A string of new ideas: RSL's Classical Violin syllabus

Helena Ruinard
Friday, October 1, 2021

RSL Awards is adding a Violin syllabus to its Classical arm, which now sits alongside its more well-known Rockschool and vocational qualifications. Helena Ruinard takes a look at the new syllabus in the context of more ‘traditional’ options like ABRSM and LCME.

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When asked to look at any new instrumental syllabus, the obvious thing to do is consider it in the light of ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) exams. How much does a new entrant to the classical instrumental exams market differ to the ABRSM and other alternatives, such as Trinity College London (TCL) and the London College of Music Examinations (LCME)? You can see RSL Awards' logic in coming onto to the scene, given the major players of the establishment branching out into jazz and looking to incorporate elements like improvisation – in jazz syllabuses and group learning tests like Music Medals – as well as do away with the former standard requirements of scales and supplementary tests in Performance Grades.

What is clear is that there is tremendous appetite for change. ABRSM has made plenty of small but significant changes over the last 10 years or so and continues to deliver a polished product, with an impressive suite of resources and excellent customer service. But does their continued market dominance mean they are too big for radical change? Are we moving towards one model which serves the huge market in the Far East and a different model or models for the home market? How far are music teachers prepared to go to teach to a different syllabus and deal with a new set of administrative tasks for each board?

Applied skills

Conductor, musician, and educator Alex Aitken wrote a brilliantly worded letter to the editor in last month's MT (MT September, p.6) arguing for radical overhaul. He calls for both a more holistic approach and more instrument-specific syllabuses, saying that it needs to come a long way to meet the skills demanded of a modern classical musician. There are plenty of methods that promote the study of tone, facility and articulation on each family of instruments, for example, so why not incorporate studies from these into the supplementary tests and do away with the endless two-, three- and four-octave scales, which can seem completist? In addition, many professional classical musicians will be involved in informal music-making in community settings, which calls for the ability to play by ear, transpose and improvise to some extent – all things which an organist is trained to do but which are normally picked up ‘in the field’ by others.

So, how far does RSL and LCME cover these applied skills and techniques in relation to violin? In terms of scales, RSL doesn't shy away from making scales and arpeggios part of its Graded Exams. The option to miss them out along with all other supporting tests is possible if the candidate opts to take a Performance Certificate instead: in a similar way to the equivalent performance grades that Trinity College London and ABRSM offer, the candidate is assessed purely on their performance of five pieces. However, by including them in Graded Exams, RSL acknowledges how fundamentally important scales and arpeggios are for melody instruments, even if the musician is playing contemporary music alongside classical. Scale requirements in RSL are almost exactly the same as ABRSM in the Grade 1, 3 and 4 syllabuses, with the addition of pentatonic and blues scales, incorporated into at least one of three specially composed studies that form another part of the supplementary tests.

RSL Classical Violin is released in mid-September

Like RSL, LCME includes scales in its grade exams and not in its Performance Awards, but with both boards there is the option to play a study as an alternative to scales and arpeggios. LCME has enlisted Mary Cohen to write its studies, to be played alongside unusual choices by, for example, Derek Bourgeois and Vladimir Yampolsky. RSL gives three to choose from, usually in alternative styles, specially composed to focus on two or three aspects of technique and musicianship such as double stops and dynamics, or minor blues and bowing. Students are likely to find them satisfying both for how well they are written for the instruments and for being in an inspiring range of styles.

Rewarding creativity

The most distinctive part of the RSL Graded Exams is what they call the Improvisation and Interpretation test, offered as an alternative to sight reading. How inspiring that this type of creative music making, which many classically trained musicians may still avoid, is now being encouraged in a rigorous and graded way. LCME offers this type of test for jazz grades, which include Jazz Piano, Jazz Trombone and so on, but unfortunately bowed string instruments are currently only catered for in the traditional way.

The pure aural test element is a smaller and simpler part of the RSL exams, with candidates at Grades 1–4, for example, only asked to reproduce a melodic fragment by ear. It is kept relatively simple as it must be played on their instrument rather than sung, and this is of course another difference that makes the test more practical than a traditional aural test, as excellent as these can be. LCME aural is more closely modelled on traditional tests, with some variance from ABRSM in terms of when certain tests are introduced. For example, the pitch test at Grade 2 involves identifying the tonality of a triad and whether a selected note is the top, middle or bottom one, as well as questions related to the first five notes of a scale.

Standards of rigour

Looking at either LCME or RSL, you are likely to be drawn in by the delightful variety of pieces by well-known, lesser known and contemporary composers. RSL's repertoire lists are shorter but are given a distinctive profile by the sprinkling of pop songs and other lighter genres, which incidentally all come with backing tracks. Naturally, all boards are keen to make sure Black and female classical composers are well represented and it's great to see pieces by Rebecca Clarke, Amy Beach and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor alongside staples of the canon by Mozart, Schubert and so on. There are mouth-wateringly unfamiliar pieces by Vivaldi, Bartók, Will Marion Cook, Angela Morley and others, and if you are looking at including a pop song or game music through RSL, the ‘Main Theme’ from Assassin's Creed III or We found love by Rihanna should be an easy sell, although there is clearly an onus on the board to identify the latest songs that are going to be popular for a while.

With RSL's inclusion of pop songs and theme music, the question of standards and rigour does arise in some cases, as they often have a limited range and lots of repetition. In my opinion, Willow by Taylor Swift, transcribed as a Grade 4 piece, is not as demanding as a Trinity or ABRSM Grade 4 piece. It's in a simple key with simple rhythms and simple position work and phrasing due to the nature of the music itself. At Grade 4, it's perfectly pitched to appeal to typical 11- to 14-year-old learners, but I don't think it is upholding the same standards as other established grade exams at this level. Having said that, it is a completely different genre and requires a solid grasp of the rhythms, as well as stylistic bowing – all valid skills which require a bit of maturity.

Finally, both RSL and LCME encourage and reward a level of engagement with the music through a short discussion with the examiner. RSL checks knowledge and understanding through questions about musical and historical context and some simple questions targeted at knowledge of notation, structure, harmony, cadence points and so on, all appropriate to the grade. LCME uses this part of the exam to check engagement through knowledge and understanding of musical points, similar to RSL, as well as through the ability to explain how to execute a specific technique, such as smooth shifts at Grade 3 or spiccato bowing at Grade 5.

Exams from both these boards are Ofqual regulated and certainly demonstrate rigour, with a refreshingly different focus on technique and, in RSL's case, applied musicianship in alternative styles.

So, the message to us teachers is: ‘Be adventurous!’. Let's embrace the diversity and opportunities for change that already exist and continue to make sure we are educating musicians to explore a musical landscape that is constantly and subtly changing.

RSL Classical Violin is released mid-September www.rslawards.comlcme.uwl.ac.uk www.trinitycollege.comgb.abrsm.org/en