Australian piano exams compared: which syllabus is the best?

facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmail

Which exam board has the most relevant aural and tech work requirements? Which has the most music to choose from? Which system allows students to practise their sight-reading in the exam before being tested? Which has the shortest enrolment lead-times? Which exam board is the cheapest?

Answers in a minute, but before we begin, let’s find out what system everyone currently uses:

The opening questions were the basis of my online research this weekend after becoming frustrated with aspects of the AMEB system on which I was brought up and now prepare my own students for. So my first question is – do you still use the same exam system that you experienced as a child or have you ‘crossed over’?!

So, to the results. With Google at my fingertips, I put together a spreadsheet (Comparison of Piano Exams) comparing what I felt were important aspects of each system and the results were quite surprising. For example, I was sure that the 2.5 months lead-time that the AMEB needs to prepare each exam period had to be way longer than the others, but no, they are actually the shortest on average. Similarly, I was surprised to know that the AMEB’s repertoire list for each grade is substantially larger than any other exam syllabus – many of the others only offer 6-8 pieces maximum for each list at each grade.

By the way, please be aware that I only have exam experience with the AMEB so all the information in the attached spreadsheet I have gathered from online sources. There may be errors or omissions, so please do check things our yourself before you make any decisions about changing exam systems. If I’ve got something wrong, please let me know as I’m eager to learn more myself, but I certainly don’t make any claims that I’m an expert in this!

Here are my condensed findings:

  • All boards except AMEB publish complete syllabi online (when is the AMEB going to catchup?) Here are the links to the others: Trinity ABRSM ANZCA
  • None offer online enrolment (this still surprises me)
  • The AMEB has the widest range of music choices at each grade level by far – I was very surprised at how limited some of them were.
  • Exam costs are relatively similar across the boards
  • If you’re looking for exams for piano ensembles, accompanying, duets, trios, etc. look at Trinity, ABRSM and ANZCA
  • ABRSM seems to have the only official “Jazz Piano” stream grades 1 – 5
  • Students can choose the order of their exam (eg. pieces, sight reading, technical work) in Trinity and ABRSM
  • ABRSM doesn’t seem to test general knowledge in grade exams
  • All except AMEB are starting to allow students to choose between various types or aural tests, technical work, etc. which I think is a great move forward.
  • All except AMEB are offering improvising as part of aural tests in certain streams – brilliant idea!
  • ANZCA and Trinity allow students to choose their own piece or play their own composition (as long as it meets certain criteria) in exams
  • In Trinity and ABRSM, students can play during the sight-reading preparation phase before the examiner actually ‘listens’ and examines – makes sense to me!
  • AMEB seems to have by far the most comprehensive technical work requirements, most of which have changed little since I did the exams 20 + years ago. This is in contrast to the Trinity and ABRSM boards who seem to be making significant changes to this part of their exams
  • I like the practicality of the Trinity Aural tests – they seem to be much more relevant to good musicianship than the AMEB ones I’m used to which are very theoretical
  • Trinity, ABRSM, ANZCA require only 3-4 pieces to be performed compared to 6 for higher level AMEB exams – not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing.

Overall thoughts…

1. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the AMEB is still the music exam standard in Australia and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. That said, I encourage teachers to explore other options if they believe that another method might be more developmentally and pedagogically sound.

2. ANZCA seems to have the most diverse offerings for students including “modern piano”, “piano for all occasions”, “digital piano”, ensembles, etc. but the level expected of each exam seems to be less than the AMEB equivalent standard.

3. Trinity looks like a more progressive version of the AMEB (consider recent changes to technical work in 2012 syllabus). But they still have very limited repertoire choices for candidates. Otherwise, these systems aren’t that dissimilar.

4. Strangely enough, given the importance given to AmusA and LmusA qualifications in Australia, they are still the cheapest diplomas of them all!

With all that said and done, I can’t look past the huge number of pieces offered for each level by the AMEB compared to all the others. It’s so important that students can choose pieces they enjoy playing for their exams; until the other exam boards can match AMEB in variety of repertoire offered, I think I have to put this feature in front of any improvements to sight-reading, aural or technical work for my students.Mind you, the AMEB still has a lot to learn from the other boards!

So which one is the best? Well, I guess that still comes down to your own opinion, but I hope the above information has been useful.

