Ode to a melody

ABRSM has announced recently that it will be removing melody-writing from the Grade 5 theory paper. I’m worried.

My first encounter with ‘theory for theory’s sake’ was at the age of 10, when all of a sudden my piano lessons changed; instead of sitting at the piano, we spent several weeks sat at a table in Mrs May’s front room and wrote things down. I remember the front room being very dark, and the whole experience being very strange. I passed the Grade 5 theory exam [just] and things went back to normal, thank goodness ….

I now have a steady stream of Grade 5 theory pupils of my own! Some come utterly clueless, and it is a delight to be able to switch the lights on for them. For others, it’s a question of formalising many of the things which they already vaguely know, and teaching them how to approach the exam in a disciplined way.

I always cover the basics in order: circle of fifths, scales, intervals, transposition, triads. Once a student has mastered these, we’re nearly there – just a few bits and pieces to add, including time signatures, musical terms and clefs.

But so far, all of this stuff is just knowledge. It amazes me how little some students know, despite in some cases having had instrumental or singing lessons for several years; and it’s no wonder, if little or no theory has been referred to during lessons in that time, that the Grade 5 theory exam has such a bad name for itself – there is a lot to cover and it’s a sizeable mountain to climb. Many are asking the question: why, all of a sudden, am I being hauled through all of this, when it’s never been relevant to me before now?

It’s a very reasonable question. Once they are through the other side, of course, they can see exactly why it is relevant. Then the question is why was I never told any of this before now? Scales, for instance, are no longer a mystery. If you don’t understand how key signatures work, scales are a nightmare; twenty-nine seemingly random notes to remember for each [two octave] scale. My goodness, is it any wonder that to some, scales are a punishment? It doesn’t need to be this way!

I digress.

The very last thing which I teach in the Grade 5 syllabus is the melody-writing. At last, a chance to make a connection between theory and musicianship. A chance to demonstrate to the candidate that knowing all of this stuff is deeply relevant to their instrumental/singing studies. And this is the part of the exam which ABRSM is removing.

It’s a theory lesson – no instrument to hand – so we just have to use what we have: ears, voice, hands.

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“Ok, let’s sing the part of the melody we’ve been given.”

The response to this is generally something along the lines of I can’t or You have to be joking – but I’m not joking.

Let’s make it easier and just clap the rhythm. In the given example that might mean clapping just quavers initially, having first set the pulse, and then seeing whether the student can work out how the dotted quaver/semiquaver part works. And we even get to talk about 6/8 time, two beats in a bar! And then we sing: it doesn’t need to be great, just accurate enough to pitch the major third, the perfect fifth, and back down each note of the scale. This is such valuable teaching time, and often it is the first time that it dawns on a student that they can read and hear music without their instrument. It can take some working out of course, but even that is valuable learning – sight-singing is not something which you either can or can’t do, but a skill which has to be learned.

We also cover phrase structure, key and modulation, sequence, and dynamics, and how all of these elements combine to make a melody work well. It is always a joy to see the lights coming on as a student makes the connections between all of these things. 

A recent Telegraph article accuses ABRSM of dumbing down. For my part, I can’t see why removing the only truly musical part of the exam “brings musical education into the modern era.” It will just make it easier. It’s a slippery slope, and my worst fear is that having now taken this backward step ABRSM will consider following the lead of other boards by removing singing from the aural tests, using the same kind of criteria to justify their decisions. 

I await the new-look Grade 5 theory paper with trepidation. 

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