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

 

 

 

 

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has launched a new performance diploma, the ARSM, designed as “a bridge between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM”. The new Diploma, ARSM (Associate of the Royal Schools of Music), is different to both Grade 8 and the DipABRSM in that it includes no supporting tests (technical work, sight-reading/quick study, viva (for DipABRSM) or programme notes). The repertoire list is taken from the DipABRSM syllabus, though much reduced, and candidates may include 10 minutes of own-choice repertoire of Grade 8 or above standard to create a recital programme lasting 30 minute in total. To all intents and purposes this “diploma” looks very much like a reinvented version of the Advanced Certificate or Trinity’s Advanced Performance Certificate.

Concerns about the new ARSM have been expressed by piano teachers via Piano Network UK, a large and very active Facebook group comprising piano teachers, pianists (professional and amateur) and piano lovers, of which I am co-administrator. I would like to share some of these views here. My colleague and friend Andrew Eales, who writes the excellent Piano Dao blog, will be publishing a more considered response to the ARSM, together with an interview with Penny Millsom of the ABRSM in which he hopes to clarify some of the issues raised below. 

Please note that any views expressed here are independent and my publishing them does not necessarily mean Andrew and I support or endorse them. They are drawn from a diverse range of British piano teachers of differing ages and experience. My own comments and views about the ARSM diploma are in italics.

Level of attainment, marking and assessment criteria

  • I find the fact that Distinction is set at 45/50 interesting (in comparison to 70/100 for the dip/Licentiate levels) – though I have yet to decide what this actually means, if anything, about the marking, relative standards required, contributions of the viva and quick study…
  • In my view, it is simply Grade 9. Something on easy terms just to get letters after people’s names. 
  • Any old examiner, presumably no requirement for them to be a specialist in your instrument. So the exercise itself is kind of worthless, and the marking will be pretty irrelevant. But here, have a qualification…

Is it really a “Diploma”?

  • It’s essentially a composite of other products/services that ABRSM already offer – an examiner who is already there to examine Grade 1 players, a repertoire list that already exists… from a business point of view it seems like a great idea because ABRSM don’t seem to have needed to do much at all to add this to their overall offer, but the market could be quite large.
  • I don’t understand why it is marketed at associate level
  • Doesn’t this just devalue the DipABRSM in performance? By all means have the equivalent of the Trinity Advanced Certificate but don’t call it a diploma when it so clearly isn’t!
  • Same repertoire as the DipABRSM. So like a diploma, minus the bits people complain about. So, not particularly educational. 
  • I just don’t think it is sufficiently rigorous to be called a Diploma
  • It claims “associate” status, but simply isn’t on that level. So it devalues genuine associate diplomas as a whole, and is misleading to potential students/parents.
  • By calling it a “diploma” ABRSM have blurred the boundaries between the graded amateur exams and the higher professional diplomas. And very few people, if any, outside the profession (parents of students for example) will appreciate the difference. My concern is that it may devalue the higher diplomas and lead to further dumbing down across all exams. I’m afraid I feel it is primarily driven by commercial interests on the part of ABRSM. 
  • One of the main purposes of a professional qualification – and especially having letters after one’s name – is so that prospective clients are reassured that we are properly qualified. 
  • Hard to believe that this will confer diploma status, and entitle the holders to put letters after their name. To the general public, there will be little difference between an ARSM and a FRSM, or anything in between
  • This is really just a money-spinner. I cannot understand the logic in it being marked out of 50, or am I missing something?! It doesn’t appear to be accredited at a particular level, and I agree with others that it shouldn’t really confer diploma status. 

Who it is for?

I can see this new Diploma suiting some of my more talented teenage students who would like to improve their performing skills and/or want a different challenge post-Grade 8. A number of adult amateur pianists whom I know have also commented that they would like to take this diploma because the format encourages one to “enjoy playing”. 

A couple of teachers who are keen to improve their performance skills have expressed an interest in taking the ARSM as a form of continuing professional development:

  • …to me it is simply about skill refreshing. I do appreciate others’ concerns but perhaps for piano teachers who haven’t done any serious practice in a while it could be a good thing?

If you have views on the new ARSM diploma please feel free to leave comments below or use the contact page to get in touch.

Source: ABRSM Media release – 4 August 2016

ABRSM is strengthening its current diploma offering with the addition of a new performance qualification, launched today (4 August). The new assessment, the Associate of the Royal Schools of Music (ARSM), has been launched to provide learners with an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their performance skills after Grade 8.

