The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) is an examinations board based in London, UK, which provides examinations in music around the world. These are, in my experience, the most common exams taken by students in NYC, and around the world (they’re offered in over 90 countries). This organization is over a hundred years old and more than 600,000 students take their exams every year.
On this post I will focus mainly on the piano exam, since it’s the one that many of my students take.
These exams are divided in many different levels: Pre-Grade, Grades 1-8, and Post-Grade. There’s no need of starting on Grade 1, a student can take any exam that suits to his/her/their level. The only requirement is to have already passed ABRSM Grade 5 (or above) in Music Theory in order to take Piano Grades 6,7 or 8.
Each of these exams consist of 3 musical pieces, scales and arpeggios/broken chords, sight-reading, and an aural tests.
Marks are allocated as follows:
Piece 1: 30
Piece 2: 30
Piece 3: 30
Scales and arpeggios/broken chords: 21
Aural tests: 18
100 marks are required for a Pass, 120 for a Merit and 130 for a Distinction. A Pass in each individual section is not required to pass overall.
The exams could help the student to have a good reason to learn the pieces well, and will force the teacher to work on things such as sight-reading and ear-training, which most teachers don’t spend much time teaching when they only have 30/45 minutes a week with the student. However, these exams cover 3 pieces a year, which after 8 years of practicing and following the curricula, the student might only know 24 pieces. This is not really enough for the level that a grade 8 requires. It is up to the teacher to include other pieces so the student gets in touch with more literature than just three pieces a year.
The thing I don’t like about these exams for children is that sometimes they take away the joy of learning music, and children who could be having fun playing the piano and learning what they want are stressing out about their pieces, or the aural test. Some children will enjoy to test themselves on an exam, while others won’t enjoy it that much. The aural test might include some singing, which many of my students older than 7 or 8 don’t want to do in front of anyone else.
The examiners are trained by the ABRSM, and the exams are supervised in London, which means that wherever you take this exam the level expected is supposed to be the same. These exams are supposed to give a warranty, or allow the parents to see how well the teacher and the kid are doing. It’s true that if a student passes a grade 6, 7 or 8 piano (or theory) exam this would imply that there is certain level of skill that he/she/they has achieved. However, there’s always the possibility to pass with a really bad sight-reading, with a piece performed poorly, or an unsatisfying aural test result (which is often the case with many students).
The ABRSM changes the Syllabus and the books every other year, and the student would need to have the Music Pieces book, the Sight-reading book, the Aural book, and the Scales book. The last three are not absolutely necessary, but they give a good insight of what the exam will be like.
ABRSM is a non-profit organization, which means that they try to keep the prices low, but this might not always be the case, and in the end parents will have to spend on exams and books every year, which might not be very appealing to them.
Is it worth it?
If your child is looking for a more formal and complete education (or if you’re looking for a more formal education for your child), this might be a good start. A grade 8 pianist is someone who may get accepted for an undergraduate piano program at college. If your child (or you) is looking for fun and pure enjoyment with music, one option is to take the exams starting on level 4 or 5, or even later, only if by that time the student is interested.
I don’t think the ABRSM diploma will mean a lot for the future of the student, so there is certainly no need to take the exams. If you think it would be fun, just go for it. And if you need to prepare for the exam and need some help, please don’t hesitate to contact me.