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RCO Test Equivalencies

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I would be interested to hear where people think RCO tests sit when compared with other qualifications. For instance, are FRCO Keyboard Skills and written harmony work, etc., essentially equivalent to, say, what a Cambridge music student would do in Year 2 or harder/easier/different? To what extent, do you think, one prepares one for the other? And what about teaching them? I know keyboard skills and harmony, etc., is often taught by the Organist/DoM in Oxbridge colleges - how does this compare to teaching A/FRCO candidates, I wonder. Any and all thoughts would be most interesting to read.

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I really doubt if any of us here will be able to answer your question with much authority because the Keyboard Skills have been subject to constant revision, and unless we are now preparing candidates for these diplomas, our knowledge will be very out of date. The Keyboard Skills for ARCO changed this summer, and the ones for FRCO will change next summer. I suggest that the examination requirements which will be in force from next summer be studied here first of all. My own experience dates from passing the FRCO in July 1979 - at the end of my first year reading Music at Cambridge. At the end of my second year (then Part 1), I had to play a section from an orchestral score at sight on the piano. Such a skill is less often employed by a 21st-century organist in the course of their daily practical duties. Decades ago, my own organ teacher told me (and it was afterwards printed in the RCO examination syllabuses at the time) that the FRCO diploma was a graduate diploma (like the GRSM, GBSM, GLCM etc), and entitled Fellows to be regarded then as graduates for the purposes of the Burnham teachers' pay scales. In today's National Qualifications Framework, the FRCO still remains a graduate diploma, i.e. level 6.

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In addition to what Wolsey has written, I wonder whether a further consideration might be the standard of performance expected. In the RCO exams failure to perform the tests accurately can easily result in you failing. At least that was the wisdom when I sat them and I assume it is the same today. I have never heard of anyone being kicked off their university course for making a hash of the keyboard tests.

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This is interesting - aside from the FRCO it would appear that a PGCE is L7 along with a Master's degree from this point of view.

 

A

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I am not a musician in the sense of having gained any qualifications beyond grade exams, but when I retired I toyed for a while with the idea of aiming for ARCO - though other blandishments of all that newly-gained freedom rather pushed out that laudable aim. But I did notice at that time that some of the keyboard tests did not attract many marks, even the difficult (to me) ones. I seem to recall that transposition at sight only accounted for 9, suggesting that it didn't really matter if you even declined to do it provided you were able to make up the shortfall elsewhere. I could probably have done that on sight reading for example. But it was drummed into me that, although the set pieces might seem to be fairly straightforward on the face of it, the standard of performance expected was very high, which ties in with what Vox Humana said (#3).

 

But sorry, this has drifted rather away from the original question.

 

CEP

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Pieces and test have always been separate sections, both of which had to be passed, even before the exams became modular. You had to pass both the tests and the pieces, or take the whole practical exam again. Now of course you can retake one half of the exam. But the principle remains the same - you can't fail the tests and make up for it by doing brilliantly in the pieces (or vice versa). The fact that the total marks available for tests are much less than for pieces does not affect this. You can however fail one test and make up for it in the others.

 

It would be surprising if anyone failed an academic music degree for making a hash of keyboard skills, whereas RCO exams are essentially practical. However, Oxford and Cambridge music degrees are well-known for demanding high-level keyboard skills - not just for specialist keyboard players but for all students. That said, I would be surprised if they were up to FRCO standard. There must be someone on this forum with personal knowledge.

 

With regard to Wolsey's comments: although the RCO exams have been tweaked about every ten years for as long as I can remember, I would suggest that the overall level of difficulty in keyboard skills has remained pretty much constant in both diplomas.

 

Widening the discussion slightly, it is sometimes suggested that RCO keyboard skills are out of date or irrelevant. I think this is quite wrong, with the possible exception of FRCO score reading which requires playing from three different C clefs, rarely found these days apart from the Bach Gesellschaft. (Orchestral score-reading as mentioned by Wolsey might actually be more useful).

