The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has received a barrage of criticism in response to a recent ill-judged tweet in which it stated that “Musical achievement is about how well you can do, how good you can get. That sense of attainment is tested by assessment which gives us intrinsic motivation to make us want to get better. That’s the virtuous circle of motivation.” (via Twitter, 24 September 2021)

The first and most glaring problem with this, amidst a host of other issues, is that the word “intrinsic” is used incorrectly here. “Intrinsic motivation” comes from within. Exams, testing and assessment of the kind ABRSM promotes are “extrinsic” or external motivators.

With regard to learning music, in addition to taking a music exam, extrinsic motivators include participating in a festival or competition, receiving a favourable written report, receiving praise from others for a performance (teachers, friends, parents), receiving a certificate, trophy or reward.

We all have intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our lives – we are all a mixture of both. If you play the piano for no other reason than because it gives you pleasure and a sense of personal fulfilment, that is an intrinsic motivation. If your parents and/or teacher are pressuring you to play the piano and pass grade exams, or you have to make a living from your playing, that’s extrinsic motivation.

The trouble with extrinsic motivation is the more we are driven by extrinsic values, the more we starve our intrinsic motivation, which can lead to lack of motivation, feelings of failure, anxiety and even depression. Unfortunately, outward displays of achievements or material gain are all too common in our Insta-driven world – signals which say “look at me, look at my achievements, envy me” (just think for a moment about how Instagram really makes you feel…).

The graded music exam system is primarily built upon extrinsic motivation. Marks and certificates (“rewards”) are awarded to successful candidates, and this reward system makes the prospect of progressing to the next grade and the next smart certificate very appealing to students, and their parents and teachers. But it’s actually a superficial form of learning, based on “if/then” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that“), which simply reinforces extrinsic motivation and is only effective in the short-term. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden do the work for an exam, only to revert to not practicing once the exam is over. And putting students on an “exam treadmill” is unlikely to encourage a real love of music. Thus, exam success is not the “virtuous circle of motivation” as the ABRSM tweet suggests, but rather a vicious circle of superficial values founded on a desire for external endorsement.

Exams are a great short term motivator, but they generally don’t encourage students in finding sustained motivation, success and joy. Sadly, for some – students, teachers, parents – certification of musical achievement is regarded as the ultimate goal of instrumental learning and confirmation of musical competence, an attitude which I find profoundly unmusical.

Exams are also a form of “credentialisation” (that Grade 5 with Merit, a Grade 8 with Distinction), the popularly-held belief that credentials will open the door to further success, advancement, recognition and enhanced status. In their tweet, the ABRSM are, in my opinion, guilty of credentialising music – it’s all about being judged (by others), gaining status, “how well you can do, how good you can get”. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude that pervades musical childhood and adolescence, and beyond, reinforced by grade exams, diplomas, end of year assessments, festivals and competitions, which risks turning music performance into some kind of competitive points-based activity, and which amplifies the fear of doing something wrong and being marked down for it – again, profoundly unmusical. Credentialisation also encourages feelings of superiority and inferiority or envy (think again how Instagram really makes you feel…..). In practice, it doesn’t really encourage students to become motivated, self-determined, and, above all, happy, self-fulfilled learners.

I accept that graded music exams and assessments can be useful in benchmarking progress, or to show that the student has reached a certain level of competency, and the preparation for an exam (and the prospect of a good mark) can foster commitment, motivation to practice, and focus. When I taught privately in south-west London many of my students (and their parents) were keen to take exams (this may have had something to do with the affluent, aspirational demographic where I lived). Grade exams also help non-musical parents understand where their children are in their progress – but they can also impact directly on the attitudes and behaviour of students, teachers and parents for the reasons outlined above. The implication in the ABRSM’s tweet is that music exams demonstrate competence as a musician; most musicians, music teachers or those who play an instrument for personal fulfilment and pleasure would disagree with that assertion.

Instead, we should be encouraging intrinsic motivation – motivations and values without external rewards, which come from within, and which encourage self-determination, task persistence, self-evaluation, autonomy, purpose/intent. These values are associated with the kind of in-depth learning which emphasises achievable goals and mastery, and they can set students on a path to both long-term success and personal fulfilment. Learning music is a life-long endeavour and therefore it’s important to consider how the learning environment and the way in which students are taught and supported can help promote long-term intrinsic motivation.

