All About RCM Exams: A Canadian Music School

In today’s video, we’re going to talk about the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), a Canadian music school that offers standardized exams called “grades”. If you’ve ever heard someone say “I have my grade 6 in music”, they’re probably talking about the RCM and RCM exams.

(Or they’re talking about the ABRSM, but we’ll get there later).

What’s the history of the RCM?

So first off, let’s talk some basic details about the RCM. Who are they? When did it get started?

It’s actually one of the oldest music schools (that’s still running) in the world – it was founded in 1886 under the name “The Toronto Conservatory of Music”. I take it as auspicious that it was founded exactly 100 years before my birth.

Where do you take them? What countries?

To my knowledge, RCM exams can be taken in Canada and the USA. I don’t believe they have examination centres in other countries – please correct me if I’m wrong, but I couldn’t find any information on that.

This makes the RCM the most limited in scope of the major worldwide music schools (except for the Australian Music Examinations Board). Which is too bad because it’s the one I’m most familiar with, and I talk about it a lot.

If you are Canadian music student, there’s a strong chance this is what you’re going to be taught. From what I’ve heard from Americans, it’s a little more mixed. It doesn’t seem like the majority of teachers operate via the RCM there, but some do, and you can definitely do RCM exams in the USA.

Other major examination centres

So if you’re not based in Canada and USA, I apologize for this video (though perhaps you’ll still find it useful).

Some of the other (major) independent music schools include:

  • Trinity College London – over 600,000 exams each year (music, performing arts). UK, Ireland, Italy, Australia – around 60 countries.
  • Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) – 600,000 or more exams each year, 90 countries. Based out of UK.

    I’m really curious to research these schools in more depth so we can talk about them in future videos. So stay tuned!

    Exams vs universities

    So how do these music schools, such as the RCM, differ from going to University or a music college?

    Well for starters, if you’re applying to a music program for University, most entrance exams/auditions will require you to play at a certain grade level, and they serve as a really important credential. Having exam experience and creds looks great on an application.

    In Saskatchewan (and probably most Universities across Canada), to get into the music program you need to audition at a Grade 8 level or higher, as well as write a theory test at the equivalent level. So if you have your grade 8 or higher by this point, it’ll help immensely.

    If you’re trying to get into a musical college, which are much more stringent, you’ll need an even higher level of experience. For example, if I wanted to audition for the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto, I’d probably want to audition at an ARCT level (which is one level higher than grade 10; the second highest level in the whole RCM system).

    Basically, you can think of these music schools as running parallel to regular ol’ schools. In a regular school, you go K-12 (depending on the region), and then you go off to University (maybe). While you do your school grades, you can also do your piano grades up until a grade 8-ARCT level, depending on how motivated you are, which opens up post-secondary doors.

    You don’t have to be a kid – you can be 90 and do RCM exams, purely for the personal development aspect.

    RCM exams: ARCT

    From a playing perspective, having your ARCT in performance via the RCM is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. It’s not the same – you wouldn’t be able to, say, teach in an elementary school with an RCM certificate – but the skills you develop is similar.

    The highest level of the RCM, the LRCM (Licentiate) is sort of the equivalent of a Master’s degree. So for example, if you have a music degree from a regular university, but not the ARCT certificate, you could transfer over that credit to then study for the LRCM (without having to also do the ARCT exam first)

    If you’re interested in being a music teacher, having RCM credentials is practically as useful as a bMus, though the two work even better together – it opens up more career opportunities. They’re not substitutes for each other, but rather they enhance each other.

    RCM exams: High school accreditation

    I’m not 100% sure if this applies to the USA, but in Canada, doing your RCM exams is great if you want a high school credit for it!

    Getting your RCM 6 (and associated theory) gives you a high school grade 10 credit.
    Getting your RCM 7 (and associated theory) gives you a high school grade 11 credit.
    Getting your RCM 8 (and associated theory) gives you a high school grade 12 credit.

    Neat, right?

    What is the exam curriculum?

    So now that we’ve established a lot of the basics of RCM exams: Where they can be taken, how they match up to Universities and the benefits of the exams from a career standpoint, let’s talk about what the curriculum is. These are the “grades” people always refer to.

    So the RCM goes from grade 1-10, but there are levels before and after that.

    Before grade 1, there’s something called a “preparatory” level, which I affectionately refer to as music kindergarten.

    After grade 10, you have the “university level” courses:

    ARCT (kind of like a bachelor’s)

    LRCT (kind of like a master’s)

    The average student in my studio – the student who works reasonably hard but their life isn’t all music – can expect to get to a grade 8 RCM level by the time they’re finishing high school. Grade 8 is solid competency. It’s the GED of music. Someone who reaches this level will be able to enjoy music for life, even if they’re not studying music in college.

    The competitive student – the one who practices with zest and really focuses on music in lieu of other activities – can hit a grade 10/ARCT level by the end of high school. These are the kinds of kids who are interested in pursuing music on a post-secondary level, who dream of having concert careers and so on.

    I don’t know that I’ve personally met anyone with an LRCT – maybe one or two teachers in Toronto – so I assume that’s a very rare level of achievement.

    Adult learners

    So what if you’re not a kid?

    You can still take the grade exams! And you don’t even need to take every single level. Once you hit around a grade 8 level, you actually do need to do exams for each grade level to move on to the next (no skipping grade 9), but you don’t have to start at a grade 1 level.

    If you’re playing grade 3 level music – maybe you’ve been playing piano for a few years – then you can always start exams at a grade 3 level.

    Equivalencies

    One question I get asked a lot is:

    How do I know what grade level I’m at?

    There are no hard and fast rules (that I know of), but I try to assess this based on these factors:

    -What kind of pieces can you learn comfortably? This would be something you could learn in 2 weeks to 1 month with relative ease (ie not practicing piano 3 hours a day).

    -What kind of pieces are difficult for you, but you can still accomplish? These are stretch pieces, and usually take several months to learn well.

    -What kind of pieces are too intense? These are pieces a level or two beyond a stretch piece. If you attempted to learn one of these, you would probably get extremely frustrated and make very little progress

    -It’s also worth considering your sight reading skills. You might be able to play at a level much higher than you can read. If this is the case, I would probably knock you down a grade or two so that you can get better at reading, which will then allow you to advance more easily.

    Based on this information, you can see if any of these pieces are in the RCM syllabus to figure out their grade levels. If the pieces aren’t in the syllabus, pick a grade and have a look at some of the music from that level. Try learning some pieces from that grade.

    How do I know what grade I’m in?

    Generally I consider you to be at the grade level that you can learn pieces comfortably in. If you’re a grade 1 student, you should be able to learn a grade 1 piece in a month without crazy-intense practice. A grade 1 student can still stretch themselves with a grade 3 piece, but I wouldn’t consider that person to be at a grade 3 level – it’s too much of a stretch.

    That was actually one of my problems with doing my grade 10 exam. Grade 10 pieces, for me, were all stretches. I was more comfortably at a grade 8 or 9 level, so when I did my grade 10, all the pieces I learned were big challenges. I was only comfortable with one or two of them. And then I did poorly.

    How long do grades take?

    The general rule of thumb is that each grade represents about a year of steady practice. The standard trajectory for kids, depending on how young they start and their abilities, are as follows:

    I tend to speed this up for adults. An adult who practices consistently (but not heavily) could expect a path like this:

    Some people are going to move faster, and other people are going to move slower. I try to keep it pretty regimented for kids, and more flexible for adults. So this timeline won’t make sense for everyone, but it’s what I keep in the back of my mind when I’m teaching and planning lessons.

    Other RCM exam info

    Even if you’re not a piano player, there are 21 instruments you can take exams with. You can also take pedagogy exams, which certify you for teaching (personal teaching; I believe there’s a separate institution that allows you to teach via schools).

    RCM exams: Theory

    Once you get to a Grade 6 level in piano, there are theory exams that you also need to do. So if you do a grade 6 playing exam, you won’t get your certificate until you also do the corresponding theory exam for grade 6 (which is elementary theory).

    When are exams held?

    The exact, specific days that exams are held change from year to year, but they’re always around the same time.

    There’s always a winter session, a spring session, and a summer session. There’s also sometimes a session in April for playing exams (not theory). Depending on where you live, you might be able to apply to any of these sessions, or you might only have a couple options.

    The winter theory exams are always in the beginning to mid-December, and the winter playing exams are mid-to-end January.

    The April session (for performing only) is in – you guessed it – April.
    The spring theory session is held in May, and the playing exams are in June.

    The summer theory session and playing session are both in August (the theory is a week or two ahead of the playing session).

    Price range

    RCM exams aren’t exactly cheap. If you’re at a grade 1 level, expect to pay around $100 CAD. It gets quite a bit pricier the higher you get – for example, a grade 10 exam is around $400, and that’s not including the corresponding theory exams.

    In the scheme of things, it’s a useful investment and it’s a small sum if you compare it to University. Still, it’s something you should be aware of if you’re interested in doing exams.

    Where can you take exams?

    I’ll leave links in the associated blog post of this video so you can see if there’s an examination center near you.

    List of Canadian locations
    List of American locations

    How does RCM compare to ABRSM?

    As I mentioned earlier, we’ll talk specifically about other music schools like the ABRSM in a future video. I just wanted to spend a quick moment comparing the two schools so you can get a sense of how they’re similar, and how they’re different.

    The grades are organized a little differently – for example, Grade 10 RCM is pretty similar to ABRSM grade 8. The next level, ARCT, is fairly equivalent to DipABRSM (the next level in ABRSM).

    From a grade-by-grade standpoint, they’re pretty similar. RCM grade 9 and 10 is tougher than ABRSM 8, in my opinion, since you have to learn more pieces and learn more technique. So I think holding a Grade 10 RCM is slightly more of an achievement than a Grade 8 ABRSM. But there are still further levels in ABRSM, so it all balances out.

    Conclusion

    Thanks for checking out this blog on RCM exams! I wrote a blog post a long time ago covering a lot of the same material – check it out if you’d like to go deeper. I’ve also done a video on my Grade 10 exam which didn’t go particularly well.

    xo,
    Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.