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The making of an ABRSM syllabus

11 months ago

Siobhán Reidy

Learning & Qualifications Development Manager, ABRSM

Read on for a flavour of the detailed behind-the-scenes work that goes on to bring a new syllabus to life!

How long does it take?

To a certain extent, we are reviewing all of our syllabuses all the time, as we seek and receive feedback, and keep abreast of developments in music education. However, the actual creation of the syllabus listings takes at least two years – longer for more complicated projects.

It very much depends on whether it’s a single instrument, such as Piano, or a whole family of instruments, such as Woodwind. Is it a repertoire-only revision or are we changing supporting tests as well? Are there books, recordings and other resources alongside? As an example, we began work on the new 2019 & 2020 Piano syllabus back in 2015, believe it or not! 

First steps

First, we review the most recent syllabus. We look at what pieces are being played in exams and make a note of the repertoire that’s proving popular, or not. What’s worked and what’s not worked? What feedback have we had from teachers and candidates?

And then?

Next, we appoint a team of expert consultants to make a long-list of repertoire suggestions. All our consultants are highly-experienced teachers of their instrument, with wide repertoire knowledge and a thorough understanding of our grades. They’re often examiners too, which gives them a good understanding of what makes an effective exam piece.
At this stage consultants are looking at their own teaching and performing repertoire, considering suggestions and submissions, and going through vast quantities of newly-published and back-catalogue music from publishers. 
In addition to core teaching repertoire, we encourage consultants to seek out pieces we might not have explored before, as well as ‘hidden gems’ – music that isn’t widely played any more or perhaps isn’t in print, but is worth revisiting. We also encourage them to put forward music from across the globe and as wide a range of composers as possible.

From long-list to short-list

The consultants then send their long-list to us for review by the learning & qualifications and editorial teams here at ABRSM, as well as additional instrumental specialists. Together we scrutinise the music and choose the best pieces for the final lists and any books of Exam Pieces. At this point we also carry out the vital checks that ensure we maintain consistent standards over time.

Books and more books

Once we have a short-list, we talk to publishers, so that they know we’re planning to list some of their books in the syllabus and to make sure we have the latest versions and correct information. This helps to ensure that candidates can find and buy the correct books for as long as the syllabus is being used.  

At the same time the publishing team sets to work on preparing any supporting books and recordings. Sources are researched, new editions prepared, new pieces and arrangements commissioned, copyright licenses cleared, performers and recording sessions booked, footnotes commissioned, and cover illustrations developed. 

Finally the day arrives that we’ve all been working towards – when the syllabus is published and we can share a great selection of new musical choices with teachers and learners.

What’s coming up?

Our new Piano syllabus for 2019 & 2020 is available now.  We’re also publishing a new Guitar syllabus in September this year.  Meanwhile, we’re working on a wide range of other syllabus projects, including Bowed Strings, Percussion and the 2021 & 2022 Piano syllabus, to name just a few.



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