The Future of ABRSM Grades?

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

In the last couple of weeks I have come across two well argued letters in the music press, the first by Alex Aitken and published in the September 2021 issue of Music Teacher magazine, the second by Pauline Carter and appearing in the October issue of the BBC Music Magazine.

Both letter-writers lament a perceived decline in music education, singling out ABRSM as being uniquely responsible for this malaise. Their charge is unavoidable when read in context, and in any case not without merit bearing in mind that ABRSM boast that they are,

“…the UK’s largest music education body, and the world’s leading provider of music exams.”

The diametrically different solutions each of the two propose points to the serious challenge ABRSM now face in charting a path that reconnects with all of their stakeholders, wins wide support, and restores confidence in their ability to (as they put it) “inspire musical achievement”.

It is certainly beyond doubt that many in music education are reflecting anew on the role, relevance and value of music exams.

Personally, I am coming to the view that it’s time to focus on a live performance assessment and scrap divisive “support tests” and other prerequisites from grade exams. Done well, this could raise a bar which does seem to have been steadily slipping in recent years, while better matching the real-world priorities of the 21st century.

When ABRSM announced their “Performance Grades” a few months back, I admit that I was skeptical. But having listened carefully to a range of opinion, I now believe that making the performance of music the whole focus of graded assessments could prove unifying.

However, it seems to me essential to this success that ABRSM make their Performance Grade exams available live, and not just digitally as at present. If my studio is in any way representative (and many other teachers have confirmed to me that it is), many many players simply don’t want to “phone in” their grade exams as private video recordings.

In this post I will be touching on why that is, after considering the questionable value of “support tests”…

Holistic Assessment

Performance Grades place all aspects of musical development under the spotlight in their appropriate context: MUSIC.

It is fair to say that when a player’s technique is wanting, their understanding of notation lacking, or their aural development inadequate, it’s likely to show up in their playing. That is exactly why developing core skills with the support of a good teacher is so vital.

But in recent years, educators have increasingly understood the value of simultaneously integrating and connecting, rather than compartmentalising content, and of maintaining a musical focus. Modern assessment would do well to reflect these same values, and recognise their basis.

Assessments which compartmentalise learning can have a corrosive effect. We can’t forever ignore the point that if musical learning is assessed in a highly compartmentalised way, many will continue to teach it that way, too.

A good way for exam boards to support effective musical learning would be for them to produce “support materials” instead of “support tests”: a suite of progressive teaching and learning resources that have broad application and usefulness, and aren’t syllabus-bound.

Opening up the Curriculum

I used to think that if scales were removed from the syllabus, many would stop teaching and learning them. I’ve changed my mind. In the many countries that make little use of graded exams, students still learn scales, sight reading, aural skills and music theory.

When visiting the United States (where grade exams are practically unheard of) to deliver workshops, I consistently encountered students with a knowledge of scales going well beyond ABRSM requirements, and who were stunning sight readers to boot. Often they could play by ear and improvise too, with a broad musicianship far exceeding that of students who are simply spoon-fed an exam syllabus.

Here, by way of contrast, many a teacher will look at the exam syllabus, note the scales that are required, and assume this matches typical expectations at each level. The syllabus is written by experts, right? And so long as this approach appears to work (i.e. leads to good exam results) they are likely to continue relying on the syllabus as their whole curriculum, basically “teaching to the test”. This is clearly far from ideal.

Take the syllabus away, and it seems to me unlikely that many will simply conclude that scales are a pointless waste of time, however. Instead, teachers will have to think for themselves about their value and importance, as happens in pedagogy elsewhere around the world, and will have the freedom to introduce all aspects of technique in a more progressive, musically relevant and enduring, cumulative way.

The same of course applies to studies, sight-reading skills, improvisation, to music theory and all the other core elements of musical learning, many of which Aitken touches on in his letter to Music Teacher.

ABRSM cannot deny that their support tests are pedagogically prescriptive, and at a time of curriculum diversification and enrichment, their ongoing syllabus changes will only cause ever more contention.

In my view it is time for them to let teachers teach, and for their brilliant panel of examiners to focus their considerable expertise on assessing the musical performances that result from that.

Discarding Broken Tests

Check out the different syllabus requirements of the leading exam boards and you will soon spot that their support tests are very different, both in the areas of learning that they assess, and in their approach to doing so.

If they are really so central, why so little common cause or agreement?

