DipABRSM guidance: the viva voce and quick study
Deciding to study for and take a DipABRSM diploma is a big step. There’s a lot to think about and much work to be done. The viva voce and quick study are both important elements in each of the Performing and Teaching diplomas and understanding what is expected, and what preparation is needed, is essential for success, as Rhian Morgan explains. So, your Grade 8 may now be a distant memory, you’re doing plenty of performance and perhaps also picking up work as a teacher. Now, you think, is the time to take a diploma. At the front of your mind might be the recital or written submission, but there is much more to an ABRSM diploma than simply playing the pieces or writing about teaching. For both the Performing and Teaching diplomas, all three sections must be passed in order for the diploma to be awarded: the recital, viva voce/programme notes and quick study for performers; and the teaching skills viva voce/written submission and quick study for teachers.
Let’s look at the quick study first. For both performers and teachers, the quick study is ‘a performance, after five minutes’ preparation, of a short piece of unaccompanied previously unseen music of approximately ABRSM Grade 6 difficulty.’ ‘Treat this with deep respect,’ says Bill Thomson, a diploma examiner and ABRSM’s Hong Kong and Singapore Development Executive, whose current role involves supporting teachers in the area. He likes to see ‘the essence of the music’ conveyed in the performance of the quick study. ‘The objective here is to speed up the brain response to what is on the page and through hand/eye coordination bring the music to life, with detail, in performance.’ It’s important to remember that the quick study isn’t simply a sight-reading test. This is a performance and examiners are looking not only for the fundamental elements of the music but also for musical details, character and style... aspects which contribute to a proper performance of a piece of music rather than conveying a note-reading exercise.
The Teaching viva voce
Jamie Smith is ABRSM’s Malaysia National Coordinator. He believes that in the Teaching viva voce the examiners know that they will be communicating with already experienced and able musicians. ‘Although the general areas for discussion are outlined in the syllabus, there is no script to follow when engaging with teachers, so the viva voce can often lead to unexpected, invigorating discussions,’ he says. ‘There are no trick questions, and examiners don’t want to catch teachers out – we always wish to see candidates do well in exams and will create a relaxed atmosphere for teachers to best show their abilities and personalise the discussions as much as possible.’ General questions might cover: repertoire knowledge; matching teaching materials to students’ needs; lesson planning; teaching strategies for different situations and learning styles; technique, style and interpretation; and professional values and practice, such as child protection issues. When talking about teaching, Bill Thomson also recommends that Teaching diploma candidates look at a wide range of musical styles for both themselves and their pupils. ‘ABRSM provides a tremendous variety of contemporary musical styles in the exam syllabuses, and imaginative learners can often excel in their playing of these. But just occasionally teachers are cautious about trying styles which they are not wholly confident with themselves and they need to extend their repertoire.’ An immense amount of work goes into preparing for a Teaching diploma and, on the day, candidates are understandably keen to show what they can do. But sometimes things do go wrong. Bill Thomson cites an inadequate knowledge of the DipABRSM syllabus, answers which require greater depth, and a lack of preparation for the quick study as examples. But, he adds, on the other side of the coin, what examiners like to see on the day, is ‘confidence, subject knowledge, imagination, an organised mind, an ability to show a flexible approach and a warm, caring and supportive personality.’ Finally, try to view the diploma as an opportunity to show off what you know rather than as a hurdle to be endured.
The Performing viva voce
ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, John Holmes, enjoys examining Performing diplomas, particularly as during the viva voce there is a chance to hear the candidate discuss aspects of their performance, as well as the opportunity to hear them play or sing a much more substantial programme than in the graded exams. ‘I always remember an amazing young pianist, taking a diploma at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. His playing was memorably outstanding but what really made him stand out was his confidence in the viva voce. He had an extraordinary command of the subject... whatever I asked him, he would say something like “that’s a very interesting point” then sometimes walk back to the piano saying “now, allow me to demonstrate what I mean...“. I certainly don’t expect all candidates to be at this level, but a sense of engagement with the music, and of enthusiasm for performance, is something everyone needs to show in order for their viva to be a real success.’
Rhian Morgan is a music education journalist and runs a media training company
This article was originally featured in the May 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.