Updated ABRSM – general notes and what it means for me personally

ABRSM issued their updated syllabus for 2025-2026. You can find it here [if I remember to link it] [which I will at some stage].

Structurally, they have changed the initial 3 pieces in each list – the pieces that get pushed out into the books for each grade – and then they’ve added a bunch of additional alternatives for each list. For me, I had a choice of ignoring this, or looking to see if there was anything worth changing for me. In theory, I can use the 2023-24 syllabus until end of 2025 but I’m four months behind on a plan that foresaw that for late 2025. So I wanted to check if I would have to review the repertoire selection for myself. Technically the answer to that is no. The new syllabus left in place 3 of the 4 pieces I had selected, and of those three, they were each from separate lists. This also meant that if I didn’t want to change anything, I could just prepare those four pieces and they would be valid for both syllabuses. All four of them have had read throughs but I’m still finishing grade 6.

I had flexibility on the free selection however – I have some time limitations (so this ruled out The Girl With the Flaxen Hair which was just too short per the syllabus requirements – but June by Tchaikovsky was replaced by January – however, again that didn’t have to affect me. However, I’m allowing it to. One of the things that concerned me is that the repertoire was top heavy in late 19th century/early 20th century pieces. I wanted to rebalance that slightly and find something more mid 19th century. The choice ultimately was between a Chopin Mazurka (nice, but…) and, somewhat surprisingly, a Liszt Consolation; no 2. I am going to do that and now I have a more varied range of music. Once I have Grade 6 submitted (and hopefully passed) I will need to start working on selecting repertoire for ARSM so that this is lined up. For that I need to look at the regulations because there is some scope for selecting from outside the syllabus, and there is some scope for raiding the Grade 8 lists as well. I can have up to 10 minutes of self selected music. I’ll also want to build some flexibility into this because of course, I may change over the course of the 18 months I have set aside for the Grade 8.

Grade 8 is a gatekeeper. I have to do it before I touch the ARSM. We will see – now doubt I will post more about this later.

That being said, I had a look at the online discussion about the ABRSM new syllabus. Grade 8 features Rondo Alla Turca as A1 – this means it’s in the book which means a disproportionate number of students will probably want to do it. It’s a well known piece and students like playing things that are famous; that their friends might even know. This puts it in much the same box as Fur Elise, a piece which in its own right is beautiful, but devastatingly prone to being hackneyed. Nevertheless, I’m disappointed to hear teachers complain about this. The point about it perhaps being a dumbing down (previous years have included all of that sonata) is probably a justifiable discussion point but complaining about having to listen to it for 2 years was a bit much, I felt.

There was also some concern about The Girl With the Flaxen Hair turning up on List B. I have to confess I found that mystifying. For most of my life I tended to split the lists into Very old, Reasonably Old and More modern and possibly objectionable. Debussy has two pieces on the Grade 8 syllabus, one on List B and one on List C. Some teachers felt it was a somewhat short piece. Given that the select selected piece should be at least 3 minutes long, I tend to agree with that criticism, and I don’t see what puts it on List B when Reverie is on List C.

An additional arrival to Grade 8 – and I thought about it for myself – was Maple Leave Rag. I started learning that, or some version of it when I was about 14. It didn’t go above the other pieces I wanted to play in preference, however.

In general, one of the other complaints made was the number of Nikki Iles arrangements, especially in the lower grades (but not exclusively). I tend to agree with that. As far as possible, I prefer to do the original rather than a simplified transcription if the music was written for piano.

Yet I’m not totally unhappy with the approach. The number of pieces available as alternatives to the book list has been increased. Given that there seems to be quite a few adult learners around who may not want to suffer their way through stuff they simply don’t like (and why should they have to?), it’s good that there is an enhanced choice for them.

It’s possible my view would change if I were teaching this syllabus but in general, as a student, I didn’t see too much to upset me for grade 8.

Practice diary 20240610

I was without internet for the weekend and also my desk space is quite disrupted so I’m a bit late with the practice diary.

