RSL Classical Piano Exams

It’s generally acknowledged that the UK music exam landscape is dominated by three major examination boards; ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), Trinity College London, and the London College of Music Exams. These organisations have been around for many years and have garnered quite a following –  they are also popular overseas, too. Therefore a new exam board certainly attracts much interest, and several have emerged over the past few years; most recently, the RSL Classical Piano exams. The RSL is known as the awarding body for Rockschool, which is a very successful exam syllabus for rock and pop music. But, now, they have added to their stable with a classical piano exam syllabus.

Aims and Intentions

Chairman and founder of RSL, Norton York, explains the aims and intentions behind the new venture:

‘At RSL we aim for music education to be for everyone. Up until now our purpose and history has been to make that possible for rock and pop musicians. From 2020 we are applying ourselves to classical music, 30 years after we broke the mould in music education by launching the world’s first rock and pop music grade exams.

Our new Classical Piano exams embrace the global interest in classical music and the diverse backgrounds of the people who make it, love it and want to perform it. With this syllabus our aim is to establish a new and different way to understand classical repertoire, to enjoy and respect its tradition while embracing its diversity and global future.’


With nearly 50% of all syllabus repertoire composed by people who are not male or are of Black, Asian, and Mixed Ethnicity heritage, this is surely a truly Twenty-first century venture. Just under a quarter (23%) of the syllabus pieces are composed by Black, Asian, and Mixed Ethnicity heritage composers and a further 30% are written by women.  In my opinion, such diversity should be a prerequisite for all piano, and, indeed, instrumental and vocal, syllabuses around the world. I was delighted to discover (quite by chance!) that I was one of the 30% of female composers included in the splendidly utopian composer line-up. But more on that later. What about the content and delivery? As with any new syllabus, it takes some reading and digesting to fully comprehend the options available to students.


Classical Piano offers eight graded exams, in the same manner as those examination boards mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, as well as a ‘Debut’,  or pre-grade one, exam for those just starting on their musical journey. The exams can be undertaken in three different formats, intended to help students adapt their assessment to the form which best suits them.

The first option is a ‘Graded Exam’, which can be taken either as a traditional face-to-face exam, or as an online ‘Live Stream’ exam. For this, candidates must prepare three pieces (of which two can be free choice), a selection of scales, arpeggios/broken chords, and technical exercises. And they will also be given a sight-reading test or an improvisation, an ear test and general musicianship questions. The ‘Graded Certificate’ is a recorded video. Three pieces are prepared, as for the ‘Graded Exam’, as well as the scales, arpeggios/broken chords, and technical studies, but there are no unseen tests. The ‘Performance Certificate’ goes slightly off-piste, and can be taken as a recorded video, face-to-face exam or a ‘live stream’. Five pieces are to be prepared (three of which can be free choice), but there are no technical exercises or unseen tests. All nine Classical Piano exams follow this format.

Each graded syllabus is available as a download, as well as in hard copy, and every volume contains the complete technical work for the grade, suggested ear test examples and general musicianship questions, alongside the selected repertoire; every grade features a collection of ten pieces. For those who would prefer to include a ‘free choice’ work, the RSL will accept repertoire from any UK Accredited Examination Board (from any specification) until the end of 2021, and will also accept any repertoire of an appropriate equivalent standard aligned to the Free Choice Piece criteria. At present, you can download the technical work and supporting tests for free from the RSL website, here.


What is interesting about the repertoire selection is the breadth on offer; from the expected Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern fayre, to tasteful arrangements of everything from film music to folk tunes as well as more unusual Contemporary music by less familiar composers. In Grade 6, for example, works such as J S Bach’s Invention in A minor BWV 784, Claude Debussy’s The Little Shepherd (Children’s Corner Suite) and Isaac Albeniz Tango in D major Op. 165, No. 2, sit happily alongside Shine by Alexis Ffrench, Silk Hat & Walking Cane by Florence Price, Cambridge, 1963 by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Jazz Exercise No. 2 by Oscar Peterson. My personal choices? Grades one and two; here, a whole host of interesting pieces and their composers are featured, such as August Eberhard Müller, Zenobia Powell Perry, Ignatius Sancho, Carolyn Miller, Anne Crosby Gaudet, Simone Plé-Caussade, Yiruma and Glenda Austin.

Hopefully, students, through the guidance of a teacher, will be encouraged to select a contrasting programme, in order to offer a snapshot of their overall ability. An audio recording is available for every grade, which accompanies the digital download, and there are useful composer biographies, as well as suggested preparation and performance notes for every piece.

And so to my contribution. I’ve been writing music for the last few years and it has definitely become a passion. In 2016, I wrote a collection of piano duets called Snapchats – a whimsical nod to the social media platform. These duets were republished in 2019 by 80 Days Publishing House. For the 2019 publication, I added a significant number of new pieces to the original line-up; a mixture of new, easier duets, as well as four trios for six hands at one piano – there are twenty-three pieces in total. I frequently use these duets during my piano courses, and they are always well-received, partly because of their brevity; they are very short, often just eight bars in length, and they can be immediately enjoyed and played by almost any level or ability.

The RSL Classical Piano have included Celebration from Snapchats in their ‘Debut’ or pre-grade one exam, and you can hear it here:

It’s fairly unusual to include a piano duet in an exam syllabus, but I hope this inclusion will lead to happy collaborations between teacher and student, or two fellow students. 

Celebration sits alongside works by the following composers: Yann Tiersen, Zenobia Powell Parry, Bela Bartok, Ludovico Einaudi, Elvina Pearce, Pauline Hall, Helen Madden, and Claude Debussy.

Find out more about the RSL Classical Piano exams, here:

RSL Classical Piano


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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