Arab States
South East Asia
Southern Asia

Exploring the Violin syllabus

4 years ago


There’s something for everyone in our new Violin syllabus. Jessica O’Leary shares some personal highlights.


The new syllabus covers an inspirational range of some of the finest music written for strings. The repertoire spans a wealth of emotions, styles and back-stories to interest and excite teachers and students, from the theme to The Muppet Show (Grade 1) to a Brahms sonata movement (Grade 8)!

The Muppet Show Theme will be a fun choice for a Grade 1 learner and will delight all those who know the catchy tune. What beginner wouldn’t like to watch the movie and discover the story for their homework? With the words printed in the footnote, teacher and student can sing along to get just the right feel for the rhythm and tempo.


A traditional flavour

In complete contrast to the Muppets, we have The Flower of the Quern (Grade 2), a beautiful slow air first published in 1884. Written by James Scott Skinner, a Scottish folk fiddler who was originally classically trained, it lies comfortably in A major and is sympathetically arranged by Edward Huws Jones.

Other folk tunes across the syllabus come from Scandinavian, Greek and ever-popular Klezmer traditions, while Si Ji Ge (Song of the Four Seasons) is a traditional Chinese tune. This stunning arrangement by Raymond Yiu offers strong rhythms within a lyrical style, some fun, easy slides, plus stark tonal contrasts to create just the right effect. You can find it in the Grade 2 list.

For extroverts

The exciting Rojo y negro (Red and Black) is another new addition, this time for Grade 7. Written by Ramiro Gallo, an up-and-coming talent from Argentina, the colours refer to a combination traditionally associated with tango. The piece is actually a milonga, a faster forerunner of the tango. There are fantastic effects to delight performers, including a ‘whip’ sound produced by a very high and fast glissando.

The James Bond Theme (Grade 3), Take Five (Grade 4), Copland’s Hoe-Down and the amazing Full fathom five by Michael Nyman (both Grade 8) all depend on rhythm, articulation and precision for their character. Definitely pieces for extrovert performers!

For melody lovers

Lyrical pieces with interesting stories include Over the Rainbow (Grade 3), Shostakovich’s Romance from The Gadfly (Grade 5), Elgar’s Idylle (Grade 6), a Gershwin Prelude (Grade 7), and the theme from Ladies in Lavender (Grade 6), which is played so beautifully on the original movie soundtrack by Joshua Bell.

Creating performances

Younger students could have great fun introducing An Important Person (Grade 2) or the Pig Ankle Rag (Grade 3) at a concert! The former piece, perhaps referring to someone who is too pompous, was written by Dorothy Howell and originally commissioned by ABRSM in 1937. This little character sketch has confident open-string double stops with a march-like tune and rhythm. Written in D major, there are just a few slurs and a dramatic ending.

Pig Ankle Rag is an excellent introduction to solo repertoire and will minimise valuable rehearsal time with an accompanist. A predecessor of jazz, the rhythms of ragtime are slightly swung and are matched here with a catchy tune based around easy arpeggios. The skills developed at this early stage in creating a whole performance with confidence will be useful for later performances of Kreutzer studies (Grade 8) and Bach’s solo sonatas – the glorious Adagio from the G minor is now on the Grade 8 list.


Telling stories

For amazing effects try Gordon Kerry’s Dream (Grade 5), inspired by the features of an Australian aboriginal melody. The footnote tells the gripping story behind this piece. With its diamonds and mythology it will intrigue all learners. A controlled bow over the fingerboard (tasto) or close to the bridge (ponticello) with added trills and harmonics all help to create the eerie mood. Time with a pianist will be amply rewarded with this magical and evocative sound world.

Ensemble and texture

Music that benefits from particular focus on ensemble and texture includes showpieces like Bernstein’s America from West Side Story (Grade 3), with its rhythmic shifts between 3/4 and 6/8, and Mozart’s Rondo, from the second concerto (Grade 7).

Sonatas and concertos

The many sonatas start early and the progression can be easily seen in the two Corelli sonatas at Grades 2 and 6, which both feature imitative articulation and phrasing with the piano part. Some of the joyous concerto movements are by Küchler (Grade 4), Kabalevsky, Haydn and Bach (all at Grade 8). They are a real treat for students who can enjoy projecting the glorious solo passages with awareness of balance between the lines.

Music to inspire and excite

ABRSM has produced eight new books of Violin Exam Pieces – there is one for Grade 8 now – each including nine pieces to choose from. But the other pieces listed in the complete syllabus are also worth serious consideration to get exactly the right piece for each player. There is music here to inspire and excite every student. As the Muppets quite rightly tell us: It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights...

This article was originally featured in the September 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Jessica O’Leary is a violinist and teacher. She is also an ABRSM examiner and a consultant for our Bowed Strings syllabus.

Find out more about our new syllabuses for Violin, Viola and Cello at

Back to listing

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By using our website, you are agreeing to our cookie policy and consent to our use of cookies. Find out more.

closer Close this message