‘The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’ was founded in 1889 in response to a proposition by Sir Alexander MacKenzie, principal of the Royal Academy of Music, to Sir George Grove, director of the Royal College of Music, that their two pre-eminent musical training institutions unite to create an examining body ‘inspired by disinterested motives for the benefit of musical education... which would genuinely provide a stimulus and an objective for a high standard of achievement’.
The new body was designed to provide an impartial and authoritative alternative to privately owned examining institutions that were widely perceived to be motivated more powerfully by mercenary concerns than by ABRSM's desire to promote high standards of musical education and assessment.
The first Board
The first Board that governed under MacKenzie and Grove and the chairmanship of Lord Charles Bruce consisted of such luminaries as Sir Arthur Sullivan (a prolific composer most famous for his comic operatic collaborations with librettist W. S. Gilbert), Sir John Stainer, Sir Walter Parratt, Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry, a leading choral composer best known for his setting of William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) was an actively involved president and held annual meetings of the new examining body at his home, Marlborough House.
Sir Hubert Parry himself outlined the founding principles and aims of ABRSM: “For the most part the objects which approve themselves to us are not so much the award of well-deserved certificates… but to give people something definite to work for; to counteract the tendency to sipping and sampling which so often defeats the aspirations of gifted beings, and also to give people… opportunities to be intimately acquainted with the finest kinds of musical art, and to maintain standards of interpretation and an attitude of thoroughness in connection with music which will enable it to be most fruitful of good.”
An ambitious first syllabus for the inaugural exams of 1890 aimed at ‘a standard so high that the certificate granted may be regarded as a distinction worthy of attainment’, a founding premise that has been retained through all subsequent modifications of the assessment schemes.
The opening local centre examinations took place at forty-six centres in the United Kingdom and the two grades (named simply ‘Junior’ and ‘Senior’) were completed by no less than 1,141 candidates.
After the opening group of examinations demands were made for a syllabus which supported the needs of pupils younger than those capable of attempting the ‘Junior’ and ‘Senior’ grades after concerns were raised that bad habits formed at an early age could be impossible to eradicate by the time a pupil was able to undertake formal assessment. Two school divisions were immediately introduced (‘Lower’ and ‘Higher’) which were intended to precede the local centre split into ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’.
New school divisions and schemes
The school divisions were later extended downwards to incorporate ‘Elementary’ and ‘Primary’ and the category ‘Final’ was introduced as a new local centre division to precede the L.R.A.M, A.R.C.M. and L.R.S.M. professional diplomas (which were subsequently replaced or subsumed by the professional Diploma, Licentiate and Fellowship qualifications).
The aural scheme was introduced into local practical examinations in 1920 and the modern system of eight graded tiers was implemented in 1933. It was at this point that ‘The Associated Board’ became ‘The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’.
From the very beginning ABRSM had a duty imposed by the Charter of the Royal College to promote ‘the cultivation and dissemination of the art of Music in the United Kingdom and throughout the Dominions’. By 1892, the University of the Cape of Good Hope had invited ABRSM to conduct examinations in the Cape Colony.
By 1895, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were all receiving visits from ABRSM’s examiners. Examinations were introduced to Malta in 1903 and the West Indies in 1907. By 1948, ABRSM had Local Representatives in South Africa, India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malta, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Cyprus, Singapore and Kenya.
The examinations offered by ABRSM rapidly grew in popularity during the twentieth century. Annual entries numbered 30,000 by 1914 and its authority was extended to include the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in 1947. By this time, candidature had topped 100,000.
By 1981 ABRSM was examining in excess of 460,000 candidates a year in a wide variety of instruments.
New exams for jazz
In 1999 ABRSM launched a Jazz Piano and Ensembles syllabus and supplemented the new programme in 2003 with the introduction of flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and trombone assessments. Over 600,000 candidates now sit ABRSM exams each year in over 90 countries worldwide, including locations as diverse as Aruba, Oman and Sierra Leone.
ABRSM’s panel of examiners was originally drawn primarily from the teaching staff of the Royal Schools and from prominent members of public musical posts. The noted composers Sir George Dyson, Sir Arthur Somervell, Sir Frederick Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams all served as ABRSM examiners in the early twentieth century.
At a General Meeting of ABRSM in 1937, Sir Hugh Allen memorably described the somewhat demanding range of abilities needed to be a successful ABRSM examiner: “the technique, as far as I can see, of an Examiner of the Board would be compounded of a talent for simple arithmetic, an elastic vocabulary, a synthetic memory, a decent handwriting, an unwearied patience, a ready power of description, a gentle demeanour, a sense of justice, solicitude for the weak, a taste for logic, a golden voice and a bedside manner.”
The marking criteria that the examiners have needed to follow for graded examinations have remained remarkably consistent over the course of ABRSM’s history, as this quote from ABRSM’s 1948 history demonstrates:
“Candidates whose performances are found by the examiners to be up to standard receive certificates from the Board; above the level of a satisfactory “pass”, certificates of merit may be granted; and for really exceptional candidates, certificates of distinction. The Board does not, however, court popularity by multiplying awards and easy honours, and has consistently set its face against any award which might obscure the fact that a pupil in passing an examination has merely left behind one more milestone on the journey of musical progress.”