UK exam board launches jazz trumpet exams November 30, 2003 
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Charlie Beale
Charlie Beale introduces the launch event

In the United Kingdom, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM, or just AB) has launched the Jazz Horns syllabus, a new series of graded jazz examinations for wind instruments including trumpet. The new syllabus is likely to be keenly watched by trumpet and jazz teachers in the UK and in the many other countries with access to the Associated Board's examinations system.

Examination Regulation 14a, subparagraph III:

The Examiner will then "lay down" a Funky Groove (see procedure note 23c) and the Candidate, after "digging it" for a Specified Duration, will then grab his or her Axe and (in accordance with Standing Instructions), Do His or Her "Thang" until required by the Examiner to, uh, like, "cool it".

Oh alright, I made that bit up. But there is something so deliciously attractive about the very idea of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music - the Associated Board! - offering jazz trumpet exams that I had to go and investigate.

Making the Grade

The UK's largest and best-known music examinations board, established for more than 100 years, the ABRSM runs graded examinations in classical instruments, voice and theory. Grades reaching from 1 (beginner) to 8 (pre-college entry) are offered in exam centres all over the UK and in ninety-two other countries, with around 600,000 candidates a year worldwide. The board, as its name suggests, is a joint enterprise of four of Britain's 'Royal' music colleges (Academy, College, Northern College and Scottish Academy). However, these are public exams which are offered to anyone who wants to take them irrespective of age, college or school affiliation or other factors. So together with the other exam boards the ABRSM makes up a national public music examinations service for the UK, as well as a large-scale service outside the UK. The grade 1-8 levels have wide acceptance in the UK as indicators of progress: they are, indeed, the unchallenged industry standard.

The ABRSM's position as the senior examining body is both a strength in the marketplace and a possible source of a vulnerability to the risk of being perceived, perhaps unfairly, as staid and conservative, and it is clear that the board has put much effort into countering this perception.

Into Jazz

Jazz started to appear on Associated Board syllabuses in 1999 when examinations in jazz piano were introduced, along with the Jazz Ensembles syllabus which offers a three-grade system (initial, intermediate and advanced) and a free choice of repertoire for groups. The piano exams were launched with good publicity and attractive materials (books and CDs) and much was made of the eminent musicians and educators who acted as consultants, the pianist Julian Joseph being among the great and the good involved in the project.

The jazz piano exams seem to have had a good reception and are regarded as valuable and interesting. The AB tells us that entries are "healthy and increasing". Initially the jazz exams were only available in the UK and Ireland but they can now be taken by candidates in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, with the USA and Canada being added from the end of 2004. The Jazz Piano publications, including Jazz Piano from Scratch by Charlie Beale have been enormously popular. Play Jazz from Scratch (not piano specific), also by Charlie Beale, is in preparation.

Trumpet players and teachers have been hoping that the board would take the logical next step and expand their jazz coverage to include our instrument. This expectation was met this summer when the new Jazz Horns syllabus was launched at a series of events round the UK. I attended one of the London launches, run by Charlie Beale, Associated Board Lead Jazz Consultant, and Nigel Scaife, Associated Board Syllabus Principal, where we were shown the published materials and treated to performances of some of the syllabus. Beale, a jazz piano professor at the Royal College of Music when he is not doing this work plus a whole diaryload of freelance gigs, and about 28 other educational commitments, is the driving force, author, editor, co-ordinator and all-round Very Busy Man behind much of this initiative. He's the sort of person who can sell energy back to the National Grid.

Regents Park Blues

Richard Turner
Royal Academy of Music jazz trumpet student Richard Turner at the launch

It's probably fair to say that the standard of performance that day may have been a bit on the high side compared to an average candidate at Grade 5, as the band was made up of jazz course students from the Royal Academy of Music, with guest appearances from syllabus consultants. But they managed most of the time to do a very fair simulation of how a student might approach the music so that we were able to see how the syllabus would work in real life - although when once or twice they let it all go perhaps a bit further than Grade 5 I was not alone in enjoying that too! We heard, amongst other tunes, Miles Davis' Jean Pierre and Freddie Freeloader, the Saints, and Benny Carter and Spencer Williams' When Lights Are Low, all of which, naturally, are in the syllabus.

