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/
ABRSM did a wise thing when they invented the lists. It might initially seem restrictive to have to pick from a list, but as I’ve already noted, there’s plenty of choice on each one for singers. In fact, rather than being restrictive, the ABRSM list system means students must pick songs from at least three different styles and periods.
Let’s take a closer look at the styles and periods. Where I’ve mentioned specific songs, I’ve linked to them on YouTube. At the end of each section, you can access my playlists on YouTube for each grade. The playlists aren’t always complete as not everything has been put on YouTube, and I’ve not done every grade list yet. If any of the links become defunct, please use the comments box to let me know so I can update them.
List A (all grades) – From Folk to Baroque
List A is the earliest list in terms of composition date. At Grade 1, it is dominated by folk songs such as “Golden Slumbers” and “The Miller of Dee”. Although folk songs are not necessarily hundreds of years old, they are usually unknown in terms of date, so fit into the idea of ‘early music’. By Grade 5, students are expected to manage simpler baroque arias such as Handel’s “Where ‘Ere You Walk”. Grade 5 candidates are also offered their first taste of Renaissance music with Arne’s “Where the Bee Sucks”. Handel, Haydn and Purcell are regulars on this list. Mozart and early classical composers also feature, straddling lists A and B. At Grade 8, candidates can choose Renaissance songs such as Dowland’s “Flow my Tears” or “Weep You No More Sad Fountains” , oratorio and mass settings such as Mozart’s “Agnus Dei” or operatic recitatives and arias like Purcell’s “Ah Belinda/When I am Laid”. For Grades 6 to 8, there is a general section, and then four sections for soprano, mezzosoprano/alto/countertenor, tenor, and baritone/bass.
List A songs tend to be quite word-y, in that the words are as important as the melody. Clear diction is important. The Baroque songs usually require a level of vocal agility in tackling the long runs of quavers on a single vowel, while the Renaissance songs often change time signature every bar. Many of these songs have the opportunity for students to learn about ornamentation (both written by the composer and added by the performer).
List B (Grades 1-5) – From Classical to Classic Art Songs
List B for Grades 1-5 covers simple repertoire from about 1750 to 1950 in date. The ABRSM have a bit of a love-affair going on with Brahms, and his songs feature heavily. High romantic songs (Faure etc) are notably absent, primarily because of their difficulty. They start to appear on the Grade 6-8 list B. Grade 1 offers songs such as Brahms “Die Nachtingall”, Schumann’s “Der Abenstern” or Lin Marsh’s “Seagull”. By Grade 5, the choice is a little more varied with Chopin’s “Smutna rzeka”, Finzi’s “Boy Johnny” and Copeland’s famous arrangement of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”. There is no requirement to sing any repertoire in a foreign language at Grades 1-5, even though much of the B list was not originally written in English.
Vocal music became more and more about the music and less about the words as it progressed into the 19th century, and so these songs often provide opportunities to show of breath control and depth of tone along with emotional communication.
List B (Grades 6-8) – The Foreign Language List
At Grades 6 to 8, list B is the mandatory foreign language list. While other songs may be sung in translation, list B must be sung in its original language. At Grade 6 high romantic music in the form of Faure makes an appearance with the likes of “En Priere“, and students can delve into German Lieder with Schubert’s “Stanchen”. By Grade 8, Faure is a stalwart appearance, joined by his contemporary Debussy’s “Beau Soir” and Verdi makes an appearance with “Perduta ho La Pace”.
The key to a good B list choice at higher grades is finding a language your student is comfortable singing in. Good pronunciation will be essential, as will communicating the meaning through tone and facial expression. Thankfully many of the songs on this list have strong emotional content making them easy to engage with as performances.
List C (Grades 6-8) – The Art Song List
I will freely admit to hating List C as a student, but then I love baroque music, opera and music theatre! List C for Grades 6-8 covers modern art songs. Several of Roger Quilter’s Shakespeare settings are on the lists like “How Should I Your True Love Know?” at Grade 6. Madeline Dring’s Shakespeare setting of “It was a Lover” features at Grade 8. Britten’s “When You’re Feeling Like Expressing Your Affection” features at Grade 6 and Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night” is on the Grade 8 list.
Modern art songs can be comic, emotional or pretty. All of them require confidence against more complex accompaniments which are often less helpful than those for the other lists. It can be quite a balancing act to get the emotional content across while maintaining good tone and technique.
List C (grades 1-5)/List D (grades 6-8) – The Musicals List
Well, strictly speaking, this isn’t exclusively a musicals list, but the vast majority of candidates choose from the musical theatre or opera choices. At Grade 1, the musicals choices include classics like “We’re Off to See the Wizard” (The Wizard of Oz) and “My Favourite Things” (The Sound of Music). There are also some lovely songs written for primary aged children that I’m keen to look into further, such as Jenkyns’ “The Crocodile” or Lin Marsh’s “Pirates!”. Grade 5 has gems like “Sunrise, Sunset” (Fiddler on the Roof) and “I Could Have Danced All Night” (My Fair Lady). By this level, Gilbert and Sullivan are also on the list (“The Policeman’s Song” and “When a Merry Maiden Marries”) expanding the genre into operetta. There are also still art songs such as Rowley’s setting of “From a Railway Carriage”. By Grade 8, the musicals content like “Adelaide’s Lament” (Guys and Dolls) is thinning out to make way for opera arias such as “The Dew Fairy’s Song” from Humperdink’s Hansel und Gretel or “O Columbina” from Leoncavello’s I Pagliacci.
This list has a great range of choices all the way through the grades, with a mixture of musicals, jazz standards, and art songs for early grades, and more opera arias later on. This list allows students the chance to show off different skills, like characterisation, accents and a greater depth of emotional communication. It can be a real joy choosing a song from this list as students are likely to have several songs they enjoy and can perform well.
Now you’re getting to grips with the accompanied repertoire, it’s time to choose an unaccompanied traditional song.
–> Next post “Choosing Repertoire 3: Unaccompanied Traditional Song”