ABRSM Syllabus

‘Extra! Extra! Read all about it! ABRSM changes flute syllabus!’

(Article published by Pan Magazine - The Journal of the British Flute Society June 2008)

Such is the importance of the ABRSM in the lives of most instrumental teachers in this country that a change of syllabus is regarded as a seminal event and awaited with eager anticipation. 2008 has seen the Board make some radical changes to its presentation of the flute syllabus with the introduction of bright new yellow repertoire books complete with playalong CD. Now that the dust has started to settle and most teachers have had a chance to familiarise themselves with the new system, it would seem to be an appropriate time to reflect on the impact this change is having on our working practices.

Let’s make no mistake here – this is a really big change. The obvious point is that one third of the pieces for each grade is now available in a single volume and there are a variety of ways in which to purchase the material. The format of flute part only, flute and piano, or flute piano and CD is certainly a shrewd marketing move on behalf of the Board. The furore over the introduction of these books right up to grade 7 has resounded throughout the retail industry – so much concern was there over the possible damage to music sales that a petition was raised to highlight the issue. Another striking feature about this new approach is the fact that the syllabus lasts until 2013. Unlike the piano and string exam books which last at most 2 years, we flute teachers will be blessed or lumbered (depending on your point of view) with these pieces for up to 6 years.

The financial benefits of purchasing so much music in one volume will be felt by hard-pressed parents and teachers alike. In all the volumes there is a wide choice of styles and levels within the grade so theoretically there should be something for everyone without having the expense of purchasing extra music for the alternative pieces. The CDs are of a high standard and the accompaniment tracks complement the performances very well so no problem there at least. However, there are many critics of this new system – those who feel teachers will use only the books and never venture beyond the yellow covers again. Dumming down perhaps? But then it’s possibly always been like this. Apparently we don’t teach items from the bottom of the lists anyway so a restriction to a choice of 3 won’t seem like much of a change. Did you know that 95% of grade 8 flute candidates currently play the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, the Poulenc Sonata and a Telemann Fantasia in their exam? Alarming isn’t it? Judging from these statistics it would seem that perhaps we teachers also need an overhaul. How old will you be by the time the next list is introduced in 2014? How many times will you have taught Novelty Foxtrot? More importantly, how many times will the examiner have heard Novelty Foxtrot played exactly as on the CD?

Exams have always provided a safe haven for us. They are a universal barometer – ‘Fred is grade 2’ is a more acceptable form of comparison than the fact that he has been playing either 10 weeks or 10 years to achieve it. How many of us use the AB syllabus as our own curriculum, often pandering to parents who just want their child to progress as fast as possible and see the next grade as tangible proof of money well spent? Young teachers in particular find this aspect of the job very difficult to guard against. Another problem frequently encountered is that the candidate will achieve a good mark for the pieces but be unable to handle the supporting tests. As progress through the grades continues the marks become lower, the gulf between playing the instrument and understanding the music inexorably widening. Of course good teachers will always circumvent these problems but perhaps we could all benefit from an appraisal of our approach in order to maximise the potential these new books offer.

Maybe we need to think about why we are entering the pupil in the first place. An initial consideration could take the form of an evaluation of the purpose and challenges of each grade. The notion of coming to a particular grade from a position of strength is important, covering the skills needed before embarking on the exam itself. For example, it is one thing to be able to play a top F for grade 3 but is it any use if you can’t read it? The new syllabus does provide an opportunity to do this in Beethoven’s Tyrolean Air but it’s quite tough on the pupil if the first chance to read it is in an exam piece. It is also the case that at grade 8 level the prescribed scales alone will not provide a secure enough technical basis from which to attack the new set repertoire. Technical virtuosity will be required for almost all list A pieces with concertos by Vivaldi and Blavet leading the way. A student at this level should be at least on extended form scales with different articulation patterns if they are not to be restricted to the Mozart Rondo.

We could perhaps construct our own curriculum around the syllabus. Using grade 4 as an illustration, it is easy to see how we can link various teaching points through the set repertoire. For example, two list A pieces, Siciliennes by Bach and Blavet are both in G minor with a lilting 6/8 rhythm. This gives us the opportunity to sort out any problems with compound time, challenge breathing, discuss dynamic contrast and explore elements of Baroque style twice over. They also both conveniently modulate in a standard manner, enabling us to widen the teaching possibilities further to cover aural recognition and some simple theory. There is also scope for the more adventurous to experiment with some Baroque ornamentation. Add in the teaching of related scales and some simple improvisation, and you have really made both of these pieces work for your student on many levels. You can extend the process further still as the Roseingrave Largo and Presto is also in G minor. Here the Largo is in 3/8 which links in nicely to the Siciliennes, but the Presto has a completely different character, which will require a good deal of finger dexterity in this tricky key. The period is the same though, so more links can be forged here. Lastly the Paradis Sicilienne also has a beautiful 6/8 melody but is from a later period. Comparisons can again be made with the chance to include aural awareness exercises to identify the differences a change of musical period can make.

