Changes to ABRSM Syllabus (2021 onwards) – One Giant Leap.

ABRSM has finally made some huge and major changes to its syllabus from 2021 onwards! First up, you have a much greater choice of repertoire of up to 30 pieces per grade (or 10 pieces per list). Well, more choices is definitely good!

Second, the lists are now defined by musical characteristics rather than the traditional Baroque, Classical, etc. classification. These new musical characteristics are:

list A : Generally faster songs that require greater technical agility.

list B : Generally slower songs with more expressive and lyrical playing.

list C: Contains a wide variety of styles of music.

Third, Scales/Arpeggios in general get easier compared to before. For eg. at Grade 8, you only have to focus on 4 different keys: C, Eb, F#, A – majors, minors, harmonic, melodic, 6ths, 3rds, contrary motion, staccatos, etc. but ONLY 4 keys! and… there is C major scale at Grade 8!! Absolutely mind boggling. In the past, a grade 8 student is expected to know all 12 keys! Clearly, there is a de-emphasis on technical work. ABRSM wants to to shift its focus to the repertoire and performance. The syllabus states that the ‘new scale requirements focus on technical development and progression, achieved through a realistic and manageable assessment load’.

Next, you have a new option of ‘Performance Grades’, similiar to what other exam boards (eg. ANZCA, LCME) have been offering for so many years. Finally, I am glad that ABRSM has followed suit. Performance grades focus entirely on performing your songs, rather than doing scales, sight reading and so on. Just play your songs! Wait, I know what you must be thinking.

Yes, it is a dilution of the normal grading exam since you don’t have the other components to be tested on (ie. Scales/arpeggios/ Aural/Sight Reading). No question about that. So if you compare a student taking the normal standard grade vs a student taking a performance grade, the former would have acquired more skills and knowledge than the latter. So from a purely technical view, a performance grade student can potentially not know how to play B major scale at Grade 8, since the focus is solely on ‘performance’.

What’s the main purpose of performance grades then? the purpose of performance grades is to cater to students who just want to play songs and hate playing scales and other boring technical stuff. Yes, I have come across students who just prefer to play songs than do technical stuff like staccato 3rds, F# melodic minor and so on.

I have also come across students who just prefer Jazz over Classical, or Pop over Jazz, or Rock over Pop, etc. The point is, everyone’s different! I gather that most would still choose the normal, standard grades, but there will be some who will choose the Performance Grades over the standard ones. Well, if doing the performance grades means that the student continues to like music, why not? The added ‘free time’ can then be used to explore other facets of music making, like improvisation, playing non-exam pieces, exploring music technology and so on.

On the other hand, I also hope that the music teacher will continue to ground the student in their essential foundations of scales/arpeggios and the like, even though they are not-examinable under the Performance Grades. Knowing your keys is fundamental, knowing your fingerings, when to turn for what scale, improving your technical agility, dexterity, etc. are all essential in building strong fundamentals in piano playing.

Other new changes include the introduction of a pre-grade 1 exam, known as the ‘Initial Grade’ (again, this is similar to ANZCA’s ‘preparatory’ and ‘preliminary’ grades), Duet options starting at Initial to Grade 3. All these changes are unheard of in the past! The ‘Initial Grade’ is good for young children starting out to get a ‘taste’ of what a graded exam feels like, while the Duet option is good for those who prefer a less stressful exam environment as you will be performing with a partner, not solo. At the same time, a Duet exam definitely builds precious teamwork skills and positive partnerships.

Is the new ABRSM pieces more difficult? There are some who argue that the new repertoire pieces are now more difficult in the new syllabus than previously – but this is to be expected, since ABRSM has diluted the Scales component, it has to make it up with something else right?

In conclusion, I welcome the greater choices in the repertoire, the introduction of duets, performance grades for different abilities and interests, but I am not so sure about the dilution in technical work though. All in all, still, many forward-looking changes.

One thing I would like to say is this – the songs in List C, even though they do include styles like ‘Jazz’, it is presumptious to say, ‘I know how to play Jazz!’ simply because one happens to learn a Jazz piece, note-for-note. (Oh yes, I have heard of people declaring this before). In reality, real Jazz is not played ‘note-for-note’.

On the contrary, in Jazz, everything is spontaneously improvised based on a huge set of principles, ideas and paradigms of creative expression. If you want to see real, authentic Jazz improvisation, just google Bill Evans, Phineas Newborn Jr, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Chick Corea, Brad Meldhau, Joey Alexander, just to name a few.

So it’s more accurate to say, ‘I happen to learn a piece in a Jazz style’, than state, ‘I know HOW to play Jazz’. {Cheeky grin.:)}