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I have seen several questions here about the exams offered by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in the United Kingdom. Most questions are from the standpoint of people who are in the middle of the examination process. Here in the United States of America, I have never heard of these exams and don't understand their purpose.

I've been directed to this web site, http://us.abrsm.org/en/home/, but I have basic questions that I cannot seem to find answers to:

Is taking these exams something that a large number of musicians in the UK do? What are these exams and certificates used for? Who would want to earn them, and why? At what stage in a person's musical education does one start taking these examinations, and where do they lead? Is achieving a certain level of examination a prerequisite to doing something else as a musician? For instance, do they have something to do with getting admission to college, becoming a music teacher, or joining the musicians' union?

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ABRSM is very useful and helped me. I took graded examinations and participated in other ways, and gained certification. It's good evidence that you're ready for an exam or competition. I gained new challenges and more experience to improve my ability. I panicked a lot in my exam, however I work very hard and strive to practice more (this year I have my first piano exam) –  user6871 Aug 16 '13 at 10:33

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I'll quote Wikipedia for some background on the ABRSM:

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) is an examinations board and registered charity based in London, United Kingdom, which provides examinations in music at centres around over the world. The ABRSM is one of three examination boards accredited by Ofqual to award graded exams and diploma qualifications in music within the UK's National Qualifications Framework (along with the London College of Music and Trinity College London).

The Royal Schools referred to in the board's title are:

  • The Royal Academy of Music
  • The Royal College of Music
  • The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
  • The Royal Northern College of Music

More than 650,000 candidates take the ABRSM examinations each year in over 93 countries. The board also provides a publishing house for music which produces syllabuses, sheet music and exam papers and runs professional development courses and seminars for teachers.

In the UK, most of Europe, and various other parts of the world, the ABRSM grading system, or something very like it (other examining bodies exist), is endemic to formal music training.

Like graded qualifications in any other field, they serve several purposes:

  • As a learner, it gives you a concrete measure of your own progress
  • As a learner, it allows you to communicate to others what your current abilities are in an objective manner.
  • As the parent of a learning child (or the funding body) it provides a concrete measure of the teacher's productivity and the pupil's attainment
  • As a teacher, it gives you an objective way to gauge potential new pupils' ability and aspirations
  • ... and so on.

Of course, a number between one and eight is a very imprecise measure, but it's still useful:

  • "Smalltown Youth Orchestra welcomes members of grade 3 and above"
  • "Since you're grade 4, we'll put you in the 3rd Violin section"
  • "I'd like you to teach me to improve my piano - I'm currently grade 6, but I want to reach grade 8 by this time next year"
  • "I'd be a great teacher for your daughter. In the past year I've taken five pupils her age from complete beginner to grade 3 Distinctions"

In the UK, if you are taught classical music, you will almost certainly jump straight into the ladder of ABRSM grades - starting with grade 1 theory, then grade 1 practical, then grade 2 of each, eventually reaching grade 8.

The theory exams are written.

The practical exams involve playing to an examiner:

  • scales, arpeggios etc.
  • sight reading from a score.
  • performing a piece that has been practised.

If you are taught jazz performance, it's not quite so "automatic" that you'd enter the grade system - but many people do. There are versions of the exams for jazz which have improvisation components.

Learners of rock/pop performance are much more likely to ignore the grade system, although exams are available for them (and of course, classically trained musicians can play rock/pop!)

Grade 1 is very basic: it's something an 8-year-old would pass after a few months of study.

Grade 8 is the "top" grade, and (I gather) exceeds the abilities typically expected of a student starting music college in the USA. Beyond grade 8, there are more advanced diplomas, which fewer people aspire to tackle.

You don't need a license to be a music teacher - but a prospective customer would reasonably expect you to demonstrate your ability, and an exam certificate is one good way (accredited teaching certificates are also available).

You don't need necessarily need a grade to go to music college or to get a job, but it's a convenient way to demonstrate your ability (or potential ability) in advance of an audition.

