The Curious Piano Teachers are a community of piano teachers from across the globe, offering a library of great teaching resources, professional development, and the opportunity to interact with supportive, like-minded peers. Hannah O’Toole is their Community and Marketing Manager, and for this week’s guest blog post she explores RSL’s new Classical Piano syllabus.
Do we really need another classical piano exam board? I admit I asked myself this question, when Musicroom invited me to review the new RSL Classical Piano syllabus. Having now played my way through it, I am convinced we do. Here’s why:
The RSL Classical repertoire choices combine the favourite and the fresh in a way that is highly relevant and motivating to many piano students. The range of pieces is the real strength of the syllabus. It is both contemporary, and classic – a little like a stylist’s wardrobe. There is a healthy mix of original pieces and tasteful arrangements. There are enough, “Oh, I know this, and “What’s THAT? I have to learn it,” moments to make it feel more like a repertoire collection than an exam syllabus. And that’s what has won me over.
RSL Classical definitely suits certain profiles of piano student. So, is it for everyone? Possibly for some more than others. As I played through, I found myself thinking of particular students, past and present; “X would love this…” You may be able to identify other categories of student that would enjoy this syllabus – here are the ones that spring to mind for me.
1. THE RETURNING/BEGINNING ADULT STUDENT
Returning, or beginning adults will love this syllabus. There’s plenty of hall-of-fame classics at every level to keep them happy; adult learners love a familiar melody. You’ll find an arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune at Debut, to Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1, and Schumann’s Träumerei at Grade 5, to the expected Bach Prelude and Fugue, first movement of a Beethoven Sonata and a Debussy Arabesque at Grade 8. All fairly standard so far, but these are repertoire choices that are proven classics that people will enjoy playing.
Making classical themes accessible to beginner and elementary students of any age is important because it is highly motivating to be playing familiar, and favourite music. At The Curious Piano Teachers, we explore 21 strategies for motivating piano students in our January 2019 Curiosity Box, and encouraging them to play their favourite music is one of our top tips.
Most students want to learn to play pieces that they have heard before or that they know. Striking the balance between the familiar and the new is so important for us as teachers. On the one hand, we want to engage our students with their music. On the other, it is one of the greatest pleasures as a teacher to introduce students to repertoire they never would have played otherwise, but end up loving. RSL Classical strikes this balance beautifully.
Watching someone struggle away at a piece too far beyond their skill-level is hugely frustrating. I hold my hands up – I have made that mistake both as a learner and a teacher. This is why there really is a place for tasteful arrangements of well-loved classics. Yes, even Für Elise at Grade 2. You know your students will love it…
2. TEENS AND TWEENS
Teens and tweens will love the contemporary favourites on the RSL Classical syllabus. Plenty of students will adore All Is Found from Frozen 2 from the Grade 1 list, and Yiruma’s River Flows In You from Grade 2. Bluebird by Alexis French fills this gap at Grade 3, but Grade 4 is lighter on the contemporary well-known.
The jump between Grades 3 and 4 can be a big one for many students, and some don’t make it. Some who may have had success memorising shorter exam pieces at the early grades, without the having reading skills to match, sometimes begin to struggle with the demands of longer, more complex early intermediate pieces. However, with sound teaching and solid pedagogy at the beginner stages, something we are passionate about at The Curious Piano Teachers, this shouldn’t be an issue. Another reason that students can be tempted to give up at this point is that reaching the early intermediate level often coincides with increased demands at school, and competition from other interests. Providing students with engaging repertoire is crucial at this level, and RSL Classical meets this challenge.
3. STUDENTS LOOKING FOR SUPPLEMENTARY REPERTOIRE
The RSL Classical books work really well for anyone looking for clearly-levelled alternative repertoire, whether or not an RSL exam is their ultimate goal. The books have the feel of repertoire anthologies, not just exam lists. Interesting repertoire choices have prompted me to explore collections by less well-known featured composers – something which should be the aim of any exam syllabus. The pieces include a wide variety of music from different periods, genres, and cultural traditions. Black and ethnic minority composers, and female composers are well represented on the syllabus. Zenobia Powell Perry’s pieces at Debut and Grade 4 are sure to be popular. Moonlight Rose by Japanese composer Naomi Ikeda, at Grade 4, is beautifully evocative and makes me want to explore more of her work.
EXPLORING EACH GRADE IN MORE DETAIL
The levels of piece at each grade are broadly the same as across the other main exam boards – Debut feels similar to LCM Step 2 or ABRSM Initial, with similar scale requirements, and enough pieces that are either patterned and straightforward enough to teach by rote, or with fairly limited hand position changes. Grade 1 is not overly simple – again, it feels about right in terms of playing level, if some of the pieces are on the longer side.
