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ABRSM: continuity and change

5 years ago


In his final article in a series of features celebrating ABRSM's 125th anniversary, historian David Wright explores ABRSM’s growth and recent development.

ABRSM has travelled a long way from its first exams in 1890 to its current position. Those first exams, for two ‘grades’ or levels, attracted 1,141 UK entries, while now there are over 650,000 exams being taken worldwide in some 90 countries each year.

The eight grades

The original two grades were the equivalent of today’s Grades 6 and 7. Unsurprisingly ABRSM received many requests to provide something for less advanced candidates, and in 1891 it added exams at the levels of Grades 4 and 5. Gradually more grades were offered until 1933 when the familiar eight-grade structure was put in place, each numbered by level and a description carried over from the older system. This explains the titles that were used for many years, such as Grade 2 Elementary and Grade 7 Advanced.

For most of its history, ABRSM offered only graded exams and its own LRSM diploma. (The LRSM was provided for overseas candidates who weren’t able to take the Royal College of Music’s Associate diploma or the Royal Academy of Music’s Licentiate diploma in London.) The fact that ABRSM operated for a century without substantial changes to its exams shows how very stable the music teaching system was, both in the UK and elsewhere.

All change

Until the 1940s and 1950s, ABRSM exams were taken by a very narrow group of candidates learning the piano and organ, strings, singing and flute. In an earlier article I highlighted the contrast in candidate numbers and instruments being examined between the 1930s – when only 6 clarinets were examined – and the 1980s – when there were 20,468 clarinet candidates in 1980 alone! People are generally astonished by such a difference, so it is worth emphasising the enormous differences between the pre- and post-war musical environments.

New ways of learning

For the first half of ABRSM’s life most orchestral and brass players did not do graded exams. These instruments were mostly learned in the context of the numerous brass or wind bands which existed in every locality across the country and which trained up new players using their own musical materials. The competition to become a good enough player to join as an adult member replaced the challenge of graded exams.

But after the Second World War, more and more Local Education Authorities set up their own music centres, employing peripatetic teachers to go around schools. With more pupils learning orchestral instruments independently of local bands, we see an astonishing growth in the number of exams taken in these instruments. In 1950 there were over 69,000 pianists taking ABRSM exams, and these represented 93% of all practical exams. In 1985, even though the number of pianists had more than doubled to around 143,000, the proportion of pianists to other instrumentalists had fallen to 56%.

A syllabus at last

It was not until 1968, nearly eighty years after it was founded, that ABRSM published a comprehensive syllabus for woodwind and brass. Until then, teachers of most orchestral instruments had to write to ABRSM’s London offices in Bedford Square for a sheet of paper (printed with a mechanical copying machine called a cyclostyle) giving the requirements for the instrument they needed!

A decline in funding

The period from the end of the 1960s to the 1980s was one of great opportunity and achievement in which music education in the UK flourished as never before. Then in the 1980s the situation rapidly changed as politicians altered the funding system for schools in a way which had significant effects on music education. Many of the local music centres were privatised and now had to generate their own incomes. Where previously pupils had free access to learning an instrument and associated ensemble and choral activities, this was now less often the case.

The rise of group teaching

This major change, with its consequences for the ways that music teaching and learning is carried out, has been significant for ABRSM. For much of its first hundred years, the usual pattern was individual instrumental lessons, which made it possible for teachers to build up pupils’ aural and sight-reading skills according to their particular needs. But after the 1980s, the group teaching of instruments in shorter lessons was increasingly adopted.

New exams and assessments

At the same time, ABRSM began to expand and broaden its approach. As a result, it now offers a much wider range of exams and assessments, from the pre-Grade 1 Prep Test, through the group-based Music Medals, via the traditional graded exams (expanded to include Jazz), to post-Grade 8 diplomas at three levels. In particular, Music Medals were developed for teachers and pupils working in groups, making it possible for individuals to be assessed within the whole-group situation.

Embracing technology

Digital appsDevelopments in technology have also had a significant impact on music education. Digital technology has changed traditional patterns of conveying knowledge while making it possible to hear new musical repertoires at the flick of a switch.

As technology has opened up teaching and learning opportunities, so ABRSM has responded with new apps and music software. Resources such as Aural Trainer and Melody Writer have been designed to guide and support teachers and students in developing all-round musicianship skills in new ways. It has also broadened the range of the music it sets for exams.

Adapting and innovating

Digital appsAll these innovations underline a sense of great change at ABRSM. For nearly a century after its foundation ABRSM seemed hardly to alter in any fundamental way. Candidate numbers continued to increase in significant numbers and new instrumental syllabuses were introduced, but the graded template itself remained unchanged. And because ABRSM’s graded exams continued to meet the needs of candidates and their teachers, the preoccupation was with ensuring good choices of exam repertoire and maintaining high standards of examining.

Nothing in ABRSM’s history had prepared it for the considerable alterations that have taken place in music education since the late 1980s. ABRSM has found itself needing quickly to adapt to some very different circumstances and to be innovative about doing so.

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