Switching from Suzuki to ABRSM?

March 25, 2021, 8:46 AM · Hello everyone -

I am a violist/violinist who has been teaching Suzuki based violin and viola for 10+ years. This spring I am moving from the US to the UK and have become very intrigued by the ABRSM curriculum, which uses very little of the pieces I am familiar with through the Suzuki and Suzuki adjacent materials. Has anyone had experience transitioning from one repertoire sequence to another? If so, from what to what? Why did you switch? Would you do it again?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.

Replies (39)

March 25, 2021, 10:06 AM · Can't help with your specific question, but you may be interested in joining ESTA (European String Teachers' Association), of which my teacher, a freelance violist, is a member.

(I went through the ABRSM system as a teen on piano and oboe. Nowadays I use their materials for violin, as they are so easily available, but I'm not planning on sitting any exams)

March 25, 2021, 10:15 AM · Hi,
UK violinist and teacher here, very familiar with ABRSM (the main exam syllabus over here), both through my learning at school and my subsequent teaching. (I haven’t had any contact with Suzuki method in my education or teaching at all).
Just to point out, that following the ABRSM grades is not a violin method for learning. Although the repertoire, scales, sight-reading and aural get progressively more complex, I don’t regard it as an instruction / teaching method. The grades provide a good goal for the student to work towards, and certainly aiming towards grade 8 before leaving school is a decent achievement, particularly to those wishing to study something other than music. I think what I’m saying is don’t treat the ABRSM as a learning method; I always try and supplement the ABRSM material with relevant technical exercises, additional non-exam pieces and, where appropriate, studies. I find ABRSM a great tool to give students a sense of direction and reward when achieving the higher grades.
March 25, 2021, 11:10 AM · As far as I know, ABRSM is a system of graded examinations. It is not a comprehensive curriculum. While there are some teachers who teach purely to the exams -- i.e. each year working on just the exam material -- it's not actually a good way to learn to play the instrument. Rather, the normal way is to teach the violin, working towards building the skills necessary to take the next grade's exam.

So you could teach Suzuki and have your students take the grade exams at the natural point in the progression (though you would have to supplement the Suzuki repertoire with ABRSM approved pieces). However, the European Suzuki association has a different approach to teacher training/certification than the SAA, so you'd have to jump through some hoops if you wanted to be officially listed as a Suzuki teacher in the UK.

March 25, 2021, 11:54 AM · One other thing: students often do not take every grade. I took ABRSM piano exams through DipABRSM. In the numbered grades, I only took exams for Grades 2, 3, 5, and 8. The only requirement is that Grade 5 Music Theory must be taken before any exam in Grade 6 and above.
Edited: March 25, 2021, 1:14 PM · Although ABRSM is not a method, if you play every piece in a book, you will notice that there seem to be certain techniques that are introduced at each level and which are reinforced throughout the book.

There are supplementary materials that are similarly graded (if only because they are written by people familiar with the system), such as the four baroque compendia by Richard Jones, although these tragically lack fingering; and I recommend Jessica O'Leary's two books of 80 graded studies.

The online syllabus pdfs contain additional suggestions,
https://mo.abrsm.org/media/63101/
bowed_strings_2020_syllabus_online__rev3_june_19_.pdf

and the New Zealand online syllabus is even fuller.
https://www.nzmeb.org/download/ViolinSylNew2020.pdf

March 25, 2021, 5:51 PM · If you use Suzuki for repertoire but not for the recommended sequenced skills and teaching points and using old pieces to reinforce new skills, presumably you would have your own system of keeping track of techniques and things, preferred scales and exercises, etc., so then you would still do that when using ABRSM repertoire.

What appeals to you about ABRSM sequence? What appeals about Suzuki? There are no exams for Suzuki so would you want to pick and choose what you like or do the whole thing (all pieces are meant as required) or scrap the whole thing? If you like aspects from both, why not do both?

Here in the US, I've looked into ASTACAP exam grading and requirements because it's informational for me to know what else is taught at certain "levels". However, I don't have students do exams and am satisfied with using Suzuki as a core, as well as adding whatever else I choose to teach.

Edited: March 26, 2021, 3:46 AM · However, thorough Suzuki teacher-training gives us the tools to see under the surface of any method.
Edited: March 26, 2021, 6:36 AM · The OP is intrigued by the differences in repertoire.
If I were rude about the Suzuki repertoire, I wouldn't be the first.
ABRSM = everything ancient and modern and some ethnic too.

