February 10, 2020

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

What does the name ABRSM stand for?

The name stands for the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music which is based in London in the UK.

“We believe in the importance of all-round musicianship and this focus the basis of our exams” – As recorded in an advert from The Royal Schools of Music, London.

These are musical exams designed by the Royal Schools of Music to help assess students on a yearly basis on their growth and development in music, be it classical or jazz. The exams are usually yearly or every 6 months which one can enter. The lowest exam is called initial, then it moves to Grade 1 and up to Grade 8. After these, there are teachers and performance diplomas for which one can enrol. These exams were developed to help students to gradually develop their music from beginners stage up to a high standard of performance. These exams give one something to measure yourself against and is highly motivating for any student.

There are also other music schools which offer exams for students, although the two lead known ones are the ABRSM and Trinity College of Music London. These two music exams also do exams abroad in many countries.

These exams give students motivation and purpose on a short term basis helping students to reach a level of maturity and performance on a concert level, starting from a very low grade (initial) moving up thill Grade 8. It’s designed for all levels and all age groups.

Why do the exams?

  • To be a good all-round musician means you need development on all areas of music
  • That is on:
  • Playing your instrument well
  • Understanding the theory involved
  • Development of technique to perform the needed pieces
  • Understand notation
  • Musical interpretation of the given pieces
  • Historical background of the composer and
  • The time period that influenced the composer having an impact on the music composed
  • Lead to creativity and expression of music
  • Enjoyment of reaching a short time goal.

Most students doing piano or any other instrument have no idea as to where they are going music-wise – as they do not have the knowledge or the background to know how or what to plan to go forward.

The external exams like the ABRSM and Trinity College Music of London, very particularly and meticulously planned exams for students to grow and to develop with. Developed by master musicians that had the background and training to have planned such a great tool and put these exams together. ABRSM existed since 1889 and Trinity College School of Music since 1877. It was founded years ago and they are known for their high standard and success in training music for many years, also having many examination centres abroad. One can enter these exams with great confidence which can and will only benefit the student greatly.

On the question – “Shall I sit the ABRSM exam? “

The answer can and only Is a big YES!

  1. It gives you a short term goal. Specific pieces are given to work on which covers different styles, even the styles that you are probably less likely to enjoy. Therefore it enlarges your taste for music styles as well. It means that the student develops in different genres and tastes.Normally there will be 3 of 4 pieces to study for each exam. Depending on which school exams you’re following:– Group 1 or A – Normally from the Baroque period with contrapuntal or polyphonic music from that time, an example being the well known JS Bach.
    – Group 2 or B – Normally from the Classical period like Mozart or Beethoven as examples
    – Group 3 or C – Romantic periods like Chopin or Liszt
    – Group 4 or D – From the Modern period or contemporary music. It often includes a jazz piece.
  2. Scales and Arpeggios: There are always a set of scales and arpeggios prescribed for each grade so that the student gradually conquers all the scales in a perfect way over a period of time (years) depending on the age and ability of the student. This helps with the development of key sense, chords (arpeggios) and is important for the development of technique and finger dexterity.
  3. Included in exams there are always ear tests and sight-reading.which is crucial for the development of the all-round musician. Ear Training teaches the student to be able to hear, recognise and understand music, chords, harmony etc. This also helps a lot for playing by ear and understanding theory.
  4. Sight Reading forces the student to pay attention to the reading of notes. The area is many times overlooked, as many students rather like to play by ear than by sight. For the classical pianist, this is however needed and only helps you learn piano pieces faster and more effectively. It’s also very important when you are asked to help and accompany a singer or instrumentalist to be able to read rather fluently than having to struggle. Therefore sight reading becomes majorly important to practice and apply for the pianist. The graded exams force the student to work on this much-neglected area.
  5. There are of course theory exams which are linked to certain grades of the practical instrumental exams. Theory exams give the student a good grounding and understanding of the composed music, notes, notation, meter, form and interpretation etc of the music. It is of major importance should you want to be an all-rounded musician to know and understand the theory behind it all. There are however some very amazing musicians around, especially of the breed that totally plays by ear who have no theoretical idea what they play, but their performance is exquisite and some of the classical musicians just can’t reach that same level of ear development and rhythm achieved by some of these genius players. But on the whole, if you have the opportunity to learn the theory, do it, as it gives you an edge! Theory is not an option when doing ABRSM exams. If you are doing the classical style, theory exams are an absolute necessity. It will give you the thrill of intellectual understanding of music, notation and how it all works, harmony and chords and keys. It gives one great satisfaction and a feeling of great achievement to do these theory exams.

Entering the ABRSM – exam:

  • It forces the student to work on a set schedule and helps you maintain a constant, daily practise routine. It will help you develop on a slow, but steady basis without even really realising it, seeing that you enrolled and now have a deadline to have work done and have your pieces ‘performance ready’.
  • It develops your technique and musical ability in a structured and faster methodical way.
  • It also helps the teacher, and student to know where you are heading.
  • With the exams comes the stress of having to have your exam work ready, performing and playing, but with it comes the promotion as well.
  • There is a great expectation of doing well and having an external assessment of your development.

It’s always a great time for excitement, nervousness and achievement. We, always as children, were dressed beautifully for this great event, wringing our hands in nervousness but after the exam, we had wonderful cakes and tea or milkshakes!

This was a set tradition by our amazing teacher the late Mrs Estelle Hudson – which was well worth it. We all had to drive from our little town to the big town for this great event!

  • Then the big wait for the results! This was and is the best part! Getting your results and reading the encouragement from the examiner, helping you to go forward and better yourself the next time. I suppose there could be ‘not so nice an examiner’, but on the whole, all the examiners we had, were people with kindness and friendliness who went out of their way to encourage us to continue in our pursuit of piano playing!
  • The last great reward is your certificate which; normally comes by post. That was like the cherry on the cake! Of course, it had to go onto your room wall – for you and all to see and appreciate. And wow, yes, another milepost has been reached. Like: “ I passed grade 2 or 3 or 4!” With merit or distinction or whatever. And even if you did not pass. Do not give up! Practice makes perfect and that’s true!

Sit the exam!

It’s worth it and do not even think about cancelling it for one second.

It’s not on the table.

You can do it.

Just go do it!

Never cancel your exam.

Ask me – It’s not worth it.

Just do it!

It can only take you forward.

Early Exam

The photo above is from ABRM’s website – an early piano examination at the ABRSM!

For more details about The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, please visit the following pages:

You can also take a look at David Wright’s book about The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music – View it on Google Books here.

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