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Piano music to challenge and inspire

3 years ago


We’ve just published our new Piano syllabus for 2017 and 2018. Here one of our expert selectors, Timothy Barratt, takes a look at some of the wonderful music on offer.


The launch of a new syllabus is always exciting. We all welcome the challenge and inspiration which a new set of pieces brings and this wide-ranging selection offers plenty for all ages and tastes.

Piano Syllabus 2017 & 2018Among pieces by composers such as Bach, Mozart and Schumann you’ll find plenty of less familiar works to enjoy. The jazzy pieces will, as always, act like magnets and many pupils will be attracted to the arrangements of well-known tunes. Music from around the world gives an international feel and some names from the past reflect the heritage of the much-valued Piano syllabus. Here are some of my favourites!

Tried and tested

I have yet to find a pupil who doesn’t enjoy Clowns by Kabalevsky (Grade 3). With its juggling between major and minor, this piece is as good as any study for developing fluency and confidence. Among the many other favourites are The Prince of Denmark’s March (Grade 2) with its bold melody and strong rhythm, and Schumann’s Fröhlicher Landmann, commonly known as The Merry Peasant, (Grade 4) which is excellent for developing melodic playing in the left hand. The Rondo from Mozart’s C major sonata K545 (Grade 6) will be a popular choice and may encourage a longer-term project to learn the other movements and complete the sonata.

Cruella and company

Feline lovers will adore the slinky charms of The Cat from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (Grade 2) and who can resist the lure of Cruella de Vil (Grade 6), that wicked Disney dame, in a delicious arrangement by jazzer Pete Churchill? Among other fine arrangements, opera gets a look-in with the famous and breezily self-confident La donna è mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto (Grade 1), while a tear can be shed for the plight of Tom Bowling (Grade 3) with its beautiful melody, expressive harmonies and opportunity to explore legato pedalling.


Sensitive and soulful

Plenty of pieces explore the piano’s cantabile qualities. Summertime (Grade 5) illustrates perfectly the piano’s ability to imitate the human voice, while more thoughtful early-grade pupils will be fascinated by the way the left hand imitates the right in canon in Through the Desert (Grade 2). Hiller’s Polnisches Lied (Grade 3) offers Eastern European melancholy in preparation for pieces at Grades 5, 7 and 8 by Chopin, the quintessential spirit of Poland. Equally Chopinesque in character is Skryabin’s beautiful Prelude in E (Grade 6).

Fleet and fingery

Canaries (Grade 1) needs a light, crisp touch to bring its staccato and rhythmic detail to life, and the Krebs Praeambulum supra Jesu, meine Freude (Grade 4) will suit pupils with strong fingers and a firm sense of pulse.

At Grade 5, students with good facility will enjoy the airy skip of Maykapar’s Tarantella while the higher grades are full of pieces to show dexterity. A hot favourite will be the popular Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (Grade 8), Debussy’s humorous parody of the diligent practiser. The wonderful sound world and feeling of exhilaration, especially at the sprint towards the finishing post, make this a great choice – and it sounds more difficult than it actually is!

All that jazz

The opportunity to ‘let go’ in jazz-inspired pieces is wonderfully liberating. They range from the popular slapstick Willie Wagglestick’s Walkabout (Grade 7), making a welcome comeback, to the funkiness of Gospel Flair (Grade 2). Asian Tiger Prowl (Grade 1) is likely to be a winner and Cool (Grade 5), with its challenging rhythms, will transform the exam room momentarily into a jazz club. Equally cool in feel is Ray’s Blues (Grade 7). It’s new to the syllabus and one of my personal favourites.


Less familiar territory

Agathe Backer Grøndahl may not be a familiar name but her Sommervise (Grade 7), one of a number of pieces by female composers, has a beauty to melt all hearts as its melody passes between the hands. The inclusion of pieces by Asian composers makes a refreshing challenge at the upper grades. Japanese-born Karen Tanaka’s Masquerade (Grade 6) straddles the continents by offering a fantastical, fleeting scene of a Venetian masked ball, while Selling Sundry Goods (Grade 8) stays closer to its roots in depicting the hustle and bustle of a Chinese street-scene. Finally, use of the bass register and pp dynamic throughout make The Stowaway (Grade 2) an unusual and appealing choice. This piece appeared in the 1932 syllabus yet remains fresh and characterful more than 80 years later!

This article was originally featured in the September 2016 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Timothy Barratt is a pianist, teacher, adjudicator and workshop leader. He is an ABRSM examiner and co-selector with Anthony Williams for the Piano syllabus.

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