Shakeout at ABRSM

Shakeout at ABRSM


norman lebrecht

February 20, 2022

The chief examiner of the exam board of the Royal Schools of Music, active in 93 countries, is stepping down after 12 years.

John Holmes has given no reason for his decision but the past few years have been beset with much turbulence.

A statement says: ‘John has led the examiner community through important developments, including the greater involvement of more examiners in examiner support and CPD; the formulation of assessment criteria across different exam types and the move from on-paper examining to Marcato, our digital tool for examiners. He has brought passion, energy and brilliant presentation skills to the role and a real focus on trying to make both the exams and the examining the best they can be.

‘We now have an opportunity to put in place plans that achieve continuity and that build strongly upon John’s legacy after his many years in post.’




  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    “Shakeout” is a rather dramatic heading for somebody who is just leaving

  • David says:

    As someone who was brought up via the ABRSM exam system, I have put many children and adults in for exams from grade1 to 8. I have enjoyed seeing the arrival of a jazz syllabus but sadly only developed as far as grade 5. My main issues are two-fold. The simplification of technical requirements (scales, arpeggios etc) have been made more simple over the last few years. Compared with the requirements of grade 1971, there is a huge difference.
    My second complaint is the cost of exams. To suggest that grade 1 is twelve minutes in duration, for the excessive price they cost, I find that makes the whole of the lower grades elitist, but a cash cow for the board.
    I am on the pont of taking retirement and am fortunate to be in the happy position of zero exam candidates. I am these days embarrassed by costs and simplification.
    I wish the board well. But I’m so glad to be leaving their exam system.

    • AndrewB says:

      I have tended not to use ABRSM for some of the reasons you have stated, despite having been ‘raised’ in it. If the pieces suited a student best or they absolutely wanted to follow that board I would naturally prepare them for the exam.
      The fact is there are other boards which provide alternatives which may be more suited to the student’s needs and as with any arts examination context it is important that choices put the student on their ‘best day.’
      Also like yourself I am concerned by the entry fees and the possibility that some students and parents may not be able to afford to participate in addition to paying for the necessary regular lessons, instruments, musical scores etc
      We are now in a situation where bills have risen dramatically for many families and they have to make decisions about financial priorities.
      The team at ABRSM – Examiners , Administrators are dedicated to music education I know. Perhaps it is time to look into the structure and pricing of the exam system in relation to what is happening currently. I wish them well with that.

  • Liz says:

    I’m sorry there’s been much deterioration of standards in all aspects of the abrsm in the past 5 years.

    • Una says:

      Yes, I trained as an examiner but resigned not just over the cost of the exams but the lower standards, particularly for singing. As a teacher, I would never put anyone through all the grades, one after the other. Too restricting and much emphasis put on passing exams. They should be simply incidental.

      • SVM says:

        And the way the ABRSM has dumbed-down grades 1-5 Theory is unforgivable. First, in 2018, they got rid of the creative element (writing a melody/rhythm), and then (in 2020) they turned it permanently into an online multiple-choice examination, thus totally neglecting the vital importance of writing things out. Since that last change, I have discouraged my pupils from going for those Theory grades, and instead tried to get them to study for the far more rigorous Practical Musicianship grades (grade 5 Practical Musicianship is accepted as an alternative to the “grade 5 Theory” prerequisite), which cultivate genuinely useful musical skills that are very much needed.

        But I wonder whether John Holmes is really to blame? Several years ago, I recall listening to his substantial podcast on “becoming an examiner” (I was thinking of applying to become one, but never got round to it, for various reasons) in which he said that he felt handwriting to be an important skill for an examiner, which implies that it might not have been his initiative to replace handwritten reports with tablets (which prevent the examiner from writing-out musical rhythms/notes in the comments). And I note that the ABRSM is advertising for a “Music Director” who reports to the Deputy Chief Executive in a completely different division from that of the Chief Examiner. Among the remit of this “Music Director” is to incorporate more rock and pop, and (in consultation with said Deputy Chief Executive) respond to public criticism of the direction the ABRSM is taking.

        So, personally, I am more inclined to suspect that Holmes might have been eased-out by a senior management that appears to be intent on maintaining market dominance without any regard for maintaining standards (although they have to pretend they care — hence, instead of removing the “grade 5 theory, solo-jazz subject, or practical musicianship” prerequisite, they dumb-down the most commonly utilised option). I note that the current Chief Executive, Chris Cobb, has no professional background in music…

  • Stephen Ratcliffe says:

    They certainly didn’t have a good pandemic! I had students cancelled at last minute with no realistic alternative offered. The online exams required them to learn an extra piece.

    I agree that the new scale requirements are not demanding enough.

  • Benjamin Bittern says:

    Do their exams mean anything in reality? The syllabus I am familiar with is atrocious.

  • Tom says:

    The fees are ridiculous, especially for diplomas