I have to say, I have avoided delving into the new ABRSM Performance Grades for as long as possible, but last month I was finally forced to take the leap. I’ve written previously about the new digital and online exam options, but I confess I approached my first ABRSM Performance Grade entry with a certain amount of trepidation. In this blog post, I want to share my experiences of my first entry, and offer some tips for anyone else wanting to take the leap.
Given the number of problems I’d read about online, I was expecting the entry process to be fraught with trouble; however, it went entirely smoothly. I was able to log in to the website without trouble and the entry itself was easy and straightforward to make. I have to confess that when the ABRSM Performance Grades first came out, I was under the impression that you booked for the month you wished to submit the video, then submitted by the last day in the month. This, of course, isn’t the case, rather when you book, you have to select a day and time by which you’ll submit the video. This makes it perhaps not as flexible an option as LCM or Trinity.
I wasn’t able to book the exam on the day entries opened, and inevitably, a few days later, only a few slots remained. I suspect that most entrants want to select a date as close to the end of the month as possible and this was reflected in the limited availability remaining. 8th June was the latest possible date available to book, offering just under a month from the booking to the submission deadline. I guess that the moral of this is that really, unless you can guarantee to be logged on to book the minute entries open, perhaps the video should be ready at the point you make the entry? This way, there would be no problem if only earlier dates are available; however, even then, it is still worth noting that slots are limited.
The Exam Itself
Part of the reason I approached this entry with a degree of trepidation is that the amount of information available on the ABRSM website is overwhelming. There are numerous webpages, what seems like hundreds of PDF downloads, along with videos and webinars. If you can wade though all of this, the process is actually fairly straightforward. It’s unusual I have to say, but certainly not as complicated as the information on the website seems to suggest.
As my candidate was recording their exam at home, I had to condense this information into a user-friendly format for the parents undertaking the recording, but even then, my condensed version ran to three pages.
Inevitably, once we are able to film entries face-to-face in a lesson, the process will become easier. That said, the candidate’s parents found the process of recording fairly straightforward. I think that as ABRSM themselves point out, you need to read everything and understand it before you even start filming.
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There is also a question of how many takes you should record. In theory, you could record the exam over and over again until it is as close to perfect as possible. I suggested no more than three takes if required, then to choose best of three. My feeling, and I know other teachers may disagree, is that whilst this is a recorded exam, it should still maintain something of a sense of a live performance. In the case of a face-to-face exam, there’s only one take. Also, unlike LCM, the performance has to be recorded in full on one video, which makes it less appealing to record more and more takes.
I note that you can grant, for example, a parent access to upload the video directly. I chose to not do this as I wished to check everything first. The upload was very straightforward, although you do need to carefully note ABRSM’s technical advice about filenames. The video of the nine-minute performance was just under 400MB and uploaded in around two minutes. I can see that with higher grade exams, the file size may become an issue, even at the suggested resolution.
We submitted the video two days before our allotted entry deadline, and the results were available online on the Friday, five days after our Sunday submission. I received an email in the middle of the night notifying me of their availability. The mark sheet is available to download as a PDF from the website, and certificates are still sent by post. My candidate achieved a distinction overall.
My only real gripe with the whole process was the ridiculous language used by the ABRSM examiner on the mark sheet. Phrases such as ‘sonority blemishes’, ‘lapses in tonal refinement’ and ‘poised pacing’ are really not terribly helpful. Even I struggled to decipher what the examiner actually means, and quite frankly, I wondered whether I should ask at the chemist for a remedy for these ‘sonority blemishes’. Clearly, this is an ongoing issue with ABRSM and not confined to the Performance Grades. I have always been perplexed as to why examiners aren’t able to use plain English. If something is a little flat, it would be, in my view, perfectly OK to say that, rather than to dress it up as a ‘few intonation discrepancies periodically’.
Should we start a campaign for ABRSM examiners to use plain English? As I have written previously, the mark sheet should be a useful tool, but it shouldn’t need to be translated by a teacher in order for it to be understood by the candidate.
Overall, despite my misgivings about ABRSM, I found the process both straightforward and positive. It is worth noting that this is a performance exam, and I encourage everyone to take note of the ABRSM Performance Grades marking criteria which reflects this. Candidates need to record a performance, not just a ‘reading’ of the music. I would suggest the exam will best suit those candidates used to performing, particularly at the higher grades.
Once you get through the mountains of information on the website, the process is fairly straightforward. I found the entry and upload process simple and user-friendly. Results came quickly and the video recording itself did not seem to pose any particular difficulty. As mentioned above, ABRSM really need to take action with regards to the language used on mark sheets, but as I say, this is an ongoing issue.
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