Monday, 26 October 2009

Music teaching in the UK

Over on Horn Matters, Bruce Hembd has put up an article about transposition.

In the course of the comments, I've discovered something I didn't know before, that compared to the UK, there appears to be almost no common structure to the teaching of instrumental music in the US.

So, I thought it might be a help to describe the UK system of music education. For the time being, I'm going to ignore class music in schools. Hopefully I'll be able to come back to that in a later article. And I'm also going to leave for the moment the structure of youth orchestras in Britain. Again, I hope to deal with that in some future article. Here I'm going to talk about the graded exam sequence defined by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, or ABRSM for short. There is a very similar scheme run by Trinity College of Music. I'll ignore them for now. The Trinity exam system is the same in general principles and differs in some details from the ABRSM exams. However, I'm more familiar with the ABRSM version, so I'm going to describe that.

A bit of history first. The ABRSM was founded in 1889 as a joint venture of the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, to create an examining body ‘inspired by disinterested motives for the benefit of musical education... which would genuinely provide a stimulus and an objective for a high standard of achievement’. Over the years, the number of different grades has increased (it was originally "Junior" and "Senior") to the present structure of eight grades normally taken during high school and diplomas and degrees at college level. These days, over a quarter of a million candidates now sit ABRSM practical exams each year in over 90 countries worldwide.

There is a syllabus for a plethora of different instruments, but the overall structure of the graded practical exams is much the same on all of them, so I'll use the horn as the example. In the UK instrumental music teaching, from the very earliest level, is normally carried out in one-on-one individual lessons, usually for about 30 minutes each week. The teacher will enter the pupil for the exam when he thinks the pupil is ready. There is no set time interval between the exams, and no age at which you are required to take them - you take each one as you are ready for it. This means that anybody can take these exams, from very young children (children as young as 3 or 4 have taken Grade 1 on their instrument) to adult learners. The exams are run three times a year by qualified examiners who visit all over the country and internationally.

Each exam, at every grade on every instrument, has a common structure, consisting of the following:
  • Three pieces, each chosen from a list defined in the syllabus for that instrument and grade. The candidate (or more usually, the candidate's teacher) can choose which piece from each list to prepare. The three lists each contain pieces in of contrasting styles and periods, so that the candidate has to learn a variety of styles - baroque, classical, romantic, modern - in the course of progressing through the grades.
  • A selection of scales, of a range of keys and degree of difficulty appropriate to the instrument and grade.
  • A set of aural tests of difficulty appropriate to the grade.
  • A sight-reading test of a piece of difficulty appropriate to the instrument and grade.
Each piece is worth a maximum of 30 marks. The scales and sightreading test are each worth 21 marks, and the aural tests are worth 18, for a total of 150 marks. The pass mark is 100, you are awarded a Merit if you get 120 marks and a Distinction for 130 marks.

One thing is immediately obvious. You can't pass on the pieces alone, even if you play them perfectly. You must be able to get marks on the other items as well.

So, for Grade 1, (the complete horn Grade 1 syllabus can be found here) the candidate would be expected to be able to play each of the following scales from memory.
  • C major scale, one octave up and down, slurred and tongued.
  • A minor scale (either harmonic or melodic at the candidate's choice), one octave up and down, slurred and tongued.
  • C major and A minor arpeggio, one octave up and down, slurred and tongued.
In the exam, the examiner wouldn't actually ask for all of these, he would pick a representative selection, for instance, C major scale slurred, A minor scale tongued, and C major arpeggio tongued.

The aural test requires the pupil to be able to hear and recognise musical elements. At grade 1, the pupil has to be able:
  • to recognise whether a simple tune is in 2 or 3 beats to the bar, and to clap the pulse in time to the music,
  • to sing back (in time and at pitch) a short phrase of three notes,
  • to recognise and describe a rhythmic change between two versions of a 2-bar phrase played by the examiner,
  • to recognise and describe various elements (e.g. loud/soft, crescendo/diminuendo, legato/staccato) in a short piece played by the examiner.
The aural tests are common to all instruments, and get progressively more challenging as you go through the grades.

The grades get successively more difficult, to grade 8 where the pupil on the horn would be expected to perform three pieces such as
  • the 1st & 2nd movements of Strauss 1,
  • the last movement of the Hindemith Horn Sonata, and
  • the 5th & 6th movements of the 1st Bach Cello Suite arranged for horn.
Scales would include all major, harmonic minor, and melodic minors slurred, legato-tongued and staccato in 2 octaves up and down (some in 3 octaves), arpeggios in the same set of styles 2 octaves in all keys, chromatic scales in the same set of styles 2 octaves starting on any note, some whole tone scales, dominant seventh arpeggios and diminished seventh arpeggios. The aural tests and sight-reading tests are comparably challenging, and the sightreading test includes a requirement to play at sight a grade 6 sightreading test piece transposing into Eb.

