The Sociomusicology of an RCM Music Exam

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 9th, 2013. Filed under: Performance.

Many students of mine have arrived at the School of Music via the well-travelled road of the Royal Conservatory of Music examination system. And almost all of them trod down this path as youthful pianists.

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For those not in the loop, I should quickly summarize the august institution that is known simply as the RCM. It is venerable, like its counterparts in England from which it received its essential outline. “How venerable?” you ask. Let me take you back to 1985. I was watching the Anne of Green Gables on CBC (the one with Megan Follows, not its successor with Sarah Polley). Circa 1900, an older Anne (with an e) had achieved her dream; to enrol in a university. She was crowding around her new female friends, sharing in the excitement of the first week of classes. Then, one of the girls suddenly becomes alarmed.  She had forgotten about her RCM exam which was scheduled to take place across campus within mere minutes. I was equally jolted, but with surprise and delight, at the fleeting reference to such an important, modern Canadian musical landmark in such an historic setting.

The RCM was founded in 1886, the same year that Vancouver was chartered to be a municipality. And whereas pre-Vancouver Gastown was nothing more than a Wild West assortment of clapboard buildings populated mainly by rough-and-ready, loggers and bushwackers, the RCM was housed at the opposite end of Canada, in a stately Victorian building on a sophisticated, tree-lined street in Toronto. Those who are avid followers of Murdoch’s Mysteries will have an excellent picture in their mind.  Back then, the mandate of the RCM was to provide an out-of-school music education to the daughters of Toronto’s moneyed classes, in keeping with the usual Western bourgeois’ bid to make young women more marriageable in higher society. Cynical, I know, but there’s substantial body of research to justify this view. That is not to say that the same young ladies didn’t use the opportunity to explore their musicality on their own terms, only that the outcome was different from the process.

Today the RCM coincidentally has one of the most amazing distance education programs on the planet. But before I explain it in more detail, I should make a few things clear. There is the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, a music conservatory housed in the newly-refurbished heritage building on Bloor Street, and then there is the RCME, the Royal Conservatory of Music – Examinations. It is the latter which interests me the most, mainly because I have been an examiner for the RCME for many years. My specialty is woodwinds, brasswinds, and percussion.  Some of what I am going to describe is true for the strings and voice, but I’m not overly familiar with those exams, so I will restrict my comments to my own experiences with winds and percussion examinations. Or rather, “assessments”, the preferred term today.

Distance Certification

Here is where the distance-education thing becomes remarkable.  Imagine that you want to train for a professional certificate. You discover that there is a national, highly respected yet distant educational establishment that provides you with a certification process right in your city or town, rather than requiring you re-locate to their location. And unlike standard distance education programs, the institution will examine and certify your knowledge in person, one-on-one, each time you complete one of the levels in their clear series of progressive skills that ultimately ends in a complete education. You acquire the knowledge necessary to pass each graded exam by hiring a local teacher on a weekly basis, thus supporting the local economy and allowing you to stay home.

The institution sends out examiners three times a year to personally conduct an assessment and judge whether you are ready to move on to the next step with your local teacher. You can fail as many times as you want (before the sad truth sets in). You can take the same exam as many times as you want. You can even skip grade levels (but not in the final grades).  At the end of the process, you acquire a certificate from one of the most respected educational establishments in the world, for use in one of the most secure self-employment job markets in the world (private music instruction). The only downside is that you will most likely have to work the afternoon shift (3 PM to 10 PM).

The only organisation I know of that functions on the same distance-education model is dance, with ballet at its core. And therein lays a great research paper for somebody. How do they compare? Are the outcomes similar?

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From a nationalist point of view, there is one small problem with the RCME. For all intents and purposes, it functions as Canada’s national music conservatory. And yet its final certificate of graduation is labelled ARCT – Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto, instead of ARCC – Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Canada. I have mentioned this snag many times to the RCM, but there does not seem to be any real interest in changing the designation. Toronto-centrism at work? I hope not.

So, in no particular order, I present you with a few of many examples of the sociology of an RCM exam, as seen from my side of the desk as both examiner and participant-observer. My comments may seem carping, so I hasten to add that the RCM graduation certification is without a doubt, one of the finest of its kind in the land and recognized all over the world.


First, and most important, is the ensemble portion of a wind exam (as well as strings and voice).

Every music candidate, piano and otherwise, is expected to play standard pieces of repertoire as well as shorter examples of technical achievement like studies and technique (scales, arpeggios, etc.). When the wind players enter the room to perform their repertoire, they arrive with a pianist who accompanies them. I see mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, local piano teachers hired at the last minute, and every other combination you can imagine, thrown together to present two or three pieces of music in a tremendous moment of intense cooperation and mutual music-making. During the preparations and then the exams, they create strategies, suffer defeats or celebrate success, as they go through the process of achieving the height of human cooperation known to mankind. Christopher Small calls the process spiritual, and re-named it musicking.

