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Arco - Any Recent Experience?


nachthorn
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I've decided to take the plunge and sit the ARCO in one of the two periods in London next year. Is there anyone who has recent experience of the process, particularly of the paperwork, and also of the organ at St. Barnabas Dulwich, who can give any useful hints and advice?

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I've decided to take the plunge and sit the ARCO in one of the two periods in London next year. Is there anyone who has recent experience of the process, particularly of the paperwork, and also of the organ at St. Barnabas Dulwich, who can give any useful hints and advice?

Try contacting the organ scholar at Rochester. She has just done it.

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Organ at St Barnabas is lovely; main advice I'd give is when you get your hour or so practice time on the organ before you take the exam, make sure you bring someone along who, as well as turning your pages, can give you advice on how the organ sounds away from the console. It's absolutely invaluable. When I did the exam a couple of years ago, the examiners were off to the left a little at the centre of the church.

 

I also found the RCO ARCO workshop day very helpful, mine not least because it was actually at St Barnabas, so you got a chance to play the organ before the event. It's useful to hear the points of view of examiners, and there are always a couple of obvious-but-you-hadn't-thought-of-it points you can pick up then. They also demythologise the whole thing a little, so it doesn't sound quite so awful.

 

As for written papers, for all the components it somewhat comes down to what experience you have in the various subjects. The Cambridge Companion to the Organ is a good basic starter for many subjects, make sure you listen to as much organ music as possible beforehand, and play lots of repertoire, so you can recognise who composed what when you get the examples (if you still have to do that). The H&C again depends rather on what you've done before. If you haven't done any, then find someone who will take you through the basics, and give yourself plenty of time for practise. If you've done A-level or more, there should be nothing there that should be too much of a problem. Aural you can get practice papers, as you can with keyboard tests. Would certainly advise doing that!

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I thoroughly agree with everything that has been said so far.

 

I took my ARCO about 6 years ago, and FRCO 4 years ago.

 

I first took my ARCO 20 years ago when I was a student and failed everything. I was so knocked back that it took me all that time to have another go, but I am very pleased I did.

 

In the intervening period, the exam process has become much more relevant, transparent and user - friendly.

 

The study days now run by the RCO are very useful, particularly if you can get a 'hands on' day at St Barnabas which is, indeed, a lovely organ.

 

Here are some tips which I learned along the way.

 

1 Obviously, don't ignore the pieces, but really concentrate on the tests. Practice the tests 100 times more than you practice the pieces.

 

2 Practice the tests, literally, every day. You need to get to the stage where you feel guilty if you miss a day's practice. I remembering practicing on Christmas Day just so that I could say I had done it.

 

3 Be patient and don't lose heart if it seems difficult. The tests will come, but will not come overnight. I reckon it took me around 8 months to start from zero but get to ARCO standard. The best lesson I ever had on the tests was talking to two very famous concert organists, both of whom were RCO prizewinners, both of whom are now examiners. I learned that they found the tests just as difficult as I did, and had to work just as hard as I did to succeed.

 

4 Practice the tests from 'real' music rather than books of tests. Practicing score reading from, say, the Gibbons Short Service is much more enjoyable than some dreary book of studies, and will give a boost to your harmony and counterpoint at the same time.

 

5 Deliberately step up the level of your tests so that you practice them at a higher level than will be needed on the day. When you are confident of your score - reading, try to transpose the score reading as well.

 

6 Record yourself playing the tests. Play them with a metronome. Video yourself playing the tests so that you can see if there are any areas for improvement.

 

7 Then aim to play the tests as if they were the most beautiful music in the world. That is the way to get the extra marks. The examiners are looking for you to be musical in everything you do, particularly the tests. Don't just aim to get the notes right, although that must be a given, think about your phrasing, your articulation, your sense of poise and performance.

 

8 If you elect figured bass, play along with real music. I bought the Dover score of Bach Cantatas (good for FRCO score reading), listened to the cantata on my Ipod and played along. A wonderful way to discover this treasure trove of music, and learn at the same time.

 

9 So far as Harmony and Counterpoint is concerned, I pretty much taught myself from scratch. I found Anna Butterworths books absolutely superb ; Harmony in Practice publisehd by ABRSM and Stylistic Harmony published by Oxford.

