Piano Examinations: Making Entries

If you plan to enter your pupils for examinations (something the majority of pupils, parents and teachers seem to want) – you need to decide which exam board to use.

               ABRSM Piano Pieces
The examination board I use – the ABRSM – publishes a new set of pieces for piano exams every two years. The new ABRSM piano exam pieces at Musicroom.com (which cover the exam periods from 2017-2018) are available (with or without CD) for grades 1-8 from the beginning of July 2016. You can also order them from Amazon UK/Amazon US.
The main options are The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM – remember to click on ‘GB’ in the top right corner if you live outside the UK), Trinity College London (which incorporates Trinity Guildhall) and The London College of Music (LCM).

There is no point in going into detail about the individual exam requirements of each board, as the information can easily be found on the appropriate websites. In any case, my only dealings have been with ABRSM.  I did briefly consider switching boards at one point but eventually decided to stick with what I know, so have no experience of either Trinity or LCM.

        UCAs Points for Music Exams
                                 Pass     Merit     Distinction
Grade 6                     6          10         12
Grade 7                    10         12         16
Grade 8                    18         24         30
To put these points into context, an A level grade A* would equate to 56 UCAS points and an A level grade E to 16 UCAS points. Some says these points can make all the difference when applying to university, while others argue that the ‘better’ universities are only really interested in A level grades.

All three boards carry equal weight when it comes to university applications – success at grades 6, 7 and 8 means UCAS points are awarded irrespective of which board’s exams have been passed. (See table).

The only significant difference of which I am aware (and the reason why I considered switching) is that the ABRSM stipulates that passing a grade 5 theory exam is a prerequisite for taking practical examinations at grade 6 and beyond: the other boards do not demand this. (There is an alternative option to this called Practical Musicianship: see the ABRSM website for details).

My experience with the ABRSM has – on the whole – been a very positive one. The administrative side is excellent and – whenever I’ve had any cause to contact them, they have always been extremely helpful. I have not always agreed with the examiner’s marks or comments – although, as there are so many examiners working for the exam board, I suppose this is not surprising. Anyway, at the moment, I have no plans to switch to another board – I feel that to do so would cause too many complications for me and I don’t feel I can justify sparing the time to learn a whole new system.

Helpful Magazine

The ABRSM produces a helpful magazine (also available online) called Libretto – published three times a year, which is packed full of information for teachers of all musical instruments and includes reviews of some of the exam syllabuses as well as helpful teaching tips.

If you want to know how an exam is marked, it’s worth going on the “On Your Marks” section of the ABRSM website. Here you can listen to an exam candidate as he goes through the elements of a piano exam (there are exams on other instruments as well) – scales, pieces and sight-reading – decide whether you would award a fail, pass, merit or distinction and compare your view with that of the examiner. You may suggest that some of your own exam candidates try this out as well as it’s quite a fun exercise.

The lowest level of examination offered is a ‘Prep’ test and the highest an ABRSM Diploma (there are different types of these). I have little knowledge of what either of these extremes entails – although I have experience of all eight grades in between – both as a pupil and a teacher.

I do know one person (a friend’s daughter) who took an ABRSM ‘Prep’ test, so I am aware of its purpose. It’s meant to prepare pupils for their graded exams by giving them a chance to play in front of an examiner and receive a sheet of paper full of ‘helpful’ comments. (In this particular case, both my friend and her daughter found the comments unhelpful and not particularly encouraging). There is no pass/fail result for the Prep test. Personally, I feel it’s an unnecessary waste of time and money and there seems little benefit in putting a pupil through the ordeal of an exam situation before he has reached grade 1 standard.

Gifted or quick-learning pupils do not necessarily have to start with grade 1. I have taught some whose progress is so fast that it’s worth starting them at grade 2. One piano teacher I know skipped the first 7 grades and took only his grade 5 theory followed by grade 8 practical – which no doubt saved him a lot of time, nerves and money! (The current cost of ABRSM piano examinations – in 2016 – ranges from £38 at grade 1 to £87 at grade 8. The theory exams are less expensive with grade 5 costing £35).

When to Start?

How do you know when a pupil is ready to start working towards his grade 1 piano exam? Parents of new pupils often ask me how long it’s likely to take, but this is impossible to answer with any degree of accuracy as rates of progress vary so much – some learners may be ready to start exam work after six months, while others could take two years.

For me, the decision is based not on length of time learning but on what stage the learner has reached. All my pupils use the same course books and I wait until they’ve successfully completed a piece named Motorcycle Cop near the end of the John W Schaum The Red Book (the second in the series). This piece is significant because it introduces the ‘dotted crotchet, quaver’ rhythm, (explained in the ‘Current Piece’ section of ‘Lesson Format’) which I feel should be mastered before starting on the grade 1 syllabus – although some of my pupils have actually met this rhythm before: for example with Jingle Bells in the Christmas carols book I use (Piano Time Carols arranged by Pauline Hall).

By this point, my pupil will already know the majority of his grade 1 scales, having started work on them half way through The Red Book (as I explained in the article on Scales).

