A Theoretical Diversion…

My recent in-depth post concerning the current ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory requirement has attracted considerable interest and debate online, not unexpectedly. A second in-depth post will follow later in the month, in which I hope to answer the questions raised in the first. Until then, a small diversion…

Returning from a qigong retreat this week I found the following email in my inbox, which perfectly encapsulates the issues I raised in my previous post, so much so that I will reproduce it in full (while of course concealing the sender’s identity):

“Hi Andrew, I’ve been given your details by a colleague as I’m looking for a music theory teacher for my 14 year old daughter. She currently plays the viola, passing grade 5 (with distinction) at the end of last year. In order to continue with the ABRSM syllabus, she obviously now needs to pass her grade 5 theory, ideally at the end of this term.

Please could you let me know if you have any space at the moment? Due to [her] other commitments to music and dance, I think a crash course would be preferable if at all possible. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Readers may be all-too familiar with the urgency of parents who suddenly discover that the educational route their children are following contains a roadblock that threatens future progress. Teachers will also understand that there is little likelihood that any child might cram five grades worth of music theory information over the space of two months (the time period suggested by this parent). So what is to be done?

It’s worth noting that I regularly receive emails almost identical to this. This is because here in the UK, ABRSM have a hegemony that is deeply seated and underpins many (if not most) people’s expectations of what good music education looks like. In many ways this is a good thing, as ABRSM are a fantastic organisation who are doing a superb job of maintaining excellent standards. That said, it is always useful to challenge expectations before entropy sets in, and this parent’s email highlights a particular case where this is surely necessary.

We should also note the parent’s misconception of the current ABRSM requirements, because in fact her daughter does not “obviously now need to pass her grade 5 theory”, as I explain in my reply:

Many thanks for contacting me. I am sorry to disappoint, but due to the popularity of piano lessons I have no immediate availability to help in this instance. However, if I might advise:

Your daughter has clearly made excellent progress, achieving outstanding results within the ABRSM system, and without the need to be taught structured music theory by her viola teacher thus far. Her success is great, but it highlights an obvious kink in the assessment system.

The good news is that ABRSM offer an alternative to the Music Theory requirement, which may be far more suitable for your daughter. This alternative is Grade 5 “Practical Musicianship”, which comprises a short practical examination of aural, sight reading and creative playing skills. It is likely that your daughter’s viola teacher will have covered most of this learning, perhaps without considering the availability of the exam.

I would therefore suggest that you contact her viola teacher and discuss entering her for the Grade 5 Musicianship exam, which may need only minimal preparation. You (and the teacher) can find full details of the Practical Musicianship syllabus on the ABRSM website here.

A couple of important issues are highlighted here.

Firstly, is it really the case that a viola teacher who works with a student for 30 minutes per week should spend half or more of that time explaining – to give one example of many – how to transpose music for a tenor euphonium player? I would suggest not. In fact, such a diversion would be very unhelpful in most cases, and difficult to contextualise or integrate in a musical way.

A better alternative would surely be for music teachers to work as team players, with a variety of specialists to cover both academic and practical learning. That is of course what was suggested in this case, but given the popularity of piano and keyboard tuition, those of us who teach these instruments are unlikely to have the time to teach theory to the rest of the musicians in our area. So there is an obvious problem in terms of teacher availability and music theory delivery. Teenage students may find there is a Music Theory class run by their school, but in this age of cutbacks these are less common than used to be the case, and instrumental teachers and ABRSM need to consider this issue strategically.

Secondly, the likelihood that the viola teacher will have covered most aspects of the Practical Musicianship test, but few of the Music Theory, highlights how different these assessments actually are. This point might be lost on those excellent piano teachers who routinely cover aspects of both syllabi, but will be clearly understood by those who teach orchestral instruments, for whom including written music theory in a musically integrated way is more of a challenge.

Sadly, searching on the ABRSM website for the Practical Musicianship syllabus link took longer than expected. The site contains links to the Music Theory syllabus on almost every page, but none to the Practical Musicianship unless you go searching specifically for it. This is highly revealing, and one could easily conclude that ABRSM are actually trying to hide the existence of their Practical Musicianship option altogether! If ABRSM wish to maintain the present range of preconditions for taking an instrumental Grade 6 exam, then they would do well to start more actively promoting their Practical Musicianship alternative so that instrumental teachers and students can make informed choices.

For those who teach in a system quite different from ours in the UK, this whole discussion may appear rather moot. The reality for those of us in the UK is that the hegemony of ABRSM has given our music education an emphasis which is often outstanding, but just occasionally not.

Suppose we were to start again from scratch: how would we go about teaching and assessing music theory? That is the question I hope to address in my second in-depth look at music theory, coming soon!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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