Choosing a Musical Instrument Exam Board

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How do you pick an exam board? Perhaps you choose the one you know best. But do you know what other possibilities are out there? How have they changed and adapted with the pandemic? 

Of course, not all exam boards offer all instruments and different boards lend themselves to different styles – so why not pick an exam board that best suits you as a teacher rather than the learner? We’ve broken it all down for you.

To help you with your decision making, here’s our exam board roundup!

Which music exam board should you choose?

Exams that are Ofqual Recognised

The music exam boards below all have exams recognised by Ofqual (the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator), in which grades 6-8 earn the pupil UCAS points. Recognition by Ofqual is a mark of quality – it shows the exam boards meet their rules and requirements and are able to combine expertise in assessment with effective operational delivery.

Take Music Exams Online

During the pandemic, many exam boards have added or developed their online or recorded exam offerings. Some teachers initially experienced marking to be more severe for these digital paths, but it seems to have now levelled out with many teachers and their students having positive experiences. Each exam board has their own guidelines for filming, but as with face-to-face tests – it’s important to ensure students are comfortable and well prepared, they’re engaged with each musical style and transitions are smooth with ready-bookmarked music.

 

Trinity College London

Trinity College Exam website

Styles:

Classical, Jazz, Rock & Pop

In Person or Online:

Both! Graded Music Exams are face-to-face. Digital Music Grades are available for all Classical, Jazz, Rock & Pop syllabuses by recording at a time of your choosing and submitting the video to be assessed.

Overview:

Trinity is the oldest exam board of them all, founded in 1877. They have a lot of flexibility in supplementary tests – pick two from a selection, for example: improvisation and aural, or sight reading and musical knowledge. It’s tailored to suit the candidate! Their Digital Music Grades have the same academic rigour and recognition as the face-to-face exams.

For Classical & Jazz, their Practical Grades consist of three or four pieces, technical exercises and supporting tests. The Classical & Jazz Digital Music Grades (assessed remotely) are weighted towards performance and technical exercises, but with reduced requirements. Candidates will be assessed on how well the musical skills and knowledge that underpin the supporting tests are demonstrated within the context of their entire performance.

For Rock & Pop, choose the set list of three songs from their graded songbooks, which can include a piece of the student’s choice or one they’ve written themselves! They’ll also be marked on improvising or playback in the Session Skills section. For remotely-assessed Rock & Pop Digital Grades, they’ll still play three pieces, but candidates will be assessed on how well the musical skills and knowledge that underpin the session skills tests are demonstrated within the context of their entire performance.

Instruments:

Classical & Jazz – Piano, Singing, Brass, Electronic Keyboard, Organ, Classical and Acoustic Guitar, Drum Kit & Percussion, Strings, Woodwind and Jazz Woodwind.
Rock & Pop – Bass, Drums, Guitar, Keyboards & Vocals

Music Theory:

Theory of Music grades available, but no theory qualification is required in order to enter for any of the Trinity practical exams in music.

Backing Tracks (Rock & Pop): 

Cover versions of great songs but the arrangements can be a little sparse.

Roundup: 

Great range of styles and instruments, with flexibility to tailor exams around your strengths. Are you a classical musician who loves improvising? Then Trinity is for you. However, their website can be a little hard to navigate!

Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)

ABRSM Exam Website

Styles:

 Classical & Jazz

In Person or Online:

Both! Face-to-face option only for the Practical Exam. Remotely assessed video exams for Performance Grades can be booked in advance for the following month.

Overview:

Founded in 1889, ABRSM is a partnership between four Royal Schools of Music: Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Their traditional, practical exam focuses on ‘all-round musicianship’ which includes performance (three pieces), technical, notational and listening skills. Whereas their remotely-assessed performance grades have a different emphasis: the four pieces are marked on pitch, time, tone, shape and performance, with further marks for the performance as a whole. A student can switch between the two as they progress through their exams.

