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Introducing ARSM – a new performance diploma

3 years ago


From January 2017 anyone who has passed a Grade 8 Practical exam will be able to take our new performance diploma – the Associate of the Royal Schools of Music. John Holmes, our Chief Examiner, outlines what’s involved.


The Associate of the Royal Schools of Music – or ARSM – is our exciting new performance-only diploma. We’ve designed it to provide an opportunity for musicians to develop and demonstrate their performance skills after Grade 8, and gain recognition for their achievement.

Preparing for and taking the ARSM can give purpose and direction to post-Grade 8 learning, with the added benefit of feedback from an ABRSM examiner. It can also help to build confidence and develop skills such as personal commitment, self-discipline and motivation.

All of this makes ARSM a great option for a wide range of musicians – for students who want to develop their performance skills before taking their education further, for those who want to get back into playing or singing after a break, or for anyone looking for a new challenge beyond Grade 8.

How does ARSM compare to Grade 8 and DipABRSM?

In many ways, this new diploma bridges the gap between Grade 8 Practical and our DipABRSM in Music Performance – in fact you need to pass Grade 8 before you can enter for ARSM. Some aspects of ARSM are similar to Grade 8 and some are similar to the DipABRSM, but ARSM is also distinctly different from both of these existing qualifications. Let’s take a look at the differences.

Unlike Grade 8 there are no supporting tests in the ARSM exam – no sight-reading, aural tests or scales. Whereas candidates taking the DipABRSM in Performance need to write programme notes, take part in a viva voce and do a quick study test, ARSM has no written or spoken elements. It is unique in focussing solely on practical performing skills.

At Grade 8, candidates usually play or sing for around 15 minutes, choosing music from three or four set repertoire lists. The examiner assesses each piece or song independently of the others, with no requirement for these works to combine into a programme, or to form an overall performance. This is reflected in the marking for Grade 8, as at earlier grades, where the examiner gives a separate mark for each piece or song.

John Holmes and a violinist

The step up to ARSM

For ARSM, candidates present a 30-minute programme of music from a much wider choice of repertoire. At least 20 minutes must come from the ARSM list (which is currently the same as the DipABRSM list), with the option for the remaining 10 minutes to be own-choice repertoire, as long as this is of at least Grade 8 standard. This means there is considerably more flexibility and freedom in putting together an ARSM programme than there is in choosing music for Grade 8, and the programme will be assessed as a whole, which reflects a different approach.

Another way of thinking about this is that in a graded music exam, the examiner assesses core music-making skills through the various separate sections of the exam. However, at ARSM level, candidates will need to pull together their musical skill, knowledge and understanding, demonstrating these through their half-hour performance – a performance which will be assessed holistically.

How will examiners mark an ARSM exam?

In an ARSM exam, marks are awarded in two parts. First, the examiner marks the pieces or songs out of 30 using our existing graded music exam marking criteria – writing comments, piece by piece, as the performance takes place. A single mark out of 30 is awarded for the playing or singing of all the chosen works in a candidate’s programme.

Once the candidate has finished playing or singing, the examiner goes on to assess their performance as a whole. This is marked out of 20, using a second set of criteria devised especially for ARSM. Finally, the examiner combines these two marks – one out of 30 and one out of 20 – to provide an overall result out of 50.

The second set of marking criteria

In this two-part approach to marking, a well-established and familiar set of marking criteria applies to over half the total marks awarded. For the remaining marks, the examiner steps back from the playing or singing of each musical work to consider the performance as a whole. This is where the second set of marking criteria is used.

The new criteria relate to three aspects of performance: musical communication, interpretation and technical delivery. Here’s a summary of what the examiner will be looking for in each of these areas.

Communication – you and your listener
  • Consistent outward projection and musical involvement
  • Performance commitment and personal conviction
  • Effective sequence and pacing of the chosen programme
  • Performance awareness and control throughout the programme
Interpretation – you and your music
  • Stylistic realisation and characterisation across the programme
  • Ability to meet the interpretative demands of the chosen music
  • Awareness and control of textures and ensemble
  • Effective blending and balancing
Technical delivery – you and your instrument
  • Consistent technical assurance and control
  • Ability to meet the technical challenges of the chosen music
  • Sustained instrument/voice management throughout the programme
  • Responsiveness and adaptiveness to the performance situation

What makes a good performance?

The new set of marking criteria gives a clear indication of what candidates should aim for in terms of their overall performance.

They need to:

  • show consistency in their musical communication, interpretation and delivery
  • sustain confidence and control throughout the various demands of their programme
  • demonstrate their individual musical strengths and enthusiasms
  • show their musical skill, knowledge and understanding, allied to personal commitment and conviction.

The importance of the performance as a whole

You can see from the way ARSM will be assessed that the evaluation of the performance as a whole is a very important aspect of this diploma. Candidates need to choose a programme of music which really suits their abilities, understanding and personality. They then need to be able to play or sing for half an hour, sustaining concentration, stamina and awareness consistently from start to finish.

In graded exams this is not something candidates need to think about, as the pieces or songs are all chosen from set repertoire lists, can be presented in any order and are not assessed in combination with each other. In contrast, for ARSM, candidates will put together a chosen programme of music and perform it, adapting and responding to the live performance situation as it unfolds.

ARSM pianist

Accessible, challenging and rewarding

So, ARSM provides an accessible first diploma. It gives candidates the opportunity – perhaps for the first time – to devise, put together and perform their own programme of music, and helps to bridge the gap between Grade 8 and DipABRSM. Passing this diploma will be a significant achievement and, as a result, successful candidates can add the letters ARSM after their name.

By preparing to meet the challenges of a complete 30-minute performance, candidates will not only develop their technical assurance and instrumental control, but also their musical communication skills. It’s about both the art and the craft of musical performance. With its focus on creating and performing a sustained programme of music, ARSM provides an achievable and meaningful performance goal for anyone looking for a fresh challenge beyond Grade 8.

ARSM in brief

What is it?

The Associate of the Royal Schools of Music (ARSM) is our new performance-only diploma. It’s an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate performance skills after Grade 8, and successful candidates can add the letters ARSM after their name.

Who can take it?

It’s for all instruments examined by ABRSM, including singing, and can be taken in all ABRSM practical exam venues worldwide. Candidates must have ABRSM Practical Grade 8 or a listed alternative before entering.

What happens in the exam?

Candidates present a 30-minute performance. At least 20 minutes of music is chosen from the ARSM repertoire list – the same list set for DipABRSM. Up to 10 minutes of music can be own-choice repertoire, of at least Grade 8 standard. There are no written or spoken elements, and no sight-reading, aural tests or scales.

When can I take it?

The first ARSM exams will take place from January 2017, alongside current Practical exams.

This article was originally featured in the September 2016 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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