So what of the piano students? Nothing. No sharing. No cooperation. Just solo performances encased in solitude. I find this part of the piano exam shocking. If it were up to me, I would have the pianists perform at least one example of accompaniment in their repertoire preparations. Like the winds, strings and vocal candidates, they must arrive at the exam with a second person, perhaps a friend who plays the flute, or their piano teacher who is also a singer,  or a fellow bench-warmer doing 4-hand piano. Piano teachers will likely howl in protest, saying that the repertoire of solo literature is already full to overflowing, and not open to more additions, let alone another List of requirements. I say, drop one of the entire lists, edit the remaining solo lists, and create a new list of accompanied pieces of music. One less Bach; one more moment of supreme example of human cooperation and engagement. And in the process, young people are prepared for the rigors of socialisation at the very times in their life when they are most in need of practice and advice.

The details are daunting, I admit, but where there is a will, there is a way. And right now there is no will, not even a glimmer of possibility. Perhaps the next generation will lobby for such an important change.

The look

Here I shall applaud the pianists, instead of berating them. Sort of. They are required to memorize their music, and the winds are not. The result of this oversight is the vision of wind players, including highly advanced players, staring intently at their music stands, oblivious of “the audience” (i.e., me). Although the sound of the music may be glorious, the “look” of the performance is generally stagnant and alienating. Such a performance style is well known as the kiss of death in the theatre world. When the time comes to make a living on the stage as a performer, the reality of this situation will hit hard. If even the tiniest of munchkins are required to memorize their repertoire, as well as the Glenn Goulds, then so should the wind players.

Of course, pianists do not necessarily shine visually when they have their music memorized. They usually stare at the keyboard, sometimes blankly as their inner player downloads the notes, sometimes rapturously.  Because of the nature of piano performance, pianists must commit the gravest sin on stage, presenting their shoulder to the audience instead of their entire body. With this in mind, its interesting to see how pop musician pianists like Tori Amos and Jerry Lee Lewis solve this problem. They stand. I admit that such a position denies the player many advantages built into the seated position, so frankly I am baffled to think of a solution. Except perhaps the obvious. The piano, like the string quartet, plays on stage as if alone, and the audience is forced to play the role of cultural voyeurs, gazing in amazement while holding their breath in an oppressive blanket of silence, lest they interrupt the solitary musings of the musician.

Be that as it may, acknowledging the importance of the look of the music performance will stimulate discussion and research the difference between good theatre and damaging histrionics, the most pressing issue in stage performance today.

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The consequences

When a student does badly, or is mediocre, where does the fault lay? This answer may appear obvious at first, given the dedication of music teachers who do as well as they can to prepare their students for the exams, talent or not. But many’s the time I’ve heard mediocre performances that are obviously the result of mediocre teaching. But only the student suffers the consequences. This is a conundrum I have never been able to solve, but I always hope that my written comments that accompany the marks can be read between the lines.

The future

In the 1980s, the RCME, and private music teachers, seems to have gone into a decline as young people pulled away from their parent’s middle class ambitions for their children, choosing instead allowing their kids to pursue their own destinies and musical interests. They rejected WAM (Western Art Music) in favour of popular music. Given that pop music is a living entity with exciting possibilities, residing at the heart of modern culture, the decision is understandable. In contrast, Western Art Music has steadily become marginalized, museumfied and relegated to a niche segment of the population.

Then, in the 90s, a new wave of immigration from East Asia arrived on the shores of Canada, particularly after the hand-over of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997. Student enrollment ballooned and continues to be bullish. But there is a fear is that the burgeoning numbers may be a bubble as the young arrivals begin to see the Western world through the eyes of their local counterparts. To accommodate this possibility, the RCME is expanding into the US and early indications are that will be very successful, simply because of the far greater numbers of candidates, regardless of cultural conditions that favour popular music.

The RCM is also heavily committed to the non-musical benefits of learning how to play music, such as increased mental acumen, but I have not seen any research that says garage band players or karaoke devotees are any less prone to developing their mental prowess.

In a future instalment, I’ll chat about some other sociomusicological issues that I have observed – the pathological fear of the ear tests, the dread of scales and arpeggios, the seeming complete disconnect between Canada’s university departments and schools of music with the RCM…


Ezra Schabas (2005) There’s Music in These Walls: A History of the Royal Conservatory of Music

Christopher Small (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening

Derek Scott (1989) The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour

Tia DeNora (2000) Music in Everyday Life

Richard Leppert (1993) The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation and the History of the Body

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