***UPDATE 27/9/11

Since writing this article, I’m now aware of two other systems available in Australia (click to find out more):

St Cecelia’s - piano syllabus

Guild of Musicpiano syllabus

I shall be doing more research on these in the coming months!

The following two tabs change content below.

Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
 Name: Email: We respect your email privacyPowered by AWeber Autoresponder 
  • http://crosseyedpianist.wordpress.com crosseyedpianist

    Interesting post, Tim. I have been through a similar “analysis” myself as I decided to switch from ABRSM (the exam board I went thro for all my exams as a kid) to Trinity Guildhall, on the advice of a more experienced teaching colleague. I feel the technical work and sight-reading requirements of ABRSM are too rigorous for young students (though I do think the Prep Test is a great idea). TG is perceived as “more difficult” in the UK, but I feel the syllabus requirements suit my students better. I like the Musical Knowledge section of the exam, and the pertinent scales/arpeggios. So far, the repertoire seems really interesting (there’s a great piece in the Grade 2 list called Fanfare for the Common Cold, which is based on Copland’s piece – very imaginative). And most of my students seem relieved that they don’t have to pressure of sight-reading in the exam!

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Fran – thanks for your thoughts. I also like the Trinity tech work and musical knowledge sections. They seem very relevant and much more useful for students in the short term. How do you go with finding pieces for your students given a relatively limited list? I’ll check out your Copland take-off too!! All the best, Tim.

  • http://twitter.com/paul_somerville Paul Somerville (@paul_somerville)

    Hi Tim,

    Don’t forget that the AMEB also has a contemporary popular music (CPM) syllabus that allows students to focus on pop, jazz and rock music–and they can even do their own compositions. Improvisation is also component of the course.

    Cheers,
    -Paul Somerville

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Paul – yes thanks for that. I have heard of CPM and even have the books at my school but haven’t used it a great deal – Have you ever put students through a CPM exam? and do you use it for many of your students? I remember listening to the backing tracks and thinking “oh dear” – they are really very average and the musical selection not the widest, but perhaps with the option of their own composition, it isn’t so bad.

      • http://twitter.com/paul_somerville Paul Somerville (@paul_somerville)

        Hi Tim,

        Yeah, I have had a few students doing CPM exams each year, and – full disclosure – I’m also an AMEB examiner for the CPM keyboard course.

        I think it’s a great alternative for students who really want to focus on contemporary styles – and I love that the course includes improv – and more relevant tech work (chord progressions, blues patterns – you can even riff on the scales!).

        While some of the backing tracks are very ordinary and some of the song choices are dated – two of the four pieces from each grade can be free choice – so there is huge potential to focus on the interests of the students (whether it’s film music, ragtime, jazz, pop, video game music, funk … anything contemporary!). You can also record your own backing tracks – as you know, it’s getting easier and easier to make quality stuff in home studios.

        I was just pulling you up on the line that AMEB doesn’t allow you to do your own compositions. (On another blog recently, I read the comment by an experienced and high-profile teacher that “piano exams still have no compulsory chord chart reading component” – when the CPM course has done so since its inception some 15 years ago). It just seems that most teachers are not aware of CPM – and they should be – it’s a great, versatile course – and plenty of students are most interested in popular styles of music.

        Best,
        -Paul

      • elissamilne

        Paul – it sounds like you’re talking about my blog (“piano exams still don’t test chord chart reading”)!! Because the take-up of CPM is so minimal I don’t think we can really say it has penetrated the exam culture; I should have phrased *my* piece (whether or not it is the one you are referencing) more specifically – none of the generally used piano exams require students to read chord charts. I’d be interested to know how many teachers nation-wide participate in CPM – sales of the materials suggest a very, very small number indeed…

  • elissamilne

    Tim, great topic!

    Some quick and randomly presented thoughts:

    The cost of sitting Trinity and ABRSM exams is actually much more expensive than AMEB once you get into the advanced levels, and even at the lower levels the difference in cost is notable.

    The ear tests for Trinity and ABRSM are brilliant – so much more *musical* than the AMEB. ABRSM ear tests include what might be considered to be ‘general knowledge’ elements – recognising style, being able to describe changes in dynamic, articulation, tempo, and discussing structure – but all from the perspective of hearing music, not seeing it.

