Over the past few years, I have been preparing a flurry of students for their performance diploma exams. These so-called ‘final’ exams can be very beneficial, and provide their recipients with letters after their name allowing them to assume a high level of achievement. They can also provide appropriate motivation, a goal, and, most importantly, the opportunity to prepare for a substantial recital. In this post, I will write about the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity College London diplomas, as these are the exams for which my students prepare.
There are three diploma levels; Associate, Licentiate, and Fellowship. At present, the ABRSM offers four, but this is about to become three as the DipABRSM is dropped, and the ARSM will take its place. This decision aligns the ABRSM with the diplomas available at Trinity College London.
You can find out more about the ABRSM diploma changes here.
The new ARSM and the ATCL (Trinity College London) represent the first diploma level, slightly beyond the standard found at Grade 8; for this exam, students must prepare a recital of around 30 – 32 minutes duration. The LRSM/LTCL diploma exam is the second level, and requires a recital of around 40 minutes in length; I feel there to be a significant jump in repertoire levels between the ARSM (or current DipABRSM) and LRSM. And the final exam, the FRSM/FTCL, requires a 50-55 minute programme (approximately). The stipulated duration time of a diploma programme is give or take 10%.
Diploma exams are significantly more challenging options than any of the graded exams, not just because of the technical difficulty of the pieces performed, but also the fact that the playing time is much longer demanding far greater concentration. However, we are led to believe that they are ‘equivalent’ to the level of playing found at a UK music conservatoire; the ARSM/DipABRSM/ATCL is apparently similar to the end of a first-year undergraduate exam at a music college, the LRSM/LTCL, the second year, and FRSM/FTCL, the third year.
I often prepare students for music college entry, and the level of playing required to achieve a place to study at one of these establishments is usually considerably higher than that required to pass the ARSM/DipABRSM/ATCL diploma exam. Whilst much of the repertoire indeed remains similar for a diploma recital and an end-of-year BMus exam, the standard of playing necessary to pass is not the same. With this in mind, I try to ensure that my students have obtained their LRSM diploma before they take their conservatoire entrance audition, and, even then they will need to play a memorised programme extraordinarily beautifully to be offered a place.
The Associate diploma exams are a useful stepping stone to higher diplomas. I’m currently preparing one young student for the ARSM and a mature student, who is training to be a piano teacher, for the ATCL exam. These exams are presenting certain challenges for both students; one of the main issues is a limiting hand size. I have often found it to be the case that adult female students, despite being fully grown, have problems playing an octave, and I have to work with them for a while before they can completely relax their hand to manage anything beyond the octave reach (read an earlier article I wrote about small hands, here). My younger student, being only ten, is also having a similar issue and this has led to a careful assessment of the syllabi, seeking only ‘appropriate’ repertoire options for them both, and these options tend to be severely curtailed thanks to their hand size limitations.
Each exam board has a detailed syllabus list containing a large amount of varied repertoire. This is one element that is preferable to the fairly limited options found on the graded exams syllabus. There is also the option to play 10 minutes of your ‘own choice’ repertoire, but some boards will need to approve the programme first before you can enter for the exam.
When devising a programme, careful repertoire selection is crucial. Playing music beyond one’s current level is not a good idea, as, under pressure, weaknesses will be painfully exposed. I have found this to be the case repeatedly whilst teaching adult amateurs on various piano courses. Sounding as ‘professional’ as possible must be the overall goal, and adults often make the mistake of selecting music they like, as opposed to what they can play. Suffice it to say that I can’t ‘fix’ the majority of their issues on a weekend course; this needs to be done over some time and takes a considerable amount of work from both the student and myself.
A student must like and be happy to study particular pieces, but I have found that if piano music is presented in a certain way and I’m able to convince the student to start exploring it, enjoyment normally follows. To this end, the following repertoire has been really useful, a joy to teach, and students have loved all the pieces. The majority of works are featured on the ARSM and ATCL syllabus, and those that are not on these lists would fall into the ‘10 minutes own choice’ category:
Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847 and Prelude and Fugue in G minor BWV 861 from Book 1 of the ‘48’ Preludes and Fugues by J S Bach (1685 – 1750)
The C minor prelude and fugue isn’t on the syllabus, but it has been accepted as an exam piece as it fulfils the current ‘Grade 8 or above’ criteria for the ARSM programme. I like students to offer a Baroque piece and this, whilst tricky, doesn’t go beyond an octave, and it’s also a great ‘opener’ for a recital. Similarly, the G minor prelude and fugue, also from Book 1, is a good option and is on both diploma lists.
Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847
Prelude and Fugue in G minor BWV 861
Adagio in B minor K. 540 by W A Mozart (1756 -1791)
An ARSM syllabus favourite, this beautiful piece was written towards the end of the composer’s life; a captivating melodic line is interwoven with interesting chromatic twists and turns, I’ve yet to find a student who doesn’t respond positively to this work. It doesn’t feature on the ATCL list but has been accepted as ‘own’ choice repertoire.
There’s no venturing beyond the octave, it’s fairly straightforward in its technical demands, although musically it’s not easy. If you enjoy Mozart, love the Classical style, and understand how to shape and phrase appropriately, this is a good choice and is approximately 10 minutes in length with all repeats.
La plus que lente by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
Debussy’s music is a popular student choice and this is a most appealing work. It’s fairly short and whilst it does feature some larger chords, at the suggested slow pace, these can usually be managed effectively with careful practice. Students enjoy conjuring the large tonal palette required for an effective interpretation.
Preludes Op. 11 No 12 in G sharp minor and No. 13 in G flat major by Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915)
Scriabin’s delicious late-Romantic style is on display in this early set of preludes. The two preludes I have selected (and which are on both diploma lists) are slow-moving, allowing and encouraging students to shine musically. They occasionally include some awkward chords for the smaller hand, which may need to be managed appropriately, but they provide a Romantic-style element to a programme and are enjoyable to play.
No 12 in G sharp minor
No 13 in G flat major
Vision Fugitives Op. 22 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
A great choice for those with a preference for a Twentieth-century option. The Vision Fugitives consist of twenty short, colourful pieces, but only four need be presented in the ARSM exam. The ABRSM stipulates numbers 8, 14, 19, and 20; Trinity College London also stipulates number 14 but allows the students to choose two other pieces from the set. Whilst numbers 14 and 19 move at speed, they don’t consist of wide-reaching chords. The two slower pieces, numbers 8 and 20, both move around the keyboard suggesting full tonal sonority, but in reality, the pedal does most of the work, so that fingers are free to leave notes quickly, making playing it that much easier for those with a smaller hand or a less-experienced player.
Scènes d’enfants by Federico Mompou (1893 – 1987)
It was a joy to discover these wonderful, short pieces written by this severely underrated Spanish composer whose intimate works contain a quasi-improvisatory quality. I’m a big Mompou fan and introduced his music via these pieces to four students this year, all of whom have loved the challenge of playing this style, particularly his complex harmonic language.
Each piece is repetitive and note patterns fall nicely under the hand, and these patterns are not too demanding in terms of movement. The style requires significant sustaining pedal (some students love this), and there is quite a bit of rhythmic flexibility regarding both the choice of speed as well as the use of rubato. The first piece in the set has been of concern to some with smaller hands, but with plenty of guided practice, pupils have managed in the end. These works are on the Trinity College London list but have been played by my ABRSM candidates, too, and their playing time is around 10 minutes, making them a substantial choice for a 30 minute programme.
Night Pieces by Peter Sculthorpe (1929 – 2014)
I have taught these enchanting pieces by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, to numerous students over the past few years. Well-written for the instrument, they don’t challenge students in terms of moving beyond the octave, are dissonant but not too much to put students off and provide the ideal introduction to a more Contemporary style.
There are three pieces in total, but the first comprises a group of three shorter miniatures; Snow, Moon & Flowers. Plenty of controlled tonal colour is required as well as a very rhythmic approach, although this isn’t as complicated as it might first seem, and a fair amount of pedal (both una corda and sustaining) will bring this collection of pieces to life.
It’s sensible to plan a diploma programme before learning begins, which might seem obvious but I’ve found that transfer students have started learning one or two pieces, adding others at a later date. However, an overall plan from the outset ensures correct timings and a good mix of repertoire representing several styles and genres.
There will, of course, be other suitable syllabus selections, but I have found the above suggestions to be successful for many students. If you are thinking about taking the ARSM or ATCL, do be sure to check out all options on the syllabus lists to make sure you’re not overlooking music which may just suit your current level and style of playing perfectly.
Read more in this series here.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.