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The music of ABRSM

3 years ago
Philippa Bunting

Philippa Bunting

Philippa Bunting is ABRSM’s Learning & Qualifications Director, responsible for leading the design, development and review of all ABRSM qualifications and syllabuses.

Repertoire: It's our lifeblood. Why learn an instrument if not to play gorgeous music that we love, on our own or in company with friends? When it comes to firing musical imagination and enthusiasm, choosing what to play is as critical as learning how to play it, and we want to make sure the way we present repertoire to learners through our list structure helps those moments of inspiration to strike.

Bowed Strings 2020-2023 was the first ABRSM syllabus to benefit from a change to the way in which pieces are arranged on the syllabus. Until this point, the lists were for the most part chronologically defined: List A included Baroque and early Classical pieces, List B was broadly speaking Romantic, and List C included 20th Century and contemporary pieces. As time passed, these definitions were increasingly put under strain, not least for instruments that simply did not exist during the period covered by List A. Having a C list that included all repertoire drawn from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries meant that all sorts of interesting and dynamic choices were potentially not making it into the syllabus, and this was something we wanted to address.

Maintaining the underlying principle of providing lists that encourage learners to explore a range of music, we recast the lists to reflect musical rather than historical properties. List A became music that is idiomatic to the instrument, shows physical and technical proficiency, and is usually fast. List B became expressive, lyrical and typically slower in tempo. List C is music drawn from a huge range of sources, including pieces in contemporary styles, from round the globe, which invite the player to take on a distinct musical character.

Taken as a whole, and if presented in the order in which they appear in the syllabus, this gives a narrative arc to the performance element of the Practical exam. First play yourself into the exam with a fast, energetic piece that involves dexterity and command of the instrument. Then reveal more of your expressive side, and foreground the sound world of the instrument, and the ability to put across a melody. Then really inhabit a musical character, be it jazzy, quirky, edgy, harmonically out there, or a simple joyous celebration of everything the instrument, and the player, can do.

Of course you don’t have to present them in this order and are free to build your own programme that tells the story you want to tell. And with our new Performance Grades, you can go even further by arranging your four pieces as you want, taking responsibility (and getting credit) for the performance as a whole, as well as the playing itself.

The changes we made for Bowed Strings were really well-received, so we moved on to consider the same approach for other instruments, and each time we asked the question, we got an enthusiastic yes. We rolled it out to Piano for the 2021 & 2022 syllabus that came out in the summer, and are currently working on bringing the same changes to Woodwind, with other syllabuses in the pipeline.

The benefits to learners include building confidence, and encouraging a sense of personal connection with the music. And, to quote Beethoven in the 250th anniversary year of his birth: “To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable.” You can even get it printed on a T-shirt.

So, whatever musical choices you are currently making – enjoy your playing!



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