Music News

Music theory is a passion of mine. As a composer as well as a music teacher, I realise that teaching music theory provides the building blocks of a more complete musician. Put simply, “knowledge is power.”

So it was with great interest that I have noticed that the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), who lead the way in music examinations in the world, was having a major overhaul in the way they test music theory, starting from January 2018.

Why the change? What will be different? Are there any resources to help with the change?

Why the change

A need to modernise their exams and react to feedback from teachers and students has brought on these recent changes. Looking at the new specimen papers, you get a feeling that the tests are less ambiguous than in times past.

Differences

The changes will only affect grades 1-5 at the moment. The rhythm-writing in early grades is being replaced. This used to provide a nice little introduction to the basics of composing but I would imagine that the quality of preparation for this question would have varied greatly from teacher to teacher depending on their own skills or imagination. At the grade 4, there used to be the option of the word-setting question. That has now been axed as well as the option of writing a complete melody at grade 5. How will students cope with the transition into grade 6-8 where composing is a large portion of the assessment? I think that step will be harder for candidates from now on. I have long thought that, although the exams for grade 6-8 are excellent, the resources and support material for these higher grades are appalling and desperately need revamping by the ABRSM. But that’s a subject of another blog.

Gone are the SATB open and short score converting question which was extremely time-consuming. I really like the use of multiple choice questions for the meaning of performance directions. Generally, the exam looks a lot more inviting, modern, clean which is very welcome.

Resources

At the start of 2019, the old exams papers for 2018 will be posted as a preparation booklet but that is quite some time away. In the meantime, the ABRSM has published on their website two sets of sample exam papers as a free download.

I really like a free quiz page that you can share with students to give them practice with the new multiple choice question. That will continue to be a very useful resource do-doubt.

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My old music teacher leaned over towards me, his frail and aged frame and old-fashioned dress sense reminded me of a character from a Dickens novel. “Here you go boy! This will help you with your sight-reading.” His outstretched hand held out a music book of Bach, his favourite composer. I had long feared the sight-reading test in my music exams. After playing the examiner my scales, with which my eighty-some-thing teacher was obsessed with, and then my pieces, next came the bit which was a complete and utter mystery to me! The sight-reading and aural (ear-training) tests. Dum, dum, DUM!!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I have a real passion and respect for Bach now, largely instigated by my wonderfully eccentric teacher but as a teenage boy, most of the preludes, chorales, inventions and selected dances in that book were simply too hard for me to learn let alone sight-read.

I had long feared the sight-reading test in my music exams. After playing the examiner my scales, with which my eighty-some-thing teacher was obsessed with, and then my pieces, next came the bit which was a complete and utter mystery to me! The sight-reading and aural (ear-training) tests. Dum, dum, DUM!!!! Now don’t get me wrong, I have a real passion and respect for Bach now, largely instigated by my wonderfully eccentric teacher but as a teenage boy, most of the preludes, chorales, inventions and selected dances in that book were simply too hard for me to learn let alone sight-read.

Fast-forward on, as a teacher myself now, I have been obsessed with helping my pupils over the years to be successful at reading at sight (as well as helping them to develop good musical ears!) Partly fueled by my own inadequacies and knowing that developing good sight-reading ability just helps students learn songs so much quicker. Also, good sight-reading skills enable them to fit into ensemble playing with greater ease.

I am a big fan of the Paul Harris series “Improve Your Sight-Reading!” so was very interested to stumble on a new series by the same author and publisher (Faber Music) with the extended title “Improve Your Sight-Reading! A piece a week (Piano).”

The purpose of this series is to give students a new piece to learn each week (or two weeks max.) so as to help them avoid the trap of just laboriously learning exam pieces my memory. Rather than merely sight-read the piece, the composer’s introductory comments encourage them to fully learn the piece but with the idea that a short new song each week will really build their music reading confidence. There is a lot of material. 26 pieces in the grade 1 book with a wide variety of styles designed to appeal to the modern student. The pieces are fun often featuring interesting techniques and the evocative titles. There are three activity pages (musical terms word search, crossword and some quite innovative “detective” activities involving analyzing the pieces that the student has been learning).

So what about the pieces? Are they any good? You’ll be glad to know that my sight-reading skills have significantly improved from those spotty teenage days of Bach and therefore I have “road-tested” this material for possible use in my lessons.

I have to say that although none of the songs are going to massive hits in my music studio, they are very well written from the perspective of a person just developing a little bit of confidence in reading music. They are very accessible which I like and give a real chance to teach the importance of a steady pulse and to incorporate dynamics and articulation as an important part of the storytelling. Overall I am quite impressed and I am seriously considering how to incorporate them into my students’ lessons. I think between exam preparation they could really help students build their reading skills in a gentle and imaginative way. I am sure that some of the pieces would be revisited by students. I think this series will be an excellent supplement to aid teaching students to enjoy the pleasure that reading music brings.

Oh well, I’m going “Bach” for more! (Sorry!)

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Encore: when performers return to the stage to give an additional performance!

“Encore” is also a great title for a new series of four music books bursting with favourite exam pieces for piano (and violin). Hold on! Did you just say exam pieces? Boring!

Not so. Over the Christmas holidays, I’ve had great pleasure in playing through these books for not only myself but also with the purpose of testing them out as possible material for my pupils. I have to say that the choices of repertoire are excellent. There is a real mix of styles and although not ever song “floated my boat,” the vast majority were very usable, a handful getting me really excited! [···]

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