Thus, instead of reminding students that they must practice in order to pass the next grade exam, we should help them understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. That it’s not about the next grade and certificate, but rather cultivating a deeper understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of the music. When my students told me they wished they “played better” on the day on the day of the exam, or achieved a higher mark in their piano exams, I would remind them that the exam is a one-off, a fleeting moment in time, which may be disrupted by any number of personal or external forces which can tip the balance one way or another. Far better to reflect on and appreciate the huge amount of learning and accumulated knowledge which come from regular thoughtful practising and knowing how to apply that knowledge to learning new repertoire and improving one’s technique, musicality and artistry. All that good, important work can never be taken away nor undermined by any examiner, adjudicator or critic. Knowing this can give students better insight, control and investment in their learning, rather than tempting them with transitory “if/when” rewards, and fosters a better type of motivation than simply practicing for the next exam, festival or competition. At the most basic level, this is about encouraging students to enjoy playing the piano, to find greater personal satisfaction and creativity through the joy of music and a sense of accomplishment from having played a piece or even a section of a piece well, regardless of the level at which the student plays. By fully engaging students in the learning process, giving them the opportunity to play the kind of music they want to play, and encouraging their confidence and self-reliance, we can help them become independent, self-motivated learners – skills which they will carry forward not just in their musical development but also as important life skills.

Further reading

A Passionate Pursuit: the pianist’s mastery


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That’s the view of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the major UK (and worldwide) music examinations board. It’s a view I don’t happen to agree with and this emphasis on “assessment” and testing rather than encouraging musicianship, musicality and, above all, enjoyment in making music, is one of the reasons why I stopped using the ABRSM exam syllabus only a few years after I started teaching piano privately in 2006. For me, this tweet is a sign of just how out of touch the ABRSM, an organisation which apparently prides itself on being the “gold standard” for music education, has become.

Unfortunately a lot of people – parents and teachers – think assessment and “getting your grades” is what learning music is about. You can read my thoughts on this subject here.

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

Now in its fourth year, the London Piano Meetup Group’s annual Diploma Day is fast becoming a “not to be” missed event in the adult amateur pianist’s calendar. For those who are taking or thinking about taking a performance diploma (post-Grade 8 professional qualifications), the event offers 6 performing participants the opportunity to play part of their diploma programme to a small friendly audience and have their playing critiqued by Graham Fitch. For everyone there is practical advice on selecting a diploma, choosing repertoire and creating a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and presentation skills, and managing performance anxiety. It is also a chance meet and socialise with other pianists and at every event there is much “piano chat” during the breaks, and in the pub afterwards.

Of the 6 performers this year, five were preparing for Associate level diplomas and one for the FTCL. This made for a more “equal” atmosphere than at other workshops/courses where the less advanced/confident player can feel intimidated by the very advanced performers. Previous events have been praised for offer “invaluable” support and advice, and this one proved equally valuable and inspiring.

I thought it would be helpful to include this review of the event by one of the observers, Howard, who is a member of the LPMG:

I have just attended, as audience/observer, ‘Diploma Day’ held at Morley College, London. I wanted to share how valuable I found this. While not ready for such teaching myself, I am always looking for ways for find out what lies ahead in this crazy journey, as adult learner.

This specific day (9 ’til 6) was hosted by Claire Hansell of LPMG and presented by Graham Fitch (Diploma teaching) and Frances Wilson (performance coach at this event and best known as The Cross Eyed Pianist, music blogger).

I am a grade 6 pianist (on a good day. Yet, I learnt so much from attending #DipDay.

Claire Hansell gave an introductory talk about the purpose and methods involved in the development of a good Programme Note for any Dip performance. Frances Wilson presented an overview of the different types of Dip available and how to choose among them. Later, she presented advice on conquering the inevitable anxieties that accompany every important performance at this level …. perhaps at any level!

Six amateur pianists (post-Grade 8) played and Graham Fitch therefore conducted six mini-masterclasses. His mix of technique advice and musical interpretation guidance, delivered spontaneously in ‘real time’ as it were, seemed to me to be fostering some minor miracles of significant improvement by the pianists. I sat, rapt, never bored throughout the day. I cannot tell you how helpful this was.

