Category: Music Education

Artists in Focus | Grimes

January 18th, 2022 by

An artist truly unlike any other, Claire Boucher – or Grimes as you probably know her – shows us all what magic can happen when you do you.

If you’ve spent any time listening to Grimes’ work, you’ll know that celestial, ethereal sound that permeates throughout her discography. Her 2012 album, Visions, is certainly a perfect example of the classic Grimes sound that we might associate with her, though you can almost guarantee that she herself would disagree!

One of the most special things about Grimes, both in her music and her whole approach to being a “pop star” figure, is that she is consistently taking the lead with her image and sound. She has written and produced almost every track she has ever released, meaning that she has full power over her ever-evolving direction, never relaxing into one box for too long and keeping her listeners on their toes.

In an article by the Guardian, her music was described as:

“By sounding a little like everything you’ve ever heard, the whole sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard”.

With elements of so many styles thrown into the mix, including all the “pops” you can think of – dream, synth, art, electronic – Grimes creates a whole new sound of her own, and the only thing staying consistent is that she is leader of it all.

It was with the release of Visions that the world truly started getting to know Grimes. The album shot her into the limelight, receiving a Juno Award for Electronic Album of the Year and included on the NME 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 2013. One of the most fascinating elements of the album for us is the setting in which she wrote it. Grimes had isolated herself away from the world, in her apartment, for three weeks (feels a little too relatable at the moment, right?!). This included a period of 9 days where she didn’t eat or sleep! Probably unsurprisingly, Grimes described this writing process as being both enjoyable and torturous. We wouldn’t recommend trying this at home.

When RSL were considering the artists that we’d want to feature on the covers of the RSL Music Production syllabus, choosing Grimes was a pretty easy decision to make. There’s a LOT of technique involved in creating that ethereal sound. On some tracks, her mystical voice is the result of over 50 different vocal tracks layered on top of each other! Combine that with a whole lot of looping techniques and you’ve got the beginning of a Grimes hit!

If becoming a producer sounds right up your street, or if you want to learn the skills needed to have complete control over your sound, the RSL Music Production grades will see you through that process. In Grade 2 specifically – with our wonderful Grimes as cover star – you’ll get the theory side of things under your belt first, intimately getting to know what will become your new best friend – the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). You’ll then get on to the practicalities of the studio, thinking about the best mic for the job, cables and equalisers too. On top of all that, you’ll be getting to grips with genre and, perhaps like Grimes, thinking about which elements you can take with you into your own musical ventures.

As well as writing hit after hit, Grimes is consistently rewriting what it means to be an artist, pop star and producer in the modern world, taking on both the behind the scenes role whilst being a wonder on stage too. Though opinion of her over the years has been split, one thing is for sure – her ability to shapeshift and stay true to herself has made her something of a role model.

If you enjoyed this dive into the life and work of Grimes, then be sure to check out some of our other blogs on music production, linked below.

The Most Influential Music Producers of the 21st Century

A Brief History of Music Production

An Introduction to Rockschool Music Production

Artists in Focus | Bob Marley

January 11th, 2022 by

To be able to pay testament to the exceptional influence of Bob Marley’s artistry on the world is simply impossible to achieve in one feature.

Ups and Downs

The Jamaican singer and songwriter that we all know and love began his professional career with a group called Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1963. It would be their debut album, The Wailing Wailers, that would first birth “One Love/People Get Ready” into the world, though the most popular version was released much later in 1977. The Wailers produced another 11 studio albums before disbanding in 1974, making way for Marley’s solo career to shine through.

Marley’s first solo albums Natty Dread (1974), Rastaman Vibration (1976) and Exodus (1977) all did hugely well, and were received with great critical acclaim! Although, it was just before the Exodus album that Bob survived an attempt as his assassination, where seven armed men raided his home in Jamaica. The attack was linked with the political situation at the time, with two parties both vying for Marley’s highly regarded support. Even though he was shot, Marley somehow survived, and was able to relocate to London for his safety.

The Highest Honour

Many have attempted to give Marley the credit that he deserves with his work, with “One Love” being named Song of the Millennium by the BBC, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and number 11 on the Rolling Stone “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.

The Nation of Jamaica awarded him the fourth-highest honour that they can give, an Order of Merit, given only to those who have achieved eminent international distinction in their field. The award can only be held by 15 living people at a time!

Redemption Song

Perhaps the highest honour that we can bestow on a favourite artist of ours, is with the inclusion on our syllabi! You’ll find Marley blessing the cover of our Acoustic Guitar Grade 1 books, with his “Redemption Song” featured inside. This absolutely iconic solo for acoustic guitar is the perfect challenge for a grade 1 player, with the opening motif requiring melodic precision, and the chords throughout bringing some welcome chord practice.


