Assessment with a difference
A graded music exam isn’t always the best option for players or singers, which is where our Performance Assessment comes in, as Rhian Morgan finds out. Think of someone taking an ABRSM exam... what do you imagine? A slightly nervous small child, clutching their music? A flamboyant teenager ready to wow the examiner? The first image to come to mind is probably not a recently widowed 80-year-old woman, ready to play her Grade 8 pieces. But this candidate, who once performed for examiner Colin Walker, was not taking the traditional ABRSM exam, but a Performance Assessment.
ABRSM introduced the Performance Assessment more than 30 years ago to give musicians the chance to choose their own repertoire and be assessed by a professional musician, without the pressure sometimes associated with public performance or exams. There is no pass or fail to worry about and no marks are awarded, just constructive comments on the performance written by the examiner onto a certificate that the candidate receives at the end of the assessment. Originally aimed at children with specific needs or adults, the Performance Assessment is now open to players and singers of all ages performing classical or jazz music.
What makes this assessment so special?
Examiner Colin Walker, a pianist and trombonist, says that for him one of the great pleasures of examining is meeting candidates and making them feel welcome. ‘One of the most special moments in my examining career was when this older lady came in and sat at the piano. What she said still moves me to this day. ‘She explained that her husband had recently died and she felt little purpose in her life any more. Piano playing was now one of the few things which gave her comfort and solace. She had entered for Grade 8 but had lost the confidence to take the exam itself. What she did want to do was share the pieces she had been working on with someone – so she chose the Performance Assessment instead.’
Many people want a goal for their learning... the Performance Assessment has been perfect.
Colin felt privileged to be in the exam room that day, listening to pieces which clearly meant so much to the performer. ‘I did everything in my power to write a certificate which would encourage her to play for many years to come,’ he adds. And the Performance Assessment experience – with its special interaction between examiner and performer – is something enjoyed by the many children and adults who take the assessment each year.
Who takes the Performance Assessment?
For adults who haven’t performed for a long time, for teachers who spend more time teaching than performing and for musicians of any age who just want to perform their pieces or songs, the Performance Assessment offers the opportunity to play in front of a professional musician and to receive a certificate giving helpful comments, encouragement and insight. Nicola Clapp, a piano teacher in Exeter, has Dyspraxia. She has a music degree and plays the piano, but says: ‘I struggled so much with the practical side of music, I lost interest and gave up for a while.’ However, she has recently completed Performance Assessments in Piano, Violin, Flute and Recorder. ‘I found them to be hugely beneficial to my life as a musician. As I have Dyspraxia the graded exam materials can be a bit tricky for me. But this way, I get to choose the pieces and they can be of differing levels or styles, which you can’t necessarily have in a normal graded exam.’ Wes Ramsay, teacher and ABRSM Representative in Kentucky, USA, found the Performance Assessment useful before his own Dip ABRSM and LRSM diploma exams. ‘It’s truly an effective approach and one we use to shepherd our own diploma candidates through the process,’ he says. ‘We tell our candidates to explain to the examiner why they are taking the assessment and where they are in their progress. The examiners helpfully respond by listening with a view towards diploma standards.’
One of the greatest pleasures of examining is meeting candidates and making them feel welcome.
Catherine Burchell, a piano and violin teacher from Sheffield, is particularly interested in helping pupils with SEN challenges. She herself has taken two Performance Assessments. They have made her ‘much more conscious of what my pupils go through when preparing for exams. ‘I had to try out for myself the performance preparation tactics that I’m always recommending to my pupils... play your pieces on as many different pianos as you can, play for someone else other than just your mum, peg the music higher up on the music stand just in case it’s a grand piano on the day. It made me realise I need to practise what I preach!’ Linda Pegrum, a piano teacher from Tring in Hertfordshire, works in schools and privately with a very diverse group of 65 learners, aged from 5 to 72. ‘I use the Performance Assessment a lot,’ she says. ‘It’s been a wonderful opportunity for each student to build confidence without a fail fear and learn from the experience of performance, with a written critique to take away. ‘Many people want to have a goal with their learning and the Performance Assessment has been perfect for them to gain confidence in a formal setting, to rise to the challenge of a performance and be left with a positive memory of the occasion.’
About the Performance Assessment
- Now open to musicians of all ages and levels
- Free choice of repertoire with a maximum 15-minute programme
- No scales, sight-reading or aural tests
- Objective, independent evaluation with no pass or fail
- Written report provided on the day
- Available for all ABRSM classical and jazz subjects
You can find further information at www.abrsm.org/performanceassessment.
This article was originally featured in the September 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.
Rhian Morgan is a freelance writer with a special interest in music and education.