The London College of Music Piano Syllabus 2018 – 2020

The much awaited London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus has finally been published. A new syllabus is always exciting – both for student and teacher. I am an enthusiastic supporter of piano exams; they provide a veritable goal for anyone learning, particularly for younger players. And whilst an exam syllabus should never be used as a piano ‘method’ per se (i.e. where the student moves from one exam to the next with little or no solid repertoire or technical work in between), they can provide a whole host of benefits for the conscientious learner. Employing any exam syllabus as a method in itself is rarely a good idea, and eventually becomes a non-starter, as inevitably students can’t keep pace with the escalating difficulties from one exam to the next. However, if exams are used in a positive way, to occasionally measure progress and afford interesting musical discoveries, then they are a very valuable tool.

The new LCM syllabus is a winner. In recent years an oft-discussed topic has been the relative lack of lesser known repertoire, with particular reference to the scant inclusion of works  by female composers. Sadly, there still aren’t enough female composers or writers working in the industry, let alone being featured on the exam syllabuses (this goes for professorial staff too – there may be many female piano teachers locally, but try to study with one at a higher level, and they suddenly become a bit thin on the ground).

Hopefully, these issues are finally being addressed, and they have certainly been addressed in the new LCM syllabus. Female composers abound here, leaping from the pages with aplomb. And it’s wonderful to behold. Any examination board must uphold standards, but such ingenuity in programming is not only much appreciated, it may also make the difference when selecting which board to use.

I like the layout of the syllabus in general; not all exam boards include the technical work (scales, arpeggios and exercises) for each grade in the same volume as the pieces. This works well, and there are also sight-reading examples and aural tests at the back of the books too. Buying many books for each exam (i.e. purchasing the scales, sight-reading and aural tests separately) is a costly business and having them all under one roof might avert the recurrent scenario of ‘forgetting’ books at the weekly lesson too!

Each handbook (for every grade) comes with nine pieces (twelve for Grade 8), and three (four for Grade 8) from each list, but there is an alternative syllabus too, for those who prefer to go off-piste. Beginning with pre-piano exams, the Pre-Preparatory and Piano Steps 1 & 2, offer simpler tunes for those just starting to play, we then move swiftly to Grade 1, which features works by expected composers such as Attwood, Diabelli, Mozart, Rossini, Bartók and Weber. These are set alongside Contemporary favourites by renowned educational composers such as Christopher Norton, Elissa Milne, Ben Crosland, Heather Hammond, Alan Bullard, and Pamela Wedgwood. It’s refreshing to see Rebekah Maxner, June Armstrong and Barbara Arens on this list too – certainly a strong female line-up.

Perusing the handbook, other interesting Contemporary options throughout the syllabus (in my opinion) might be the following: The Lonely Traveller (Evelyn Glennie, Grade 2), From the Rue Vilin (Max Richter, Grade 3), Cicada Sketch (Arlene Sierra, Grade 3), When Rivers Flowed on Mars (Nancy Telfer, Grade 4), Every Morning, Birds (Rachel Grimes, Grade 5), Curroco Molto (Tony Pegler, Grade 6), Railroad (Travel Song) (Meredith Monk, Grade 6), Forest Musicians (Sofia Gubaidulina, Grade 6), Lowside Blues (Joanna MacGregor, Grade 7), and The Barnyard Song (Alwynne Pritchard, Grade 8).

Each Grade spotlights expected classics (with ample Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century selections), but there are a few other unexpected choices from female composers far and wide; Liza Lehmann, Teresa Carreño, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Ethel Smyth, Céclie Chaminade, Amy Beach and Yvonne Adair. A larger selection awaits if you decide to venture on to the alternative lists. An aspect pleasing to me, is the careful selection of jazzy and ‘blues’ options. Whilst these jolly pieces are enjoyed by students, there often seems an unnecessary deluge of them littering some syllabuses.

I’m reasonably familiar with the handbook selections as one of four writers commissioned to write the Performance Notes for Grades 1 – 8. I wrote around 30 notes in all (for Grades 1 – 6), including nearly all those for Grade 1 and 2. Pianists and teachers, Kirsten Johnson, Zubin Kanga and Daniel Grimwood, also wrote copious notes interspersed with those of some of the highlighted composers, who wrote their own.

The inclusion of suggested practice and performance ideas (alongside the background history of each piece) is excellent and, again, separates the LCM syllabus from other exam boards; buying separate practice notes might not appeal to many, and so to have them printed next to the pieces is a beneficial, user-friendly initiative.

For those who may have previously over-looked the LCM examination board, this new offering will afford plenty of food for thought. The syllabus offers much-needed variety and might just introduce students to previously unknown composers, encouraging them to delve deeper and explore more unusual repertoire options. And that can only have a favourable outcome.

You can read (and download) the new syllabus here, and find out much more about the London College of Music Exams, here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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10 Top Tips To Pass Your Piano Exam

So you want to play the piano photo 5As the new term gets underway, many will be preparing for music exams at the end of the year and the aim of this post is to provide a few extra pointers and ideas for last-minute preparations.

Once the pieces have been learnt, scales, arpeggios and technical work is all in place, and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests have finally been understood, how can students feel motivated and keep improving right up until the last moment?

Here are a few suggestions for the final four weeks before a piano exam.

