Contrary to popular opinion, Grade 5 Theory helps us enjoy music more. Its purpose is to enable understanding and, through understanding, independence. Independent musicians can enjoy music to its fullest. With such a beneficial goal, Grade 5 Theory should not be seen so much as an obstacle but more as an opportunity.
ABRSM statistics show, sadly, that this opportunity is not being taken. On average, of the 21,000 candidates who sit the exam each year, 3,000 fail and only 1,900 pass with distinction; on top of which one third of the students passing their Grade 5 practical exam don’t even take the Grade 5 Theory and so don’t progress to the higher ABRSM practical levels.
Something is going wrong and I think the underlying problems are the attitudes towards theory and the teaching of it.
Ideally, teachers will incorporate the understanding of music into each lesson from the beginning so that Grade 5 Theory is a progression of learning built on already strongly constructed foundations. The statistics are proof that this is not happening regularly.
Instead, after being ignored, it comes to be viewed as a disagreeable obstruction to the musical uplands of the higher ABRSM practical levels. One of the reasons so many very musical students are in this situation is because they have been taught to play by copying without understanding. They may be able to play pieces well but their learning doesn’t endure in the absence of understanding.
By making Grade 5 Theory a prerequisite the ABRSM is saying all students should understand what they play in order to become independent musicians and enjoy music to its fullest. I think it’s a worthy purpose but, all too often, students reach Grade 5 and scramble to equip themselves for a mere pass. Indeed, the prevalent attitude in schools and with private teachers is that the 66% pass mark is all their students need for the purpose of progressing to the higher grades.
Compounding this destructive attitude is the fact that theory is rarely taught in a musical way which would enable students to connect it to their own music. Most theory is taught in book form or through text online. This is the worst way of learning music theory (as I learned to my own cost as a young student).
How awful for very musical students who have not been given the foundations of theory as part of their learning experience and who:
a) give up music before taking their Grade 5 Theory
b) try to learn it without understanding before failing their Grade 5 Theory
c) try to learn it without understanding and scrape a pass at Grade 5 Theory.
For these students, the point of the ABRSM’s Grade 5 Theory has been lost.
However, if the foundations for understanding music have not been laid in the way I describe above, the situation is still recoverable. If students are taught theory in a musical way at the Grade 5 level so they connect theory to the music they play and hear, they can still achieve distinctions and an understanding which enables musical independence and a lifelong enjoyment of music!