ARSM: Your Questions Answered

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

Interview with ABRSM’s Penny Milsom • August 2016

Professional diplomas in music performance and teaching have proliferated in recent years to a point where even many music professionals are sometimes baffled by the sea of letters that follow a colleague’s name.

Latest “diploma” on the block is the new ARSM performing diploma from ABRSM, the world’s leading music examining board.

The ARSM joins existing diplomas the DipABRSM, LRSM and FRSM, and is intended to bridge the gap between Grade 8 (the highest amateur qualification ABRSM offer) and the DipABRSM professional qualification.

The ARSM syllabus and full information were launched last week, following which there has been much discussion about the purpose and validity of the new diploma, some of it summarised in this post by my friend and colleague Frances Wilson.

So I was delighted to have an opportunity to discuss it with Penny Milsom, Executive Director – Products and Services, ABRSM. I put to Penny a number of the questions I have seen colleagues asking online. Read on for her responses, and I hope you enjoy what proved to be a very enlightening interview.

The Interview

Andrew:  Penny, many thanks for agreeing to talk to me.
Firstly, can you tell us about the role you believe that ABRSM has in upholding professional standards through a clear pathway of accredited qualifications?

Penny:  Thank you, Andrew. I’m really pleased to respond to these early questions about our new performance diploma, the ARSM.

To answer your first question, we are deeply aware of our responsibility here. Our mission is to inspire achievement in music. The pathways and resources we offer to learners and teachers play their part in establishing clear standards in music learning and teaching, largely through our range of exams. We very much want to encourage individuals to progress. We do this by providing goals and offering independent assessments that recognise developing musical skills.

Perhaps I could say a few words about our development and review approach, as this helps ensure the robustness and integrity of our qualifications. We work in partnership with the four Royal Schools of Music – the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. We also draw on expert voices inside and outside ABRSM to design, develop, test and review our pathway of qualifications. This is an ongoing process and as part of this we consider it vital to consult with learners and teachers in the 93 countries around the world in which we offer assessments and to understand their needs and goals.

Andrew: I understand that the new ARSM diploma is “designed to showcase performance skills after Grade 8, and to help bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM”. 

Can you tell us how ABRSM identified the need for this new qualification, and why you decided to make it a professional qualifications with the letters ARSM?

Penny: We have developed this new diploma after considering clear feedback from students and teachers worldwide telling us of their wish for a first diploma to bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM. We know that students who have progressed beyond Grade 8 want a goal to take their playing to a further stage and gain recognition for their developing performance skills.

The diploma is placed at the associate level due to the standard of performance expected and the demands of performing 30 minutes of repertoire chosen predominantly from the ARSM lists (which are the same as our DipABRSM repertoire lists). The candidate’s practical performing skills are marked according to a new set of additional criteria that judge their overall performance in terms of interpretation, communication and technical delivery, not just their success item-by-item. This represents a fresh challenge to the student of music who has progressed along the graded pathway but now wishes to develop their performance skills further.

Andrew: Is the ARSM an accredited qualification with Ofqual? I believe Grade 8 is accredited at Level 3 and the DipABRSM at Level 4. Where will the ARSM sit within this scheme?

Penny: The ARSM will be a regulated qualification, placed at Level 4 in the Regulated Qualifications Framework with Ofqual and the corresponding regulatory authorities. The process of regulation is underway and details about the ARSM’s regulation will appear on our website before the end of the year.

Andrew: Are you hoping to move DipABRSM to Level 5 in recognition of its deeper demands?

Penny: No, we’re not envisioning that at present – Level 4 covers a wide band of qualifications.

Andrew: Unlike Grade 8, there is no sight-reading, aural or scales requirement, and unlike the DipABRSM there is no written element, quick study piece or viva-voce. Why did you decide to miss out these aspects of technical and musical development at ARSM level?

Penny: The ARSM is focused solely on the student’s practical performing skills and is about the art and craft of musical communication. The Grade 8 prerequisite for entry means that the ARSM is founded on examined achievement across the range of aspects of technical and musical development that are tested in the grades. We do indeed believe that these are important foundations for the performing musician, hence the decision to require success at Grade 8 for prospective ARSM candidates.

Andrew:  According to the syllabus, in addition to the 20 minutes of repertoire selected from the ARSM lists, candidates may perform up to 10 minutes of own-choice music which should be at or above Grade 8 standard. However, the syllabus is clear that ABRSM aren’t giving prior approval to own-choice pieces.