Another way to maximise teaching material is to perhaps consider the type of pieces a student can learn from grade to grade. For example, there is plenty of scope throughout the syllabus to visit French flute writing of the highest calibre. The very lovely Lied by Aubert, a challenging list B piece set for grade 3, will possibly be the first time a pupil has encountered music of this type. The style here is so different from anything else at this level so although it looks easy the elusive nature of the harmony can make it quite difficult to teach. This is where the CD can be used to such great effect. Listening to the complete performance can really open up musical discussions, particularly about the importance of the accompaniment in the shifting harmonies and stimulate the imagination to perhaps evoke a story line to make sense of it all. There are then plenty of other pieces of this genre in the more advanced exams to really stretch the serious issues of playing the flute. Breath control, dynamics, intonation and later, vibrato and tone colour are all well catered for. Veille Chanson from Koechlin’s 14 Pieces appears at grade 1 if you want to start this process really early, and others are set for grades 2,4 and 5. Taffanel, Arrieu, Busser, Debussy, Tomasi and Drouet all make an appearance and the loss of the Gaubert Madrigal at grade 6 has been more than compensated for by the introduction of his Sicilienne – a more demanding piece I feel, and one which would greatly benefit from previous experience in this type of playing. Grade 8 positively reeks of garlic – Widor, Milhaud, Rhene-Baton, Roussel,  Mouquet and Poulenc mean that list B is firmly rooted in the French tradition.

This way of working could also apply to the other main types of music represented over the whole syllabus. Understanding of style is vital for a good performance and incorporating it seamlessly into the flute lesson is really no problem. Encouraging a student to edit one of the Baroque movements set for grade 6 list A for example, is invaluable. Marking in breathing, tailoring dynamics to the harmony, working out the practicalities of articulation, and adding ornamentation will not only help with the actual performance but also benefit theoretical understanding and aural awareness into the bargain. Once again it is possible to continue the process, this time by comparing the type of articulation used in, say, the Loeillet Allegro to the style of tonguing in Twinkle Toes and Kelly’s Prelude Francais. Add in another stylistic discussion with the help of the CD, use related scales, perhaps double dotted, staccato and with a swing rhythm for good measure, and you have covered a huge amount of ground. Supplementary duet work linked to the key or period will then give all this work a sight-reading dimension – perfect!

I know there are some practical drawbacks to overcome. Time is one problem – teaching in this manner needs careful planning and is therefore time-consuming. Money is another - it is hard to justify the expense of a piece like Busser’s ‘Les Ecureuils’ simply for practice purposes and there is no doubt that examiners will hear very little of the really costly French pieces. We will always find ways around this though, and over time accumulate the music we find most valuable. And there are some bargains to be had. James Rae’s Style Workout Book set for grades 1, 3 and 4 has plenty of other material in it to justify £9.95 and Madeleine Dring’s Polka at grade 6 currently weighs in at £3.95. Books such as the two Blakeman Flute Player’s Companions are packed with good exercises, and it will always be worth paying for the Rose Miscellany Book 1 because not only is the Valsette a wonderful grade 3 piece but the rest of the book is very imaginative too. It is also the case that not all the pieces in the yellow books are user-friendly. An average pupil will struggle with both the Andersen and Rose list C pieces at grade 4 and probably won’t much like the Hindemith Echo either! And perhaps the doom-laden retailers have a point as I’m sure that sales of excellent volumes such as McDowell’s 6 Pastiches and Hilary Taggart’s In The Sun will suffer as a result of the inclusion of just one of their pieces in the new books. On the other hand their music will now reach the ears of those who might otherwise pass them by.

So is it all just a fuss about nothing? Well, yes and no. Exams, although an important part of the fabric of teaching, don’t take up all our time and we all have plenty of other material that we use on a regular basis anyway. We will also look at what’s on offer in the syllabus and pick and choose as we like. The Board hasn’t changed any of the supporting tests or gone down the ‘either or’ route taken by its rivals  - this issue is in itself a matter for debate. What it has done is given us two new opportunities. The first is the option to become lazy teachers. If we choose to stick to the yellow books for all our students for the next 5 years no matter what, or use the CD as a substitute for rigorous teaching, that is up to us. The second option is to embrace all that is being offered, evaluate intelligently, and make the confines of the exam system work to help us to produce rounded musicians as well as flute players. Which will you choose?

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