Review: ABRSM Singing Syllabus 2018

A few weeks ago, ABRSM released its revised singing syllabus for use from 2018. This is the first update to the syllabus since 2009.

ABRSM state that they have ‘refreshed’ the repertoire and ‘increased that choice still further by allowing any song to be sung in any key from Grade 1 to Grade 8.’ A new series of songbooks will also be available.

The biggest change in this syllabus is perhaps the removal of the requirement for a song to be sung in a language other than the candidate’s own at Grades 6-8. This change has also necessitated the removal of the fourth song at the higher grades to bring the syllabus in line with other instruments. The lists at Grades 6-8 have been expanded into Lists A to E, with songs required from three of those five lists.

Personally, I think this is a disappointing change, and in some ways, as has been highlighted in some of the comments I’ve already read online, a retrograde step. Whilst I can appreciate the argument that singing in another language is traditionally associated with classical singing, and not everyone wants to follow that path, I think that these days, with LCM Pop Vocals, LCM Music Theatre, RockSchool and Trinity Pop & Rock, there was space in the market for ABRSM to retain a precedent here. Whilst singing in a foreign language is tricky, it is an excellent challenge, and one which many learners are fully committed to meeting. That said, it is what it is. The option to sing in another language still remains, though is avoided by choosing songs from Lists A, C and E. Apparently, ABRSM consulted ‘widely’ on this change.

Firstly, let’s talk numbers. The first thing which struck me as I began to look through the new syllabus was that lists appeared to have shrunk. This appeared to be at odds with the supposed increase in choice. Indeed, a bit of calculating later, a total of 91 pieces have been lost at Grades 1-5, with every list apart from Grade 1B being reduced in the new syllabus. That said, in contrast, the lists at Grades 6-8 have increased by 44 items, though overall, there is a reduction across the eight grades.

Of course, it’s not necessarily about numbers, but about content. It seems to me that the biggest changes have occurred in List C at the lower grades where a number of musical theatre items have been added. This has meant that some previously List C items have moved to List B, and indeed, some previously List B items have moved to List A. From my point of view, finding songs suitable for adult learners at the lower grades has always been problematic. I’d hoped that the new syllabus might have provided a little more choice in this respect, though I can’t help but feel ABRSM have missed the point. For example, Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ has been added at Grade 4: not quite what I had in mind.

That said, some of the newer musical theatre shows are represented, for example, MatildaSeussical the Musical and Jekyll & Hyde. Also added are a number of songs from Changing Voices, a selection of songs for teenage male singers. These will be useful for that particular group of singers. As previously mentioned, a new set of ABRSM Songbooks (the ‘Songbook Plus‘) has been published offering a selection of pieces from each list at Grades 1-5.

At the higher grades, it’s fair to say the lists have been expanded, perhaps again notably List E which is now comprised of music theatre and opera. For example, ‘Popular’ from the musical Wicked now appears at Grade 8. As has been noted by other teachers online, it’s a shame that with the reordering of the lists, pupils can no longer choose to sing both a music theatre song and a song from an opera as both these now appear in the same list. Again, this feels like a limiting of choice.

It may seem that my review is overly critical, and whilst I have reservations, there have been some improvements to the syllabus. Overall, I think ABRSM have missed the point in some cases. Once again, there’s been some ‘tinkering around the edges’, though it might be fair to say, this is perhaps part of a wider discussion which we need to have about how we assess singers when there is such a varied repertoire available.