The ABRSM Music Exams - What Are They & Why Should You Take Them?
A picky eater has his dessert. An Olympian athlete has her winning performance. And a music student has his ABRSM exam certificate. All of these are incentives which push the individual towards action for a desired end goal.
While many young musicians’ education experiences are often marked by winding paths of sporadic practice and scattered repertoire with limited accountability, music exams provide a way to objectively track progress and offer motivation for further self-improvement, validation of skills and recognition of achievement.
As the world’s leading provider of music exams, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) delivers over 650,000 assessments annually in 93 countries. On the official website, the ABRSM states that its mission is to inspire achievement in music; it does so by “help[ing] build musical skills, provid[ing] goals and encourag[ing] progress.”
A range of music exams are offered by the ABRSM; the most commonly taken are the Music Performance exams, available for over 35 instruments. Structured progressively from Grades 1-8, these exams promote holistic musicianship by assessing a range of practical skills - including performance skills through 3 pieces or songs selected from an official syllabus, technical skills through scales and arpeggios, notation skills through a sight-reading test, and listening skills and musical perception through aural tests. The assessments have no age restriction, and students are able to begin at any grade and skip levels if desired. Unlike many other music evaluations, the ABRSMs are not a competitive match judged by an intimidating panel. With one-on-one feedback from an expert professional, the only thing you should worry about is one-upping last year’s self.
Because of the exams’ widespread utility and reputation built up over the course of 100+ years, they have become a sort of global currency for evaluating one’s level of musicianship. While there are not very many music programs that require the ABRSM certificate as part of an application or qualification process, especially outside of the UK, it’s still a good way to objectively demonstrate your ability through a trusted international standard of musicianship. Think of it as a kind of “resume booster”!
I recall when my own piano teacher suggested entering ABRSM’s higher levels during my middle school/high school years. While I wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of taking more exams beyond my regular academics, I realized it would provide me with valuable benchmarks of progress and success along the path of my music education. It gave me something to work towards, allowed me to see how much I’d grown and achieved each year, expanded my repertoire, and forced me to improve practice areas such as scales that I otherwise tended - or more truthfully, insisted - to neglect.
Admittedly, each year the ABRSM assessment process was the same less-than-desirable experience shared by most angsty test-takers - tapping my feet nervously waiting for my name to be called, rubbing my cold hands and flexing my tense fingers while wishing the word “exam” were erased from the English dictionary - but when I finally received my Grade 8 certificate after several years of steadfast persistence, I felt a real sense of accomplishment and validation. And for this then-aspiring music major, it did eventually make its way onto my “Awards and Achievements” form for college applications with just a small dose of pride.