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The benefits of ABRSM exams

3 years ago


St. Paul's Choir School in Massachusetts have kindly allowed us to reproduce an article from their Fall 2015 magazine that discusses the benefits of ABRSM exams for their pupils.

This is our fifth year teaching the ABRSM syllabuses for Piano and Music Theory. ABRSM is a world-renowned organization which prepares many pupils across the world, including many Choir School pupils, for public exams.

These qualifications are a universally recognized gold standard in classical music training, and at the highest level act as a preparation for entry to the London conservatoires – the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music – in addition to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Royal Northern College of Music.

More importantly to St. Paul’s, ABRSM is especially suitable for Choir School pupils since it helps draw together aural skills, written notation, sight-reading, and performance at the highest level.

When we introduced the course in September 2011, it replaced a version of the Ward Method, which had been used in different forms since the early days of the Choir School. The Ward Method was designed for use in parochial schools in the early part of the 20th century by Justine Ward to teach the singing of Gregorian chant to all pupils, not just those with musical potential. Justine Ward had been a friend of Theodore Marier, our founder. The Ward Method can be of great value, and is currently enjoying something of a revival in certain parishes in the US, where childrens’ choirs are once again starting to sing more Gregorian chant. A very good aspect of the Ward Method is the way it teaches children to recognize the rhythms and phrases in Gregorian chant.

We now have a music theory course that is perhaps broader in scope, as it also ties in the work the boys do on the piano, as well as in choir, as ABRSM provides an excellent graded syllabus and exams for piano as well. Much of the material the Ward Method taught can also be learned simply through learning to sing Gregorian chant. In learning about phrasing in chant, the boys work practically in treating each chant as it comes up liturgically. We certainly enjoy singing Gregorian chant very much, and the standards of singing it are constantly rising.

ABRSM syllabuses meet each boy where he is, and reward very hard work and preparation. They are practically very well laid out, and seek to make things as transparent as possible. They are examined externally at least every year, and there is always a clear aim in sight. Materials for the Piano syllabus are drawn from across the history of keyboard music, ranging from the Renaissance through to jazz and contemporary composers. The emphasis is on building sight-reading, technique, expression, and the importance of careful preparation. The music theory course (as with the piano) builds from the very start (many of our boys enter with no music-reading experience at all) and seeks to provide a complete understanding of written music, which is the practical bedrock of all choral singing. So far, I have been very pleased with the way St. Paul’s Choir School has adapted to the rigours of ABRSM. The beautiful certificates the boys receive are a just reward for their hard work; the objective reality of the grading of exams (boys from all Choir Schools do sometimes fail an exam and have to retake) is a real incentive to work hard.

Source: the Fall 2015 magazine of St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square

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