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Preparing for CRCO

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How would one prepare for a CRCO or ARCO tests (written papers, chorale, counterpoint and completing SATB score) that the candidates require excluding the repertoire playing?

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They hadn't invented CRCO when I was attempting such things, but basically, you need to get hold of past papers and past or specimen tests and practice and practice and practice!  Things, again, are different today as they mark the keyboard tests separately (it was generally believed that if you goofed on the tests they knocked marks off the pieces so that you failed), but there really isn't room for error and you need to be very competent at what is required.

In my experience, too, the RCO diplomas require a higher degree of accuracy in the set pieces than, for example, ARCM, where a good overall performance would get you through, even with a few minor slips.  In my day (My God! April 1974), you did ARCM on a perfectly dreadful organ in Room 90 at the top of one of the towers at the RCM and we all reckoned that if you could make a half-decent noise on the beast you would get through.  I had a bit of luck, though.  One of the pieces was the Alcock Introduction & Passacaglia - not the most fashionable of works in those days.   When I had finished, one of the examiners (an old gentleman) said, "And how do you like that piece, my boy?"  I said I liked it very much.  Coming out, I asked the invigilator who the old gentleman was.  "Dr. Harold Darke," she said.  I later noticed that the Alcock is dedicated to Harold Darke, so that's probably why I passed.

I had also better confess that I believe I got through ARCO because I was the first in after lunch and the examiners seemed in high good humour all the way through (I was sitting there, wading through "Ach bleib' bei uns" and "Master Tallis's Testament" with much chuckling from the far end of the hall, and thinking, 'Come on, chaps, it's not that bad!')

I think I managed FRCO because I chose some of the more unusual pieces from the syllabus ("Dies sind der heilgen zehn Gebot", Psalm Prelude Set 2, No.3 and the first movement of the Harwood Sonata) which were perhaps a nice change from some of the war-horses available.  I have since found that Ralph Vaughan Williams also played the Harwood when he sat FRCO some 90 years before.  I picked up a lot of tips about what was required from a lesson with Allan Wicks, who was tremendously helpful.

I must have been lucky with CHM because I can't recall any special circumstances, although the examiners for the playing part were two of the nicest gentlemen - John Sanders and Stanley Vann.

The RCO organ was, in that acoustic, a somewhat unforgiving thing to drive, although I've always thought it was a fine scheme for its size, apart from the 2' Flute on the Great, which needed to be avoided like the plague (such things were quite popular, but none of us could work out why).  I wonder what it sounds like in its new home in Australia - it has probably been there now for longer than it was in Kensington Gore.  I was glad that I didn't have to do FRCO at Marylebone Parish Church.  I felt it was unfair for candidates to have to handle a non-British console on short acquaintance and, for candidates from some parts of the British Isles (Northern Ireland, for example), the opportunity to practice on a large modern tracker action simply did not exist, so they were at a disadvantage anyway.

The above ramblings aside, you really must be good at the tests in order to pass.  Apart from official past papers, C.S. Lang published several volumes of practice tests.

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3 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

The above ramblings aside, you really must be good at the tests in order to pass.  Apart from official past papers, C.S. Lang published several volumes of practice tests.

I can't echo this enough. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the pieces matter most and the keyboard tests are of lesser importance. This won't do for the RCO diplomas. You really do need to be just as adept at the tests as the pieces. Practise them until they are all second nature and completely fluent. I hope it goes without saying that the primary skill requirement common to all the tests at whatever level is fluent and accurate sight-reading - it's a sine qua non.  Volume 1 of C. S. Lang's Score Reading Exercises is confined to four-part scores in G and F clefs. which is all that is needed for ARCO. Volume 2 introduces alto and tenor clefs as well, but these are no longer needed for the RCO exams (a retrograde move IMO, which removes organists even further from the orchestral world). There's loads of stuff on CPDL, too, that you can use. Any four-part contrapuntal pieces by Renaissance composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd will stand you in good stead. For figured bass there's a very good book by R. O. Morris and I am sure I've seen a few facsimiles of Baroque figured bass tutors on IMSLP. 