As far as treating the grade as a "passport" goes, it depends on the situation.

  • For something like an amateur orchestra - a hobby for the players - it's not unusual that just telling them your grade is sufficient. You needn't really even have taken the exam -- "I haven't taken the exam, but I think can sight read orchestral cello parts at grade 6 level".
  • For more serious positions - professional jobs, or amateur groups with high standards, you'd typically still do an audition, but the grade is still useful: "Sorry, we don't really think it's worth you trying the audition if you're only at grade 5".

One other use of grades, is as a measure of difficulty for pieces. The grades provide a vocabulary of difficulty, so you can sensibly say things like "This piece is something a Grade 6 pianist would find challenging".

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This is quite astonishing to me. We have nothing even remotely resembling this in my country, the USA. In this country, for any performing group, or school, you show up for an audition, play two or three pieces of music that you select that will demonstrate your skill level, they ask you some questions about your background, and then they invite you to join the group or matriculate at the university, or not. The idea of "what grade have you achieved" is inconceivable, because in this country we have no system in place to measure anything like that. –  Wheat Williams Mar 15 '13 at 17:09
    
I can see already why we don't have such a system in the USA. It is cultural and political. We have 50 sovereign states that have their own separate educational systems, and states have historically resisted any national standards being imposed on education, particularly in childhood. In the professional realm, for instance, accreditations are established individually by each state, and one state usually will not recognize accreditation from another state. For such a system to work we would need a culture where national standards were accepted everywhere. We have quite few. –  Wheat Williams Mar 15 '13 at 17:22
    
This matches with the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) -- Grade 8 counts as a highschool credit, though there are a couple grades above that before ARCT (the most advanced diploma). –  Matthew Read Mar 15 '13 at 18:24
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Just a clarification: there's no sense in which the ABRSM grade system is "imposed on education" in the UK. Schools are required to teach the National Curriculum, which includes music, but this is not derived from or related to the ABRSM syllabus. The widespread adoption of the ABRSM system is wholly voluntary. –  Gareth Rees Mar 18 '13 at 14:26
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Superb answer, Slim, but the 'grade one theory then grade one practical' isn't necessarily true.In fact, grade 5 theory is often taken only as a passport to being allowed to take 6,7,8 practical.The playing involves 3 pieces often from different eras or genres, not just one. –  Tim Mar 19 '13 at 12:13

ABRSM grades are mainly for people who are first learning an instrument, and they're mainly to track progress and give students something to work towards, rather than as a qualification. Because students are tested on playing at sight, scales, and understanding of rhythm, not just technique on a prepared piece, they're a good way to get them to practise these areas that are often neglected.

As part of the exam, the candidate has to play a small number of pieces, which he chooses from a list set for each Grade by ABRSM (and collected and published in a book). The number you need and how many are on the list are different for each Grade. The list is revised every so often for variety (and so teachers have to buy the new book!), but the difficulty of the pieces is consistent, so it sets a clear idea of what's a "Grade 3 standard" piece. Because the list changes, and the student has some freedom of choice, you can't infer what pieces someone knows from what Grades they have passed. (If you have a rough idea of when they took the exam, you know they have any two or three from a set of a few dozen.)

Youth orchestras and ensembles will often say they welcome players of Grade 4 and above (for example), and easy pieces and arrangements are often classified as (say) Grade 3 standard, which gives an indication of how hard they are. Because they're a widely-known standard, they're used to refer to a particular level of skill and knowledge even if you haven't taken the exam. In addition, because music teachers tend to use the official Grade pieces for teaching all their pupils, if someone is in formal tuition and at a particular level, they'll probably have seen all the current pieces even if they don't know them all well enough to pass the exam.

A reasonable student should be able to improve by a grade each year, and a talented student by two grades a year. It's commonplace to skip a few grades (you don't have to have passed Grade 1 to take the Grade 2 exam, &c.) if you're progressing well or if you're learning a second or third instrument.

