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New Strings Syllabus Q&A

The new Trinity College London strings syllabus for 2016 – 2019 was released in July last year. Two members of our string examiner panel, Anna Dryer-Beers and Liz Partridge, take a moment to speak about how they made difficult decisions about repertoire, what’s new in the syllabus and which are their favourite pieces.

How do you begin preparing to create a new syllabus?

Anna Dryer-Beers

ADB: We looked first of all at the old syllabus and asked ourselves (and each other) what, if anything, needed changing, besides the repertoire.  Were we happy with the technical work? Is it too complicated/not complicated enough? We also considered whether there was enough variety in the work, and the overall length of the pieces and studies.

Elizabeth Partridge
LP: We prepare to create the new syllabus by collecting as much music as possible, from Trinity, other publishers and from our own music cupboards. I also asked my teaching colleagues if they had any particular favourite or pet dislike pieces which they might or might not like to see included. We each were thinking about not only the grade boundaries as they refer to the pieces but also the old syllabus scales, studies, SR and orchestral excerpts long before we met.

What are the major changes?

  • Amalgamated some of the scale groups
  • New studies have been written for the lower grades
  • New orchestral excerpts have been selected for the higher grades
  • Entirely new repertoire lists for the upper strings

How did you go about exploring new repertoire and composers?

LP: The new repertoire was explored between us with individual ideas brought to the table and thoroughly dissected and discussed. New composers were considered but only if the pieces fitted the grade criteria and duration requirements.

Did you play through pieces?

ADB: We played through anything we didn’t know – we found a lot of very exciting and beautiful music which we had never heard before!

How did you reach a consensus on pieces you had different feelings about?

LP: We reached a consensus though exploration and thorough discussion, and a willingness to give way if necessary.

ADB: We played through the pieces, accompanying each other, and discussed whether they had enough technical merit for the grade for which they were being considered, and whether or not they offered a valuable experience for the learner and teacher.  We also considered the length of the pieces and at certain grades, the difficulty of the piano accompaniment.  We certainly didn’t fall out over any of the choices! It was interesting how many pieces fell just between grades and couldn’t be accommodated.

How much did personal taste influence your decisions on repertoire?

LP: Personal taste had a bearing on the choice to a certain extent but we always had in mind our teacher base and the fact that we had to find a wide and varied choice to cater for all tastes and experiences. It was a very good thing that there were three of us.

ADB: We all have certain personal preferences in music, but it was quite easy to reach a consensus on music which was written well for the instrument and which was appropriate for the grade.

Did you recall your own musical learning experiences when thinking of grades in the syllabus?

LP: Yes my own learning experience did come into the choice at times but then so did my subsequent years of teaching and performing. Finding new music is one of life`s pleasures and my adult pupils are good at turning up with their own musical delicacies, especially those whose background or musical education is or was not in the UK.

ADB: Yes, we all remembered having played particular pieces for exams when we were learning, and some of these have been added, and others discarded!

Do you feel orchestral extracts are a good addition to the syllabus? And if so, why?

ADB: Definitely.  They are valuable to learn, and incorporate many different techniques, as well as giving candidates the opportunity to learn some of the ‘tricky bits’ that they might encounter in their orchestral playing later, and they provide a useful alternative to scales at the higher grades.

LP: Yes the orchestral excerpts are a good idea. Sometimes those pupils who have come from overseas and perhaps have not been brought up in the western scalic tradition benefit from the choice of studies and orchestral excerpts.

Do you think these pieces should be the entirety of musical learning?  What would complement these repertoire choices?

ADB: No – but they are a useful springboard for other repertoire choices, a good way to look at the breadth of composition that is available, and sometimes a good introduction to a new book that is available but which players have been unaware of until they see a piece from it on the syllabus. It’s always worth looking at some of the standard study books to help learn new techniques that are encountered in the Grade exams.  Sheila Nelson and Mary Cohen for the lower grades, and Mazas and Kreutzer for the upper grades.  They are useful for isolating particular techniques and working on them so that they are familiar when it comes to playing them in the pieces.

LP: The exam pieces can never be a complete substitute for wider learning and musical experience. Hopefully, we have opened some new musical doors with our choices.

How would you suggest candidates go about creating a balanced programme?

ADB: There is a requirement to choose at least one work from each list, but it’s good also to consider the various periods and styles that are available.  Contrasting music from, for instance, the baroque period with a contemporary piece, and then perhaps choosing something that bridges the musical and technical gap between the two would then make for a good balance.

Could you talk about your favourite new addition and why it is so?

LP: My favourite addition is Elgar Bizzarie at Grade 8 which is not well known at all. It’s a great piece too. I found it in a lovely old compilation album in a second hand bookshop in Norfolk.

ADB: I don’t really have a favourite – some of the pieces at the lower grades bring back memories of when I first started playing, and some in the higher grades are just so right for the instrument that I would love both to play them and to hear them, so I’m looking forward to listening to the exams next year.

Download the new syllabus here.

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