    Trinity really have done the most work in changing their technical requirements, but this means that they are the most controversial!! There’s a tension when change is involved, and Trinity is constantly tweaking in response to teacher feedback – not a bad thing at all, but it does mean that from one syllabus to the next you need to make sure you’re preparing students to do the right things.

    The ABRSM Jazz Piano syllabus is brilliant, but the grading is out. Grade One is really a Grade Three exam, in my opinion, in terms of what it requires technically from the student in performance. Grade Five maybe isn’t quite Grade Seven, but still it’s harder than ABRSM Grade Six.

    ABRSM doesn’t let you choose your tests.

    I disagree about the ANZCA standards. Many of the pieces in an AMEB Grade exam are also listed in the ANZCA syllabus. Mind you, I say this without taking into account the grading inflation the AMEB seem to have been suffering from in the past 10 years. AMEB Prelim from 1990 is the equivalent of P Plate Piano 2 or 3 these days…..

    ABRSM offers online options for entry within the UK.

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Thanks for your feedback, Elissa – esp re clearing up the ABRSM jazz piano grading system. Makes more sense that their five grades cover the whole of the usual spectrum! Totally agree about the ABRSM/Trinity aural tests too – aren’t they great?! Have you had students sit non-AMEB exams? Would be great to hear your thoughts on what THEY thought! I guess each system has it’s benefits… there’ll never be one that suits everyone!

      • elissamilne

        Every year I’ve entered students for the mainstream/classical piano exams operated by AMEB, Trinity Guildhall and ABRSM. I’ve also frequently had students take AMEB Piano for Leisure exams. I’ve always intended using ANZCA, but it’s never quite worked out for me (geography, calendar, whatever). I’ve also never used St Cecilia. And despite my best efforts, I’ve never had a student want to take an ABRSM Jazz Piano exam. And no, I’ve never entered a student for a CPM assessment.

  • http://www.gerirea.com geri

    Thanks Tim, interesting reading. I’ve been a faithful ABRSM girl for the past 30 years, but I’m hearing too many good things about Trinity and I’m ready for a change. Right now, I’m off the exam treadmill and thoroughly enjoying watching pupils thrive on a more extensive range of repertoire and course work. There doesn’t seem such a compulsive focus on exams and results over here. Am I mistaken?

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      No, I don’t think you’re mistaken at all, however I’m not familiar with what it’s like in other countries! I find that most of my students (and their parents) are quite content to just enjoy playing lots and lots of fun pieces. Only a handful of my students sit exams, and it’s normally the parents who put the pressure on. There is still a feeling amongst some parents that they may be wasting their money if their child doesn’t do their exams, but this attitude is definitely changing.

      • http://www.gerirea.com geri

        That’s exactly what I’m finding and it’s refreshing. I’m astonished by what can be achieved by a motivated ‘non-exam student’, compared to one who spends 4 months perfecting 3 pieces!

  • http://crosseyedpianist.wordpress.com crosseyedpianist

    Hi Tim – just replying to your comment on my earlier comment! When selecting pieces for students, I play them everything in the book and they then make their choices (with my guidance). The great thing about Trinity (in the UK) is they can select 3 contrasting pieces rather than being tied to one from each section (as in ABRSM). There is of course additional repertoire too. I think it’s crucial for students to learn pieces that they like: I remember churning through music I loathed when I was learning as a kid and I would never ask any of my students to learn something they didn’t like. I will email you an MP3 of the Copland take off so you can hear it. :-)

  • http://colouredsilence.wordpress.com Coloured Silence

    AMEB has a good range for piano … BUT in my opinion there is more choice in ABRSM and Trinity when it comes to voice (also more variety). The great thing about Trinity in general is the chance for students to play their own compositions, also to be tested on improvisation. At associate level and licentiate, the choice offered between all boards (in my opinion are not that far apart). The length of recital for Trinity at Associate level is bigger than AMEB … as a singer, after a lot of thought I’ll be doing my A TCL in the middle of next year, simply because the regulations are freer (no need to choose one from each list, you can even choose things that aren’t on the syllabus!). Having said that, I do AMEB exams on piano.

