17 July 2011

Choosing a Balanced Diploma Programme

A singer wishing to do a Fellowship recital complained to me during a recent teachers’ meeting that she could not find a suitable programme which would fit the requirements of the diploma.  She mentioned a vast number of assorted songs and extracts from oratorios, operas and musicals and asked whether the balance was right.  My immediate reaction was that, if at this level of performance she was still rooting around for a style and genre which best suited her voice, she was playing well above her level; a fellowship diploma is the ultimate before stepping out on to the professional stage and by that point you surely must have established some focus on performance niche.  Useful as it is in the early stages of training to cast the net wide to see where your voice and musical personality were the most comfortable, by this point that work should have been done and dusted. When, however, I suggested that she might focus on a genre which suited her and build a programme around that, she was aghast.  “But”, she wailed, “I have to present a balanced and varied programme”. 
And there we have the problem.  So indoctrinated have students become by the obsession of both teachers and the ABRSM to pigeon-hole music into historical periods that they can’t perceive musical variety in any other way. For too many of them a “balanced and varied” programme MUST contain Baroque, Classical, Romantic and what they quaintly call “Modern” (that last named period includes Elgar, by the way, so that’s how relevant it is to reality).  For a singer, no programme is complete unless it contains fragments of cantata, lieder, opera, operetta, musical, English song, French song, folk song, and so on; the vocal equivalents, if you like, to the historical periods which are the bêtes noirs of pianists and others. 
A balanced and varied programme encompasses a whole range of concepts, historical period being the least significant.  Give us a programme of Fugues in C minor by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rheinberger, Healy Willan and Hans Gal and you cover the gamut of historical periods without ever presenting musical variety.  Similarly, a vocal recital of Stradella, Purcell, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, Wolf, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Britten, Warlock, Finzi, Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Berlioz, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Uncle Tom Cobley and all presents such a mind-boggling variety that one suspects neither the singer nor the audience can ever get to grips with what’s being offered.
This obsession with historical period is positively encouraged by the practice the ABRSM has of listing its repertoire in graded music exams that way.  In the current Grade 8 piano syllabus, for example, you HAVE to play, if not a piece of genuine Baroque music, then a piece of pseudo-Baroque (including that most unpianistic of genres, a Fugue) as well as something Classical.  You can get away with avoiding the Romantic era provided you head down the soft jazz route, but your choices are limited.  Certainly there is some educational (if not musical) logic in forcing students to cover the principal eras of musical history, that way they can develop a broad-based repertoire, but I'm not sure one can argue that case beyond grade 5. 
There again, is it the job of examination boards to provide teachers with a curriculum, or is it their job to assess the curriculum the teachers themselves have planned?  ABRSM thinks so, Trinity takes a different approach.  A comment I regularly trot out at teachers’ meetings I give to Trinity teachers or to those in the field of music education who want to know what are the basic differences between the Boards, is that Trinity exams are aimed at the good teachers, while ABRSM aims at the bad ones.  A joke, of course, and I am careful always to let the audience know that I do mean it as a joke,  but it’s got more than a grain of truth in it for, while ABRSM helps the teacher by providing a rough curriculum, Trinity assumes that the teacher has already done this. 
However, once you move from the area of graded music exams to that of diplomas - where it is assumed you are seriously considering a musical career – the two Boards are in full agreement.  By this stage students must have developed their own likes and dislikes, their own feelings of sympathy or antipathy to various composers and musical styles, and to continue to force them to cover historical periods in their repertoire is seriously wrong.  For ABRSM diplomas students are expected to devise a "balanced recital programme", while Trinity specifies "your chosen programme must display a range of moods, styles and tempi".  Note that they do not demand a mixed bag of historical periods and, in singing, neither Board demands a mixed bag of musical styles.  True, Trinity list so many songs that they put them into stylistic groups, but there is no expectation that songs from each group are chosen (despite the weird and contentious assertion that "Most programmes will include music from both the operatic and lieder traditions to ensure a balanced and varied programme"). So if you are planning a diploma programme with an eye to historical periods or as wide a range of musical styles as possible, you are clearly heading for trouble.
In places where, as in Hong Kong, students traditionally do their grades with ABRSM and then jump to Trinity for their diplomas, they carry with them the ABRSM grade ethic, with the result that, rather than present the examiner with their strengths, they attempt to show off their ability (or lack of) to handle a wider range of musical styles and historical periods than they will ever have to do in real life as solo musicians.  Consequently, they are also displaying their weaknesses by playing in diplomas music which they find distasteful , difficult to grasp intellectually and to which they are stylistically unsympathetic.  Result; failure. 
Recently I heard three piano diplomas in two different cities and where the students were obviously taught by different teachers.  Yet their programmes were identical.  This might seem amazing - after all, the piano repertoire is vast and for three pianists to play the same programme would seem an incredible coincidence - but the programme choice was obviously driven by their conviction that they had to choose music from across historical periods.
And what was that programme?  Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp Minor, Brahms Intermezzo in G minor, Debussy General Levine- Eccentric.  One notes, of course, that, far from being a broad spectrum of historical styles, the vast bulk of that programme belongs to the “Romantic” era.  But that strange belief that the Romantic era stopped on 31st December 1899 means that Debussy is a “modern”, while, for all his romantic inclinations, Beethoven lived in years which, according to the regimented list of musical periods, obliged him to be “Classical”, makes the poor candidates believe they are being “varied” in their programme. Note, too, the propensity of minor tonality, but what does that matter when the historical periods provide variety?  And note the astonishing stylistic similarity of the Brahms and the Chopin. Chopin may be “early” Romantic, while Brahms is “Late”, but there is no significant stylistic difference between these two pieces.
The first reaction of any examiner when seeing a programme like that is tired resignation.  “Oh no, not again. Has this candidate given any thought at all to the programme?”  And it’s an uphill struggle for the candidate to convince the examiner that he has something special to say about the programme.  A simple thing like putting some thought into ordering the programme would help phenomenally.  Why begin with the Bach?  Why end with the Debussy?  Why juxtapose the Chopin and the Brahms?  Every one of those decisions has been wrong.  A good recital begins with something light to help settle the player and to get the taste buds of the audience flowing.  A good recital ends with something upbeat to send the audience away happy.  Performing pieces in strictly chronological sequence never makes any musical sense. 
So what should my singer have done, and how should students set about planning their diploma recital? 
Firstly, never attempt a diploma unless you have under your belt a very large repertoire.  If you've devoted your musical training to learning just the 24 pieces demanded by doing one grade exam every year, give up music- you don't stand a hope of progressing any further.  Certainly you should have a thorough knowledge not only of all the major composers for your instrument, but also of a host of minor ones too.  Secondly, you should look for a single major work to serve as the centrepiece of your recital; a sonata, a set of variations, a concerto, a song-cycle, etc.  Then find pieces you like to perform to fill it up to the required time.  A common problem is choosing music which goes on too long or doesn't last long enough.  I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked whether incorporating or missing out repeats in order to force the programme into the required length is permissible.  If you have that worry, forget the piece and choose something else.  If you've got a broad enough repertoire, none of this will present any problem.

