Tag Archives: classical style

ABRSM Exams Series – Choosing Repertoire 2: The Lists

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).

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

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.

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

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.

YouTube Playlists: 6 – 7 – 8

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.

YouTube Playlists: 6 – 7 – 8

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.

YouTube Playlists: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 56 – 7 – 8

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

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

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

[ Introduction ♦ Previous Post ]

Preparing for an ABRSM Singing Exam – A New Blog Post Series

ABRSM Mark SheetsABRSM classical singing exams are the most rigorous exams I prepare candidates for. Not only are students required to sing a song in a range of styles from a variety of periods, but they are also required to sing unaccompanied and pass supporting tests. Although the other boards do offer classical singing exams, ABRSM continues to have a better reputation, and the other syllabi do not offer anything that I think is substantially better than ABRSM. I have also taken the ABRSM exams myself, which makes it much easier to support my students through the process.

ABRSM Prep Test BookABRSM does not specify any minimum entry requirements for Grades 1-5, although I would be reluctant to put any child under late primary school in for formal singing exams. For young singers, ABRSM offers an unmarked Prep test, and a marked alternative is Trinity’s Initial grade.

To enter for Grades 6 to 8, candidates must have a Grade 5 theory qualification. Although this might seem arduous, it is vital that singers come to grips with the theory of music covered in this syllabus as it can be all too easy to miss out otherwise. As I have worked on my theoretical studies, I have found that it has made it easier to understand the music I am studying, which in turn has sped up the learning process. Rather than try to crash through theory after Grade 5, I include theory right from the very beginning so students can pass with confidence with the time comes.

Preparing for practical exams should be both a long, slow process and a fast, focused one. Singers have the privilege of the longest exam repertoire lists of any instrument, which means there is a huge range of songs to choose from. In fact, it’s quite hard to find repertoire for students that doesn’t appear on an exam list for ABRSM or one of the other boards! In this way, exam preparation is a long, slow process of singing different songs and exploring lots of repertoire before making the final decision on the exam content. Sight-reading and aural activities also form part of this long preparation period.

The fast, focused part of the process is the time spent during the exam session. I always try to have decided on the repertoire we (the Candidate and I) are presenting, by the closing date for submitting applications for the exams. Then we use the next six weeks to focus on these pieces and practicing sight-reading and aural tests in the exact form a candidate will meet them in the exam.   I don’t like to spend months and months, or even a year on exam pieces. It’s too easy to get bored, and it results in students becoming performing monkeys who can pass exams, but do nothing else. Being more focused for a shorter period of time is also much more like the real-life process of preparing for concerts, shows, or auditions which might only come with a few weeks’ notice!


ABRSM Exam Certificates

Of course, the most important question is: is it worth it? My answer is a resounding “yes!”. Exams make wonderful targets to work towards, and it’s really useful to get feedback from an independent person about how you’re doing.  It’s really nice to have a certificate which declares to all the world what you can achieve too.

The rest of this series will take you through the process of preparing the exam from choosing your repertoire, to those last minute tips to help you on the day of the exam. If you haven’t already got one, having a copy of the syllabus to hand will be useful as we explore preparing for these exams. The syllabus can be downloaded from the ABRSM website here.

Check back next week for part two of this series.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 1: Know Your Voice”