ABRSM Teacher Conference ‘17

Having been very impressed with last year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference, I attended again this year, and with high hopes – and wasn’t disappointed!

Once again, the event took place at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, a venue which itself lived up to the excellent impression made last year. The surroundings, organisation and – perhaps most importantly – the FOOD were all first rate!

As for the content of the day, once again this year there was something for everyone, although a particular focus was on the new Woodwind and Singing syllabi and resources published earlier in the year.

This inevitably led to a lesser focus on piano teaching than last time (presumably next year the piano will again be centre stage) but I found the day no less rewarding. So here’s my report…

Welcome from Michael Elliott

ABRSM Chief Executive Michael Elliott (who I interviewed here earlier in the year) welcomed delegates with a message that in uncertain times, ABRSM remains committed to consistency.

And that in the midst of challenging circumstances, we must come together to affirm the transformative power of music.

Michael also stressed that moving forward, ABRSM are wanting to play a more substantial role in state schools over the medium to longer term.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months and years, but it’s worth noting that the Shine! initiative and the online “Because of Music” social media campaign are already important planks in ABRSM’s commitment to highlighting the importance of music for society, education and the economy.

It was good to learn that the new ARSM diploma has proved more successful than expected, with more than 1,500 entries worldwide since launch.

Michael also confirmed that ABRSM will within the next 12 months be launching the rumoured assessments for newer instruments in Rock and Pop genres.

He further mentioned that alongside recent changes to the ABRSM Music Theory assessments there will also soon be a digital app to support music theory learning.

The New Digital Platform

It was clear from Michael’s announcements and subsequent conversations that central to ABRSM’s strategy is a brand new digital platform, which will within the next year or so begin a transformation of the organisation’s operation.

I understand that this will enable:

  • Teachers to book specific dates and times when making exam entries;
  • Teachers to switch exam appointments online;
  • Examiners to upload comments and marks directly from the exam room to the ABRSM server;
  • Examiners to record examinations on their tablets for internal use.

Several ABRSM personnel confirmed these points to me excitedly, and it is clear that huge change is afoot within the organisation’s commitment to the digital platform, with massive ramifications for the examination process itself.

New Piano Star books

Of particular interest to Pianodao readers will be the unveiling of two new books in the best-selling Piano Star series, which is already having a huge impact on teaching and learning.

The two new books essentially bookend the existing series of three books, and were announced in a special presentation by Karen Marshall, who is of course well-known to Pianodao readers as a regular contributor here.

The first is titled Piano Star: Five Finger Tunes, and includes a selection of pieces in a wide variety of five note positions, ideal as a follow-on (or, in my view, even a replacement) to the basic tutor/method book.

Written/composed by David Blackwell, the book promises to offer a fabulous variety of easy beginner pieces, all within a carefully considered pedagogic framework. Is it too early to declare that it will be another best-seller?

And secondly, the new Piano Star: Grade One book includes brand new compositions by a selection of the best educational composers around, including editors Karen Marhsall and David Blackwell themselves, plus Alan Bullard, Nikki Iles, June Armstrong, and some bloke called Andrew Eales…

Keynote Speech

Chief Examiner John Holmes gave a hugely entertaining presentation last year, and clearly aimed to outdo his own personal best this year!

Following on from Michael Elliott’s series of “Big Reveals”, John’s Keynote speech introduced the theme for the 2017 conference:

Continuity and Change.

  • What stays the same, and what doesn’t?
  • What amounts to the constant core of music education, and what is contextual delivery?

John started by playing recordings of a variety of musical variations, from Brahms to Rachmaninov to Jacques Loussier, which he then analysed with perceptive authority in a manner that I sincerely hope music teachers found genuinely enlightening and inspiring.

Quoting Herman Hupfeld’s jazz standard As Time Goes by, John stressed as a theme for the conference:

“The fundamental things apply as time goes by …”

He went on to point out that we are now teaching a different student from before, with different expectations, different attitudes and in the context of a changed “respect agenda”.