“Redemption Song” is the final track on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 12th studio album, Uprising. Written in 1979, some of the song’s lyrics are derived from a speech that was made by one of Marley’s Pan-Africanist idols, Marcus Garvey. Ever the political activist, campaigning for social change within his lyrics, Marley even wrote the song knowing that he had been diagnosed with cancer that would threaten, and eventually succeed, in taking his life at the young age of 36. “Redemption Song” has been hailed as one of the most political and yet deeply affecting songs of all time.

A quote from Marley’s website sums this up perfectly, stating that his music “identified oppressors and agitated for social change while simultaneously allowing listeners to forget their troubles and dance”. We think there is no better summary than this. We love you, Bob!

If you aren’t caught up on the most recent Artists in Focus, then what are you waiting for?! Read more about Coldplay, Ariana Grande and Earth, Wind & Fire.

RSL Awards Diary of Events: January – March 2022

January 5th, 2022 by

Download our Teacher Pack and kickstart your teaching with RSL in 2022.

Happy New Year from everyone at RSL! The start of the year brings with it the opportunity for New Year’s Resolutions and a fresh way of looking at things, so where better to start in 2022 than by looking at the range of support from RSL to optimise your teaching.

We’ve compiled a diary of all our upcoming key exam entry deadlines and exam periods, product webinars, Q&A sessions and in-person events, alongside reminders to check out crucial teaching resources and materials that can help your students flourish.

Download the RSL Diary of Events: Jan – March 2022

The interactive diary should include all the links to book onto webinars and events, however you can click here, or get in touch with the team directly with any further questions you may have: business@rslawards.com

RSL Year in Review 2021 | A Message From Our CEO, Suzanne Harlow

December 24th, 2021 by

Welcome to the RSL Year in Review – 2021.

2021 has been a year like no other in so many ways. There were tentative steps back to normality in the UK and further afield, but so much uncertainty still lies ahead.

One constant was RSL’s unrelenting ability to push forward and provide solutions to any problems that were presented. It’s been a rollercoaster year for all, but we’ve managed to squeeze in some amazing syllabus launches, innovative online content, and even some face to-face events to mark 30 years of RSL!

Hit the button below to download an extended thank you message from our CEO, Suzanne Harlow, and to reflect on how 2021 looked for RSL Awards…

DOWNLOAD THE RSL YEAR IN REVIEW | 2021

“A huge thanks to all of you, our customers, who have continued to work with us to ensure the next generation of creatives don’t lose their artistic future as a result of the ongoing pandemic.” Suzanne Harlow, CEO RSL Awards

Classical in Conversation | Domenico Scarlatti

December 21st, 2021 by

This week’s star of Classical in Conversation is someone who had many admirers. All the big-time classical names like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Bartók had a space for the work of Domenico Scarlatti in their hearts!

A Winner!

This Italian composer was born in Naples in 1685, the same year as baroque king Mr Johann Sebastian Bach, and started learning music with his father from an early age. After a stint as a composer and organist at the Royal Chapel in Naples, Scarlatti was shipped off to Venice and this is where he drops off of history’s radar! We have no idea what happened to Mr Scarlatti roughly during the period of 1703 to 1709, but what we do know is that he reappeared in Rome as a wildly accomplished harpsichordist. Who knows, maybe he shut himself in a practise room for 6 years?!

Fun fact: Scarlatti and Handel were thought to have a, what we are calling, harpsichord-off. Think a baroque style rap battle, where the two set out to be the superior player. Apparently, Scarlatti pipped Handel to the post when it came to the harpsichord, but Handel was the superior man on the organ. We call a rematch!

Scarlatti was living the dream moving from city to city. He could be found in Venice, Lisbon, Rome and Seville, eventually settling down in Spain for the remainder of his life. This is where he became very involved with the Spanish royal family for whom he worked for a long time.

Not many of Scarlatti’s compositions were actually released during his lifetime. This baroque legend composed in a few different forms but mainly stuck to the binary sonata – he composed a grand 555 of them! The ones that were published were always well received all across Europe, and of course are still well received today, over 300 years later! Now that’s what you call timeless.

Limber Up!