 

10 Anna Bond's little book published by RSCM on how to approach ARCO is very good.

 

11 Get really good tuition from someone who knows the exam from the inside, preferably an RCO examiner. The St Giles Organ School is superb in this respect ; Daniel Moult guided me through the FRCO tests and was just brilliant, as well as being huge fun to work with. You can contact him direct on his website. St Giles also gave me very good guidance for ARCO paperwork. St Giles also do mock exam days which I am sure would be very useful.

 

12 Put aside 5 or 10 minutes of your practice time at Dulwich to visualising the exam itself. The three examiners will sit at a table in the middle of the church space, closer than you think. Practice walking into the space. Practice walking out of the space. Imagine it is the actual day of the exam. Take a digital camera and take photographs of the organ console and the space so that when you arrive on the day you can picture exactly what you are going to do. Remember, the examiners are looking for someone who can give a polished performance from the minute they walk through the door, not someone who shambles on and just scrapes through.

 

13 Learn from my example. If you fail - and it happens - don't lose heart. As I say, I failed ARCO outright the first time, then got everything the second time years later, then failed FRCO test the first time and had to re - sit those. Diligence, method and focus is the way to pass these exams, and will be rewarded.

 

This makes it all sound like hard work, which it is, but I cannot tell you how proud I am of the diploma on my wall, and how much it is boosted my confidence as an organist and as a musician.

 

Go for it !

 

Good luck, and let us know how you get on.

 

Best regards,

Mark B

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Forgot to add.

 

5 (i). In the few months leading up to ARCO, if I was playing for a church service (which I was in those days) I made a habit of transposing every single piece of music I played during the service (apart from voluntaries) to get used to transposition in front of an audience. Nerve - racking to begin with, but gives your confidence a huge boost.

 

m

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Some very good advice above, here's my contribution.

 

I did ARCO 20 years ago and passed first time, couldn't understand what the fuss was about, lept straight into FRCO and failed dismally on all fronts. Took me a further 16 years to pluck up the courage to do it, by which time I had far more experience in playing in front of strangers.

 

1. Practice the tests, then practice the tests, and then again and again, every single time you play the organ, do them.

 

2. The RCO Cambridge course was very useful (its around April time), particularly for the historical part of the FR paperwork, but the variety of teachers on offer meant there was something for everyone. Two of the teachers had the three pieces I was doing in their regular repertoire, so that was very useful.

 

3. I did a mock exam at St Giles, which was also very useful from AMT who had recent experience as an examiner. I then had a short lesson, all good for the confidence. (When I did the ARCO, none of these organisations ran any sort of help, they relied on the money from resitting exams to survive).

 

4. Plan the playing meticulously and play the pieces in public as often as possible. I made all of my recital programmes include all three pieces, so they had many outings.

 

5. Paperwork was tough and I didn't get any lessons on it, so feel a bit of a fraud offering any advice, but it was remarkable how much degree information worked its way back into the memory, including fugal expositions.

 

I passed, rather better than I thought I might have done and as a reward, had to do the speech at the prizegiving, which was far more terrifying than the exam itself!

 

Good luck!

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I think the advice above is very good, here's my extra 2 pennies worth.

 

I did CertRCO a few years ago and did very well. I did ARCO about 18 months ago and passed (well, scraped by the skin of my teeth) through 4/5ths of it first time round - I didn't get the aural part first time round and had to resit the aurals.

 

1. Practise the tests a lot. Every day for months in advance. As I was getting close to the exam date, I was spending about 40 mins to an hour practising tests a day. In addition to insisting on 100% accuracy and all the points above, I'd add practising:

 

a) Not stopping. Whatever happens, keep going! The examiners will not give you another chance. It's really important to practice keeping going so you're conditioned to keep moving whatever happens.

b. Metronome marks. All the tests (except the improvisation option) have metronome marks. You will get marked down if you are not with 10% of the metronome mark. Learn to know how fast the majority of metronome marks go (I could tell the difference between crotchet = 84 and crotchet = 88 when practising for ARCO) and practise the tests with a metronome. One thing that really helps is to know the speeds at which various pieces of music go. Eg National Anthem: 72, Onward Christian soldiers: 100, etc - I still have them written down somewhere). The most important speeds are between 60-100 beats per minute - the rest you can just count in minums for faster speeds and quavers for slower speeds.

c) Get good at keyboard harmony. This will stand you in good stead for the Harmonisation/Figured bass/Improvisation test. I reckon it also helps with transposition if you have a really good understanding of where the harmony is going and you can analyse it accurately in "real time".

