Is the Royal Conservatory helpful or harmful to musical culture and student development?

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.


10 thoughts on “Is the Royal Conservatory helpful or harmful to musical culture and student development?

  1. Jason says:

    Jeff, I think that this is BANG ON, not only with regards to music, but with education in general. Your “technician” comment fits my experience to a “t”. I had fabulous teachers, but often I felt like I was learning to the test, not learning how to love. It took stepping out of my comfort zone, watching you and others in dorms make music something “real” (who doesn’t remember the song about William the fish or Oprah?) in order to see the enjoyable side, not the technical. I will never be a concert pianist, nor do I want my own children to be. They need the technical know-how, yes, but also the creativity to fumble their way through and learn what is musically appealing to them and then run with it. If my 2 1/2 year old bangs away on the ivories or strum along off beat on her Elmo guitar, so be it. As my 5 and 7 year olds take lessons, may they see the joy of music, in sharing, in entertaining, in relishing the feeling of getting your feet wet in a sea so powerful and immense that it cannot be contained, nor should we even try to put a “box” around it and call it music “lessons.” Life doesn’t fit in a box, and neither does music. Introduce your kids to everything and anything (within reason) and let them see the potential music has. Teach them how to use the tools in their musical toolboxes, so to speak, but never force them to create and recreate the same thing with little room for freedom of expression. After all, that’s what music is all about. Freedom and expression. We all know that most of the “classical” musicians were very cutting edge at the time. Do we see that now? Not much. The world needs more open minded educators like yourself, who teach others to be constructive, not constricted, with regards to music, and see where music leads them, not see where they can lead music.

  2. Jason, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You really are correct that these are pedagogical issues in all education (not just in music). Especially at a time when being creative is considered an important quality in life and in the workforce, creativity should be found across all curriculum.

  3. Jason says:

    You’re welcome Jeff. Thanks for raising this important debate. I hope others join you in your conversation – it’s truly essential to determining the future of the craft of music and in the underpinnings of education itself.

  4. Sheryl Iott says:

    Sounds to me like your teacher was completely lacking in imagination.

    Students who learn to achieve excellence in performance are not precluded from spending time in lessons improvising or composing. The difficulty of the pieces for the corresponding levels in TAP as compared to other assessment programs is actually lower, which gives the teacher MORE time to do those valuable things of which you speak.

    Everybody talks about TAP as if, once you put a child into its assessment program, that becomes the SINGLE thing you work toward all year. Frankly, that’s ridiculous.

    1. Sheryl, thanks for your comment. You are correct that there is always time to add these ‘valuable things’. However, assessment is an indication of what is most valuable. This is a key to the design of any curriculum (music or otherwise). This summer I helped a student prepare for a RCM history exam. The exams value memorization over knowledge, to the extent that they require students to answer the question of ‘name a baroque sonata’ with the Scarlatti example in the theory syllabus. Any other answer is wrong. Now how does that help the student learn? Maybe I’ll write a post on the history curriculum sometime. (By the way, my student scored 89%)

      And, unfortunately, my observations are not based simply on my own experience but through nine years of teaching students with RCM backgrounds who have performance capacity but are lacking in the other ‘valuable things’ that I deem essential for the larger aims of education. Again, RCM does some great things, but needs to recognize that examinations shape values.

  5. Rose says:

    I progressed to Grade 6 in RCM piano. I hated every moment of the dry, boring curriculum and stiff teaching style. I stopped playing for years. Then, at the advice of a Juilliard composer, I picked up Faber Piano Adventures. In one $20 book I learned more about overall musicianship in an intelligent, enjoyable, multi pronged course, than I did in 6 years (plus two years preschool music) of suffering.

    I was not permitted to try a single piece that I enjoyed from the radio. So what was the point? This oppressive teaching style was true for all three of my RCM teachers. I called it typing. It sure wasn’t playing.

    Faber immediately challenges to compose a few bars, transpose pieces, play duets with your teacher, identify not only degrees of scale and chords by their names but by the number system.

    As a working singer, I once hired an RCM accompanist with a BMus. She sat up all night writing in complete stacks of chords on my charts. Even C major! She could not think her way through a simple, 3 chord lead sheet.

    I think RCM destroys more budding musicians than it creates, because I hear my story all the time. And unfortunately in Canada, the only alternative seems to be the frequently haphazard teaching you find in music stores. I know, because I’ve worked for one of the big chains. The instructors had no set curriculum and were not required to. The student has no idea what they’re getting and where it will take them. Sad.

  6. cosmojennifer says:

    Thank you! I LOVE this. I am a new piano teacher and am not officially trained in any particular method . I’ve recently been researching some official training and have been so torn because I feel like I have to follow the RCM direction in order to be a ‘successful’ teacher … I really resonate with your thoughts on this subject.

  7. Roh says:

    I really like your idea and I agree. I did not grow up with the RCM system and I knew about system after I moved to Canada. Since then, this whole RCM thing made me quite frustrated, even though I have my B.Mus. without much RCM background and training. Often I got the pressure that I should have done the RCM exams up to the higher level, just to prove my credential as a piano instructor and performer, even though I hold a degree. But your article helps me see the “reality”. I feel that I could offer much better directions to the students because I did not go through that same “dry and boring” and “technician-like” training. Your thoughts on this subject give me the new thoughts as a music teacher. Thank you!

  8. Dana says:

    Interesting discussion. I’m a piano teacher. I grew up just loving music without a testing system. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had piano “jury” and exams. What I noticed was I was a lot more intrinsically driven to learn theory and piano than many classmates who had been tested earlier in life. I had taken theory as an elective in high school because I was curious to know more. Each person is unique. Some people really thrive on the structure of RCM. I do wonder if the system of “levels” sometimes creates a false sense of superiority— such as “I’m on Level 3 so I’m more advanced and therefore a better player than Level 2.” I know of one parent who really felt proud and accomplished by having passed all of RCM levels but she doesn’t play piano in her adult life. It seemed more like an achievement for her than a means to enjoy music. In fact, maybe that’s why she stopped piano? No more levels to hurdle? Maybe she didn’t think she was continuing to play at a high enough standard so stopped playing entirely?

    Having some sort of standard is advisable though. National Piano Guild (US) seems more flexible to me, and minimally gets students thinking about essential elements of making music. One can sign up for as little as three elements or take on much larger challenges.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for adding your experience, Dana. I agree that some sort of scaffolded guide or standard can be useful, and also that the system of levels of achievement often doesn’t serve to create the intrinsic interest/love of music. Thanks!

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