ABRSM’S global standing has long been predicated on wide respect for their role as leaders in music education, setting and maintaining the “gold standards” that have been such a rich source of motivation and affirmation, inspiring generations of musicians worldwide.
But as they launch their latest Piano Scales Review, it increasingly seems they are ceding their authority, trading educational leadership for commercial popularity, led by market research.
In this post I will unpack some of their latest proposals against the backdrop of the bigger question of ABRSM’s historic role in setting and maintaining global standards in music education, noting both improvements and concerns.
What’s going on?
As part of it’s “ongoing programme of evaluation and improvement”, ABRSM determined a few years ago to overhaul the scales requirements across its graded piano syllabus.
Their first attempt was the subject of a consultation exercise in November 2017, and was (to be blunt) chaotic. Following negative feedback, ABRSM decided against implementing that proposal in 2019-20 as had been planned, instead bringing in fresh consultants and going back to the drawing board.
They now return with a fresh, almost entirely different proposal, together with yet another marketing survey to test teacher reaction.
What’s the point?
In outlining its present aims, ABRSM start by saying:
“We have aimed for a realistic and manageable assessment load…”
The basic aim appears to be to very substantially reduce their scales syllabus content and expectations.
I think it’s a fair point that at the higher grades, in particular, some of the current syllabus repetition is excessive and unnecessary. But any reduction in quantity needs, as they themselves go on to say, to be matched by the “maintenance of rigour and demand”.
Secondly, ABRSM go on to say:
“We have considered the grades requirements are introduced for other instruments and aimed for parity, where appropriate”.
The problem here, as experienced musicians will all know, is that the technical and musical challenges of playing scales on different instruments cannot easily be compared.
Pianists do not, for example, have to struggle with intonation, breath control or bow hold. While a complete novice at the piano might be taught to play a one-octave C major scale hands separately in just a few minutes, the same clearly isn’t true for the violinist.
Syllabus or Curriculum?
ABRSM are often quick to point out that their syllabus is not intended as a comprehensive curriculum or programme of study. And yet they are well aware that many teachers use ABRSM requirements as the basic framework within which scales, arpeggios and broken chords are introduced and learnt.
Should ABRSM radically reduce their exam scales requirements, this will surely lead to a corresponding reduction in the teaching and learning of scales worldwide. Their talk of “reducing the load” clearly points to their recognition of this. ABRSM may not like to explicitly admit the link, but nor can they honestly deny the likelihood.
Undoubtedly the most significant change in this proposal is that the “all keys” requirement of previous syllabuses no longer applies.
ABRSM again cite ‘preparation load’ (i.e. the continuing effort it takes to properly learn all keys), going on to claim:
“The expectation that candidates should be familiar with all keys by Grade 5 remains, and is built into the key scheme across Grades Initial–5 where every key is covered at least once.”
But how will we ever know whether this expectation is met, if there is no longer an assessment?
Simply put, ABRSM are actually providing a new curriculum, not a new syllabus, because they have no plan to properly assess whether familiarity with all keys actually exists at Grade 5 or not (which is what a syllabus/exam does).
As an examination board, they seem to have got this completely the wrong way around.
The Best Proposals
But before going further, let’s consider some positive proposals contained within the Piano Syllabus Review:
• The chaos of the November 2017 proposals is mostly gone. This new proposal is more logical and would I think be much easier to use in practice.
• ABRSM have now made a far better effort towards encouraging the coherent learning of scales and arpeggios in the same keys at each level.
• The introduction of each scale hands separately a grade prior to hands together is sensible, and will encourage effective learning in the lower grades.
• The selection of keys in the higher Grades 6-8 cleverly ensures that relative major/minor keys and tonic major/minor keys all appear together at each level.
• The rationalisation of scales requirements in the higher grades is particularly welcome. Most would agree that in Grades 6-8 the preparation load needs reducing, with more careful consideration of which patterns are really needed and why.
The Review brings news that ABRSM will be introducing a brand new “Initial Grade” from 2021.
We are told that this pre-Grade 1 assessment will follow the same structure as Grades 1–8 (three pieces, Scales, Sight-reading and Aural tests) and will be assessed to the same marking criteria.
Proposals for the scales to be included in Initial Grade are close to spot on in my view, and include a simple but very useful chord exercise introducing the concept of the common triad in preparation for arpeggios in the later grades.
Throwing out the Baby
However, in making these welcome improvements, ABRSM are proposing a radical decimation of many of the best features of their current syllabus.
• At no point is there a snapshot to check whether a student has properly assimilated all keys. This is a fundamental flaw, irrespective of workload, because knowledge of all keys is an essential foundation for developing pianists.
• Beyond a single-octave introduction in Grade 1, the scale of C major hands together in similar motion doesn’t appear until Grade 8.
• Arpeggios hands together in root position in the keys of C major, G major and A minor no longer feature in any grade at all, which seems very bizarre.
• At Grade 1, D major is removed, although this key is frequently used in the exam repertoire. Will the selected pieces similarly discard the key of D major, or will there be a disconnect between the scales requirements and repertoire selections? Dumbing down one area of the syllabus may require dumbing down others. Which brings us to…
• The delayed introduction of some keys in the early grades impacts the sight-reading syllabus. Until the full scales requirements for a grade have been learnt, some sight-reading examples given in ABRSM’s recent (and excellent) new sight-reading books will be in keys unknown to the player.
• The delayed introduction of some keys also widens the gap between practical piano grades and ABRSM’s Music Theory grades. For example, the key of D major, already mentioned, appears in the Grade 1 Theory syllabus. By Grade 3, the theory syllabus includes all major and minor keys up to four sharps and flats. The disconnect between music theory and practice in ABRSM exams was already a problem; further simplifying the piano scales requirements unhelpfully widens the existing gulf.