 

If you want to do improvisation, remember that the examiners will be looking for skills rather than divine inspiration. Even Messiaen had his off days. If it rambles, they won't be interested. It's not an easy option at all unless you're a good improviser and have been properly trained to improvise - a rare event on these shores. Go and listen to someone like Jacques van Oortmerrson or Nigel Allcoat improvise to hear a skilful improviser doing the sort of things the examiners will be looking out for. Harmonisation or Figured Bass are easier options unless you know what you're doing when improvising.

 

Remember, the examiners will have heard the tests about 30 times before you sit your exam so will know them like the back of their hand by the time you're sitting on the bench.

 

2. Papers. I found the day of written papers quite draining - 2 3 hour exams in a day with an hour for lunch is hard work. Really understand harmony and counterpoint. It's also really important to understand Bach's style for the Bach Chorale question. Malcolm Boyd's book on Bach Chorale Harmonisation and Instrumental Counterpoint is invaluable:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bach-Chorale-Harmo...t/dp/1871082722

(there's a bundle Amazon are doing which looks really good, including the riemenschneider and Anna Butterworth's book, that I hear good things about)

 

Get a copy of the Bach Riemenschnieder. Not only is it good for transposition & figured bass practice, it's also very good to play through these chorales and analyse them to get a feel for Bach's style.

 

I started almost from scratch on the paper work. I don't even have a music GCSE or A-level to my name. I used the William Lovelock books to give me a grounding, which, while being perhaps a little old-fashioned, were very thorough.

 

Go through a few past papers before the exam and practise doing the questions and be sure you can do them in the time allocated.

 

Remember, you will be writing on open score (4 staves) for the Bach chorale question. Examiners seem to have superhuman vision for spotting parallels and exposed 5ths in open score, which is far harder than short score, and which will cost you marks. Worth practising this question a few times in open score and being sure you can do it within the suggested time. Remember, it's about getting a consonant style, avoiding mistakes than uncovering Bach's more adventurous harmonisations. Something really quite ordinary with no mistakes will get more marks than a clever answer with lots of modulations and mistakes.

 

Read about the period of history as much as possible (don't just rely on the Cambridge Companion to the organ - it's useful in places but you need several sources) and play through music of the period. I remember my period was South German Organ Music 1660-1770 which is quite notable for its dryness. A bunch of us were sitting in Nero's at lunchtime after the first exam, crapping ourselves as we realised none of us knew very much about South German Organ music it at all and trying to do some last minute cramming. Until one of us piped up: "well, it could be worse, you know. It could be, like, organ music in China, or somewhere". It certainly relieved the tension.

 

Aurals: Quite a lot of people I've known have come to grief on the ARCO aurals. They are not easy - you will see lots of ashen faces if you go to an ARCO study day and Simon Williams does a mock exam. The most difficult is the first aural perception question, where the differences are really very easy to miss indeed. It's also really easy as well in the rhythm test to lose your place in the score as you try to pick out the mistakes and correct them.

 

The RCO library has copies of previous years Aural test CDs. I'd suggest hiring them out (a long time in advance of the exam so they're not hired out to someone else), ripping copies and practising them before the day. It'll help sharpen up your skills and spot the sort of things the RCO will do: for example in the rhythm test, there will always be some triplet quavers and a tied semiquaver held over an upbeat. Knowing what to expect and what to recognise helps invaluably.

 

Everyone during the exam in the centre is very nice and will understand if you're stressed and will put you at your ease. They will have seen it all before and will want you to do well. St Barnabus is a nice place, especially in the summer. The organ is very good and holds no nasty hidden surprises: it's comfortable and easy to play but do go into the room to hear the balance and effect in the main part of the church - balances aren't quite as you hear them at the console. Take a friend that can play or a recorder.