Instruments:

Classical – Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Recorder, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Saxophone, Horn, Trumpet/Cornet/Flugelhorn, Trombone, Bass Trombone, E flat Horn, Baritone and Euphonium, Tuba, Harp, Percussion (Combined), Snare Drum, Timpani, Tuned Percussion, Singing, Guitar, Organ, Harpsichord

Jazz – Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone, Trumpet/Cornet/Flugelhorn, Trombone. Ensemble options are also available

Music Theory:

 Grades 6-8 available as a written paper, but grades 1-5 have been moved online: Candidates are randomly assigned different sets of questions to ensure that the security of the exam is preserved. Different candidates will be allocated different sets of questions throughout the exam session so that each exam experience is unique to the candidate. They are also filmed for the duration of the exam via the webcam and exam software.

Try some example questions online for grades 1-5

Candidates for Practical and Performance Grades 6, 7 and 8 must have already passed either ABRSM Grade 5 (or above) in Music Theory or Practical Musicianship, or a practical grades solo jazz subject (e.g. Jazz Piano).

Backing Tracks (Rock & Pop): 

‘Practice Partner’ apps are available.

Roundup: 

Generally the most traditional approach, but it is tried and tested. High quality but more limited options. However, their Performance Grades (introduced in 2020) offer a different route and a potentially more accessible approach.

Rockschool (RSL)

Rockschool Exam Website

Styles:

Contemporary (and classical for piano)

In Person or Online:

Both! There are three options here: a recorded video exam, a live-streamed video exam (mainly held at centres, but possible to request individually if required) and face-to-face.

Overview:

Established in 1991, Rockschool had a dream to change the landscape of formal music education, and sought to become the first viable alternative to the traditional offerings available in Britain at the time. They’re geared towards popular music, with the addition of a classical piano offering.

The face-to-face Graded Exam involves three performance pieces (two of which can be free-choice), technical exercises and unseen supporting tests/general musicianship questions.

For their Video Exam, students can either apply for the Performance Certificate or Graded Certificate. For the Performance Certificate, five pieces are submitted – of which up to three can be free-choice pieces, including the student’s own composition, or songs in the public domain. For the Graded Certificate, three pieces are played (two of which can be free-choice) as well as the technical exercises.

Instruments:

Contemporary – Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Bass, Drums, Piano, Keyboard, Vocals, Ukulele, Music Production

Classical – Piano

Music Theory:

Popular Music Theory is offered in all grades, but there are no theory requirements for specific grades.

Backing Tracks (Rock & Pop): 

You can choose from Rockschool Originals or arrangements of popular songs. The cover songs generally won’t have the vocal part on the backing track which can make them a little less fun to play along to!

Roundup: 

Great contemporary offering with good flexibility with being able to include two own-choice pieces in the Graded Exam, or three in the Performance Certificate.

Music Teachers’ Board (MTB)

MTB Website

Styles:

Classical & Contemporary. If two or more of your student’s pieces contain jazz improvisation, the exam will be marked by a jazz specialist.

In Person or Online:

Online only. Exams are recorded in audio or video with MTB’s app, submitted online and marked by the examiner.

Overview:

In terms of exam boards, MTB are the new kid on the block. Continually expanding and gaining in popularity, all exams are taken through MTB’s app. They offer complete flexibility and exams can be taken at any time. Over the pandemic, MTB has rescued those whose face-to-face exams could no longer work with other boards: their Practical Grades, although online, still follow recital, technical and musicianship sections and accept pieces from other boards’ syllabuses. The online nature of MTB means that there’s no entering months in advance to accommodate exam periods or visiting examiner dates. This translates into the cost of the exams, so it can be a much cheaper option than the other boards.

MTB’s Practical Grades follow their syllabuses comprising a recital section (three pieces), a technical section and (in most cases) a musicianship section. These exams are effectively the online equivalent to the face-to-face graded exams offered by other boards, including the performance of pieces plus all the technical and musicianship elements you would expect to find in these.

MTB’s Performance Grades are all about presenting a recital program, which is recorded via video. The exam consists of a performance of four or five pieces with a ‘target duration’, with no technical or musicianship exercises required.

They have repertoire lists, but allow for ‘free-choice’ pieces with a guidance sheet for teachers and the option to submit the music beforehand to check it meets the grades’ criteria.

