abrsm performance grades - are they worth it?
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Recently, ABRSM introduced an alternative exam pathway: the remotely-assessed Performance Grades, some may cynically say to recover lost income from exams in times of COVID restrictions when in-person exams can't take place, although ABRSM officially say not. At first glance, they’d appear to be an attractive option for students: out with the supporting tests - no sight-reading, scales or aural to worry about - and in with an extra piece and the assessment of the performance as a whole, including deciding whether the student has managed to put together a balanced programme or not. But are these things really an advantage, or could they hinder or even be detrimental to students’ progress?
Disclaimer: Other boards’ remotely-assessed exams are also available, but I’m focussing on ABRSM here, since that’s the board I entered them all with.
No supporting tests - is this a good thing?
This rather depends on why you believe we learn these skills to begin with (note: I don’t say “supporting skills”, because they’re rather more essential than that would imply). If you’re of the opinion that scales, aural and sight-reading are skills we must learn purely to pass exams - which any teacher worth their salt should absolutely not be - then you’re probably going to think that not having to do them is a bonus. But of course, we all know that’s not why these skills are important; we learn them to make us more technically proficient, which makes our lives as musicians - especially as ensemble players - a lot easier. As a result, all my students who want to do Performance Grades are going to be learning scales, sight-reading and aural anyway, regardless of whether they’re being tested on them or not. Curiously - and thankfully! - all my students, even the young ones, have fully supported this approach.
A note of caution: there are always going to be students (and parents) who don’t see the value in learning skills that will never be examined, who will push you to get them through the grades without doing them, so teachers will need to be diplomatic here in explaining the benefits. And sadly, there will also be some teachers who don’t see the value in these things either, which in most cases is only going to be detrimental to a student’s progress overall. So, if your teacher, or your child’s, is selling the absence of supporting tests as a reason to do a Performance Grade in the first place, make sure you question why. It will hopefully be because that's genuinely the right option for you or your child, but equally, it may not be, so think critically and carefully about what you're being told.
In person exams are a one-shot deal, but the remote performance can be re-recorded
Yes, it can. You can do it as many times as you like and select the best one. However, since your submitted performance must be in one continuous take from beginning to end, what you can’t do is cherry pick the best versions of the pieces from each attempt and edit them together, so it doesn't necessarily offer much advantage over an in person exam since anything can go wrong at any time. Theoretically, you could get all the way to the end of piece four, make some howling mistakes or bad performance decisions, and blow an otherwise great take of the other three. This of course is exactly how it would work in an in-person exam, so ABRSM have done absolutely the right thing here by insisting on a continuous edit. To counteract this, one of my resourceful young students decided, by himself, to programme his least secure piece first, so that if he did make a total mess of it and have to start again, he wouldn’t have to re-do the entire programme. A risky strategy, since you want to open your programme confidently, but for him, it paid off. The disadvantage of being allowed multiple attempts is that it’s very easy to get sucked into having “just one more go to get it perfect” - another had exactly this issue and ended up submitting eight versions of his video for me to choose the final version from. It can be tricky to see the wood for the trees and be objective at that point, for both student and teacher.
ABRSM use the same marking criteria for the Performance Grades as they do for “standard” Practical Grades, with the four pieces each marked out of 30 on Pitch, Time, Shape, Tone and Performance. On top of that, an extra set of 30 marks for the “performance as a whole”, similar to how the ARSM performance only diplomas are marked, is thrown in for good measure, bringing the total to 150 and making up a fifth of the entire possible mark. So even though you’re playing to your phone, if you want to score well here you should still peform as if you are doing so for an audience, and this means employing a bit of stage craft. You need to think about how you present yourself; how to have your music sorted so you're not fumbling in between pieces; preparing yourself mentally for each piece; what to do at the end of a piece (hold that pose before you put the instrument down!); what to do with your instrument when you’re in between pieces; being fully engaged with the performance and committed to the music throughout the whole programme, and so on. This can be tough to remember if you’re relaxed in your own living room rather than on the ball in front of an examiner, to the point that one student completely forgot to do any of it despite plenty of rehearsal, and thus the performance as a whole was marked accordingly. In that case, it was probably the difference between the merit I thought he deserved for how well he played his pieces, and the high pass he ended up with overall.
