ABRSM’s Michael Elliott: The Pianodao Interview

The 2017 Pianodao interview with Michael Elliott, Chief Executive, ABRSM

I am hugely grateful to Michael Elliott, Chief Executive of ABRSM, for giving up his time to take part in this interview. At his suggestion, the questions were crowd-sourced prior to the interview.

Many questions were raised on the Pianodao site here, and so far as possible I included these reader questions word for word, but I have streamlined the recurring themes which cropped up.

And many of the questions asked were very probing – so get comfortable and prepare for an in-depth and revealing read! …

The Interview

Andrew Eales:  Michael, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, and for your suggestion of crowd sourcing questions online. The huge response demonstrates the passionate interest that musicians and teachers have in ABRSM and its direction of travel.

Firstly, let’s start with this: what do you think are ABRSM’s greatest strengths, and most problematic weaknesses?

Michael Elliott:  Thank you for generating such a fascinating discussion among many passionate musicians and teachers who have a strong interest in ABRSM. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to address concerns and discuss the part we aim to play in inspiring achievement in music.

It’s the connection to passionate musicians around the world that I see as our greatest strength. As an international music exam board and publisher, we are connected with vast numbers of musicians – from the learners at the heart of our activities whose progress we wish to encourage, to the professional musicians who help shape what we do, whether as teachers, examiners, composers or consultants. Their enthusiastic support of our activities and commitment to the musical values we hold dear demonstrate the strength of the exams, publications, resources and approaches we have developed and that are so much part of the fabric of musical progression for so many.

With this strength comes responsibility, specifically in the area of graded exams. They need to have currency and validity and remain a respected international benchmark which celebrates the progress and achievements of developing musicians. Meeting this responsibility appropriately is a challenge we embrace, and that includes evolving as an organisation and developing the assessments and resources we offer to students and teachers in a widening range of learning circumstances.

AE:  What is your vision for ABRSM during your tenure?

ME:  To continue to inspire achievement in music and support learners and teachers worldwide. We aim to do this by providing a range of resources programmes, and assessments, beyond our current graded music exams, working in partnership with others to support music making. We’re also investing in the services and systems to equip us to achieve our aims and to better serve our customers.

AE:  Reading the questions readers asked online, running through many of them is a sense that in recent years ABRSM haven’t succeeded in keeping up with the pace of change in society and in education. Does the extent of these concerns surprise you?

ME:  No, it’s not a surprise.  The themes running through these questions echo strongly the insights and views we hear all around us and of which we are taking account in developing our activities.

We designed our recently launched Teacher Voices customer feedback panel to help us further in this process of gathering ideas and opinions.  We’re using this information and other research to continue to test and improve our support for teachers and students, and shape the creation of new assessments, exams, apps, books and events, as well as more digital and video resources for teachers, parents and students.

Our Making Music research in 2014, captured some of the big trends that underlie the challenges for music education in the UK and the Music Commission that we’re launching in July will look further at these here and overseas.

We need to fulfil our responsibilities wisely in developing our exams and supporting resources to ensure they are relevant, valid and of real value to the teaching community and fully engage today’s learners.

The challenges, and the opportunities, are not unique to ABRSM, which is why we’re working more and more in collaboration with partners across the music education sector and focusing our efforts where we can make a difference. One great example of this is Classical 100, where we partnered with Decca Classics and Classic FM to provide all UK primary schools with a free listening resource to ensure that young children have access to classical music.

Graded Examinations

AE:  Since the new marking grid was introduced a couple of years ago many teachers have suggested that examiner comments have become overly critical, and that marks have been less predictable and generally lower.

Given the extent and strength of these concerns, could you confirm the global average mark for each of the eight piano grades as it was in 2010, and as it was last year? How would you explain any change?

ME:  Examiners are trained to comment in a positive and sympathetic way, which describes the musical outcome heard in the exam room, evaluating relative strengths and weaknesses, with reference to the marking criteria. We are always keen to hear of any instances where teachers may feel that specific mark forms fall short of this aim, and our Quality Assurance team regard this as helpful feedback. The revised criteria in 2014 made ABRSM’s approach to grade exam marking clearer, more transparent and accessible, with no associated change to marking standards themselves. With criteria for assessment which are easier to understand and apply, there has been an increase in examiner marking consistency over the past few years.

The global average mark across practical graded music exams has slightly increased from 117 in 2010, to 118 in 2016, so if anything there is in fact an upward rather than a downward trend here. All this said, we would like to reiterate however that where there is any significant sense of inconsistent or incorrect marking, we would like to hear about it; our Quality Assurance team’s job is to investigate any concerns, and to communicate our findings back to applicants.

AE:  Do you think it is ever acceptable for an examiner’s comments to be predominantly critical rather than encouraging, particularly bearing in mind the changes in how today’s children receive constructive feedback within the school classroom?