Instruments:

Contemporary – Singing, Guitar, Drums

Classical – Piano, Singing, Keyboard, Classical Guitar, Drums, Ukulele, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Bassoon, Recorder, Ocarina, Trumpet, Cornet, Eb Tenor Horn, French Horn, Trombone, Soprano Trombone, Euphonium & Baritone

Jazz:

If two or more of your student’s pieces contain jazz improvisation, the exam will be marked by a jazz specialist.

Backing Tracks (Contemporary): 

 Playing songs from the contemporary syllabus of MTB is tricky. Most of the song options are on third party sites, which either want you to sign up for subscriptions or use their app for reading the music. Most of the songs don’t have a way of playing with a backing track. Our best guess is that really they think you’ll choose to play contemporary songs from Trinity Rock & Pop and Rockschool syllabuses.

Roundup: 

Very exciting approach with the aim of removing any barriers to music exams. For classical exams, some have found MTB far easier to manage than ABRSM/Trinity throughout the pandemic, and well worth the (possibly temporary) switch to guarantee exams can take place in a comfortable environment for the students! However, in providing so much flexibility when using syllabuses from other boards, it can lead to more work for the teacher choosing, arranging or editing music.

London College of Music (LCM)

LCM Exam Website

Styles:

Classical, Jazz, Traditional Music, Pop & Contemporary

In Person or Online:

Both! There are online exams conducted in real-time, recorded video exams and face-to-face options available. If your face-to-face exam was postponed due to the pandemic, you can convert it to a digital one at no additional cost.

Overview:

Established in 1887, LCM is one of the longest-established exam boards for the creative arts in the UK and the only one that is part of a leading British university, the University of West London. It celebrates diversity in the creative arts.

The standard graded exam consists of a performance of three pieces (a wide selection available here!), technical work, sight reading, a discussion and aural tests. In addition, LCM also offers Recital Grades, where candidates can focus entirely, or predominantly, on performance. Here, candidates play four pieces, with the fifth option either being another piece, or sight reading, or discussion.

Their Leisure Play exam is a performance-only award available in all instruments. They offer the candidate the opportunity to explore jazz, pop or other contemporary styles.

Additionally, there is the Performance Award, which can be recorded and submitted via a recording at any time of year, however they serve as a ‘warm-up’ to their practical or recital exams, as they are not regulated and carry no UCAS points.

Instruments:

Contemporary – Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Bass, Drums, Piano, Keyboard, Vocals, Ukulele, Music Production

Classical – Piano

Music Theory:

Popular Music Theory is offered in all grades, but there are no theory requirements for specific grades.

Backing Tracks (Rock & Pop): 

You can choose from Rockschool Originals or arrangements of popular songs. The cover songs generally won’t have the vocal part on the backing track which can make them a little less fun to play along to!

Roundup: 

Great contemporary offering with good flexibility with being able to include two own-choice pieces in the Graded Exam, or three in the Performance Certificate.

Practical UK Music Exam Entry Fees*

(international pricing available on the exam boards’ website)
*Pricing correct as of May 2021

Alternative Boards 

Not all of these have exams recognised by Ofqual, but may be useful if our spotlighted exam boards haven’t catered for what you’re looking for:

  • Academy of South Indian Music
  • Independent Contemporary Music Awards (ICMA)
  • National College of Music
  • London Nationwide Music Exams
  • Registry of Guitar Tutors (RGT) which is part of LCM
  • Victoria College of Music

Your Choice

The pandemic has definitely prompted all our music boards to produce viable online offerings, with many adding to their practical exams with recorded performance grades. So it seems that finally, we’re witnessing some of the more traditional exam boards shifting into the modern age. The flexibility they offer is greatly welcomed, as we know that one size definitely doesn’t fit all!

Whether you’re after contemporary, classical or jazz grades, all these boards offer something a little different. Some lean towards more traditional academic rigour, some focus on performance and style, whereas others give you the option to tailor technical exercises, embrace composition and tests to your students’ strengths.

So what’s best for you? Consider how you and your pupil will cope with each style of exam. Whichever path you choose, there’s something here for everyone. We hope you discover or confirm the right choice for you.

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