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The problem with ABRSM sight reading

The problem with ABRSM sight reading is that the way it is tested renders it worse than useless. It is actually regressive.

I trained as a classical musician (pianist and composer) in the Philadelphia area in the United States. After graduating with my PhD in composition in 2003, I moved to the UK. And I distinctly remember meeting someone new in the local pub, and her first question for me, when she found out I was a pianist, was – “So do you have your grade 8?”

My American mind had no clue what she was talking about. I remember thinking – yes, I passed the 8th grade (middle school or primary school for non-American readers)! But sensing that she meant something to do with piano studies, I said - “Well, no, but I have a degree in piano.” That seemed to satisfy her.

Exam culture in the UK is ubiquitous. I’ve been teaching piano in the UK for 18 years, and I have taken many students through the exam process. There are a few exam boards to choose from, but I have stuck with the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) so far. And of all the hoops I have helped students to jump as part of that process, the sight reading element has always been the absolute worst. I have grown to loathe it a little bit more with each passing year.

The main issue I have with it is that it approaches sight reading in exactly the wrong way. The exam sight reading pieces are written specifically for that exam, and while I can understand the wish to avoid music from the literature as it will likely defeat the purpose of a sight reading exam – to play something at sight and previously unknown to you – I can’t help but think that the lack of musicality and lack of attention paid to harmony in these examples is what makes the whole exercise negative.

Often, but not always, the examples are distinctly unmusical. I’m not just having a go at some poor soul who had to write endless sight reading examples (which doesn’t sound like much fun). This is a big problem, because if you have a student sight reading a little piece and it sounds weird or “off”, then the student has no way of using their sense of listening to monitor how this is all going. The ear/eye disconnect is a disaster in these cases!

And worse, the examples themselves don’t seem to pay much attention to harmony or harmonic implication. This is especially true in the earlier grades when students are not yet at a level where they are reading chords plus melody. Some of the little “tunes” don’t seem to imply anything of movement from tonic to dominant and back again. Think of all the lovely ways you can do that – with little variations meant to test a student’s reading and observation skills. Yet, my feeling is that so many of these sight reading examples pay almost no attention to this, let alone to musical patterning.

In fact, in my worst moments as a teacher, I’ve suspected that these sight reading examples are designed to try and trip students up a bit. Sometimes you get a little challenge thrown in that detracts from the musicality of the example. This leaves me with no other conclusion than the sight reading test exists solely to catch students out.

But exam board, you are forgetting that music is a language! And if you want to test how well a student has grasped that language, then you’d better get hold of the bigger picture.

Until sight reading – and the exams themselves – include elements of keyboard harmony (appropriate to each stage of learning, of course, so grade 1 might be more a case of identifying scale passages vs. chord passages rather than full-blown chord progressions), I can’t take this element of the exam seriously.

But while it’s OK for me, as an educated and experienced adult, to have a dismissive attitude to the sight reading test (which, after all, is worth so few points given the amount of effort it seems to elicit from students), I can’t send a student off to an exam having ignored completely a portion of it, even if it’s just a small portion.

Part of the problem might be the compartmental way in which many of these exams approach musicianship. I would include similar criticism for the aural tests and sight singing tests. They just seem a bit disconnected.

The question to ask is – why does a pianist need to know how to sight read? There are several answers to this question. But for a pianist, one of the main reasons would be to play with other musicians!

And what do we need to do that?

Please have a quick read of Sight Reading Story Number 5 if you haven’t already. Because in my experience of sight reading for auditions, it dawned on me exactly what is needed. A pianist needs to understand harmony and needs to be able to recognise it and play it – in time, and without stopping as a bare minimum.

Now go to your nearest ABRSM sight reading specimen test book, open to any page, and tell me – are those examples addressing this at all?

The answer – not in the slightest.

Some would say that the ABRSM exam syllabus is not a curriculum. It merely tests where a student is at that point in time, and it is the job of the teacher to provide a competent curriculum.

I agree with this, and I include regular work on all the necessary skill sets to make my students excellent music readers. And yet, if we decide to work on an ABRSM exam, we inevitably have to face these sight reading specimens and do things the exam board way. I can tell you that each and every time, I feel like my students actually regress in their reading ability.

Why, ABRSM, can’t you put in elements of keyboard harmony from the start? Why must you approach this little test like it’s some kind of quiz question for which the most obscure (and least musical) answer wins? How is this equipping student pianists to become functional in the musical world?

Pianists are lucky. Their instrument lays out for them, graphically, the tonal system, and it is their work to familiarise themselves with piano geography in a way that develops a deep, embodied understanding of that system. THAT is what it takes to be a good sight reader, and nothing less.

So, a plea – ABRSM and other exam boards, if you are not asking students to prepare themselves along those lines for any of the supporting musicianship elements of the exam, then the exam will actually detract from the music education of that student.

If you doubt what I say, I have a closing anecdote for you. Having been asked if I had my grade 8 in piano on my first night at the local pub, I thought – that must be the gold standard then. But when I started teaching music at university, I encountered a number of young musicians who had achieved their grade 8, yet they couldn’t play much. They could hardly play the pieces they’d worked hard on for a year (or more) in order to pass the grade 8 exam, and they certainly could not read music or learn it quickly.

The problem is twofold. Exam culture needs to change amongst piano teachers – and piano teachers need to educate piano parents on this. But exams, also, must change and become better markers of musical achievement for aspiring musicians.

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