  1. Start by knowing all about your piano pieces; really understand their background, the context in which they were written, and that of the composer. You might be surprised  by how this knowledge affects the way you play a piece.
  2. Ensure you can play the left hand of each piece alone (preferably from memory). Left hand practice will have a substantial impact on continuity and will hopefully stem the dreaded curse of the ‘stumble’ or hesitation.
  3. When secure, play each piece through at least once a day, from the beginning to the end without stopping, eliminating errors. It can be helpful to play through under tempo at the start of the day (and with a metronome), and then later in the day, play through at the expected speed. When playing under tempo, I would play without the sustaining pedal too, as this tunes our ears to what fingers are actually doing.
  4. A week or so before your exam, arrange two or three play-throughs. These don’t need to be formal: perhaps one at your teacher’s studio, in front of other students, and another amongst family or friends. They need to make you feel ‘on edge’ and slightly out of your comfort zone, but they shouldn’t feel terrifying.
  5. Before you play any piece through, take a few seconds to think about how you are going to begin: set the tempo, think about how the piece makes you feel, and also about the sound you are aiming to produce. This will contribute to making a confident, secure impression as opposed to a shaky, unsure opening.
  6. Aural tests can take a while to sink in and become comfortable. Listen to every genre of Classical music, so that you are well aware of stylistic trends. This will be especially useful for the last test in ABRSM exams, and it will also help to distinguish the pulse, be aware of the beat (i.e. clapping) and  enable you to sing the musical lines (you must be able to hear the lines before you can sing them, so perpetual listening will be crucial).
  7. Scales and arpeggios (or technical work) are much more fun and palatable if you can find a piano playing friend to work with (perhaps your piano teacher has students who are of a similar level to you). However, you don’t have to be the same level. Test each other on scales and arpeggios; if you have two keyboards or pianos, play the same (or different) keys one after another as a quick fire test, and you could even play them together slowly (I used to do this and really enjoyed it). It’s amazing how effective this kind of focus can be.
  8. Ensure ample sight-reading material (there are many books available for various grades, and piano anthologies can be useful too) and make sure you manage at least 10 minutes a day (depending on your level). After you’ve prepared the piece in your mind (looked at the key, fingering, hand position changes and rhythm etc.), set the metronome on a very slow beat and play along to it, resisting the urge to stop and correct yourself.
  9. Define the order of your exam. Most boards allow you to start with either scales or pieces, and it can help if you make a firm decision before you enter the exam room. I advise pupils to begin with scales – they are great for a warm-up, allowing you to become acquainted with the instrument.
  10.  The day before, test yourself by doing a mock exam (you could do it on your own, or invite a crowd!). Play the pieces, all the scales, a piece of sight-reading (one which you haven’t seen before), and go through the Aural tests (using the many apps or audio versions available). This should help settle nerves and provide a feeling of security.

Good luck!


Image from So You Want To Play The Piano? ©Alfred Music

My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Music Theory

The video-blog today deals with what I consider an important topic – music theory. This is the study of how music is written down and all too often it is left out of instrumental lessons. I do believe this to be a mistake……


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Sight Reading; 6 helpful hints

I have had several requests to write an article on piano sight reading (I love having requested blog topics so please do keep them coming). Sight reading is certainly a hot subject amongst those taking music exams and it simply means the ability to play a piece of music on looking at it for the first time; i.e. reading at sight.

It is the section of music exams that many students find a challenge but it is possible to learn how to do it. I certainly did. I wasn’t the best sight-reader but I found that by working at it diligently everyday, it did eventually improve.

Here are a few points to bear in mind when practising;

1. It’s really important to start off by looking at the piece of music carefully and observe:

i. The key signature (then mentally imagine all the sharps or flats that you will need to play in the extract).

ii. The speed of the piece (look for the metronome mark or speed indication).

iii. The pattern of notes – notice features such as chords, arpeggio figures, scale passages, and then finally features like phrase markings, articulation and dynamics.

2. Once you have spent a good 30 seconds to 1 minute observing you could always play the extract through separate hands first. This isn’t encouraged in an exam (due to time constraints) but it is a good way to start learning how to read and find the notes.

3. Pay special attention to the suggested fingering (what fingers you will use for each note) – you need to have it planned in your head before you start especially when negotiating scale or arpeggio passages and contrapuntal sections.

4. One particularly effective element in piano sight reading is to tap the rhythm of both hands at the same time. The left hand tapping the bass line and the right hand tapping the treble line. I find students respond to this very well and then have a firm grasp of the rhythm before they start.

This also establishes the pulse. You must develop a firm grasp of the pulse or beat so it is embedded in your mind and fingers before you start and this needs to continue whilst you are playing (I clap loudly to keep pupils in time as they play – I must be the most annoying piano teacher ever but all my students pass their sight reading tests!).

5. The crucial factor when learning to sight-read, is to play everything extremely slowly. Painfully slowly in fact, so that you are able to take in all the details and combine both hands together fluently. If you are unable to do this then you are not playing slowly enough.

If you keep playing different extracts through at a snail’s pace – preferably for a few weeks or even months, then you will find your reading eventually improves and you are able to take the tempos faster and faster.

6. The final factor in determining good sight reading is to keep playing whatever. You will not pass the sight reading element of an exam if you stop in the middle of the extract. So you need to develop a feeling for keeping going and ignoring all your mistakes. We all make them especially when sight reading – you just need to forget them and carry on. It’s a good idea to force your eyes to read ahead as this will also continue your momentum and help you to keep going.

There are plenty of excellent sight reading books and study aids on the market today and I will look at what is available in more detail in a future blog post.

The expression Keep calm and carry on  does apply to sight reading! Good Luck.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.