To take away as notes, I was given a summary set of Diploma requirements from the different boards, checklists for the weeks before the day of the Diploma performance and for the development of the (required) Programme Notes oriented to the audience and examiner. The notes included that essential ‘mindset’ orientation for coping with the anxiety (a problem I know all too well and which came as a complete surprise).

Available to take away were also Diploma syllabus pamphlets and repertoire lists from each of the main exam boards. Example books to help with Diploma studies were on display.

An amazing day. Apparently, this was the 4th organised by the LPMG. I will be there next year 100% certainty, even if I am in no way ready for such a step beyond ‘grades’ work. Thank you to all concerned in putting this together.

 

Repertoire performed:

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in F minor from WTC book 1, BWV 857
Mozart – Sonata in D major, K.311
Mozart – Sonata in A major K.331
Mozart – Sonata in F major K.332
Beethoven – Sonata in F minor op. 2 no. 1
Beethoven – Sonata in C minor op. 111
Schubert – Sonata in A minor D.537
Brahms – Intermezzo in A major op. 118 no. 2
Debussy – La cathedrale engloutie, no. 10 from Preludes book 1 L.125
Rachmaninoff – Étude-Tableau in G minor op. 33 no. 8

 

Plans are already underway for Diploma Day 2020, and given the popularity of the event, it will probably run over 2 days with more performer slots. Please follow London Piano Meetup Group on Twitter (@LonPianoMeetup) and/or this blog for updates.

Compilation of tweets from Diploma Day 2019

Frances Wilson’s Diploma Day notes

A performance diploma checklist


Frances Wilson offers support and advice to people preparing for performance diplomas, including selecting repertoire and creating a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and presentation skills, and managing performance anxiety.

For further information please contact Frances Wilson

On preparing for a performance diploma

As the summer approaches, the exam season looms and in addition to graded music exams, many people will be also taking performance diplomas, recognised professional qualifications which extend and challenges one’s musical abilities far beyond the graded exam framework (the Licentiate level diploma – LRSM, LTCL or LLCM – requires the equivalent level of ability to a student in their third or fourth year at conservatoire).

Based on my own experience taking three performance diplomas (and, I might add, in my late 40s having returned to the piano after a long absence), here I offer some advice to ensure you are full prepared for your performance diploma – in the lead up to the recital, on the day and afterwards.

As mentioned earlier, a performance diploma at whatever level is a professional qualification, and one should therefore treat all aspects of the preparation and actual performance in a professional manner. To prepare for my diplomas, I observed professional musicians at work in concerts and in other settings to understand and appreciate all the aspects which go into presenting a professional performance, including programme planning and programme notes, stage deportment, attire, and one’s demeanour and presence at the instrument.

Preparation is everything!

At least a month ahead of your diploma recital….

  • With the exam recital only a month away, your programme should be learnt, secure and finessed
  • Get into the habit of playing through the entire programme regularly (at least twice a week), without stopping to correct mistakes, and with appropriate pauses between works. This helps build stamina and allows you to experience the flow and energy of the individual pieces and how they work together in the programme as a whole.
  • If using a page turner, have several rehearsals with the page turner and ensure your turner is clear about repeats, DCs etc. If you are using the score without a turner, photocopy pages to avoid awkward page turns and include these in your score so you get used to seeing them/the sequencing of pages etc. Make sure your page turner turns discreetly and removes and replaces the scores as quietly and discreetly as possible.
  • If you intend to use an iPad or tablet instead of paper scores, check that that exam board will permit this. Make sure any additional technology such as a bluetooth page turning device is working properly
  • Record the programme to check for timings, of the entire programme and individual pieces. You will need to include this information in your programme notes (for each piece and the overall programme). Be as accurate as possible, as marks may be deducted if you timings are incorrect or your programme is outside of the allotted time limit.
  • Try and perform the entire programme at least three times ahead of your diploma recital. Get a bunch of friends round and perform to them, organise a concert in a local church or arts centre, or hire a rehearsal room and play there with a few friends/colleagues in attendance. This helps manage anxiety and also allows you to really project the music to others. Also good for practising presentation skills such as walking to the piano, body language, presence etc., and page turns (if playing from the score). Interesting things can occur in run-through performances and may reveal weak spots in your music which you can then make absolutely secure in your practising.
  • Choose your outfit for the diploma recital and practise playing in it to ensure it is comfortable. Clothing should be appropriate for a “lunchtime or early evening recital”, so formal but not evening dress. Remember you will be marked on your attire as part of the ‘presentation skills’ element of the diploma.
  • Try and play a variety of different pianos, particularly grand pianos. It is easy to hire a rehearsal space or use a piano in a church.
  • Write your programme notes and have them checked/proofread by someone else. Use a clear typeface with no fancy decorative elements, photographs or biography. Print the programme on good-quality paper or lightweight card.