Criticism has been levelled at ABRSM over the difficulty of these exams compared to the traditional pathway, with many people - rightly or wrongly - assuming that the absence of supporting tests makes them the easy option somehow. As such, I wondered if the marking would be comparatively harsher as an attempt to prove they aren’t, and unfortunately, this did seem to be the case with some of my candidates, bearing in mind that teachers can now see how their students performed “on the day”. I also have big concerns about how well musical detail and nuance can be heard on a phone video, which is what many students will be using to record their performances on; this is especially worrying for dynamics on a woodwind instrument due to the compression built into phone software, whose very job it is to "even out" significant differences in volume in the first place. Dynamics form such a large part of how we shape phrases and the music overall, and using them effectively can make or break a performance, therefore playing a huge part in the marking criteria; consider, if you will, a performance of either of the Brahms clarinet sonatas where the required wide dynamic range simply can't be effectively portrayed or heard. For both the higher grades where the repertoire is more demanding of it, and the lower grades where young or beginning students do not yet have the experience to know when, or how, to over-exaggerate these things in performance, this is a big problem, to the degree that I can’t quite believe that ABRSM haven’t considered that it might be. The guidance categorically states they will “only mark what they can hear”, so how they plan to deal with this issue in the marking is simply not clear. I have asked them for clarification on how this was accounted for in the marking of my students, but have not yet received a response, which is disappointing.
ABRSM's view on the differences between the pathways
The Exam Experience
Students often tell me that the most enjoyable part of the exam experience is when they get to play their pieces with a pianist for the first time, and that having it all come together as a performance on exam day after rehearsals with them is an exciting part of the process. Young students especially seem enthused by this - I remember “going to see the accompanist” being a big deal that made me feel very grown up when I was a young clarinettist doing her early grades. But unless you have an accompanist in your house or bubble, this is notably missing from the Performance Grade experience due to the COVID restrictions, and while this of course isn't ABRSM's fault, I do think it's a pity that students are missing out on one of the most "feel-good" aspects of preparing an exam.
Thankfully, ABRSM do allow various options for accompaniment during the current restrictions, including live accompaniment, assuming you have a piano and can get an accompanist to come to your house or can find one willing to have you in theirs. You can also play along with a "live" video of an accompanist over Zoom (more of that later), or play to the pre-recorded backing tracks that come as a free download with the ABRSM-branded exam music. This is a good compromise, but problematical if you don’t have the equipment to make them heard, or if your piece needs rubato or other tempo changes. However, the option all my students chose was to play unaccompanied. This was easier than trying to teach them to play to a backing track over Zoom, but presented its own set of challenges, most notably in keeping a steady pulse at the lower grades, and one student was even marked down for “pulse inconsistencies” while quite properly employing rubato in a romantic-era piece. Perhaps his intentions would have been more obvious had he been playing with an accompanist, but really, an experienced examiner should have been able to tell the difference when considering the musical context and it seems in this instance, they couldn't. Again, I have queried this with ABRSM, but have not had a response.
There’s also something rather nice and personal about the handwritten mark sheets you get from your examiner in a traditional exam; there's a sense of real connection between the performance you gave, and the person who heard it. It's a bit of a shame to lose that, and the printed mark sheets sent for the Performance Grades seemed rather cold, detached and lacking in encouragement in comparison. While that wasn't so much of an issue for adult students, some extra decoding of the "examiner speak" was required for younger candidates as a result to shine a light on the positives of what they were actually saying.
I had concerns about the robustness of ABRSM’s technical systems after the 2020 online Grade 5 theory debacle, in which the technology promptly fell over the second everyone tried to log on to take their timed exams resulting in many students not being able to take them at all and a lot of very cross people. Thankfully, the upload process was really smooth and easy, despite me having insisted upon the students’ submissions being ready several days in advance of the closing date in case of any technical issues at ABRSM's end. Results were issued much quicker than a Practical Grade, although unfortunately, I was really unimpressed with the apparent lack of involvement from the examiners in the mark sheets I received for my students. The tone of the very limited feedback offered was overwhelmingly focussed on the negative with little encouragement, remarks were clinical and brusque, and each piece merited only two short sentences in all cases. I really didn't think this was good enough, although this may be down to the individual examiners rather than any central policy on how much feedback to give, and the latter would certainly be very disappointing. Considering ABRSM charge the same fee for a Performance Grade as they do for a Practical Grade, I didn’t feel the level of feedback given represented particularly good value for money, although others may have had different experiences.
