Scottish Traditional Fiddle Exams

Graded Music Performance Examinations

Most learners of the violin will be familiar with achieving their ‘grades’, or sitting graded performance examinations administered by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) or Trinity College London (TCL). With few exceptions, the stipulated selection of repertoire consists of classical music by the like of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. A couple of tunes by fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner, were included a few years back, but these were not strathspeys or reels. Rather, they were theme-and-variation style compositions, his ‘classical credentials’ conforming to the ideological leanings of the boards.

To all extents and purposes, fiddle performance is not catered for by this structure of examination. Of course, many fiddle players learn the classical repertoire and sit the tests, following in the footsteps of Scott Skinner who combined traditional and classical learning to become what he labelled a ‘Scottish Violinist’, though he was around a bit before the examination boards! This has all changed with the introduction of Scottish traditional fiddle exams by two exam boards: the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and London College of Music (part of University of West London, LCM). Further, TCL has published a syllabus which is due to be launched in 2015. The RCS exams were launched in 2008, and the LCM exams have been around since at least 2009.

These exams are more than just syllabi of repertoire. In many ways, they prescribe how Scottish traditional music should be performed, and project ideas about tradition, the music, and its place in society. Before interrogating the content of these exams, it will be useful to consider the implications of music performance examination in general.


The Implications of Music Performance Examination

Earlier, I referred to ‘the ideological leanings of the boards.’ Of course, ideology is omnipresent, not least in institutional establishments such as music exam boards. The style of performance under examination is highly proscribed, with the ‘ideal’ violin performance aesthetic including things such as:

  • No open strings;
  • Vibrato;
  • Uniformity of tone achieved through bow control;
  • The accurate replication of music notation.

Significantly, this performance aesthetic is a normative one. That is to say, Bach is played in the same way as Brahms, despite the births of these two men being 150 years apart and violin technique progressing changing [thanks to David McGuinness for highlighting my own mistaken value judgement!] significantly in that time. In contrast, exponents from the early music revival strive to perform music with an historically contingent aesthetic, adopting the instruments and playing techniques which would have been current when the music was composed. This is a highly divisive topic. I favour the historically contingent approach, and encourage my students to play baroque music with open strings rather than high positions (which would have been quite anathema to the original performers of the music). This has the advantage of making the music instantly more accessible, and reveals a logic otherwise hidden by the adoption of inappropriate techniques. When it comes to romantic music, we look at the kind of position work advocated by exam boards across the entire repertoire.

Essentially, exam boards are perpetuating what was once called a ‘mainstream’ performance aesthetic with roots in the nineteenth century, which has become increasingly less acceptable with the growing expectation that music be performed in an historically contingent way.


Scottish Traditional Music Exams

Anyone familiar with archive recordings of old Shetland musicians will recognise the disjuncture between the performance aesthetics of classical music as discussed above and the performance aesthetics of some traditional musics. Shetland fiddle player, Andrew Poleson’s, performance of Lady Mary Ramsay exhibits a sophisticated musical aesthetic, in particular, a rhythmic intensity closely aligned to Shetland traditions of dance. It can be heard here (the performance begins thirty seconds into the recording) and below is a transcription into music notation.

Lady Mary RamsayA distinction must be made between Sottish traditional repertoire (the tunes as notes on a page) and Scottish traditional performance styles (how the tunes are played). To the uninitiated listener, Andrew Poleson’s performance is an assault on the ears: it does not conform to the clean and highly-polished performances which feature on post-produced cds or HD downloads. Nonetheless, it remains a highly accomplished performance and a valid musical expression within an alternative musical aesthetic. On repeated listening, listeners quickly identify the internal logic of his emphatic style of bowing and the consistency of his tuning. A revealing example is to be heard here where Hector MacAndrew contrasts modern and old (Gow) styles of performing the same tune. As a classically trained player, MacAndrew’s ‘Gow’ style sounds more ‘polished’ than Poleson’s performance, but it contrasts just as highly with his ‘modern’ style.

