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Vox Humana

Organ Scholarhips and Conservatoires

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There is an interesting thread running in another forum about the standard of organ playing expected these days by conservatoires. Rather to my surprise, considering the general decline of interest in classical music amongst the general populace over the last half-century or so, it was suggested that entry standards are now very much higher than they used to be. I can't for the life of me work out why this should be, but of course it's excellent news. For organists it is apparently expected that you will be of at least ARCO standard and have already held an organ scholarship at a cathedral. It was said that, at an audition for an unnamed conservatoire, the transposition test one candidate was confronted with was a Bach piece from the grade 8 syllabus. If so, I'd say that's FRCO stuff, not ARCO.  I note that the organ department at the RCM at least is very much smaller than it was fifty years ago and I wonder whether these facts are connected. All this highlighted just how much out of touch I am. Can anyone enlighten me further on the current situation?

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I'm also surprised. I thought that I'd read reasonably recently that Oxbridge colleges were despairing at the low standard of candidates for organ scholarships.

 

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Yes, that was my impression too.  I remember that, admittedly a few years ago now, I heard from the father of a very highly competent organist that the situation was so bad that the lesser colleges at one of these universities were appointing scholars who were of no higher standard than grade 5.  That might perhaps have been a slight exaggeration, but I could cite an example that is broadly in line with this opinion.

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Woohoo, a chance of an organ scholarship at last! My last exam was Grade 7 so St John's Cambridge at least please.😁

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There was a time, quite a long time ago, when I was looking at where to further my musical education that certain, now well-respected Universities, were accepting undergraduates with Grade V on a instrument and 'some level of keyboard attainment'. In those days, if you were an instrumentalist, I was a 'cellist, and you were half decent you went to a Music Conservatoire - the RCM/RAM being the most prestigious followed by Manchester, the lesser London colleges, Birmingham and so on - and not necessarily in that order. Things changed and Universities started asking for Grade VIII as an acceptable entry qualification and the Conservatoires also started to become more and more competitive. I think it is true, and I expect to be shot down for this, to say that the RCM/RAM are still the most prestigious but the RNCM, The Royal Welsh, The  Royal Conservatoire of Birmingham and the Royal Scottish are all institutions of excellence in performance and composition. I spent two years at RCM followed by five years in Cambridge where, it seemed that almost every undergraduate had Grade VIII on something or other!!!

What has happened since my Undergraduate days I'm not too sure but I do know this that, some time ago I advertised for an assistant. We wanted an enthusiastic NQT with a good degree, they had to teach to A level, and a good level of performance - which we expected them to demonstrate at interview. The standard, with one exception, was woeful! We had candidates with Music degrees from all kinds of institutions who had little or no idea of the kind of standard of musicianship we required from our staff. As well as play on their first instrument I asked candidates to do three keyboard tests - some simple transposition, score reading and some keyboard harmony - things that I did every day! The transposition was laughable but the score reading (the first 20 odd bars of the 2nd movement of Mozart Symphony 40!) was horrendous. Members of the board will know that the music starts in the violas - several candidates began in the wrong octave or were not able to read the alto clef! The 'cellos then come in (Bass clef) followed by the 2nd violins (Treble clef), the 1st violins and then the horns - in E flat! It was carnage!! One candidate rang up to ask what the keyboard tests would be and, when told, withdrew her application. As an entirely separate comment I can  say that, of the 50 or so applicants, the clear majority were female and those who made it to the short-list were entirely female. The lady we appointed was a first study flute player, a second study pianist with a 2:1 from a very decent red-brick University.

It doesn't surprise me at all that Oxbridge colleges are despairing of the standard of playing. Last year I acted as External Examiner to a well known University Music Department. I was shocked by the overall level of performance!

I think I had not better say anymore!

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19 hours ago, handsoff said:

Woohoo, a chance of an organ scholarship at last! My last exam was Grade 7 so St John's Cambridge at least please.😁

It's yours! - but the Trompeta Real is out of bounds until you have passed grade 8.

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That'll spur me on mightily - I like the idea of "Dripping poison on the Dons"  (if that was the quote I think I remember reading somewhere!).

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Slightly off the topic title, but an example of how the required standards seem to have changed over the years.

I took A-Level Music in 1966. A prerequisite for being entered for A-Level was a Grade 6 practical, which, in turn, required at least Grade 5 Theory.
In my first year at a well-regarded Russell Group university our keyboard tests class required the preparation of one Contrapunctus per week from The Art of Fugue (open score and 3 different C clefs) and orchestral score-reading (I particularly remember having to prepare a chunk of Liszt's "Les Preludes").