Also, Suzuki is set in concrete, whereas the ABRSM selections change every 4 years, so you have variety to look forward to.

Edited: March 26, 2021, 9:03 AM · Gordon, There have been several revisions of the Suzuki repertoire, not always for the better. The last revision included a filler piece or two that can easily be skipped for requiring no new skills.
March 26, 2021, 10:05 AM · Intrigued in what way - the mere fact of differences, the actual differences? Any nervousness at the prospect of leaving a familiar realm? Because of text tone, I'm having difficulty interpreting "uses very little of the pieces I am familiar with" as a positive or a negative attribute or a simply a neutral wariness.

I don't see why it has to be a "switch", unless for whatever reason you don't like certain pieces, or maybe if a name especially tends to attract prospective students in a certain area or send masses of them scurrying because of preconceptions, or if you'll be employed by an employer that expects one or the other. Repertoire is only as good as what you do with it anyway.

Despite the changes that have happened in Suzuki repertoire (for example, the new one in violin 4 and additions and reorderings and removals of pieces in cello and piano), considering what it takes for a change to happen, it may as well be concrete (consider what it takes to tear up concrete). Can't debate that but if I or someone wants variety, it's not that hard to go out and get some.

March 26, 2021, 10:09 AM · I wonder what Ann is referring to. The only new addition I can think of in the violin repertoire is the addition of the Bohm to book 4, and that's got a very clear reason for its existence, as a super-common exercise in spiccato.
March 26, 2021, 1:56 PM · Thanks all! This has been very helpful.

To Andrew and Lydia - thanks for clarifying that the ABRSM syllabus is really more of a sequence of collectively harder levels of groups of pieces and not a repertoire sequence like the Suzuki books. I had read the word syllabus and thought that buying the books of exam pieces/scales/etc would be more like buying a curriculum. Thanks for saving me lots of money buying materials I don't need!

To Mengwei - I meant nothing more than curious interest in learning something new. Having looked at the ASTACAP grading and requirements for similar reasons as you, I wondered if ABRSM would be more like Suzuki or ASTACAP. Since it seems like the second, there isn't a need for me to "switch" like I thought I might. I am a constantly adding more and more to my repertoire sequence that is not from a Suzuki book because, as a Suzuki kid myself, the pieces have not changed while the world most definitely has.

What intrigues me about ABRSM is that it does seem to change a bit more regularly and I always get excited finding new material for students that I'm unfamiliar with - and I barely recognized most of the pieces listed in the lower grades! Time to learn some new music!

Edited: March 26, 2021, 6:16 PM · One thing to be aware of-- people the UK use ABRSM classifications quite routinely. I've seen audition lists for university orchestras where people are asked to state their level, and it is almost always expressed as one of those exams. (Level 8, etc.) Almost, if not quite like SAT scores among high school seniors.

So if your students are going to swim in the audition pool for festivals or competitive orchestras, they may need to prove they have some connection to what everyone else is being tested on.

March 26, 2021, 9:12 PM · I imagine ABRSM changes because the examiners are tired of listening to the same small selection of pieces constantly. That might be a cynical take, though.
March 26, 2021, 10:56 PM · There's also an enormous pool of already-graded pieces; note the existence of the graded anthologies that Gordon mentions above. At least for piano and violin, ABRSM exam lists could probably rotate through existing lists of graded repertoire for a century without repeating a piece.
Edited: March 27, 2021, 1:23 AM · Some old favourites return every decade or two, e.g. the Telemann Presto in F (not difficult, but I wish I knew the best fingering for it), and various Corelli pieces. You can get historical materials in some charity shops, but that's becoming more trouble than it's worth. When I say "modern", I don't mean Prokofiev, I mean composers younger than me.

If you read the syllabuses in detail, you'll see that the ABRSM acknowledge Suzuki - roughly, they'll pick a piece at the end of Suzuki book 3 and call it grade 5, or the end of book 4 and call it grade 6. E.g. the Bach Double, that kind of thing. ABRSM don't just grade on technique, they also grade on musical expression. Baroque largos can be surprisingly demanding in this respect.

@Lydia, that might be a Suzuki teacher projecting!