A couple of weeks before the recital….

  • Make sure you know where you are going to take the diploma and plan a route which will allow you to arrive in good time to warm up and settle ahead of the performance.
  • Photocopy your music and put it in a folder with the printed programme to hand to the examiner at the diploma recital. If you are including own-choice repertoire, include a copy of the approval letter from the exam board (this is applicable to Trinity diplomas) with the copies of your music.
  • By this point your practising should really just be maintenance, but don’t get complacent. Practise intelligently and listen all the time. Record yourself, reflect, adjust.
  • If you have been working on the repertoire for a long time, try and recall why you chose it in the first place and what you like about it. Maybe even write some notes about it. This can help “refresh” the music if you feel it is becoming a little tired and enables you to create a vivid “story” of the music when you come to perform it.

The day before the recital….

  • Check you have all your music, and photocopies of music, etc in a folder ready to hand to the examiner at the start of the recital.
  • Check your clothing
  • Do very light or little practise.
  • Try to keep body and brain rested (take a day or afternoon off work if necessary and do as little as possible)

On the day of the recital….

  • Arrive at the exam venue in good time to warm up and then focus on the task ahead. If you have a routine to alleviate anxiety, go through your routine.
  • Practise self-affirmation – “I am well-prepared”, “I can do it!”, etc. Turn “I’m nervous” into “I’m excited to share my music with others”
  • When you go into the exam room, greet the examiner/s politely/shake hands and give them your programme notes etc.
  • Treat the recital like a professional public performance and do not speak to the examiners between pieces.
  • Stow your music neatly or ask your page turner to look after it
  • At the end of the performance stand and bow.

After the recital….

  • Try not to post-mortem your performance too much or dwell on things you weren’t happy with. Instead focus on the positives and then go and have a large glass of wine, or three….
  • The day after the performance you may feel very tired and moody, with almost flu-like symptoms. This is a side effect of adrenaline and other stress hormones settling back to their normal levels. Allow yourself time to recover, but the best cure for the post-performance depression can actually be playing music – not your diploma repertoire but music you simply enjoy.

Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers support for people taking or thinking about taking a performance diploma including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, presentation skills and managing performance anxiety. For more information, contact Frances

The London Piano Meetup Group hosts an annual Diploma Day for people preparing for a performance diploma, led by Graham Fitch. Further information here

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the teaching notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does slightly depress me to see a piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972!), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, there is a complete refreshment of repertoire and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades. The supporting tests remain unchanged, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the very early grades (1-3) tend towards “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists, but adult learners will enjoy Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s A Memory of Paris (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ Anatolian 08 (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s Dream: No 10 from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a sufficiently broad range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM is very conscious of its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength by offering a syllabus which combines rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website.  The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information

An earlier version of this article appeared on my sister blog http://www.franspianostudio.me

She can certainly play the 2015-16 [Grade 8] syllabus pieces A-C brilliantly……Can she play anything else? I’ll get back to you on that.

This is a quote from an article about graded music exams by journalist Rosie Millard, who, by her own admission, is “a pushy music parent” when it comes to her children’s music exams. In common with a number of my piano teaching friends and colleagues, this article made me angry and frustrated, primarily because Ms Millard seems to completely miss the point about taking music lessons and playing music.

1f557-abrsmexamMany students take graded music exams each year, and many students take pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Ms Millard notes this satisfaction in her article and reveals a degree of parental pride (and rightly so) in her children’s music exam successes. Unfortunately, some parents use these successes as “bragging rights” to be paraded before other parents and children in the school playground or used as bargaining tools when applying to a particular school.