Performance Grades do offer a different experience to the traditional Practical Grades and that was a positive thing for some students. One adult student said he really enjoyed the process of putting together the programme, especially deciding what pieces to play in what order and whether they “went together” or not. He also said that he enjoyed the stamina challenge of having to play four pieces in a row. One younger student liked being able to present a whole programme without being "told what to do" by an examiner, but missed the experience of playing with a pianist and playing “for” someone. Another was “burned out” after doing two recordings because of the amount of screen time he’d already had to endure that week in his COVID-restricted school life, so we ended up with a bit of a "that'll do" compromise as he’d simply had enough by then and any more attempts would have overcooked the pieces. The option to play an “own choice” for piece four - a piece of equal difficulty to the grade being entered that is not on the syllabus - is a nice idea, although none of my students ventured outside the syllabus for theirs. That's probably also a step too far for a young student, where autonomy over programme choice will be difficult to attain as this task will require considerable input from their teacher; in reality, the teacher is going to end up picking that piece for them, making the value of the programming element of marking a bit redundant in that situation if the student hasn't done it themselves.
A big plus for the teacher is being able to see the student’s final performance before uploading, and to be able to compare that to the marking, and that presumably recordings will be available in the event of a dispute over marking, which is a definite point in their favour over the traditional Practical Grades where exams are never recorded and disputes can be difficult to prove. However, the downside to that is: they're recordings, and I have serious concerns about the potential for under-marking due to the technical limitations of most peoples’ recording equipment and how that will affect delivery of musicality to the listener, particularly the problem of audio compression mentioned earlier. I cannot see any way that students will not be unfairly penalised for this.
Having been through the process with my students, and after some of my initial concerns on hearing about this option were unfortunately justified, I have to say I’m not overly keen to enter any more, and would prefer to wait until the return of traditional exams when the COVID restrictions are lifted. Though ABRSM say they had always planned to introduce this option, I really feel they’ve been rushed in for purposes of damage limitation to their exam income stream as a result of COVID. You can't really blame them for that, but I don’t believe they’ve been fully thought through as a result, particularly not for wind players and those requiring accompaniment, and I can definitely see how they might work better for piano students. As an example of just how poorly-thought-out I felt this has been, ABRSM originally listed “Live via video conferencing software” as one of the options for accompaniment, when anyone who’s been teaching Zoom lessons since the start of the pandemic or has ever attempted a duet with their students knows this is technically impossible due to latency issues. This was swiftly amended in the guidance after somewhat aghast feedback from teachers on social media, and the documentation now suggests that candidates treat "live accompaniment" as if they were playing along to a backing track rather than trying to interact with the pianist in any meaningful way, which rather negates the point of having - and paying for - a live accompanist anyway. But that ABRSM had even thought such a basic technical impossibility was an option in the first place, let alone seriously suggested it in their guidance, was enough to make me lack confidence in and question the credibility of other, more important aspects of the assessment.
While that sounds like an awful lot of negatives, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the concept of a Performance Grade - in some circumstances. My first thought is that they may be a really great option for students with dyslexia or other learning difficulties or disabilities that make recall of memorised scales or sight-reading under exam conditions even with the extra time allowed difficult or impossible, and who may have previously struggled to get the credit they deserve for their playing as a result. They could also be a nice idea as a sort of “ARSM Lite” for the grades below it, but only as long as teachers don’t neglect the other important aspects of developing musicianship to push their students quickly through the grade system as an easy option. Since the Performance Grades are interchangable with the standard Practical Grades - students can switch from one pathway to the other at any point along the journey - teachers can now theoretically get their students all the way to a Grade 8 certificate simply by teaching them four pieces for each grade, although as students progress, the demands of the repertoire at Grades 6-8, and perhaps even 5 at a push, would make this difficult to achieve without a solid grounding in technical skills. But getting students to Grade 8 standard is a completely different thing, that I'm simply not sure can be fully achieved that way, so the question arises: do the Performance Grades devalue the traditional ones, and has a student who’s got all the way to Grade 8 on the Performance pathway really done as much work or, more importantly, learned the skills they’ll need if they want to take it further?
In terms of the exam experience itself, most of my criticisms come from their remotely-assessed nature rather than the principle itself, and I would really like to see how these grades might work in person, if students were able to play with an accompanist, for an "audience", and free from the technical limitations of recorded assessments. But as far as I know ABRSM have no plans to offer this as an option, and Performance Grades will remain remotely-assessed even after the COVID restrictions are lifted, so perhaps we'll never be able to properly compare the two pathways, which is a shame. Overall, I’m glad we had the experience at it at least gave some "official" benchmark to aim for during the pandemic, but I do believe the traditional grades will offer more for the developing student, and plan to return to them as soon as possible.