• Relative major and minor keys – though linked in higher grades – are almost never introduced within the same grade (exceptions being Ab major and F minor in Grade 4, and Db major/Bb minor in Grade 5).
• Each of the higher grades focusses on four key-centres. This is a really positive move, but oddly the easiest selection of C, Eb, F# and A is assigned to Grade 8, making it in some respects (for example the contrary motion scales) noticeably easier than the preceding grades.
• Broken Chords have been entirely dropped from the syllabus. I recently spoke to a well-known concert pianist who pointed out to me that broken chords appear in repertoire far more frequently that either arpeggios or scales. ABRSM’s decision to remove them is lamentable, and only serves to make their syllabus more remote from actual music-making.
• At no point will candidates be asked to play scales using different dynamics. This has been much requested, and is a standard feature in both the main UK alternative boards, Trinity and LCM.
• Specified articulation (playing scales staccato) has been brought forward to Grade 5, but why wait so long? Bearing in mind that scales are musical and technical building blocks, the use of staccato certainly seems appropriate at intermediate level, with mixed articulations in the higher grades.
• In some cases (e.g. justifying the reduction to just two arpeggios in Grade 1), ABRSM propose limiting requirements on the basis of technical similarity, but without sufficient consideration of the player’s developing musical understanding and practical usage.
• The current three-octave requirement at Grade 5 has also been scrapped. This option is useful, because the emphasis within note groups differs from that in two- and four-octave versions. My students have also long found it a helpful stepping-stone between the two- and four-octave requirements. (I would prefer to have seen this moved to Grade 6, however).
ABRSM’s Piano Scales Review proposes a syllabus which includes many good ideas, and interesting solutions to concerns which teachers have expressed. In particular, the launch of Initial Grade and attempt at rationalising requirements in the upper grades are very promising, and to be warmly welcomed.
However, it is surely a fundamental requirement for a scales syllabus to provide a clear opportunity to test whether players are developing a full and fluent knowledge of all major and minor keys. This has long been done at Grades 5 and is a standard that’s internationally recognised and understood by musicians and educators.
The removal of broken chords and reduction of arpeggios is likewise a genuine cause for concern. The piano is fundamentally a harmonic instrument, and pianists need to develop an appropriate technique and musical understanding.
“Our Survey Says…“
Given that ABRSM’s excuse for removing Broken Chords (among other things) is that their online questionnaire suggested people don’t want to do them anymore, I think we must question whether market research surveys are the best way to establish educational standards, and if so, how does this really fit with ABRSM’s global role as an educational leader?
Many teachers responding to a questionnaire will be very happy to agree to proposals which will help us support student success, even if this involves obvious “dumbing down”, as in this instance.
It should be mentioned too that ABRSM’s survey isn’t exclusively for teachers; anyone can answer it. The opinion poll is public and anonymous. Pupils, parents, and anyone else can have their say with equal standing to experienced teaching professionals.
When it comes to removing broken chords, for example, the desires of those answering an online questionnaire can hardly answer to the factually correct observations of the seasoned concert pianist.
It is of course right that ABRSM engages with the pedagogy profession, both in its use of experienced consultants, and in seeking the views of the wider teaching community. And it is necessary that the latter have the chance to scrutinise and comment, so that syllabus changes reflect current practice and are warmly received.
But when did ABRSM decide to stop being the leader in this process, and become a follower…?
As my colleague Barbara Kennedy nimbly put it (in a discussion on the PNUK forum) :
“What strikes me is that, despite their constant claim to be the ‘gold standard’, they actually seem to be following the pack rather than leading any innovation.”
Underlying this, all of us involved in music education share legitimate concerns about access to learning, the cost of exams, the availability, length and affordability of tuition.
Reducing learning content might appear to help alleviate some of these problems, and plays well with our concerns about available lesson time. But is this really the only or best answer?
Dumbing Down the “Gold Standard”
I’m going to be blunt for a third time! The sheer number of problems in the proposal suggests ineffective oversight at a leadership level. Some of the mistakes in the proposal are simply embarrassing.
To compound matters, these proposals come soon after changes to the Grade 5 Theory syllabus which were roundly condemned by senior figures in the music education establishment.
Julian Lloyd Webber, Principal of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, for example wrote:
“What concerns me is that any drop in the standards may hinder the progression of British students to be considered good enough for their own music colleges, their own conservatoires. Anything that lowers the standard of progression through these exams cannot be seen as a good thing. Because it’s exceptionally important.
“If you get to the point where you go through the exams and you’re not good enough to get into a music college, that is not a good situation. As principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, I do not want us to get to the point where, when you pass Grade 8, you may not be at the level to enter a British music conservatoire. That is really worrying.”
The “dumbing down” of the Grade 5 Theory exam will be as nothing in its impact compared to the dumbing down of the graded Piano Syllabus if ABRSM’s latest proposals are adopted.
The idea that students hoping to study music might never have been tested to see whether they have a basic, full and fluent knowledge of all major and minor keys is simply unnerving.
Some may be surprised to see my passion on this subject, but it is a commitment shared by a great many musicians and educators around the world; our passion is not rooted in ABRSM having won a popularity contest, but borne from the fact that their established standards served us so well in our own education, and we want the next generation of players to experience the same benefits, undamaged.
I have no doubt that the four world-class Royal Conservatoires which oversee ABRSM also share this passionate commitment to excellence in music education. We must therefore hope that they will perhaps have a gentle word with ABRSM to remind them of their historic role and ongoing importance.