  • http://www.sightreading.com.au Rebecca Stewart, www.sightreading.com.au

    I have 25 students sitting Yamaha exams this year, including seven kids who only started last year. Yamaha grade exams assess by ear melody playing, by ear harmony playing, accompaniment, improvisation and variations as well as repertoire and sight reading. Great opportunity to work on these valuable real life musical skills! And no repertoire listing – free choice, as long as the teacher thinks it is an appropriate level based on the guidelines. http://www.yamaha-mf.or.jp/english/grade/

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Thanks Rebecca – I’ll check it out!

  • Lynda Irvine

    Great subject, It is always a bit of a dilemma which exam provider to use, I use AMEB and ABRSM mainly. Haven’t heard about the CPM keyboard ones though.

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Lynda. Thanks for the feedback and glad it was useful. I’ve actually been getting seriously into ANZCA now as an alternative to AMEB for modern/pop piano. It’s a MUCH better syllabus than PFL. check it out online – the syllabus is an easy download. All the best, Tim.

  • marcellous

    It’s pathetic isn’t it: I’m convinced the AMEB wants to make money from selling its hard copy syllabus. That’s why (I think) it isn’t online. I can’t really think of any other possible reason.

  • mozart1756

    Great post Tim.

    I grew up with the ABRSM piano grades1-8 in NZ. This system is popular there, along with Trinity.

    I loved ABRSM because of its:
    – varied and interesting reportoire; and
    – its strict standard of requiring students to have passed grade 5 theory/grade 5 jazz in order to sit those practical grades 5 and above.
    Am I correct that AMEB has a standard of only needing to pass grade 2 theory?

    Now residing in Australia, I have resorted to continue teaching under the ABRSM system rather than AMEB, partly because:
    – the ABRSM syllabus is free, whereas the AMEB is not!
    – requiring AMEB students to purchase a comprehensive technical book is, in my opinion, a bit daunting to a grade 1 student, (and expensive in the short term) as opposed to only needing to purchase the relevant scales&arpeggios book for a particular ABRSM grade.

    I am also confused about what AMEB syllabus you’re supposed to use for a given year. Is it one series per year? Why isn’t it called series 2012 for simplicity’s sake? Is this confusion supposed to entice me to purchase the AMEB syllabus? I find the confusion more of a disincentive instead.

  • http://www.sightreading.com.au Rebecca Stewart, www.sightreading.com.au

    AMEB syllabus will be published online in 2013 :)

  • http://www.sightreading.com.au Rebecca Stewart, www.sightreading.com.au

    Mozart1756, the AMEB “Series” repertoire books are usually able to be used for 10 years or so. Each year, the AMEB Syllabus is published and usually remains unchanged for 10 years or so. The Syllabus has a list of 30 or so pieces for each list for each grade, as opposed to three or four pieces for each list as published in a “Series” book. That way you can have students purchase a variety of books – more ideas here! http://sightreading.com.au/articles-for-parents/what-pieces-should-my-child-play-for-their-exam-5.html

  • Connie

    I also grew up with ABRSM in HK. Thinking that AMEB would be more acceptable in Australia and that kids can earn SACE points. I am seriously thinking to switch to AMEB. Since there are two categories “Practical Music” and “Piano for Leisure”, what are the differences? Which one is harder or do they serve different purposes? Which one is closer to the ABRSM one (the one that I am familiar with)?

  • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

    Hi Connie

    Not living in SA, I’m not sure about the SACE points, but the AMEB is definitely better-recognised in Australia than any other board. That’s not to say, however, that the AMEB is the best for your students.

    For example, I started using Trinity and ANZCA this year and am now BIG fans of both these boards for different reasons (I’m just about to blog about Trinity so stay tuned) and for different students. I’d encourage you to do your own investigation and definitely don’t write-off continuing with the ABRSM – I haven’t put a student thru their system yet, but will probably trial them next year.

    The AMEB has two syllabi – Piano and Piano for Leisure (PFL). The “Piano” syllabus is predominantly classically-focussed and somewhat more rigorous than the PFL syllabus, which is designed to be more pop/modern-based with less technical requirements. If you have students interested in classical, either stick with ABRSM or do the Piano Syllaubus. IF you want a good modern course, steer clear of PFL and go for ANZCA’s Modern Pianoforte syllabus, in my opinion.

    Hope that helps!