March 27, 2021, 12:55 AM · I'm not saying anything about ABRSM's actual practices, of course -- just that they could probably go that long on their existing library of graded materials without repeating a piece if they wanted to.
Edited: March 27, 2021, 7:46 AM · Sure, the back library is vast. And that's just the exam books. The syllabuses also contain much material you have to buy separately, if you prefer. It's just a pity that the older exam books are no longer available. I suppose one day it will all be online, pay per view.

There's a wiki page, in case anyone is interested and hadn't thought to look there yet.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ABRSM

"ABRSM published its first books in 1918"

March 27, 2021, 3:03 PM · To the OP ... I suggest you contact the British Suzuki Institute, which is responsible for Suzuki training in the UK. I am sure they will be able to put you in touch with local teachers who combine the Suzuki method with ABRSM exams. It is completely usual.

My daughter's teacher for example, prepared all her pupils for ABRSM Grade 5 as they reached the second half of Book 4. She considered that one crucial because it was the requirement to audition for the local youth orchestra and however children learn violin the only way they are going to learn orchestral playing is by doing it.

She then got students doing Grade 5 theory (prerequisite for higher grades), Grace 7 (to get back into exam mode) and finally Grade 8 (because having Grade 8 is the benchmark for university orchestras etc).

Her hybrid approach wasn't because she only used the Suzuki books for convenience, she was a fully trained teacher in the method (including spending time with Shinichi Suzuki in Matsumoto). And she remains an extraordinary pedagogue.

March 28, 2021, 7:52 AM · Thanks for the example of how someone mixes the method and the grades, Jonathan. That makes a lot of sense and is good to know what level youth orchestras require as that varies a lot in the US.
March 30, 2021, 5:54 AM · Just to add that if you're teaching violin in the UK you will often be expected to know the ABRSM material and how the system works. Not every teacher enters pupils for ABRSM exams (particularly not Suzuki teachers) but most do. For most parents and schools, ABRSM grades are the only thing they're really aware of in music education. As well as expectations for entry level of student orchestras and music colleges, the grade levels also inter-operate with the academic exam system a bit (if you're playing at grade 8 level then you should get a good mark on the performance component of Music A-level).

As plenty of others have said, the grades are a method of assessment not instruction. But if you're new to teaching in the UK you may be surprised just how ABRSM-centric the whole thing can feel sometimes!

Fortunately the ABRSM has loads of resources on offer - not just the repertoire, but they also have a load of videos online illustrating the standards of performance that's expected for each grade.

And finally - in my view the ABRSM repertoire lists are normally more up-to-date, interesting and varied than the Suzuki rep so worth exploring!

March 30, 2021, 7:35 AM · Yes to the above. The vast majority of UK school music teaching jobs (including the one I currently hold) expect a working knowledge of ABRSM as a prerequisite to suitability of application.
Edited: March 30, 2021, 8:24 AM · ABRSM sets exams (I vaguely recall the AB Associated Board - of Oxford and Cambridge - set my German O-level? London was a separate board). Your teacher's methods will guide you towards your next exam. It's like the rest of the exam system, which you can swerve if you prefer to send your kids to Summerhill.

I'm not sure what SATs are. It may be that there's such a cultural difference that none of us is on the other's wavelength.

March 30, 2021, 9:53 AM · @Gordon - ABRSM only does music exams. Other kinds of exam boards exist and do the regular qualifications (GCSEs, A-levels and so on). SATs are the standardised exams US students take for things like university ("college") admissions.
March 30, 2021, 9:56 AM · The SATs and ACTs are the college-entry exams in the US.
March 30, 2021, 10:04 AM · The SAT and ACT are standardized exams to test if you know what 2+2 and the definition of because is. Exaggerated simplicity but not by much.
March 30, 2021, 10:17 AM · I got the impression SATs were basically IQ tests? And do you sit nothing else?
March 30, 2021, 10:33 AM · We do sit nothing else.
March 30, 2021, 10:51 AM · They are among the few things that nearly every undergrad will have done. And the insecure will know exactly what their scores were, in case they get asked by someone even more insecure.
March 30, 2021, 11:44 AM · Or you can just have friends who consult each other... you know... to find out if they have the same chances of going to a college together... Not everyone is as vile as that. Are you projecting Stephen? jk
March 30, 2021, 12:09 PM · Gordon, The SAT isn't an IQ test, it tests specific knowledge of math, English, etc. The ACT is more often used in the Midwest. Stephen, even 47 years later I remember my scores. Nothing to do with insecurity, they are important but now not so much with the drastic change in admissions requirements. In fact the SAT may be abolished quite soon.
March 30, 2021, 12:38 PM · Yep, I remember my scores too (on the 1600 SAT scale...it was changed to 2400? changed back? content redone? falling out of favor for various reasons?*), we were of course comparing among friends, guidance counselors used them to suggest what colleges are more or less likely to accept you, certain scholarships were based on ACT score, they go on your resume when you're a novice with nothing else...

