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Ideas for an adventurous ARSM

3 months ago

Our new diploma – ARSM (Associate of the Royal Schools of Music) – provides a wonderful opportunity for post-Grade 8 musicians to create and perform a 30-minute programme of music. Anthony Williams takes a look at some alternative approaches to choosing ARSM repertoire

One of the most exciting and inspiring aspects of the new ARSM diploma is the opportunity it provides to put together a unique and personal programme of music.

A broad range of pieces in the ARSM repertoire lists, coupled with the freedom to select a third of the programme yourself (from music at Grade 8 standard or above), means that choosing your pieces or songs can be an artistic adventure. It can reveal an individuality of approach which is as much a part of the creative process as the performance itself. It’s also a chance to explore music outside your current experience and build on your interests, strengths or passions.

A delicious starting point

Think of a menu! The meal represents either a journey through balanced yet contrasting dishes or through subtle variations on a theme. A luxurious first course could be followed by a light, delicate main course and then a refreshing sorbet. Alternatively, there could be a theme of particular herbs and spices or a specific season of vegetables. Singers might think about a ‘tasting menu’ – many small but beautifully judged courses to show off the chef’s skills. For those of you hungry for more, here are some starting points for your own musical menus!

Focus on the familiar

One way to choose a programme is to select familiar works which you already know well. You can then insert other pieces or songs around these to provide contrast. There is nothing wrong with this approach, although too many familiar pieces may mean you miss a golden opportunity to be inventive and imaginative!

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Think about one major work

As an alternative, why not consider just one major work that you already know, whether a single movement of a sonata or a largescale work? This can be used as the ‘main course’ of the performance around which you can build the rest of your programme. If this major work is complex, bold and harmonically rich, consider a lighter first piece. Something Baroque would be traditional but you could also choose something contemporary. If the heart of the programme is more intricate and texturally transparent, perhaps an early Classical sonata, then how about something late-Romantic or a harmonically rich 20th-century work to go alongside?

Not just chronological

Working chronologically through the repertoire is a possible approach, but it could be slightly predictable and leave listener and performer with some of the more challenging repertoire at the end of the programme. If you are a pianist, perhaps consider starting with some arresting Schoenberg, Roxburgh or Webern as an own choice. If a violinist, why not capture the attention of the listener with the dramatic opening of the Paul Patterson Luslawice Variations or the haunting start of Kenneth Leighton’s Metamorphosis? Then, after your main work, you might think about something a little more frivolous or with a jazz influence. For example, the Makholm pieces in the ARSM piano list are rarely played jazz-style gems and Dave Heath’s Out of the Cool might appeal to the flautist. This is also a chance to put your own particular musical interest on display, perhaps promoting a composer you feel has been unfairly sidelined or ignored.

Thinking in themes

Another option is to adopt a theme for the performance programme. A fascinating, contrasting journey is possible through the title ‘Impromptu’ in the piano lists. Composers as diverse as Howard Blake and Lowell Liebermann could offer an extra dimension for an ‘own choice’ piece. How about a French-themed programme, including composers such as Debussy, Messiaen or Poulenc and, as an ‘own choice’ some Nicolas Bacri? For a singer, the programming can be just as varied, grouping songs from collections or song-cycles, exploring poetic themes or even putting together songs to make your own poetic, musical narrative. The choice of an all-Romantic programme of cello music from the ARSM repertoire lists might be tempting. The challenge would then be to make sure each piece – or dish on the menu – has its own flavour or style, with clear musical contrasts and diverse tempos, textures, tones and timbres.

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Does your Brahms sound like Brahms?

However you decide to structure your programme, ensure Beethoven sounds like Beethoven, Brahms like Brahms and Gershwin like Gershwin. The idiomatic use of tone, dynamics, articulation and phrasing, to mention just a few musical ingredients, will all be important in keeping the programme vibrant, colourful and alive. Play to your strengths Finally, and most importantly, work to your strengths as a musician and performer. This is not the moment to challenge yourself technically to a level where simply playing the pieces becomes a hurdle. A 30-minute programme is also quite demanding in terms of focus and stamina. As the performer, you need to present a committed interpretation which gives a strong projection of the composer’s musical intent and your own personality. You can, of course, help yourself to do your best by choosing repertoire which you have an affinity with and which you are genuinely excited to perform.

Individuality and inventiveness

The ARSM is a wonderful chance to create and perform a programme which speaks to the listener – not just about your playing or singing ability but about the personality behind the musical choices. Be adventurous, individual and inventive, and use the repertoire lists as a way to experience music you might otherwise not encounter. You might discover that some of the less familiar works on the ARSM lists become valuable musical friends!

Your ARSM programme: what the syllabus says

How long?

  • Your performance should last for 30 minutes, including breaks between items.
  • You should include at least 20 minutes of music from the ARSM repertoire lists.
  • The remaining time can be filled with your own-choice of repertoire, at or above ABRSM Grade 8 standard.

What to choose?

  • The programme should be balanced and varied with a variety of moods, keys and tempi.
  • You must include at least two contrasting (by period or style) pieces, or movements from larger works.
  • There should only be one work by any single composer, except for vocal items or where a combination of movements or pieces by a composer is given in the ARSM repertoire lists.
  • Where a combination of movements or pieces from a larger work is set on the ARSM repertoire lists, you should perform them all.

You can find out more about our new ARSM diploma at www.abrsm.org/newdiploma.

Anthony Williams is a pianist, teacher, ABRSM examiner and regular selector for the ABRSM Piano syllabus.

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