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 probably unavoidable, and not without merit bearing in mind that ABRSM are in their own words,
“…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:
What is the future of ABRSM grades?
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, and makes a lot of sense for a variety of reasons. Let’s consider three of particular significance…
1. 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.
2. 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!
Here, an inexperienced teacher will look at the exam syllabus, note the scales that are required, and assume this matches typical expectations at each level. So long as this appears to work, they are likely to continue relying on the syllabus as their 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. Instead, teachers will have to think for themselves about their value and importance, as happens elsewhere in the world, and will have the pedagogic freedom to introduce them in a 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 in 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.
3. 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 (a successful professional performer) pointedly notes in his letter,
“Crucially, in my career, I’ve never had to spot a sharp of 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. It seems to me that 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 any 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.
It is 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 feels deeply inauthentic, and simply doesn’t gel with our shared aim of inspiring musical achievement.
Helpful though the available video assessments have been throughout the pandemic, 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 deliver 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.
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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