I’m currently on a 16 day streak. I’m hoping I can get to 30 days without breaking this time and who knows how that is going to go. In addition, I’m in that space where I’m trying to record the exam and infuriatingly this is suggesting I’ve never seen these 4 pieces of music in my life. It hasn’t been helped by stress relating to the internet outage (happened Friday, fixed today). Now, it’s like I can play any of these pieces provided there isn’t a camera going. If there is, Carl Philipp Emmanuel goes on strike. I’m making mistakes I’ve not made with that piece ever, before Saturday. It’s really infuriating.

All the more so because, well I can play all four pieces, and I’d like to submit them and then move on to the next piece of work which is the grade 8 selection. I’ve slowly started working on some Rachmaninoff but really slowly because obviously the priority is to get Grade 6 paid for and submitted.

Because all my time is going into the final run at this, I haven’t been reading music so I assume my sight reading as deteriorated a little again. It’s disappointing.

Let’s hope I get the exam submitted this week.

As a general note though, I’m really delighted to have made this. It isn’t that I didn’t believe I could do it technically; it’s that I wasn’t sure I could stick at it; my personal life has tended to get a bit disrupted and one of the reasons I am a few month’s late submitting this (four in total) is because I spent a lot of January and May travelling, and I lost December as well. Not only that, until February I was working on a JS Bach piece. Having dropped that fiasco and picked up the less calcitrant CPE Bach, I’m really pleased I even feel like recording this exam. Passing it would be * chef’s kiss *

Cool keyboard music that is not piano

Maestoso from Symphony no 3 “Organ” by Camille Saint Saens.

As it occurs to me:

Saints-Saens conducts, plays and speaks

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Rachmaninoff’s recordings and feel very lucky to have them. Saint-Saens died over 100 years ago and to be frank, this is not bad at all in terms of quality. It includes bits of Concerto 2, Concerto 5 and the Africa Fantasy (I really should look for the piano music of that).

There is, incidentally, a recording of Brahms knocking around as well which was done in 1889. I find it almost impossible to listen to from a music point of view – the sound quality is very evidently early. You’ll find it on YouTube. I went looking for the Saint-Saens because someone mentioned he was a very good pianist in his day. The recordings date from 1904, just 15 years after the Brahms recordings and they are a significant jump in quality.

Reminder: Updated ABRSM lists coming next week

ABRSM should be publishing the 2025-2026 syllabus on 4 or 6 June (I’ve seen both dates bandied about).

From what I can remember they did not make substantial changes the last time and I would be comforted if they didn’t this time either. I’ve selected pieces from the 23-24 lists for Grade 8; I have deadline of Dec 2025 to do the exam with that list. As Grade 6 has run late, I need to consider the possibility that Grade 8 will as well.

We will see.

Practice Diary 20240601

I play the piano, that’s what I do. And I am sorry for my neighbours at the moment, unless they like the same four pieces, then they are on clover.

It’s been a good week for the practice in terms of actually doing any. I now for the first time in a while have an 8 day streak again. Hopefully i will make that nine tomorrow.

Most of the work has focused on the grade 6 pieces. They vary between being tantalisingly close to being ready and completely screwed up. I don’t understand that last part. I’ve been playing 2 of them more or less correctly for the last 3 months. The other two, well one I took a four month break from but it’s generally okay these days. The problem is Solfeggio which varies between being 100% perfect and otherwise being a hot mess. Currently, I am in performance practice which is where mostly, I say my piece introducing the pieces (sometimes) and then play them all. I want to be used to playing them as a performance. But now and again I have to break off and work on a couple of sections of Solfeggio. That’s frustrating because while I feel like I’m not improving, objectively I am. But I cannot play all four pieces cleanly in a single shot.

This is somewhat annoying because I was supposed to be 2 months into Project Grade 8 by now, and a ickle bit of the way into ARSM (Brahms, you see….). There isn’t one place where things go awry all the time, there are several that occasionally cause problems. Mostly, I think, it is glitches not in my fingers, but in my brain. As I’m playing from memory, because I can remember faster than I can read (although that really isn’t a big deal for anything other than CPE Bach), it leads to some wry entertaining moments for me. I think part of this is hormonal; I have not had a period for nearly 3 months now.

