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ABRSM around the world

5 years ago


In the third in a series of articles marking our 125th anniversary, historian David Wright explores the transformation of ABRSM into the international organisation we know today.

In 1894, only four years after holding its first exams in the UK, ABRSM began examining overseas, first in South Africa and shortly afterwards in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Looking back, it seems a foolhardy venture given the practical difficulties and logistical issues involved. Communications were slow and uncertain, and with letters being sent by sea it was a long time before you could hope to receive the answer to a question. So why did ABRSM do it? The answer tells us about music’s importance in the British-speaking world. There was an enormous amount of enthusiastic amateur music-making in Victorian Britain, something which also promoted social cohesion. As the British Empire spread, so people took their music and their musical means with them, including church organs, brass bands, choral societies and graded music exams.

Bedford Square, the former home of ABRSM

Connecting Britain and Empire

Music was a potent link connecting the people of Britain and its Empire. ABRSM syllabuses did this in a very practical way. They ensured that the music set for graded exams was being learned and practised right across the world. And visits by ABRSM examiners were eagerly anticipated by teachers and local musicians for the contact and music-making they brought. ABRSM exams could prove life-changing for those who gained an ABRSM scholarship to study in Britain. Chance played its part too, as when composer and examiner Thomas Dunhill spotted the precocious talent of Arthur Benjamin (later of Jamaican Rumba fame) in a Class Singing exam in Australia.

First steps

The Royal College of Music’s founding charter required it to work to improve the quality of music and music education throughout the Empire, and ABRSM’s exams offered the practical way of doing this. In 1897 Samuel Aitken, ABRSM’s Secretary, wrote in the name of its President, the future Edward VII, to the universities of Australia, New Zealand and Canada asking them to help ‘the Board’ establish its exams: ‘By adopting the standards and Syllabus used in Great Britain throughout the Colonies, we shall unify the system of musical examination which is current in the Old Country, in all parts of the Empire’. ABRSM’s appearance was controversial in parts of Australia and Canada where local music exams were already being held, but many teachers welcomed the London syllabus and saw ABRSM examiners as the best guarantee of independent marking, uninfluenced by local circumstances.

Early difficulties

But the logistics of providing these early exams to Empire countries meant they cost more than the fees they generated. Indeed, for a long time, ABRSM lost money on its overseas exams – evidence of the idealism which motivated them. The exam tours themselves were demanding and sometimes hazardous, especially in remote regions when the local representative failed to appear! These pioneering examiners needed astonishing levels of resourcefulness, courage and physical stamina. They also needed the mental capacity to cope with the incessant travel and isolation as they hauled themselves and their large suitcases (together with the heavy bundles of music theory papers they had to mark) across enormous distances. Some collapsed under the strain. Not surprisingly, it could be difficult finding suitable examiners prepared to leave their professional life in the UK for the six or more months of an overseas tour.

An examiner’s life

Originally, examiners sometimes stayed at British embassies, but this VIP treatment stopped as their visits became a more routine aspect of colonial life. Examiners were not supposed to give recitals or broadcast, though many of them did. Sometimes the opportunity of hearing a great player could make a huge impression in places where those opportunities were comparatively few. Such was the occasion in 1933 when the pianist Harry Isaacs finished a day’s examining in Canada by returning to give a recital to the teacher’s pupils and friends; this memorable evening was still vivid in that teacher’s mind some seventy years later.

ABRSM did not allow examiners to give lessons for fear of compromising its independence. Some of the reports examiners wrote about their tours survive. Many were sensitive to the challenges faced by teachers and pupils in remote situations, and wrote of their frustration at not being able to offer them more practical support. Some showed how much they relished their experience of different cultures and the opportunities to engage with the people they met. Several examiners emigrated because they enjoyed the life they discovered abroad, such as Edgar Bainton, who became Director of the Sydney Conservatorium.

Growth in Asia

For much of the 20th century international tours were arranged by mail – the cost and difficulty of international telephone calls made these a last resort. First faxes, then computers changed everything. They made the administration much easier for the large examining tours now needed to cope with the huge demand for exams in Asia.

Two examples show just how much things have changed. In 1948 only one examiner was needed for a one-week trip to Malaysia, while fifty years later some 30 examiners were there for a three-month tour visiting around 40 centres. In Hong Kong, the number of candidates nearly doubled between 1993 and 2009 to reach 85,000. And ABRSM has also been successful in bringing its exams to China. This growth in Asia has changed ABRSM’s approach. Where once all materials were in English, ABRSM now provides translations of regulations, syllabuses, aural and music theory materials for major markets and helps local teachers through workshops and courses.

ABRSM’s exams work internationally very much as they do in the UK, with a broad base of entries at the lower grades that gradually tapers off at the higher levels. One particular benefit of making the musical standards and requirements of these higher grades available worldwide has been to guide overseas students with an ambition to study at a conservatoire in the UK. The graded music exam, which once appeared a very Western approach to music education, has become a relevant educational tool wherever classical singing or instruments are learned. And in little more than a hundred years, the international demand for these music exams has made them a significant cultural export.

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