In my last teaching job in 2006 I had in my A-Level German set a student who was also embarking on A-Level Music.
I asked him what they had been doing in the first week of the Lower 6th. He told me proudly "We were working through some Grade 1 (ONE!) theory papers, Sir".

I rest my case.

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1 hour ago, DHM said:

I asked him what they had been doing in the first week of the Lower 6th. He told me proudly "We were working through some Grade 1 (ONE!) theory papers, Sir".

That doesn't surprise me in the least. I really don't want to start a political argument which I am sure we can all do without, but it does seem to me that musical theory has become a casualty of the modern need for education syllabuses to cater for people of all abilities - along with English grammar.  I hope that not all schools are the same as the ones I know.

On the subject of an organ scholarship now being essential (if it really is) for entry to a conservatoire, how has the scholarship market developed since, say, 1970?  It's likely just my ignorance, but other than the scholarship I held I don't think I was aware of any others outside the Oxbridge colleges. I have a feeling that Norwich cathedral might perhaps have had one in the '60s so there may well have been others.  I am aware of Sidney Campbell in his Ely days having what amounted in all but name to an articled pupil.  Am I correct in thinking that the scholarship industry has burgeoned in the intervening decades? Has this affected the conservatoires' approach to auditions?

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15 hours ago, S_L said:

 

I think it is true, and I expect to be shot down for this, to say that the RCM/RAM are still the most prestigious but the RNCM, The Royal Welsh, The  Royal Conservatoire of Birmingham and the Royal Scottish are all institutions of excellence in performance and composition.

It can be difficult to keep up with changes. The 'Royal Scottish' was renamed the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2011, and both the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance appear to have been overlooked - as has the Leeds College of Music. Entry to all eight institutions is now through UCAS Conservatoires. Having retired from school-teaching in the summer, I can recall highly talented pupils choosing a conservatoire because it possessed a renowned faculty/professor for their instrument/voice. As far as conservatoire organ tuition is concerned, only five of the eight now offer this - and three of the five are in London.

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14 minutes ago, Vox Humana said:

On the subject of an organ scholarship now being essential (if it really is) for entry to a conservatoire, how has the scholarship market developed since, say, 1970?  It's likely just my ignorance, but other than the scholarship I held I don't think I was aware of any others outside the Oxbridge colleges.

This is more or less the position as far as organ scholarships are concerned. Notable omissions are St Mary's Warwick; St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle and the London Oratory.

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12 minutes ago, wolsey said:

This is more or less the position as far as organ scholarships are concerned. Notable omissions are St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle and the London Oratory.

Thank you very much, Wolsey. That is a quite fascinating list which I feel sure must encompass a variety of potential experiences. There are more parish churches there than I anticipated. How does this compare with the scene fifty years ago? Anyone old enough to know? :D

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10 hours ago, wolsey said:

lIt can be difficult to keep up with changes. The 'Royal Scottish' was renamed the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2011, and both the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance appear to have been overlooked - as has the Leeds College of Music. Entry to all eight institutions is now through UCAS Conservatoires. Having retired from school-teaching in the summer, I can recall highly talented pupils choosing a conservatoire because it possessed a renowned faculty/professor for their instrument/voice. As far as conservatoire organ tuition is concerned, only five of the eight now offer this - and three of the five are in London.

Thank you wolsey. I apologise to Glasgow - I did know of the change of name!

As an external examiner to three Russell Group University music departments I do have some knowledge of what is going on at Undergraduate level. It is true that it is difficult to keep up with change!  

I didn't mention Huddersfield either - and for the same reason that I omitted the above!

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11 hours ago, DHM said:

Slightly off the topic title, but an example of how the required standards seem to have changed over the years.

I took A-Level Music in 1966. A prerequisite for being entered for A-Level was a Grade 6 practical, which, in turn, required at least Grade 5 Theory.
In my first year at a well-regarded Russell Group university our keyboard tests class required the preparation of one Contrapunctus per week from The Art of Fugue (open score and 3 different C clefs) and orchestral score-reading (I particularly remember having to prepare a chunk of Liszt's "Les Preludes").

In my last teaching job in 2006 I had in my A-Level German set a student who was also embarking on A-Level Music.
I asked him what they had been doing in the first week of the Lower 6th. He told me proudly "We were working through some Grade 1 (ONE!) theory papers, Sir".

I rest my case.