What with all the time he spent in Spain, Scarlatti’s music is often noted for how it imitates the classical guitar with the repetitive notes played rapidly. In fact, his Sonata in B Minor, K. 377 was transcribed for the guitar! We have included the piano version in the RSL Classical Piano Grade 7 syllabus for your enjoyment (and perhaps a little bit of stress). If you’ve encountered Scarlatti before you’ll know that his pieces are usually FAST, and this one is no different. The final performance needs to be crisp and precise, and certainly never sloppy or slow! You’ll also need to practise good balance between the contrapuntal parts, aiming to bring out the melodic lines clearly. Since the piece doesn’t include any performance directions (typical of the period), you are free to put your own expression on this one, as long as it is stylistically appropriate, of course, so be sure to do your research.

We also included some Scarlatti in the Grade 5 syllabus! Make sure you properly warm up for this one. Using arpeggios in the same key to warm up will be really useful, as Scarlatti loves a melody which darts around the keyboard at rapid speeds. It’s safe to say that he always brings the drama!

This piece was one of the last that he wrote. It should be played graciously with a nice flow, as well as being lively and technically accurate of course.

We hope you enjoyed this Classical in Conversation blog today! If you enjoyed this sort of thing then you’ll love reading about Scarlatti’s contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, and his fan club of course – Mozart, Beethoven and Bartók!

Classical in Conversation | Ludovico Einaudi

December 21st, 2021 by

In a world that is somewhat chaotic, it’s certainly a comfort to know that music such as this exists – it’s the wonderful Ludovico Einaudi featured in our Classical in Conversation this week!

Descended from a lineage of publishers, pianists and presidents (yes, presidents!), this Italian pianist and composer has been able to reach audiences far and wide with his classical creations, film features and frankly, piano masterpieces. Think of a flowing river, a compilation of memories, a drive through the countryside… anything that brings you peace and Einaudi just might be the soundtrack to that.

Classically Contemporary

Classically trained at the Conservatorio Verdi, Milan, Einaudi began his career composing more traditionally classical works. His chamber and orchestral pieces amassed quite the reception and he began to receive international attention! He had studied with Berio, a composer famous for his experimental works, and for his brave steps into the world of electronics within the classical realm. Perhaps this was of some inspiration to Einaudi, for it wasn’t long before he himself took steps away from the classical ‘norm’, and into a world of influences from pop to rock to folk.

And so began his move into film music, which brought a great deal of praise in the form of prestigious awards! His work can be found in This Is England, The Intouchables (the biggest box office movie in French history, apparently!) and Doctor Zhivago, to name but a few. He also composed the trailer music for the Black Swan film, and had a song featured in Insidious. He managed to bag a Grollo d’oro, one of the oldest Italian film awards, for one of his film scores. Impressive, right?!

Piano Perfection

But on to what we are all undoubtedly waiting for (or at least, this is our favourite part!) – the incredible Einaudi solo works. Throughout his career, Einaudi has released a number of solo albums, we couldn’t possibly give them all an adequate review here! But there are certainly a couple that we’d like to mention.

First up, the 2001 I Giorni, a beautiful collection of compositions for piano capable of sweeping you off into another dimension. The title track “I Giorni” had quite the successful reception in the UK after radio DJ Greg James aired the piece on BBC Radio 1, stating that the track was a moment of calm through his university years. It actually entered the UK Singles chart at number 32! Not bad for a bit of classical piano, as we can probably all agree!

In 2004, Una Mattina was released, an album that we here at RSL have a particular connection to. Einaudi himself describes the album beautifully, saying that the songs are “linked together by a story”, but not a story from the past. He said:

“It speaks about me now, my life the things around me. My piano, which I have nicknamed Tagore, my children Jessica and Leo, the orange kilim carpet that brightens up the living room, the clouds sailing slowly across the sky, the sunlight coming through the window, the music I listen to, the books I read and those I don’t read, my memories, my friends and the people I love.”

One thing is for certain, we’d love to see that carpet!

But it was from this charming description that the track “Una Mattina” was born, and for that we are very grateful. Hypnotizing in its rhythm and melody, harmonically warm and reflective, this piece is truly stunning, and one that we had to include in our Debut Classical Piano syllabus. To bring music such as this to a beginner is nothing short of a joy!

Einaudi continues to capture the feelings of millions in his piano compositions today, and with almost 4.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, it’s clear to see the impact that his music is having. His latest compositions, released on the 15th January 2021, might just be the medicine we all need at the moment.

If you’re enjoying coming on this journey through the diverse and incredible set of composers featured in our Classical Piano syllabus, then be sure to stay tuned for next week, and of course, catch up on our previous blogs. We’ve got a wide range of composers to choose from: Alexis Ffrench, Germaine Tailleferre, Florence Price and Béla Bartok, to name a few!

