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A student with the Royal Conservatory of Music performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last year. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
A student with the Royal Conservatory of Music performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last year. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Music

Royal Conservatory of Music's exam system to become standard for U.S. music schools Add to ...

When New York's famed Carnegie Hall decided the United States' patchwork of state music programs should have a national system to unite them, its leaders gave little thought to starting from scratch. Instead, they turned immediately to Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music.

At a Saturday conference of thousands of music teachers in Milwaukee, Wis., the two institutions will announce the Carnegie Hall Royal Conservatory Achievement Program, an extension of the conservatory's existing exam system intended to be the new U.S. standard for music training and learning.

The goal is to increase participation in music throughout the U.S., partly by emphasizing music's central role in the development of innovative, healthy, happy societies. But it may also prove a welcome source of revenue if it catches on.

"It comes back to the goal to make participation in music a central part of the daily lives of every person," said Peter Simon, president of the RCM.

Carnegie first commissioned consultants to explore the appetite for creating national exams and curricula. The study showed that schools, teachers and parents were eager, and tapped the RCM as having the most reputable and applicable system. The two institutions had no formal relationship, but Simon flew to New York last fall and discussions moved quickly.

"It was pretty much: Here's the study, we want to do this, we think you guys have a great program, let's do it," Simon recalled. "And at that moment I said, 'I love it, we're off.'"

Carnegie's education program is substantial and expanding through an ongoing $200-million (U.S.) renovation, which will carve out a 5,600-square-metre education wing. The project has similarities to the RCM's recent revamping of its own building in Toronto.

"We totally share the same vision," said Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's executive and artistic director.

National programs in several countries have shown that the sense of progress and achievement born of having a national standard is instrumental in keeping students engaged in music, says Jennifer Snow, who splits time as the RCM's director of teacher pedagogy and a professor of piano at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The examination program is designed to be used locally by students of all ages and skill levels, a doubly important strategy as music classes struggle to survive in cash-strapped schools.

"Independent studio teachers are on the forefront of keeping culture and music alive," Snow said. "Why can't the Gold Medal [Award winner for the examinations]come from the smallest town?"

The RCM's exams reach 100,000 people across Canada each year. Some 10,000 U.S. students already study the RCM curricula, and 3,000 take the exams, but Simon and Gillison hope 100,000 U.S. students could be examined annually within four to five years.

Both organizations will make multimillion-dollar investments in the partnership in the coming years, and though this week's Canadian federal budget promised to contribute $7.5-million, election speculation quickly put that funding on hold. Within years, however, Simon believes the program will earn money, and the RCM will pour its half of the proceeds back into its Canadian social programs.

If the U.S. partnership proves a success, both men envision establishing the examination system in other countries, notably China.

"It's very clearly demonstrated that programs such as this are real motivators. You create an aspirational pathway for people," Gillinson said. "These things become beacons."

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