Allied to this, teachers find we need to introduce activities into a student’s learning simply to satisfy exam requirements. I really can’t remember the last time any of my students was genuinely hindered at the piano by an inability to sight-sing the lower of two parts, transpose music for tenor euphonium, or play an atonal composition in 7/8 time without practice.

As Aitken (himself a successful and highly experienced professional performer) pointedly notes in his letter,

“Crucially, in my career, I’ve never had to spot a sharp or flat that’s the wrong way round, or had to correct some beaming. If I am presented with an unfamiliar musical term, I look up the literal translation rather than rely on ABRSM’s frequent mistranslations.”

When it comes to “calling out” this irrelevance, I’m firmly with Aitken.

Worse, ABRSM’s aural tests ignore established scientific findings by continuing to rely on sung responses. These not only now lack credibility as genuine aural assessments, but even cast doubt on the validity of the final exam results, as explained in depth here.

The current smorgasbord of exam support tests are no longer fit for musical purpose, and don’t deliver worthwhile assessment on a level playing field. Scrapping them is not only the right thing to do, but opens a more respectful, appropriate and inclusive pathway for “inspiring musical achievement”.

What is Performance?

To build a consensus around Performance Grades as the better alternative, we need to exercise care in understanding the art of performing.

Most would agree that a “performance” (as opposed to making a studio recording) is a live experience, with a sense of occasion and expectation, and an audience with whom the performer directly communicates.

Digging deeper, most will recognise that communication between performers and audiences is actually a two-way thing. Successful performers know that it is often that direct inter-communication with their audiences that makes the best gigs, concerts and recitals so invigorating and special.

It is therefore perplexing that ABRSM’s “Performance Grades” don’t presently include a performance in this most basic sense, even though marks are allocated for performing skills.

Pauline Carter’s letter makes a fair point about this:

“They [the candidate] make limitless recordings and then submit the one they consider to be the best… it is an easier option with no sense of occasion.”

Easier or not, submitting a Performance Grade as a homemade video seems somewhat lacking in authenticity; nor does this process seem to comfortably gel with our shared aim of inspiring musical achievement.

Helpful though the available video assessments have been throughout the pandemic, and wonderful though recording is as a self-assessment practice tool, most of my students have held out for the resumption of face to face exams, because they value the experience of live performance, and the milestone sense of occasion they offer.

They like to put a smiling face to the examiner’s name, too, rather than just receiving their administrative number on the form.

My hope is that as the dust settles on the coronavirus pandemic, ABRSM will now offer the alternative of Performance Grade assessments as a LIVE experience, so giving them the meaning and importance they actually deserve, and which is true to our whole musical culture.

Closing Thoughts

We must congratulate ABRSM for their innovation during this recent time of pandemic. Now they are in a position to build on that success while also revisiting the foundation that has made them the world’s favourite piano exam board for so long: the positive live exam experience.

ABRSM have an amazing and storied history of which they are rightly proud. Their entire heritage is built on live music making, those tens of thousands of unique musical moments and shared encounters which take place around the world each year. Long may that continue!

With Live Performance Grades, ABRSM have an opportunity to turn the tide and reinvigorate music assessment. Let’s all hope that they do so!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

8 thoughts on “The Future of ABRSM Grades?”

  1. “Assessments which compartmentalise learning can have a corrosive effect. We can’t forever ignore the point that if musical learning is assessed in a highly compartmentalised way, many will continue to teach it that way, too.”

    As one who rarely uses exams in my teaching, I am familiar with the freedom from compartmentalising and the support tests. I think you are absolutely right in putting your finger on the effect that this aspect of exams has on much of the teaching that takes place. Often the issues that have been compartmentalised may be irrelevant to a particular student. On the subject of scales, I probably teach more scales than most, but never as an illogical requirement. When I do enter a pupil for an exam, preparing for a support test at which that student is weak, can often cause much unnecessary wasted time and pressure. This is a thought provoking article.

  2. There is little doubt that the musical rewards, and the potential sense of pride from having done well in performance are core drivers in our aspirations to continue learning an instrument. The extent to which only live performance can provide that opportunity is a moot one.

    It’s interesting that Pauline Carter’s comment reads exactly the same for the average 10 year old candidate as it does for every professional performer. We all want our best performance to be the one which is heard, or assessed. Multiple takes underpin the rationale for recorded performance, whereas non-recorded live performance is a very different experience and concept. Recorded live performance, on the other hand, is, dare one way, even scarier!