Do these exam achievements make Ms Millard’s children “musicians”? I’m not so sure….. Admittedly, at no point in the article does Ms Millard mention musicianship or musicality: her focus is simply on her children’s accumulation of grades. I do applaud her, however, for submitting herself to Grade 5 piano, “to see just how terrifying taking a grade really was”, but she does not mention if she derived any actual pleasure or satisfaction in learning the repertoire or any of the musical or personal developmental benefits of taking a music exam. But at least she has a degree of insight into what she is putting her children through in insisting they take all their grade exams.

The memory of taking music exams can stay with us into adulthood, as the author of this article notes. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who, on discovering I am a piano teacher, tell me “I wish I’d continued with the piano, but I really hated taking those exams!”. One of the reasons why I decided to take two performance diplomas in my late 40s was to erase the memory of my ABRSM Grade 8 piano exam, taken some 30 years earlier (yes, it really was that awful, despite the fact that I played well and achieved a decent pass). A different exam board (Trinity College London) and a different attitude to assessment (Trinity places emphasis musicality and musicianship) meant the diploma recitals were a pleasure instead of an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking chore, and I switched my students from Associated Board (ABRSM) exams to Trinity to ensure their exam experience was similarly enjoyable.

Graded music exams have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad sweep of music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces (something which wasn’t pointed out to me by my childhood piano teacher, so that scales were simply dull exercises to be got through as soon as possible in my practising); and the grade system provides a useful benchmark of a student’s attainment and progress. Preparing for and taking a music exam can inform children about the need for and benefits of regular, meaningful practising, and performing can breed confidence and self-esteem (but only if the student is well-prepared with support from a teacher who can advise on aspects such as stagecraft, presentation and managing anxiety). But an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day – and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Yes, it’s true that music exam successes look good on a CV as proof of extra-curricular activities, but any savvy interviewer is going to want to see evidence of broader music making, especially if the student is applying to conservatoire.

Box-ticking music-exams are utterly unhelpful, both to development of musicians and to those subjects that are lured into UCAS points-collecting.

Look at it this way: how many music teachers here would regard an A-level in biology as being indicative of a good future as a concert pianist?

A quote from a member of a music teachers’ online forum

Teachers love grades, because they reveal their prowess as a teacher.

Rosie Millard

No. What reveals one’s “prowess” as a teacher is the ability to motivate, encourage and guide young people (and adults too) to become well-rounded musicians, not exam automatons who reproduce by rote what they have been spoonfed simply to secure an exam pass. A good teacher should know the ability levels of all his/her students without the need for testing. And a good teacher does not live by his/her exam results, by how many students achieve a merit or a distinction, but rather by knowing each of his/her students’ strengths and weaknesses, what music makes them tick, and their individual personalities.

My students have the option to take grade exams if they wish. No one is forced to take an exam and some students simply wish to play music which they enjoy and which enables them to develop as musicians without the pressure of exams. Sometimes they opt to have their playing assessed by a teaching colleague of mine, to gain experience of playing for other people and useful feedback from another listener. Other students enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, but this is always done within a broader focus (learning additional related repertoire, listening around the pieces, historical contexts etc).

I do not believe that taking graded music exams proves you are a “musician”. Being a well-rounded musician goes far beyond the ability to play three pieces, some scales and technical exercises, sight-read an unseen study and complete an aural test. Being a musician is about understanding the music, its structure and its meaning, intellectually, visually and aurally. It is about learning a wide variety of music, outside of the strict confines of the exam syllabus, to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of music and its different genres. It’s about listening, going to concerts, reading literature and poetry, going to the cinema or an art exhibition, to appreciate that composers do not create music in a vacuum, but that their creativity is informed by their personal experiences and observations of the world around them. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing in concerts for parents, friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. In short, it is about enjoyment.

Our children are tested almost from the moment they enter school in the UK. Let’s not over-burden them with further testing in an activity which is meant to be enjoyable. By all means take a music exam, but don’t let it obscure the pleasure of music.

Further reading

Why take a music exam?

The curse of the pushy parent

The virtuoso parent