We’ve just published the podcast review of the new Trinity 2023 Piano Syllabus, you can listen to the podcast episode here: https://heartofthepiano.com/e37-decolonising-piano-education-the-radical-new-trinity-piano-syllabus-and-unpacking-the-many-cans-of-unleashed-worms/
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:
This is the most radical and indispensable piano syllabus that has ever been released. It will either be incredibly exciting for piano teachers & students- or very controversial. Either way, it’s a must-own
I was very excited when I started with the Grade 8 book, my students are going to love so many of the pieces. Not only are they high-quality enjoyable pieces, but there’s music from video games, anime soundtracks, pop music, film-music, accessible minimalism, and so many other diverse genres that so many of my students are often asking for. The quality of classical and jazz music in all the books is excellent.
Concerns with the Syllabus
But I quickly had many concerns as I continued to look through all the books.
My main concern is that there is no penalisation if a student sits an exam without a balanced programme. So it would be entirely possible to pass an exam with say only pop music, or minimalist film music, etc. At its most extreme, a student could take a performance only exam with 4 pieces from a very narrow non-classical style and have a qualification that is supposedly equivalent to an exam performance featuring a Baroque piece, a Classical piece, a Romantic piece, and so on.
I believe it is not possible to compare the skills needed to pass an exam playing pop music/ minimalist film music, with an exam of core classical music- therefore these Trinity exams have lost all value for anybody focusing on classical music.
In the podcast review I discuss recent educational trends such as decolonisation in music education in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the commercial & ideological pressures on university music departments to move towards being ‘pop schools’. Up until relatively recently, most examination boards have had a huge problem with the representation of women and non-white composers, and I have applauded recent efforts to update piano syllabuses to reflect greater diversity. However, I feel that this new Trinity syllabus has now gone too far in the direction of decolonisation and moving towards a pop syllabus by allowing students to bypass classical music altogether and place such a strong emphasis on non-classical music.
Further, I’m disappointed that Trinity has actually taken a backward step of including very few non-white classical composers- which is not helping to encourage people of colour to embrace the classical music world- how many non-white faces do you see at classical music concerts? Or playing classical music?
In the podcast review I discuss whether pop music needs to be ‘legitimised’ by academia and taught in schools and included in music syllabuses. I’m open for it to be included in music studies, but I question the value of only teaching pop. Learning about classical music opens us up to appreciate it more- there will be no future audiences for classical music if we don’t teach it. I point out an analogy that it’s valuable to study Shakespeare in school as it’s probably going to be a total culture shock to try to appreciate it at the theatre otherwise, and the sheer psychological depth and craft of these plays is probably not going to be equivalent to any current commercial film or television.
Also, if we’re going to focus on pop music to this degree, I don’t see how it makes sense to not include improvisation and flexibility to change voicings, textures, rhythms, etc which is what is appropriate for this vernacular style of music rather than being marked for accuracy in reproducing the written notes on the page. This is especially confusing to me in a syllabus where Trinity allow for improvisation in the higher grades in place of aural tests/ sight-reading.
I’m a big fan of the Rockschool rock/pop exams which I think do a more successful job of giving students fun & effective pop arrangements with qualifications, but I’d really like to see a rock/pop exam that allows improvisation and flexibility from the score in the same way that the ABRSM & LCM grades in jazz piano allow for.
What’s in the books?
Despite these issues, for the most part I love the choice of pieces. There are usually great classical choices in all the books with some very interesting unusual obscure finds, as well as enjoyable pieces from a wide assortment of genres. If Trinity enforced a balanced programme, I would 100% recommend taking the exams.
However, I’m completely scandalised and feel very strongly about Trinity’s sudden decision to strongly editorialise Baroque & early Classical music in grades 6 and above- such as heavy use of editorial slurs, articulations, etc. This is a total about turn from the 2021-2023 syllabus where Trinity were proud of taking an urtext approach. Even ABRSM who heavily editorialise at the higher grades include clear footnotes that explain the markings were not in the original sheet music- there are no notes explaining this in the new Trinity syllabus. Shocking.
The jazz music is very well curated, with chosen pieces feeling like ‘authentic’ jazz rather than music that sounds like it’s just been written as an ABRSM list-C piece.
Pop music can be somewhat of a weakness in these books, particularly at the lower grades. Pop pieces from the recent ABRSM “Pop Performer” series are more effective when making a direct comparison at the same grade levels.
The 2021-2023 syllabus is now valid indefinitely, it’s possible to mix and match from both books (or just only use the old book) for all future exams. The technical aspects are unchanged (scales, aural tests, etc), and it’s possible to mix and match from the technical exercises- the new ones often being more in a contemporary film-music style.
The overall difficulty levels are much higher than previous syllabuses, and higher than the corresponding grades from other examination boards. Some of this is caused by the more complicated rhythms needed by rock/pop/jazz. But there are also relatively easy pieces within each grade- so there’s a wild range of difficulty levels, further diminishing the value of these exams as qualifications.
The books are physically very high quality, with lovely cream-coloured paper & strong binding. The typesetting has substantially improved from previous syllabus. Although the books are not at the cheaper end, they are great value for money as they contain many enjoyable pieces of consistent high quality.
Notes on each piece are included in all the books which are generally useful and informative (but they need to stay away from talking nonsense about modes!).
I would recommend the exams for my students who play for ‘fun’ and want an exam to motivate them to learn music to a deadline, and also for lazier students or students who are not into classical music who want an ‘impressive’ qualification, or need UCAS points (for UK universities).
Differences between editions
There is a standard edition and an extended edition at each grade. Unlike the 2021-2023 editions, the extended edition gives you extra new pieces that have not been in any previous syllabuses.
The standard edition focuses mostly on the pieces that will have the most commercial appeal (very much not the ones that have the most educational value). Most of them don’t include any Baroque or Classical era music. This feels further like a decolonising of piano studies as many people won’t want to pay the money for the extended edition.
The extended editions feature all the scales you will need, as well as giving access to recordings of all the pieces not just from the book but from the previous 2021-2023 syllabus and extra alternative pieces. They are generally pretty good, but it bothers me that some have obviously been recorded to a click track which is not allowed for any student taking an exam. It’s great that all the audio recordings have been credited in these books.
Comparison with other examination boards:
LCM is now absolutely my pick for classical music- their choice of pieces are very enjoyable, educationally useful, and diverse. The books are high quality & good value for money, and include everything you will need for the exam such as scales, technical exercises and notes. They are also the most generous in the length of exams compared to the other boards.
ABRSM have various trust issues at the moment as an organisation- but if we put that aside, their current syllabus is reasonably strong although at some of the lower grades are substantially easier than the other boards. There is now an impressive diversity in their syllabus. They would be my 2nd pick for classical exams.
Rockschool (RSL) are very strong for students primarily interested in rock/pop music and would be my top pick for this genre.
Rockschool Classical looks good at the lower grades, but for face-to-face exams I would have serious concerns as the exams in the UK are all in music studios which will probably have sound from noisy bands bleeding into the exam room.
Despite my concerns, I love these books and am excited by how much my students are going to enjoy these pieces. I thoroughly recommend them as indispensable ‘graded anthologies’. I think all teachers teaching below diploma level need to own these books. But I wouldn’t recommend taking the exams for anybody serious about classical music.
Reviews of the individual books:
Part two of my podcast review looks at the individual books with audio clips from the official recordings- click here to listen, or to get a gist from the shownotes. If you only want to listen to the review of a specific grade, you can look at the timings in the shownotes:
Part one of the podcast review where you can hear me discuss the above points in much more detail:
My performances on YouTube of pieces from the new syllabus will be included here: