Project aims for national standard in music education

Carnegie Hall, Royal Conservatory collaborate on Achievement Program

  • Kayla Bladzinski, 8 of Arnold, runs out of the room smiling after taking a music test of the new Achievement Program. The program is a venture by Carnegie Hall and Canada's Royal Conservatory of Music to establish nationally standardized testing of music skills.
Kayla Bladzinski, 8 of Arnold, runs out of the room smiling after… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
December 20, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

For generations, music students have been getting gold stars, certificates and other pats on the back from their teachers. But a budding musician with high marks in one state is not necessarily on the same level, judged by the same criteria, as a budding musician in another.

Such positive reinforcement may soon carry a lot more weight countrywide.

Launched by Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the Achievement Program seeks to establish the first national standard in the United States for measuring musical aptitude in students of all ages.

At about 90 assessment centers across the country, adjudicators, who themselves have undergone a training process for the task, have been busy evaluating students this month during the first assessment sessions of the Achievement Program.

In Maryland, tests can be taken in Germantown and at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, where nine piano students were recently assessed. Students of other instruments, along with singers, are expected to participate when the next assessments are held in the spring.

"When someone says, 'I've been playing piano for 10 years,' that could be a good thing or an uh-oh thing," said Jennifer Snow, the Achievement Program's chief academic officer. "With the assessments, the student can find out where he or she stands. It's a way of being connected to music students across the country."

That sense of connection is something British-born Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, learned early.

"I come from a country that has national standards, which are valuable not only in terms of motivation, but setting the bar for future projects," Gillinson said. "When you passed a certain-level exam, people everywhere knew what that meant."

That's the aim of the Achievement Program, which provides a detailed and extensive curriculum for graduated levels of study, from "Preparatory A" to "Grade 10." For each level, repertoire lists are provided, along with exercises in ear-training, sight-reading, harmony and more.

Assessments are held twice yearly. Students can take the exams when they feel ready; there is no dictated timetable. Certificates are issued to students who successfully pass each grade level.

Carnegie Hall, an iconic concert venue since 1891, has long been involved in educational activities. The project of building a nationwide program to measure musical development took shape after surveys revealed a widespread interest in the concept.

The Royal Conservatory of Music's exam system, in use since the 1890s, when graduates began moving into the provinces to teach and set up assessments, emerged as a favorite model for an American version.

About 120,000 students, from young children to nonagenarians, take the Royal Conservatory Examinations annually in Canada, where there are about 5 million alumni of the program.

One of them is the dynamic, New Brunswick-born soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who enjoys a high-profile international career. She started lessons in piano and voice at the age of 7.

"When you're young, classical music is a huge chunk to chew off," Brueggergosman said. "This system gives you a method not only to learn to be better technically, but also to develop an appreciation for classical music, from Baroque to modern. It's a win-win."

The soprano had an idea early on that she wanted a life in music.

"And for a Type-A, goal-oriented control freak like me, I needed to know I was progressing by steady increments," she said. "The system provides that. For other people, it can be a leisurely stroll through music appreciation. You don't have to go on to the conservatory, but if you do, you're that much farther ahead."

Among those who went through the exam system in Canada, but took a nonmusical path afterward, is the country's current prime minister, Stephen Harper.

"He has a Grade 9 piano, which is not easy," said Peter Simon, president of the Royal Conservatory of Music. "And he is not shy about telling Canadians that he would not have been PM without this, because it helped him get over nervousness and taught him poise and concentration."

The Achievement Program has attracted partnerships with the National Guild for Community Arts Education, the National Association for Teachers of Singing and the California Association of Professional Music Teachers And since the program was officially announced in March, it has been adopted as the official music teacher association state curriculum in Ohio, Massachusetts and Wyoming.

"It's a very clear, yet challenging, learning structure for every instrument," Simon said. "When kids start lessons, you can clearly show them and their parents the sequence of progression."

Reiko Bladzinski, an Arnold resident, agrees. Her daughter Kayla, 8, was among the student pioneers in the assessments held at AACC.

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