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Remotely-assessed graded music exams: your questions

3 years ago

1 June 2020

Since our last post on 21 May, we’ve received lots of questions. Thank you to everyone who has commented, contacted us and highlighted queries. We want to answer them as soon as we can, so we’ll be regularly adding your questions and our responses to a dedicated web page.

We are going to release more information when we publish the qualification specification in the next few weeks, and there’ll be guidance notes and explanatory videos to help you understand what’s involved and prepare for these grades. Your feedback is helping us to develop these, so thank you in advance for your ongoing dialogue with us about our exams.

This week, we are providing more explanation to these four questions:

  1. Are the performance-focused grades a replacement for the current practical grades?
  2. Are the performance-focused grades as rigorous as your current practical grades?
  3. Is it fair that candidates taking performance grades can record their best performance and submit that, while candidates taking practical grades only get one chance ‘in the room’?
  4. How should I select the fourth piece?

Are the performance-focused grades a replacement for the existing practical grades?

These performance-focused grades offer an additional and permanent pathway. They don’t replace our existing grades, and they are not a temporary arrangement. They will have their own identity and we will confirm final details when we publish the qualification specification in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, we are looking for the first opportunity to resume face-to-face practical exams with appropriate measures in place and with the full engagement of our examiners and venues.

Recognising the disruption caused by Covid-19, we have accelerated our plans to offer an additional route for graded exams, one that focuses on performance and on the submission of a recording. These grades will be a permanent and distinctive part of our offer. They recognise the need for flexibility, choice and convenience that we know learners and teachers welcome. Our work with the teaching community in recent times and the research we have undertaken has been important in shaping our plans to provide additional ways to enable and promote music learning. We are committed to motivating musicians around the world and contributing to music learning and progression..

The performance-focused grades will therefore become an additional choice within any learner’s journey, with the freedom to switch between these grades and the existing practical grades depending on their goals and choices, especially given the constraints on in-person activity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Are the performance-focused grades as rigorous as your current practical grades?

Yes – they are founded on the same repertoire and syllabuses, assessment criteria, quality assurance measures and on our reputation for quality and excellence. They are assessed by the same highly-trained examiners. They are equivalent in demand, but with a different emphasis.

The performance-focused grades require the candidate to achieve their best from their chosen programme of pieces. Candidates will need to deliver a sustained performance of a programme that they have devised, demonstrating the focus and stamina necessary for effective musical communication across a range of repertoire.

This is where credit is earned, with a higher proportion of marks gained for the pieces than in our existing practical exams, using our established criteria (assessing pitch, time, tone, shape and performance), plus a specific set of additional marks for achieving a successful performance as a whole. The criteria for this component of the exam will be similar in approach to those already applied in our ARSM diploma exam but adapted appropriately for the different grades.

Further details of the assessment criteria for the performance-focused grades will follow with the publication of the qualification specification and we will be producing explanatory videos and guidance.

A high result in a performance-focused grade will signal a high level of achievement in demonstrating a set of skills founded on performance, communication, interpretation and delivery.

Is it fair that candidates taking performance grades can record their best performance and submit that, while candidates taking practical grades only get one chance ‘in the room’?

It is not a question of fairness, but of the different emphasis of the two types of qualification. With the existing grades the criticality lies in the learner being able to respond to the examiner, who guides the candidate through each element of the exam - in having it all “in the room” at once. With the performance-focused grades, the criticality lies in the learner taking ownership of a sustained performance of four pieces, including managing the transitions from one to another, in a programme that they have designed themselves, and delivered in one take.

How should I select the fourth piece?

The first thing to say here is that learners should above all choose music that they enjoy, that chimes with their musical personality, and that they can play confidently. Choosing one piece from each list already gives a breadth of musical content and style. Our newly-arranged and extended lists, already available for Bowed Strings, and being rolled out to all other syllabuses as they refresh, starting with Piano on 9 July 2020, give learners an ever-wider choice of music.

The fourth piece can be a choice of another piece from the ABRSM syllabus. Beyond that, learners can also choose any published piece of a similar level. There are plenty of ways to identify suitable music here, from looking at exam listings past and present, to the guidance publishers give on their publications, to the judgement of teachers who we trust implicitly to be able to advise on this.

The aim here should always be to choose a piece that completes the set of four in a musically satisfying way. Pieces can be presented in any order (as currently) and in these performance-focused exams the candidate will want to order them according to how they feel the pieces will work best as a performance.

Pieces must all be of a level appropriate for the grade being examined, but there is no credit for playing what might be subjectively viewed as a “harder” piece. The onus here is on the learner as performer to make confident musical decisions, and to present themselves in the best light.

Please keep your questions coming through social media channels, or you can contact us at If we haven’t answered your question, it’s because we are not able to just yet!

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