ABRSM Conference 2018: Report

Can it really be a year since I last reported from the annual ABRSM Teacher Conference? Apparently so! But once again this year I was delighted to be invited along to report from the event, share ABRSM’s latest news, and generally reflect on the day.

This year I had the added pleasure of a sit-down interview with ABRSM Chief Executive Michael Elliott on the day, and I’m grateful to him for graciously giving up time to answer my questions. Thanks too to Penny Milsom and Kerry Sheehan for their support.


I’ve said in previous years, but it bears repeating: ABRSM really know how to put on a fantastic training day for instrumental teachers, building on their experience as world leaders in the music education sector, and with their fine pedigree of in-house and associated presenters.

A pleasure, too, to be back at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, once again proving to be a superb venue to host an event on this scale. As usual, the food was splendid, and every need of both hosts and delegates was anticipated and smoothly met. As for ABRSM themselves, the event was as flawless as in previous years, even though there was a noticeably and considerably larger audience this year (the conference sold out well in advance).

The rear cover of the glossy conference programme included the following important reminder of just how extraordinary ABRSM’s global reach is, summed up in these staggering statistics:

Over 40 million exams since 1889
600,000 exams a year
More than 700 examiners
1,200 books published
1,000 different assessments for 43 instruments
Exams in over 90 countries

I feel ABRSM are quite right to celebrate these achievements, because they don’t simply underline their success as the world’s largest examination board, but equally our success as musicians and teachers.

Not that we can rest on our laurels however; there is always more to learn, to do, and to achieve. As Michael Elliott explains in his introduction to this year’s conference:

“As music teachers, you have a vital role to play in passing on and nurturing a knowledge and love of this wonderful thing we call music. It’s a role that’s very much about giving and sharing. But it’s also about reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, discovering and implementing new ideas, and finding new sources of inspiration. Today we offer you a chance to do just those things in a conference packed with insights and top tips from a range of expert music educators.”

So without further ado, here’s the Pianodao report from the day…

The Big Announcements

Following up from Michael Elliott’s announcements at last year’s conference I was looking forward to an update on some of the initiatives mentioned twelve months ago, as well as news of forthcoming initiatives.

But unlike previous years, the big announcement from the platform was that there would be no big announcements! ABRSM instead created a promotional “village” within the centre where delegates could chat more informally about the areas of their interest.

Later in the day though, I caught up with Michael for an interview and asked him about the issues that particularly interest pianists.

He gave an extremely interesting interview, including news about the forthcoming Digital Platform, rock and pop provision, exam recording and music theory developments, which you can read in full here.

Think Like an Artist

The opening Keynote Speech was given by writer and broadcaster Will Gompertz.


Will talked about what it takes to succeed in today’s changing world, asking whether we are helping young people to enter adult life with the best skills and priorities. Drawing attention to the ageing population, with many retiring far later, and the growing impact of technology and machine learning, he made a compelling case for the importance of creativity.

There is no other species and no machine, Will explained, that can step outside time-and-place to imagine new ideas. Creativity is unique to the human species, and this is what “brings us closest to our life force”.

In a discursive talk, he gave numerous examples from the history of art to illustrate the point that artists break the rules, steal ideas and repurpose them in a fresh context. “Yes men are yesterday’s men”, he concluded.

Will concluded his talk by railing against our present exam-driven assessment culture, to enthusiastic applause. Maintaining that “there is no such thing as failure”, he put forward the view that “all schools should be art schools”, where learning is creative, and answers are never right-or-wrong. With optimism he predicted that in the future this is how it will be.

How do we Know if our pupils are Actually Learning?

This crucial question was asked in the second Keynote Speech, delivered by Paul Harris.

Paul probed the question with skill, depth and imagination, unpacking concepts of recognition, understanding, memory and retrieval. Learning is a complex process, he explained, and we can never really know who is learning what. There is a difference between short-term memory (liminal space) and long-term memory, and delegates were treated to a whistle-stop tour of important learning models.

Making learning effective involves both time and care. Paul explained that making connections is crucial for true learning, and a “simultaneous learning” approach helps students really KNOW what they have learnt, provided the connections are made EXPLICIT by the teacher.

Ultimately it is not up to us as teachers alone – learning is a collaboration. Paul reminded us that telling is not teaching, but asking is teaching.

Specialist Seminars

In addition to the two Keynote speeches, there were three further sessions. As in previous years, delegates could choose freely from a wide range of subjects, suitably diverse to ensure there was something for everyone.

Across the three one-hour sessions, the choices (some repeated) included:

  • Pathways through the new Piano syllabus (Anthony Williams, Ann Martin-Davis and Murray McLachlan)
  • Manage your performance nerves (Charlotte Tomlinson)
  • Curriculum planning and assessment (John Holmes)
  • Perfecting performance at the early grades (John Holmes/Anthony Williams)
  • The lost art of listening (Lincoln Abbotts/Philippa Bunting)
  • The musical journey to notation (Anthony Williams)

Additional alternatives included practical sessions on teaching students with special educational needs (led by Karen Marshall), discovering how grade exams are assessed (with Chief Examiner John Holmes), exploring jazz grooves, Top 10 practice tips, running a successful business, and a sponsored session given by Casio, introducing their award-winning Grand Hybrid pianos.

