We’re going to do an overview on how TCL works, and compare and contrast it with the RCM and ABRSM.
Basics of Trinity College London
Trinity College is an examinations board based in London, UK, but examination centres are in 100+ countries around the world. They offer diplomas up to a postgraduate level in a variety of performing arts, such as various musical instruments and drama.
This school has been around since 1877, and, along with the ABRSM and RCM, is one of the most prominent musical examination schools in the world.
In addition to doing standard Classical exams like the RCM and ABRSM, they also offer ESL exams, and – most exciting to me – rock & pop music exams (for rock & pop instruments and vocals).
Here’s how the grading system works with Trinity. Like the RCM, there’s a “preparatory” level which I affectionately refer to as “musical kindergarten”. They call this level the “initial” level. After that, there’s grades 1-8, gradually increasing in difficulty.
If you want to go past grade 8, you can get into some of their diploma levels which are only available for certain instruments (including Classical piano).
There’s the associate (ATCL) level ,the Licentiate (LTCL) level – basically equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree, and the Fellowship (FTCL) level – equivalent to a Master’s degree.
Duration of study
One cool thing about TCL is that they give you an idea of how many learning hours and teaching hours are suggested for each level. A grade 5 student, for example, might want to take 24 teaching hours worth of lessons, and practice at home for 156 hours.
Of course, this is all suggestive only – it’s not a mandatory requirement. Still, it’s cool and gives potential students a ballpark figure of the work that’s required for the average person.
That means the total amount of hours they suggest to go up to a grade 8 level is 1,450. For a fun perspective, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how approximately 10,000 hours are required for true and deep mastery of something. Still, 1,450 hours are a lot – that would be about 4 years of 1 hour of work a day, every single day, with no exceptions – or 8 years of 30 minutes (ish) each day.
And, like the ARCT, achieving your grades 6-8 through TCL can earn you UCAS points.
Why get your grades in TCL?
So why bother going through TCL to get your grades?
Well they suggest three reasons for doing so:
Personal reasons – the challenge and the fun of it
To get into a post-secondary conservatory (most conservatories require a minimum of grade 8 to audition)
To prepare for a musical job (such as teaching, being a session musician, etc.)
One thing I like about TCL is that you don’t need to do every single grade. In fact, if you wanted to just do your grade 8, you’re more than welcome to. They don’t require prerequisites. The RCM and ABRSM offer flexibility in this way as well, but TCL is the most flexible of all three.
Countries that offer TCL exams
Many countries (100+) offer Classical piano examinations, including Canada (where I’m from), which I did not know. In fact, it looks like I could even do exams in my own province.
For the rock & pop programs, a more limited palette of places offer them.
If you want to learn theory alongside piano, you can (optionally) choose to take theory exams. For every grade of music, there is also a grade of theory.
Again, TCL makes this totally optional – but I’m of the mind that theory is a valuable adjunct to practical musical experience.
Music educator exams
Like other music schools, you can also go through music teacher training through TCL. They offer a Level 4 Certificate for Music Educators (Trinity CME).
In addition to doing exams for Classical piano, rock & pop keyboard, theory and music educator programs, you can also do exams for being an accompanist – another thing unique to TCL. I love their diverse programs! If you wanted to do accompanist grades, they span from 5-8. Which makes sense, because beginner piano accompaniment doesn’t make much sense.
Exam structure and marking scheme
For a TCL exam, you choose 3 pieces to play. They’re chosen from the relatively narrow list of pieces. BUT – you’re allowed to play your own composition for one of those three pieces, as long as it’s comparable in difficulty.
When you get to the higher grades 6-8, the list of pieces are further divided into A and B (by era – A is the older Classical music), and you choose from each group.
I really like the unique option to play your own composition – that’s not something you come across with the RCM and ABRSM. It gives you a sense of the emphasis TCL places on creativity.
If you were doing a rock & pop keyboard exam, your options are even more flexible. You choose a song from the lists, and then your second piece could either be a composition OR your own choice – again, as long as it’s comparable in difficulty. You also have to play some of these to a backing track.
In the rock & pop exams, you also have to do a part of the exam called “session skills” – either a short improvisation or other ear test. Again, this is different from RCM and ABRSM in a big way – there’s no improv at all in those exams (as it has a Classical by-the-book lean as opposed to a more creative one).
You also have to do these tests when you’re taking a Classical piano exam, though you have the option to do other things like sight reading. And, of course, there are technical requirements (like scales).
If you were doing your grade 2 rock and pop keyboard exam, you would have the selection of songs such as Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf, Chandeier by Sia, and Uptown Funk. There’s a good blend of very modern and relevant selections, as well as older classics, to appeal to everyone.
An example of music you’d be able to select at a higher level, in categories A and B, are as follows:
I like that they span beyond the Baroque-early 20th Century music to include the very modern (In Dreams) and the very old Renaissance (Byrd).
If that isn’t enough of a selection for you, they also offer alternate repertoire selections.
Trinity College London marking scheme
Just like with the RCM and ABRSM, a pass is well above 50% – with TCL, it’s 60%. There are different tiers of passing – the highest marks, from 87%-100%, would earn you ‘distinction’, while a mark of 65% would simply land you a ‘pass’.
Another neat exam feature
Another neat exam feature is that, up until a grade 5 level, the examiner will ask the student questions about their music. It’s a way to slide a little music theory into the exam setting, which I find very cool.
It’s important not only to be able to play your music, but to be able to explain it as well.
TCL takes their technical exercises seriously. In addition to playing three pieces, you also have to play three different etudes (at a higher level). I like that they give you specific targets – as in, you must choose an etude that develops coordination, or finger and wrist strength and flexibility.
Trinity College London Diplomas
I mentioned earlier that if you get to a Grade 8 in TCL and want to keep going, you can continue at a diploma level. And again, no prerequisites required! If you want to jump in and do your Licentiate (LTCL), you can! The only exception is for the highest level, the FTCL. You need to have passed the LTCL to do this exam (or an equivalent), which is completely fair.
TCL vs. RCM vs. ABRSM
One of the big reasons I really like the RCM is the vast repertoire lists. Every grade gives literally over 100 options, with more options the higher the grade. This degree of choice gives a lot of freedom for the performer, who is then able to build their repertoire list from pieces they absolutely love.
TCL and ABRSM both have limited lists – TCL even more so. But what TCL lacks in repertoire selection, it makes up for with freedom in other ways – namely, composition.
I also like that TCL is the only major music school that offers grades in modern rock & pop styles. RCM and ABRSM, though they include modern-ish music (the RCM even has a pop music syllabus), are still mainly focused on the Classical. But not everyone wants to learn Bach with their Muse. And what about guitar players who don’t want to play Classical guitar, or vocalists who don’t want to train in operas?
Another benefit of Trinity is there are no complicated prerequisites. The RCM is a little tricky to navigate. You CAN jump in and do a grade 8 exam having no prior grades, but you have to make sure you also do the corresponding theory exam. And you can’t skip grade 9 or 10. The ABRSM is similar.
Overall there are pros and cons to each music school, but TCL should be on your list of music schools to consider if you’re planning on exams. And even if you’re not, if you’re self-taught, it helps to follow a pre-existing framework as you advance your studies.
For more information on TCL, check out their website – it’s packed with information, and all the syllabi are free.
Enjoy, and until next time!