ME:  The answer here, naturally, is ‘no’, though there are some considerations to add. There is a fundamental difference between formative, ‘teacherly’ feedback (“Now try to …”) and summative, ‘examinerly’ feedback (“The playing showed …”), and we actively discourage examiners from teacher-style comments on the mark form. There is also a distinction to be drawn between the tone of an examiner’s comments – which should always be encouraging and supportive – and the content of the mark form comment, which is determined by the balance of strengths and weaknesses in a candidate’s performance.

Our ‘On Your Marks’ interactive resource provides good examples of what examiner comments should be and highlights how our exams are assessed. We would encourage anyone who feels examiner comments are too critical to get in touch with us.

AE:  Several readers raised concerns about how graded exams are moderated, noting that exams aren’t routinely recorded by ABRSM as they are by other examination boards. What is your current position on recording exams, and can we expect that ABRSM will soon meet the same standards that other examination boards have set in this regard?

ME:  We are excited by the emerging possibilities here, for using audio recordings of exam performances in new, efficient ways. This might be for moderation, training or professional development purposes. The moderation of our exams is central to their reputation as trusted assessments. Over the years we have developed an unrivalled and multi-faceted process for quality assurance, which trains and supports our examiners in applying consistent standards. We closely monitor rates of appeals, queries and feedback about exam results and the figures here are currently very low.

The value of a recording comes in the use made of it, so we need to consider how we could put recordings to effective use. We recognise the interest in having a recording to support an exam appeal and will continue to keep this under review, looking at how widely it would be valued and for what purposes.

AE:  Does ABRSM feel under any pressure to mark students in the Far East differently than here in the UK?

ME:  No, none at all. Our marking criteria and moderation strengthen the standards and consistency of all examiners’ marking and form the basis of assessment for all graded music exams. So wherever you take an exam – in Sutton Coldfield or Singapore – the examiner will be following exactly the same marking guidelines, with the aim of exactly the same assessment.

AE:  Why can’t the standard instrumental grade exams have CD accompaniment, whereas the jazz exams can?

ME:  Essentially due to the stable rhythmic framework of jazz music, where the expectation is that performance and improvisation take place against the foundation of a steady pulse. This is in contrast to the performance judgements needed when playing and accompanying the broad range of genres and styles found in the classical syllabus lists.

AE:  Could ABRSM offer greater and more genuine choice over exam dates – with weekend and evening choices, and better availability later in the term?

ME:  As we update our services and systems over the next two years, we are actively exploring ways to modernize the exam booking process. This will help us to accommodate candidates in 93 countries around the world each year, and will allow us to offer them greater flexibility and choice.

The Syllabus

AE:  Turning to questions about the syllabus, several readers question the steep path to the early piano grades. As one respondent wrote, “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.”

Several teachers called for a complete overhaul of the lower grades for piano, including a rethink on the Prep Test and pre-Grade 1 assessments. The difficult jump in technical requirements for piano Grade 2 was also highlighted.

What will ABRSM do in response to this feedback, and when can we expect to see this disparity addressed?

ME:  We are very aware of this feedback and are currently in the process of setting the next Piano syllabus (2019-20). Using a range of candidate and examiner data, musical and pedagogical expertise, and customer feedback, we are looking at ways to balance the need to maintain standards over time with active and responsive syllabus development.

We recognize the view from some teachers who feel that standards have drifted upwards, particularly at the very early grades. As an awarding organisation whose qualifications are regulated, questions of standard, parity, validity and consistency are important to us, and we will be addressing this perceived drift.

We will also, in recognition of the needs of candidates and teachers, be exploring the whole area of pre-Grade 1 activity across instruments, but this will be on a slightly longer timescale.

AE:  Piano teachers often have difficulty finding music within the syllabus that pupils engage with from the very small list of options. Would it not be easy to offer greater choice of exam pieces in the syllabus, for example by allowing a free choice of pieces from your ‘Encore’ books as alternatives?

ME:  We welcome ideas of this kind as we review and develop our syllabuses. We have just launched our first teacher feedback panel (Teacher Voices), which allows us to test ideas and suggestions with a wide and representative range of teachers. We’re committed to providing resources and assessments that are useful to our customers so do get in touch to tell us what you find challenging.

AE:  Are there any plans to publish the exam pieces for iPad or Kindle?

ME:  We are actively investing in platforms to deliver more options for teachers and students. While we are not yet in a position to publish pieces in this way, we are interested in how we can make our music available to students and teachers in ways that work well for them.

AE:  Why is the piano syllabus updated every two years, but other instrumentalists can keep using the same pieces for three or more?