The assessment criteria for the diplomas are published in the syllabus, but really your goal should (ideally) be to be able to do the tests perfectly without having to think too hard.

For the written papers I would hope that your school music tuition will be providing you with the solid grounding in the rules of classic four-part harmony.  As for books, I have a great regard for Lovelock's First Year Harmony (available online via the Internet Archive).  For a really basic introduction there's a short book by Stainer which, despite its age, is none the worse for that and is very clear. You need to develop the ability to hear written music in your head, but I'm not sure this can be taught. It's something that comes from lots of experience and probably few of us can ever hope to reach the exalted heights of Herbert Howells, who composed his Puck's Minuet straight into full orchestral score in the waiting room at Reading station during a three-hour wait for a train (although basic orchestration used to be required for FRCO).

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My five-penny-worth on this, firstly, to echo all that has been said about practising... and do start this early so that you do a little bit of preparation for each test every time you practise... and secondly, as I said when you first posted a few weeks ago, you need a good teacher who has experience of the RCO requirements, and if I were you, I would join the RCO so that you can take advantage of all the excellent things they are doing these days - (eg, preparation days for Oxbridge organ scholarships) - and look at what Oundle and St Giles Organ School are doing over the summer. Too late to sign up for anything eg, Pulling out the stops at Oundle?) Are you having organ lessons at school? Out of school? I can't stress too much how greatly I regret doing too much playing on my own, unchecked, so that I picked up bad habits with things like posture, pedal technique and fingering. 

Have you seen the excellent video on the RCO or iRCO website about taking a diploma? It's here. It makes clear, in the nicest possible way, how important it is to be thoroughly prepared. The pieces, as with ABRSM exams are the easy bit, really. (In ABRSM exams, candidates let themselves down so often with lack of preparation in scales, sight-reading and aural, and then get a Pass instead of the Distinction they really could get with proper preparation of all components.) Listen to the accomplished way in which the 'candidate' plays the Frescobaldi, Hindemith and Bach pieces - none of them breathtakingly difficult in any sense - but then notice her fluency and musicality in the score reading, sight reading and transposition. This is why you must give yourself plenty of time. 

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I am learning organ at a school. I would like to see the RCO diplomas as a long term goal. I am currently practicing Toccata Primi Toni by Sark and Nun danket alle Gott by Karg-Elert in preparations for my Grade 8 ABRSM exam. I have seen through the videos on iRCO. 

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The pieces set at ARCO are often less complicated than those for Grade 8.  For example, Vaughan Williams' "Rhosymedre" was set at Grade 7 and ARCO.  ARCM performance pieces can be more complex than ARCO, but the demands at ARCO are for very high accuracy indeed. 

As an introduction to diploma playing, it's no bad idea to try ARCM or LTCL.  It gets you into the feel of things and both are respectable qualifications.  I don't think you have paperwork for ARCM performance these days (even in the 70s, it was easy stuff).  If you can harmonise a chorale and do a stylish 16th century counterpoint, the paperwork shouldn't be too intimidating.  I did O and A Level with the Cambridge Board, which in those days was quite hot on these subjects, so diploma work wasn't so scary.

Thinking about the organ tests, Lang did indeed produce books, but there were a couple of pink-covered publications by Hinrichsen (I think) which contained severe but rewarding sets and were a great help.  I can't remember offhand who wrote them (I lent mine to a pupil way back in my Belfast days.  He still has them, although not the FRCO, but is stunningly good anyway - a much better player than I shall ever be!), but someone on this forum is bound to know.

Noel Rawsthorne apparently composed the tests around the time I was trotting up and down the stairs at Kensington Gore.

