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ABRSM Remotely-Assessed Performance Grade Exams – Reviewed

ABRSM Remotely-Assessed Performance Grade Exams – Reviewed
ABRSM Performance Grades teacher

ABRSM Remotely-Assessed Performance Grade Exams – Reviewed

The Associated Board Of The Royal Schools Of Music, also known as ABRSM, or ‘The Associated Board’, released their remotely-assessed ‘Performance Grade’ practical instrumental exams in 2020. The ABRSM Performance Grade exams are taken by video submission. In this article, I will share my experience of these exams, and the inherent differences between them and the standard face-to-face ‘Practical Grades’ instrumental exams.

I should explain that I am a guitar, ukulele and music theory teacher with an honours degree in classical music, and I have been submitting candidates for ABRSM guitar and music theory exams for 20 years. Hopefully this will reassure you that I have some knowledge of these exams.

What is the difference between ABRSM Performance Grades and Practical Grades?

The main difference between ABRSM Performance Grades and Practical Grades are:

  • Practical Grades are face-to-face, at an exam centre.
  • Performance Grades are by pre-recorded video submission (not a live video exam).
  • Practical Grades require the performance of three pieces, scales & arpeggios, sight reading, aural tests.
  • Performance Grades require the performance of four pieces only – the scales & arpeggios, sight-reading and aural tests are not required.

What are the video requirements for the Performance Grades?

ABRSM spread the information regarding the exam requirements, and particularly what they want to see in the video, throughout their website. Candidates have to watch a series of videos and hunt for links to download relevant PDFs. This is not ideal. There should be one prominent link to click on which has all of the information in a clear checklist. A printable programme form should be included, and the whole thing should be in a short downloadable PDF that can be kept for future reference. Watching the videos every time you need to check the requirements is tedious and time-consuming. When you enter the exam online, all of the relevant information should be included in your confirmation email by default.

I have collated the required information and send it out to my pupils when I submit their exam entry:

How to record your video for ABRSM Performance Grades:

  • Set camera resolution to 720p
  • Show your photo ID (grades 6-8 only) – hold it up to the camera for 5 seconds
  • Fill in programme form and show it to the camera (hold it up for 5 seconds)
  • Programme form must include: piece/song information, composer’s name, syllabus list number, own choice piece additional information (including publisher), syllabus year, timing of breaks, instruments used in the performance
  • Hold up the music for your own choice piece (5 seconds), making sure to show; title, opening clef, key, time signature, tempo marks, first few lines of music
  • Announce: your name, exam subject, grade, piece title, composer name and list information for each piece in the order they will be performed
  • You can tune up mid-video if you need to (by ear), but don’t show tuning at the start
  • The shot must include: candidate, instrument, music stand (make sure music stand is not obscuring you or your instrument)
  • The video must be of a continuous performance of all 4 pieces – no editing of the video is permitted
  • Upload your video to [my file sharing platform], and I’ll check it and submit it for you.
  • ABRSM ‘how to’ video here
  • Please print the attached programme form. If you don’t have a printer, hand write one!

My thoughts on the video requirements

As you can see – that is a lot to remember, plus your 4 pieces! Bearing in mind that most people will film several videos before settling on one that they feel is good enough to submit, there is a lot of ‘admin’ at the beginning. Hold up your identification, hold up your programme, announce your programme. Then you start playing, make a mistake and decide to go for another take… Hold up your identification, hold up your programme, announce your programme…. Rinse and repeat… This mind-numbing tedium at the beginning of every performance is not conducive to an expressive and emotional delivery of the music.

This information could all be submitted on a Word or PDF document with the video, but ABRSM do not currently allow this. One of my pupils got around the admin by making a title card in some video editing software and editing it into the start of the video. The performance itself was not edited, so ABRSM allowed this. They do not specifically state that this is allowed however, so do so at your own risk. You could ask them, but judging by all the comments on their Facebook posts, they are currently not answering the phone or replying to email.

Another gripe I have regards the music stand – why does it need to be in shot? Setting everything up to record this video is very difficult for many people, and it just complicates things unnecessarily. Many people will be recording in a small room, and getting the music stand, performer and instrument all clearly in shot makes it harder than it should be. Not to mention that many people play from memory and are not even using the music stand!

How to enter Performance Grade exams

You can see the Performance Grade exam dates and fees here. you will need to set up an ABRSM account on their website to book an exam.

Entering the Performance Grade exams for the first two sessions was a nightmare. ABRSM gave the whole of the UK a one-week window to enter the exams, with the exam slots available on a first come, first served basis. Of course this led to their website being overwhelmed, and their booking system crashing several times. When I eventually managed to get through the lengthy booking process, all of the later dates had gone, and my pupils had to be entered for the earlier dates. This was unnecessarily stressful for all concerned.

Thankfully, ABRSM have since started offering monthly booking windows, which should spread the demand a bit. I have not used this new monthly system yet, so cannot comment.

How are Performance Grade exams being marked?

