Eight years since the last major refresh of the singing syllabus, and five years after the last update, ABRSM have been heavily promoting their new syllabus as a modern update for singing students.
Yes, it’s true to say it’s been refreshed. Unfortunately, it’s otherwise a disappointing update.
But, let’s start with the good stuff!
There’s More Musical Theatre
Loads more songs to choose from, many of which I found myself thinking “oh, this wasn’t on there already?”. Most of the additions are from older, more established shows, and Disney works, but they are good singable tunes.
More for Teenage Boys
I noticed they’ve included a selection of new songs from publications aimed at teenagers with changing voices. This is great news for encouraging singing among boys who could easily be put off during their teenage years.
Simplifying the Publications List
ABRSM have included a good number of songs from some new publications, and expanded the use of some others. I can see they are trying to reduce the burden on teachers and students when it comes to buying materials in general. I’m actually quite interested in buying one or two, like the Songs from the Far East collection.
A Few Bad Options are Gone
I’m glad that As Long As He Needs Me is no longer listed for Grade 2. It’s about domestic violence, so not really suitable for kids! I’m also pleased to see the back of Die Henne, but then I have a personal vendetta against that song!
Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more that I’m less impressed with…
Foreign Languages are Not Required.
The requirement to sing in a foreign language at grades 6 to 8 is no more. This is a bit odd as these are classical singing exams, and classical singing requires the ability to sing in multiple languages. I can only see this as a weak attempt to attract non-classical singers to the exams, even though there’s so many excellent options for other styles of music. Any teacher worth their salt will ignore this change and continue to insist on a foreign language.
Basses can Sing Soprano Arias
There’s two issues here. Firstly, they’ve removed the restriction on key changes for oratorio and opera. As above, this is a weird decision as it’s so contrary to professional practice. Alongside this, this type of song is no longer listed by voice type in the syllabus. All this does is make it harder for good teachers to wade through the material to work out what is right for their students, and encourages weaker teachers to choose inappropriate repertoire.
Money Making Publications
ABRSM are also publishing a new set of books for Grades 1-5. Funny that.
It’s Still OLD
Even though about a third to a quarter of the repertoire has changed, I still feel like this syllabus is built on out-dated ideas about what children sing, and it’s full of difficult folk songs and pop songs from the 20s, 30s and 40s. There’s very little contemporary music, and the music theatre offerings are still mostly mid-20th Century at best.
It’s still Illogical
It’s also very hard to see the logic of the syllabus. A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes is still on Grade 1, and I’d never teach it at that stage due to the huge leaps in it. Popular is on Grade 8 and I’d say it’s closer to 5 or 6. I still don’t know what musical skills students are supposed to develop from one level to the next, which makes assessing readiness for the exam difficult, and encourages rote-learning of songs.
No Change to Supporting Tests
The sight-singing still doesn’t reflect a logical progression for singers. They still organise it by key, rather than starting with pentatonic melodies and moving outwards. The Aural tests still duplicate the sight-singing test. The traditional song requirement also remains the same.
I wish ABRSM would take their singing programme apart and start over. I’d love to see them take a Kodaly approach, starting with pentatonic materials with strong accompanied support at Grade 1, and then develop more complex accompaniments and diatonic music through to Grade 5. I would also love to see more repertoire and publications to support adult learners at the lower grades. And for the love of music, please sort out the sight-singing tests. I’m fed up of having to teach to the test because it’s so badly constructed.
What are your thoughts about the new syllabus?