionistic textures in a wistful and evocative way. But beware: it is much more challenging than it looks! Though the broad overview may appear straightforward, this is music that will thrive from attention to voicing, pedaling, phrasing and tonal variety throughout.
Grøndahl’s fellow Scandinavian contemporary, the Swede Elfrida Andrée (1841–1929) in Om kvällen (final movement of the op. 4 suite Tonbilder) looks fondly back to the style championed by Mendelssohn in his celebrated ‘Songs without words’. But the stretches in Andreé’s admittedly charming vignette may be off-putting for some. As the texture resembles a violin part combined with piano accompaniment, patient preparation, and lots of pre-practice input from an experienced teacher would seem to be prerequisites if this rarity is chosen. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s They will not lend me a child is an impassioned, quasi-orchestral outpouring of intensity that will be relished by those who love to make the piano appear larger than life (and who doesn’t?!). Confidence, joy in the physicality of sweeping, large pianistic gestures and the ability to shape phrases with intensity and passion are needed here. What a wonderful way to encourage shy students to really start projecting their pianism forwards for potential large-scale performance! A most enterprising and welcome inclusion.
Equally unusual, though diametrically opposite to the Coleridge-Taylor in terms of stylistic characterisation, is Valse Lente from neglected member of ‘Les Six’ Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983). This is a beautifully wistful essay in nostalgia which will be excellent for those who enjoy refining and polishing voicing, phrasing and touch control. A lovely option for thoughtfully sensitive players. Much more populist but no less desirable, albeit for completely different reasons, are the arrangement of the Theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams and Deep Sleep Playingfrom Michael Nyman and his score for the 1993 film The Piano. Whilst the Nyman is certainly more contrasted, both transcriptions require performance flair, engagement and understanding of how to project melodic lines over subsidiary parts. There is no question that familiarity with both movies will lead to an ease of comprehension and – hopefully – heightened enthusiasm in practice time for candidates who opt to choose either of these colourful options.
Finally, a trio of well-loved 19th-century possibilities. As mentioned, Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 from Chopin’s oeuvre is normally associated with post-Grade 7 students for all sorts of reasons (processing the left-hand figurations, coping with rubato, pedalling, balance, tempo and co-ordination). Nonetheless, it will be of inestimable value to pupils with sufficient flare and determination. A more relaxed option (at a much more energised tempo!) is certainly evident in the Chopin Op. 7 No. 1 Mazurka in B flat. With its literal repeat of the opening section, this music is easily assimilated and remains straightforward in terms of pedalling and texture. Of course, handling the Mazurka rhythm may prove challenging at first – but this particular dance seems far easier than the G minor Mazurka currently on the Grade 6 ABRSM list B set. Most of us at some point have at least played through the third of Schubert’s exquisite Six Moments Musicaux, D780, and it would be a hard tutor who would discourage any pupil from doing so! But a word of caution: this is music that requires the utmost rhythmic precision, tonal sensitivity and attention to detail. Careless renderings of this most charming of pieces are sadly much more common than disciplined approaches. It is often the case that apparently easy options turn out to be extremely onerous after the initial note-learning stages have passed.
Grade 8:Murray McLachlan >
As with the earlier grades, the selection offered mixed pieces that have been frequently set by other examination boards with intriguing, unusual and popular numbers. There are some big challenges here, such as Debussy’s first Arabesque (it has been set at diploma level in the past), but the extremely varied offerings range from Miles Davis/Bill Evans to Bach via Clara Schumann. It’s super to see the octatonic scale included (called half diminished here) as it appears in many pieces, but until now has been notably absent from other major exam boards! It is encouraging to see a wide range of technical challenges in the studies, including oscillating octaves, scales and rhythmic tongue-twisters and essays that will encourage awareness of touch variety and texture. From the two sight-reading tests presented the challenges seem to be on a level with ABRSM tests (i.e. rather easier than Trinity). Some tough corners in this exam to say the least… but therein lies a particular characteristic, and one which may well be welcomed as refreshingly energised in certain pedagogical circles…
The first movement of Beethoven’s celebrated E major Sonata Op. 14 No. 1 has been a regular attendee of ABRSM Grade 8 lists since time began, and it is welcome here as a substantial sonata-allegro in quartet texture that will reinforce structure, rhythmic discipline and clarity of texture in a student’s development. Exactly the same needs to be said for the opening movement of Mozart’s F major Sonata K332, with its superabundance of melodic material. It could be felt, though, that this is just a little bit challenging for a grade exam. Certainly not a good option for a pupil who is new to classical sonata forms. The C minor book one Bach Prelude and Fugue is standard for this level of examination and, of course, offers so much on every conceivable level. Debussy’s first Arabesque must stand as one of the most challenging Grade 8 pieces (yes, it has been set by ABRSM, but many years ago) though it is unquestionably rewarding for students with determination and a willingness to cope with isometric rhythms and cascades of arpeggio figurations. Large hands will enjoy navigating through the energy, character and charm of Poulenc’s Mouvements perpétuels, though it does seem to be asking rather a lot for candidates to prepare all three of these delightful miniatures. If these prove too technically uncomfortable, then smaller span sizes may well relish fluttering over the keyboard with Grieg’s ever-popular Papillon (am I being petty to mention that this has, in past years, been set by Trinity at ‘advance certificate’ level?).
Many will relish the left-hand stride piano technique evident in Scott Joplin’s ever-popular Maple Leaf Rag, though I do hope that at least a few candidates will be enterprising enough to consider preparing rarities such as Clara Schumann’s energised Impromptu (Le Sabbat) or the tactile-friendly Cameo No. 3 of Coleridge-Taylor. Sufficient idiomatic understanding and facility with jazz chord progressions would seem a requisite for the expansive and extensive challenges of Miles Davis/Bill Evans’ Blue in Green but, for certain teachers and candidates, this will prove vibrantly inspired material.
The reviewers would like to congratulate RSL on putting together this first Classical syllabus (at great speed). We feel it provides a valuable and unique contribution in its own way to the products on offer to teachers for examination purposes. We hope our review will be helpful to teachers and students but also to RSL. Our feedback comes with the only intention of helping RSL to build on the excellent work it has started here. A big well done to RSL from the EPTA (UK) review team: Karen, Amy, Kathryn and Murray. We wish RSL great success with its new Classical syllabus.
For additional information: Members can contact RSL at email@example.com
An additional review by EPTA member David Barton can also be found here https://www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk/review-rsl-classical-piano-syllabus-2..., and do look out for teachers’ comments on the syllabus on the EPTA (UK) Facebook page (accessible to all) and EPTA (UK) member Facebook group, as teachers share their valuable feedback.