The new ABRSM syllabus – how will you choose to use it?

It seems incredible that 5 years have passed since the appearance of the ABRSM ‘yellow books’ for flute. We have lived with them all this time and they have become an important part of our lives. Now, as their successors prepare to take centre stage, it seems a good point at which to evaluate the system that made such an impact when it was first introduced. The arrival of the new books has already generated a huge amount of interest, not to mention revenue, with copies flying off the shelves in all directions. Make no mistake – the launch of this new syllabus is an even more eagerly awaited event than the last one, and possibly more significant.

Exactly how good these ABRSM publications are has become extremely important. The simple fact is that most teachers use them nearly all of the time, moving seamlessly from one grade to another. The concept of ‘a grade a year’ is now the expected norm, and it is then inevitably a very short step to ‘a book a year’. However you look at it, these volumes facilitate that notion. Hard-pressed parents find them financially attractive, not to mention convenient, and we as teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to put up any kind of counter argument. Whilst there has always been pressure on us to enter pupils for exams, often before they’re ready, it seems that now the situation has become polarised to an alarming extent. The doom merchants of 5 years ago perhaps had a point and we really have been ‘dummed down’!

So is there enough in this new syllabus to redress the balance? Well hopefully the answer is yes! Most teachers have had a good chance to look through for themselves now and make up their own minds. The general consensus is that the range of repertoire within the AB books themselves is more varied than before and that the inclusion of popular tunes at the lower levels has been very welcome. Indeed it is inevitable that some pieces will become extremely popular. 81% of grade 1 candidates played ‘Hot Chilli’ from the previous syllabus and this time round expect the same kind of statistic to apply to ‘The Playful Pony” by Blaz Pucihar at grade 5. Other blockbusters are likely to be ‘Lupin, the Pot-Bellied Pig’ by Keith Amos set for grade 1 and Richard Kershaw’s ‘February’s Gentle Rain’ at grade 2. In fact the overall spread of styles is really very wide, ranging from the Renaissance vignette by d’Attaingnant at grade 2 to the lovely Jaap Geraedts Sontatina for grade 7.
If you are perhaps starting to think about introducing the concept of programme planning to a grade 5 student, the combination of an arrangement of a Cimarosa piano piece, the Honegger Romance and a jazz solo by Russell Stokes would be about as varied as it gets!

This syllabus lasts until 2017 but we’re used to that longevity now. Perhaps it is now time to branch out and take a look at numbers 4-9 on the lists. This is an area that could definitely be explored more regularly than has recently been the case, giving the chance for all concerned to think more independently. Reliance on the exam books is just as convenient for teachers as it is for everyone else, and we can hardly expect our students to be more adventurous if we become set in our ways ourselves. Quality repertoire is needed to make this option attractive though. Cost is another huge factor, as the set books are relatively inexpensive. Wisely ABRSM has gone some way towards addressing these issues with single albums having been set for several grades. ‘Harlequin’, an imaginative collection of pieces put together by Simon Hunt and Cecilia McDowall serves grades 1-3, includes a CD and represents a pretty good return on your outlay if you cover all the pieces in the book. In fact there are plenty of good value albums listed for the lower grades. ‘Winner Scores for All’, ‘One More Time’ and ‘Fun Club for Flute’ will definitely earn their keep over the course of a couple of years. A book such as Mike Mower’s ‘The Modern Flute Player’ can be used not only as a book of short solos but also as sightreading material, and as a basis for improvising and transposing. Pretty good!  As a teaching strategy, this is a win-win situation because there is enough variety within these books to provide something for most pupils to enjoy at some stage in their learning. Integrated teaching, linking scales that might not be on the syllabus to new pieces that also might not be on the syllabus, looking at differences in style, as well as using aural awareness to appreciate form and structure would benefit not only the pupil but the teacher too.

