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Next steps after Grade 8: notes on the DipABRSM

6 years ago

Flautist and teacher Elisabeth Hobbs looks at what’s involved in our Music Performance DipABRSM and offers some guidance for teachers and students. So your student has passed Grade 8 with flying colours. Congratulations! It is always a source of great satisfaction when a pupil you have nurtured over a period of years, perhaps even from the very first note, reaches the pinnacle of the graded exam system and has the certificate to prove it. But what next for the committed and talented student? Is it now enough simply to pursue a general development of repertoire, or is it time to encourage a deeper engagement with the musical experience through a new and more challenging kind of assessment? ABRSM’s Music Performance diplomas have been developed to meet just this need for both student and teacher. They are recognised and respected worldwide, and provide a gold standard for measuring performance and musical development at an advanced level. There are three levels of diploma on offer: the DipABRSM, approximately equivalent to the first year of a music degree; the more advanced LRSM; and the FRSM, which carries status equivalent to a Masters qualification. The entry prerequisite for the DipABRSM in Music Performance is a pass in ABRSM’s Grade 8 (or an accepted substitution), but the exam is much more than a glorified ‘Grade 9’, and it is important that both student and teacher understand the depth and reach that the diploma exam requires. A successful DipABRSM performance must not only be technically competent but will also show musicianship, communication and stagecraft, supported by musical knowledge and understanding.

What’s involved?

The Music Performance DipABRSM exam has three sections designed to give a rounded picture of the candidate as musician. Section one, the Recital, is a 35-minute performance programme chosen by the candidate to include a range of styles and techniques while also reflecting personal preference. The syllabus provides a list of pieces to choose from and there is also an option for candidates to play some repertoire of their own choice (up to seven minutes in duration). Candidates also prepare programme notes for the Recital, which the examiner will refer to during the Viva Voce section of the exam. In the viva, the examiner and the candidate discuss the recital programme, considering the repertoire, its musical language and place in history, as well as aspects of performing. Finally, the Quick Study assesses advanced interpretation of notation, requiring a performance of a previously unseen piece (of around Grade 6 standard) after five minutes of preparation time. It’s important that all sections of the diploma are equally well-prepared, as unlike graded exams, candidates must pass each section in order to achieve an overall DipABRSM pass. So, teacher and student need to work together to analyse where a student’s strengths and weaknesses lie, and then make sure that all areas are secure before the exam.

The Quick Study

‘Preparing properly for the Quick Study section is essential,’ says ABRSM diploma examiner Carol Goodall. ‘The occasional wrong note is acceptable, but as an examiner I am really hoping to hear some observation of the dynamics and articulations, as well as solid awareness of the tonality. These need to be present for the Quick Study piece to come across as a performance.’ Diploma examiner Victor Sangiorgio agrees: ‘This section needs as much work as the recital programme. It’s a skill that develops with practice. I would recommend that students do as much duo or ensemble playing as they possibly can – that way they can’t stop for a mistake and by playing with others, students develop much more of a sense of performance, even with previously unseen music.’

The programme notes and the viva

The programme notes also need special attention. It’s particularly important to avoid basing the notes on material ‘cut-and-pasted’ from online sources – an approach which is soon found out in the Viva Voce discussion. The examiner will be looking for a personal response to the repertoire, as well as an understanding of the music’s historical context, in terms of the composer, the instrument and other factors. Candidates need to understand the musical language and structure of their pieces and be prepared to point out examples in the score as they discuss the music during the viva. ‘A candidate who is just repeating information from a secondary source and can’t contextualise it in terms of their own interpretation of the music will not be showing the expected level of understanding,’ explains Victor.

Useful resources

Music in WordsThere are many resources available to help students prepare. The diploma syllabus itself offers guidance notes for the Recital, Quick Study and Viva Voce elements of the exam. It also gives a full explanation of the marking criteria for each section, showing what is required to reach the different levels of achievement. The criteria for the Viva Voce are particularly useful and describe the level of communication skills and knowledge required. In addition, ABRSM provides a reading list and a guide to writing programme notes, both available on our website. ABRSM’s DVD, Achieving Success, includes exemplar performances with commentary, as well as interviews with an examiner and successful candidates, while a number of ABRSM books offer additional help. Music in Words is invaluable for writing about music, while the Performer’s Guide to Music series of books provides expert, concise and practical historical background to Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music. These are an excellent starting point for Viva Voce preparation. For the Quick Study, our website provides a free specimen test for each instrument, to show what level to expect. ABRSM also publishes a book of Piano Specimen Quick Studies which gives valuable practice material, primarily at DipABRSM level but also for the LRSM and FRSM diplomas.

The secrets of success

So what is the examiner looking for in a successful candidate? Carol and Victor both emphasise the need for the performance to show musical as well as technical assurance. ‘All the right notes, in the right places,’ says Carol, ‘but there must be something more.’ Victor agrees: ‘The playing needs to be technically proficient and well-prepared, with a sense of ease. It needs to be a performance.’ For the candidate who can bring all these strands together into a musical whole, the reward of an ABRSM diploma marks a notable achievement.

This article was originally featured in the October 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Elisabeth Hobbs runs courses for adult flute players of all levels, conducts the Oxfordshire Adult Flute Ensemble and is editor of PAN, the Journal of the British Flute Society.

In addition to our Music Performance diplomas we offer diplomas in Instrumental/Vocal Teaching and Music Direction. You can find more information about all ABRSM diplomas and supporting resources at

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