Artists in Focus | Adele

December 21st, 2021 by

She took us around her hometown, kept on chasing pavements and set fire to the rain, but no journey could compete with the adventure that is Adele’s stunning career.

The Name’s Adele

Her full name is Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, though you really only need to hear the first. Singer-songwriter Adele rose to fame extremely quickly after her graduation from the BRIT School in 2006. In fact, it was only months later that she’d recorded three songs and sent them to a friend, who uploaded them to the fabled Myspace (who remembers that?!). The songs became an internet success, which led to Adele receiving a phone call from Richard Russell, XL Records boss! The rest is hit making history.

Her debut album 19 came soon after! One song included on the album is “Hometown Glory”, the first that Adele had ever written at the raw age of 16. It was born after her mother tried to persuade her to leave her hometown of West Norwood. Judging by the lyric “the people I’ve met are the wonders of my world”, we can probably guess how that conversation went down!

Cover or No Cover?

Another incredible track from the 19 album is “Make You Feel My Love”, and you may or may not know that this is a song originally written and released by Bob Dylan for his 1997 album, Time Out of Mind. Many have covered the song but it was Adele’s version that the world fell in love with almost instantaneously.

Adele was quite clear to her manager that she didn’t want a cover on her debut album. She was adamant that “it kind of implies that I’m incapable of writing enough of my own songs for my first record”. However, once she heard it for the first time she soon agreed that it’s a “stunning song”, and that it summed up everything she wanted to say on the album.

We couldn’t leave this incredible talent from our brand new Rockschool Vocals syllabus for 2021. In Grade 4 you can put your own stamp on “Someone Like You” (more on this later) and in Grade 5, “Chasing Pavements”. We can’t wait to hear your versions of these amazing songs.

On top of that, if you’re a James Bond fanatic, you can give “Skyfall” from our Piano Grade 3 syllabus a go. You’ve already voted for it as one of the Top 10 Rockschool Piano Tunes of all time, so what are you waiting for?

The Comeback QUEEN!

The second album release for Adele would be 21, and would you believe that it far surpassed the success of the first?! With hits like “Rolling In The Deep”, “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire To The Rain” then you may not be at all surprised. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Adele in 2011. Whilst touring 21, Adele suffered a vocal cord haemorrhage. She would need an extended period of rest before she was able to sing again, which is of course devastating for a woman in the peak of her singing career. She had throat microsurgery, and went on to make the comeback to end ALL comebacks!

Billboard Artist of the Year, Billboard 200 Album of the Year, Billboard Hot 100 Song of the Year, a modest 6 Grammy’s… the list goes on for the awards that were showered upon Adele and 21. It turned out to be, and still is, the best-selling album of the 21st century. So how’s that for a recovery?

We couldn’t possibly finish up on this blog without talking about the new album. 30 is everything we’ve come to expect from Adele and we’re obsessed with it. Check it out if you haven’t already!

Artists in Focus | Nina Simone

December 20th, 2021 by

We’re back with another instalment of Artists in Focus, the blog series where we appreciate both the musical and social contributions made by a number of artists on our repertoire.

This week’s blog focuses on the inimitable Nina Simone, her music, and her invaluable contributions to the civil rights movement in America.

Musical Style

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was one of the most influential American singers of the twentieth century. Her music drew influence from a wide range of backgrounds, including folk, soul, jazz, R & B, and gospel. Her background as a classical pianist who trained at Julliard leant her a distinct style that cemented her position as a unique and successful recording artist who constantly produced the unexpected to dodge lazy labels and pigeon-holing.

Best known for hits like ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ and ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, some of her most successful songs also included inventive covers of ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by The Beatles and ‘Feeling Good’, which you can find on our grade 2 piano and keys syllabuses.

A versatile musician who was far more than ‘just’ a jazz singer, Nina Simone constantly changed her musical style, with her albums often taking different directions in attempts to break new creative ground. Simone showed early promise as a pianist when performing at church in front of her family and friends, and it was on the basis of her proficiency on this instrument that she was admitted to the Julliard School as a student of Carl Friedberg. Her classical style of playing pervades her music, with her improvisation often blending complex jazz language with a deft technical touch that is undoubtedly classically-trained.

She didn’t just shift her musical style; in 1954 Eunice adopted the stage name Nina Simone as she started performing music that she believed her mother wouldn’t appreciate because of its jazz influence.

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Nina’s fanbase grew steadily as her recording career blossomed. Her version of George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ brought her initial success in the Billboard top 20 before she recorded many more albums that were a mix of both studio and live recordings. Her career saw her flit between various record labels, and it was her move to Philips Records in 1964 that saw her creative output draw more heavily on issues of civil rights.

