Ask ABRSM

I’m delighted to let you know that Pianodao will feature an exclusive interview with ABRSM Chief Executive Michael Elliott next month.

Readers are invited to submit questions here.
Simply add yours as a comment below this blog post, and I will try to include it in the interview.

The goal of the interview is to get behind the scenes, perhaps bust a few myths, and give Michael a chance to talk about the direction ABRSM are headed, answering any questions or concerns teachers and candidates may have.

ABRSM and Pianodao will both be sharing this blog post via our respective social media channels, and hope to crowd-source as many interesting questions as possible. Questions submitted elsewhere on social media might get missed however, so please be sure to post your question in the comments here.

On your marks, get set ….  ASK!

Closing date: Monday 3rd April.

[NB if you haven’t commented here before, your first comment is send for approval before it appears in public, but I get an instant notification and will approve quickly.]

Published by

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.

32 thoughts on “Ask ABRSM”

  1. 1. Does he feel that the ABRSM specifically is responsible for the lack of exploration from students of other repertoire?

    2. Does he feel that perhaps the licensing opportunities, given by the ABRSM, is so enticing that in a sense their indirect directives (pun intended) are shaping the structure and aesthetics of new compositions?

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  2. There is an abundance of teachers in the piano community (some of which even hold esteemed positions at universities) that make a living off teaching students how to pass exams, promote their brand by competing at piano festivals, and little else. The end results tend to be students that are disenfranchised with music, leave their instrument and have very little practical playing skills such as improvising, composing and fitting into modern music ensembles. I’ve known other people’s students that passed Grades as high as 5 without being able to read past five notes. As a 14 year old I passed my Grade 8 without knowing what improvisation even was. I feel that the requirements of traditional examining boards such as the ABRSM are key in why bad practice like this continues, via the lack of integration of practical musicianship into the core performance examinations. Having practical musicianship as niche set of examinations outside of the core leads the subject matter within them to be dismissed/ignored by the majority of the problem teachers I’m talking about. The Rock School are more progressive in this manner, integrating practical playing skills into performance exams. I understand that examining boards are not teachers, but I feel this culture would have a much harder time existing if traditional examining boards upped their game in this regard.

    – Daniel

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  3. Please could something be done about all the singing that has to be perfirmed for the aural tests ? My pupils really struggle with it. Perhaps there could be an alternative test along the lines of the student looks at a piece of music which in turn the examiner plays as an altered version and the candidate has to point to the changes on their score.

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  4. 1) Feels like exams have hardly changed since I did them as a child (nearly 50 years ago). I can see reasons for and against this, but it is a bit surprising. Will ABRSM be modernising their whole examination system, eg with ‘course work’ counting rather than the very intimidating one off performance?

    2) as an adult learner, I am put off doing further exams because of my experiences as a child (see above). Given the increasing number of adult students who are returning to the piano, will the ABRSM consider a separate and more developmental approach for adult learners?

    Hope the interview goes well, will be interested in the outcome!

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  5. In the years I have been teaching I have noticed a relentless steady upwards pressure on the standards that children need to achieve to get to grades 1 and 2
    (indeed, Pianodao has commented on this elsewhere). Our children live in a different world, they have extra-curricular activities galore, skiing holidays at half term, iPads, playstations…..They get virtually no musical teaching in State schools AND they face very little assessment of a pass/fail nature at school. Even the (middle class) parents of the children I teach are stunned when I explain to them the time involved to get to grade 1 (2 years probably, if you are 6/7, or roughly £1200 plus the cost of an instrument). ABRSM, you are making my life very difficult. I’m not asking you to reduce your standards overall but can you not lower the entry point at which children can walk away with an achievement?? Your prep test is not marked, frankly, it’s not an achievement. Most teachers I know only use it as a way of stalling parents who are clamouring for results. It’s unmarked, it’s meaningless and it’s yet more money for parents to shell out. Why can’t you have a proper, marked prep test and maybe even a pre prep exam that rewards the skills needed to play at a more basic level??

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  6. I would like to know why the ABRSM jazz exams stop at grade 5.

    My parents would like to know why the standard exams can’t have CD accompaniment whereas the jazz exams can.

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  7. Why is the piano syllabus updated every two years yet every other instrument is every three or more?

    This is in spite of two hands playing more notes than other instruments and have more scale variations to learn (at grade 8 there are over 450 scale variations for piano.)

    Some students have got caught up in a cycle where they will pass an exam and start learning the next grade however don’t get their repetoire ready in time and so miss out on taking the exam despite having been almost ready for it, it is frustrating for the student and teacher.

