The unaccompanied traditional song is an important part of all ABRSM graded Singing exams. With some expert help, Rhian Morgan discovers what's involved.
Young instrumentalists working their way through a long list of scales and arpeggios might well feel that singers have it easy: ‘You’ve just got to sing a folksong that you can learn in five minutes, while we’ve got scales and arpeggios in every single key for Grade 5 Piano, ’ they complain.
On the surface they may seem to have a point, but look just a little deeper and you will see how many hours, even years, of work need to be put in before a singer can perform the unaccompanied traditional song – a requirement at all grades – to an optimum standard.
Why an unaccompanied traditional song?
‘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, musical and ‘singerly’ genre.
'Most candidates and teachers do clearly enjoy this part of the exam, ' says John, although it’s true that singing unaccompanied can be a nerve-wracking experience for some. ‘Singing is a completely different discipline to all the other practical subjects, ’ he continues. ‘Singers have 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 ‘I didn’t have any rosin’; and, in this part of the exam, no piano for support.
Preparation and choosing a song
Heidi Pegler is an ABRSM examiner, singer, and teacher at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. 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 also that they don’t take it seriously enough. ‘I’ve heard students say “it’s only the folksong” 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 folksong is vital, Heidi emphasises. ‘I would go for one which 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.