This week we’re going to do things a little differently, and talk a bit about the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), a Canadian music school that offers standardized exams called “grades.” If you’ve ever heard anyone say something like “I have my grade 6 in music,” it likely means they’re talking about RCM and RCM exams.
And they’re talking about the RCM because of its high standards and long history. In fact, it’s one of the oldest music schools (still in operation) in the world, having been founded in 1886 with the name “The Toronto Conservatory of Music.”
If you’re considering taking the exams, we’ve got some information that you may find interesting.
So, how exactly do music schools like the RCM differ from going to a university or music college?
Well, to start, it you’re applying to a music program at a university, most entrance exams/auditions will ask you to play at a certain grade level, which can act as an important credential. Having exam/audition experience looks great on an application.
In Ontario (and likely most universities across Canada), you need to audition at a Grade 8 level or higher and write a test on theory at the same level. That means gaining at least your grade 8 before auditioning will help immensely.
If you’re trying to get into a musical college, which tend to be a bit more difficult, you’ll need an even higher level of experience. For example, if you are auditioning for the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto, you’d probably want to audition at an ARCT level (which we will discuss later), which is one level higher than grade 10 and is the second highest level in the entire RCM system.
In a nutshell, you can think of these music schools running parallel to regular school. In a regular school, students generally progress from kindergarten to grade 12, and then perhaps will go off to college or university. While going through the school grade levels, a student could also do their piano grades up until 10/ARCT level, which could open more opportunities.
Of course, you don’t have to be a kid to take the RCM exams – they’re open to anyone, of all ages – and you can take them purely for the personal and musical development.
We’ve talked a bit about RCM “grades,” but what does that really refer to?
RCM grades go from 1 to 10, but there are levels both before and after that. Before grade 1 there is a “preparatory” level, which you can think of as a sort of musical kindergarten. After grade 10, you’re into the “university courses”: ARCT (which is sort of like a bachelor’s degree) and LRCT (which is sort of like a master’s degree).
The average student – one who works hard at music, but their life doesn’t revolve around practice – can reasonably expect to get a grade 8 RCM level by the time they’ve finished high school. Grade 8 represents a solid understanding and competency in music. Anyone who reaches this level will be able to enjoy music for the rest of their life, even if they choose not to study music after graduation.
The more competitive student – one who practices constantly and chooses to focus on music over other activities – can likely hit a grade 10/ARCT level by the end high school. These students are the kind to be interested in pursuing music in their post-secondary career, and beyond.
In Canada at least, taking the RCM exams while still in high school can give you credits for it!
As I mentioned, the ARCT in performance via the RCM is an extremely high level – in fact, it’s somewhat equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. To be clear, it is not the same – you would not be able to teach in a school setting with an RCM certificate – but the skill level you develop is similar to that of a bachelor’s degree.
The highest level of the RCM is the LRCT (the “L” standing for “licentiate”), and is the skill level equivalent of a master’s degree. In fact, if you have a music degree from a regular university, but not the ARCT certificate, you would be able to transfer the credit to then study for the LRCM without having to go through the ARCT exam first.
If you’re interested in going into business as a music instructor, having RCM credentials is almost as useful as having a Bachelor of Music – but the two work even better together, opening up even more career opportunities. Neither work as a substitute for the other, rather, they complement each other very well.
So, what if you’re not a kid anymore? Can you still take the exams?
Of course! And you don’t need to progress through all the levels to do it. Once you hit around the grade 8 level you’ll need to do each test to move on to the next level, but you won’t need to start at the grade 1 level to get there. That said, it you’ve been playing for a bit and you’ve reached a grade 3 level of playing, you can start your exams at grade 3.
Generally speaking, you should be in the grade level that you can learn pieces in comfortably. For example, in you’re a grade 1 student, you should be able to learn a grade 1 piece in about a month without needing to go overboard with practice. A grade 1 student might be able to stretch themselves to a grade 3 piece, but if it takes intensive practice to make it work it’s likely too much of a stretch.
It’s best to be honest with yourself when going into the testing because if you stretch yourself too much (for example, someone who is comfortable at grade 8 or 9 trying for the grade 10 test), you’ll likely do poorly, which can be very discouraging. In the end, stick to the grade level you’re most comfortable playing in – if you stick to it you will progress, there’s no need to push yourself too hard.
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