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Preparing for the ARSM diploma: a teacher’s view

6 years ago
Robin Ashwell

Robin Ashwell

Robin is a viola player and member of the Sacconi Quartet. He studied at the Royal College of Music, where he was an ABRSM scholar. He combines his quartet work with a dedication to and love of teaching. He is Head of Strings at Westminster School, teaches viola privately and at Sevenoaks School and coaches chamber music at the RCM.

Robin Ashwell, viola player and member of the Sacconi Quartet, shares his experience of teaching our first ever ARSM candidate. After coming to learn with me at the start of his Year 9 (aged 13), Vincent’s level of playing seemed to lie in that area frequently occupied by reasonably advanced school-age musicians – past Grade 8, but not so far past as to be preparing for DipABRSM or entry to conservatoire. His parents rightly wanted him to prepare for some kind of exam or qualification, probably knowing that he was the sort of young person who needs a serious goal to incentivise the quality of his work and study. We took the DipABRSM syllabus as a starting point, and then, fortuitously, learned about the forthcoming ARSM, which draws its repertoire from that same DipABRSM list. This seemed just the right level of exam for Vincent to be working towards. Taking the diploma is quite straightforward as it is taken as part of a normal exam session. This was especially helpful as Vincent could take his ARSM at school with a school accompanist in the usual way. The only difference from a graded exam is that the student (or teacher) needs to fill in a special form with their programme details, to hand to the examiner at the start of the exam. Preparing for the ARSM was a great pleasure, because Vincent rose to the occasion so well. In a busy school there are constant competing demands on each student’s time and getting even an advanced student to do enough quality practice can be a real challenge. Without a shadow of doubt, Vincent practised for far longer, and with vastly greater focus and commitment, than he would have done without the goal of the ARSM. The standard of his playing really did improve more than I could have possibly dared imagine at the start of the process. This made preparing for the exam worth it in itself, regardless of the mark at the end. The other difference I noticed was in Vincent’s new-found pride in his viola playing. He was genuinely proud and excited to be working towards a diploma-style exam which would give him letters after his name, and this fed in to the increased quality of his practice. In preparing Vincent for the exam, I tried to push him to a new, higher level, almost using the ARSM as an ‘excuse’. I wanted him to be more than a schoolboy viola player and aspire to greater things. So I made fairly frequent remarks like ‘this is a diploma now’ or ‘you’ve got to sound professional’. The ARSM gave Vincent the reason he needed to raise his game, and we treated it as something much more important than ‘Grade 9’. Probably the most important thing for Vincent was to gain a much greater finesse in his playing, partly through improving his technique, but more through improving his listening and awareness. Again, I was able to use the ARSM as a reason for him to be hyper-aware of his sound, the quality of his phrasing and shaping, and the variety of colours, characters and emotions that he put into his pieces. Playing the notes very well would simply not do anymore. Vincent has done exceptionally well, and I hope he would agree that preparing for the ARSM has been exciting and enjoyable for both of us! More information about Robin’s string quartet – the Sacconi Quartet – is available on their website.

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