ABRSM’s New Diplomas

Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey

A few months ago I brought news that exam board ABRSM had announced their intention to replace their range of diploma assessments in performance, teaching and direction with a new set of qualifications by 2024.

Now, with additional information available from ABRSM, it’s time to retire my previous post and bring you this updated one. I will highlight the main changes, share my views and the legitimate concerns which I have seen and heard from colleagues online and in conversation.

ABRSM’s New Announcement

To begin with, here are the main points from ABRSM’s full announcement,

It is confirmed as previously mooted that the DipABRSM diploma has been scrapped. ABRSM’s new suite of Music Performance diplomas, and their Regulatory Qualification Framework levels, will be:

  • ARSM (Level 4) – no change from current
  • LRSM (Level 6) – new
  • FRSM (Level 7) – new

From 2024, all new diplomas will be digital assessments, exclusively available on demand through ABRSM’s online service. ABRSM add that they will be exploring opportunities for resuming face-to-face assessment of their performance diplomas in the future, but make no commitment to doing so.

The new LRSM and FRSM diploma assessments will require:

  • A live performance comprising 40-45 minutes (LRSM) or 50-55 minutes (FRSM) of repertoire, 50% of which must be selected from ABRSM’s syllabus, with an option to include own choice music for the remainder of the programme.
  • Own choice repertoire can include solo, chamber or ensemble works, own compositions or arrangements.
  • A piece of supporting evidence related to preparing the repertoire and performance.

Candidates will need to arrange a video recording of their recital, filmed in any location or venue of their choice, with or without an audience.

The supporting evidence element will apparently provide candidates with an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise in an aspect of preparing for performance, showing their knowledge and understanding of a particular piece, their instrument, how to select a programme, and the preparation required for advance performance.

ABRSM will publish the full qualification specification for their new LRSM and FRSM diplomas in performance in November 2023. Booking and assessment will then be available from April 2024. More details about the Teaching and Direction diplomas are also coming soon.

ABRSM have published an introduction to the new Performance diplomas with information about requirements, prerequisites, assessment and repertoire. They say that they will be adding to the repertoire lists in the coming months and publishing updated lists in November.

The marking of these diplomas will have three components: pieces (40%), performance as a whole (40%) and supporting evidence (20%).

Regarding prerequisites, these have also been simplified: you must have passed Grade 8 on your chosen instrument from any exam board. There are no age limits.

The Profession Responds

There is always much news to welcome when ABRSM make an announcement of changes to their syllabus, and this is no exception. At the same time, while ABRSM were once a commendably unifying organisation that sought to represent and support the whole profession in a non-prescriptive way, it is increasingly the case that their decisions have the capacity to divide opinion and cause consternation, and this is again no exception.

There are certainly aspects to this new suite of diplomas that make them far more accessible, and in a good way. Without doubt, it will be easier for overseas candidates and those for whom travel is difficult to access the diplomas in their new format.

I am also particularly happy to see the own-choice repertoire options, which more closely reflect the flexibility found in the performing world today. The acceptance of technology, and the positive possibilities this offers todays musicians, can be broadly welcomed.

A point which has caused immediate concern however is that the published Repertoire Lists dated 2023 are clearly unchanged, and significantly out of step with today’s expectations and recital favourites. Epitomising the phrase “dead, white men”, I was as shocked as others to see ABRSM publish this list without updating it as a priority first. The good news is that they have committed to doing so, meaning this need not be an ongoing concern.

However, a number of points do seem guaranteed to cause continuing, and serious, concern. I have seen all of the following four concerns shared widely by highly respected colleagues online and in conversation…

1. Levelling Up

Let’s remind ourselves that ABRSM’s new suite of diplomas comprises ARSM (Level 4), LRSM (Level 6) and FRSM (Level 7). Anyone who can count will spot the problem here.

Having undertaken the first major update of their suite of diplomas since the Regulatory Qualifications Framework was introduced, ABRSM’s decision not to have a Level 5 qualification is certainly surprising. Unless they have concluded that an entire Level of the Framework is unmerited, it surely falls to ABRSM to lead the way with a Level 5 qualification for musicians.

If the lack of a Level 5 qualification presents a serious problem in terms of logical step progression, then the removal of the DipABRSM qualification (which to an extent bridged the gap) feeds concern that the transition from the current Level 4 ARSM to the new Level 6 LRSM might be very difficult.

And of course, if this proves not to be the case, further serious questions arise, as it would indicate that the new LRSM is significantly simpler than the existing (Level 6) one. It is a point which is unlikely to appeal to those who studied so hard for their existing professional LRSM qualification.

Similarly, many will understandably be aggrieved to see the value of their DipABRSM qualification effectively diminished as the much easier ARSM is seemingly elevated to take its place as the board’s standard Associate Level diploma. And that’s clearly not okay.

