ABRSM: introducing remotely-assessed graded music exams

Remotely assessed music exams

In August 2020, examinations board ABRSM is aiming to launch performance-focussed graded music exams in the UK that will be assessed remotely, based on a recorded submission. Penny Milsom, ABRSM’s Executive Director of Products and Services, who is leading the team developing these qualifications, gives us a preview.

First, how are preparations going?

It’s exciting that we are in the final stages of the design, which means we have some information to share, but not complete answers to everything right now. I hope this preview can provide answers to some of the questions that teachers, learners, parents and schools may have. We are preparing comprehensive information about the exams and will share it well in advance of opening bookings, to allow everyone to consider them and prepare.

By way of background, these assessments are very much part of our long-term plan to support teachers and learners, but we also hope that they will provide an opportunity for learners whose plans have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. For candidates who missed an exam earlier in the year or who would like to take an exam in the coming months, these remotely-assessed exams based on a recorded submission provide a route to achieving their grade.

Can you tell us more about the concept of the qualification?

For some time we’ve been working on a qualification that puts performance at the heart of the learning and assessment experience and is designed around the practical realities of the performance situation. These exams will provide an additional, robust and valid route for learners to have their achievements recognised and be awarded a regulated qualification.

Greater freedom of choice and increased personal responsibility

Our performance-focussed graded exams will provide a learning and assessment experience that focuses on the preparation and presentation of a ‘whole performance’ – from choosing the repertoire and creating a programme, to interpreting and communicating the music. They will offer learners the chance to represent their own musical interests, aspirations and personality. By being in charge of their own performance, candidates have both greater freedom of choice about the programme and increased personal responsibility.

For these exams, candidates will need to deliver a sustained performance of their chosen programme, demonstrating the focus and stamina necessary for effective musical communication across a range of repertoire. For this reason, the assessment will include a separate set of marking criteria, which take into account the performance as a whole, applied after the playing or singing has finished. This ‘dual lens’ approach to the assessment makes this a distinct exam, equivalent in demand to our existing practical grades.

Managing our carbon footprint

These qualifications are unique in focussing on musical performance skills in this way, offering a related but separate progression path alongside our face-to-face practical exams. The recorded submissions will be assessed to the same high standards as our existing graded exams, by the same team of highly-trained ABRSM examiners.

The fact that they are examined remotely means that we will be able to offer these exams widely to candidates in other countries while managing our carbon footprint. As a global organisation that delivered over 600,000 exams in 2019, we are purposefully moving our activities onto a more environmentally sustainable footing and remote examining means we can reduce the amount of travel our examiners undertake.

What will taking a performance-focussed grade involve?

The repertoire at the heart of the exams will be the same as that presented for our existing exams. Candidates prepare a programme of four pieces or songs. They choose at least three of the pieces/songs from our existing syllabus-listed repertoire for the grade – one from each list as for our existing exams. For the fourth piece/song, candidates can choose another item from the syllabus at the same grade or choose a piece/song from any other published source, as long as the level of difficulty is the same. For the exam, candidates present their pieces/songs in the order they choose and without a break, to create a whole performance that demonstrates their musical tastes, strengths and personality.

How will they be marked?

As with our existing grades, a total of 150 marks is available overall. The four pieces/songs will be marked individually using the same criteria as our existing grades, with a maximum of 30 marks for each item. A further 30 marks are then available for the ‘performance as a whole’. This part of the assessment will have its own distinct marking criteria based on the current ARSM criteria but adjusted to suit Grades 1 to 8.

A focus on performance

Will these exams be available for all grades and subjects?

They will be available for Grades 1 to 8 for all our instrumental and singing syllabuses, except for Jazz subjects. We will also be offering our current ARSM diploma as a remotely-assessed exam, with no change to the requirements or marking scheme. Because these exams put the focus on performance and take place in the candidate’s chosen space, we also hope they will be an attractive option for learners with a range of specific needs.

Can learners switch between these exams and ABRSM’s existing graded exams?

Yes. At any stage of their musical journey, learners can now choose between two graded music exam routes. They can choose to do remotely-assessed, performance-focussed exams entirely from Grade 1 upwards, or switch between these and our existing graded exams, depending on their preference at the time.

How can teachers and learners get ready for these performance-focussed exams?

If learners have been working towards one of our existing graded music exams and are interested in taking a remotely-assessed exam, now is the time to start thinking about or learning a fourth piece or song. This can be the learner’s own choice, as long as it’s the same level of difficulty as the other pieces in our syllabus for the grade. They may already have a piece or song that’s ready to go and will work well. Just remember to think also about the performance as a whole, with the pieces or songs fitting together to create a convincing programme that the candidate can perform with enjoyment and confidence.

Remotely-assessed exams will initially be available in the UK only. ABRSM will provide more information about these performance-focused exams in the coming weeks by email and on the ABRSM’s website and social media channels.

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