It was at the age of seven, when I came to the United Kingdom, that I first encountered the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) music examination system. “What grade are you?” the other children would ask when I told them that I played the piano. It was not a question I had encountered in the United States, and I didn’t know what to tell them. However, soon enough, my new piano teacher decided that it was time for me to take one of these examinations, and I began to learn all about the system.
The ABRSM is an organization set up to be able to establish a set of educational standards for instrumental and vocal performance. The Royal Schools consist of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Each year over 620,000 people take its examinations in 90 countries. The exams run from Grade 1 for those who have learned for a year or so, up to Grade 8 for advanced students. There is also a diploma exam for those who wish to take their playing even further. The exams can be taken at any age and are for any classical instrument or voice.
As an example, a Grade 1 piano candidate would be expected to play three pieces from a prescribed list:– a short Baroque piece, a Classical or Romantic piece, and a 20th century piece. For example, to quote from this year’s syllabus, J. C. F. Bach: Schwaebisch in D., Schumann: Soldatenmarsch (Soldiers’ March) and Bartók: Quasi adagio: No. 3 from For Children, Vol. 1. They would also be expected to play two-octave scales and broken chords in the simplest keys with separate hands, to sight-read a short phrase in a five-finger position and take part in basic aural tests.
On the other hand, a candidate for the Grade 8 piano exam would need to have prepared over 100 (mostly four-octave) staccato and legato scales and arpeggios, including scales in double thirds, a third or a sixth apart, chromatic scales, even the whole-tone scale, arpeggios, dominant and diminished sevenths. The pieces for this grade follow a similar pattern to that of Grade 1: three pieces from different periods taken from a prescribed list, examples here being J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in Bb, # 21 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven: Allegro , 4th movement from Grand Sonata in Ab op 26, and Liszt: Au lac de Wallenstadt: No. 2 from Années de Pèlerinage: Première année – Suisse. Over thirty years ago, the second piece had to be an entire three-movement sonata, so I regard these candidates as having escaped lightly, but it’s still an impressive feat to pass this exam. Besides advanced sight-reading and aural tests, the candidates also must have passed the Grade 5 theory exam set by the same board before they are eligible to sit the practical exam.
So why bother? What are the advantages of putting your students through such a rigorous experience?
I have often pondered this question myself. It is certainly not necessary for all students to follow this path, and some certainly do not thrive when under such pressure. However, here are some of the benefits I’ve observed during my many years teaching piano in London.
Firstly, it is a way for teachers to ensure that their students get a good, methodical education, learning pieces of different styles and periods, memorizing all the scales and arpeggios they will ever need in a structured fashion, improving their sight reading, and their aural skills. It can be easy, without this kind of structure in place, to omit to teach a student a certain scale, or to work on their sight-reading regularly. It also obliges teachers to work on theory with their students as well as practical musicianship. The educational publications of the ABRSM are an invaluable asset in this regard, being consistently well thought-out, with high editorial standards. Although I now live in the United States, I have not found better theory workbooks anywhere and still use them with my students here.
Secondly, it gives students an opportunity to perform a mini recital in exam conditions, which is extremely useful for students who intend later to enter a conservatoire, and an achievement for any student, although admittedly a bit of an endurance test! As I said earlier, not all students thrive in these conditions, and so it is up to the teacher and student to decide whether they wish to proceed. I did not oblige all students to take exams, and always organized student recitals in addition to examinations, so that performance was not inevitably linked in their minds with examination.
Thirdly, the exam structure and standards are extremely familiar to all teachers in the United Kingdom, and many other countries around the globe, so that it is easy to clarify what level a student has reached, and is a useful shorthand amongst teachers. Grade 8 has been considered a prerequisite to conservatoire entrance for many years, although as the standards continue to rise from one generation to the next, this may change. When I took Grade 8 at 15, back in the 1970’s, I was considered precocious. Now, children as young as ten years old are taking it.
And what about the disadvantages? Some teachers see the structure as restrictive, leading students to pick pieces within a narrower range than they might otherwise choose. Looking at this year’s syllabus, however, I already see a wider range than before, including pieces in a jazz or contemporary style. There is even a jazz syllabus now for certain instruments. Some teachers regard the system as potentially holding back gifted children. If they are busy learning pieces for each exam, they may not tackle more challenging works at a younger age. My teacher solved this dilemma by skipping many of the exams–I took grades 4, 7, and 8 only.
I do not regret the exams I took, or the exams my students have taken. I see it as having been a great educational opportunity. Yet having taught in the States now for nine years, I am not teaching using the exam structure, as it is so little known out here. I’d love to hear of any experiences you have had with the ABRSM exam structure, or any other system of examinations, such as the Canadian system, and also invite your questions.