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ABRSM exams and the wider musical culture

5 years ago


In the second in a series of articles marking our 125th anniversary, historian David Wright reflects on how ABRSM has both influenced and been affected by the wider culture of classical music over time.

ABRSM's Bedford Square officesAs ABRSM celebrates its 125th anniversary, it is interesting to note that one of its founders, the composer Hubert Parry, felt 'a sort of trepidation as to whether people in the outlaying parts of the British Islands would not be found hopelessly out of touch with the works of Schumann, Schubert and the divine works of Bach'.

Contemporary life is now so interlinked and networked that it is easy to forget the degree of regional variety that characterised British life until the early 20th century. Under the influence of recording and broadcasting, cultural and social aspects of life gradually became more uniform all across the country. In the past there were considerable regional variations in the sorts of musical repertoires played and sung in different parts of the country. Music enjoyed in rural, agricultural, communities had little relevance to urban societies shaped by industrial conditions.

ABRSM’s early vision

In our very different contemporary context, Parry’s attitude can easily be mistaken as patronising. But what he was expressing was a genuine concern to increase the opportunities for more people to encounter music by the great composers. Parry’s ideal for the early ABRSM was widely quoted in its exam music albums:

'to give people something definite to work for; to counteract the tendency to sipping and sampling which so often defeats the aspirations of gifted beings, and also to give people all over the Empire opportunities to be intimately acquainted with the finest kinds of musical art, and to maintain standards of interpretation and an attitude of thoroughness in connection with music which will enable it to be most fruitful of good.'

The first professional curriculum

The reality was that music education at all levels in the late 19th century was very different from today’s. The first ‘modern’ professional-level music curriculum coincided with the opening of the Royal College of Music (RCM) in 1883. Its students were expected to attend for a three-year course (a minimum of one year was required) rather than just dropping in and out, which is one reason why the College’s students quickly began to make such an impact on musical life generally. The RCM courses, with individual teaching for first and second study and theory with additional practical classes and lectures in other musical subjects, quickly became the music college norm.

New benchmarks

However, the problem facing music colleges in these early days was a shortage of sufficiently advanced students. And this was a situation that ABRSM exams helped to change. The rounded content of the graded syllabuses mapped out a scheme for pupils’ general musical development as well as their specific instrumental and vocal skills. Over time, many teachers have viewed ABRSM’s syllabuses as an invaluable guide to shaping the progressive stages of musical training, from its earliest steps to the advanced, pre-professional, level of Grade 8. And in turn, graded exams have gained wide acceptance by parents and schools as benchmarks of musical attainment.

A contribution to musical life

It should be remembered that most ABRSM exams are taken in the first five grades – a broad base that tapers, in a sort of pyramid, towards Grade 8. But that experience up to Grade 5 is crucial to the well-being of classical music. People stop at the lower grades for all sorts of reasons, but the experience they have already gained in the process usually gives them an understanding and enjoyment of music. This encourages them to become concert-goers and consumers of recorded music over their life time, and many support their own children learning music in the future. Arguably, practical music-making has been the most significant contribution of the graded exam system to musical life in general.

Royal Academy of Music Orchestra

Musical divisions

British musical life before the Second World War was sharply differentiated. Initially ABRSM only catered for the 'drawing room' instruments (piano, strings, flute, harp) and singing which were commonly associated with middle-class accomplishment. Brass and wind bands, of which there was an astonishing number (one estimate suggests there were 40,000 amateur bands in 1889), trained-up their own instrumentalists – graded exams were irrelevant to them.

The growth of instrumental teaching

Strings performerThese parallel musical universes continued until the 1960s. What changed this situation was the growth of orchestral instrumental teaching in schools with teachers employed by the Local Education Authority music services. This development encouraged ABRSM to devote as much time and energy on its wind and brass syllabuses as it did to those of its other instruments.

ABRSM exam figures give a simple but vivid impression of the enormous difference between the British music educational world of the 1930s and now. Just contrast the total of 6 clarinets and 2 trumpets that ABRSM examined during the whole of the 1930s with the 20,468 clarinets and 7,308 trumpets it examined in 1980 alone! The other interesting, complementary, instrumental trend saw the decline of the proportion of ABRSM grades taken in piano: in 1950, 93% of all practical graded exams were taken by pianists, but by 1980 the proportion of piano to other instrumental candidates had dropped to just 54%.

ABRSM in print

ABRSM has made a more general contribution to musical culture through its publications, beginning in 1920 before developing a more ambitious profile from the 1980s. Its two editions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas epitomise the musicological attitudes of their respective times. First was the famous Tovey – Craxton edition (1931), which is still in print. Tovey’s essays on each sonata were far more extensive than originally envisaged and had to be published separately, with abbreviated versions appearing in the musical edition itself.

The second Beethoven edition of 2007 was edited by Barry Cooper. As well as presenting the most scholarly and authoritative musical text, it also engages with historical performance issues. In the way that it integrates textual and performance scholarship through its introductory essays and sound examples, the Cooper edition represents an enormous undertaking. It combines practical and scholarly approaches to guide new generations of pianists into a fresh understanding of Beethoven performance.

In all sorts of ways and for many different reasons, today’s ABRSM is very different in nature from that of the interwar years and indeed from that of the Victorian era when it first came into being. ABRSM is now much more musically inclusive and broader-based. Its Jazz and Music Medals syllabuses have associated teaching materials that are widely admired, and it is being proactive in supporting teaching and learning through new technologies. Such initiatives show the organisation’s commitment to be involved with the very changed circumstances of today’s music education.

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural HistoryDavid Wright was formerly Reader in the Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music. His book, The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History, is available in paperback from or in hardback from Boydell and Brewer.

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