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  8. 2 questions, thinks I would like to ask.
    As a teacher of nearly 20 years – piano and woodwind. I have found myself increasingly using other exam boards for a larger proportion of my pupils. The reasons are twofold.
    1. I’m finding the new Grade 1, especially a list pieces are too hard, and the new prep test is great but not properly assessed. I would like to see a step system, like music medals but properly assessed (either by myself as a teacher assessor or at an exam centre) prior to grade 1. Is there any plans to introduce this for piano?
    My own opinion is 3 step to grade one – you could even call them “Piano Stars”… 1,2,3 or bronze, silver, gold… something where pupils have a sense of achievement, grade 1 is sooo far from starting and for non musical families it needs bridging otherwise momentum is lost (currently using LCM steps for my Y1/2 beginners until grade 1)

    2. Aural tests. Please can these be revamped to have less of an emphasis on singing?? This I find particularly problematic for pupils around GCSE age, especially boys when their voices change. I would like to see more conducting, more questions about what they are hearing from early on – major / minor, changes, cadences, or even an option for replacing aural with a musical knowledge / viva voce aspect.

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  9. Are there future plans for recording exams? I am very concerned about moderation and have personal experience of having 11 marks different between the same exam (first a mock one but under exam conditions conducted by a real ABRSM examiner, 4 days before the real exam) and the real exam, but done by a lady who has a PhD in studying performance skills at the conservatoires. This may be an extreme example but I have really lost faith in the so-called moderation of exams… A few marks here and there, fair enough, but 11 marks is really quite significant.

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  10. 1) Grade 1 for pianists is disproportionately difficult in comparison to other instruments and the time taken to reach grade 1 can be very dispiriting for young pianists. I am not asking that you ‘dumb down’ the standard but just for a more realistic level of pieces with fewer scales and more thought about including pieces that are more child-friendly for lower grades-I do find that Trinity score better generally than ABRSM here. Conversely, it would be useful in the piano Prep Test to have the option to play some one octave scales in preference to the memorised exercises. I find the latter are not well thought-out as they do not relate to the following syllabus for grades (nowhere is memorisation required other than for scales) and I don’t find them of benefit to pupils.
    2) The Practical Musicianship exams are a great alternative to grade 5 theory but the lack of material available and publicity around them makes it feel like a somewhat ‘Cinderella’ option.
    3) The reduction of centres offering jazz piano is making me consider rival exam boards as not all parents want to travel the distance.
    4) Why does jazz piano stop at grade 5?
    5) Greater and more genuine choice over exam dates with weekend and evenings available and better availability of weeks later on in the term. In the past I’ve often asked for the latter weeks and got the first week. There is a significant amount of work that can be done in that month with a pupil which can make all the difference in the result. Many teachers, especially school-based peripatetic staff, struggle to fit music exams into already short teaching terms that are packed with school activities and exams, and a more accurate advance warning of the date would be helpful. Again, this is where Trinity score as I know the two-weekly exam period months in advance.

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  11. Following on about Jazz exams by @DizzyTrumpeter, I am keen for a myth to be busted. The syllabus has great potential but I feel that a renewal has been long been overdue as it has been almost 20 years since the original publication. Somewhere and at some point I heard that movements may be being made to make this happen. Is this the case? If so, further information would be very much appreciated.

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  12. Are there any plans to modernise the theory syllabus, specifically to look at the relevance of figured bass for the young modern musician?

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  13. I don’t see the need for the sight-singing in the aural tests. If candidates are taking a singing exam it’s appropriate for them to be able to sing at sight. However many students have no experience of this and it can take up far too much time in an instrumental lesson when I and the student would prefer to work on their playing and sight-reading for their instrument. Many students go with other exam boards in order to escape the requirement to sing. I teach piano and a lot of my students ask me for help with the aural for their other instrumental exams precisely because their teachers don’t have time to do it and in many cases have asked them to ask me.

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  14. I would like to ask please for exam pieces, etc to be available for teachers (or anyone else for that matter) on Kindle.

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  15. Echoing some of the comments above, please could the ABRSM consider a pre-prep test step. I have an increasing number of parents bringing children at aged 5 or 6 and expecting a Grade 1 entry within a year: Or rather within 3 terms i.e. A maximum of 39 lessons. I’m fairly resilient, but the pressure is becoming ridiculous. Perhaps Piano Star Steps 1 2 and 3 to tie in with the new Piano Star books? The notion that Grade 1 is the beginning and a ‘child’s exam’ has become deeply entrenched somewhere along the line.It needs to be addressed.

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  16. Recently I studied for a Piano Teachers Specialist Certificate with the Canadian RCM. I had the opportunity to compare its examination syllabus to ABRSM’s and I was very impressed. The RCM has a much much longer and more flexible list of examination pieces to choose from than ABRSM (including many beautiful pieces that students are already familiar with from their method books) and a student can also substitute one item from the core repertoire with an item from the “Popular Selections” list (graded arrangements of songs from musicals and movie and TV theme tunes). It is therefore much easier to make the syllabus work for the student, harnessing the child’s enthusiasm by finding music they love.