They're not relevant to professional or full-time musicians (other than in teaching contexts), just because they don't go up to a high enough standard of playing. If you learn an instrument throughout your school career, you should be Grade 8 by the time you leave, but that doesn't mean you're good enough to play professionally. Orchestras and groups for grown-ups don't tend to mention or require Grades, and there are many famous musicians with no Grades at all. Even so, most musicians in the UK (and many non-musicians) have at least one, because they're likely to have taken one while learning an instrument at school. Often their Grade(s) will be in completely unconnected instruments to what they play now.

To take myself as an example, I now play percussion in a brass band, and I've given piano recitals and sung in choirs, but my only ABRSM qualification is Grade 3 flute.

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Do these grade levels imply that you've learned to perform a particular set list of repertoire established by the committee that gives the exams? –  Wheat Williams Mar 15 '13 at 17:13
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@WheatWilliams Usually you would select certain pieces from the set lists (there are different types) to learn during your study of that grade. The examination for higher grades usually requires you to play one piece of your choosing from the "main" list and 2 others from 2 of 3 secondary lists, or something along those lines. –  Matthew Read Mar 15 '13 at 18:29
    
I've added that information to my answer as a new second paragraph. –  Dan Hulme Mar 15 '13 at 19:03
    
Just to add that although you don't need to have the previous Grades to attempt the next level, you now MUST have passed Grade 5 Theory before attempting any practical exams of Grade 6 and above. –  Widor Mar 18 '13 at 10:55

Similar system applies in Australia, called the AMEB, or Australian Music Examinations Board. I'm an amateur player, attend a once-a-school-term chamber music play-in for fun, and members are put into trios, quartets, etc, with similarly graded players. Not all have done exams so don't have a paper grade, but the chamber music society has developed its own questionnaire to provide us with a score to use for those days.

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At grades 6, 7 & 8, UCAS points are given - this means that students applying for University can use their ABRSM results to bolster their other exam results ( A levels etc.) for a better chance of being chosen for a University place. This also happens with other exam. boards - LCM has Registry of Guitar Tutors exams in bass, classical, electric, rock and acoustic playing, so a lot of teachers use these syllabi because a graded system is easy to follow and gives good targets.

Having said all that, in 50 years, no-one has ever asked me at an audition "and what grade are you......." But, it's something else to add to your c.v. I'm surprised that these type of exams are apparently unknown in U.S., as ABRSM and RGT reach out to many other countries world-wide, and have done for many years.

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Further to my above answer, the qualifications go way beyond grade 8. After this, the exams split basically into performing or teaching.These diplomas take the candidates up in 3 or 4 stages,depending on the exam board, ending with a doctorate or fellowship award, equivalent to a University lecturer. However, one doesn't have to attend University to achieve this.It's also an attempt to align all instruments, as in a grade 5 flautist should be as good as a grade 5 violinist,etc. –  Tim Mar 19 '13 at 12:30
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There is a bit of confusion about education levels in the UK. The qualifications at each level are put together because they take roughly the same number of years to achieve. However they aren't the same level in terms of education standard or employment. FRSM,FTCL,and FLCM are not equivalent in education standards or employment prospects of a doctorate. Professional classical performers do not take any diplomas because the standard of playing required to pass even the Fellowship ones is too low even for someone to teach instruments at a top conservatoire. –  Liz Peacock Mar 26 '13 at 13:51

Grade exams are short tests to make sure that a pupil has been learning what a teacher has been teaching. Because they only test a very narrow aspect of music making they can't be used as a general music qualification. They can only be used as a qualification in respect to each other as in grade 6 is better than grade 5 but not as good as grade 7. The reason for this is because they only test what someone can play on one specific day with one examiner from the ABRSM.

It is quite possible to pass grade 8 and be unable to play very elementary ensemble music because they don't test ensemble playing with other players of the same standard as the person taking the exam. (Any accompanist is usually employed to play for the exam candidate and will not be the same standard of playing as the exam candidate.) It is also possible to pass grade 8 without passing the sight reading section of the exam.