Like the jazz piano exams, the new Jazz Horns syllabus uses a series of purpose-built publications, based around the tunes for the exams, which link with supporting materials such as scales and aural books and CDs. We heard excerpts from these materials played by the "candidates" in a variety of configurations - solo with piano or accompaniment CD and also with the band. These are all allowable options for an exam: candidates would need to read the detailed information published by the AB to understand exactly what is possible but the choices are quite wide. We also had a demo and talk-through of the other exam requirements which include the usual (but appropriately jazz-flavoured) scales, arpeggios and broken chords, the "Quick Study" (sight-reading or playing back, both with an improvised reply to the stated phrase), and aural tests.

As you'd expect, the structure of the syllabus enforces a bit of variety: the pieces for study and performance are taken, one each, from three lists of pieces broadly grouped by style, so you would do one each from "Blues and Roots", "Standards", and "Contemporary Jazz" but not two or three of a kind. So for example a Grade 3 jazz trumpet candidate might do the Gillespie tune Birks Works, Gershwin's Summertime, and Don Cherry's Rhumba Multikulti. They might then be asked to play some scales from a selection of Dorian, Mixolydian and Lydian modes, a couple of straight majors, major and minor pentatonics, and a blues scale.

This was a clear and interesting exposition of the Board's aims for the exams and was a pleasure to listen to. I must also report that Richard Turner, the Jazz Trumpet student from the Royal Academy, acquitted himself superbly in these demonstrations, with a beautiful, relaxed tone and clear, precise phrasing: a player of whom I would like to hear a lot more. I expect that I will.

The AB Real Books

One part of the Board's materials for the new syllabus represents a happy collision of musical practicality and clever marketing and may do rather well even outside the boundaries of the exam setup. Once the student is past Grades 1 - 3 and heading for the dizzy heights of Grades 4 and 5, they no longer need the grade- and instrument-specific books initially used. Instead they get the "AB Real Book". This contains the whole repertoire for both grades for all the instruments, and more a total of 100 tunes and is highly reminiscent of the various Real Books we all know. It comes in C, Bb, Eb and bass clef versions. Whilst any trumpet student preparing for a Grade 4 or 5 exam will find in there all the tunes they'll need, they will also find all the tunes needed by their trombone-playing friend or the clarinettist in the next class. I do not need to be psychic to see that what you have here is wonderful material for, say, a small school band, where each student's experience of the music can be rooted in two ways: in one direction in their and their colleagues' exam requirements, and in the other in a "real world" approach to small band jazz as evinced by these professional and cool-looking Real Books. As a cynical fortysomething I was rather taken with them: as a twelve-year old I would have been completely bowled over. This nice product - presented with some pride by the AB people running the launch - is a musically and educationally useful innovation and will, I predict, sell like hot cakes.

Have you got your Grade Eight?

Booklets from the launch (trumpet not included)
Booklets from the launch

The new syllabus covers Grades 1-5, just as Jazz Piano has since its inception. If that were the whole story one might be tempted to ask whether it's just that jazz is simply too easy, and cannot accommodate the three higher grades: or maybe whether the same skills range is covered with fewer grades, so there would be an exchange rate of around 0.625 Classicals per Jazz - but, it turns out, the rather more prosaic truth is that the AB does intend to expand all the jazz syllabuses to include Grades 6-8, and the only reason that they aren't already here is the sheer scale of the undertaking and the investment required to set it up. So although there is no date yet known for the emergence of the new grades, it's clear that there will be plenty more to look forward to when they do arrive.

One other interesting feature of the jazz syllabus that I wasn't aware of is that it has no formal theoretical requirement, whereas in the traditional syllabus you need Grade 5 theory before you can progress to Grade 6, 7 or 8 in the practical exams. The board tells me that "because of the nature of jazz exams and the emphasis on improvisation, in taking and passing Grade 5, jazz students will have demonstrated that they have a good grounding in musicianship and an understanding of harmony, rhythm, form and structure" - which I feel is a nice validation of what lots of people think about some of the virtues of jazz. Furthermore, you can use your jazz instrumental Grade 5 to exempt you from the Grade 5 theory requirement if you wanted to take any of Grades 6-8 in the other syllabus, which is a real vote of confidence in the jazz syllabus, and I am sure will be of great benefit to some students.

