“Legal” and “Illegal” Marks

You probably haven’t really thought about it before, but there are certain marks which ABRSM examiners are not allowed to award.

This applies both to practical and theory, but here I’m more concerned with the graded, performance exams.

Let me just preface this by illustrating a little quirk of the system. The question “How come, when all the rest of the world marks out of 100, we mark out of 150 and the first 50 marks are free?” was asked in an examiners’ open forum not long ago. The response was “Don’t even think of going down that road”. So much for “glasnost”. But what am I getting at?

Bottom End

Knowledge is Power

Well, if you have a look at the “criteria” published in These Music Exams (pp 39 – 43), you will see that there are bands of marks in each of the sections. Go to the “0” marks band and you’ll see “No work offered”. Fair enough. Go into the next band and you’ll see something rather odd.

That’s right, for each of the exam’s six elements the next band misses out a load of marks and has as its lowest figure one third of the total marks (usually) achievable.

So it’s impossible to get, for example, 9 marks for a piece. If you play nowt you get nowt and rightly so. But if you play just a handful of notes – even if they’re “Technically totally inadequate” – you still get 33% for that piece! Nice to know. To check this out, click These Music Exams, which downloads (what  is now called Your Guide to ABRSM Music Exams) from the ABRSM site).

Top End

What about at the other extreme? Take a couple of the finest flute playing legends. Jimmy Galway? William Bennet? If they did their Grade I flute, they might be disappointed to find it impossible to get top marks. That’s 150, not 100, remember! Still, the first 50 are “free” if you want them.

The highest mark anyone can have is 148, the top two marks being unattainable. Why? Don’t ask awkward questions! Actually, I’ve no idea and I don’t think anyone else has either.

Middle End

What would Wibb get in Grade I?

The rationale for the other “illegal” marks makes more sense, that is, if you believe it’s OK to massage a mark in order not to upset people. The pass mark for a Grade exam is 100; the mark for a merit is 120; for a distinction it’s 130. Imagine you’d just sweated blood for the last six months and needed a Distinction in your Grade VIII, maybe to be considered for a college audition or a good youth orchestra. And when the mark finally arrives the result is 129!

You might say that’s life and it’s just tough; or you might suggest that well planned practice should prudently allow time for a resit. Anyway, the fact is that if the mark has a “9” at the end being just below a band change, then it has to be tweaked – presumably upwards. Perhaps it is to avoid the otherwise inevitable complaints about “mean” examiners. Oh, 98 is also an “illegal” mark and 97, being quite close to the magic 100, is discouraged as well.

And the moral is?

Well, one is that if you’re really awful at a piece it’s much better to play just a few notes and get your percentage; it might just mean the difference between a pass and fail. If you’re properly prepared then you shouldn’t need to worry about such matters. Still, if you are…

…then you need to read the next post on how (literally) to “play” the sytem so that you can max out your marks with minimal extra effort. Til then.

“Keep Your Chin Up”.

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  1. Peter says:

    Hello Elaine!

    Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated. I was in the IoM this session examining upstairs in the music services place upstairs in the OFT building on Lord Street. It would have been great to see you, but your name wasn’t on my doorlist.

    The examining criteria are under review at the mo so there might be a few tweaks coming up before too long.

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