The question, as far as Scottish traditional music exams is concerned, is: to what extent is or can an element of performance style be integrated into the exam criteria, especially given the high degree of regional variation across the country? Are these exams nothing more than a mirror of their classical counterparts, only with Scottish rather than classical repertoire? If not, then how do they compare?

In what follows, each of the exam boards offering assessment in Scottish traditional music performance will be evaluated, in search of answers to the above questions.



Scottish Music Graded Exams: Fiddle 2014-2020

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (as it the then was) launched ‘Scottish Music Graded Exams’ in fiddle, accordion, and harp in 2008. A new syllabus (2014-2020) was published just this week (beginning Monday 6 Oct). It is possible to sit exams from grade one to grade five, and for each grade there is a book containing the featured repertoire in music notation, published by Taigh na Teud. Perhaps surprisingly, audio recordings are not made available in conjunction with the books, but candidates presumably have the option to find their own recordings and learn by ear. In addition to the performance of tunes, the exams include the assessment of technical work (scales and arpeggios), a quick study (sight reading or repetition of a melody by ear), and practical and aural musicianship (PAM).

The omission of ‘traditional’ from the official title of the exams reflects a neurosis of the parent institution, as the RCS offers a ‘Scottish Music’ course at undergraduate level. The decision to avoid ‘traditional’ is perhaps wise, given how loaded a term it is. Indeed, the blurb to each grade book celebrates the ‘great diversity of traditional and modern tunes’ on offer, suggesting one use of the term traditional. However, another is introduced in the introduction, where it is stated that the RCS ‘offers graded examinations in Scottish traditional music.’

The 2014-2020 fiddle syllabus features a refreshed choice of tunes (though many are retained from the 2008-2014 syllabus), and books feature a list of the technical work, quick study, and PAM required for the grade in question. There are three categories of tune, A. Airs; B. Dance Tunes; and C. Recent Compositions, with candidates required to select at least one tune from each category when preparing their programme. This choice of categories is highly problematic, seeming to privilege, as it does, ‘recent compositions’, and assigning anything non-recent to a singular undefined past. More so, recent compositions are also to be found in the other two categories, minimising the role of historical compositions even further. In contrast, the ABRSM model of roughly A. music composed before 1800; B. 1800-1900; and C. music composed after 1900 implies a more transparent (though still far from ideal) structure, which facilitates candidates’ understanding of the historicity of the repertoire. This is an issue which strikes at the heart of discussions about ‘traditional’ music. Of course, it is a living tradition, but with roots in the often distant past. Further, the majority of sources cited for the tunes are ‘recent’ publications, mostly by Taigh na Teud, rather than the original publications in which tunes were printed. Adaptions are made liberally by a host of ‘arrangers’ with bowings included to more-or-less reflect the rule of the down bow, whereby bars begin with a down. This re-writing or omission of history is potentially a cause of grave concern.

One small detail I was relieved to see improved in the new syllabus is the simplification of a grade four tune, Stirling Castle, which in the 2008-2014 syllabus took the form of being ‘as played by Paul Anderson’. Accordingly, it featured many technically challenging double-stops and bowings which far exceeded the technical expectations of grade four!

The tune genres included are: [slow] air, slow strathspey, march, waltz, strathspey, reel, slow reel (well, we have the slow strathspey, so why not?), hornpipe, polka, and jig. Encouragingly, exams are assessed by a fiddle specialist rather than a generic examiner, but accompaniment of any sort is not allowed – a highly problematic edict given the pervasiveness of piano and guitar accompaniment in the professional sphere.

Information about publications from Taigh na Teud is accessible here.

More info from RCS is accessible here.



The London College of Music offers examination in Irish and Scottish traditional music. Admittedly, these are perhaps the most dominant traditions with the UK and Ireland, but it seems anachronistic to omit Wales and England given their emerging heritage.

The guidelines advise that:

[t]he examination may be taken in any one of the following instruments: fiddle, cello, double bass, button accordion, piano accordion, melodeon, concertina, electronic keyboard, piano, Lowland and Highland pipes, harp, whistle, flute, guitar, and voice. A candidate wishing to use an instrument other than those listed above should write to the Chief Examiner in Music for approval.