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Does the ARCM diploma still exist? Googling suggests that it has been discontinued and replaced by degrees and an Advanced Diploma in Performance. I'm not sure what if anything is now available to external candidates. As I'm sure David will remember, in his day (and mine) both the ACRM and LRAM diplomas used to come in two guises: teaching and performing. The performing diploma, not surprisingly, required a higher standard of playing than the teaching.  The LRAM still exists, but now comes only in one form that includes a teaching section. Trinity College offers an easier option to the LTCL diploma, the ATCL. When I was young this used to be ridiculously easy - about ABRSM grade 6 - and that might be why it was subsequently discontinued for several years. It has now been brought back and is "equivalent in standard to the first year of an undergraduate degree". http://www.trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=1587 Again, I don't know whether it is still available externally (the blurb might say).

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1 hour ago, David Drinkell said:

Thinking about the organ tests, Lang did indeed produce books, but there were a couple of pink-covered publications by Hinrichsen (I think) which contained severe but rewarding sets and were a great help.  I can't remember offhand who wrote them (I lent mine to a pupil way back in my Belfast days.

The ARCO book was by Clifford Marshall and is indeed well worth getting.  I'm no longer sure how similar the tests are to the current ARCO requirements, but that won't lessen their usefulness. The FRCO book was by Sidney Campbell. The sight reading exercises contain a fiendish toccata not altogether dissimilar in style and appearance from Messiaen's Dieu parmi nous. I once said to Campbell, "You surely can't expect people to sight-read that perfectly?" He looked at me sternly and snapped, "I certainly do!" :o

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9 hours ago, Vox Humana said:

Does the ARCM diploma still exist?

As I'm sure David will remember, in his day (and mine) both the ACRM and LRAM diplomas used to come in two guises: teaching and performing. 

 

 

No it doesn't exist - we are a dying breed! I did ARCM 'cello at both Teaching and Performing level. The difference in standard was quite considerable. At teaching level one was expected to play three pieces, major sonatas etc., scales (every scale in the book!) and there was sight reading and so on. - almost like a Grade XI exam!  At Performing level you were expected to play a major Concerto, the scales etc. disappeared! I think I am right in saying that ARCM 'teachers' could not be taken until you were 18 - because it could be a qualification for entry to a PGCE - but I may be wrong about that.

Yes, it is true that some of the other Diplomas were ridiculously easy but, even now, they impress 'unknowing' members of the public!  Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration but It was also possible to accrue a considerable number of 'letters' after your name by playing just three pieces! I knew a, very distinguished, organist, who will be well-known to members of this board, who reckoned that, by judicious timing, he had obtained the LRAM, ARCM, FTCL and FRCO by playing the same three pieces!

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I have been following this discussion with interest, and there is one aspect which doesn't yet seem to have been mentioned.  This concerns the career which one eventually follows in order to earn one's daily bread.  I have some personal experience of this because, a long time ago when still at school, I was being pulled in two directions by two equally determined 'camps' (if that's the right word).  One was music (in particular the organ though I also played and enjoyed the oboe) and the other was science (physics), each with their associated set of teachers and other protagonists.  It might be immodest to say so, but I was an above-average achiever in both if what my teachers/tutors said was true.  So which career was I to choose? 

The music camp insisted I was potential organ scholar material with a standard organ-loft career in front of me, whereas the science camp was equally vociferous about the prospects of getting into what are now known as the Russell Group universities.  Oxbridge was an option, but I wasn't enthused about the prospect of having to spend an extra year in the sixth form.  I wanted to get out into the world so I ended up in London.  What eventually swayed me to science was the insistence of the science camp that earning a decent living (aka income) in music would be far more difficult than in science.  In science with a good degree (I eventually got two) it would be me that made the running, with potential employers lining up to get me.  This turned out to be true, and although the profession does not necessarily make one an overnight millionaire, I have never been anywhere remotely near the breadline, nor have I had to work all hours the deity sends just to keep my head above water by keeping too many plates spinning simultaneously.  Unfortunately, even the music camp reluctantly admitted that music would be more precarious, and I would probably need to put in more hours for less return.  So I opted for science.

Of course, I could have done both as others have done, including some polymathic members of this forum.  Freed from the need to scramble for organ scholarships and a succession of diplomas while still a teenager, I could have done these things at a more leisurely pace more for pleasure than anything else.  In fact I did not do this, having taken an early decision that I would leave that as one of the nice things to do when I eventually retired.  This was a mistake, because when I did retire I discovered that my brain simply did not work as well as it did several decades earlier, and I was never able to master certain elements of the art (particularly transposition at sight) which would have been necessary for the diploma exams.

