The Associated Board (ABRSM) needs no introduction. If guitar teachers didn’t sit their first exams with it, then their teachers probably did. Or our aunties, uncles, parents, friends… someone somewhere who we know of, has sat an ABRSM exam on a musical instrument. The ABRSM are an institution and a force for good.
2019 will see the introduction of a revised guitar syllabus and for the first-time books of pieces dedicated to an exam. The logic of asking a student to sit a guitar exam with a single book of music seems to have been resisted by the ABRSM. They did cite music from the three eras of the syllabus in their Time Pieces book, but they hadn’t gone so far as Trinity/Guildhall (for example) in dedicating a book to an exam. Now they have.
This is great news for the cash-strapped parent who wants to minimise expenditure on music materials. It is less good news for the other publishers whose music still sits on the syllabus and worse for those publishers who don’t feature at all. The emerging statistics will in time tell if this decision has pushed others onto the financial ropes. I daresay the Music Publishers Association would welcome a healthy inclusive industry. Whether or not individual publishers share that sentiment is debatable. I have sat in on meetings of an exam-board producing material for exams (not the ABRSM) in which ‘market-share’ and ‘expansion’ were buzz-words. It is clear that the “let’s do it all in one book” approach responds to practical as well as commercial imperatives.
The first of the ABRSM series of books is a Prep(aratory) Test. John Holmes, the ABRSM’s chief examiner writes, in the foreword, “playing the right notes and keeping well in time with a firm steady pulse” are important skills to master. He also explains that the examiner will issue a certificate on the day. You cannot fail this Test; instead you will get used to the exam-room environment and the linked pressure of playing for an impartial listener.
The candidate is required to play three tunes from memory, a prescribed first piece and a free choice second piece. This is followed by a few simple aural tests and examples of the standard expected are included in the Prep Test book.
The tunes are in 4|4 and 3|4 time and involve quavers, crotchets, minims, and (inevitably I guess in 3|4 time) a few dotted minims. There are dynamics to contend with, 1st position notes and three Left Hand (LH) fingers. The student will need elementary skills of co-ordination between left and right hands, be able to cross upper strings and know what a metronome mark is.
The absence of finger 4 was curious, especially since our candidate is hopping between D and G on the top two strings. I don’t know what the rationale is for this; it struck me as a missed opportunity to engage an often-reluctant digit. Furthermore, if the player was not using apoyando, then some over-ringing is inevitable. At this stage, the ABRSM are happy to overlook this problem – for a page or two!
There are five suggested ‘First Pieces’ in the book and a reference to another book called Guitar Star, which will be the subject of another review.
Tim Pells has contributed an across-string solo, which I suspect may be harder than teachers predict; there’s quite a lot of LH movement in it. Laura Snowden has written a Spanish-esque duo in which E-F type chords are played by the teacher. It has a student-played lower melody accompanied by an open top string. Half way through it transforms into a melody.
Laura hopes a student has understood alternation and her 2nd half fingering is implicit rather than explicit, in line with much of the ABRSM’s earlier guitar publications. Another duet follows by Gary Ryan which is a fun ‘duck’ adventure and this is followed by an Abigail James waltz. Here damping of strings will be an issue as E minor and A minor based harmonies occur in adjacent bars.
Helen Sanderson has written the final cross-string melody which works beautifully – as they all indeed do. Five pieces by five true guitar experts is a very welcome way to introduce students to the guitar.
The ‘Second Piece’ is a free choice.
Hopefully, no candidate will enter the examination room without a thorough training in damping, a sense of string hierarchy, and with alternation and legato facilities well in place. This book plays perfectly into the hands of the conscientious, and offers unarguable grounds for seeking out a reputable teacher to guide the student.
I have one question to ask. All the material is solidly tonal and entrenched in a diatonic language. Was there not a case for allowing the ears of the candidate to explore some slightly less-comfortable tonality? Bartok was a pioneer of quirky yet accessible music which touched on the augmented intervals of a modal palette.
Laura’s Phrygian chords are not, for me, enough – because it is the teacher in the room who plays them. This is another missed opportunity, the second in this book. Of course, we want to nurture self-critical playing at an early stage. We surely also need to encourage a student’s sense of comfort in handling more dissonant material. It will be interesting to see at what point in the student’s development the ABRSM decide to stretch their ears.