Have your say: Letters to the Editor September 2021

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Write to the Editor at music.teacher@markallengroup.com and find us on Twitter @MusicTeacherMag.


Star letter: ‘We need them to step up’

Chris Cobb, ABRSM's new chief executive (MT August pp. 25–27), has a formidable task ahead of him. The organisation seems unable to foster or promote the development of a holistic, broad, deep, rich, and joyful understanding of music in our young musicians. They instead appear to be driven by overheads, media profile, image, accountability, profit and box-checking, and offerings appear to be moulded and driven solely by lucrative foreign markets, rather than being designed on musical value and informed by an educational understanding of how musicianship develops. I strongly believe in the power of an inspiring musical education; ABRSM appear to have their heads firmly in the sand, and I am sure I am not alone in believing that they have been repeatedly unable to deliver.

From the age of five I played piano by ear, resisting lessons because so many of my friends were tired of working on the same three pieces for several terms. The question here is: who was in a better musical position? I might have been able to work out most things that I was hearing on the radio, and was constantly playing lots of different music, but could not read notation and had a ham-fisted and idiosyncratic technique. My friends could read music and had some familiarity with scales, but longed to be able to play the wide range of music that I was approximating through instinct. I could accompany and play along with others, but secretly longed to read notation; my friends understood the music they were playing, but fell apart in front of, or with, others.

I was finally cajoled into lessons aged 12, hastily taught to read music, and shoved (lovingly) into accompanying most things at school and playing in ensembles. I vividly remember that lightbulb moment when I realised how the dots translated to what I was hearing and playing. I jumped through the hoops for Grade 8 and DipABRSM in my early teens, learnt the organ, and ended up, against all odds, as an organ scholar at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. Over the next few years, I had the task of unlearning bad habits and completely reworking my technique to compensate for my odd musical upbringing (my DipABRSM feedback included the blistering observation that ‘the demands of the music were, at times, out of reach’). Which musical upbringing was ‘better’? My friends, who by now could read more accurately than I could, or mine, where I could play lots of different music, and elaborate on it by ear, but with a technique that meant I sought refuge in the pedal to cover technical inadequacies? I'm not sure there is a clear answer.

This experience makes me all the more aware of the value and importance of a rich and broad musical education, and the perils of too narrow a focus. It seems that ABRSM have repeatedly failed to grasp opportunities to reshape and reinvent themselves to lead with a fresh, more holistic and relevant approach that develops the skills and musicianship that young musicians need to blossom in today's world, regardless of whether they choose music professionally.

Every candidate should be expected to give an intelligent, reasoned presentation on how they practise, the composers they have studied, the musical features in their chosen works, and the historical, stylistic, and musical context. They should be able to point out features in an unfamiliar score, and sight reading should be assessed on both how they prepare in the short time available, and the result. Higher level grades could involve playing some unfamiliar music while interacting with an accompaniment, as well as exercises in transposing up and down or reading in different clefs, copying back short melodies by ear, and harmonisation for pianists. Scales are important, but published studies embedding more realistic technical work and figurations are better than relentless four-octave scales, which I seldom have to play as a professional musician.

There could be more of an emphasis on exercises in sonority, clarity, fingering, pedalling, bowing, alternate valve/slide positions, etc., instead of an obsession with note patterns. Instrument specific discussions with examiners are essential, and a portfolio of recorded and written evidence could be submitted to give more of a complete picture of the candidate's abilities, which could include aural perception, improvising, evidence of working on their music away from their instrument, informal performances, reflection, and so much more.

All this costs money to change, and requires a radical reappraisal. It also requires specialist examiners: what right do I have to examine Grade 8 flute when I cannot make a noise from it? Crucially, in my career, I've never had to spot a sharp or flat that's in the wrong place or the wrong way round, or had to correct some beaming. If I'm presented with an unfamiliar musical term, I look up the literal translation, rather than rely on ABRSM's frequent mistranslations (for example, why must they maintain that forte is ‘loud’ rather than the literal ‘strong’, which invokes sonority, energy, and intention, rather than sheer volume?).

Much of the responsibility for a holistic and deep musical education of course lies with us teachers. ABRSM cannot do everything, and nor should they be expected to; but the board's relevance to the actual world of music, and the skills good musicians require, whether professional or not, leaves much to be desired. We need them to step up. Drastically.

Alex Aitken, conductor, pianist, organist (but not flautist), and educator
Editor’s note: ABRSM were contacted, but declined to respond.

THE PERIS by Harry Venning