So here is a question I consider every fall when a new crop of music students arrives at the university: are students better or worse prepared for university by Royal Conservatory (RCM) training? And that leads to the broader questions of the overall impact of the Royal Conservatory system on the larger musical culture. Perhaps with some important changes RCM could be very valuable, but at this point I believe it does at least as much damage as good.
One of the core problems, as I explain later, is the sort of ideology of musical culture it propagates. RCM’s vision statement claims that “The Royal Conservatory has a bold new vision to promote a culture of creativity in Canada and foster a society in which every child and adult receives the extraordinary personal benefits that come from participation in music and the arts.” There are incredible benefits in participation in the arts and in a culture of creativity. One great argument for this can be found in Lambert Zuidervaart’s recent book. In practice, though, creativity seems to be far from the results of the RCM methodology. Performance excellence is the focus. Why spend time composing in lessons, or improvising a cadenza when they won’t help you pass your next exam, the ‘real’ measure of your musicianship? Consistently, it is the RCM students who in university excel in performance but are scared and unable to compose. Some even say, ‘I perform. I don’t compose’. No doubt that performance is a creative act, but for the most part not in the RCM. Their theory tests have all right and wrong answers, even in upper levels, with little room for critical thought. Examples are only drawn from the small part of the literature that perfectly fits the rules of the level being tested. History is explored in a very narrow manner as stylistic history.
And this is too bad, because there is great value in learning about what has come before. Creativity begins by copying and then learning to create something new, as argued many places including this ‘Everything is a remix’ video and Bruce Ellis Benson’s article here. Creativity means confronting and working with the past. Unfortunately RCM too often treats performance closer to an assembly line than an act of creation. Granted, there are many individual teachers who avoid this style of teaching. However, I have observed too many non-creative RCM students entering university to be comfortable with their system of music education.
I’ll go so far to say that RCM is great for two groups of people: music teachers and parents. Parents want quantified results that their kids are improving, and exams are one way for parents to see a return on their investment. Pass exams at a quicker pace, and your child might even be considered gifted, providing great parental pride. And who can help these children? Why, music teachers of course. Private teaching is a regular part of the income of most musicians, and the RCM system helps supply those jobs, which is great for music school grads. The RCM works on the consumer system: they sell parents and students a feeling of accomplishment of passing exams that may or may not be helpful for a career in music or the enjoyment of music.
The USA recently adopted RCM as a standard (brought to my attention from a facebook post of a colleague). In an interview announcing these standardized exam in America is found the following statement: “National programs in several countries have shown that the sense of progress and achievement born of having a national standard is instrumental in keeping students engaged in music, says Jennifer Snow, who splits time as the RCM’s director of teacher pedagogy and a professor of piano at the University of California, Los Angeles.” This is an incredibly problematic statement. The idea that a national standard encourages engagement with music is ludicrous. Having a national programme for accessibility would encourage engagement. Finding ways to enjoy music beyond simple achievement by exams would encourage engagement. What a national standard does do, however, is make a judgment on what type of musical engagement is considered acceptable and valuable. It places a certain sort of performance as central, specifically those that emphasize technical mastery. Does having a national spelling bee encourage the literary endeavors of a nation? It also assumes that ‘progress’ is the most desirable thing in music education, and that ‘achievement’ means showing upward mobility against a national standard. This again is the customer model, and turning students into customers leads to issues of entitlement. After all, the customer is always right, right?
We’ve seen the problem with school grades, which (in North America at least) have inflated significantly over the past number of years. CBC has a great podcast called ‘the hurried child’ that deals with the growth of ‘shadow’ education and the problems that this pressure has on kids whose well-meaning parents have assisted in the instrumentalization of education. So really, these problems with RCM are just one tip of a larger problem with education, a debate most also salient in the U.K. over the funding policies in higher education the last few months.
I took piano lessons from a graded method for many years as a child. I did fine, but I mostly hated the rigidity of the lesson format. However, it did provide a solid foundation for my musical knowledge. I quit those lessons, but later found my love for music in a rock band. Reflecting on what changed, I think much of it was that I had the chance to be creative as a musician (rather than a technician) and that I was able to enjoy the social elements of music making. And this is the big thing missing from RCM: they conceive of music as an individual achievement rather than something inherently social. Why else do kids and adults alike create garage bands and other social musical events? Many musicologists and philosophers have written on the primacy of social interaction in music, including myself. Ian Cross argues that the evolutionary role of music is social. It was a love of music found outside structured music education that became my reason to study music and get interested in classical and jazz to a larger extent. But on the other hand, it is very likely I wouldn’t be where I am now without those early piano lessons. Maybe the method needs some work, but if we can have teachers that can both teach skills and get students interested in all elements of music – from the social to performing to composing to history to theory to thinking critically – then we will have more people engaged with music, and that is a good thing.