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Routes to success

7 years ago

  As with all music, there is no single correct way to learn or play an ABRSM exam piece. Instead it’s all about making choices, as John Holmes, ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, explains. Choosing new pieces is always exciting, rather like setting out on a journey to somewhere you haven’t been before. As a teacher you are presented with an opportunity to match your students’ skills and preferences to the right music for them, while also making use of your teacherly expertise to ensure the right degree of ‘stretch and challenge’ – as they say in schools! In fact, the choice of piece is only the first in an almost never-ending series of choices which become the learning journey. A whole range of decisions – conscious and subconscious – will need to be made in order for the developing musician to arrive at their destination, in this case, the exam performance. Tempo, touch, fingering, phrasing, pedalling... the list of choices goes on, so perhaps it would be helpful here to talk about how the decision-making process might be approached. It is crucial to note that there is no ‘ABRSM way’ of playing any of our exam pieces, although of course there is an ‘ABRSM way’ of assessing how they are played. This is by considering the overall musical outcome – in effect, the cumulative result of all the various musical and technical decisions that will have been made in preparing the performance. For example, in ABRSM exams, examiners don’t mark fingering, but we do comment on and evaluate its effects, such as evenness of tone or regularity of delivery, which are so often partly the result of fingering choices. Examiners are listening and looking for the degree of skill a candidate shows in controlling the various elements of musical performance, which develop gradually during their learning and practice prior to the exam. As musicians we are often presented with a range of authoritative sources, and it can be a puzzle to establish what the ‘truth’ about each piece really is. In the case of the new Piano syllabus we have the printed scores, ABRSM recordings and the Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces, and in fact, there is ‘truth’ in all these sources. Each presents a different perspective on the same thing; the scores being a notated record of what was written by the composer and later published in our edition, the recordings presenting realised performances of the music, and the Teaching Notes adding various ideas relating to interpretation. There may well be differences between what the scores imply, what the recordings present and what the Teaching Notes recommend – but in reality they do not so much contradict as complement each other. That’s the excitement of every musical journey – there will always be a variety of routes to a successful musical result, and our examiners do not assess candidates according to any particular one; instead they judge the combined effectiveness of the various musical performance decisions you and your student have made, taken as a whole. This means that every candidate can play to their strengths, not only in their particular choice of pieces, but also in the way that they interpret them. For example, there is a range of tempos at which any given piece can successfully be played. For some pieces this is wider than for others, but even where a metronome mark is given, there is usually room for some flexibility of approach. The examiner will not be assessing the speed of playing absolutely or in isolation, but rather in conjunction with other elements of performance, such as note accuracy and rhythmic character. The right tempo choice for each student is best determined as part of a comfortable balance between this and other elements, so that one element is not sacrificed to another; precision sacrificed to speed, for example. Between them, the various ABRSM publications and resources are intended to open a variety of doorways to interpretation. Although these are the result of considerable research, drawn from contributors with a wealth of experience, none of our resources can portray and communicate everything within the music. We would like to encourage you to inspire your students to play with creativity and individuality, leading them to achieve successful performances that suit and reflect their particular skills, strengths and enthusiasms. In effect, there needs to be a collaborative partnership between you and each of your students, as they learn how best to portray the composer’s musical ideas in their own personal way.


This is an edited extract from the introduction to ABRSM’s Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces, 2013 & 2014.

This article was originally featured in the September 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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