To devise an interesting, balanced and varied programme is easy; what a shame so many students don't realise it.


  1. These days demand of high school diploma is increasing. Every student wants to do high school diploma for good universities and institutes. I am also searching for a good university in Florida. Anyone have any idea about this.

  2. Dr Marc
    You present a reasoned and refreshing argument on a subject that may have vexed students and teachers alike. It begs a further question: do you feel that your view is also that prevailing among examiners of either or both boards, or  is there a range of opinions ? If a candidate has selected an interesting programme that plays to his or her particular strengths (lets say presenting a varied range of works from a particular period), are there examiners out there who may mark them down simply for failing to demonstrate a capability to perform works from other periods ?

    Though I stray from the topic of your blog posting, I`d be interested to read your experience on another topic - that of variances in the marking styles between examiners. Over the years, I have often heard comments from friends and relatives who teach (and occasionally overhear exams through inadequately insulated walls), that their mediocre student who gave a below par performance got an inexplicable merit, or their star pupil of that term who played well, got a surprisingly low pass. From your wide experience, and allowing for the best efforts of the exam boards to standardise, if a large number of examiners were in the same room, listening to the same candidate perform their pieces, scales, sight reading and aural tests, how much room for variation in marks do you think there might be ? And why ?   

    Dr Peter

  3. Dr Peter. You open a can of worms I've often addressed in public meetings and private conversations, but never laid out my thoughts on paper. I'll post up a fulsome response in the next few days. Thanks for your support!

  4. Dr Mark - Wow! I have been searching on this topic and not had much luck until I found this. I have decided to work towards my LTCL and DipABRSM with the intention of sitting LTCL within the next couple of years. I sat ATCL and grade 8 royal about 15 years ago before doing a Mus.B (in composition not performance) and since then have been HOD Music at a high school. For the last 5 years I have been at home with 3 preschoolers. I play in an amateur local orchestra which I enjoy but I find myself really keen to have something to work towards and getting these 'L' diplomas was always a goal. Also, I am just enjoying playing again - and playing challenging music!!
    My dilemma is that I can not afford lessons so I am preparing myself. Something I feel somewhat confident about. I imagine I will fork out for some lessons closer to the time of examination, but I'm a little nervous choosing the programme. I cannot help be swayed by music I want to play hence my delight in reading this blog! I never played impressionist music but really want to now. That I've never had any instruction concerns me. I also like the idea of playing some of the more contemporary pieces out of the Spectrum book as I was given it for a birthday once and I like the pieces. Anyway... this is dragging on, sorry, would you mind giving me your opinion of the following pieces I am thinking of? These are the pieces I'd like to choose from - balanced enough? What do you think?...

    Beethoven sonata in Ab op.23
    Rachmaninov prelude in G# op.32 no.12
    Szymonowski Etude no.3 from 4 Etudes, Op.4
    Gershwin 'The Man I Love' and 'I Got Rhythm'
    Edwin Roxburgh 'Moonscape'

    Szymonowski Etude nos.2 & 3 from 4 Etudes, Op.4
    Debussy 'Refletsdansl'eau'
    Mozart sonata in D K576
    Chopin Nocturne in F op.15 no.2
    Bach Partita no.5 in G BWV 829

    Bach Partita no.5 in G BWV 829
    Debussy 'Refletsdansl'eau'
    Mozart sonata in D K576
    Michael Finnissy 'Yvaropera 5'

    You'll notice there are some double ups as I kind of want to do this all at once. Don't have loads of time with 3 preschoolers! Also, do you think I need some Baroque for the dipABRSM? I hope I'm not being cheeky asking for your help!

    Yours, Victoria

  5. I have been looking through your blog files - Is that what they're called? Anyway, great reading and I enjoy your style. Will keep reading. Sorry for spelling your name wrongly in the post above Dr Marc! I'm sure you'll forgive me :)

  6. " musical training to learning just the 24 pieces demanded by doing one grade exam every year, give up music- you don't stand a hope of progressing any further." This line is perfect! In fact, I 'm living in the place those parents are asking for....... something this!

    I'm really this blog! Thank you so much!