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Rockschool and Trinity vocal grades

Problems in assessing performance work

I am certain that most, if not all, of you are aware of Rockschool’s vocal grade syllabus and it seems that every music teacher I know has been inundated with advertising for the new Trinity Rock & Pop grades.  I have always found the Rockschool grades to be really useful when deciding on repertoire for Key Stage 4 and 5 performances but, recently, I have been looking at ways of incorporating them into Key Stage 3.  This was made even more exciting for me when, yesterday, I received the Rockschool newsletter and saw that there is a rather long list of new vocal repertoire that can be used in their exams.  My first thought was that this was going to be incredibly useful but, with it being half term and all, I found it amusing to compare this list with the recently published Trinity vocal syllabus. This led to some interesting finds and I tweeted my amusement…

Reading it back, I thought it came over as a little bit critical and that really wasn’t my intent so I followed it up with the following…

Rockschool responds

What I was getting at was the fact that there are some discrepancies between the two boards and the grade that they say various songs stand at.  In particular, Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ is RSL Grade 6 but Trinity Grade 7 and Florence and the Machine’s ‘You’ve Got the Love’ is RSL Grade 8 but Trinity Grade 6.  This morning, Rockschool’s David Mather sent me an email explaining their take on this, which he has permitted me to publish here…

“Although our knowledge of the Trinity song selection process is quite limited, I would think that they are looking for a more basic presentation of “You’ve got the love” for their grade 6,  Whereas at Grade 8 the main emphasis with the Rockschool syllabus is on performance.

With Rock School Grade 6 we expect suitable tone, delivery and rhythm, with a confident presentation of the song, this can all be applied to this song at Grade 6, but we want to see this one step further, We are looking for a lot more from the candidate in terms of performance for this song at Grade 8. This song is a suitable selection to show microphone techniques, as there is projection with a solid chest voice, long phrases and dynamic changes, allowing for variety in the voice.

We are looking for a really effortless performance that is highly assured showing  a complete control of suitable stylistic techniques and a committed high degree of personal interpretation. As per the syllabus guide, we are looking for an advanced and mature sense of performance at Grade 8, We are not just marking on general delivery, we need to see more of a professional delivery.”

Assessing performances

I feel that this response actually makes a lot of sense and highlights the challenge that is presented by performance exams in popular music styles.  I remember being at the University of Liverpool for my  degree in Music and Popular Music and the lecturers regularly explaining to us that there were many problems with examining popular music performance, which is why there was no performance option for my course except through the classical music route.  Eventually, this was changed and the current course offers a popular music performance option, which was made available to first year undergraduates from September 2002 onwards. 

The apparent discrepancy presented by the Rockschool and Trinity syllabi highlights the fact that my old lecturers had a point.  It’s not easy to examine popular music performances and the only way to deal with such issues is to take into account the factors that David Mather raised in his email to me.  The confidence of presentation, microphone techniques, solid chest voice, dynamic changes, variety in the voice and an effortless performance – they all matter.  It’s a problem that music teachers and examiners are all too familiar with and I will happily draw attention to the fact that these issues are not exclusive to performances in popular music styles.  This all serves as a reminder to take some measure of caution with regard to my previous post about using grade exam pieces in classroom lessons.  Establishing which grade a piece stands at should incorporate factors more than just which grade it falls into and how accurate the performance is.  I’m not deterred from my plans for a redesign of my Key Stage 3 SoW, I just need to be certain that I’m using the same additional considerations when marking work as the exam board would.