Rockschool – New Exam Syllabus Review by Rhayn Jooste… The most eagerly awaited new exam syllabus is finally out with The Rockschool exam boards 2012- 2018 curriculum, which was released in April 2012.
So what is new? Well for a start the production levels have been raised, all pieces and backing tracks have industry names playing on them and are highly polished. The tracks were recorded and produced by Nick Davies who has worked with Genesis, XTC and Björk.
The aim being a syllabus that can stand next to today’s commercial releases and not sound dissimilar. The addition of percussion, horns and keys even at lower levels aids the illusion that you’re actually playing with a really good live band. The genres have been updated to include new styles such as Progressive Metal, Hip Hop and Indie Rock alongside Classic Rock, Blues and Jazz styles. The technical section of the exams has been overhauled and re-structured to help candidates progress from one level to the next. This fits in with the Rockschool philosophy of Musical Performance Development. The candidates are now allowed more free choice pieces to enter into an exam with.
Each piece now comes with a handy style and genre overview at the very beginning along with a step through of the challenges presented within it at the end. The marking system has been revised for quality and consistency. The pass rate has been lowered to 60%, a merit is now 74% (75% on the performance exam) whilst the distinction rate has increased to 90% and above. Last but by no means least, the pieces themselves have been written and played, on the whole by instrument or genre specialists, especially the all-important upper levels – grades 6 – 8. For the bass that means Alison Rayner, Henry Thomas, Dave Marks and Stuart Clayton. All respected players in their field.
Taking a short over view on each section we find that the:
The level one exams (Debut to grade 2) are, as you would expect largely unchanged. They begin with single line melodies, slowly building up into more rhythmically and technically challenging pieces. The technique required for each new exam has been highlighted in the technical section. So that there is no longer a separation between the two, what you practice for in your scales and arpeggios will have a direct correlation to the pieces. The Style page at the beginning of each piece covers the overview, technical focus, style focus, historical context, and then recommended listening of each piece. This will help with chasing down those elusive influences, tone choices and technical features for these early grades and give the candidates a back ground into the music itself. The walk through section after each piece highlights the technical and musical aspects that are expected and required for each section. As the levels progress so does the amount of information, technique and musicality expected of them. Once improvisation is introduced there are hints and instructions on how to approach these sections along with scale and mode suggestions. It seems ignorance of style, scale choice or technique is no longer an excuse for teachers or students alike as Rockshool have all but played the pieces for them.
The Level two exams (grade 3 -5) increase the technique and musical aspects within the pieces and the technical section lessens in terms of quantity. The pop and slap technique has been removed and added to level 3 exams now. There is a clear line in the progression and use of scales, modes and arpeggios. Each exam builds on the last so that by the time a candidate has reached level three they have a firm grounding in their instrument. The genre choice is quite wide from Punk Rock to Metal with all the usual suspects in between. The walk through section now has added technical and musical facets, such as the use of inversions and style specific groove pointers, along with ideas and tips on how to approach the solo sections. The pieces themselves are a little more challenging than the last syllabus at this level. This is to be expected as the pieces reflect the genres and musicality anticipated within each.
The level three exams (grade 6- 8) are probably the most challenging and exciting that they have ever been; they are now also longer. This section is where the biggest modifications have been made to the exams. Styles such as Progressive Metal, Latin and modern Funk have been added to the list. Along with the challenges of odd time signatures, modern bass techniques and more informed solos. The stylistic choice for the candidates now becomes focused, so that when they take an exam it can be specialized in Metal or Jazz or Rock, all the way through. To that end, style specific studies have been added (which are pre-prepared) and the Quick Study Piece has been completely overhauled and placed within the exam itself. No longer will there be 20 minutes externally to study this section. Candidates are given 3 minutes within their allotted exam to formulate and deliver a style specific piece of 13 bars length. The QSP piece itself is much easier in terms of reading, however a good solid grounding in the style, note choice and genre specific ideas will be essential. The walk through and style pages are invaluable here and will be enormously helpful in formulating the approaches to the pieces and their challenges. There is even help in the form of technique boxes, which aid in approaching challenging bars. Chords have been added to this level’s technical section, along with skills considered normal in modern bass such as tapping, pop and slap, left hand percussive strikes and legato techniques – hammer ons and pull offs.
In conclusion this syllabus offers more challenges to playing the pieces with a wider scope of genres and styles. The addition of more free choices pieces has opened up the exams to a wider audience. The structure of the technicals will now aid the pieces and have been organized to progress with each exam. The stylistic choice has been brought up to modern music trends, whilst still keeping the classic genres. The biggest addition is the style and walk through pages, which have a wealth of knowledge and information to help teachers and students alike. Especially at Levels 2 -3 where the candidates are expected to formulate their own stylistically correct developments and improvisations. The recommended listening sections are a valuable resource. The production levels on this syllabus are professional and enhance the exam experience immensely. The feeling of playing along to live musicians, as opposed to synthesized music, is a joy. Where else are you going to get the chance to play along to Larry Carlton, who plays on two grade 8 pieces, or Prog Metal specialists Charlie Griffiths (Haken) and Metal’s Jason Bowld (Pitshifter), who have written and played on quite a few grade 6 – 8 pieces.
There really is only one question mark hanging over this syllabus, and only time will give the answer. Will the players of tomorrow have the grounding in a range of styles or will the streaming in the Rockschool syllabus give us players that are excellent in their style but not able to function in others?
Below is a video of Stuart Clayton performing the Mark King style piece, Thumb King, he wrote for the grade 7 exam.