Australian piano exams compared: which syllabus is the best?

By Tim Topham | Exams

Sep 04

Australian piano exams

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?

In this Australian Piano Exams post, I answer these questions and more.

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 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!

Main Findings

Here are my condensed findings:

  • All boards except AMEB publish complete syllabi online. Just google “Trinity Piano Syllabus” (or whatever board you’re looking for to find it online). You can purchase the AMEB Syllabus here.
  • 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 the other boards 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.
  • Some boards offer 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. AMEB offers this for Piano for Leisure Exams.
  • In Trinity and ABRSM, students can play during the sight-reading preparation phase before the examiner actually ‘listens’ – makes sense to me!
  • AMEB seems to have by far the most comprehensive technical work requirements altough the ABRSM isn’t far behind. Trinity has fewer scales and arpeggios but adds short 1-2 line mini etudes that students learn instead.
  • I like the practicality of the Trinity Aural tests – they seem to be much more relevant to good musicianship than other boards.
  • 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. AMEB is the dominant music board in Australia and has earned a strong reputation. They have been first to introduce online exams and are now progressing into Rock & Pop exams and other innovations.

2. Not all students should sit the same kind of exams, so I encourage teachers to explore other exam boards if they believe that another method might be more developmentally and pedagogically sound for their student.

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!

Exam Podcasts

Also check out my recent podcasts examining all the exam boards around the world and interviewing the key players. You can watch or listen at the podcast page.

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About the Author

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.

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