Aside from that, there were dips into the Rachmaninoff but in truth I need to do some prematch analysis on all four of the Grade 8 pieces and also find a teacher for that and the diplomas. I am not sure I have the chops to push through those on my own.

I came across some discussion about pass rates for the FTCL during the week. I’m focused on ABRSM at the moment but in general their diploma repertoire lists overlap; one comparison I saw suggested that the FTCL did not require an essay of types. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that but basically since I would probably choose mostly the same rep for both, it won’t matter until I am close to considering doing the registration. It being the last of the three diplomas, it’s not going to matter for the guts of ten years, if even then.

But there was one comment which I cannot find substantiation for that typically, the FRSM had a pass rate of around 50% and the FTCL had a pass rate of around 30%. Whether I do one or the other, I intend to do Chopin Sonata no 3 (it’s currently on both lists) plus something else (check the goals list for options) and maybe, I won’t be too focused on the diploma by then but still go for the piece.

In other news, it transfers that for ARSM, the Fauré Barcarolle I mentioned in the context of Lucas Debargue’s latest album and recently acquired sheet music is on the repertoire list.

The way I work it is as follows, crazy as I am, is that once I am working Exam X pieces, I will start finalising the choice for X plus 1. For ARSM, if I get Grade 6 submitted any time soon (CPE Bach willing), I will start seriously working on the next four pieces (and not just the Rachmaninoff), and also start planning the repertoire for the ARSM. Now it seems, there are two pieces from my TBL list lined up for that. After that, I’ll probably tap Rach’s preludes and then I have some serious work to do to find some Bach or Scarlatti that appeals.

Random piano news

While I was looking up some YouTube links for the Releases of Note entry for Lucas Debargue, I discovered he was playing a piano I wasn’t familiar with. It’s a Stephen Paulello piano, a rather beautiful looking large concert grand. So I went looking.

The pianos are designed and built in France, and built to order no less. I’m not sure when I would ever accidentally get a chance to play one although I’ve played one of Chris Maene’s pianos, a couple of Faziolis and one or two of Marcus Hubner’s pianos as well. It would be interesting to try this one too as the sound on the Debargue album is beautiful. But apparently an appointment can be made to play at their workshop. It’s tempting.

Releases of Note: Lucas Debargue, Complete Piano Music of Gabriel Fauré

I realised I hadn’t flagged this when I was writing about more recent sheet music acquisitions. This is out and for me, it is an unexpected piece of joy. Gabriel Fauré’s solo piano music is a little undervalued I feel. The piece of music which I truly love is the B section from this.

Lucas Debargue plays Fauré

I haven’t come across many stand out solo albums this year – the top two albums of the year so far are duets.

This is, however, wonderful, and deserves a lot of recognition.

Newly acquired sheet music

I had a ninja trip to London last week and took a few minutes to hare up to the music department in Foyles. I was looking for a couple of things, one of which is not available at the moment but you might randomly find it somewhere that hasn’t sold all its copies yet. In Foyles, I was not so lucky. There was no copy of any of the Liszt works I want. Why I want them I don’t know; I don’t play much/any Liszt at the moment.

The other piece I wanted was Barcarolle Number 1 by Gabriel Fauré. There is an album of Fauré’s complete piano music knocking around which I don’t seem to have flagged but I will. Here’s the trailer:

Lucas Debargue – complete music for piano by Gabriel Fauré

Anyway, the taster which Apple Music released absolutely ages ago was the first barcarolle, and I want to learn it. I see it, I buy it. However, Foyles also had a transcription of Pavane, so I bought that too.

The Liszt that I am looking for are his transcription of Beethoven Symphony No 7 and the chorales. I don’t urgently need them but if I see them, I will pick them up. In any case, I will ninja to London again soon.

Missing public piano Brussels airport

The piano in Area A in Brussels Zaventem appears to have moved. This is sad.

There has also been a really nice upright at Gare Central in Brussels in a hall with wonderful acoustics. I haven’t had time to play it yet. But I have heard people playing it and it just sounds exceptional.