5 Reasons Why the DipABRSM Quick Study Is More Than Just Sight-Reading

Ask many DipABRSM candidates which part of the exam they fear most, and nine times out of 10, it’s the quick study. My own experience of mentoring instrumental teachers has confirmed the very real existence of this fear.

If you’re working towards either the performance or teaching DipABRSM, you’ll probably be conscious that the quick study (which is the same for both diplomas) is worth only 15% of the overall marks available, yet, one mark below the pass mark for this part of the exam can equal a fail overall, even if you’ve passed the other sections. It’s a scary prospect, is it not?

In this blog post, I’m going to consider five reasons why the quick study is more than just sight-reading. When I mentor teaching diploma candidates, many are, justifiably, under the misapprehension that the quick study is merely a double-length sight-reading test. It’s true, there are clearly similarities, but look at the mark scheme more closely, and some subtle differences emerge.

For ease, I have compared the mark schemes for the sight-reading and quick study in a single document which you can download as a PDF below. You may find it useful to have this easily viewable as you read the remainder of this blog post.

1. Performance versus presentation

Compare the ABRSM mark schemes for sight-reading at Grades 1-8, and the quick study at DipABRSM level, and you will note a subtle difference in language. For the sight-reading tests, examiners assess a presentation of the music, marked as being ‘confident’, ‘largely secure’, ‘cautious’, ‘insecure’ or ‘very uncertain’. For the quick study, examiners assess a performance of the music, marked as being ‘excellent’, ‘well performed’, ‘good’ or ‘sufficiently competent’.

I believe this reinforces the need for your quick study to be a performance. It is not enough to merely present your reading of the test, but rather you need to perform the music.

Tip: think about performances in other contexts. If you were to perform a piece of music you’d learnt and practised, what would you expect? If you were to attend a performance, what might you expect to hear? Think about how you can apply this to the quick study.

2. The devil is in the detail

Once again, compare the two mark schemes side by side, and look at the word ‘detail’. For sight-reading, the word does not appear until the distinction marking band. That’s not to say it’s not welcomed at lower levels, but the realisation of musical detail is not explicitly stated until the highest of the marking bands. Contrast this with the quick study, and we find that the word ‘detail’ first appears in the fail category: ‘little or no attention to matters of detail’.

What does this tell us? Ultimately, you cannot pass the quick study unless you are realising the musical detail. This term encompasses a whole range of things, but may refer to dynamics, expression, tempo changes, articulation and ornamentation. Unlike sight-reading, accurate notes and rhythms are not, in themselves, enough.

Tip: think about listening to a performance of a piece with little or no musical detail. How would you rate it? How does it sound to you? Try playing a piece you know well with nothing other than correct notes and rhythms. How much is it missing as a performance?

3. Your approach matters

The diploma syllabus states explicitly that the examiners are not assessing what you do in your preparation time; however, they are assessing your approach. Look at the quick study mark scheme, and you’ll see that the word ‘approach’ appears at all the pass levels. I’m convinced that a successful quick study attempt at DipABRSM level is built upon a solid approach. I shall be considering that, and some of these other issues in more detail in future posts (sign up to my mailing list below to receive my monthly Creative Notes newsletter which, amongst other things, features new blog posts).

Tip: if you’re already working on the quick study, what’s your approach? What do you spend the five minutes preparation time doing? Does this differ from how you might approach a sight-reading test where you have only 30 seconds? Do you think you have a systematic approach which you can apply to each attempt?

4. There’s a clue in the name

This might seem like an obvious point, but if you think about the name ‘quick study’ what do you think of? Particularly, what is a ‘study’? Think about some of the studies you’ve played over the years. What was the point of them? I reviewed Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies earlier this year, and as part of that, I included a definition of the word ‘study’ (or √©tude):

‘Any composition intended as a basis for the improvement of the the performer.’

Scholes, P. (1975). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press. p.336

I think there’s once again, a subtle distinction to be made here between sight-reading and the quick study. Based on the definition above, a quick study is intended as a means to improve the performer (or teacher). To me, a sight-reading test is just that, a test. Again, I think this reinforces once again the notion of the quick study as a performance, rather than just a test of reading skills.

Tip: learn and play some studies for your instrument (or voice). How do they differ from other pieces you play? What do you think that these studies are aiming to improve?

5. 30 seconds has increased to five minutes

Finally, there’s a quantifiable difference between sight-reading tests and the quick study. Firstly, for a sight-reading test, you are given 30 seconds in which to prepare, but for the DipABRSM quick study, you are given five minutes. This is quite some increase, and with such an increase in preparation time, comes a higher expectation.

Broadly speaking, the standard of the quick study is around ABRSM Grade 6 level. It’s worth remembering that ABRSM sight-reading tests are broadly two grades behind, therefore Grade 8 sight-reading, is around Grade 6 standard. The difference at DipABRSM level is not only the level of performance required, but also in the length of the test. Most Grade 8 sight-reading tests for piano are a page long, but for the quick study, they are two pages. Similarly, Grade 8 instrumental sight-reading tests tend to be half a page, whilst for the quick study, they are a page. In that sense, between Grade 8 and DipABRSM level, the length of the test has doubled, but the preparation time has increased tenfold.

Tip: never be afraid to backtrack and improve your basic sight-reading skills. If you’re struggling with the DipABRSM quick study, then spend some time working through earlier grades. I would suggest that you need to be secure in performing Grade 8 level sight-reading tests before attempting the quick study.

However intimidating the quick study may seem, with a secure foundation in sight-reading and a clear and systematic approach to the diploma-level performance, the experience can be a positive and fulfilling one.

Working on your own towards a teaching diploma can be a lonely, and often, overwhelming experience. If you’re not sure where to start or how to approach your teaching diploma preparations, then one-to-one online mentoring could be for you.

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