Nobody is required to take these exams, but most instrumental music teachers use them. There are a number of advantages to using this exam structure.
  • It provides a series of graded challenges and targets for the pupils to aim for
  • In doing so, it ensures that teachers put general musicianship including scales, hearing exercises and sightreading into their teaching as well as new pieces.
  • Pupils are prepared to learn the scales and do the sightreading because they accept them as being necessary to pass the exams.
  • It provides a shorthand for knowing the level of achievement a pupil has reached. You know that if they have got to Grade 3, they will be ready for a junior orchestra at high school, Grade 5 means they are probably ready for the senior orchestra at high school and/or the local youth orchestra, Grade 7 or 8 would be required to hold a first chair position in the local youth orchestra, and a high mark (a Distinction) at grade 8 indicates that the pupil may have the ability to go on to music college as a performance major.
  • You can get some general idea of the quality of a teacher by knowing what sorts of exam results they get.
The potential disadvantage is that unimaginative teachers (encouraged by pushy parents) may tend to "teach to the exam" and not explore other aspects of technique and musicianship. My view is that unimaginative teachers will probably always be with us, and if they are going to be unimaginative, at least get them unimaginatively teaching a syllabus that includes scales, sightreading and listening, so that a reasonably rounded technique is taught to the pupils.

In addition to the practical exams on the different instruments, there are theory of music tests, also going through a series of grades. No pupil may take an instrumental exam at grade 6 or higher without having passed Grade 5 Theory.

Theory tests are written examinations. At grade 5, you need to be able to do the following
  • Know time signatures, including simple time signatures (2/4, 3/4 etc, compound time signatures (6/8, 9/8, 6/4 etc) , and irregular time signatures (5/4, 7/4 etc) and the grouping of notes and rests within bars of these time signatures
  • Know treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs and have the ability to recognise notes in all these clefs, convert a passage from one clef to another, and transpose a passage to/from the key of Bb, A or F
  • Know scales and arpeggios for all keys up to 6 sharps or flats, and all simple or compound intervals from any note
  • Know the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords of any key, in root position and any inversion, and the ability to identify these chords in progression in the various standard cadences
  • Be able to compose a short 8-bar tune either for a specific instrument given the first few notes, or to write a tune for some words. In both cases, instructions for articulation, tempo and dynamics must be included.
  • Recognise and name a variety of musical symbols and translate a range of Italian musical terms.
The complete syllabuses for both instrumental and theory exams are available here.

The ABRSM examiners work all over the world, and not just in Britain. The standard required for the grades had risen progressively - the Grade 8 pieces are now significantly harder than they were 30 years ago when I took it. In my day it would have been just the first movement of Strauss 1, the first or last movement of a Mozart concerto, and an unaccompanied piece or study noticeably easier than the Bach Cello Suite - perhaps study 96 or 100 from the Anton Horner book. The standard has risen by equivalent degrees in other instruments as well.

I've lived with this structure all my musical life. It baffles me that there is a substantial part of the world that doesn't have something broadly equivalent.

Can somebody explain the American system to me?


  1. Jonathan - Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up. I'll leave it to Bruce or someone in the education field to explain our system, as I have no direct experience with it. One thing I'm curious about is who pays the examiners for their time and expertise - the student, the ABRSM (and who funds them) or some combination, or is it volunteer work? Over here arts funding for the public schools seems to be one of the first things cut by the state and local governments. I just went to a spaghetti supper at an elementary school raising money for the chorus director to be able to buy music for the chorus.

  2. The fees are paid for by the student. There is standard scale from £29.60 for Grade 1 to £70.80 for Grade 8.

    Generally, everything to do with instrumental music lessons tends to have some contribution from the parents, and the ABRSM exams are no exception to this.

    The rules have changed a bit since I was at school, so I'm not 1004 sure of the current situation, but I believe that while our public schools aren't allowed to charge fees for the core education, they are allowed to have private teachers in who charge for extra items not part of that core. Instrumental music is just such an extra.

  3. Thanks for that info. Those prices seem a bit steep, but not when you consider the overall benefit of having such a coherent approach. That pay structure also allows the system to be independent of the whims and cuts of a government bureaucracy.

  4. Hi there - that was a nice summary of the ABRSM exams. To the above poster, I'd add that the ABRSM is actually a registered charity and they don't make a profit. There are also cash prizes given to a few very high scoring candidates.

    If you're interested, come and take a look at my website which is aimed at students taking the ABRSM theory exams:

    Best wishes and I'll continue to read your blog - (I am an ex-horn player - I found it fiendishly difficult compared to the piano or clarinet, but my school lessons were cut short when I accidentally left my (the school's) french horn on the bus shortly before my grade 4 exam!)

  5. Wow - thanks for posting this Jonathan. This is an impressive system for standards.

    Unfortunately there is nothing as structured as this in the U.S. I would suppose that this is due to the slow expansion of the U.S (Arizona - where I live - was only declared a state of the US in 1863) whereas England has been around much longer and has had an established culture for centuries.

    A system like this would be great in the U.S. but since our culture is so widespread adopting something like this now would be next to impossible. Certainly universities and colleges have guidelines but there is no uniform nationwide standard.

  6. Hi Bruce
    I wouldn't expect something like this to get introduced overnight en masse across the country, but it occurs to me that if teachers decide that this is a good system, they can individually enter people for the ABRSM or Trinity exams, and spread the word.

    In due course, the major music schools could set up a similar joint venture, with whatever changes you think are appropriate for US conditions (e.g. the lists of pieces including more American composers and publishers).

    Ultimately, if you think that something like this is a good idea, the only thing preventing it is inertia.