ABRSM’s Performance 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 writers lament a perceived decline in music education and single out ABRSM as being uniquely responsible. However, the very different solutions they propose point to the significant challenge that the board will face in charting a path that reconnects with all their stakeholders, and which restores confidence following their difficulties during the pandemic.

It is certainly beyond doubt that many in music education are reflecting anew on the role, relevance and value of music exams. For one thing, a lot of players continued to make excellent (sometimes better) progress in the absence of graded exams, discovering renewed enjoyment by focusing on a broader, less prescriptive curriculum.

On the other hand, the challenges of recent years have seemingly led to a diversification of approach, a confusing smorgasbord of options now available both online and face to face, offered by a growing number of exam boards who are equally accredited (if not all as widely known), and with a fading sense of a common recognised standard.

In this article, I will be reflecting on ABRSM’s new Performance Grades, and considering where they fit into this complex picture…

Let’s Perform Music!

Having long recommended ABRSM to my students, it has been particularly interesting to see the development of their new Performance Grades. When these were first announced, I admit that I was somewhat skeptical. They seemed curiously at odds with many of the board’s traditional assessment priorities.

But having listened carefully to a range of opinion and feedback, I have come to the view that making performance the sole focus of musical assessment could prove unifying. In particular, it seems to me that the idea of discarding unpopular and contentious supporting tests is a musically intelligent one.

However, we must surely hope that with the pandemic behind us, ABRSM move quickly to build on their innovation by making their Performance Grade exams available in person, as a truly live musical performance, and not just as a digital alternative.

While the advantages of offering a video-based assessment clearly outlast the immediate concerns of the pandemic, many of my students simply don’t want to “phone in” their grade exams, and would prefer the experience of a live exam, albeit without the unnecessary baggage of broken support tests….

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 ancient counterpoint, transpose music for tenor euphonium, or play a bizarre atonal composition at sight.

As for their digital theory prerequisite, Aitken (a successful and highly experienced professional performer) pointedly notes in his Music Teacher 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. The current support tests are simply no longer fit for musical purpose. Scrapping them is not only the right thing to do, but opens a more respectful, appropriate and inclusive pathway for inspiring musical achievement.

Holistic Assessment

Performance Grades place all aspects of musical development under the spotlight in their appropriate real-world 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 and importance of simultaneously integrating and connecting learning, rather than compartmentalising content. Modern assessment would do well to reflect these same values, and recognise their basis.

Assessments which compartmentalise learning undoubtedly 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.

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 giving workshops in the United States (where grade exams are practically unheard of), I have consistently found that students there have a better knowledge of scales than those following the grade syllabus in this country. As a rule, most can also sight-read, play by ear and improvise, having a broad musicianship that exceeds that of students who are simply spoon-fed the ABRSM exam syllabus.

Back in the UK, many teachers logically assume that exam requirements match typical expectations at each level. So long as following the syllabus seems to “work” (as measured by exam results) they may well rely on this as their entire curriculum, basically just “teaching to the test”.

ABRSM cannot realistically deny culpability, or continue to ignore the point that at a time of curriculum diversification and enrichment elsewhere, their narrow and prescriptive support tests are likely to seem increasingly out of place and off-putting.

In my view it is time for them to let teachers teach, and for ABRSM’s world-class panel of examiners to focus their considerable expertise on assessing the musical performances that result.

What is Performance?

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. Submitting a homemade video certainly seems somewhat lacking in authenticity.

Nor can we ignore the disparity that exists between the instruments and filming equipment offered by elite independent schools and those typically available in the state sector, or between the home settings of players from different socio-economic groups. ABRSM need to be seen offering a level playing field, and local centres essentially fulfil that aim.

Wonderful though recording is as a practice tool, when it comes to formal assessment many students tell me they prefer 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 a digital form.

Closing Thoughts

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.

We must certainly congratulate ABRSM for their innovation during the recent pandemic. Now they are in a good position to build on that success, while also revisiting the foundation that has made them a leading music exam board worldwide for so long: the high-quality live exam experience.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.