 

Even as an ordinary parish organist, directing my choir from the piano or organ both in rehearsal and in services, I use all the skills every week. But I also see keyboard skills in general as rather like having to reverse around a corner to demonstrate your driving skills. Although you don't often need to do it, it shows that you have complete control of the vehicle.

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Pieces and test have always been separate sections, both of which had to be passed, even before the exams became modular. You had to pass both the tests and the pieces, or take the whole practical exam again. Now of course you can retake one half of the exam. But the principle remains the same - you can't fail the tests and make up for it by doing brilliantly in the pieces (or vice versa). The fact that the total marks available for tests are much less than for pieces does not affect this. You can however fail one test and make up for it in the others.

 

Widening the discussion slightly, it is sometimes suggested that RCO keyboard skills are out of date or irrelevant. I think this is quite wrong, with the possible exception of FRCO score reading which requires playing from three different C clefs, rarely found these days apart from the Bach Gesellschaft. (Orchestral score-reading as mentioned by Wolsey might actually be more useful).

 

'clarabella' said that the examinations are now modular, and this is quite true, but the sentence, "Now of course you can retake one half of the exam" needs clarifying - i.e. you can now retake either Organ Playing or Keyboard Skills sections as necessary. The FRCO syllabus from next summer repays careful study because score reading will no longer include C clefs, and there will be flexibility in that while sight reading will remain compulsory, candidates choose three of the four other available tests. The examinations have been 'tweaked' more frequently than every ten years or so, by the way.

 

'Vox humana' wonders whether a further consideration might be the standard of performance expected.The detailed assessment criteria are already included in the examination syllabus (link given in my previous post), and even the Examiners' instructions are available on the College website for all to see.

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Thank you for pointing this out! Will they ever stop tweaking? I see that FRCO score-reading is now G and F clefs but in five parts! I also see that the Certificate is being renamed 'Colleague Diploma'. Ugh!

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I have often thought that a five-part score reading test for FR would be sensible, given the amount of five-part Renaissance music around, but I consider the confinement to G and F clefs a retrograde step. I never saw the practical point of including the obsolete soprano clef, but the alto and tenor clefs are still in current orchestral use and IMO a fully skilled musician should be able to read them fluently. Essentially the new FR test will be the same as the AR test, except for an extra voice - not really very incremental, is it? Plus the candidate still gets 20 minutes to prepare for all the tests away from at the console - which is 20 minutes more than was allowed "in the old days". Is this dumbing down? I do think they have vastly improved the improvisation test though.

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20 minutes' preparation (for all the tests) precisely mirrors life in the organ-loft or school music department for me today. In other words, it equates to being told towards the end of a choral rehearsal that such-and-such will need to be transposed for the service, or that the exam accompaniment which I have to play for an indisposed school colleague is handed to me fifteen minutes before an informal concert or grade exam by a pair of sweaty teenaged hands. The RCO's Chief Examiner and Academic Board are breathing new life into the diplomas - without losing the rigour, and I, for one, applaud their efforts. For those who have missed it, the introduction next month of the Certificate of Accredited Membership follows hard on the transformation of the CertRCO into the Colleague Diploma (CRCO).

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20 minutes' preparation (for all the tests) precisely mirrors life in the organ-loft or school music department for me today.

 

I appreciate that the RCO are trying to reflect more closely the practical realities of the organist's job, but surely the old tests were more realistic in requiring one to be able to do these things with no notice? One isn't always given prior warning, especially at rehearsals. Not all choirmasters think ahead properly and, in any case, they may need to respond to situations arising. "I think we'd better have this motet accompanied, please." (It was in five parts without a keyboard reduction.) "Can we have this hymn down a tone, please?" "After the last verse you'll have to improvise for a minute to cover the choir's movement." I've had all of these and more shot at me over the years without notice and I'll bet more than a few of us here have too. I no longer play the organ, but a few weeks ago I did find myself using the alto clef while accompanying and helping one of Mrs Humana's pupils prepare for an ABRSM viola exam. We should be able to do these things on the hoof.