Burgmüller’s Op. 25 No. 22 in A flat major, and Billie’s Song by Valerie Capers have both previously appeared on the Grade 4 lists of other boards. The first movement Kuhlau’s Sonatina in A minor, Op. 88 has appeared at both Grades 4 and 5 on another major exam board – with Grade 5 being the accepted level. Grade 5 contains a good selection of “core” repertoire, and William Gillock’s New Orleans Nightfall is an absolute gem of a piece. There is slightly less in the way of film music or the more contemporary at this landmark intermediate grade.
Grade 6 does not disappoint as far as film music goes – Johann Johannson appears twice on the syllabus (once at Grade 3 as well) with pieces from The Theory Of Everything. It is a rich and colourful selection – I like this grade! Grade 7 is appropriately weighty but interesting, featuring works by Scarlatti, Agathe Backer Grøndahl, and the gorgeous “Om Kvällen” by Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée, as well as Coleridge-Taylor, Nyman, Tailleferre, John Williams’s Schindler’s List and one of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux. Two offerings by Chopin is slightly surprising – I can’t help thinking that this is a missed opportunity to include a piece by another composer.
Grade 8 is the jewel in any piano exam syllabus and the offering by which it will be judged. RSL Classical includes the expected Bach Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 is also standard for Grade 8, as is the first movement of a Mozart or Beethoven Sonata. Clara Schumann, Coleridge-Taylor, Poulenc and Joplin provide a suitably heavyweight and varied selection worthy of Grade 8, but Grieg’s Papillon is a surprising choice, and might have been better placed as a replacement for one of the Chopin offerings at Grade 7, having appeared in other syllabi at lower grades. My absolute favourite on the Grade 8 list is Blue In Green (Take 3) by Miles Davis, as performed by Bill Evans. It makes me very happy to see jazz by real greats such as Evans and Davis on the Grade 8 syllabus. Repertoire choices like this are what gives RSL Classical its contemporary and distinctive flavour.
There is also the flexibility to submit own-choice pieces from the same level of another UK-accredited exam board, making it simple to transfer students across.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE PIECES
As piano teachers, we know that deciding which exam board to choose for any given student is not just about the pieces on offer. There are many decisions to make; even more so since COVID-19, with recorded and online exam options now available. Here are some considerations:
Recorded, Online or Live?
Before COVID-19, if you had asked most piano teachers what exam format they were preparing students for, they would likely have said a live exam at a centre or special visit. Now the main exam boards have recorded and live online exam options as well, and it’s good to consider which option fits your student best. If you do go for a live exam, how easy is it to find a centre convenient for your students? If you’re going for a recorded exam, do you want to go for audio or video format? If you are looking for an audio recorded exam, for students who may be self-conscious on video, this is not the board for you.
Each exam board asks for slightly differing technical requirements – sight-reading or improvising, studies, scales and arpeggios, and we can play to our students’ strengths with the combination of technical exercises that we ask them to prepare. The ability to mix and match is also a bonus. RSL Classical candidates can choose from sight-reading or improvisation in the Graded Exam (see below).
Performance Certificate, Graded Exam or Graded Certificate?
With RSL Classical, there is the option to focus on performance or take a grade exam, complete with technical exercises and unseen tests (requirements vary depending on whether you go for a live or recorded exam). This useful summary is taken from the RSL website:
Exam Format: Face-to-face or Live Stream
Number of Pieces: 3
Technical Exercises: Examiner Selection of Scales, Arpeggios/Broken Chords, and Technical Studies
Unseen Tests: Sight Reading OR Improvisation, Ear Test, and General Musicianship Questions
Exam Format: Recorded Video
Number of Pieces: 3
Technical Exercises: All Published Scales, Arpeggios/Broken Chords, and Technical Studies
Unseen Tests: None
Exam Format: Recorded Video, Face-to-face or Live Stream
Number of Pieces: 5
Technical Exercises: None
Unseen Tests: None
Candidates may choose to play up to five pieces for a Performance Certificate, or three pieces for a Graded Exam/Certificate all from the repertoire lists of another UK Accredited Examination Board.
WOULD I USE RSL CLASSICAL WITH MY STUDENTS?
Absolutely. I can see it working particularly well with image-conscious tweens, and teens, and returning adults. The flexibility of exam formats available means that teachers can really play to their students’ strengths. Overall, the difficulty levels of the pieces are well-researched for each grade, and some of the choices have appeared on other boards at the same grades in the past. That’s not to say RSL Classical is just a rework of what others have done before – it has its own distinctive, contemporary flavour, and that is what I think piano students will love. The scale requirements are sufficiently rigorous, but also reflect the contemporary feel of these exams, featuring pentatonic, and natural minors. This is a credible alternative for those seeking a more contemporary flavour to their piano exams, but where the music is still firmly rooted in the Western Classical tradition. Definitely worth a look.
Community & Marketing Manager, The Curious Piano Teachers