Latest exam updates

All change for Bowed Strings

9 years ago

  ABRSM Syllabus Director Nigel Scaife previews the revised sight-reading and scale requirements for Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass which take effect from January 2012. The rolling programme of improvements to the technical elements of our exams has, in recent years, resulted in new requirements for Piano, Harp, Guitar and Organ, together with a revised set of sight-singing tests. So it was with excitement – as well as some trepidation – that we turned to the sight-reading and scales for the four Bowed Strings. It was as long ago as the mid-1980s that the present scale requirements were introduced, with revised sight-reading coming a decade later. Our first task was to assemble an expert group from among the examiner panel, complemented by several eminent teachers working in the field. Realising that this would be a lengthy process, we held our first meeting back in October 2007. During the months that followed, every aspect of the current sight-reading and scale requirements for Bowed Strings was scrutinised. The group paid particularly close attention to the progression in learning and the demands of assessment at each stage, as well as considering the need for parity and equivalence between instruments wherever possible. By early 2009 we were ready to see what the teaching community thought of our proposals. Several hundred teachers, in the UK and internationally, trialled the new ideas with their students and sent us much helpful feedback – so many thanks if you were one of them! For the last stage of the review, the near-finalised requirements were posted online and some welcome additional refinements emerged from this.


With the new parameters finalised, our next task was to commission some 900 sight-reading tests for the forthcoming specimen books, as well as for use in the exams themselves. It was essential that the tests were idiomatic, so when choosing our team of nine composers one of the main criteria was that they all had longstanding experience of the bowed string world, not only as composers but as teachers and/or players too. Some, such as Sally Beamish, are well-known composers for the concert hall while others are familiar names in the educational world, such as Kathy Blackwell, Mary Cohen and Tony Osborne. So, what’s new in the tests? First of all, there’s now a wider variety of styles, ranging from pastiche Baroque, Classical and Romantic right through to more playful pieces in jazzy and other styles, such as folk and Latin. We hope you will find the melodic content more immediately approachable and musically satisfying than their predecessors. They all work as successful miniature pieces of music rather than simply as tests. Another important element is that the tests are somewhat shorter than the current set, particularly in the earlier grades. For example, all Grade 1 tests will now be either four or six bars in length. This new departure will, we hope, allow candidates to focus more closely on the musical details and, so, achieve a better mark in the exam. We’ve added descriptive titles to all the tests at Grades 6 to 8 to help candidates connect with the mood and style of the pieces. And in response to feedback from teachers, we’re also providing some fingering and bowing indications from the middle grades onwards. Although there are often different ways to finger any given passage, we hope that the small amount of fingering in the tests will help candidates orient themselves and make the most of the preparation time in the exam. The two examples shown here will give you an idea of the new tests. We will be publishing books of Specimen Sight-Reading Tests in July, allowing you and your students time to get to know the shape and styles of the new tests before they come into use in the exams from January next year.


As with sight-reading, we reviewed the scale requirements jointly across all four instruments rather than considering each separately. This approach has enabled us to achieve more consistency across the grades. Violinists and violists in particular will notice a drop in the number of tasks required overall, especially in the higher grades. Significantly, the workload is now pretty much comparable between the four instruments. While many grades will seem familiar, as they have changed very little, some new approaches have been adopted. The first of these is the inclusion of a minor-key scale at Grade 1 for all four instruments, bringing the Bowed Strings into line with the other ABRSM Grade 1 exams. Candidates often encounter minor-key pieces in the Grade 1 repertoire and it is educationally beneficial to make the aural connection between major and relative minor. The E natural minor scale for Grade 1 Violin is shown above. The beauty of the natural minor for Grade 1 string players is its comfort under the hand compared with the other minor forms. The natural minor will also be retained, as an option, for the minor scales at Grade 2 for Bowed Strings. At the same time, from January 2012, the natural minor will be introduced as an option alongside the existing minor requirements for all other instruments at Grades 1 and 2 (see page 6). You can read more about the natural minor at Candidates at all grades will now have a choice of rhythm patterns when playing their scales, using either even notes or the long-tonic pattern familiar from the current syllabus. This flexibility was given an overwhelming endorsement by teachers in our pilot. While some prefer scales in even notes, as the long-tonic pattern can lead to rhythmic instability - too much time spent on the tonic and then a chase to catch up on the ensuing quavers - others are happy with the sense of a firm foundation that the longtonic pattern provides. The next notable change to the requirements is that, at Grades 6 to 8, we’re making a more holistic use of tonal centres than in the current syllabus. This means that the starting notes of the selected chromatic scales and dominant and diminished sevenths will always match those of the scales and arpeggios in each of these grades. This will support good practice in teaching and learning and provide greater coherence for students as they absorb the various tasks of the higher grades. And finally, for the first time we’re presenting suggested minimum speeds, for the various requirements in the new scale books. In the past the guidance was simply to allow the bowing to dictate the tempi, which some teachers found too vague. These metronome marks are optional and offered only as a guide. Teachers are free to include them in their teaching as they see fit. This also applies for the fingering given in the new books.

This article was originally featured in the May 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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