    I estimate that 50% – 75% of my students would enjoy and benefit from preparing for RCM examinations. Experience tells me that this is not the case with ABRSM examinations, primarily because my students find it difficult to find music that they really engage with from the very small list of options. I am therefore currently only entering about 10-20% of students for ABRSM examinations. If RCM were available in Germany where I work, I would switch to them, despite my feeling loyalty to ABRSM, because I am sure that the RCM examinations would work better for my students.

    How is the ABRSM syllabus going to evolve over the next few years? How will you make it more relevant for today’s students?

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  17. Hello, I would be happy to add a second vote to pretty much everything that has been asked, especially the issues surrounding Grade 1 Piano. I would also like to ask if there could be moves to reduce the technical requirements for Grade 2 piano which I feel are a huge advance on Grade 1 and off-putting for many. I think the lower Grades could benefit from a revamp and a consideration of the type of tutor material used nowadays (which has changed a lot to suit “today’s beginner” from 20 years or more ago.) I think that a lower grade pianist would be better off playing something very simple, perhaps with fewer changes of hand position, but with artistry, the emphasis being on phrasing, dynamics, production of tone and articulation. Piano notation asks a lot of a beginner musician and I feel sometimes we get bedded down in “learning the notes” for a long time, which is demoralising. Thank you, and I too look forward to the interview. Regards, Anne

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  18. Most of my students find the sight-reading tests difficult from grade 3 onwards, and dread that part of the exam. By grade 6 or 7, their skills have usually developed, but I feel that grade 3-5 sight-reading is too demanding.

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  19. After reading a recent comment I investigated the RCM website. The first thing to strike me was the number of steps taken to reach the end of their grading system i.e smaller steps leading to the same/similar degree of proficiency at the end.

    My belief is that parents are confusing Grade 1 with Year 1 of school, and expecting similar parallel certificated progress throughout their child’s school career.

    Therefore, something closer to the RCM model, might prove beneficial to all parties: A ‘rebranding’ of a greater number of steps eventually leading to the same level of technical skills and repertoire required. Would this be something the ABRSM might consider?

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  20. I would like to know why, when the exams part of the AB website proclaims ‘all round musicianship’, the Practical Musicianship exams appear to be so peripheral.’. Could we have some fresh input here? A clearer description of how the tests are administered? Please.

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  21. So many good points on Grade 1 and the Prep Test, which I no longer use as I don’t feel it prepares pupils well for the first grade. Trinity Initial does this so much better. My main question though is whether the ABRSM would consider a more modular approach to the exams, so that there is greater flexibility for both teacher and student. There are so many skills pianists can develop, especially those that are not necessarily destined for a career in classical music – which is probably all of my pupils! I am well aware of all that other exams boards offer and there is a very wide range but the classical and popular or jazz approach needn’t be entirely separate. Including chord skills along with scales or an option to include some practical musicianship would be beneficial for everyone.

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  22. Several other commenters addressed the difficulty many students have with aural skills and sight-reading. Many of my fellow piano teachers on the RCM’s Piano Teacher Specialist Training course were extremely complimentary about a series of books that the RCM has produced called “Four Star Sightreading and Ear Tests”. These are designed with daily activities for students to take home and work through as part of their practise routines, thereby ensuring that the student gets regular self-directed practise in these important musicianship skills. Personally I have found it necessary to supplement ABRSM’s own published material on sight-reading and aural tests with books by Paul Harris. I give Harris’s books to my students for their at-home practise. Does ABRSM have any plans to give its teachers and students more support and guidance in developing these skills?

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  23. Seconding all the jazz questions. What does it stop at Grade 5? For those students who have followed that tradition, it feels like jazz isn’t worth as much as classical because they don’t have to opportunity to achieve as highly.

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  24. Echoing a lot of others. I find it all a bit bewildering that when I was a child, wind and brass exams started at Grade 3 for this exact reason – the technical difficulties of piano (and strings) mean that beginning piano students are going to be ready for their first exam at a different time to players of other instruments and the Prep Test, even in its new (and much improved, I might add!) form only partially bridges that gap.

    On a positive note, I want to say a huge thank you for the Piano Star series, which are absolutely fantastic! (I’ve also just bought Violin Star 1 for my 6yo daughter and am pleased to report that it’s equally good, if not better!)

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  25. I had a terrible experience with an examiner last December who invited me in for a row as he had a real problem with a special needs candidate, failed half my students, chucked out a candidate half way through a prep test and then lied to your quality control when I made a complaint. There is no mechanism to change marks, even when they fail to tally with the students previous grades, nor with my own general success rate. Is there no way round this?

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  26. I would echo the question about moderation of exams. I have been involved in many different types of exams and every single one of them is properly moderated by another examiner. Music (and dance!) are the only ones that aren’t. This does not seem right in times of easy recording.

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