Can you clarify whether this means in effect that pieces must be selected from the current or past Grade 8 lists to ensure acceptance? And to what extent is approval based on the opinion of the examiner on the day itself?

Penny: I can clarify that the own-choice material does not have to be selected from current or past Grade 8 lists, although using these lists is a helpful guideline to students of the standards required. This own-choice element gives a further opportunity for the student to tailor their performance to their interests and to demonstrate the skill of building an effective programme.

All candidates provide details of their chosen repertoire on their ARSM Programme Form, submitted to ABRSM by the examiner after the exam. Where there is a query over the standard of own-choice material presented, approval rests with ABRSM, not with the individual examiner.

Andrew: Those looking for a teacher often won’t know the difference between ARSM and ARCM, for example, and there’s an obvious potential for confusion. Do you think this is a problem?

Penny: We are offering the ARSM with the support of our Royal Schools partners, who have been fully involved and supportive of its development and titling. You are quite right that not everyone looking for a teacher will be familiar with the various letter-bearing diplomas held and cited by prospective teachers. However, we are confident that the ARSM and the ARCM will be recognised as very different qualifications and that the information available about the ARSM makes its credentials very clear as a first ABRSM performance diploma after Grade 8.

Andrew: What would you say to professionals who gained Associate Diplomas as full-time students at top Conservatoires, and who are concerned that our qualification might now be somewhat devalued?

Penny: I would reassure them that their qualification and its recognised status, as well as their being alumni of a top Conservatoire, together represent an achievement of a different order, the value of which is not affected by the range of associate diplomas on offer as external examinations.

Andrew: While the DipABRSM is assessed by two or more specialist examiners, I understand that the ARSM is being offered universally within the normal grade examination process, usually with a single generalist examiner.

Can you tell us about the additional training that generalist examiners have been given in preparation for their new role of awarding professional qualifications?

Penny: Alongside their annual CPD, all of our examiners are undergoing additional training to prepare them for examining ARSM candidates. We shall also be applying the full range of quality assurance checks and analysis, very much in line with our belief across all our exams that their value rests on their credibility and the strong emphasis we place on consistency, validity and reliability.

Our approach is founded on the assessment by carefully selected and highly trained generalist examiners of a player’s or singer’s musical success, not the means by which it was achieved. The ARSM is founded on this approach.

Andrew: While 30 of the total 50 marks are awarded using the same criteria as Grade exams, with a single overall mark out of 30 to cover all the pieces, the other 20 marks are awarded for the “communication, interpretation and delivery” of the performance as a whole.

The mark scheme for this seems somewhat subjective, and again there will usually only be a single generalist examiner in the room. Can you tell us how examiner marking of this section is being standardised to ensure a “gold standard” consistency?

Penny: The headings may seem subjective taken alone but are simply headings for the criteria that follow beneath each one. The basis for the assessment of the performance as a whole is laid out in these criteria, both in terms of what the examiner will be assessing and also the achievement levels required for success at pass, merit and distinction levels.

We shall be ensuring the consistency of our examiners’ marking with the same series of measures that we have in place for the marking of our Grade exams. We understand how important it is for students to be able to rely on consistency and objectivity of assessment. This is one of the reasons why we put such an emphasis on examiner training and standardisation right across our offer of qualifications.

Andrew: Will the exam be recorded for moderation purposes?

Penny: The exams will not be recorded routinely but will, of course, be subject to the full range of quality assurance processes we always apply. These include, for example, moderating examiners regularly, analysis of mark form comments and results, recording of marks for statistical checks, an appeals process, ongoing annual CPD and occasional recordings for specific purposes.

Andrew: Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and clarify these points for Pianodao website readers.

Penny: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to answer your questions. I very much hope my answers will be helpful to learners and teachers. We are excited about the opportunity our new diploma offers to encourage students to progress beyond Grade 8 and be inspired to develop their performance skills still further.

Penny Milsom photograph © ABRSM 2015. Used with permission.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

3 thoughts on “ARSM: Your Questions Answered”

  1. I have taken abrsm advanced certificate in paino in year 2000 and passed. This exam is no longer exist. What’s qualification is it ? Understand that grade 8 is level 3 whilst dipABRSM is level 4.

    1. Very odd indeed. The repertoire is taken from DipABRSM so that IMO is lazy from abrsm. LCM have different repertoire for their entry level diploma so it is easy to tell the difference between them.

      They should NOT allow this exam to be taken with graded candidates as this is patronising! i have entered a lot for the LCM diploma as this is easier and no one is dressing it up as an associate level.

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