The new diploma will be available to take in all ABRSM practical exam venues worldwide from January 2017.

What is involved?

The exam can be taken by anyone who has passed ABRSM Practical Grade 8 or a listed alternative. ARSM is available in all instruments currently examined by ABRSM, including voice.

Within the challenge of performing a 30-minute programme, candidates are assessed on their musical communication skills, interpretation and technical delivery. Candidates will have to perform:

• at least 20 minutes of music chosen from the ARSM repertoire list (this is the same list set for DipABRSM);

• up to 10 minutes of music can be own-choice repertoire (of at least Grade 8 standard).

There are no written or spoken elements, and no sight reading, aural tests or scales.

John Holmes, ABRSM Chief Examiner said 

“The diploma, which is supported by the Royal Schools of Music, is suitable for musicians who are looking for a challenge after grades and will provide a meaningful goal to work towards.

ARSM is unique in focussing solely on practical performing skills – nothing more, nothing less. It’s about the art and craft of musical communication through a half-hour programme which you choose and put together according to your own individual musical strengths and enthusiasms.

As well as focussing on the playing or singing of your chosen items of repertoire, ARSM also involves assessment of the performance of your programme as a whole, giving you valuable feedback from two complementary perspectives.”

For more information about ARSM, visit www.abrsm.org/newdiploma

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.

***

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

Grade 8 does not represent the pinnacle of learning, and for the talented student, it can, and should, act as a springboard to auditions for conservatoire and music college, or at least to a Diploma, affiliated to a music school, such as Trinity College or the Royal College of Music. Diplomas provide a useful framework for the honing and maturing of performing and teaching skills.

Anyone who thinks a diploma is a simple step up from Grade 8, think again. While it is a logical next step for a competent musician who has achieved Grade 8, a diploma, even at the lowest level, is significantly more involved, requiring a high degree of attainment, combined with a professional attitude to preparation, communication, musicality, presentation and stagecraft. The diploma itself is a professional qualification recognised by other musicians and music professionals around the world.

Trinity College of Music defines the Associate and Licentiate Diplomas as follows:

Associate (ATCL, AMusTCL)

The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component of the first year in a full-time undergraduate course at a conservatoire or other higher education establishment.

Licentiate (LTCL, LMusTCL)

The standard of performance is equivalent to the performance component on completion of a full-time undergraduate course at a conservatoire or other higher education establishment. [Source: Trinity College London website]

The criteria and standards one is expected to meet are far higher than for Grade 8: a quick glance through the regulations for the Trinity College of Music Diplomas clearly demonstrates this:

At ATCL and at LTCL you should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the composers’ intentions, with contextual understanding of the musical material:

  • the ability to communicate all technical and artistic aspects of the music at an appropriate professional standard, employing professional etiquette in presenting the programme
  • awareness of your own musical voice in interpreting the performance objectives, drawing upon a variety of experiences in an individual performance

[Source: Diplomas in Music: Performance and Teaching from 2009, TCL]

 

There are many other requirements to be considered, and met, when taking a music Diploma, and the rigour of the exam is reflected in the expected learning outcomes and assessment objectives. For example, unlike in the grade exams, at Diploma level you select your own repertoire (either from the broad syllabus or by submitting an own-choice programme for approval). The choice of repertoire is wide, and from it you must put together a programme that demonstrates a wide variety of musical styles, moods, tempi and technical challenges. In the exam, you are assessed not only on your ability to meet the criteria listed above, but also on programme planning and balance, choice of repertoire, stagecraft, and written programme notes.

In the last five years I have taken three performance diplomas (ATCL, LTCL and FTCL) and the experience of studying for and taking these diplomas has given me some remarkable insights into aspects such as:

  • A deeper understanding of musical structure, “architecture”, harmony, narrative
  • The composer’s creative vision and individual soundworld, and how to interpret it
  • A personal and authoritative interpretative standpoint based on solid background research
  • Historical and social contexts
  • Vastly improved technical facility and general musicianship
  • An understanding of performance practice
  • Learning how to be a performer:  to project and communicate the composer’s intentions to a high level, and to perform with original creative flair
  • Drawing on one’s own personal experiences (not necessarily musical ones) in individual performances
  • Developing a mature musical and artistic personality

Music diplomas also offer the chance to study without restrictions on length of study or the requirement that one is taught in an institution. On another level, they offer the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal.

More information about Performance Diplomas:

Trinity College of Music

Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

London College of Music