We’ve just published the podcast review of the new and eagerly awaited LCM (London College of Music) 2021 Piano Syllabus, you can listen to the podcast episode here:¬†https://heartofthepiano.com/e20-lcm-london-college-of-music-2021-piano-syllabus-review/

The podcast is really handy if you like to listen while driving, or doing household tasks, or going for walks (that’s certainly how I like to enjoy podcasts!), but if you just want a very quick summary of the podcast review, here are the main points:

There’s much to love. Like the previous syllabus, there’s an emphasis on living composers, and on women composers.

The music is mostly centred around very high quality traditional Western classical music (I include the world of contemporary classical composers within this definition of ‘traditional’ as it very much is a cultural subset of the classical world). There are consistently excellent finds of relatively obscure enjoyable music across all eras.

The pieces are generally a little more challenging in terms of technique and interpretation when compared to the equivalent grades in other exam boards, but the benchmarking can be very wide with some much easier and superficial pieces in each grade that make it difficult to see LCM qualifications as truly reflecting a consistently high standard.

Pieces are generally much longer with larger scale structure than other exam boards, and the exams last for longer than other boards. I personally welcome the challenge this would offer some of my students, but this can add more difficulty level in terms of focus and stamina for students to achieve the same qualification as other boards.

As a generalisation, pieces tend to be bold and extrovert, often with many character and mood shifts within a piece. These are great pieces to encourage and develop confident performing and showmanship.

These are high quality books with everything you need included in the one book such as scales & technical exercises, aural test & sight-reading examples, and biographical notes for each composer together with tips and advice for each piece.

There are an large amount of extra pieces available as alternative options if you buy more books! In some grades, they’ve included an alternative option that can be downloaded from IMSLP.org which is thoughtful.
However, for most of these alternative options, because there are no official LCM audio recordings and because many of these pieces can be relatively obscure, I don’t see how some of them can be a practical choice for most people without any way to see if they like the pieces before spending money on the sheet music.

Similar to ABRSM before they cut costs in their latest syllabus, Grades 1-7 have 3 pieces per list, and Grade 8 has 4 pieces per list making 12 in total.

  • The List A, B & C categories have been changed in a way that looks very similar to ABRSM’s latest syllabus- List A is technical, often fast, and often in Sonata form or fugues. But now these pieces can be from any era, including contemporary
  • List B is emotionally expressive, needing rubato
  • List C consists of diverse contemporary styles

But I can’t find any explanation anywhere explaining exactly what new List categories are, and I’m often baffled as to why a piece is in one particular list and not another. For example- the Poulenc Novelette no.3 that ABRSM has in 2021 Grade 8 List B, LCM puts into List C Grade 8.

I’m disappointed that, given the large alternative lists of pieces, sometimes there are pieces within one List in the book that are way too similar to each other in style when I would have preferred to have seen more variety within each book.

In the podcast review, I describe all the different options for all the different types of exams.

I’m not a fan of the minimal editing. I’m also not a fan of ABRSM’s very heavy-handed editing either, but LCM are at the complete opposite end with almost no helpful editing or suggestions. Trinity have a very good balance here with less editing at the higher grades, but with helpful notes. At the very least, LCM desperately need to add courtesy accidentals in places that look like misprints but actually accurately reflect earlier editions.
This is really important, as the day after recording the podcast review I started learning one of the Grade 8 studies, and almost immediately discovered a missing accidental after checking with an earlier edition on IMSLP. This makes it quite tiresome to have to keep checking other editions every time I wonder if there is a mistake in the LCM book.

I’m also not a fan of the typesetting- there are several places (I sightread all the pieces in all the books as part of my review) where the rhythms are unnecessarily difficult to read because of heavy distortion of the visual proportions of the rhythms. A quick check with other editions on IMSLP concerning the bars in question shows that other editions don’t suffer from this problem. I’ve pretty much only ever found this to be a problem in the last ABRSM syllabus (even worse) and this LCM syllabus.

The introductory levels before Grade 1 (three books titled ‘Pre’, ‘Step 1’ & ‘Step 2’) come across as the Melanie Spanswick and Friends method book. One piece is almost note for note from Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course. I’m sure this is accidental, but it makes me think that I’d rather just use that book instead or something like the very highly respected Piano Safari books for the levels below Grade 1

In my opinion, there’s a giant problem of a lack of non ‘white European/American’ composers in the books. Given LCM’s strong mission to represent more women composers as role models, and considering a scathing article written in 2018 by David Duncan, Publications Officer for LCM, attacking other examination boards for a similar issue:
https://pianodao.com/2017/06/07/women-composers-and-graded-exams/#more-37233
I’m quite frankly appalled that LCM’s latest syllabus has dealt with issues of race and representation so poorly.
David Duncan left LCM before the publication of the latest syllabus, so this is not a personal attack on him in any way(!), more a general criticism of the new syllabus.

If we use David Duncan’s rubrik from the article above, only 2 out of 39 composers in Grades 5-8 are non ‘white European/Americans’- one Venezuelan and one Japanese. This is only 5%. Given the events of recent years, and the accusations that LCM has faced of tokenism in their previous syllabus by featuring so many women in a way that doesn’t reflect the proportion of women to men composers, I don’t understand at all why it’s ethical to promote women as positive role models but not composers of colour- or more composers in the classical tradition from outside of Europe or America.

When race issues do come up fleetingly in the books, there is a tone-deafness to current racial sensitivity. For example, there is the use of the word ‘gypsy’ with corresponding stereotyping in the Grade 8 book in a way that completely ignores that this may be very problematic to some. These issues can be controversial, without common consensus, but to steamroll through them without any awareness or attempt at sensitivity seems out of place in 2021. There are also two Jewish composers who are for some reason not described as Jewish, but one of ‘Jewish origin’, and one as being of ‘Ukrainian-Lithuanian origin’- terms which no Jewish person would ever use to describe themselves. It makes me wonder if LCM are afraid of upsetting potentially anti-Semitic markets abroad? These issues may not have bothered me so much were it not for the relative absence of non-white composers within the Grade books.
The Rockschool Classical syllabus has shown us how it’s completely possible to have much more diversity within the Grade books (including many black composers) in a way that feels totally natural with high quality pieces in a way that doesn’t come across as tokenism or virtue-signalling. I talk a bit more about this in the podcast review.

Conclusion:

On balance, my recommendation for most of my students would be Trinity- their books are excellent value for money with a very wide variety of pieces and styles, the standard is rigorous enough to be taken seriously, and the benchmarking is consistent. It’s relatively easy to motivate most students with repertoire from the Trinity syllabus.

But LCM have a bit of an edge when it comes to nurturing high-achieving ‘serious’ students interested in the world of ‘traditional’ Western classical music. I’d want to give those students the challenge of larger-scale structures, and often higher technical and musical demands. The studies are mostly highly musical and ambitious in a way that I think could be useful as a teacher. I like the way the pieces have been chosen to stretch a student’s ability to perform with high amounts of expression and drama, or to explore the moods and tone-colours of contemporary classical composers. The syllabus will be perfect for students who enjoy high quality classical pieces that are off the beaten track. With such a high percentage of women composers, this syllabus will also obviously be of interest to female students.

The main thing that would make me pause before recommending LCM is the inclusion in each grade of substantially easier pieces that make it difficult to say just how much value there is in working so hard for the more difficult pieces for a qualification that allows such a wide variety of difficulty levels.