ABRSM launches teacher feedback panels

ABRSM has today (29 March 2017) launched a recruitment drive for ‘Teacher Voices’, its new customer feedback panel. The music education organisation is looking for 500 teachers from a wide range of backgrounds from across the UK to take part in a series of online polls and surveys.

The results and insight from the feedback panel will influence the development of ABRSM exams, apps, books and events. It’s an opportunity for teachers, including classroom, peripatetic and private teachers, to share their views on ABRSM and the music education sector in the UK.

Jeremy Phillips, ABRSM’s Commercial Director:

“We’re constantly reviewing our current services as well as developing some really exciting new ones. We wanted to create an ongoing feedback channel for teachers to share their thoughts and ideas with us. Teacher Voices provides an opportunity for them to help shape those developments.”

The recruitment for the teacher panel and ongoing management are being run by an independent research company who will ensure that all feedback remains anonymous. To register interest in ABRSM’s Teacher Voices panel, please sign up at www.abrsm.org/teacher-voices.

Teacher Voice promo graphic.png

Source: ABRSM press release

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ABRSM launches a new Diploma

Source: ABRSM Media release – 4 August 2016
ABRSM is strengthening its current diploma offering with the addition of a new performance qualification, launched today (4 August). The new assessment, the Associate of the Royal Schools of Music (ARSM), has been launched to provide learners with an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their performance skills after Grade 8.

The new diploma will be available to take in all ABRSM practical exam venues worldwide from January 2017.

What is involved?

The exam can be taken by anyone who has passed ABRSM Practical Grade 8 or a listed alternative. ARSM is available in all instruments currently examined by ABRSM, including voice.

Within the challenge of performing a 30-minute programme, candidates are assessed on their musical communication skills, interpretation and technical delivery. Candidates will have to perform:

• at least 20 minutes of music chosen from the ARSM repertoire list (this is the same list set for DipABRSM);

• up to 10 minutes of music can be own-choice repertoire (of at least Grade 8 standard).

There are no written or spoken elements, and no sight reading, aural tests or scales.

John Holmes, ABRSM Chief Examiner said 

“The diploma, which is supported by the Royal Schools of Music, is suitable for musicians who are looking for a challenge after grades and will provide a meaningful goal to work towards.

ARSM is unique in focussing solely on practical performing skills – nothing more, nothing less. It’s about the art and craft of musical communication through a half-hour programme which you choose and put together according to your own individual musical strengths and enthusiasms.

As well as focussing on the playing or singing of your chosen items of repertoire, ARSM also involves assessment of the performance of your programme as a whole, giving you valuable feedback from two complementary perspectives.”

For more information about ARSM, visit http://www.abrsm.org/newdiploma

Exam mark sheets: help or hindrance?

 

It’s that time of the year again – exam season, when teachers and students everywhere are awaiting the results of their practical exams.

All exam candidates receive a mark sheet which includes brief commentaries on and marks for their pieces, technical work (scales, arpeggios and exercises), aural tests, sight-reading etc. At the bottom of the sheet is the most important number: the total number of marks gained which will indicate a Pass, Merit or Distinction.

Mark sheets are useful, but there is some debate amongst my teaching friends and colleagues as to how useful they are. I think it’s important to bear in mind that examiners are limited by time and space to write detailed commentaries. I used to photocopy the mark sheets and give them to my students, but now I extract the most useful and positive comments and discuss these with each student individually. I believe students should receive positive messages from examiners and teachers, so I tend to keep the negative comments back or rephrase them so that the student understands where marks might have been gained or lost. Often comments reinforce areas which have come up in lessons or highlight aspects which require further or more detailed study, and can be applied to new repertoire. Trinity exams divide the marking for the pieces into three sections which I find far more helpful – Fluency & Accuracy, Technical Facility and Communication & Expression.

Occasionally I have read a mark sheet which seems unnecessarily negative while the student has actually scored a good mark, or which to bear no resemblance at all to the student I know and teach. And sometimes, the examiner’s handwriting is simply impossible to decipher! In all cases, I think it is important to remember that an exam is just a snapshot of the student’s attainment, at that time, and that as teachers we should know our students well – their strengths and weaknesses, musical tastes, confidence etc. I know plenty of teachers who do not enter their students for graded exams for this very reason, but in my experience, most students, especially children, enjoy the challenge of working towards an exam or assessment and are always proud of the smart certificates they receive. And for both student and teacher, exams can be useful for benchmarking and assessing progress.

As teachers, we owe it to our students to judge when is the best time for them to enter for an exam and to structure their learning to ensure they are well-prepared.

Trinity College London graded music exams assessment criteria (PDF document)

ABRSM graded music exams marking criteria (PDF document)

 

(Picture source: SE22 Piano School)

 

Encore – your favourite ABRSM piano exam pieces

There are numerous anthologies of piano pieces which sit comfortably alongside the exam syllabuses, many of which are published by the ABRSM. Encore is a new compilation, in four volumes covering Grades 1 to 8, of over 70 favourite exam pieces from timeless classics to contemporary classical music and popular songs and show tunes or TV themes. Selected by Karen Marshall, one half of the team behind the Get Set! Piano series, the opinions of teachers, educators and piano students were sought in deciding which pieces to include. The result is a collection of music which will appeal to all ages and abilities.

 

By necessity such a selection is quite subjective, but overall I find the range of repertoire is interesting and stimulating and will suit most tastes. The earlier volumes are particularly strong, with some of my personal favourites (and favourites of my students too) such as African Dance, A Song of Erin, Vampire Blues and Top Cat featuring in the first book.