It is also possible to adopt this approach for the intermediate levels. Although repertoire from these volumes may seem quite restrictive in outlook for a developing musician, they too represent good value if used judiciously. ‘Flotenetudien Vol 1’ spans grades 4-6 and will enable teachers to ring the changes when dealing with traditional study work. Again there is enough material here to keep pupils interested. If it could be paired with Vizzutti’s ‘Dynamic Dances’, a great volume of upbeat solos set for grades 5 and 7, you will have a real contrast in style to stretch musical development in a completely different direction. This encourages pupils to see for themselves that a good technique can be used in a myriad of ways. A really beautifully presented book can also reap rewards in terms of motivation, and they don’t come much more beautiful than ‘Flute at Play’ by Blaz Pucihar. The title number ‘Flute at Play’ in a jaunty A major and ‘Dreamy Flute’ with its slow sustained melody will give a grade 4 student a real workout and Flute Journey will stretch grade 6 fingerwork. Fully illustrated and with a good quality CD, the 10 pieces together form a complete story so there is plenty of scope for performance away from the exam – maybe with a different player for each piece. This will again justify the high initial cost. Possibly the most useful of all the works set, however, is the Telemann A minor Suite. It’s lovely to see this rather neglected piece have a revival and although it only appears for grades 3,4 and 5, the remaining movements are harder, making it a really good choice for the advancing student to play as a solo with the school orchestra at a later date.

A look at grade 6 is quite revealing in terms of illustrating how much the syllabus has developed since 2008. List A is dominated by Baroque composers and there is nothing new in that. However the inclusion of two Classical period composers opens out the choice much further than was previously the case. Walckiers’ Scherzo and a rare piece of Leopold Mozart gives the opportunity for a student to really sort out the differences in style between these two important periods – perfect for aural training. List B is also a more complex mix than before. There is the familiar (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes), the French influence (Roussel, Gaubert and Caplet), and the slightly whacky (Gary Schocker). Dipping into any of these will be an exciting adventure for a committed student. There is a similarly eclectic combination in list C and if a pupil can learn the contemporary ‘Charming Snakes’ by Rob Buckland, the beautifully arranged Handel Allemande by Trevor Wye and a great Drouet study, the chances of a higher mark increase considerably. This grade also contains the piece of the syllabus. Andy Scott’s ‘And Everything is Still…..’ is one gorgeous piece. If you don’t know it already, buy a copy now and enjoy – exam or not!

And there are more incentives to branch out! As before, it is possible to buy the book with a CD. This has been seen as a rather expensive luxury and it’s value as a tool not only for learning a new piece but also for exploring less obvious repertoire has been sadly overlooked. Now it’s possible to transfer the tracks to a computer or personal device, or make a purchase through itunes. This should really help encourage pupils to widen their horizons, especially as at the early grades the small audio sample available before you buy is enough to tempt or deter you! ABRSM is also keeping up with modern trends by using technology to support both candidates and parents. Interactive tools such as Speed Shifter and the ABRSM aural app are constantly being developed to help learning through devices that everyone uses on a daily basis. Teachers too have podcasts, online forums and countless seminars to show us all how to pass on our knowledge more effectively. It would seem that there is no end of support to encourage us, if only we are prepared to use it.

It’s not all roses though. There are some less than catchy numbers too. David Gordon’s ‘Amazonian Mood’ is a really serious jazz number that not everyone will take to at a grade 3 level, and the grade 6 list C piece ‘Valse Triste’ by Granville Walker is modern rather than tuneful. It is also a little surprising that there is no opportunity to embrace contemporary techniques at a time when students are assimilating them earlier and earlier. Singing and playing, and simple multiphonics are now commonplace and it would have been good at least to have the opportunity to attempt a piece such as Ian Clarke’s extremely well-written and user friendly ‘Sunday Morning’ possibly even as early as grade 7. Grade 8 is now more difficult, especially list B, which requires either incredible virtuosity or very advanced musicianship to perform successfully. The wisdom of separating the ‘Enesco’s Cantabile’ from the ‘Presto’ is questionable (is there really nothing else?), as is including the ‘Andante’ from the Prokofiev Sonata – but this is progress ABRSM style. The inclusion of two Ian Clarke blockbusters doesn’t make the technical demands any easier either – however popular they are. What is without doubt is that the gap between the listed repertoire and the scales requirements is widening at this level and will need to be fully addressed before entering can be thought about.