To help give a flavour of some of these sessions I am joined by my good friend and colleague Liz Giannopoulos; here’s a quick review of some of the sessions we visited…

Pathways through the new piano syllabus, Grades 1-5
Presented by Anthony Williams and Ann Martin-Davis
Overview by Liz Giannopoulos

This session provided an overview of the new ABRSM piano syllabus starting with an example from Grade 5 and then plotting the journey of skills development through Grades 1-4.

Ann Martin-Davis explored melody and accompaniment concepts such as voicing, sharing a melody between the hands, shaping a melodic phrase, balance between the hands. Suggestions for practice strategies were offered including shadowing, block chords, crossing hands, staccato and legato within one hand.

Anthony Williams addressed challenges surrounding the important links between pedal and balance. He focused on the use of pedal to enhance sonority whilst using balance to project a melody, gradation of pedal, legato pedalling, balance between the hands, finger legato, effect pedalling combined with gradation of dynamics and over-holding. Suggestions for practice included chords starting from a point of half depression, and listening for pedal timing and balance.

Ann continued with a focus on story-telling in music with a particular emphasis on encouraging children to write their own stories that they can believe in and deliver with enthusiasm avoiding the notion that they are solely and exclusively exam pieces.

Perfecting performance at the early grades
Presented by: John Holmes and Anthony Williams
Overview by Liz Giannopoulos

John Holmes and Anthony Williams posed questions including why do we perform and what is performing?

Through a series of contrasting video and audio clips and personal performances of clarinet and piano exam repertoire, John and Anthony presented the idea that performing is all about outward communication and should start from the very start of the journey of learning a musical instrument.

The over-riding theme was that the ingredients of a performance remain the same at all levels but are presented differently, with different levels of challenge and mastery. The seeds of interpretation, communication and musicality need to be sown early, so they can grow.

“It’s a long journey. We need to set off early.” John Holmes, Chief Examiner, ABRSM.
“Be an advocate for teaching musicians “ Anthony Williams.

Masterclass: Grades 6-8 in action
Presented by: Murray McLachlan
Overview by Andrew Eales

It was particularly wonderful to hear internationally acclaimed concert pianist and master teacher Murray McLachlan give an enthusiastic overview of the 2019-20 piano syllabus for piano grades 6-8.


Starting with Grade 6, Murray briefly introduced and discussed each piece, highlighting both the musical delights and potential technical challenges and their solutions. Here was extraordinary insight , a rich feast to nourish the more experienced teacher working with advanced students.

He then helped a “student” (from ABRSM’s team, and a lovely player) work on the Grovlez piece from List B, a wonderful masterclass in which we were all reminded that our students must aim to hypnotise the examiner into believing they are listening to a recital in the Royal Albert Hall!

The process of comprehensive syllabus overview followed by practical masterclass was repeated for Grades 7 and 8, and the mix between listening to illuminating insight, enjoying piano performances and watching a great teacher at work was both engaging and inspiring.

Sound to Score – The musical journey to notation
Presented by: Anthony Williams and Karen Marshall
Overview by Liz Giannopoulos

Karen Marshall and Anthony Williams presented a selection of systematic, methodical activities for use in both classroom music and instrumental teaching to introduce pulse, rhythm and pitch.

Teaching tools to introduce these topics included demonstration, imitation, call and response, visual representations and physical activities. The route towards notation ranged from singing and clapping games for playground practice to improvisation inspired by and story boards and graphic scores.

The journey of discovery continues through composition and eventually transcribing their composition through pictures, graphic notation and eventually traditional music notation.

“Never tell a child something they can work out for themselves” Karen Marshall


As in previous years, the content was first rate in all the sessions I made it along to. By the end of the afternoon I felt I had been filled to the brim with teaching ideas, vision, and musical inspiration.

Given that this year saw the release of a new piano syllabus, the emphasis on piano was warmly welcomed, but teachers of other instruments were certainly well catered for with the excellent range of topics addressed.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s ABRSM Teacher Conference!

Special thanks to Liz Giannopoulos

Read my interview with Michael Elliott here, which lifts the lid on many forthcoming developments at ABRSM.

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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.

4 thoughts on “ABRSM Conference 2018: Report”

  1. A remarkable day well worth dealing with the problems with the London tubes
    I thought the hotel was a superb venue.The most interesting items took place in the Prescot room.
    1 an opportunity to discuss various aspects of ABRSM exams
    2 the demonstrator who showed some ideas for teaching jazz
    3 the presenter showing the Cascio Bechstein hybrid pianos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think uber got plenty of business yesterday! And yes, so many great things to get to!
      Watch out for my exclusive interview with Michael Elliott tomorrow – he lifted the lid on a lot of interesting new projects coming in 2019 😉


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