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Teaching UK Examination Options

Introduction

Grade exams are a good way of measuring progress. They prescribe pieces, scales and studies, and once you're competent at one grade you can move onto the next. However, this structure can be restrictive. There will be a set of pieces prescribed at each grade, and these pieces might not be those that you want to play. It is possible to progress just as quickly without the exam structure, either through self-tutoring, individual tuition or workshop tuition. This will allow you to play what you want, but without a teacher it can be difficult to tell at what standard you are playing and how quickly you are progressing.

A useful measure of your current standard and your progress is to download a grade syllabus from one of the exam boards, and check yourself against their criteria. If you can be honest with yourself, you don't need to take the actual exams.

Exam boards

Ofqual is the UK exams watchdog, which ensures that at a given level of the National Qualification Framework, one board's exams match the standards of any other. There are currently four music exam boards accredited by Ofqual:
  • The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)
  • Trinity Guildhall (TCL)
  • Rockschool (RSL)
  • London College of Music (LCM)

Rockschool don't cover the saxophone, so I needn't talk about them any further in this article. ABRSM covers up to grade 5 in jazz. Beyond that, you're limited to classical.

Trinity Guildhall and London College of Music cover saxophone music outside the classical genre up to diploma standard, making them good choices for measuring your progress on the saxophone.

I've found that Trinity Guildhall are a good choice for grade exams, and London College of Music for diploma exams. The reasons for this are explained in the rest of this article.

Grade Exams

Both TCL and LCM allow backing tracks to be used for grade exams, saving you the expense of booking an accompanist or band. It also means that you'll be performing to the same backing as you've practised to.

In addition, TCL allows a technical study to be played instead of scales and arpeggios. This gives the advantage of knowing what you'll be asked to play, meaning that you can practise playing it well. James Rae's book "Jazz Scale Studies" provides the material for this.

The final factor in TCL's favour is the lack of a requirement for grade 5 theory for all grades. LCM has a grade 5 theory pass as a prerequisite for grade 8.

Theory
The ABRSM grade 5 theory exam is commonly taken, and the ABRSM has good supporting literature. If you absorb their recommended books and test yourself with their past papers, you should be all right.

Diplomas

Beyond grade 8 come the diplomas. These are graded according to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF):
  • Level 4: Equivalent of the standard expected after one year of undergraduate study
  • Level 5: Equivalent of the standard expected after two years of undergraduate study
  • Level 6: Equivalent of the standard expected after the final year of undergraduate study
  • Level 7: Postgraduate level

The diploma exams are given the following names (in ascending order of difficulty):
  • Diploma
  • Associate
  • Licentiate
  • Fellow

The matching of these qualifications to NQF levels differs from board to board:
  • Level 4: DipLCM, DipABRSM, DipRSL, ATCL
  • Level 5: ALCM
  • Level 6: LLCM, LRSM, LRSL, LTCL
  • Level 7: FLCM, FRSM, FTCL

I got these NQF levels from their respective exam boards' syllabuses. They show that an Associate qualification from Trinity is equivalent to a Diploma in the other boards.

If you want a saxophone diploma outside the classical genre, you once again have the choice between London College of Music and Trinity Guildhall. (I'm not including teaching diplomas in this article.)

The TCL classical diploma is called a Recital Diploma, while their other genres are covered by their Pro Music Performance Diploma. LCM's diplomas are called Performance Diplomas, and are available for classical or jazz saxophone.

TCL again has the advantage that there is no grade 5 theory prerequisite. However, live accompaniment is required for their diploma performances. LCM allows backing tracks. The structure of the two boards' exams is as follows:

LCM:
  • Performance of pieces
  • Scales (not needed for DipLCM)
  • Sight reading
  • Viva Voce

TCL:

Submitted Work
  • Submitted video of live group / duo performance
  • Written report on preparation for performance, including copies of original promotional literature
  • Written report of observation of other performers
  • Essay describing the contribution of the saxophone to the performance of three different styles of music
Practical exam:
  • Rehearsal skills
  • Performance
  • Viva Voce

Diplomas Conclusion
The TCL diplomas focus on live performance. This is good, but needs time from other high-standard musicians to rehearse for and perform at your exam. The LCM diplomas allow backing tracks, which cuts the organisation involved in preparing for and performing the diploma.

What you don't learn from exams

The great thing about jazz is that you can turn up to a gig with a set of musicians you've never met before, get given a piece of music and put on a performance that the audience enjoy. You can take solos, add backings and do a big finish, all without a rehearsal. This is achieved by listening to each other and by communicating within the band. Exams don't teach you how to do this. You get this vital skill from group playing. Workshops, evening or weekend classes and summer schools will cover this. You will learn the most by getting out and performing at every opportunity, more so if you perform with musicians of a more advanced standard than your own. Big bands will improve your reading, jazz combos your improvisational skills. Practice the stuff you can't do, but in a performance take a step back and show the audience what you can do. Don't forget to set practice time aside for enjoying the music. It's what it's all about.
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Very useful, thank you
Great article indeed
Useful comparison of examination boards and very pertinent comments on examinations versus actual experience playing.
Really useful explanation thank you
Thanks, this is very useful!
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