They are very useful for children learning an instrument as when a child passes an exam they get a certificate and often the children like to collect the certificates, much like a swimming badge that might be awarded for swimming a length of the swimming pool etc.

They are not really suitable for adults to take because most adults start an instrument in order to play in an ensemble and the grade exams do not test ensemble playing.

Some amateur orchestras advertise for certain grades for new members, in the mistaken belief that this will give then an idea of the standard of a new member, however it is quite possible to pass grade 8 the highest grade and be unable to play even in an elementary ensemble group.

Non of the grades are of a high enough standard to qualify someone as a teacher.

Some children pass grade 8 at age 10. Potential music conservatoire students have usually passed grade 8 with distinction by the age of 14. Music conservatoires use auditions for student selection.

These grade exams do not lead to anything except another grade exam or diploma.

Most people take them when they are at school.

Professional classical music players regard them as very elementary standards, tests that you take at school when you start an instrument. From the perspective of a professional orchestral player grade 8 is an exam that very elementary players take, so you wouldn't join the musician's union after taking this exam as there would not be any point..

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Could you elaborate on the correlation between the Musicians' Union and passing a grade 8 exam, please? I see no relationship. (Musicians' Union is a U.K.organisation probably unknown to the rest of the world, e.g. U.S.) –  Tim Mar 19 '13 at 15:22
    
Musicians' Union is trade union that represents professional musicians and supports them in payment agreements and working conditions. There is also a Musicians' Union pay structure for hourly pay for session work. Someone whose highest playing standard would allow them to pass grade 8 won't get any work as a professional musician because they can't play at a high enough standard. They would be unable to join the musicians' union because they wouldn't be earning their living through playing music. –  Liz Peacock Mar 20 '13 at 1:22
    
I've been a member for probably 30 years plus.I play semi-pro., and have never been asked for grade results.As it happens, I do have grade 8 pno., but joined as a guitarist, with NO grades.DJs are M.U. members - what grades may they have? Sorry, but there's no relationship between M.U. and music exam grades. –  Tim Mar 20 '13 at 13:07
    
Just spoken to M.U. and they confirmed that NO qualifications are necessary for membership. –  Tim Mar 20 '13 at 14:03
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The MU represents people who make their living through music. Because grade 8 is an elementary exam most professional musicians wouldn't mention it. Professional classical musicians generally take it at school when they are about 14. Most people don't mention tests they took at school age 14 in relation to what they do for a living. You don't have to pass any grade exams to make a living in music. So there is no reason why anyone who makes a living playing music can't join the MU. But grade 8 people won't make a living because they can't play well enough. –  Liz Peacock Mar 26 '13 at 13:08

As a rough guide, many children start playing an instrument at about the age of 7. Most students take about a year to pass each grade, with more enthusiastic pupils reaching grade three after just a couple of years. Many sadly give up after only a few grades. For those that push on to the higher grades, these often coincide with having to sit important school exams, e.g. GCSE's and A levels, demanding a lot of dedication to be successful in both.

Beyond grade 6, the pieces and especially the other requirements, such as sight-reading and aural tests get much harder. There seems to be a huge leap between grade 7 and grade 8, where the pieces are much longer. The rondo from Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata has been used as a Grade 8 piece, just to give you an idea of the level expected.

Unfortunately, some professional musicians have a horribly patronising attitude towards people who have learned for fun. Many pupils dutifully practice, because it's a hobby that their parents chose for them and they should be encouraged. Sadly some of the professional musicians, who have chosen music as their career (rather than playing because their parents wanted them to learn) put down grade 8 players, as if they are merely beginners, which does nothing for their confidence or enthusiasm. It's like an international professional footballer saying that a club player is not in the same league - it simply doesn't need to be said, if someone is getting pleasure from what they do. Very few people reach grade 8 on any instrument, it is a wonderful achievement. Many of these people are encouraged to follow other careers instead of music, since it isn't well paid. They have managed to achieve an extremely high level AND be talented in other areas too.

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