ABRSM Conference 2016

ABRSM Conference Report 2016

ABRSM’s Teacher Conference has established itself as one of the leading events in the instrumental teacher’s calendar, providing an opportunity for colleagues to network, stay abreast of new developments in the music teaching world, and refresh teaching skills.

This year’s conference took place at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel on Saturday 5th November, and took as its title and grand theme ”The Art and Craft of Performing. More than 500 teachers attended, including me for the first time.

A Warm Welcome

With all of the senior personnel of ABRSM mingling with those in attendance, and highly approachable, one of the most striking aspects of the conference was the very open and warm welcome that we were all given.

In his welcome address, Chief Executive Michael Elliott stressed the importance that ABRSM place on listening to feedback and working together with instrumental teachers, echoing his words from the conference programme:

“It is a privilege to have the opportunity to meet, talk and thank you personally for everything that you do for music education.”

Michael went on to make a number of announcements:, including that ABRSM are entering into an educational partnership with the UK’s most popular classical music station Classic fm, which will see them join forces for Classic fm’s Music Teacher of the Year Awards 2017 including a shared showcase event next July.

Secondly, Michael Elliott announce that ABRSM is sponsoring and entering into partnership with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. That partnership will see ABRSM and NYJO work together on three priorities:

1: Raising the profile of jazz education in the UK: by making it clearer what the progression routes are for promising young jazz musicians.

2: Focusing improvements in areas of low cultural engagement and poor arts provision: by delivering inspirational performances and workshop sessions by NYJO musicians and through providing mentoring for emerging next-generation jazz musicians.

3: Developing new resources to help support young musicians and teachers: by combining the collective expertise of both organisations to sustain engagement in jazz.

A raft of other announcements followed, including a new commission on musical potential – a research project which will feed into the National Music Plan. Michael noted that the new Piano Star books have been well received, and also announced a fresh multi-million pound investment in digital resources.

With formalities over, the day continued with a Keynote Speech from Chief Examiner John Holmes, in which he addressed the main conference theme.

The Art and Craft of Performing

“Performing is an act of giving. If we perform with artistry and skill – at any level – and with unconditional generosity, then everyone is the better for it.”   Paul Harris.

John Holmes started by listing the four ingredients of a performance:

  • a stage (informal or formal)
  • an occasion
  • a performer (with purpose and intention)
  • an audience (with anticipation)

He defined musical performance as,

“personal communication and creative expression supported by skills, knowledge and understanding.”

John then explored the duality of ART (including the cognitive elements) and CRAFT (meaning the practical), saying:

“What we are interested in is the intersection of art and craft, and how they contribute together to the outcome.”

He rightly underlined the importance of balance here – performance should ideally not be mechanical, but nor should performers take more license than is tasteful.

Overall this Keynote Presentation was thoughtful, well-presented and at times amusing, with John an excellent communicator. The session provided a strong foundation for the rest of the day, as well as (in my view) underlining the authority with which ABRSM can uniquely comment on the Art and Craft of Performance.

ABRSM Teacher Conference

A Rich Feast

Following on from this great opening session, there were four more sessions, each lasting an hour and interspersed with coffee breaks, a fabulous lunch, and visits to the obligatory trade fair.

The best way to give readers an idea of what was on offer is to list the four alternatives provided for each session, along with the starry list of presenters (who represent the cream of the music education scene). From this varied menu, teachers could select their own rich feast:

Session One

  • Creative pathways through the new piano repertoire, List A (Liz Hayes and Luis Parés)
  • Introduction to ARSM, a new performance-only diploma (John Holmes)
  • Teaching the Early Learner (Katy Ambrose and Anthony Williams)
  • Aural training for all: Nurturing young performers’ musicianship skills with ease (Miranda Francis)

Session Two

  • Creative pathways through the new piano repertoire, List B (Anthony Williams and Luis Parés)
  • Using the marking criteria: DipABRSM (Music Performance) (John Holmes)
  • Performance in the Classroom (Louise Matthew and Rachel Lund)
  • Getting the Groove: understanding jazz performance practice (Mark Armstrong and Alexander L’Estrange)

Session Three

  • You and your audience (Gary Matthewman)
  • You and your music: composing & performing (Andy Scott)
  • Using the marking criteria: Jazz (Mark Armstrong and Alexander L’Estrange)
  • Introduction to ARSM, a new performance-only diploma (John Holmes)

Session Four

  • Creative pathways through the new piano repertoire, List C (Anthony Williams and Liz Hayes)
  • You and your music: knowledge & understanding (Paul Harris)
  • The Big Play (Mark Armstrong)
  • The Big Sing (Alexander L’Estrange)

These final two options fed into a closing workshop and “performance” in which delegates took part in some enthusiastic music making which provided a fitting conclusion to the day.

Something for Everybody

Teachers’ ongoing professional development is inevitably often focussed on updating their knowledge of the latest syllabus content and assessment criteria. And as the world’s leading instrumental music examining board, it is not only to be expected but to be applauded that ABRSM gave over several sessions to this, demonstrating true transparency and professionalism throughout.

For the piano teacher who is perhaps nervous about teaching the brand new 2017-18 syllabus (see my independent review here) the day could have been spent getting to grips with the repertoire with the support of the experts who helped select it and write the ABRSM Teachers Notes book. And they could still fit in John Holmes’s useful session on the new ARSM Diploma (see my interview with Penny Milsom for more information).

For those teaching other instruments there were many great alternatives, and it was encouraging to see again the importance that ABRSM place on Jazz (somewhat in contrast to the other exam boards), revealing the first fruits of their new partnership with NYJO. There were also sessions offering practical musical activities for use in classroom, group and individual teaching.

The great thing about the many alternatives listed above is that they offer something for everyone. Even the teacher who doesn’t use ABRSM’s other products and services could certainly have found sufficient high-quality input here to more than justify the cost and time of attending. Truly a rich feast!


I noted earlier in my report that this is the first time I have personally attended the ABRSM Teacher Conference.

It is not, of course, the first time I have been to similar events. Indeed, I’ve been to innumerable teacher conferences both here in the UK and overseas, both as a delegate and as a speaker – and this was certainly one of the best I’ve attended, both in terms of its content, and in the outstanding organisation of the whole day.

I will be eagerly looking forward to next year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference – and would certainly recommend all teachers reading this to attend if at all possible!

Photography © 2016 ABRSM. Used with permission.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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