When ABRSM first announced the new Performance Grades, they did say that they would be expecting a higher standard from the performance. This is due to the scales & arpeggios, sight-reading and aural tests being omitted.

Here is my experience of the Performance Grade marking. Bearing in mind that I have 20 years experience of ABRSM marking my pupils exams.

  • Exam 1: Grade 3 guitar. Normally I would expect a distinction (130+) for this standard of performance. Mark received: 120/150 (merit)
  • Exam 2: Grade 2 guitar. Normally I would expect a distinction (130+) for this standard of performance. Mark received: 120/150 (merit)
  • Exam 3: Grade 7 guitar. Normally I would expect a merit (120+) for this standard of performance. Mark received: 96/150 (fail)

That was the first period. I was surprised at how harshly they marked the exams. I have never had a pupil fail an exam before. If I had expected him to fail, I would have suggested deferring to the next period and improving the programme before submission. Many other teachers reported a similar experience. I wrote to ABRSM to express my surprise, as did many other teachers.

Period two went like this:

  • Exam 1: Grade 5 guitar. Normally I would expect a distinction (130+) for this standard of performance. Bearing in mind the lower marking from the previous period however, I expected a merit (120+). Mark received: 132/150 (distinction)
  • Exam 2: Grade 7 guitar. This was the same pupil as in the first period – straight back on the horse! Normally I would expect a merit (120+) for this standard of performance. Bearing in mind the lower marking from period two however, I expected a pass (100+). Mark received: 115/150 (pass)

My thoughts on the marking of Performance Grade exams

I have limited data from 5 exams, but I would say that on average, from my experience, they are marking 10-20 points lower than a similar performance level Practical Grades exam.

One other thing to mention is the ABRSM Performance Grades marking is split into 5 sections. A maximum of 30 marks can be awarded for each of the four pieces, and a maximum of 30 marks for ‘the performance as a whole’. ‘The performance as a whole’ part of the marking is incredibly vague. ABRSM need to give clearer guidance as to exactly what they are looking for here. Do they want candidates to speak during the performance, or not? If not, then how do they want communication to be made? By awkwardly staring into the camera? A series of eyebrow raises? Give us a clue ABRSM!

Positive ABRSM examiner comments regarding ‘the performance as a whole’

  • “A very calm and controlled performance”
  • “Maintaining very good focus during the playing and between the items”
  • “There was a sincerity to the playing”
  • “The programme was well memorised”
  • “You projected the playing well, and each piece had it’s own sense of identity”
  • “Tonal production remained at a high level”
  • “You conveyed the mood of each piece clearly”
  • “Very good technical stability”
  • “A good level of focus and concentration in the performance”
  • “The gaps were well negotiated between the items”
  • “You were mostly in control of the notes and rhythmic shapes”
  • “The sequence of pieces was effective and the communicative aspects of the performance were generally maintained”
  • “The chosen programme had shape, and overall awareness of the styles was demonstrated”
  • “There was a sense of occasion and the programme moved smoothly between the pieces”

Negative ABRSM examiner comments regarding ‘the performance as a whole’

  • “Not overly outgoing in communication”
  • “There was not a wide range of contrast in colour and tempo in the programme”
  • “Possibly a little safe on some of the tempi”
  • “The sense of communication remained a little inward-looking”
  • “The contrast between the genres was only partially conveyed, with the playing remaining within a narrow tonal and dynamic range”
  • “Cautious tempi inhibited the delivery overall”
  • “The technical challenges of these pieces were not met in the performance”
  • “There was room for more control of and projection of the instrument’s capabilities”
  • “There was scope to create further musical variety and style”

I can’t share any of my pupil’s exams videos with you, but I can say that if you set the scene (i.e. have a nice backdrop and lighting) and dress smartly, you will probably get a higher mark for ‘the performance as a whole’.

The “There was a sense of occasion” comment was received by a pupil who performed his guitar exam with a piano in the background (complete with a complex piece of piano sheet music on the music stand), dressed formally, and behaved formally throughout. In contrast, my pupil who failed first time around was wearing a fleece, in his kitchen with a bunch of bananas in the background. We will laugh about those bananas for many years, I’m sure!

My thoughts on the new ABRSM Performance Grades

I welcome these new exams. It is great to see ABRSM embracing technolology and looking forwards. The booking procedure was originally badly thought out and implemented, but ABRSM have addressed this, and I am sure they will settle on a system that works for both ABRSM and candidates.

I was expecting harsher marking in comparison to the Practical Grades, but was surprised at quite how harsh it was. ABRSM have been quite ‘soft’ in their exam marking in the past, and some people who probably should have failed exams came out with a pass/merit. This gives the exams less value. The fact that ABRSM are marking the exams to a higher standard is good for the standard of music in the UK. The one caveat I would add to this is that they must be consistent. Marking some exams harshly and giving lenience to others will lead to mistrust in the system, which I am sure ABRSM would like to avoid.

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