Will there be enough jazz-aware teachers and examiners to deliver and test this syllabus, I wondered? On examiners, it turns out that the board has a separate panel of examiners for jazz exams, who have all been through training specific to the subject.

The ABRSM is aware that there may be teachers who would like to teach jazz but who may lack confidence and skills in this area. They are aiming to tackle this by running an ongoing series of professional development events for teachers who want to start learning about and teaching jazz. Since launching the Jazz Piano syllabus the board has run many workshops, weekend and week-long courses for piano teachers, and from 2004 they are adding workshops for clarinet, trumpet, trombone and saxophone teachers in the UK and Ireland. The first 2004 workshop is in London, in January and the final one will take place in Manchester in June, with plenty more in between.

Is this the real thing?

demo band in action
The band "does Grade 5"

Another aspect of the exams I was curious about was improvisation. The AB says, "improvisation is at the very heart of the syllabus": if a candidate goes in playing solos which have been written down and memorized, is that a problem, and if so how does the Board aim to detect and deal with it? With the classical-style exams there's no easy way to "cheat" (if that's what it is), but in a jazz exam it does seem to me that there is more room for, putting it politely, the AB's intentions for the music, and the candidate's actual delivery of it, to be at variance. There is, however, detailed material in the syllabus about assessing improvisation, and of course the "Quick Study", mentioned above, is pretty well unfakeable - so I imagine that an examiner might be given a thoughtful moment or two by a candidate who offered, in their set pieces, fantastic solos, but only that blank look - you know the one - when confronted with the study.

Where and web

The Jazz Horns syllabus is being rolled out initially in the UK and a few other countries but it's probably reasonable to guess that it will in time increase its coverage as the other exams have. Further details are available at the Board's impressive, newly revamped website. Whilst many visitors will be in search of the hot stuff, in the sense of syllabuses and applications, the site does repay a more leisurely browse as it also offers background articles and discussions: while researching this article I found some great content on jazz and trumpets inter alia. Look for "News and Articles" on the website to see what I mean.

Board meeting

Acknowledging the AB's position in the market is not the same as denying the existence of its competitors. The UK alternatives in trumpet are the exams run by both the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Trinity College of Music, and these have their own strong followings too. Both also use Grades 1-8, though alongside their own longstanding traditions and innovations, and both offer trumpet exams though it is not yet apparent whether they will also be offering jazz trumpet.

Board ignored?

Of course there are also plenty of teachers who just don't regard graded music exams as essential, or even important; either simply ignoring them, or perhaps treating them as something of a necessary evil when a particular grade seems appropriate or is required for some external reason. It'll be interesting to see how this area of the profession will react to the new syllabus.

Just not cricket: a personal/local note

Americans and others brought up in an enlightened jazz education environment may well be wondering what all the fuss is about. Perhaps I should try to explain why this seems like such a big issue from my personal, UK perspective. When I started playing, in the late 60s, there was very little in this country by way of jazz education: indeed, I don't think the two words would often get into the same paragraph, let alone snuggle up together in the same noun phrase. The Associated Board was seen as an august and somewhat distant body and the idea of AB Jazz Exams would have sounded like some sort of strange joke. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of some institutions and individuals, and the importation of some good ideas from abroad, things have improved beyond all recognition but it's taken a while. The fact that it is at last possible for a trumpet player to take these exams seems like a huge change and is one which delights me.


I left the London launch of this new syllabus feeling highly impressed and encouraged. I wonder if I dare apply for Grade 1 next year?


AB Jazz
AB home page

Guildhall School of Music and Drama Examinations Service
Trinity College London - Examinations Board

Source: Neville Young
- with thanks to Lucy North at ABRSM for help with background
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