How the ABRSM came to be

A new book charts the development of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) from its somewhat undistinguished origins in the latter part of the nineteeth-century to become what it is today – a highly influential, preeminent and internationally-renowned music examinations board.

The text, by David Wright (retired Reader in Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music, London), is the first extended history of the ABRSM, and follows a largely chronological course. The author examines the cultural and historical context of the development of the ABRSM, how it has shaped musical taste, habits and attitudes of students and teachers, and influenced the lives of millions of people since it conducted its first exams in 1890, and how it has adapted and responded to the changing landscape of music tuition and study, and the preferences of its customers.

Today the ABRSM has a ubiquitous presence in music education, yet few people know much about the institution and the criteria on which it determines syllabuses, and maintains standards, trains its examiners and manages its exams. The Board is an important legacy of Victorian Britain, an institution which grew out of that society’s concern to expand the technological and professional workface to run the Empire. The development of the Board’s exams represents a peculiarly Victorian ethos: that of combining education with entrepreneurship by providing an objective assessment of learning a musical instrument or voice on an industrial scale. During the 120 years of the ABRSM, its music exams have come to represent a significant rite of passage in musical study, from early beginnings at Grade 1 to the final pre-professional stage of Grade 8.

Music exams are an emotive subject, and I am sure many of us recall the dreaded, toe-curling moment when the examiner announces that it is time for the aural test section of the exam. Very few people relish the idea of singing a melody back to a stranger, or identifying an interval! Sight-reading is another element of the exam that can put the fear of God into candidates. Many teachers question the value of setting students on an “exam treadmill”, and in the course of my own teaching, I have met a number of music teachers who simply refuse to enter students for exams, because they believe the rigid discipline of the syllabus does not lend itself to developing musicianship and performance skills, and that the idea of being “examined” in music is unnatural, robbing the student of spontaneity and musical creativity. This issue is very much open to debate: whatever we may feel about music exams, they are now unquestionably part of everyday musical study, used not just as benchmarks for teachers and students, but also contributing “points” to GCSE, A-level and university entrance requirements. Many people who took and passed music exams as children carry their successes as a badge of honour into adulthood, the sign that one has had the staying power and commitment to study for something with tangible evidence (a certain level of attainment and the certificate to prove it). For teachers, the graded music exam system (not just ABRSM, but other boards such as Trinity Guildhall and the London College of Music) has had an important impact on the way they teach, and has enabled teachers to introduce their students to a wide variety of repertoire, from classic “standards” by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart to contemporary repertoire, some commissioned especially for the exam syllabuses.

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For much of the earlier Victorian era, music teaching was not considered a respectable living, and certainly not a “professional” or middle-class occupation. Music teaching was largely unregulated, with no independent quality assurance in place (diplomas were later intended to provide this). The exam system was important in changing some of this, providing a common currency of professional and educational attainment, and was a crucial factor in transforming the standing of music teachers and music teaching. A new landscape for the professional training of teachers emerged out of this, and continues today, though with a rather bewildering array of diploma post-nominals (LRSM, LTCL, ALCM, LGSMD and so forth).

The development of a system of music exams also came about at a time when amateur music making at home was becoming increasingly popular. The number of pianos manufactured in the UK at this time confirms this, together with a huge increase in the availability of affordable sheet music,and the growth and popularity of music shops. Ancillary activities such as music festivals and competitions helped to fuel the enthusiasm for domestic music making.

Ultimately, however, the ABRSM came into existence to settle a damaging rivalry between the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM) When the RCM was granted its Royal Charter in 1883 it was tasked with “the advancement of the Art of Music” through teaching and examining, and awarding degrees and certificates to candidates, whether or not they were students at the College. Under the charter, the RCM was also charged with promoting and encouraging musical tuition in schools and elsewhere. The charter effectively made the RCM the “chartered institute” for music, which caused considerable resentment amongst other establishments, including the RAM and Trinity College, London (TCL).

Apart from the RCM, the RAM was the only other institution bestowed a royal charter, and the ABRSM partnership gave the RAM the appearance of a chartered institution. Exams promoted by these institutions became a way of testing teachers by examining their pupils, and thus the ABRSM, in a form recognisable to us today, was created. The exam system, with the support of the RAM and RCM, also enabled graduates from the RAM and RCM to set up teaching practices of their own by suggesting that the conservatoire system made for better-quality teaching. Finally, the fees gained from exams gave the two colleges more financial leverage and additional income.

In the years following the formation of the ABRSM, its method of examining candidates, with the requirement not just to play a selection of pieces but also technical exercises, sight-reading and aural training, was exported across the Empire, and the ABRSM developed into the prestigious body it is today. Over the course of its existence, the ABRSM has had to adapt to the changing musical and educational environment in which it operates: in recent years, the introduction of popular and jazz-inspired repertoire into syllabuses demonstrates the board’s determination to continue to attract candidates, together with the broader range of instruments covered, and the innovative Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 taster exam for early students. The computerisation of the exam entry system represented a significant modernisation, making the process more streamlined and simpler for teachers and candidates. Other offshoots from the Board’s main activities including publishing – not just exam books but teaching guides and its popular ‘Signature’ series of authoritative performing editions of standard keyboard works, prepared from original sources by leading scholars, the most recent of which is Professor Barry Cooper’s critical edition of The 35 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, which includes the three Elective sonatas. The value of these editions is open to discussion (see my earlier post on The Urtext Score), but they are attractively produced and are used by many students and teachers around the world.

The book is rich in detail – anecdotes, statistics, source references, quotations and a detailed bibliography and index – and offers a comprehensive history of the Board together with an examination of its continued significant place in British culture and musical life.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Boydell Press
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184383734X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843837343
  • RRP: £50