ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 1: Know Your Voice

NB: While reading this series, it can be helpful to keep a copy of the ABRSM Singing syllabus to hand. The syllabus can be downloaded here http://gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/singing/

A Stack of BooksFacing the list of song choices for an ABRSM singing exam can be daunting. For most other instruments there are between 6 and 10 choices per list. Several popular instruments even have their own book published with three pieces from each list in, making it very simple to choose. In contrast, Grade 1 singing has 22 pieces in list A, 21 for list B and 31 for list C. By Grade 8 this has grown to 53 choices for list A, 43 on list B, 45 on list C and 46 on list D!

There is one very important reason for all this choice, and it’s the thing which is most important to remember when deciding on repertoire – no two voices are the same. There are a mixture of male, female and non-gendered songs right from Grade 1, and from Grade 6 some songs are listed with specific voice types.

The key questions I use for choosing repertoire for AB exams are more or less the same as the ones I use for choosing my own concert repertoire:

  • What is the vocal range? Can my student hit every note required with confidence?  – Note that many of the songs on the AB lists are published in several keys. I tend not to do my own transpositions as it’s rarely necessary. However, the syllabus says “all items may be sung by any voice and in any key, published or transposed, suited to the compass of the candidate’s voice, except for those items from operas, operettas, oratorios, cantatas and sacred works in Grades 6–8 (Lists A and D) where a particular voice and key are specified (although original pitch may be adopted in Baroque pieces, if appropriate)”.
  • Where is my student’s vocal strength? – It’s no good to give a student who struggles to hold pitch in their upper registers a song which is almost entirely at a high pitch. Songs should reflect the best qualities of a student’s voice.
  • Does my student struggle with any techniques? Are there technical things they are really good at? – Young students may struggle to sustain long phrases as their lungs are small. Other students might have a knack for crisp articulation, or maintain really good tone on long notes.
  • For foreign languages: does my student already know a little German / French / Italian / Spanish / Icelandic? – Knowing a little of the language can really help a student understand and engage with foreign language pronunciation, as well as with communicating meaning.
  • How old is my student? How good at conveying emotional content are they? – ABRSM exams don’t have the acting component that Music Theatre exams do, but it is important to bear in mind that some songs may not be appropriate to give a young singer. Singers who are particularly good at conveying emotion should be directed to a song which can show off their talents.

I also have two more non-musical considerations:

  • Can you get hold of the music? – There’s an anthology of Icelandic Art Songs, for example, that is on several lists, but I can’t find anywhere to buy it from except the publishers’ website which is in Icelandic. If you can’t get a legal copy of the music, you can’t sing the song in the exam. Period.
  • Is it an overdone song? – Watch out for songs which appear in a lot of anthologies, especially the graded ones. Examiners will have heard these more often than repertoire which is only “published separately”. Watch out for really well known songs too. I’m sure it’s just a legend, but I’m convinced that it helps to offer a programme containing less popular songs!

These questions will start to narrow down the lists, but there’s no substitute for listening to as many songs as possible and singing at least a few from each list. YouTube has recordings of the vast majority of songs and is invaluable for making a first pass through. I try to maintain playlists with as many of the songs as I can find over at my YouTube page.

Ultimately, I do find that as much gut instinct as analysis goes into selecting songs for exams. With my younger students, I usually choose a list myself, but with older ones it can be a great journey to go on together to listen, sample, try out and choose a programme both of you love.

Join me again next week for a look at the types of music which can be found on each list.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 2: The Lists

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