Alex Laing reviews the Associated Board’s new violin examination works, from Grades 1 to 8
ABRSM Violin Exam Pieces from 2024
Violin part, piano accompaniment & audio
Initial Grade: £9.50
Grade 1: £17.50 Grade 2: £19.50
Grade 3: £21 Grade 4: £23
Grade 5: £28 Grade 6: £31
Grade 7: £33 Grade 8: £35
The ABRSM is to be congratulated. The 2024 violin syllabus displays new flexibility, inclusivity and engagement, while retaining the structures of assessment that teachers will be familiar with. Every book of exam pieces contains new repertoire, which may at first seem a bit scary for some teachers, but there are now expanded lists of alternatives – 39 pieces for each grade to choose from, 70 per cent of which have appeared in previous syllabuses. This gives pupils and teachers plenty of choice, enabling them to explore new or different styles, cultures and genres, while retaining the possibility of learning many old favourites if they prefer.
The syllabus is full of works by living and under-represented composers. It is particularly gratifying to find pieces included by alumni of the ABRSM’s fledgling composer mentoring programme, now in its second year. Lake of Ice by Shruthi Rajasekar (Grade 2) and Shanty for Ludwig by James B. Wilson (Grade 3) are both very approachable pieces with just enough difficulty for the level. The Shanty will surely inspire any young player to explore the source: the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.
There are many highlights in the new lists which should be explored. It was refreshing to discover several pieces with which I was unfamiliar, including two at Grade 4: The Deserted Garden by Florence Price, and The Legend of Ashitaka by Joe Hisaishi, which is in turn lyrical and well suited to the violin at this level, but also contains quintessential Japanese modes. It will make a great concert piece. I am pleased to be introduced to the sumptuous Allegretto non troppo by Mel Bonis, a Debussy contemporary, which has challenges in sound production and shifting at Grade 7 level. Included for Grade 8 is the wonderful Romance by Amy Beach which was dedicated to her friend Maud Powell, the celebrated violinist of the early 20th century.
With all this new repertoire, it is helpful that there are downloadable recordings available, including accompaniment-only versions, to aid pupils and teachers as they explore. These recordings are made by the partnerships of Ruth Rogers (violin) and Martin Cousin (piano) and Simon and Saoko Blendis (violin and piano respectively). These performances are generous and beautiful, while never going over the top in a way that might put off or intimidate some learners. It is good to hear where top performers choose differing fingerings or shifts from the printed page (a regular occurrence in these recordings) which allows pupils similar freedom, and I can’t help but smile when I hear world-class musicians performing the theme from The Flintstones (Grade 1).
The ABRSM has included helpful and engaging information and advice for each piece, either from the composer themselves or from one of the consultants. Philippa Bunting is particularly encouraging. She offers tips on what the young musician can focus on to make the performance most effective. It is pleasing to read here the focus on character of sound rather than mere accuracy.
There will always be debate on whether the ABRSM has correctly pitched the level of each piece for each specific grade. The lists continue to include sonata movements by Mozart and Beethoven, for example, that contain stylistic nuances well beyond the ‘Grade’, but every pupil has different strengths, and with these greatly expanded choices teachers and pupils will find plenty to suit each individual learner. It is important to note that the new Grade 1 level feels slightly harder now – there is a little more regular requirement to slur, to cross strings and to play C naturals. The Initial Grade feels a bit more like Grade 1 used to, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a Grade 1 staple until this year, would now surely find itself moved down to the lower grade. The Initial Grade Pack (there is a pack for viola too) is a new venture for this syllabus and contains everything in one volume (with the exception of aural tests): a violin part, piano accompaniment, scales (including A natural minor), sightreading examples and a link to the audio downloads.
The ABRSM has succeeded in producing a much more interesting and stimulating syllabus for violin. Might it be possible to produce something just as strong for the viola?