 

Find a good teacher that's done the diplomas (preferably quite recently or sits on the examining board or has done so quite recently) - they will help invaluably. I was very lucky indeed that Sarah Baldock was about 5 minutes walk away at Winchester Cathedral, so I could pop over for lessons during my lunch break. She was superb - quite a lot of the advice above comes straight from Sarah - and she put me in touch with Stevie Farr if she wasn't available. Phil White-Jones helped me through the paperwork - I think it helps to have a separate teacher for paperwork, rather than trying to squeeze it in at the end of the lesson - and he knew what was expected and what to do.

 

Go through the sylabus and the marking scheme in detail to be sure what's expected: http://www.rco.org.uk/pdfs/ExamRegulations08-09.pdf

 

Good Luck!!

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If you want to do improvisation, remember that the examiners will be looking for skills rather than divine inspiration. Even Messiaen had his off days. If it rambles, they won't be interested. It's not an easy option at all unless you're a good improviser and have been properly trained to improvise - a rare event on these shores. Go and listen to someone like Jacques van Oortmerrson or Nigel Allcoat improvise to hear a skilful improviser doing the sort of things the examiners will be looking out for. Harmonisation or Figured Bass are easier options unless you know what you're doing when improvising.

 

I'll definitely second that - for both ARCO and FRCO, I chose tests that could either be right or wrong, rather than subjective; i.e. figured bass rather than improvisation; transcription rather than figured bass realisation. (One man's meat is another man's poison, and if the examiners don't like your style - however good it may be - you'll get what Edward Bairstow called a "moon" and some comment such as "This meandered to little effect.")

 

If you do opt for improvisation, you should practice it as thoroughly as you would any of the other tests. Listen to Allcoat, Briggs et al (there are plenty of excellent recordings out there); improvise on given themes from past papers; find themes of your own to use, and make use of them in public (especially after services, where you have the opportunity to explore different styles).

 

Experiment with using more than your usual vocabulary of chords, melodic shifts etc. - a German counterpart of mine once said that, when asking his teacher about English organ improvisation, he was told to "pull out the celestes, couple to pedal Bourdon 16, have a solo flute ready on another manual and just play common chords of C major for about 6 minutes!" Whereas in Germany (and France, and even in the USA) one learns to create fugal expositions, scherzos in the style of Ravel or Rachmaninov, minuets in the style of Haydn or Mozart; one also learns to use the octatonic scale and other non-tonal devices, one learns how to create a form (the simplest trick, as told to me by David Briggs, is to remember the motif you started with and come back to it every so often, particularly after a short pause - gives the impression that you're playing a written composition!); most importantly, one learns how to stop at a few seconds notice...

 

Very best of luck with your exam and preparations for it!

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Thank you - so much - everyone who's taken the time to reply and give valuable advice. I've been otherwise engaged over the last couple of days, and will be for the next couple still, but after that I'll spend some time carefully reading the advice given and doing some good planning! Perhaps a little overwhelming at this stage, but no doubt it will all coalesce in no time...

 

Thanks again,

Duncan.

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Everyone during the exam in the centre is very nice and will understand if you're stressed and will put you at your ease. They will have seen it all before and will want you to do well. Good Luck!!

Thanks Colin - all the stewards and examiners have done these exams themselves so they know what it feels like to be at the 'sharp end' and they're all rooting for you. - its nice to know that it is recognised All of us involved in the examination process are willing everyone to pass if at all possible - and will do whatever we can to give each candidate the best chance to show what they can do at their best.

 

Equally, no-one should kid themselves; these diplomas are not given out on a whim. I have two wonderful (and expensively acquired, both time and money) pieces of paper, one that says I was 'examined' and found capable of 'exercising the Professional Duties of an Organist' (AR) and the other 'examined to the highest standards' and found 'fully capable...' (FR) both with original signatures (and hence real endorsement) from luminaries across the performance/concert/academic music world. These aren't given out lightly and I would be the first to object to any weakening of the 'Gold Standard'. The tests are tough - but no more than reasonable 'professional duties' promises.

 

I strongly recommend that any aspiring candidate gets early help and guidance from someone who has recent experience of the process and clear grasp of the criteria. A few sessions to find the areas that a particular individual needs to work on (and how to do so) will be far more beneficial than any number of generic prescriptions.

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