Barbados Heritage: Celebrating 90 Years of ABRSM Music Exams

125th anniversary year and 85 years in Barbados

History of ABRSM

Sir George Dyson and Dr R.S. Thatcher

ABRSM – The Beginning

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’ was founded in 1889 as the outcome of a proposition by Sir Alexander MacKenzie, principal of the Royal Academy of Music, to Sir George Grove, director of the Royal College of Music, that their two pre-eminent musical training institutions unite to create an examining bodyinspired by disinterested motives for the benefit of musical education… which would genuinely provide a stimulus and an objective for a high standard of achievement’.

14-15 Bedford Square, the former office of ABRSM

The First Exams and the Developing Syllabus

An ambitious first syllabus for the inaugural exams of 1890 aimed at ‘a standard so high that the certificate granted may be regarded as a distinction worthy of attainment, a founding premise that has been retained through all subsequent modifications of the assessment schemes. Two divisions were immediately introduced (‘Lower’ and ‘Higher’) which were intended to precede the local centre split into ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’. The school divisions were later extended downwards to incorporate ‘Elementary’ and ‘Primary’ and the category ‘Final’ was introduced as a new local centre division to precede the L.R.A.M, A.R.C.M. and L.R.S.M. professional diplomas (which were subsequently replaced or subsumed by the professional Diploma, Licentiate and Fellowship qualifications).

The aural scheme was introduced into local practical examinations in 1920 and the modern system of eight graded tiers was implemented in 1933. It was at this point that ‘The Associated Board’ became ‘The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’.

An early examination in progress

The Growth of ABRSM

From the very beginning ABRSM had a duty imposed by the Charter of the Royal College to promote the cultivation and dissemination of the art of Music. By 1892, the University of the Cape of Good Hope had invited ABRSM to conduct examinations in the Cape Colony. By 1895, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were all receiving visits from ABRSM’s examiners. Examinations were introduced to Malta in 1903, the West Indies in 1907 and Barbados in 1926 (the year the Royal College of Music opened). By 1948, ABRSM had Honorary Local Representatives in South Africa, India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malta, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Cyprus, Singapore and Kenya. In Barbados one of the longest serving of the islands Representative from the late 1960’s was the famed Organist, Choirmaster and Music Educator Dr. John George Fletcher (1931–2015) D.Mus., F.R.C.O. (C.H.M.), A.D.C.M., F.T.C.L., L.R.A.M., A.R.C.M., L.R.S.M.

The examinations offered by ABRSM rapidly grew in popularity during the twentieth century. Annual entries numbered 30,000 by 1914 and its authority was extended to include the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in 1947. By this time, candidature had topped 100,000. By 1981 ABRSM was examining in excess of 460,000 candidates a year in a wide variety of instruments.

The examiners

ABRSM’s panel of examiners was originally drawn primarily from the teaching staff of the Royal Schools and from prominent members of public musical posts. The noted composers Sir George Dyson, Sir Arthur Somervell, Sir Frederick Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams all served as ABRSM examiners in the early twentieth century.

At a General Meeting of ABRSM in 1937, Sir Hugh Allen memorably described the somewhat demanding range of abilities needed to be a successful ABRSM examiner:

“the technique, as far as I can see, of an Examiner of the Board would be compounded of a talent for simple arithmetic, an elastic vocabulary, a synthetic memory, a decent handwriting, an unwearied patience, a ready power of description, a gentle demeanour, a sense of justice, solicitude for the weak, a taste for logic, a golden voice and a bedside manner.”

The marking criteria that the examiners have needed to follow for graded examinations have remained remarkably consistent over the course of ABRSM’s history, as this quote from ABRSM’s 1948 history demonstrates:

“Candidates whose performances are found by the examiners to be up to standard receive certificates from the Board; above the level of a satisfactory “pass”, certificates of merit may be granted; and for really exceptional candidates, certificates of distinction.”


For this special year, through their #MyCertificate social media campaign, they connected with teachers, candidates and parents from around the world. Participants shared photos of candidates, young and old, celebrating their exam achievement.

Each candidate who passed their exam during our anniversary year received a certificate featuring a special 125 logo.

125th anniversary certificates

Connecting & improving

The ABRSM has invested around £6m in scholarships, donations and the sponsorship of events and initiatives throughout the world.

It has also worked with key music education organisations in the UK to conduct the Making Music research project – the results of which are being used to inform plans for the future of music education.

During the year, they provided teacher support workshops to thousands of music teachers worldwide. These events were delivered by Lincoln Abbotts, Tim Arnold, John Holmes and their examiners.


Furthur Information

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