As there is so much change in the air, it may be a time to reflect on the exam process in general and each grade in particular in a slightly different way. Try this – it’s food for thought at least:

ABRSM Flute grade 1 Grade 1         The Arrival Grade
A pupil will probably be really keen to take this exam and the requirements are relatively straightforward. The scales are user-friendly and the aural is simply a consolidation of basic work undertaken in the lesson. This should hopefully be a positive experience for all concerned!
Syllabus highlight: Aldo Rossi - A Sweet Dream

ABRSM Flute grade 2 Grade 2         The Consolidation Grade
This is a small step up from grade 1 and great for either boosting confidence in a shy player or ticking boxes with troublesome parents!
Syllabus highlight: Paul Hart – Rainy Day in Paris
ABRSM Flute grade 3 Grade 3         The Difficult Grade
The large jump in standard makes this a difficult grade to approach. Scales are a real problem. It isn’t only G minor that’s hard but the combination of this with B flat major and E minor that can make life very difficult. Selling the benefits of this as a way of life is virtually impossible to the all but the G&Ts.
Syllabus highlight: Luypaerts – Cinq Sets
ABRSM Flute grade 4 Grade 4         The Happy Grade
This is much less stressful and an altogether happier affair. Sight singing needs attention. See grade 2!
Syllabus highlight: Hook – Allegretto from Classical Music by Wastall
ABRSM Flute grade 5 Grade 5         The Important Grade
This is the one they all want and a must in most cases. All levels of playing skills need to be on top form, as examiners need to be convinced of a greater level of technical mastery here. Sightreading is considerably more difficult and the singing sections of the aural tests will need careful preparation. Will this now be followed by a terrible scramble to nail down grade 5 theory?
Syllabus highlight: Blavet  -Allemanda from Sonata No 4 in G minor
ABRSM Flute grade 6 Grade 6         The Committed Grade
There is usually evidence of an increasing maturity in students at this level. The repertoire certainly represents a step up and requires greater finger technique, vibrato, increased dynamic awareness, and a greater variety of articulation patterns. The introduction of melodic minors will present problems if not already covered in easier keys and the aural tests are totally different from lower grades. Hmm….
Syllabus highlight: Gary Schocker: Spring Energy (or Heigh Ho)
ABRSM Flute grade 7 Grade 7         The Transition Grade
This is really pre-grade 8. There is a chance here to explore some more challenging pieces and styles as the lists are all quite varied. Scale work now will pay huge dividends later. Encourage students to join a choir (dreams only).
Syllabus highlight: Lily Boulanger - Nocturne
ABRSM Flute grade 8 Grade 8         The Ultimate Grade
For most players this will be the pinnacle of their musical achievement and as such it is very important that they have as wide a range of musical experience as possible. The aural tests alone require a great deal of preparation, and the technical requirements throughout are considerable. Sightreading can be fierce at this level. Encourage students to prepare at least 2 separate programmes and only enter them if they are sure to pass!!
Syllabus highlight: John La Montaine - Jaunty

So how will you chose to use all this new material? Graded exams are now more often than not used as a motivator rather than simply as a measure of standard and it remains much more challenging for teachers to develop all round musical ability and good instrumental skills without their framework. The pressure is on to achieve, but with the right approach and a little imagination the new ABRSM syllabus can be used a basis for teaching rather than an end in itself. We will all be the better for it!

OLD link for ABRSM full Syllabus for flute (2008-2013) here.

NEW link for ABRSM full Syllabus for flute (2014-2017) here.