In 2011, I wrote a blog about some of the different music exams available for students – Comparing Different Music Testing Systems.
At that time, the RCM – Royal Conservatory of Music, was just starting to launch their program in the US. It has now become quite popular in my studio, so in this post, I aim to compare that with the also widely popular exam in California called CM – Certificate of Merit.
What are they?
The RCM – Royal Conservatory of Music is based in Canada. The CM is based in California. The RCM has changed their program name several times – Music Achievement Program, Music Development Program, Certificate Program. The CM is run by the MTAC – Music Teachers Association of California. Both programs are very reputable and have a long history. The best way to find out more is to visit their websites. Basically, they both offer graded music exams to students.
CM goes from Preparatory Level, Levels 1-9, and Advanced Level (Level 10). RCM goes from Preparatory A, Preparatory B, Levels 1-10, and ARCT (a diploma, Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music). The different levels are similar in terms of difficulty, so for example, CM recognizes the equivalent RCM level, and students can use RCM books in CM exams.
In CM, theory is mandatory from Preparatory Level. Students must pass the theory exam to obtain their certificate. In RCM, theory exams are separate. Students can do their theory exam at a different time, or even in a different year, or not at all. This makes CM more difficult for up to about Level 5, and for very young students for whom taking a written test may be a challenge. In terms of content, CM Theory is manageable by the average student that is willing to study, but RCM Theory is much more difficult, especially in the upper levels, and from Level 9, RCM Theory is split into two separate exams called Harmony and History. My opinion is that, Level 9 and Level 10 RCM Theory is first-year college material, each paper is a subject in its own right, and requires a separate weekly lesson.
CM is very affordable. Every year there may be a slight increase, but from memory it ranges between $50-$100, depending on level. RCM exams are much more expensive, from $59-$425. Also, in RCM, Theory exams are separate fees, from $125-$195. So, if you are doing level 9, and you intend to do Performance and both of the Theory papers, Harmony and History, then you are looking at $175 for each of the Theory exams, on top of your Performance exam, which is $260. For Level 10 the fees are even higher. CM is able to keep the cost low for students because there is a mandatory teacher work agreement. Also, teachers must be a member of MTAC, have paid (not insignificant) membership fees, and agree to work, without pay, for half day to full day on the day of the exam, depending on how many students they have doing the exam. RCM teachers do not have to pay a teacher membership fee to enter a student, and do not have to work at all on exam day. Also, CM registration is primarily done by the teacher, and there is a lot of work involved in entering student information, repertoire information, carpool, etc, while in RCM, parents do all registrations online by themselves!
In CM, every student plays the same technique routine that is required for their level. At the exam, they are timed and they must complete the requirement within the time limit. In RCM, each level has a list of requirements, students must learn the whole list, but at the exam the judge randomly picks this and that and the student must perform according to what they are asked. This requires more understanding of the various elements and the response time is taken into consideration.
Both CM and RCM have their own syllabi. CM syllabus is more flexible. Usually one piece per level is required from the syllabus and the rest can be at the same or more advanced levels. RCM syllabus is also quite extensive, compared to say ABRSM exams, but there is not as much flexibility as CM, usually only one piece may be substituted that does not come from the syllabus. RCM also publishes their own repertoire and étude books for each level. For CM, students play 2 pieces up to Level 2, 3 pieces from Levels 3-5, 4 pieces from Levels 6-10, and at Level 10 an additional piece called Étude. RCM exams involve 3-5 repertoire pieces, depending on level, plus 1-2 etudes. Both CM and RCM update their syllabi and requirements every so often, so please check with your teacher for the latest version.
CM has some memory requirement, but usually not all repertoire pieces need to be memorized. RCM penalizes each piece that is not memorized (2 marks per piece).
CM ear training is very basic, and the answers are in multiple choice format, so it is possible for students to just “guess” and pick something. RCM ear training is much more difficult. Another difference is that in CM, ear training score is totaled together with the theory score, while in RCM, it forms part of the performance exam.
This is quite similar in both exams. RCM also has a rhythm clapping part that CM does not have.