From the guidelines, it would appear it is only possible to sit grades two, four, six, and eight, but this may not be the case. It is also possible to achieve diplomas, including DipLCM, ALCM, LLCM, and FLCM. Specific tunes are not specified, but rather guidelines for each grade are given, and a list of ‘Suggested Repertoire’ is available on request. Interestingly, ‘All regional styles will be accepted and regarded as equally valid,’ (see my previous post for my thoughts on this) and accompanists are allowed.

There are three components to the exam:

  1. Performance, which consists of the performance of a specified number of pre-prepared sets of tunes;
  2. Repertoire, which requires the candidate to submit a list of a specified number of tunes, from which the examiner requests tunes randomly;
  3. Supplementary tests, designed to test candidates’ aural skills and musical knowledge (including of their music tradition).

Given that the traditional music exams feature alongside the non-traditional music exams administered by LCM, the structure is in many ways more robust that the RCS model, with the possibility of progressing beyond grade five and the provision of extensive detail on the marking criteria and scoring of performances. The syllabus is accessible here. The assertion that ‘examinations are conducted by trained external examiners who are specialists in the relevant tradition’ is encouraging, but needn’t necessary imply instrumental specificity.



Trinity College London has published a syllabus of ‘Grades for Scottish Traditional Fiddle,’ in advance of the exams launching in 2015. It has been developed in Shetland by Margaret Scollay in liaison with Pauleen Wiseman, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, features a significant Shetland component to the proscribed repertoire. It will be possible to sit grades one through eight, with grades six to eight having ‘been designed to mimc the requirements for the National Championship, The Glenfiddich Fiddle Competition.’ This is significant, because there are other national competitions, primarily the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, at which fiddle players can compete, but in an very different context to Glenfiddich. The syllabus also advises that:

Traditionally[,] fiddlers held the instrument almost under the shoulder rather than under the chin [Andrew Poleson did], however[,] the demands musically and technically were not so high. As a result[,] modern traditional players and students are encouraged to use a more violinistic approach.

There’s that dichotomy between modern and traditional again, and the suggestion that the demands musically were not so high shrieks of value judgement. I don’t know if I can even accept that the technical demands were not so high… Sure he wasn’t playing in fourth position, but Andrew Poleson’s bow control required just as much technique, if in a different application.

For each grade there are three categories, A, B, and C, but the content of each varies between grades:

  1. A. Waltzes; B. Marches; C. Reels;
  2. A. Waltz and Polka/Hornpipe/Schottiche/Jig; B. Air; C. March and Reel;
  3. A. Waltz and Jig; B. Air and Polka/Hornpipe; C.March and Reel;
  4. A. Waltz and Reel; B. Air, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. March, Strathspey, and Reel;
  5. A. Air, Hornpipe, and Jig; B. March, Strathspey, and Reel; C. Contemporary Set;
  6. A. Air, March Strathspey, and Reel; B. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. Set by a Given Composer (Willie Hunter, Tom Anderson, or Margaret Scollay);
  7. A. Slow Air, March, Strathspey, and Reel; B. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. Set by a Given Composer (Neil [sic] Gow, Peter Milne, or J. Scott Skinner);
  8. A. Slow Air, March, Strathspey, and Reel; B. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. Set by a Given Composer (Gideon Stove, J. Scott Skinner, or William Marshall).

The repertoire itself is accessible in a round-about way through the Boosey website here, selecting ‘Scottish Traditional Fiddle from 2015’ from the drop-down menu then the relevant grade from the options presented.

A wide range of publications are consulted in the choice of repertoire, with candidates mostly requiring at least two books per exam. While potentially rather costly, this encourages the building of a library of books, and reflects, in a way, the heritage of published collections and the practice of exploring them in their entirety. However, the question of literacy and aurality is again raised, with the emphasis on notation maligning aural aspects of learning music. There is also the very concerning requirement that bowings and dynamic markings should be marked on the examiner’s copy of the music, to enable the student to demonstrate their ability at realising these features from notation – something surely quite alien to traditional music?