ME:  This is in part due to the breadth of repertoire available to pianists compared to some other instruments. Also feedback from piano teachers indicates that they welcome the two-yearly refreshment of the lists and the introduction to fresh repertoire at regular intervals as a benefit to their students, and as a contributor to their own professional development and growth.

Some instruments have longer lists and are refreshed less often mainly due to the amount of repertoire available for those particular instruments. However we are in the process of increasing the frequency of refreshment of the other 35 instruments we examine. As part of this process we are also investing in and commissioning new repertoire.

AE:  Given the increasing number of adults who are returning to the piano, will the ABRSM be considering a separate approach for adult learners?

ME:  While our current offer makes no distinction by age, we try to ensure that our exams and repertoire are suitable for candidates of all ages.

We are aware of the growing interest from adults, whether returners or those who have an ambition to learn to play an instrument or to sing for the first time. We are keen to consider whether there are particular needs and motivations that might make a separate approach or presentation for adults appropriate. We will be actively seeking input on this from adult learners, teachers and experts in this field.

AE:  The innovative and highly regarded Jazz Syllabus continues to attract interest and praise – but there is concern that it stops at Grade 5, and that the syllabus hasn’t been renewed for many years.

Do you believe that Jazz players should have the opportunity to achieve as highly as classical musicians, and if so can you confirm when Grade 6-8 will appear?

ME:   Yes, we would wish jazz players to have the opportunity to achieve the higher grades but we do not have immediate plans to extend the current syllabus. As with all our syllabuses, we will be reviewing the whole offer in due course.

AE:  The Theory Syllabus hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. Are there plans to modernize the syllabus, specifically to look at relevance for the young modern musician? Might it be possible to offer a more modular choice of options that allow for greater contextual choice and relevance?

ME:  This is another area of active review and we will be evaluating and developing our approach to Music Theory. Further information about what this will involve will be available later this year so watch this space!

Breadth of Musicianship

AE:  Several teachers asked about the emphasis on singing within aural tests. While there’s agreement that singing is important in developing aural acuity, it’s clear that many teachers feel this is an inappropriate approach to assessing it. For some, it is even the main reason for switching to alternative exam boards.

It’s been rumoured for some time that ABRSM will be reforming the aural tests to include minimal or no singing – can you confirm when this is going to happen?

ME:  We are just at the start of a review of our current aural tests. One of the areas we will be looking at is the requirement to sing. We know from consultation with teachers that singing as a part of aural training is highly valuable teaching tool and yet a potential stumbling block when it comes to the requirement to respond vocally in an assessment context. We strongly believe in the value of using the voice as part of learning an instrument, as your question signals, and we know that many teachers will include this in lessons. We are looking forward to exploring the underlying issues here and coming to a view about possible changes to the format and delivery of the exam.

AE:  Does ABRSM have any plans to give its teachers and students more support and guidance for developing aural and sight-reading skills?

ME:  As we value aural and sight-reading skills, we’re dedicated to providing support and guidance for them and so we have a comprehensive print and digital offer. Over the past few years we have developed new apps to support the learning of aural skills and scales and will soon be releasing a new app for sight-reading, which will complete our suite of digital supporting test resources and apps for Piano. The Joining the Dots books for Guitar, Piano, Singing and Violin are also useful resources developing sight-reading skills.

We’re always looking for new ways in which we can support teachers and students so if you have any suggestions, please do get in touch with us.

AE:  Regarding sight-reading, there is still a feeling that ABRSM requirements for piano are out of step with other instruments, particularly at the intermediate level. Are there any plans to address this?

ME:  As an awarding organisation, we ensure that our exams meet with compliance and validity standards of regulatory bodies. This includes regularly undergoing a robust review process and consultation with a wide range of experts from across all instruments and teaching. As a result we are confident that our sight-reading requirements for all instruments are appropriate for their grade and that any discrepancies would be identified swiftly so that we can deal with them.

AE:  This brings us to the broader question of Practical Musicianship. The ABRSM website states, “We believe in the importance of all-round musicianship and this forms the basis of our exams.”

Why then is Practical Musicianship assessed in separate exams rather than within the standard grades, and why are the musicianship exams not updated and promoted?

ME:  The Practical Musicianship exam itself has been in existence for many years in its current form and will form part of our ongoing review and refreshment of all syllabuses. It is a general, non-instrument specific exam and complements all-round musicianship. It is available as an alternative to the Grade 5 Theory prerequisite for Grades 6 to 8.

The inclusion of aural tests, sight-reading, pieces or songs, and scales and arpeggios in our graded exams encourages a rounded musical education. Combined with study of music theory we feel that our graded exams support a broad approach to musicianship.

AE:  Might it be possible for regular grade exams to include the option of short support tests focused on improvisations, playing by ear and from chord notations, so that those working through the grades don’t subsequently feel unable to play at all without the written note?

