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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 1

The Music Exam

by Alexandre Boutebel / September 3, 2003

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Music is one of the few careers where it is not necessary to have a degree; the proof is in the performance. Yet every year over 400,000 music students of all ages across Canada submit themselves to music examinations.

In Canada, the Royal Conservatory of Music Examinations (or RCM Exams) is the largest organization administering formal music tests. Their established curriculum allows a standardized approach to music education. RCM Examinations publishes a syllabus for grades 1 to 10 through their publishing arm, Frederic Harris Music, available via most sheet music retailers. An advantage for some pupils is that individual teachers and students can adopt this curriculum and sign up for the RCM examinations. Most of the RCM's reach is in English Canada. In Quebec, music schools such as Montreal's McGill Conservatory of Music and the École de Musique Vincent-d'Indy have their own independent examination departments.

"Examinations provide candidates with a goal as well as a sense of accomplishment and progress," says Christopher Kowal, Chief Examiner in the Practical Subjects for the RCM. "You never know where you stand until a third party can share its opinion with you." Globe and Mail journalist Judith Timson puts it this way: "For my sons, measuring themselves to a standard is only positive, it is a personal and strengthening situation. We've chosen the most traditional route by going through the RCM."

Examinations cover practical and theoretical subjects. Participants are evaluated in rudiments, harmony, counterpoint, analysis and history. The theoretical examinations of the Associates of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto (ARCT) cover musical history as well as orchestration. The practical exam consists of an evaluation by an impartial examiner of the student's performance of selected pieces. To promote creativity and enthusiasm, some organizations allow a choice in the test repertoire, including original compositions.

At Vincent-d'Indy, students can take exams from grades 2 to 10 twice a year, whereas the RCM offers 3 sessions covering grades 1 to 10. At the RCM, both ARCT and Associate of the Conservatory levels are also available. For those who intend to pursue a university degree in music, Vincent d'Indy offers a CEGEP training.

Are examinations necessary? What are the benefits?

While examinations are compulsory at the Conservatory of Montreal, they are not at Vincent d'Indy or the RCM. Most music teachers, however, favour them because of their positive influences on students. Practical exams require a great deal of effort and commitment on a pupil's part. And the more advanced the student, the harder the repertoire -- and the challenging repertoire is usually the most interesting. "They are a springboard to post-secondary institutions," says Kowal. "Examinations are essential to gauge one's progress," states Jean-Philippe Sylvestre, a former Vincent d'Indy student who has graduated to the Glenn Gould Professional School and has the makings of a promising career.?

?Challenge, personal satisfaction, advice, diplomas ... Exams are not always the panacea they seem to be. Not all pupils hold the same ambitions or have the same resistance to stress. Unquestionably, nervousness is part of the whole experience. Some take advantage of it, considering stress a positive source of energy. For others, being scrutinized by a panel of silent judges is simply unbearable. In most cases, though, students succeed in managing their stress. A good preparation is key to being on stage. "I've seen my sons' distress, but it is natural and beneficial to them," Timson asserts.

Vincent d'Indy piano teacher Lucie Renaud acknowledges, "For pupils who intend to stay amateurs, exams are not an absolute necessity." Although most music students are between 5 and 17 years old, some adults enroll in music school for their own pleasure. They must balance their professional lives with their musical endeavours, and the exacting rhythm of examinations can prove quite a challenge. Yet, as Yolande Gaudreau, head of the École de musique Verdun, explains, "Examinations give a purpose and a structure to amateurs, plus a feeling of satisfaction."

From a student's point of view
Marguerite Tinawi

"For me, taking a piano exam is like running a marathon. I choose the repertoire with my teacher Thérèse Gingras one year in advance. Not only must I learn and perform the pieces, but they must be performed by heart. It is rather hard to concentrate on the same four pieces for a whole year. A few weeks before the exam, one can practice up to 4 hours a day.

I don't think anybody is immune to nerves. Before an exam or a recital, I eat very little, a banana and raisins. As I am rather shy, I don't look forward to playing in front of others. Yet with time I begin to like it. Giving a public speech seems easier. If I make a mistake, I can correct myself, joke about it and go on. At the piano, every little mistake can be detected, and it takes great improvising skill to cover up for a memory lapse.

One doesn't need to start taking exams at a young age. Mrs. Gingras' students, for example, only begin in grade 7. Before, she says, the piece of paper is not worth the hassle, and the repertoire is limited. Yet, for those who have few chances to play for an audience, starting young can be helpful.

Balancing piano and school work can be complicated. We learn to organize ourselves fast. Each year, it is a challenge. The feeling after a good exam or recital is exhilarating; it is the crowning of hours of practice, hope and worry. It feels like an enormous accomplishment. A great reward indeed!"

 Marguerite Tinawi takes part in Vincent-d'Indy's piano exams.

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