A list of fiddle nuances are given, which attempt to define the performance of Scottish fiddle music, for instance, bowing advice in strathspeys and hornpipes, and general advice on rhythmic articulation.  I take issue with the guidance that all ornaments should be played as acciaccatura and not appogiatura, given the presence of both in equal measure in the playing of the fiddle player upon whom the Glenfiddich style is modelled, Hector MacAndrew.

Extra-performance aspects such as scales, sight reading, and aural tests are not listed in the syllabus I have consulted, but presumably form part of the examination.



Each of the exam boards discussed above offers something of value in its structure: the provision of books by RCS offers a convenient manual of graded tunes useful to learners regardless of whether they choose to sit the exam; the pragmatic approach of the LCM, at least as set-out in the guidelines, empowers the learner to find their own path through the exams; and the attempted modelling of TCL on the Glenfiddich reflects current practice more than the others. However, questions remain regarding the place and status of these exams. While LCM and TCL discuss interpretation to an extent, RCS makes no explicit reference to it. The assumption that most candidates will be tutored by an expert in Scottish tradition music is perhaps misplaced, given the propensity of specifically violin teachers in schools, resulting in a literal interpretation of the notes on the page without an appreciation of any aspect of performance style. The mechanisms of learning fiddle have changed a lot in the past few decades: the advent of fiddle schools and feis in the 1980s and adult-learning organisations such as the Scots Music Group, the Glasgow Fiddle Workshop, and Scottish Cultures and Traditions in the 1990s have made fiddle music more accessible. Similarly, the introduction of fiddle in the context of school instrumental lessons has been growing since the late 1970s. These exams surely have a place in achieving professional status for fiddle players and gaining recognition of the repertoire, but changes in the perception of the music and mechanisms of learning inevitably have an impact on the music itself. Change is not necessarily good or bad – well, it depends on your perspective…

Ronnie Gibson (10th October 2014)

7 thoughts on “Scottish Traditional Fiddle Exams

  1. Anne-Marie Forsyth says:

    Hi Ronnie,

    Thanks so much; this has really helped me! After much agonising and deliberating, I think I will teach RCS grades 1 – 5, then LCM grades 6 – 8 but using Trinity’s repertoire. In the end this is because Trinity’s supplementary requirements are exactly the same as for classical exams and I feel this is simply not relevant in our alternative context.

    I share your dismay at the emphasis on modern tunes over older tunes in the RCS syllabus. However my main concern across all three streams is still how credible are the actual examiners? If they themselves are not specialist Scottish fiddle players then I don’t accept that they have any right to judge my students.


    • rmgibson says:

      Hi Anne-Marie, It’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you found the post helpful, and it’s really interesting to read about your perspective. I contacted LCM with an enquiry about their examiners, but didn’t get a straight answer. It would appear examiners are Scottish-traditional musicians, but not necessarily fiddle players. A student of mine recently sat an RCS exam, and was examined by Alistair McCulloch – very reassuring! TCL, of course, use non-specialist examiners. I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re approaching the repertoire as a ‘classical’ musician, but I agree that it is far from satisfactory for those of us adopting a more ‘traditional’ approach to performance. Best wishes, R

  2. Crauford Thomson says:

    Fantastic article. However, it crossed my mind when reading it that examination of fiddle playing must fall into two categories,
    1. Authentic performances similar to early music performances i.e. researched historic performances.
    2. Modern playing performance. Using modern instruments and techniques.

    Mixing the two approaches just causes confusion, one needs to know when trying to be historic as against modern. Particularly in terms of performance, a historic performance should use period instruments and string technology no microphone etc where as a modern performance would use all modern instrumental facilities provided it is tasteful. (Taste being completely subjective).

    The exam boards need to chose a path and realistically they can only go modern and national. Otherwise the examination become a practical history exam and techniques or equipment should not be used if out of period. This would be impractical and potentially stymy the development of fiddle music. The real argument is who should dictate the development of fiddle music going forward. The exam boards are clearly trying to and accordingly should come under scrutiny as are publishers and players all with there own vested interest. We must remember you can’t stop progress just run at the front and steer the direction.

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