Of course, all this would have been irrelevant had I possessed independent means, a factor which I suspect plays more than a small role in the careers of some musicians.  But such was not the case.

I don't know whether this is of interest to the original poster of this topic or anyone else, but for what it's worth, there it is.

CEP

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I would strongly advise against going down the Royal College of Organists (RCO) qualification route before gaining diploma level qualifications in organ playing from the established music examination boards such as the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) for the following reasons:

 

  1. An RCO diploma (CRCO, ARCO and FRCO) is an all round, comprehensive music qualification. The organ pieces are only a small part of this. Whilst the exams are now modular (i.e. you can pass part and bank it for up to four years whilst retaking the other parts), it is a huge undertaking. 

 

  1. As others have pointed out, the standard required by the RCO to pass the pieces seems to be far higher than, say, in ABRSM diplomas. There is a pass mark and that’s it. You can’t get a distinction (you can get prizes, but most of these seem to be awarded to only one candidate at each session).

 

  1. Because of the demands and breadth of the exams, it is quite likely that you will fail at least one of the parts of the exam at least once, unless you are an absolutely top-flight musician. This can be very demoralising, even traumatic, especially for a young musician. (Don’t believe anyone who says that’s good for you - it’s not, it’s horrible and can destroy your self-confidence and love of your chosen instrument). I know of organists who have failed parts of an RCO exam again and again over many years, especially the keyboard tests, but also parts of the written papers. 

 

  1. Passing the keyboard tests, an excellent thing in itself, requires so much practice and self-discipline that you inevitably have to sacrifice quite a lot of the time other musicians devote to practising the repertoire for several years to reach the standard required by the RCO.

 

  1. Quite a number of leading organists in the UK do not have RCO qualifications. This is either because they never took them or because they failed them. 

 

  1. The Royal College of Organists has no premises or students enrolled on diplomas courses, (although it does organise short courses ranging from a few hours to a week in length). It is tiny in comparison to the ABRSM which examines more than half a million candidates for its exams worldwide every year. This compares with around 50 candidates who were awarded an RCO diploma this year.

 

  1. Whilst the leading music colleges (e.g. Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, etc.) are subject to government inspection, and to OFQUAL in relation to their qualifications, as far as I am aware the RCO is only accountable to itself as far as its examinations are concerned. Unless I am mistaken, the RCO is not subject to any external academic inspection regime.

 

  1. The RCO diplomas can only be taken at the RCO specified examination centres (one in Dulwich, one in Huddersfield and one in Edinburgh). Candidates can only practise on the instrument they will be examined on for one or two hours, sometimes many weeks before the exam. In addition, the instrument may be inappropriate for some of the pieces specified in the syllabus. Sometimes you may find that it is impossible to find for a particular piece a registration which will satisfy the examiner, regardless of the fact that it is really not your fault. For ABRSM diplomas, on the other hand, the exam venue has to be arranged by the candidate for organ exams. This means you can be examined on an organ you are totally familiar with, and on which you have practised your pieces for a long period of time. It also means that, when asked to pull out or push in a particular stop in a split second in the sight-reading, you know exactly where it is without having to think.

 

My advice, therefore, to a young person contemplating taking the RCO diploma exams is this: first get your Grade VIII in organ. Then work towards a diploma such as the DipABRSM and then the LRSM. You will then have letters after your name, can hold your head high in the organ world and have plenty to put on your CV. At the same time you should practise your keyboard skills. You will need a great deal of self-discipline for this, but, as has been stated by others above, if you do this for a short time every single day (preferably before you practise your pieces), you will gradually improve, without having to sacrifice too much repertoire time. You also need to work on your harmony and counterpoint. Again, get your Grade VIII theory and then aim for, say the Trinity College, London diplomas in Theory.

 

Now you are ready to take on the RCO.

 

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