*There was pandemic-induced interruption but even before that, there have been remarks about what exactly the tests measure, how predictive or not are they about student abilities, inequalities related to student backgrounds and such.

In my brief stint teaching SAT prep for a small company (not a known name), our curriculum focused on interpretation of test questions by the question type or format and other test-taking strategies. Understanding the actual math or actual English was secondary. I recall reading recently that the "SAT subject tests", formerly known as SAT II's, different from the "main" SAT, are being discontinued.

March 30, 2021, 4:24 PM · In the UK, SATs are tests in basic learning children sit at 7, 11 and 14 (ages from memory). With Covid they have been pretty much forgotten. They don't really have any significance except for quality control of the educational system - checking that schools are getting kids to where they should be - and are in no way qualifications. GCSEs are formal exams in different subjects sat at 16 and depending on school and aptitude students normally do about 8-12 subjects. A levels are more specialised exams sat at 18, usually in just 3 subjects and used as preparation for university.

The "Associated Board" Gordon remembers has I think been superseded, but there are still boards responsible for GCSE and A level. The ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) is not related to those, or indeed the school system. However as Chris says, those who do music as a subject at GCSE or A level (they are options rather than generally done to those levels) have to demonstrate a performance ability, and those doing ABRSM exams will generally find those straightforward.

For anyone with any serious intention in music, ABRSM exams are basically the currency. There is however an alternative, Trinity College of Music which runs similar level grade exams that are a little more suitable to instruments and styles of popular music, and for the key audition processes a reference from the teacher can be used instead. (Though it is worth pointing out to the OP, they will quite likely want the teacher to indicate their pupils ability in grade terms, so for the teacher you still need to be familiar with the ABRSM even if you don't use it).

March 30, 2021, 5:14 PM · Mengwei, I'm from the pre-revision SAT too, total maximum score 1600. It's been revised several times since then to reflect the change in focus of the public school system and now is the last thing colleges look at when making admissions decisions. It used to be the first thing so times really have changed.
April 12, 2021, 6:19 AM · Definitely check out the trinity exam syllabus as well. And look at old syllabuses for any mentions of Suzuki pieces so you can tell where the books fit in.

A UK teacher may know whether ABRSM is more highly regarded but trinity is very flexible, with candidates able to play a duet or write their own composition (I did this for a couple a singing exams - they don't judge the quality of composition, but the exams were for fun and I enjoyed writing the songs).

There is also a parallel Scottish fiddle syllabus, and you can do one piece/set from that in the violin exam. o in a Scottish fiddle group if you're ding that though, cause it's stylistically different from what's written on the page.

April 13, 2021, 9:55 AM · Anish, my take on it is that ABRSM is considered more "academic" - for example for the higher performance grades the student has to have passed a music theory paper. Trinity is a bit more flexible that way, which makes it much more attractive to those whose preference is for more popular music styles. In the end though the grades are supposed to be comparable and interchangeable as qualifications.

ABRSM (don't know about Trinity) quite frequently include some Suzuki pieces in their syllabus repertoire so as you say it is easy to get an idea of the levels. For example, I recall my daughter doing the Bach bourees (end of Book 3) for Grade 5, and Vivaldi A minor first movement (though not Nachez version) for Grade 7.

Edited: April 14, 2021, 5:23 AM · I don't know anything about Trinity either. I bought one of their compilation books (grade 3-5 consolidation) about a year ago.
One of the pieces was a Kurt Weill tango. It's grade 4 ABRSM, but grade 5 Trinity, but Trinity require you to stay on the D string longer than ABRSM do, which makes it a little more difficult. So from that meagre evidence, there's probably not much to choose between ABRSM and Trinity.
April 15, 2021, 3:41 PM · Gordon, even within a single board a piece can occasionally appear at different times in different grades ... I assume the examiners are given criteria to mark to that are more exacting when it is in a higher grade.
April 15, 2021, 4:36 PM · True, however I looked at the piece today. Trinity's recommended fingering is for 5th position on the D string, which I don't think ABRSM grade 4 would ever require.


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