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  • Chris Anderson

Choosing The Right Board For Your Exam

Updated: Jan 14, 2023

There a numerous exam boards from which to choose and each has their own pros and cons. In this blog I’ll discuss my feelings about each one in the hope of giving you a balanced, unbiassed viewpoint. This will enable you to make an informed decision. However, you may find that your teacher will need convincing if they haven’t used your board of choice before. The “reviews” are based on general exams, not Group Exams, Musicianship Exams, or Diplomas.


Which exam board should I choose?

The Associated Board Of The Royal School Of Music was founded in 1889. It delivers over 650,000 music exams every year in 93 countries. There is a certain amount of snobbery attached to the ABRSM by some music teachers and colleges/universities - but I guess that’s because the word “Royal” is in the name.


Exams Available - They offer Classical Instruments, Jazz Instruments (up to Grade 5), Singing, and Musical Theatre Singing. They also have Practical Musicianship Grades, Diplomas, Performance Assessments, Group Exams, Music Medals and Music Theory.


Pieces - Candidates have to choose three pieces, one from each list (A, B, C). List A pieces tend to be generally faster and require technical agility. List B pieces are more expressive, while List C brings wider variety of styles. Singers get five lists and have to choose from three of the lists for grades 6 - 8. There are supplementary lists with additional pieces from which to choose.


Supplementary Tests - Candidates are expected to play scales and arpeggios (though singers don’t). They also have sight reading and aural tests. The aural tests include singing. Instead of scales and arpeggios singers music sing an unaccompanied traditional song.


Qualifications - ABRSM are regulated by Ofqual and use a Regulated Qualifications Framework. For Grades 6 - 8, they carry UCAS points (8 -12 Grade 6, 12-14 Grade 7, and 18-30 Grade 8) which are used for University applications.


Requirements - To enter for an exam Grade six or above you must have Grade 5 Music Theory, Practical Musicianship, or any Practical Grade on a Solo Jazz Instrument.


Online - ABRSM have an online exam whereby you can do a video submission, without the need to do sight reading and aural. They call it “Performance Grades” and it’s all about the performance.


Founded in 1872 TCL have over 850,000 candidates in more than 60 countries worldwide. Their qualifications are specifically designed to help learners realise their potential.


Exams Available - Classical & Jazz Grades, Rock & Pop (see below), Music Certificate, Music Diplomas, Theory Of Music, Certificate for Music Educators, Awards & Certificates in Musical Development, and Music Performance in Bands.


Pieces - Candidates choose a three pieces from the syllabus, to give a balanced programme. For singers they have genre based lists from which to choose their pieces. They can perform up to two songs from one list but cannot perform more than one song by the same composer. There are no compulsory song groups. Instruments have supplementary lists.


Supplementary Tests - Technical work which includes scales & arpeggios, and technical exercises. Candidates have a choice of either sight reading, aural, improvisation, and musical knowledge. Sight reading only becomes compulsory at grade 6. Musical knowledge is available up to and including Grade 5. Aural tests don’t have any singing (at any grade).

Qualifications - Trinity are regulated by Ofqual and use a Regulated Qualifications Framework. For Grades 6 - 8, they carry UCAS points (8 -12 Grade 6, 12-14 Grade 7, and 18-30 Grade 8) which are used for University applications.


Requirements - No theory qualification is required in order to enter for Trinity practical exams in music, but it is available to take as an exam if you wish to.


Online - Trinity offer digital exams in Classical & Jazz, Music Diplomas, and Rock & Pop (see below). With a digital exam there is no supplementary test requirement though they give extra marks for performance.


Established in 2012 under the umbrella of Trinity College London, the Rock & Pop exams offer candidates a chance to get grades in music that is perhaps more in keeping with what they’d prefer to do.


Exams Available - Grades Initial to 8 are available in Guitar, Bass, Keyboards, Drums, and Vocals.


Pieces - Candidates choose three pieces from the grade book (though there are alternative choices available on the Rock & Pop website. One of the pieces must be a Technical Focus, but candidates may choose to perform an “Own Choice” song instead of a third piece from the book providing they follow the parameters laid out in the syllabus.


Supplementary Tests - Called “Session Skills” candidates choose from either Improvising or Playback.

Improvising - Candidates are given a chord sheet and they hear the first few moments of a backing track to get a feel for the speed. They then get a short period of time to work something out before the track is played and they can practise. After this practise the track is played again and the assessment takes place. There are a variety of genres from which the examiner will choose (these are listed in the syllabus).

Playback - Akin to sight-reading, the difference being you are playing as an echo. Candidates are given a song chart and have 30 seconds to study it and try any sections out. They then get to practise with the track before being assessed. Candidates are expected to follow any dynamics and articulations.


Qualifications - The Rock & Pop exams are regulated by Ofqual and use a Regulated Qualifications Framework. For Grades 6 - 8, they carry UCAS points (8 -12 Grade 6, 12-14 Grade 7, and 18-30 Grade 8) which are used for University applications.


Online - Digital exams are available for the Rock & Pop exams. No session skills are required for this, but the skills that underpin the session skills are assessed through the entire performance.


Established in 1887, LCM is one of the longest-established exam boards for the creative arts in the UK.


Exams Available - Piano, Music Theatre, Singing, Theory, Keyboard, Organ, Accordion, Guitar, Ukulele, Ensemble, Percussion, Strings, Harp, Woodwind, Traditional Music, Brass, Jazz, Church Music, Conducting, Composition, DJ.


Pieces - Candidates perform three pieces, one from each list, A, B, and C. At least one of the pieces must be taken from the LCM Piano Handbook.


Supplementary Tests - Candidates prepare either scales and arpeggios or a study. They then will be engaged in a short discussion with the examiner (answering questions about the pieces). Candidates then have Sight Reading and Aural Tests. The aural tests have a singing element.


Qualifications - LCME are regulated by Ofqual and use a Regulated Qualifications Framework. For Grades 6 - 8, they carry UCAS points (8 -12 Grade 6, 12-14 Grade 7, and 18-30 Grade 8) which are used for University applications.

Online - Digital exams are available.



Exams Available - Electric Guitar, Bass, Drums, Acoustic Guitar, Piano, Keyboard, Vocals, Music Production, Ukulele, Music Theory. They’ve also recently launched a Classical exam in Piano, Violin, and Classical Guitar.


Pieces - Candidates perform three pieces two of which need not be from the book, providing they are with stipulated parameters.

Supplementary Tests - Sight reading or improvisation, ear tests (no singing), and general musicianship questions.

Qualifications - Rockschool are regulated by Ofqual and use a Regulated Qualifications Framework. For Grades 6 - 8, they carry UCAS points (8 -12 Grade 6, 12-14 Grade 7, and 18-30 Grade 8) which are used for University applications.

Online - Digital Exams are available.


Conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot from which to choose and it ultimately depends on what kind of musician you want to become! All the boards I have discussed carry the same UCAS weighting. Some prefer the pieces offered by the ABRSM, others prefer Trinity. I know some people who do exams in all available boards to give them the broadest (and perhaps most detailed) qualifications. Some people want to do theory some don’t. Some hate singing so would not like ABRSM or LCME aural tests.


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