Some interesting aspects here.  In terms of formal qualifications I'm a career physicist rather than a musician (even though I did manage to scrape some lesser exams under my belt in the latter such as G7 distinction), and it would be easy to point to a similar situation in physics and mathematics to that described here - i.e. a cumulative reduction in standards which seems dramatic when measured over my lifetime.  But objectively, I'm not so sure.  As just one example, my daughter was struggling many years ago with her GCSE maths homework which she eventually involved me in (groan).  The book she was using happened to have answers in the back, and neither of us could match our attempt to one question (in statistics) with what it was 'supposed' to be.  I have to admit I gave up, but she did not, and went back to her room.  The following day it turned out that she had proved the book answer to be wrong, and was properly credited by the teacher for being the only one to have discovered this.  She was not a brilliant mathematician, in fact she hated the subject, but by golly, she has always been imbued with determination in everything she has tackled. 

What does this tell us?  For a start, the various syllabuses I followed in maths and physics never went near probability and statistics until the first year at university, yet a generation later she was doing it for GCSE.  Of course, other things which I had studied at school had been removed to make room for it and similar subjects, but that's beside the point.  So perhaps one moral of the story is that changes of emphasis and syllabus in education can be misinterpreted as a lowering of standards if we aren't careful.  Another example is the sheer slog and drudgery extending over several years involved in making sure we knew how to do complicated sums using tables of logarithms.  I cannot express my delight that this has long since slid off the bottom of the syllabus, having been shoved out by pocket calculators over 30 years ago - and a good thing too.  But it does not mean that today's kids are less good at maths simply because they will not even understand what I'm talking about.  (To illustrate the profound change that has taken place here, see ** below).

Another aspect is that perhaps we need to ensure that this forum does not reflect the views of a bunch of old fogies who have an over-fondness for the good old days, whatever and whenever they were.  I'm not pointing the finger here, but merely acknowledging that I'm certainly old myself, and probably a fogey as well.  "Weren't school/teachers/universities wonderful in OUR day, and weren't we clever at doing such difficult stuff" etc, etc.  Should this be happening, then we only have ourselves to blame for the fact that new blood is repelled and that the forum might well be dying, as Martin Cooke pointed out recently in another thread.  In fact, this topic seems to have arisen precisely because of his plea for us all to get off our backsides - which is a Good Thing. 

But in return for our newly rediscovered collective energy, I'd now like Martin to do something for us please.  As the former senior educationist and musician that I believe him to be (forgive me if I'm wrong), perhaps he could give us the benefit of his professional experience to illuminate the issue of whether educational standards are in fact declining, and particularly those in music.

Many thanks in anticipation!

CEP

**  Some forum members of my vintage might recall the following which will doubtless mean absolutely nothing to youngsters today:

"Have you heard about the constipated mathematician who worked it out with logs?"

It tells a story of how things change though because my son once told me that "logs" is now replaced by "a pencil", but I now fully expect to be thrown off the forum ...

 

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5 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

... a cumulative reduction in standards which seems dramatic when measured over my lifetime.  But objectively, I'm not so sure. ...

I don't know that I'd accuse the education system of lower standards, although I accept that the comments I made in an earlier post could be read that way. It's more that, in music and English at least, syllabuses seem to have moved to exclude what I would regard as essential "nuts and bolts". Maybe it's something to do with removing elements that are considered guaranteed to bore the pants off the lowest attainers in a comprehensive education system, I don't know.   My son did "A" level music and it was certainly no push-over. The scope of the exam was much wider than I had had to study and it needed just as hard work; it just didn't include any musical notation whatsoever. As for GCSE, composition was concocted on computer/keyboard, recorded, marked aurally and that was it. His school lessons wouldn't have equipped him with a clue how to compose a coherent piece on paper. Mind you, he's now a Tonmeister and makes more money than I ever did as a sound designer, so that puts me in my place. As for English grammar, both of my children say they were taught nothing about it at school and have learnt all they know about it from me - and goodness knows that's little enough.

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7 hours ago, Vox Humana said:

As for English grammar, both of my children say they were taught nothing about it at school and have learnt all they know about it from me - and goodness knows that's little enough.

And people wonder why so many young people have little more than grunts and swear words these days, and don't get me on to the subject of written English!

Sorry.  Off-topic.

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Just so that folks do not think all is completely lost the state school where I work has a very engaging Literacy curriculum involving not only parts of speech, sentence structure etc. but also weekly spelling tests. Moreover singing happens in Music lessons and in year group assemblies and music theory etc. is part of the Music curriculum. Mercifully however, being theoretically semi retired none of this is now my responsibility though when I wasn’t the same applied, musically at least.

A

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Having just begun a music degree, as a mature student, I have noticed a wide range of musical knowledge amongst my fellow students. Grade 5 theory is required for admission, but some barely seem to be at that level. There is a wide range of playing abilities as well. I myself barely passed Grade 7 in the summer (though I did audition as a pianist before switching to organ as my principal study), while others have performance diplomas. 

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