ME:  That’s an interesting idea and something that we offer in Jazz exams. However aural tests aren’t meant to be a totality of everything you should learn. They are simply a way to assess musical knowledge and understanding.

This question touches on an age-old dilemma for any awarding organization, which is the degree to which it can be responsible for the content of a teacher’s chosen curriculum. Many regard improvisation as key to musical development and use it throughout their teaching programme – others do not. That said, I have referred often to the process of ongoing review we undertake, so this is one of many areas we will continue to keep under review.

AE:  To summarise, how is the ABRSM syllabus going to evolve over the next few years, and how will you make it more relevant to todays’ students?

ME:  Our syllabus development will be informed by wide consultation with colleagues teaching at all ages and stages and driven by data. We will continue to look at the range of repertoire and the choices we offer to candidates and teachers. We will continue to invest in and commission new repertoire while increasing the diversity of composers we draw on. We will evaluate our current syllabuses on an ongoing basis and work more and more towards capturing the student voice, especially at the lower grades. This will help us make informed decisions and ensure that our offer is relevant to all of our customers.

Business … and Charity

AE:  How can composers pitch their music for inclusion in the syllabus?

ME:  We are always interested in receiving pieces from skilled and established composers and arrangers, with an interest in providing attractive, pedagogically appropriate, and musically effective pieces for inclusion in our syllabuses and supporting publications, particularly at the early grades. ABRSM is an active commissioners of educational music and is keen to attract, and work with, the most creative and diverse musical talent.

AE:  To what extent do you think that the shape of the ABRSM syllabus influences the structure, content and aesthetics of new compositions?

ME:  We are a significant commissioner of new music. We have been doing so for over 128 years and our publishing company celebrates its 100th birthday next year! In that time, we have produced new repertoire and books with a wide variety of aesthetics. One great example of which is Spectrum which includes lots of different contemporary styles from a wide variety of modern day composers.  Many of the pieces from our Spectrum books also appear in syllabuses for a number of different instruments.

AE:  I understand it has become common practice for music publishers, including ABRSM, to offer composers of beginner and intermediate material a one-off fee for commissioned works, eschewing the standard model of royalty based agreements. As the unique creative output of composers is the very life-blood that drives sales, does ABRSM feel this model is sustainable, and encourages the quality it seeks?

ME:  There aren’t any standard payment models across music publishing, as such. Instead, all music publishers have to consider the commercial viability of their new products, in the context of increasingly competitive market conditions, and offer terms to contributors that they feel are both fair and reasonable compensation for the commission offered, whilst ensuring the business can continue to invest in new products, now and in the future.

AE:  In consideration of your business model, can you tell us more about ABRSM’s charitable status and how you support music education in the UK and further afield?

ME:  As a charity, we invest over £7m annually in scholarships and projects around the world to provide musical opportunities at all levels. Inspiring more people to start to play, improve and excel in music is at the heart of everything we do. As we grow, we will continue to invest in the next generation of musicians.

Each year over 70 scholars in the UK and Hong Kong benefit from ABRSM funding. Recent recipients of ABRSM scholarships include 2016 BBC Young Musician winner, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and BBC Young Musician finalist, Jess Gillam.

We sponsor organisations in the UK from the Mayor’s Music Fund in London to the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and many global musical initiatives through our International Sponsorship Fund.

Working in partnership is another way in which we support music education. Classical 100 is a fantastic example of providing free access to classical music to primary schools, in collaboration with partners.

Highly valuable research such as Making Music, helps to identify areas in which we, as a sector, can improve. To build on this, we will soon be launching a new Commission for Musical Progression which will help identify what ABRSM, partners and policy makers can do to further support music education in the future.

Finally, as a charity, all our decisions are taken with a firm eye on the musical impact and educational benefit of our offer. 

AE:  Michael, thank you so much for giving your time so generously in answering these questions, and best wishes for all your plans moving forward! 

ME:  Thank you, Andrew. It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to engage with musicians and teachers on these matters and to learn from them.

Special thanks to Tríona Doherty and all at ABRSM who kindly facilitated this interview.

A more recent interview with Michael Elliott took place in November 2018, and can be found here.

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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.

2 thoughts on “ABRSM’s Michael Elliott: The Pianodao Interview”

  1. I think it is worth pointing out that many of the issues you raise with ABRSM, Trinity already does and has done for many years. Exams are recorded, there is much choice of supporting tests including improvisation and musical knowledge, aural tests are properly structured and do not require singing and there is an Initial level exam. There is the possibility of playing a piece of one’s own choice as an alternative or even one’s own composition. Furthermore the Jazz syllabus goes up to grade 8 and there are options to use CD accompaniment and even duet parts played by the teacher at some levels. There is also a very wide range of instruments offered including more modern instruments.
    Perhaps an interview with someone from Trinity might be a good idea.


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