Why examine an unaccompanied traditional song?
The unaccompanied traditional song is an important part of all our graded Singing exams. "ABRSM’s Singing exams used to include unaccompanied technical exercises," explains ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, John Holmes, "but there was a fairly common perception that these were a somewhat artificial and even unmusical requirement. So in 1986, ABRSM replaced them with the unaccompanied traditional song, which allows examiners to assess the elements of unaccompanied singing through a more natural genre.
"Most candidates and teachers clearly enjoy this part of the exam. Singing is a completely different discipline to all the other practical subjects. Singers have to continue to pitch and produce the notes from within, and also have to accommodate the challenging extra elements of language and meaning, as well as performing from memory. There’s nowhere to hide here for singers. No ‘my reed split’. No ‘my string broke’. And in this part of the exam, no piano for support."
How do you choose and prepare a song?
Heidi Pegler is an ABRSM examiner, singer, and teacher. She has also written and edited a number of books on singing. Heidi is well aware of the challenges singers face and believes some teachers and students leave it too late to start work on the traditional song and don’t take it seriously enough.
"I’ve heard students say 'it’s only the folk song', and this attitude needs to be changed quickly if that’s your student," she says. "The unaccompanied traditional song can tell the examiner quite a lot about a candidate. Do they, for example, have the confidence and maturity to perform a song completely by themselves, without accompaniment?"
"The choice of folk song is vital", Heidi emphasises. "I'd go for one that has an interesting story. This makes it easier for the student to identify with what’s going on and to develop character and dynamic changes. Think about the age and gender of your student, and also think carefully about keys. Minor keys can be problematic for some students, particularly if it’s a mode, so make sure they have a real inner sense of the key by singing the scale or mode before they learn the song."
"I also think very carefully about the vocal range. Some folk songs can span quite a distance – over a 12th – and this can be difficult to keep in tune. Be wary, also, of falling phrases that can go flat under pressure."
Other factors to be aware of include loss of overall pitch or interval accuracy, memory lapses and a lack of musical communication, which can all undermine musical success – as can the unsuitability of some song choices.
What standard is expected in the exam?
With around 32,000 Singing exams taking place every year, examiners hear a very wide range of traditional song choices. Eileen Field, an ABRSM examiner, has heard hymns, national anthems, early Italian arias and musical theatre numbers all performed under the guise of the unaccompanied traditional song, none of which meet the criteria for the exam.
The Singing syllabus provides guidance on what a traditional song is, and you can also look at compilations listed there for ideas. The song can be from any folk tradition and in any language, though a translation must be provided for the examiner if their chosen language isn't English.
How do you find out the standard expected for each grade?
The syllabus provides guidance on how long the song should last – apart from that, there's free choice. As the grade increases, a greater maturity is expected in the delivery of the song, e.g. in the use of rubato and more physical actions of storytelling. It's also possible to tackle more complex stories at the higher grades, such as death, war or unrequited love.
ABRSM believes that this part of the exam is less about the musical and technical content of the song and more about the singer’s ability to convey it effectively. "For the unaccompanied traditional song, there's a shift in the focus of assessment towards different skills", explains John. "The free choice provides flexibility for teachers and allows candidates to perform something they're comfortable with, and which can show off their abilities."
Whatever the grade, Eileen believes the singer’s job is to communicate the song "with sincere involvement in the text". "Singers might choose to adopt appropriate dialects, include folk song-style ornamentation, change pronouns or turn the body slightly to indicate which character is singing", she says.