ABRSM through time
As we celebrate 125 years of ABRSM exams, David Wright provides a guide to our history and heritage.
The first exams
ABRSM has travelled a long way from the first exams in 1890 to our current position. Those early exams, for just two ‘grades’, attracted 1,141 UK entries, while now there are over 650,000 exams being taken worldwide in some 90 countries each year. But how did the first exams come about?
In May 1889 the Royal Academy of Music’s new Principal, Alexander Mackenzie, arrived at the Royal College of Music for a meeting with its Director, George Grove. He suggested that the Academy and College should combine to form an associated examining board to run joint local exams. In November of the same year the organising committee announced details of the exam scheme and the first syllabus.
A star-studded cast
ABRSM’s musical authority was immediately evident because of its star-studded cast of examiners from the Royal Schools. Teachers began to view ABRSM’s syllabuses as an invaluable guide to shaping the progressive stages of musical training, and graded exams gained wide acceptance as benchmarks of musical attainment. They also gave music a new status as a subject for proper study.
Around the world
In 1894, only four years after holding its first exams in the UK, ABRSM began examining overseas, first in South Africa and shortly afterwards in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. As the British Empire spread, people took their music and their musical means with them, including church organs, brass bands, choral societies and graded music exams. Music and graded music exams became a potent link connecting the people of Britain and its Empire.
Life as an early international examiner
Early overseas exam tours were demanding and sometimes hazardous, especially in remote regions! In the early days, examiners sometimes stayed at British embassies, but this VIP treatment stopped as their visits became a more routine aspect of colonial life. These pioneering examiners needed resourcefulness, courage and physical stamina. They also needed the mental capacity to cope with incessant travel and isolation as they hauled themselves across enormous distances.
How the grades evolved
The original two grades were the equivalent of today’s Grades 6 and 7. Unsurprisingly, ABRSM received many requests to provide something for less advanced candidates, and in 1891 it added exams at the levels of Grades 4 and 5. Gradually, more grades were offered until 1933 when the familiar eight-grade structure was put in place, each grade numbered and with a description carried over from the older system. This explains the titles that were used for many years, such as Grade 2 Elementary and Grade 7 Advanced.
A time of change
Until the 1940s and 1950s, ABRSM exams were taken by a very narrow group of candidates learning the piano, organ, strings, singing and flute. Most other orchestral and brass players did not do graded exams. In the UK, teaching and learning took place in the context of local brass and wind bands. But after the Second World War, Local Education Authorities set up their own music centres, employing peripatetic teachers to go around schools. With more pupils learning orchestral instruments independently of local bands, there was an enormous growth in the number of exams taken in these instruments. Just contrast the total of six clarinets and two trumpets examined during the whole of the 1930s with the 20,468 clarinets and 7,308 trumpets examined in 1980 alone.
For much of the 20th century, international tours were arranged by mail – the cost and difficulty of international telephone calls made these a last resort. First faxes, then computers changed everything. In particular, they made the administration much easier for the expanding Asian examining tours. In 1948, only one examiner was needed for a one-week trip to Malaysia, while fifty years later some 30 examiners were there for a three-month tour visiting 40 centres. And in Hong Kong, candidate numbers nearly doubled between 1993 and 2009 to reach 85,000.
Embracing the new
From the 1980s, ABRSM began to expand and broaden its approach. As a result, it now offers a much wider range of assessments, from the pre-Grade 1 Prep Test, through the group-based Music Medals, via the traditional graded exams (expanded to include Jazz) to post-Grade 8 diplomas at three levels. In particular, Music Medals were developed for teachers and pupils working in groups, making it possible for individuals to be assessed within the whole-group situation. Developments in technology have also had a significant impact on music education. As technology has opened up teaching and learning opportunities, so ABRSM has responded with new apps and music software. Resources such as Speedshifter, Aural Trainer and Melody Writer are now guiding and supporting teachers and students in developing all-round musicianship skills in new ways.
Today’s ABRSM is very different to that of the interwar years and indeed that of the Victorian era when it first came into being. However, its original purpose of making a positive impact on music education and music making has remained constant.
|1889||The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is founded by the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music.|
|1890||Syllabuses published for Piano, Organ, Violin, Cello and Harp. Other syllabuses available on request. The first exams take place in 46 UK centres.|
|1891||Syllabuses introduced for Viola, Double Bass and woodwind instruments.|
|1894||The first exams take place outside the UK. 1904 Children under 12 allowed to take exams.|
|1918||We become a music publisher.|
|1933||Grades 1 to 8 introduced.|
|1947||The Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music) and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music (now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) join ABRSM.|
|1967||Guitar syllabus introduced.|
|1985||Saxophone syllabus introduced.|
|1986||Recorder syllabus introduced.|
|1989||Centenary celebrated. The first High Scorers’ Concerts take place.|
|1990||Percussion syllabus and Prep Test introduced.|
|1995||The first courses and workshops for teachers take place.|
|1999||Jazz syllabus introduced.|
|2000||New diplomas introduced for Performing, Teaching and Directing.|
|2004||Music Medals introduced.|
|2009||Latest digital development programme begins, leading to Speedshifter, On Your Marks, Aural Trainer, Melody Writer and Piano Practice Partner.|
|2010||The first teacher conferences take place.|
|2014||Annual exam entries top 650,000.|
This article was originally featured in the October 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.
This article is based on a series of articles by David Wright. You can read them in full at www.abrsm.org/125.
David Wright was formerly Reader in the Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music. His book, The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History, is available in paperback from www.abrsm.org/ahistoryofabrsm or in hardback from Boydell and Brewer