Nina_Simone_-1969

’Mississippi Goddam’ displays Simone’s frustrations at the inequality black people were facing in America more resoundingly than any of her music prior. Her previous stance of peacefully demonstrating in an attempt to achieve change was cast aside in favour of a more radical approach that demanded more immediate progress, as demonstrated in the lyrics, as she grows tired of the slow rate of change.

Oh but this whole country is full of lies

You’re all gonna die and die like flies

I don’t trust you any more

You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’

‘Go slow!’

But that’s just the trouble

‘Do it slow’

To Be Young, Gifted and Black

Simone’s version of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ became an unofficial anthem for the civil rights movement in America upon its release, but it was her 1969 release ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ that helped to was her most explicitly celebratory song on the subject of what it meant to be a black American in the twentieth century.

The song would go on to be covered by Donny Hathaway and even Elton John, while artists have frequently sampled it in their work since the turn of the millennium, with Faith Evans and Rapsody featuring it in their music in 2014 and 2017 respectively. Aretha Franklin made it the title of her 1972 album, which won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance of the year.

The lyrics champion the importance of youth and reflect the optimism that was beginning to grow following the recent successes of the civil rights movement.

“In the whole world you know / There are a billion boys and girls / Who are young, gifted and black / And that’s a fact!”

Nina Simone died in 2003, aged 70, but her legacy is far-reaching and enduring. ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’, a biographical portrait of Simone’s life premiered at the 2015 Sundance Festival, before its release on Netflix later that year. The film, directed by Liz Garbus, intimately chronicles the life of Nina Simone, and received critical acclaim. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards and is an inspiring watch to anyone who’s looking to change the world through music.

Nina is of course featured on our brand new Rockschool Vocals syllabus with her song “My Baby Just Cares For Me”.

Classical in Conversation | Debussy

December 20th, 2021 by

No classical piano syllabus would be complete without an appearance from this influential Frenchman.

Yes, Claude Debussy is undoubtedly a key classical figure of the late 18th and early 19th century. Ever inspired by the poets and painters around him, his orchestral works and piano pieces are born from the colours and textures of Monet’s lillies, Hokusai’s “Great Wave” and the evoking words and phrases of Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire.

Sweet Suite Bergamasque

Undoubtedly one of Debussy’s most well-known and iconic compositions for piano is “Clair de Lune”. If you’ve never heard it before, WHERE have you been? You probably haven’t been back to 1905 for the publication of the Suite Bergamasque, of which Clair de Lune is the third movement (he began composing the suite 15 years earlier, in 1890!).

“Clair de Lune”, French for “Moonlight”, is another piece in which Debussy leans in to his characteristic sound – a dreamlike, whimsical exploration of light, colour and sound. With inspiration drawn again from poetry, this time Paul Verlaine’s “Clair de Lune”, Debussy took his somewhat scandalous approach to harmony (remember, this was the early 1900s!) and created this meditative, calm and ethereal composition.

The piece is in D flat major but, in true Debussy style, is extremely tonally ambiguous, and never lets the listener relax into this key at all. The beginning section gives us harp-like flourishes, the middle section demands a little more of the player in terms of speed and technicality, and the third section brings us back to the initial theme, but this time in a more mysterious light. The listener does get the satisfaction of a perfect cadence right at the end (that V-I that we all know and love!), which feels like a relief to say the least.

We have the pleasure of bringing this usually more challenging piece into the realm of the Debut grade. “Clair de Lune” is a true classic for piano, and to have the opportunity to grasp this in the earlier days of learning is nothing short of wonderful!

Harmony in Motion

We couldn’t go into those upper grades without some truly demanding Debussy amongst the ranks, and so, we’ve brought the “Arabesque No.1 in E” to our Grade 8 syllabus. Another perfect example of Debussy ripping up the harmonic rule book, this piece feels atmospheric and magical. He frequently makes use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scales throughout all of his works, and this is no exception. The scales embedded within the melodies lend themselves to a light and airy feel, simply because there’s a lot of space between the notes.

It must be said that the technical difficulty in “Arabesque No.1 in E” lies not in the harmonic function, but the rhythmic complexities. Debussy uses lots of two against three polyrhythms which can be tricky to get your head around, but the end result is filled with buoyancy, with the melody sounding as though it’s floating on waves of sound.

We really hope this has inspired you to pick up some Debussy and give it a go. There is arguably nothing more rewarding than completing one of his beautiful musical “sketches” or “poems”, and basking in the glorious artistry of it all.