Recording the Piano syllabus
With our new Piano syllabus pieces now available as individual audio downloads and on CD, Andrew Stewart goes behind the scenes to discover what makes these recordings so special. Candidates using ABRSM’s new Piano syllabus for 2015 and 2016 can now access benchmark recordings of every piece set for Grades 1 to 8. In a pioneering initiative, the performers on the recordings have been carefully chosen to represent the ABRSM community – young students, examiners, expert teachers and concert artists. The final recordings present the listener with an example of a high-quality performance of each piece. During 2013, the pianists alongside the accomplished production team turned their collective experience to the recording of the complete 2015 and 2016 syllabus. The results offer an engaging introduction to a strikingly broad repertoire range, embracing everything from early Baroque music to works by living composers.
Recordings with a practical purpose
Robin Barry, Publishing and Product Development Director for ABRSM, charts the evolution of the latest recordings. ‘We wanted them to be as relevant to teachers and students as possible. They provide an enjoyable way to experience the new syllabus and to help make decisions about pieces and performance.’ He recalls an early meeting with Vanessa Latarche, Head of Keyboard at the Royal College of Music (RCM). She became project consultant, helped to select the young performers, and guided them through the process. ‘We all felt that some pieces should be recorded by students and young artists,’ continued Robin. ‘That set us thinking about using ABRSM scholars and creating a broad team of performers. We wanted to work with pianists who understood that this was not the place to deliver idiosyncratic interpretations and who could work with us to make recordings with a practical purpose.’
Grades 1 to 3
Two students from the RCM’s Junior Department, Isaac Ettedgui and Tomoka Kan, were invited to record six Grade 1 pieces. Examiners and well-known performers accounted for the remaining Grade 1 works and also covered Grades 2 and 3. All pieces set for the three early grades were recorded on ABRSM’s Yamaha Disklavier grand piano. The Disklavier’s MIDI files have been used to create ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner, which supports the new syllabus. This new tool allows candidates for Grades 1 to 3 to practise left- or right-hand parts of their pieces in duo with a digital recording of the other part.
New syllabus-support opportunities
‘This is the first time we’ve used the Disklavier to record solo pieces,’ notes Jonathan Lee, one of ABRSM’s music editors. ‘We realised that capturing performance data in new ways could offer wider syllabus-support opportunities. In collecting this MIDI data, we had to accept the Yamaha is not a full-size concert instrument, unlike the Steinway Model D we used for Grades 4 to 8, but we felt that the very slight compromise in quality would be more than balanced by the technological possibilities available to us. We want these recordings to be as useful as possible and hope that candidates for the early grades will find our resulting Piano Practice Partner app helpful.’ Jonathan adds that ABRSM is looking to develop further resources to support learning if responses to the recordings and to Piano Practice Partner are positive. ‘Recording the MIDI data from early grade pieces is an exciting development which opens up many more possibilities for teaching and learning,’ observes Vanessa. ‘My recording sessions were enjoyable, as in past years, but were done on a different piano that could capture data!’
Grades 4 to 8
The responsibility for recording Grades 4 to 7 fell to Richard Uttley, a young concert artist, and recent ABRSM scholars Dinara Klinton and Andrejs Osokins, all now in the early stages of their professional careers. The diverse repertoire of the Grade 8 syllabus was shared between three acclaimed concert performers. Gary Cooper, internationally acclaimed for his interpretations of early keyboard repertoire, performed works originally written for harpsichord or fortepiano, while BBC Music Magazine Award-winner Mei Yi Foo, and Edna Stern, whose teachers include Krystian Zimerman and Leon Fleischer, played compositions from the past two centuries. Nikki Iles, a well-known jazz pianist, composer and educator, took care of all jazz-based pieces across the grades.
Encouraging the next generation
‘Our ABRSM scholars and Richard Uttley aren’t much older than a typical candidate for Grades 4 to 7,’ Robin observes. Their recordings, he adds, will encourage the next generation of musicians. ‘They acquitted themselves magnificently and I’m delighted that we can help raise the profile of these musicians. Our choice of performers, from young students to high-profile artists, reflects the fact that ABRSM is there at every stage in a musician’s development.’
Vanessa recalls the pleasure of matching professional performers to their repertoire. ‘My responsibility also extended to advising our two junior pianists about playing their pieces. They were outstanding in their delivery during the recording sessions and their performances will certainly inspire young pianists around the globe.’ RCM Junior Department pianist Isaac Ettedgui, one of three musical siblings, recalls listening to the CD attached to his first book of piano pieces. ‘It was a great help to me when I started learning,’ he notes. ‘I feel very privileged to have been entrusted with recording part of the new Grade 1 syllabus. I’d never been in a professional recording environment before, so the experience gave me a memorable insight into the process.’ His Junior Department contemporary Tomoka Kan backs this up. ‘It was great to work with professionals,’ she adds, ‘and also wonderful to use the Yehudi Menuhin School’s terrific recording facilities.’ Scholar Dinara Klinton recognises the personal benefits of making the recordings and welcomes the prospect of encouraging other musicians. ‘I loved the experience,’ she says. ‘Recording for the Piano syllabus requires awareness of everything in the score. I tried nevertheless not to lose the music’s overall flow or my manner of playing.’ She praises the recording team, producer Martin Cotton, sound engineer Simon Weir and ABRSM’s Jonathan Lee. ‘I was guided from the control room by these wonderful musicians and their inspiring comments.’
All about making music
The recording sessions, at the Menuhin Hall, took place in July and October last year and included ample time for young players to listen to playbacks and receive advice about their interpretations. ‘The RCM Junior Department students were way above Grade 1, of course,’ notes Martin, ‘but there’s absolutely nowhere to hide in what look like simple pieces. It was an educational opportunity for them to record these pieces.’ The project’s producer, also an ABRSM examiner, drew on his considerable experience as a producer and broadcaster to set clear interpretative guidelines for each performance. He also allowed room for players to express their individual artistic identities. ‘We had to be very careful to observe tempo, dynamic and articulation markings,’ explains Martin, ‘but this was not a mechanical process. Everybody involved was incredibly conscientious and understood what the project was about. They knew what had to be done for the sake of creating exemplary interpretations but remained free to make choices where no marks existed on the page – this was about making music.’
Jonathan recalls the relaxed atmosphere during the sessions. ‘Everybody involved had a lot of fun. There was so much great music for players to explore and enjoy.’ He offers a selection of personal highlights, including Mark Marshall’s arrangement of the traditional Catalan Christmas song, El cant dels ocells (The Song of the Birds), and The Giant’s Coming by Stephen Clarke, two standout Grade 1 pieces. Martin’s higher-grade favourites include the Allemande from Dohnányi’s Suite in the Olden Style and the virtuoso Toccata from Philip Martin’s The Rainbow Comes and Goes, both set for Grade 8 and recorded by Mei Yi Foo. ‘We want these recordings to be both inspirational and aspirational,’ comments Robin. ‘The energy and musicality of these performances set goals for others and will help candidates recognise that, with work, they can achieve their full potential.’
This article was originally featured in the October 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.
You can find the new Piano Syllabus 2015 & 2016 at www.abrsm.org/piano.
Audio download recordings are available from www.abrsm.org/audioshop. CDs, and books of Piano Exam Pieces (with and without CDs) are available from music shops worldwide and from www.abrsm.org/shop.