Supporting Your Piano Playing Journey
Written by ANDREW EALES
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 digital qualifications from 2024.
The popularity of that article underlined the point that these diplomas are not just of interest to several of my regular students, but to a far wider community within the piano playing and teaching world.
Now, with additional information available from ABRSM, it’s time to retire my previous post and bring you this updated one to replace it.
The Three Levels
Full details of ABRSM’s updated raft of Performing Diplomas are available on their website here, including the newly expanded repertoire lists and the “Qualification Specification” outlining the full requirements.
It is confirmed that the DipABRSM diploma has been scrapped.
ABRSM’s new suite of Music Performance diplomas, and their Regulatory Qualifications Framework levels, will be:
- ARSM (Level 4) – no change from current, digital and in person
- LRSM (Level 6) – new, digital only from 2024
- FRSM (Level 7) – new, digital only from 2024
The ARSM Diploma
To clarify the progression between the three remaining diplomas, and for the benefit of those not familiar with the ARSM, a quick recap is in order.
The ARSM was introduced in 2016, at which point ABRSM’s Penny Milsom told me in an interview:
“We have developed this new diploma after considering clear feedback from students and teachers worldwide telling us of their wish for a first diploma to bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM.”
The exam comprises a 30 minute performance, either delivered live at an ABRSM exam centre or submitted as a video recording. The programme must include at least 20 minutes music from the current ARSM syllabus, and up to 10 minutes of own-choice repertoire at around Grade 8 level.
At the time of its introduction, it was distinguished from the well-established DipABRSM first diploma as follows:
The ARSM has proven popular as a bridge between Grade 8 and the DipABRSM, but will now be elevated to replace the DipABRSM as the board’s only Associate Level diploma.
Many will understandably be aggrieved to see the value of their DipABRSM qualification evaporate as the much easier ARSM takes its place.
We should also note that, as was intended in the first place, the ARSM is a significantly easier option than the Associate Diplomas offered by the other accredited boards.
The LRSM and FRSM diplomas
The new digital-only LRSM and FRSM diploma assessments will be available on demand, and require the following:
Candidates must arrange and produce a video recording of their recital, filmed in any location or venue of their choice, with or without an audience.
The LRSM performance must last 40-45 minutes, recorded in a single take. 50% of the programme should come from the LRSM repertoire lists, but the other 50% can be own choice repertoire at ARSM level.
The FRSM performance should last 50-55 minutes. 50% of the programme must be selected from the FRSM repertoire lists, but the other 50% can be own choice repertoire at LRSM level.
Own choice repertoire may include a candidate’s own composition or arrangement. However, ABRSM say that they aren’t willing to give prior approval to standardise own-choice selections, so it’s a gamble.
At LRSM level, candidates must either submit a piece of written work of approximately 2,000 words, or a video of a 10-minute talk. Under the heading ‘Performance in Context’ they can choose one of the following four topics:
- Option 1: Informing your audience
- Option 2: Detailed programme analysis
- Option 3: Programming your performance
- Option 4: Preparation for performance
At FRSM level, candidates must either submit a piece of written work of approximately 3,500 words, or a video of a 17-minute talk. Here, the heading changes to Research and Reflection, but the four topics are unchanged.
The marking of these diplomas will have three components: pieces (40%), performance as a whole (40%) and supporting evidence (20%).
Questions and Concerns
Aspects to this new suite of diplomas 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 higher diplomas in their new format.
I am also happy to see the own-choice repertoire options, including the candidate’s own compositions and arrangements. This more closely reflects the flexibility found in the performing world, even though the option of choosing repertoire from previous, lower levels represents a surprise and unexplained lowering of expectations.
The updated repertoire lists are a significant improvement, offering better breadth of choice and inclusion. Previous selections are all preserved, now supplemented by newer compositions and popular recent discoveries.
Despite these improvements, a number of points seem guaranteed to cause continuing and rather serious concern.
It must be recognised, with appropriate respect, that colleagues raising concerns do so because they very deeply care about our profession, and about the recognition, status and integrity of our professional qualifications.
Until now, candidates for LRSM and FRSM must have passed the previous diploma and followed a pathway which has included a music theory qualification or degree.
From 2024, the prerequisite for any and all three diplomas is simply Grade 8 (any board). Candidates can skip straight to FRSM if they wish, and avoid academic qualifications. There is also no lower age limit.
When I write “any board”, this includes those of Ireland, Canada, Australia, South Africa and four of the five accredited UK boards. Of the latter, MTB joins ABRSM, TCL and LCM, while the RSL Classical Grade 8 is not listed. This is presumably an oversight rather than a deliberate slight.
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 and two-way exchange as a pivotal element of their art. One might therefore expect a professional performing qualification to require performance before a live audience, even if subsequently submitted as a digital video.
However, the ABRSM website suggests,
“This is your recital, your programme of music and your performance space. You can even choose to invite an audience.”
There’s an obvious implication here that the Diploma recital can be recorded in your own home, and that the presence of an audience is voluntary. And the published Qualification Specification confirms:
“Candidates are encouraged, but not required, to perform to an audience at both levels of the Music Diplomas.”
It certainly seems odd that one can acquire all eight ABRSM Performance Grades, Associate, Licentiate and Fellowship professional diplomas without once playing in front of another person. How ever can this possibly be right?
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.
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.
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.
ABRSM previously provided live exam centres which neatly addressed this point, providing a more equal, appropriately level playing field.
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.
ABRSM’s new diplomas compound these concerns with the introduction of their Supporting Evidence component. 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.
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 ABRSM will determine whether Supporting Evidence is original work, but the plagiarism section of their Qualification Specification seems not to prohibit the use of AI tools.
Diploma exams have previously been marked by specialist examiners, often with two in the room, and always including an instrument-specific expert. However, with the ARSM, the board moved away from this model.
It seems telling that neither the marketing blurb nor the Qualification Specification of the new digital LRSM and FRSM diplomas give any assurance that the board will continue to provide specialist examiners. Suspicions that they won’t are high.
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 surprising.
Having said that, there is certainly a smooth and logical step progression from one diploma to the next, which equally and inevitably raises questions about the rigour of the new diplomas, and whether they genuinely match the regulated levels ABRSM are claiming for them.
Having removed the challenges of the Quick Study, the in-depth Viva Voce interaction with specialist examiners, and even reduced the level requirements for repertoire, the ball is now in ABRSM’s court to explain more clearly how these new diplomas match the challenge and status of their respected predecessors. Simply asserting that they do has clearly not yet convinced all their stakeholders.
In recent years, accredited awarding bodies have exercised their freedom to benchmark their own qualifications, repeatedly reinventing and substantively changing music exams and diplomas with little regulatory scrutiny.
Over time, it has become difficult to see how the many newer qualifications now available from five equally accredited exam boards relate to each other, or match the widely respected benchmarking which went before.
A Licentiate or Fellowship Diploma was once a passport to a senior role in a respected organisation, and ABRSM continue to suggest that their new diplomas “provide a pathway to employment in the creative arts sector”.
But there is considerable disquiet. The faith that many once placed in the board has undoubtedly been damaged, and many professionals are legitimately concerned that the qualifications and letters they themselves carry have been significantly devalued.
Do the new LRSM and FRSM successfully maintain the status and standards long associated with these diplomas, and with Level 6 and 7 professional qualifications?
I suggest that’s perhaps now a question for Ofqual to consider, and that the active oversight of an external regulator is needed in order to restore the confidence in these music exams that the industry needs and deserves.
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