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The unaccompanied traditional song

7 years ago

  The unaccompanied traditional song is an important part of all ABRSM graded Singing exams. With some expert help, Rhian Morgan discovers what's involved. Young instrumentalists working their way through a long list of scales and arpeggios might well feel that singers have it easy: ‘You’ve just got to sing a folksong that you can learn in five minutes, while we’ve got scales and arpeggios in every single key for Grade 5 Piano,’ they complain. On the surface they may seem to have a point, but look just a little deeper and you will see how many hours, even years, of work need to be put in before a singer can perform the unaccompanied traditional song – a requirement at all grades – to an optimum standard.

Why an unaccompanied traditional song?

‘ABRSM’s Singing exams used to include unaccompanied technical exercises,’ explains ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, John Holmes, ‘but there was a fairly common perception that these were a somewhat artificial and even unmusical requirement. So in 1986 ABRSM replaced them with the unaccompanied traditional song, which allows examiners to assess the elements of unaccompanied singing through a more natural, musical and ‘singerly’ genre. 'Most candidates and teachers do clearly enjoy this part of the exam,' says John, although it’s true that singing unaccompanied can be a nerve-wracking experience for some. ‘Singing is a completely different discipline to all the other practical subjects,’ he continues. ‘Singers have to pitch and produce the notes from within, and also have to accommodate the challenging extra elements of language and meaning, as well as performing from memory.’ There’s nowhere to hide here for singers: no ‘my reed split’; no ‘I didn’t have any rosin’; and, in this part of the exam, no piano for support.

Preparation and choosing a song

Heidi Pegler is an ABRSM examiner, singer, and teacher at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. She has also written and edited a number of books on singing. Heidi is well aware of the challenges singers face and believes some teachers and students leave it too late to start work on the traditional song and also that they don’t take it seriously enough. ‘I’ve heard students say “it’s only the folksong” and this attitude needs to be changed quickly if that’s your student,’ she says. ‘The unaccompanied traditional song can tell the examiner quite a lot about a candidate. Do they, for example, have the confidence and maturity to perform a song completely by themselves, without accompaniment?’ The choice of folksong is vital, Heidi emphasises. ‘I would go for one which has an interesting story. This makes it easier for the student to identify with what’s going on and to develop character and dynamic changes. Think about the age and gender of your student, and also think carefully about keys. Minor keys can be problematic for some students, particularly if it’s a mode, so make sure they have a real inner sense of the key by singing the scale or mode before they learn the song. ‘I also think very carefully about the vocal range. Some folksongs can span quite a distance – over a 12th – and this can be difficult to keep in tune. Be wary, also, of falling phrases which can go flat under pressure.’ Sound advice which may help students to do their best in this element of the exam. Other factors to be aware of include, loss of overall pitch or interval accuracy, memory lapses and a lack of musical communication, which can all undermine musical success, as can the unsuitability of some song choices.

Standards and expectations

John HolmesEileen Field, an ABRSM examiner, singer and teacher who has been reviewing the traditional song element of the singing syllabus for ABRSM, has heard ‘hymns, national anthems, early Italian arias and musical theatre numbers’ all performed under the guise of the unaccompanied traditional song. ABRSM confirms that none of these are acceptable, but the Singing syllabus does provide guidance on what a traditional song is, and you can also look at compilations listed there for ideas. And the song can be from any folk tradition and in any language, though candidates must provide a translation for the examiner if their chosen language is not English. But how do teachers know the standard expected for each grade? The syllabus provides guidance on how long the song should last – apart from that there is free choice. As the grade increases, a greater maturity is expected in the delivery of the song, for example in the use of rubato and facial expression. It is also possible to tackle more complex stories at the higher grades, such as death, war or unrequited love. John believes that this part of the exam is less about the musical and technical content of the song and more about the singer’s ability to convey it effectively. ‘For the unaccompanied traditional song there is a shift in the focus of assessment towards different skills. The free choice provides flexibility for teachers and allows candidates to perform something they are comfortable with and which can show off their abilities,’ he explains. Whatever the grade, Eileen believes the singer’s job is to communicate the song ‘as if for the first time and with sincere involvement in the text. Singers might choose to adopt appropriate dialects, include folksong-style ornamentation, change pronouns or turn the body slightly to indicate which character is singing,’ she says.

From Green Bottles to Zulu songs

With around 28,000 entries for Singing exams every year in the UK and Ireland alone, examiners hear a very wide range of traditional song choices. For Heidi, a low point was an afternoon when 'every singing candidate – eight, at various grades – performed Ten Green Bottles.' Eileen, meanwhile, fared better when examining in Swaziland. ‘A 17-year-old Grade 6 candidate asked if she could have a moment to prepare for the folksong. She then took off her shoes and tied leather straps around her ankles. These had moth and butterfly cocoons attached to them and they provided a very effective percussion accompaniment to her utterly compelling and highly musical performance of a Zulu wedding-dance folksong. She then kept her feet still and just swayed gently as she moved into the lullaby section of the song. It was one of those very special occasions when I had to try hard to hold back the tears.'

What the examiner looks for: a top ten

  • Excellent communication
  • Totally secure memory
  • Overall pitch sustained with assurance
  • Accurately controlled intervals and intonation
  • A well-chosen, comfortable key for the candidate’s voice – ideally a singer will know this instinctively and not need a starting note from the piano
  • Effective tempo choice and inherent sense of rhythm
  • Instinct and ability for story-telling
  • Facial involvement – a singer’s eyes are so important
  • Expressive use of colour and dynamics
  • Use of rubato where appropriate

Useful resources

The ABRSM Songbook series, for Grades 1 to 5, contains authentic traditional songs from around the world, alongside a selection of art songs. The traditional songs are not prescribed for the unaccompanied traditional song element of ABRSM Singing exams, but are a useful resource to provide possible repertoire and an approximate guide to standards for each grade. You can find other repertoire books and albums listed in the Singing syllabus at

Rhian Morgan is a music education journalist and runs a media training company.

This article was originally featured in the January 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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