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/
Many years ago (I’m not sure how many) the ABRSM syllabus used to have scales and exercises for singers, just as they do for instrumentalists. However, following feedback from teachers and students, the board decided to change this component to the “unaccompanied traditional song”. This segment of the exam, while it might seem easier than memorising scales, brings particular challenges as students do not have the support of the piano to keep them in tune and in time.
Choosing a song for this section can be a pleasure, but it can also be a nightmare! There has been a decline in traditional songs in schools and general culture, so many of our students have no knowledge of their own traditional songs, never mind those of other cultures. For this reason, investing in some good resources are essential for teachers.
Let’s look first at what kind of song is required. The ABRSM syllabus gives a very clear definition:
“A traditional song is deﬁned as a folk song originating among the native people of a region and forming part of their culture. The following genres are not suitable: hymns; national anthems; stylized folk song arrangements.”
The main sign a song is suitable is that there is no composer listed. Arrangements are more tricky as many publications have piano accompaniments added. However, the key test is really whether or not the song can be sung without the piano accompaniment and still sound complete in itself.
ABRSM published a very helpful article in Libretto magazine last year which gave ten key points to doing well in this section. I’ve added my own notes to this list:
- Excellent communication – choose a song with a story, or emotional journey to help candidates know what they’re
- Totally secure memory – this goes without saying really, but often these songs require more in terms of memorization as the tunes are repetitive and the songs are wordy.
- Overall pitch sustained with assurance – secure pitch without the piano should be something developed long before exams, but this can be more difficult for some singers than others.
- Accurately controlled intervals and intonation – songs can often have wide or unusual intervals, so it’s important to make sure you work on securing these early on.
- A well-chosen, comfortable key for the candidate’s voice. Ideally a singer will know this instinctively and not need a starting note from the piano – I did not know before this article that there were marks for not using the piano for starting a song, and it’s something I certainly hope to encourage my students to try! The songs can be sung in any key, so do try taking songs up and down in pitch.
- Effective tempo choice and inherent sense of rhythm – Reading the article has also illuminated to me the possibilities of using more rhythmic songs.
- Instinct and ability for story-telling – narrative songs are often a great choice as it makes it much easier to develop this aspect. Encourage singers to delve more deeply into the words of these songs and link them to their own experiences of story-telling (after all, these songs are often little more than playground gossip!)
- Facial involvement – a singer’s eyes are so important – this should be true for all the songs, but it can be easy to forget how important it is when singing unaccompanied
- Expressive use of colour and dynamics – dynamics are entirely controlled by the singer, and so it’s worth taking time to explicitly talk about when to use different volumes and textures
- Use of rubato where appropriate – same goes for slowing down at dramatic moments. Unaccompanied singing gives the candidate all the control, which is terrifying, but also fantastic for their development as a musician.
With young candidates, it can be good to use this part of the exam to help them connect with their own cultural music heritage. I love working with young Scottish singers and encouraging them to find folk songs they can sing in their natural accent. I’ve also encouraged candidates from Christian backgrounds to submit traditional spiritual songs which are part of their faith heritage. Older students can be encouraged to learn about new cultures, and musical traditions.
My final word of advice is not to leave traditional songs to the last minute! Traditional songs should form part of the diet of singing lessons throughout the year, not just at exam time. They act as fantastic as studies for technique. Many of them follow traditional harmonic rules and provide practical demonstrations of theoretical concepts like cadences. By selecting tunes from an international background, students can also explore alternative harmonies and scales such as pentatonic, whole tone and blues scales (all included in the Trinity theory books).
- Sing Together – A core text for beginners covering a good selection of British traditional songs
- ABRSM Songbooks – each has a selection of traditional songs in the back which provide good examples of the difficulty expected
- Songs of… (series) – A series of six volumes including one for each of the four nations of the UK, Christmas and the Americas.
- Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – Another big collection of folk songs
- IMSLP Petrucci Music Library – an online repository for out of copyright sheet music. You do need to be careful about the copyright dates as not everything on the site is out of copyright in the UK, but there are some 19th century folk song collections which are available for legal download.
- Beth’s Music Notes – a great blog with loads of folk songs from all sorts of cultures.
Now you’re all set with some repertoire, it’s time to submit for the exam and move on to looking at how to prepare your songs for performance in the exam.
–> Next post “Preparing for Performance”