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Not all choirmasters think ahead properly and, in any case, they may need to respond to situations arising. "I think we'd better have this motet accompanied, please." (It was in five parts without a keyboard reduction.) "Can we have this hymn down a tone, please?" "After the last verse you'll have to improvise for a minute to cover the choir's movement." I've had all of these and more shot at me over the years without notice....

Lord, was it I? :unsure:

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Lord, was it I? :unsure:

 

Ha! :) No, those were all from other people. I do remember, though, visiting Rochester one weekend on some completely non-musical matter and ending up accompanying that 12-part Tomkins anthem at the Saturday or Sunday Evensong. (This wasn't because the choir actually needed an accompaniment; IIRC you just wanted it accompanied.)

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I appreciate that the RCO are trying to reflect more closely the practical realities of the organist's job, but surely the old tests were more realistic in requiring one to be able to do these things with no notice? One isn't always given prior warning, especially at rehearsals. Not all choirmasters think ahead properly and, in any case, they may need to respond to situations arising. "I think we'd better have this motet accompanied, please." (It was in five parts without a keyboard reduction.) "Can we have this hymn down a tone, please?" "After the last verse you'll have to improvise for a minute to cover the choir's movement." I've had all of these and more shot at me over the years without notice and I'll bet more than a few of us here have too. I no longer play the organ, but a few weeks ago I did find myself using the alto clef while accompanying and helping one of Mrs Humana's pupils prepare for an ABRSM viola exam. We should be able to do these things on the hoof.

 

I have had similar occurrences, Vox.

 

About a year or two ago, during the rehearsal for Sunday night's Choral Evensong (with the Gentlemen of the Choir), my colleague made a last-minute substitution for the published anthem. I cannot recall what we were to perform, but we ended up doing The Lord is King, by Boyce. The choir librarian handed out the parts - and I received a figured-bass only organ part. (All of the copies were the same, so swapping would have been pointless.) Since we rehearsed up to about 18:25, there was no time to practise (having only had a bit of a 'top and tail' through edited highlights). It was also taken rather quickly. Fortunately, I managed to acquit myself without anything untoward happening.

 

Again, occasionally, my colleague will decide that an anthem would be better with accompaniment on a particular occasion. This usually seems to happen with Gentlemen-only services, and almost without exception will include frequent crossing of parts, or having permanently to read the top two staves 'upside-down', as it were.

 

On another occasion (fortunately only a rehearsal), I was rather tired and commenced playing Harwood's A-flat major setting nf the Magnificat, in G major - only realising a couple of pages in that it 'felt' wrong. However, it made the central G# minor section a lot easier to read.

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On another occasion (fortunately only a rehearsal), I was rather tired and commenced playing Harwood's A-flat major setting nf the Magnificat, in G major - only realising a couple of pages in that it 'felt' wrong. However, it made the central G# minor section a lot easier to read.

 

Excellent! :lol::lol: In my organ scholar days I once had a debate with my boss about the pitch of some Tudor anthem. For some reason I can't now remember I felt a bit narked and ended up playing the St Anne Fugue for the voluntary in E major (not a particularly difficult feat of course). The organist, who, as was his wont, had gone downstairs to make it clear to all and sundry that it wasn't him playing, returned to the organ loft afterwards and commented with just a hint of pain, "Well, of course it might have sounded at that pitch on Bach's organs."

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I was once taking a choir rehearsal, and decided that the psalm chant (in E) was probably too high for the Matins congregation, so I played it in D. A know-it-all tenor asked whether we could "possibly have it in the correct key?" I listened to him and said "What key did you want? E?" And duly played it again in D. He said "Ah! Thank you! Much better!!"

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