1. I would like to request an explanation as to why so many scales must be memorised. I find it hard to memorise so many.
The new syllabus has reduced the number of technical requirements in some grades. Years ago, when I [Clara] took the exams, there were many more scales and it is important to have both the understanding and physical memory of the keys relevant to each grade. The best way to absorb them is to practice a very small number at a time, so as not to confuse the patterns.
2. In the aural section, why does someone learning violin, like myself, have to sing back notes played on a piano? I simply do not see the point in it. I am not doing a singing exam after all.
3. As there's some quite heated discussion re: the aural part of the tests, can I ask if there is any likelihood of the relevance of sight-singing being reviewed for practical exams other than voice?
Nigel Scaife, Syllabus Director: As part of our recent review of aural training resources (of which more in January’s Libretto), we have considered this aspect of the aural tests in some depth. We recognize that occasionally there are candidates for whom singing is a difficult activity, especially for adolescents whose voices are changing. However, examiners are trained to be sensitive to this and to accommodate the candidate’s singing range, transposing the musical material when necessary, and the tests themselves cover only a limited pitch range. This is to enable all candidates to respond comfortably, without any strain to their voice. For those not used to singing, or who are unwilling to do so, there is the option of either whistling or humming. In fact, in my experience, humming often provides the best results. For any test which requires a ‘sung’ response, the focus of assessment is entirely on the ability to reproduce the correct pitches and rhythms, rather than the vocal quality.
However, we also believe that singing provides an excellent way to develop and assess a student’s listening skills and what is commonly called the ‘musical ear’. This is because singing makes the vital connection between the internal imagining of sound – the ‘inner ear’ - and the external creation of it in a very direct way. With singing there is no need to physically ‘find the note’ on an instrument (important though that connection is), which can get in the way of expressing musical ideas that have been internalised, and in turn affect assessment.
Being able both to internalise music through ‘hearing it in your head’ and to externalise it by reproducing what has been heard is an invaluable asset in developing a musician’s general awareness. To start with, in the early grades, it is all about imitating musical material that has just been heard. This ability to do this is a vital skill for the developing musician, as without it one could not learn to discriminate, to recognise similarity or difference, or to develop the ability to think in sound - sometimes called ‘audiation’. Audiation is the mental process by which the brain gives meaning to music, in the same way as thought brings meaning to language. Through ‘thinking in music’ students learn to understand it, and with understanding comes the appreciation that leads to a love of music.
When reading notation, thinking in music involves the ability to internalise the sound separately from the physical act of performance. This skill can be neglected when notation is introduced, because the symbols become simply instructions on where to place the fingers. When sight-reading, students who are unable to audiate effectively will typically be able to play the correct pitches, but will not communicate the rhythmic elements of the music accurately.
The ability to read notation and be able internally to imagine the sound it represents is vital for the well-rounded musician. It closely relates to the ability to detect errors and to be able to correct mistakes made in the process of learning new music. This begins with the ability to hear in your head and evaluate a single melodic line, so at Grades 4 and 5 the test is purely one of sight-singing a series of intervals, without any rhythmic basis. This is extended in the higher grades when the element of rhythm is introduced and the examiner accompanies the singing.
ABRSM aural tests are all about the assessment of a candidate’s ‘musical ear’. Having a good musical ear impacts on all aspects of musicianship. Singing, both silently in the head as well as out loud, is one of the best ways to develop and assess it and for this reason we want to encourage it for all musicians.
4. Are there any plans to offer the jazz exams in other countries (e.g. Italy!)?
We are in fact holding jazz exams in India for the first time in 2010 and we continually assess and respond to local demand for all our exam and assessment offerings. If we do perceive that local enthusiasm exists for a particular product and the resources are available there is a good chance that we will introduce it!
5. Are there any plans to extend online registration for exams to other countries?
We do hope to extend the current online registration facility to incorporate other countries in the future. However, this will depend on whether it is possible to set up local payment systems in order for applicants to pay their examination fees by credit card online. You can share your views with us here.
6. I was wondering what steps one should take to become an ABRSM examiner? What qualifications are needed and (I hope you don't mind me asking) what are the salary ranges?
We are looking for experienced musicians with broadly based understanding of the orchestral instruments and a high level of personal achievement. Then there are the all-important 'people skills' needed to put candidates at ease. The process of interview, selection and training is rigorous and ensures that the next generation of examiners offers consistent service at the highest level. Our recent podcast discusses how to become an ABRSM examiner in further detail.
7. I have almost completed the first year of a music diploma at the OU and was wondering about Grade 5 exemption (theory). The course is ‘A214: Understanding music’ and covers theory beyond Grade 5. Does ABRSM recognise this qualification and provide exemption from Grade 5?
We do indeed accept this qualification as an alternative to Grade 5 Theory. We also accept Grade 5 Practical Musicianship and Grade 5 in a solo Jazz subject as prerequisites for Practical Grades 6 and above.
8. One question I'd like to ask: do you think it'd be a good idea to introduce an Orchestral Extracts element to the Grade 6-8 exams, as Trinity Guildhall do as an option for their exams?
Robert Sargant, Syllabus Manager: We do currently feature specialist options within our diploma exams (LRSM and FRSM), giving candidates the opportunity to present orchestral excerpts as part of their diploma, but at present we do not have any plans to introduce this option into our graded syllabuses.