Using the RCM Voice Syllabus, part 1

Part 1: Why use the RCM Voice Syllabus?

I’ve now taught at many universities all over the US—public, private, you name it. I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the “average” level of singers who enter collegiate voice study. With the possible exception of those students who have extensively studied a second instrument growing up, most singers wind up with vocal skills that are far more developed than their musicianship skills. This is exacerbated by a few key factors:

  • The vast majority of choral ensembles learn music by rote

  • Voice lessons are for the privileged few, and seldom include theory or sight-singing

  • Many people have it in mind that young people “shouldn’t” take voice lessons. I’m puzzled as to how this absurd notion gained currency, but alas I hear it regularly

Luckily, there’s a really wonderful solution that is easy to implement, free to adopt, and time-tested…

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The Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, in addition to being a university music program, also oversees a music training program. In Canada, it is widely used and recognized as a terrific, multi-level training program for musicians of all ages, and virtually any instrument you could imagine. It has not yet been widely adopted in the US, but, candidly, I’m hoping to help change that!

In the case of voice, there are 12 levels: preparatory, 1-10, and then “ARCT,” which is a diploma (roughly the level of difficulty of most voice master’s degrees in the US). The syllabus is here, free of charge. If a student so desires, they can take the exam and actually get a certificate of their achievement. However, anyone can use the materials and the structure with or without doing the exams.

Each level has:

  • technique exercises (aka “warm-ups”)

  • chord identification (e.g. teacher plays a chord on the piano, student says whether it’s major or minor)

  • interval finding (e.g. teacher gives a pitch and the student finds the given interval, either ascending or descending)

  • sight-singing

  • repertoire

Each of these elements start very, very simply at the lower levels, and gradually increase in difficulty level by level. THIS is the real genius of the program, in my opinion. As the teacher, I don’t have to constantly be thinking about how to crank up the level and gradually nudge my students towards higher and higher achievement—the system does it for me. If my student is at Level 5, for instance, and they start to really master the above components at Level 5, then it’s time to move on to Level 6.

The only moderately challenging aspect for a teacher new to RCM is “at what level should I place my student?” I have found, through spending some time studying the technical exercises and repertoire lists, that it is relatively easy to determine where a student should place. Also, some advice given by the RCM is as follows:

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I believe that, if you take even a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the materials, you’ll find it relatively easy to figure out what level your student should begin. I also believe that, if a critical mass of voice teachers would use these fabulous materials, the state of music-making in our country would rise precipitously, and the musicianship gap so commonly seen between young singers and young instrumentalists would narrow, and eventually disappear.

If you’re interested in more information about implementing RCM in your voice teaching, please reach out to me—I’m happy to help! Additionally, I’ve created a closed Facebook group called “RCM Voice Teachers.” Join us! Lastly, I’ll be making more posts about the RCM on this very blog, so check back!