Moving on, he underlined that for ABRSM the core values, reinterpreted for each generation, remain:

  • Performing and listening to music
  • Reading and writing music
  • Knowing and understanding how music works

An excellent menu

As last year, the Keynote was followed through the day by four breakout sessions, with a rich menu or options for conference delegates to choose from. Here’s the full list, and in bold the sessions I personally attended.

Session One

  • Teaching students with disabilities & specific needs  Jenni Parkinson
  • Pathways through the new Flute syllabus (Grades 1-5)  Zoe Booth
  • Pathways through the new Clarinet syllabus (Grades 1-5)  John Holmes & Paul Harris
  • Perfecting Performance  Anthony Williams

Session Two

  • Developing core musical skills in the early years  Claire Alsop
  • Pathways through the new Flute syllabus (Grade 6-8)  Zoe Booth
  • Pathways through the new Clarinet syllabus (Grades 6-8)  Paul Harris
  • Planning your ARSM programme  John Holmes

Session Three

  • Introducing Challenge 100  Lincoln Abbotts & Dan Francis
  • Pathways through the new Singing syllabus (Grades 1-5)  Heidi Pegler
  • Assessment in context  John Holmes
  • Ask us anything! (Piano)  Anthony Williams & Liz Hayes

Session Four

  • Shine! Resources for the classroom (primary)  Alison Walker
  • Pathways through the new Singing syllabus (Grades 6-8)  Heidi Pegler
  • Shine! Resources for the classroom (secondary)  Steve Daykin
  • Shine! Resources for instrumental teaching  Mark Armstrong

It’s worth noting at this point that, with no new piano syllabus this year, piano teachers might have felt the programme offered less that in some years.

However, personally I feel that there was a huge amount on offer (and it’s so important to learn from other instrumental disciplines anyway!).

Attending the conference was my own student Louise Dubicki, now also a full-time piano teacher, and she found it difficult to choose between some sessions, commenting afterwards that there was a huge amount for her to take in and apply in her piano teaching moving forward.

For piano teachers, then, despite the lack of new syllabus, this was a huge training opportunity!

Ask us anything!

That said, of particular note was the session given by Anthony Williams and Liz Hayes, in which piano teachers were genuinely invited to “Ask Anything!”

Anthony and Liz dealt with the array of questions with responses that personified wisdom, expertise and good humour. Topics covered included how to teach scales effectively, good pedalling techniques, and dealing with early years progression.

There were some excellent take-away points:

Liz stressed the importance of always having “fun repertoire” on the go, and how this is often the context in which challenge and progression work best, away from the “exam material”.

Anthony echoed this, and pointed out that there is no such thing as “exam pieces” anyway – all the pieces set in the exam syllabus were previously just “pieces” that were played because they are good. The fact they are selected for a grade doesn’t alter their status as jolly good pieces in the first place!

I was also struck by Anthony’s reminder that in the exam marking scheme there are five assessment areas: Pitch, Time, Tone, Shape and Performance.

In lessons, teachers might spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with Pitch (the notes) and Time (the rhythm). Anthony made the interesting point that if teachers spend 2/5 of lesson time on these specific elements, then the piece itself is probably the right difficulty level for the student.

This tied in nicely with a recurring point throughout the day that it is hugely beneficial to include “easier” repertoire with all our students, through which they can properly express their musicality without getting bogged down in technical challenges.


My guess is that each and every delegate at the ABRSM 2017 Teacher Conference went home with a list of important issues to mull over and consider.

This was a conference in which we were invited to reconsider the basics of our teaching, confronted with musicality of the highest order through audio, video and live performance, and required to position our own routines within the broader context of a changing culture.

It remains for me to thank Tríona Doherty, ABRSM’s Social Media Executive, for inviting me and organising my attendance.

I look forward to next year’s conference, and certainly encourage all my UK readers to attend!

Pianodao is FREE to all, but funded with the help of reader donations.
Supporters enjoy extra benefits by joining The Pianodao Tea Room.

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.

3 thoughts on “ABRSM Teacher Conference ‘17”

    1. Yes – both mention and apology, and senior managers were mixing with delegates giving personal apologies for that throughout the day, and checking that things are going smoothly this season.


Please leave a Comment:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.