image from the RCM website

Today I want to talk about the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), which is the standard piano method system in Canada.  It measures a student’s ability in grades, provides books for each grade in a variety of styles (baroque, classical, romantic, modern), and offers exams with certification at each grade level.

RCM – The Basics

There are 10 grades in the RCM, with an additional preparatory grade (kind of like kindergarten), and an ARCT level, which is the most advanced step of the RCM system.  Assuming they’ve put in the time, the average student can expect to reach a grade 8 level by the time they complete high school.  The more advanced and ambitious student can reach grade 10 by the time they complete high school.

This means that it typically takes 10 years to reach a grade 10 level, though very ambitious students can achieve that faster.  So if you start lessons when you’re 7 and work hard, you’ll have your grade 10 certification by the time you’re 17.  Students who start at a later age can sometimes move at a faster pace as well, because they don’t need to spend quite so much time on the basics.

How It Works

Each grade level comes with two music books – a repertoire book, and a studies book (songs designed to build some sort of technical ability).  The repertoire book is divided into sections based on time period, and when you do an exam, you’re expected to play a piece from each time period, as well as a couple studies.  As the levels get more advanced, theory exams become necessary to support the playing exams, and once you’re at a grade 9 level and up, music theory is split into two separate tests – one for harmony (think advanced theory), and one for history.

RCM Examinations

The best way to prep for exams is to have a teacher walk you through it, or to get your hands on an updated piano syllabus – it’s free online, and I have a hard copy that I frequently refer to. The syllabus has a section for each grade, and the specific requirements for each – technical requirements (like scales), songs to choose from, as well as ear and sight training requirements.  Whenever I put any student through an exam, this is my go-to resource, and it really does contain everything you need to know.

Depending on the grade, the examinations are quite short – a grade 1 exam runs under 15 minutes.  What’ll happen is you’ll show up at an examination centre (it’s different in each city), dressed all nice and not in ripped jeans, wait a bit, and then be led into a room with one or two examiners (sometimes there’s an examiner-to-be in training).  You’ll be expected to provide legitimate copies of your prepared music (no photocopies or printouts), and then you’ll roll through your pieces in the order you’ve predetermined.  Throw in a couple minutes of ear tests, sight reading and technique quizzing and that pretty much sums up the experience.  Then you just kick back and wait until the results are put online (usually a month), and then wait a while longer for your glorious certificate.

Is it all just classical music?

Nope, though that does play a pretty big role.  As mentioned above, the songs are divided in categories based on time periods, and within each time period there can be quite a variety of pieces to play.  I find this approach very well-rounded – if you were to ignore classical music completely, you might not develop great technique (since contemporary music is seldom as complex), so I try to encourage every student to at least dabble in classical works, as it will inevitably strengthen their performance of pieces in other genres.  On the other hand, it can be more difficult to connect with classical pieces (since they’re further out of sync with the way music is today), so learning a variety of styles and eras is a must.

What are the benefits of going through the RCM?

The biggest reason I’m a big fan is because these folks work REALLY hard to provide a logical progression of skills.  It takes you all the way from a beginner level (with a year or two of learning prior to grade 1) to a very advanced levels (ARCT) – you go from “I’m a Little Teacup” to Beethoven sonatas.  Most methods don’t have the same breadth, and only walk you through several years of musical growth, but this one covers it all.

The songs, exercises and studies are designed to help you become an excellent musician, not just a passable one.  The pieces are tough.  They require work.  But that work will be rewarding no matter your pursuits, whether it be to play pop music, to compose, or even to enjoy listening to music.

They provide examinations.  Not everyone who hears the word ‘examination’ gets excited, but they have a definite value – you get real, actual proof of your progress (a certificate that’s nationally recognized, even by schools – grade 9 and 10 levels of piano can serve as a high school credit), and you have something to work toward.  Many of us are willing to put in more time and effort into something if we have an important deadline – without that exam date, it’s easier to slouch off and not push yourself to your full ability.

Preparing for an exam

Definitely leave yourself several months of time to prepare for an exam – ideally, the exam is the culmination of a year’s worth of effort.  Since songs are expected to be well-prepared and even memorized, you want to leave time for that process to occur organically.  What I usually do with students is have them learn a variety of songs from the grade level they’re at, and when the exam date looms closer, we pick their favorites and they ‘relearn’ them.  Oftentimes, when we relearn something, our ability to internalize and understand it grows stronger, so we’ll end up playing it better the second time around.

Technical exercises are really important, and something to work on a little bit each time we sit down to practice – not something to be left to the very last minute.  The same is true for sight reading (sitting down and playing a piece, or section of a piece, that you’ve never seen before) and ear training (discerning sounds and pitches without looking at music).

Memorize your pieces.  If something is memorized, it almost always means it’s more secure, and if you don’t have to focus on the music while you play, you’ll be better able to listen to the sounds you’re making as you play it.  Plus, you’ll get better marks on the exam.


As most of my students already know, I support the RCM fully and love working with their materials.  For those of you learning lessons online, the lessons will follow the general structure of RCM lessons, but in a looser way.  You’ll still be able to identify with a particular grade level, and even take exams if you want.  And, as always, do seek private lessons with a trained professional if you have the chance – it makes a ton of difference.