Concerns about benchmarking, logical progression and the realistic value of these qualifications are likely to rumble on, undermining the credibility of ABRSM’s professional diplomas until they are willing to give more convincing answers to the questions being raised.

2. Performing or Playing?

Since ABRSM launched their so-called “Performance Grades” there has been much discussion of whether the art of performance necessarily includes inter-communication with a live audience. Most experienced performers, it would seem, see this shared experience as a pivotal element of their art.

The same is held to be true in public music teaching within the UK as evidenced in the Music Mark‘s A Common Approach, in which performing to an audience is treated as one of the six major threads of musical learning across every level, and for all instruments.

For example, Programme of Study 1 (for complete beginners) includes the following generic learning intention for all:

Perform music to others, e.g. parents/carers, teachers, fellow learners and friends, demonstrating an awareness of the mood of the music. Discuss the quality of their playing and, with guidance, learn from their performance.”

By Programme of Study 5 (Grades 6-8), this learning objective has progressed to become:

“Perform music to others with confidence and conviction, communicating the character and style of the music; demonstrate empathy with other performers and with the audience.”

The confusion between simply playing repertoire on one’s own and performing it communicatively to a live audience now appears to be entrenched in ABRSM executive thinking, and seems set to continue driving a wedge between them and an ever-more perplexed music profession.

At the very least, one might have expected a professional performing qualification to require performance before a live audience, even if subsequently submitted as a digital video. It certainly seems very weird that one can now take all eight “performance” grades, Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship professional performance qualifications without ever playing in front of a single person. However can this be right?

Distinguished pianist and educator Peter Noke, one of ABRSM’s most widely respected senior examiners, recently wrote an incredibly helpful and thought-provoking guest article for Pianodao in which he concluded:

“We also need to vehemently argue the case, not just of continuation but for expansion of live music making, and to find ways to ensure that this aspect of exchange becomes our focal point. Without it, we risk recorded playing from the bedroom or the front room becoming mistaken for performance, its sense of occasion, its vital exchange relegated to something only professionals do in large concert halls.”

There is no shortage of expertise within ABRSM, but on this point it seems that their most senior directors have little respect for the views of experts within their own team.

3. A Level Playing Field

Removing the opportunity to take diploma exams in a live setting organised by ABRSM, instead requiring the candidate to organise and fund their own venue, equipment and filming before digitally uploading a video, inevitably raises some serious concerns about equality of access.

Ofqual’s regulations and guidance emphasise the importance of fairness and equality in the examination system. They expect exam boards to take appropriate measures to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, have equal opportunities to access and perform in examinations.

While live examinations at a centre ensured some degree of level playing field, at least at the assessment stage, the new requirements appear to make a virtue of their lack of standardisation, a point which seems at odds with the spirit of ofqual’s guidance. There is surely a point at which freedom of choice and standardisation of assessment become incompatible.

Clearly, a wealthy candidate could hire a lovely hall blessed with the finest grand piano, advertise for an appreciative audience, and pay a film crew. It would, in a very real sense, be wrong for those candidates to receive no additional credit for their best efforts, but is clearly unfair to those who don’t have thousands to spend.

ABRSM’s claim that they will explore opportunities for a face-to-face alternative seems at best whimsical, and deeply unfair towards those presently considering taking or preparing for a professional diploma.

The board’s apparently unswerving commitment to digital delivery brings with it other significant challenges too…

4. Making it, or Faking it?

Awarding bodies these days face an unprecedented challenge from the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, spacial computing and augmented reality. I have seen more than one educator question how long it will be until a so-called “deep-fake” video can convincingly emulate a diploma recital.

Indeed, my good friend Paul Harris has raised this spectre over more than one curry dish. And it is clearly a legitimate concern. Personally my guess would be that this will happen within five years at most.

ABRSM’s new diplomas compound these concerns with the introduction of their supporting evidence component. This replaces the existing Viva Voce and Quick Study elements, which as a live interaction can hardly be faked.

One hardly needs the latest iteration of the ChatGPT app to digitally concoct programme notes, an essay on how to select a programme or prepare a performance, or analysis of a piece: it can freely be done in seconds on any home computer’s web browser. Even schoolchildren know how.

Microsoft recently announced that AI writing will be available in upcoming versions of their ubiquitous MS Word software, and the WordPress Editor software on which I am typing this sentence already includes an AI assistant, just a couple of mouse clicks away.

If ABRSM really think everyone will play fair, that’s cute, and I hate to be the cynic that points out that in the real world, they just won’t.

It remains to be seen how they will determine whether supporting evidence is original work, but with the pace of development in this field it seems plausible that this question alone could ultimately determine whether ABRSM’s new professional diplomas maintain the credibility for which they have long been globally respected.

For more information about ABRSM’s new diplomas, visit their website here.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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