Letter to Parents

When the learner has mastered The Motorcycle Cop, I will have a brief chat with him about exams and what they entail and then – in the case of a child – send home the following letter:

(NAME OF PUPIL) has progressed really well and has now reached the stage where he is ready to start working towards his grade 1 piano exam. If you are not familiar with the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) exams, this is what’s involved:
1) Pieces – The pupil chooses (with guidance) three Pieces from Selected Piano Exam Pieces (CURRENT YEAR’S EDITION) grade 1 published by the ABRSM. The book is available from (GIVE VARIOUS HIGH STREET and ONLINE OUTLETS with CURRENT PRICES). Individual tracks can also be downloaded from the ABRSM website. There are ‘alternative’ pieces listed in the front of the book which are not included in it, so would involve the extra expense of buying more books – unnecessary unless the pupil has a strong preference for a particular piece. The three chosen pieces are practised for several months (in some cases it can take a year) – during lessons and at home.
2) Scales – We have already started work on these over the last few months. They need to be learned by heart. (i.e. no music to follow)
3) Sight-reading – During the exam, the pupil will be asked to play a short piece of music which he has never seen before. It sounds daunting but we prepare for this in lessons.
4) Aural – four short tests involving clapping a beat, singing a series of notes, recognising a rhythmic change and being able to talk about a short piece which the examiner will play. Again, we practise this before the exam.
The majority of marks are given for the three pieces.
Exams take place at (NAME AND ADDRESS OF LOCAL EXAM CENTRE) and grade 1 lasts about 10 minutes. Exams are held three times a year and a decision has to be made about whether to enter the pupil a few months before the exam period begins.
The current cost of the grade 1 exam is (CURRENT COST OF GRADE 1) – payable at the time of entry. (Unfortunately, the cost increases through the grades and also goes up every year).
There is a wait of 3 weeks or so after the exam before the results are available – but pupils generally feel the certificate is well worth waiting for. I would encourage pupils to take their exams as it’s a good experience and gives them a real sense of achievement. However, if you do not wish (PUPIL’S NAME) to do any exams or if he prefers not to, I totally understand and will continue working from the piano book(s) we are using at the moment.
Please fill in the form below to let me know either way – and indicate if you wish me to purchase an exam book for you. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me.

Choosing an Exam Period

As yet, none of my younger pupils have opted out of working towards grade 1 – although not all of my adult pupils have followed the exam route.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether or not a pupil will be ready to enter in the next designated exam period. (The ABRSM has three ‘terms’ for exams – A spring, B summer and C autumn). Entries have to be submitted at least two months in advance and it’s a balancing act trying to decide whether to opt for the nearest exam period (in which case the pupil may be only just ‘ready’) or the following one, three or four months later (by which time he may be bored by his three pieces – yet reluctant to start new ones as well in case he feels ‘overloaded’).

In my case, I will only enter a pupil for an exam once he has learned all scales and can play all three pieces with (generally) correct notes and rhythm. This, I feel, leaves sufficient time (the two-month gap between application and the actual exam) for perfecting the pieces and working on sight-reading and aural. The exception to this is the higher grades (5 and upwards) where I would hope to have started on sight-reading and aural before adding my candidates’ names to the entry form: this is because these supporting tests (particularly the aural) are far more demanding at the advanced levels.

On the whole, once my pupil has made the decision to take his exam in a few months time, he will generally start making a little more effort to practise and to follow my advice about which areas need most work.

Occasionally however, progress is slower than I expect and, if necessary, I will recommend a few extra lessons in the weeks before the exam date. To avoid parents feeling too much financial burden from this, I suggest they may give their child a ‘rest’ from lessons for a few weeks after the exam. (I’m glad to say, most decide not to take me up on this offer).

Online Entry Form

I generally fill in the examination entry form online – having made sure that I have asked for – and received – exam fees from my pupils at least a week before the deadline. I only once made the mistake of paying for a pupil’s exam before he had given me the money. I was then devastated when he then told me he’d changed his mind and decided to wait until the next term’s exams, as I suspected it would be impossible to get my money back. Fortunately, I managed to persuade him to reconsider … and I’m glad to say he did pass his exam. However, I think I’ve learned not to risk my own money for one of my pupils ever again.

It’s relatively straightforward to register with the ABRSM. You are given an applicant number and password so that results can be kept confidential. You are then required to give the full name for each candidate (as he wishes it to appear on a certificate), date of birth (this is for UCAS points and to provide information for the Education Department: it’s not necessary in the case of adults), the grade he’s entering for, any special needs he may have, your chosen examination centre (unless you have enough candidates to arrange a ‘visit’: I have no experience of this) and your preferred week. (The exam period is five to six weeks long). You are also asked to give the last available date and whether or not you wish to consider Saturday exams as an option.

The exam board can not guarantee to give the week you’ve asked for but, in my experience, it generally does and is also very helpful if you e-mail regarding any particular dates to avoid.

Problems only occur when you try to change an exam date nearer the time. I had this experience with one of my pupils who had forgotten to tell me about a pre-arranged three-day school trip. After multiple telephone calls and a lot of my time taken up, I finally managed to find him an exam time on a different date but he had to travel to another examination centre for this. So, obviously, it’s much better to know exactly when your pupils will be available before you complete the form.

After the form has been sent off, there is a considerable wait before the exam date and times are given – usually about four weeks before the exam takes place.

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