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Performance Grades – selecting your own-choice piece

10 months ago
Philippa Bunting

Philippa Bunting

Philippa Bunting is ABRSM’s Learning & Qualifications Director, responsible for leading the design, development and review of all ABRSM qualifications and syllabuses.

Part of the challenge of ABRSM’s new Performance Grades is the inclusion of a fourth, own-choice piece. Learning & Qualifications Director Philippa Bunting discusses some of the considerations behind that choice, and gives some useful pointers to teachers and learners. 

Part of the joy of the work we do here at ABRSM is in working with highly experienced teachers to choose the very best repertoire to include in our syllabus listings. We take the responsibility of selecting music that sits happily on the instrument, fuels musical curiosity, and lights the imagination very seriously. To that end we consider thousands of individual pieces, suggested by a range of expert educators, every time we review a syllabus.

Why do we take it seriously? Simple answer is because it matters. Repertoire is our musical lifeblood, often our primary motivation to play, and our gateway to new, captivating, and gorgeous sound worlds.

That’s our part of the ship, so to speak. But as an important part of the Performance Grades, and one vital to their underlying design and intent, we are passing some of that responsibility to you, the teachers and learners preparing for these assessments, in the form of the fourth, own-choice piece.

So how best to go about choosing?

First to say is that there is plenty of guidance available in terms of the level of difficulty required, should you need it. Closest to home is our own current syllabus, from which you might choose any piece from any list. Slightly further away are our past syllabuses, and those of other music Awarding Organisations, and also the many publications available which give an indication of grade level.

Secondly, your own instinct and knowledge as a teacher will help guide your choice, and we trust you in this implicitly. You will all have pieces that you go to often, for a variety of reasons, that do not appear on our lists. They may contain vital technical work in an attractive musical context, deploy a rocket boost under a particular skill that needs developing, or just put a permanent smile on the face of your student as they play. They can all have a place here.

And then there is the taste and inclination of learners. Is there music you have always wanted to play, perhaps already play in private, that could find a voice here? Is there something a little more substantial in terms of length and stamina you’d like to present? Something from another genre, with a different type of accompaniment?

And how to go about deciding on the order of pieces?

Many candidates for Practical Grades, although this is not a requirement, play their three pieces in the order in which they appear in the syllabus: List A, List B, then List C. With the revised list structure (currently in place for Piano and Bowed Strings, and being rolled out to other syllabuses as we revise them), this makes a coherent narrative of playing yourself into the exam, revealing more of your expressive side, and your sound, and then confidently inhabiting a musical character as your finale.

For Performance Grades you can mix this up any way you like, and insert the own-choice piece where it best fits. For example, if your piece is something really showy, you might choose to put it at the end. If it’s something more reflective you might choose to alternate with faster pieces to show your versatility in changing from one mood to the other. If it’s a piece that resonates strongly with one of your choices from the existing syllabus lists, you may choose to put it next to that piece.

As well of course as preparing polished performances of the individual pieces that you are truly proud of, it’s also vital to think about the transitions from one piece to the next, and how you will set yourself up for contrasting technical and musical demands, and different moods and styles. You can think of them as beads on a necklace, or exhibits in a museum, people you are introducing to a friend, anything you like. You, the performer, are the guide, taking the examiner as your audience on a musical journey.

Enjoy choosing!

The syllabus for each subject sets out the full requirements for the own-choice piece and the programme of four pieces overall. For example, there is a minimum duration for the own-choice piece at each grade, and a limit to the number of pieces by the same composer that you can include. Make sure you read the ‘Selecting repertoire’ section before finalising your choices. The syllabuses and other important information are available at ABRSM: Key Information

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