Right now, CM is still more popular in California, because it has been around much longer. RCM is gaining more popularity. In other parts of the country, people may not have even heard of CM, as they probably have their own state version, so in that sense RCM has more national recognition. Some teachers have a strong preference over one or the other. Certainly, it is a lot of work for a teacher to stay up to date with both syllabi and exam requirements.
Any student can register for any level that they want in both exams, so it is not necessary to start from Preparatory Level and move up one level per year. CM is held once a year, so once a student has passed a level, they can skip levels the following year if they so choose. RCM has multiple exam sessions so some students may do two or even three levels a year, in the beginning stages, while others may only do one level every two years, especially for the higher levels. However, CM keeps a database so that if a student did not pass a particular level, they are not allowed to move on to the next level the following year. RCM does not have that restriction.
In general, CM judging is more liberal and “encouraging” in nature. Students are given “Excellent,” “Good,” “Average,” “Weak,” or “Incomplete” raring, and if selected for Branch Honors, they get a score of 5+, 5, 5-, 4+, 4, 4-, etc. RCM judging is much more rigorous, students get a score out of 100, and they need 60 for Pass, 70 for Honors, 80 for First Class Honors, and 90 or above for First Class Honors with Distinction. CM judges are sourced fairly locally, usually they are teachers from nearby MTAC branches. RCM judges are usually flown in from out of state, if not from Canada. RCM judge training is very extensive, and they have a pretty uniform national standard. CM judging is sort of random, some judges are very liberal, others very strict. CM does offer Advanced Panel for the exceptional students, and Young Artist Guild, which are artist level, and only the most promising students that will have a career in music gain that recognition.
So which one is better? This question is a bit like asking if International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program is better than Advanced Placement (AP) courses, or if private school is better than public school. There is no black and white answer. Just because a school does not offer one or the other does not mean they can not produce good students. Similarly, a student can be extremely good without going through either program, as there are still plenty other recitals, festivals, or competitions that they can participate in, such as those outlined in my old post. These exams all offer motivation for students, and recognition for their achievement and hard work. However, studying piano is not about a race to Level 10. In fact, Level 10 is not a realistic goal for the average student. The CM program awards Senior Medal to seniors who have completed Level 7, a realistic goal for the average student that puts in decent amount of practice. Beyond that, a student has to be truly dedicated and works extremely hard. At the same time, a student who has completed Level 10 in either or both programs is not guaranteed anything, it does not mean they will automatically be accepted into whatever college or university they want to go to. However, their applications will stand out, at least on paper, and they will have learned so many skills that they can apply later on. This post is not about the benefit of studying music, which of course there are numerous, so I won’t even elaborate on that. Some teachers do not believe in any exams at all, just as some teachers do not believe in competitions. However, students can learn many valuable lessons from taking part in these exams, as long as both students and parents have a realistic goal.
My philosophy, as a teacher, is that I will offer as many opportunities as there are out there for students in my studio. Every student is different, some are better suited to certain opportunities. It bothers me when a transfer student comes and tells me their previous teacher or whoever they met said this program is more superior than that program, or that a particular program is “too easy,” etc. Every program has its merits, and every program is difficult, if you intend to go all the way to the top. I have entered students in both exams for many years, and have had students complete level 10 under both programs, so I honestly feel both programs are great, and hopefully one day my own daughter (she is turning 3 soon) will benefit from doing both programs.
So what is the short answer? Have a student try both exams. If they do well in both, and enjoy the process, why not? If they struggle in either or both, then listen to the teacher recommendation. May be exams is just not for them. But it most certainly does not mean they should not continue to study music!
Yiyi Ku is a pianist and teacher. Born in Taiwan, she grew up in New Zealand and obtained her Master of Music degree with Distinction in Composition and Piano Performance from the University of Canterbury. Yiyi also holds a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano from Music Teachers National Association and American College of Musicians/National Guild of Piano Teachers. She has also been certified as Advanced Specialist in both Theory and Piano from RCM. Yiyi has maintained a busy private studio for many years, and enjoys teaching students of all ages and levels.