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Trumpet taster - our refreshed syllabus

3 years ago


With the latest Trumpet syllabus now available, syllabus co-selector Geoff Harniess offers a taste of some of the exciting repertoire on offer and provides ideas for exam preparation along the way.


The trumpet is one of our most ancient instruments. It has variously been used to honour pharaohs, monarchs and emperors, to direct armies in battle, to mark religious occasions and to simply give pleasure to music lovers.

That diverse history is reflected in the versatility of the modern instrument (and its relatives) being heard in orchestras, brass bands and ensembles, in jazz, folk and pop music, and as a solo instrument too.

The new Trumpet syllabus caters for players with interests in all styles of music and candidates can choose a programme that really matches their individual musical character and taste. Many pieces will be familiar and have been enjoyed by trumpeters for generations but alongside are exciting new contemporary works from collections such as Shining Brass and Spectrum for Trumpet that present new challenges to the learner and the teacher. There are plenty of fun pieces for young players too, of course.

There are options that will particularly appeal to players of cornet (including Eb soprano) and flugelhorn, and candidates may wish to choose to use an alternative instrument (C, D, Eb or E trumpets), where appropriate.


Looking at List A

List A focuses on what we might call Classical, in the broader sense, and traditional music – though with some modern twists included too. The trumpet’s ceremonial and majestic side can be explored in pieces such as Philip Sparke’s A Knight’s Tale (Grade 1) and Charpentier’s Prelude to his famous Te Deum (Grade 4).

"The syllabus caters for players with interests in all styles of music ... students can choose a programme that matches their musical character and taste."

Look for elegance and grace as well as boldness in the Haydn and Neruda concerto movements (Grades 6 and 8). Ornamentation in these pieces can add to the style where they enhance the music and don’t interfere with pulse and line. Trills are one of the most challenging things to bring off on the trumpet and need careful and patient preparation! Work on exercises such as those in Arban’s Grand Method (still a must for all ambitious players) and vocalise the trills as well. Avoid the temptation to go as fast as possible and keep it simple and refined.

There is plenty of romance to be found here too, in music by Fauré (Grade 3), Tchaikovsky (Grades 3, 4 and 8), Debussy (Grade 5) and Mahler (Grade 8). The perhaps less expected lyrical side of the instrument should be projected while more experienced players can add colour and warmth to the sound with some controlled vibrato.

List B: into the 20th century

List B takes us from the late Romantics into the 20th century and right up to the present. Here we find arrangements of music by the likes of Scott Joplin (Grades 3 and 5), Leonard Bernstein (Grades 1, 3, 7 and 8), Andrew Lloyd-Webber (Grade 3) and John Williams (Grades 4 and 5). There are also highly crafted original works by composers who really understand how to write progressively for young and developing musicians. For advanced players at the upper grades compare the musical demands of, for example, John McCabe’s Jigaudon (Grade 6) and Edward Gregson’s concerto movement (Grade 8) with those of Guy Barker’s JW Shuffle (Grade 7) and Kenny Baker’s Virtuosity (Grade 8).

Not just a solo line

Being familiar with the whole of the music rather than just the solo line can have a really positive impact on the musical outcome. Ideally, students should find the opportunity to practise the accompanied pieces with a pianist before the exam day – something which can help them to perform with confidence and security.


List C: playing unaccompanied

Playing unaccompanied tests particular skills beyond the fundamental ‘operating’ of the instrument. The tempo and the pulse need to be firmly set in the mind before the first note is sounded. The player must then take command of the musical time and space in order to shape and pace the phrases in such a way as to allow their breaths to define the melodic line. The pulse always needs to be clear – sometimes tight and strict as in Silver Lining by Dave Gale (Grade 5) but then more flexible when the music demands it, as in Arban’s Andante con spirito at the same grade.

Playing to your strengths

As well as choosing music that students enjoy there are some other considerations to be made. Make sure that candidates play to their strengths. If double tonguing is not totally comfortable perhaps best to avoid Goedicke’s Concert Etude at Grade 8, while Bernstein’s One Hand, One Heart will show off a young player’s developing legato control at Grade 1.

Focus on stamina

All trumpet players have to face the physical demands that are placed on the embouchure and it’s wise to keep this in mind when putting together a progamme. Candidates should also try to avoid lots of last-minute practice that uses up their stamina on the day. Better to save it for the exam room!

Stretching musical minds

Inevitably there is room on the syllabus for only a small selection of an ever increasing repertoire. But the various books featured provide many opportunities for students to delve into other pieces – not just those set for the exams. In doing so, they will find music that stretches not only their instrumental technique but also their whole musical mind.

This article was originally featured in the September 2016 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Geoff Harniess is Head of London’s Centre for Young Musicians and an ABRSM examiner. He has taught at all levels and is Music Director for the London Youth Wind Band. His co-selector on the Trumpet syllabus was Nick Care.

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