The clear, spacious layout of the pieces is familiar from the ABRSM exam books and each piece includes a footnote with concise information to help the student’s understanding of the piece, from details about the composer to guidance on tempo, articulation, phrasing, and ideas for further exploration which include practical musicianship, an area often overlooked in tutor books and anthologies. These include, suggestions on how to memorize, further listening, identifying musical patterns or motifs, simple structural analysis, keyboard spatial awareness, and in the later grades guidance on comparing different interpretations of the same piece or understanding how a fugue is constructed. There is no accompanying CD for the books, but I suspect most repertoire can be found online, on YouTube or via a music streaming platform.

I have already begun to use pieces from the Encore series to broaden my students’ repertoire. Far too many students “go through the grades” without learning any additional repertoire: thus by Grade 8 they will have learnt only 24 pieces. The Encore series offers an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to explore new and varied repertoire which will suit individual abilities and preferences, and hopefully encourage enjoyed and engagement with the piano and its literature.

The Encore books can be ordered direct from the ABRSM or other sheet music retailers.

 

Be prepared! Getting ready for your piano exam

Here is some advice to help you prepare for your piano exam, at whatever level.

  • You should aim to be ready for your exam at least two weeks ahead of the exam date. By this time, your pieces will be thoroughly learnt and finessed, and your technical work (scales and arpeggios, technical exercises etc) should be very secure. Last-minute learning is never a good idea, as it can make us panicky and may lead to additional nerves on the day.
  • Your practising in the weeks leading up to the exam date should take now take two forms:
  1. Detailed practising to make sure everything is fully covered in your pieces. Be especially careful to note dynamics and articulation, ornaments, and any other features of the pieces which need to be highlighted in performance. Any uncertain passages should be gone over slowly and carefully to make sure they are fully learnt.
  2. Practice “playing through” without stopping to correct mistakes. Get into the habit of “performing” your pieces and think about how you want to transmit the music to the audience. Always think of an exam as a performance (rather than something to be tolerated and “got through”!). How do you want to “tell the story” of the music? What images, moods and emotions do you want to convey to the audience?
  • Your teacher will help you practice aural training and sight-reading in your lessons, but you can help yourself by listening to music at home. See if you can hear the beat/pulse of the music and practising clapping to it. If you have another musician in the family, ask them to play a short rhythm on the piano which you should clap back. Or get them to play a few notes for you to sing to. When listening to music, keep your ears alert for interesting features, such as changes in dynamics or articulation (staccato, legato etc).
  • Your teacher should do a few “mock” exams with you so you are familiar with the format of the exams. ABRSM exams usually begin with technical work, then the pieces, then sight-reading and aural. You will feel confident and prepared if you know what to expect in the exam.
  • If you have a tendency to suffer from performance nerves, discuss this with your teacher. We all have different ways of dealing with nerves, but one of the best ways is to know that you are well-prepared, so that even a slight slip or error in your playing will not throw you off course in the exam. I also use deep-breathing and positive thinking techniques to help with nerves. But remember – it’s ok to feel nervous! And a little bit of anxiety on the day can make you play better.
  • In the last few days before the exam, don’t over-practice! At this stage, it is possible for mistakes to creep into your pieces and it can then be very difficult to unlearn them. Enjoy playing your pieces, keep your technical work fluid and accurate, and look forward to performing your pieces to the examiner.
  • On the day: arrive at the exam centre in good time. The steward will tell you where to wait – and don’t be shy about asking to use the loo if you need to! Make sure you feel comfortable before you go into the exam room. Many exam centres have a practice piano: do use it, but only if you want to. However, I would not recommend playing your entire programme of pieces in warm up. Some light exercises, a few scales and maybe the beginnings and endings of your pieces.
  • In the exam room, be poised and calm. Adjust the piano stool height if you need to, and make sure you feel comfortable before you start. If you are feeling nervous, take a deep breath before you start and as you breathe out, allow your hands to float onto the keyboard into the position for the first piece. Or, if you are starting with scales, take a moment to think about the starting position. Don’t rush.
  • During the aural and sight-reading sections of the exam, if anything is unclear, don’t be afraid of asking the examiner to repeat an instruction or question. And in the sight-reading exercise, keep going not matter what!
  • Remember: the examiner wants you to do your absolute best and is not there to trick you or trip you up. Play with a sense of enjoyment, as a performer
  • And finally….. GOOD LUCK!!!!

Useful resources:

A helpful article by concert pianist and teacher Graham Fitch on exam preparation

My Turn Next – a booklet on exam preparation from the ABSM

ABRSM Mini Guide to Exams

Guest Post: Piano exams success – 9 key points

With the spring exam season upon us, I asked a friend and colleague of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has experience as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), to offer some tips on how to do well. Here are her 9 key points for exam success:

 

  1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence equals distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.
  2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.
  3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.
  4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.
  5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).
  6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.
  7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should develop is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having ‘practice runs’ will help you do this.
  8. Remember the exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.
  9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good luck!!

Further resources:

Why take a music exam?

Magnus playing Vampire Blues by Kevin Wooding (ABRSM Grade 1 piano List C):

http://soundcloud.com/cross-eyedpianist/magnus-vampire-blues

Melanie Spanswick is a concert pianist and writer. More on Melanie at her blog ClassicalMel.