    Playing in the privacy of your own space and own company can be very satisfying. For some, the capacity to take exams in this way may also have psychological value compared to the potential trauma of appearing and playing live. One should not rule out the other, and there is definitely great potential to extend Performance Grades to the live situation.

    It is indisputable that aural skills lie at the root of effective music learning and that technique is a crucial core component. Simply listening to a performance can tell you a lot about the extent to which those skills have been honed. I wonder to what extent our desire for ever more detail and feedback, evidenced through copious criteria, has been the driver for both compartmentalised learning and assessment?

    1. Astute points as always Peter! It’s good to hear from an examiner with your experience making the point about aural development and it’s evidence in performance. In a Performance Grade context perhaps the assessment criteria would need tweaking to accommodate the many aspects of musical engagement that can be heard in a live setting (and possibly on a video, although in that context they might be more contrived than spontaneous).

      In terms of live vs. video, any actor can explain the difference between film work and stagecraft. Professional musicians likewise understand this. I wonder how in touch the exam board administrators are with this performing community…

  3. I totally agree with you Andrew. I’ve been looking to see how they can take the Performance exam face to face – it would be simple enough for them to offer this, and remove the dubious convenience for some pupils of playing on inadequate home instruments, repeating their performances ad nauseam to the camera.

    However I find the marking for the performance exam is inconsistent. They seem inconsistent in how they take account of how the performer dresses, manages themselves, how they introduce their programme and seem just to focus on how they pace themselves getting through it (I’ve had pupils penalised for introducing each piece even through they’ve carefully thought through what they can say). Instead they have a ‘performance’ mark which simply duplicates the comments they’ve already made for each individual piece. ABRSM need to address more aspects of what goes into a performance separately and not give a fudgy mark. Lastly, only some examiners have the grace to add a comment at the end, which you’d think a performance would require from its audience.

    1. Excellent points there, Jennie!

      And yes, I’ve seen many comments from teachers and candidates who have felt the ABRSM marking of the performance element isn’t very consistent.I think the basic reason for this boils back down to the fact that it ISN’T A PERFORMANCE!

      There’s another HUGE issue here. Making a good film requires a financial investment that not all teachers and students can afford, especially at present. So yet again, not a level playing field. Some teachers I know have hired posh recording studios at considerable expense, and I’ve noticed their students are getting distinctions. Others a more homemade… and don’t. There is an element of unfairness here which is difficult to ignore to be honest.

  4. Hi Andrew. Thought I would like to leave a comment from the perspective of a candidate. I began learning piano at the age of 54, following early retirement. I have found it extremely difficult to play in front of anyone, including a teacher, due to overwhelming performance nerves. I took a conventional ABRSM exam at grade 3. Though I scraped through, due to a very kind and understanding examiner, I found it to be an extremely uncomfortable experience and vowed that was the end of exams for me. I was disappointed because I considered the exam process valuable in providing a structure for progress and having something to strive for helped with focus and discipline. Of course the main aim is always on the music and developing as a piano player. Then ABRSM introduced the Performance Grade exams with recorded submissions. This was an ideal solution to meet my needs. I completely accept your points about a distinction between this and a real performance. Especially for youngsters embarking upon a lifelong journey in music I would agree that live performance should be encouraged and developed. However, for me, and I suspect I’m not alone, this is a very welcome and beneficial option that should be retained alongside the introduction of any face to face performance exam. Producing a decent performance recording with the 4 pieces played in one continuous take is still no mean feat. The need to go through the introduction process each time, for me at least, makes it impractical and too tedious to go make endless attempts to produce the ‘perfect’ performance. Thus, there is a need to be sure that competence has been achieved before submission. I produced a home recorded performance on an iPad for grade 4 and managed to achieve a distinction. This would not have been possible for me in a live exam situation. I am encouraged to continue on this path and am currently studying for grade

    1. That’s a great story, thanks for sharing! I agree that there’s room for more than one approach (though possibly the digital exams should be named as such to avoid confusion). A digital grade as you describe it (or as delivered by MTB) is certainly no mean feat, as you say – congratulations!

      And actually, I think there is more of a case for maintaining the digital alternatives than there is for maintaining broken support tests, which have done so much to compartmentalise learning in a damaging way, as well as creating division and angst for teachers who want their teaching to better reflect the contemporary understanding of cognitive and musical development.

      Thank you for sharing – really appreciated!

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