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The RCM/TAP Method and Exams for Classical Guitar
Enjoyment at Every Level
The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) provides a syllabus for learning the classical guitar that covers all levels of difficulty. They also administer exams for each of the levels, so students can challenge themselves to take an actual exam if they like. I took the Level 4 exam and passed with First Class Honors.
The RCM recently partnered with Carnegie Hall to administer exams in the United States under the name The Achievement Program (TAP). You can download a copy of the syllabus here.
The syllabus emphasizes both breadth and a logical progression of difficulty. Breadth comes from the fact that the exam covers repertoire, sight reading, ear tests, technique and theory. You must do more than simply play a few pieces well! Progression comes from the difficulty of each test being obtainable, with work, for someone who has passed the previous level.
The most important part of the exam is the repertoire section. It accounts for 60 points out of the 100 point exam. A major contribution of the Syllabus is that it presents repertoire at a similar level of difficulty from all the major historical time periods. People have been writing music for guitar-like instruments for several hundred years. Before discovering the RCM Syllabus, I had trouble finding music that was at an appropriate difficulty level from each historical period. You can purchase a book with all the pieces for each level from Amazon.
For the Level 4 exam I had to prepare 3 pieces: one pre-classical piece (from the renaissance or baroque periods), one classical piece and one post-classical piece (from the romantic or 20th century periods). More advanced levels have to prepare more pieces, but the general idea is the same: no more than one piece form each period, and try to represent as many different periods as possible.
At the beginning levels you are not required to memorize pieces. However, you will receive extra points if you do so. At more advanced levels students are required to play their repertoire from memory.
After repertoire, my favorite part of the exam was sight reading. It acounts for 10 points. There is an old joke in the guitar world:
Question: How can you get a guitarist to stop playing?
Answer: Put music in front of him!
The grain of truth behind this joke is that most guitarists are bad at sight reading. There is a good reason for this: music notation is just less useful for guitar than other instruments. A single note on a staff just tells you pitch and duration. But on the guitar that sound can often be played on several different strings, in multiple positions, and with multiple fingerings. This is, after all, why tablature (and before that, alfabeto) was created!
Nonetheless, sightreading on the classical guitar can indeed be learned, improved, and tested. The best method I have seen for this was Robert Bendict's books on the subject. Incidently, Benedict was a professor at the Royal Conservatory as well!
The hardest part of the exam for me were the ear tests. This portion is worth 10 points and has 3 parts: clapping back a rhythm, identifying intervals and playing back a melody. The truth is that I simply didn't know how to prepare for it! I am attempting to address this problem now by working thru Gilson Schachnik's "Beginning Ear Training". The author is a professor of ear training at Berklee College. So far I've had a good experience with this book. Frederick Harris also publishes a series called Sound Advice which is designed to help prepare students for this part of the exam.
The technical requirements are worth cumulatively worth 20 points. There are two parts to this section: playing Studies (10 points) and playing scales and arpeggios (10 points).
The Studies are pieces written by composers over the generations to help their students overcome particular technical difficulties. They includes the famous studies by Carcassi, Sor, Giuliani, Carulli and more recent composers as well. I prepared for this the same way that I prepared for the repertoire. The only difference is that here you don't get extra points for memorization.
The scales and arpeggios, however, are really rough stuff! They must all be memorized, cover all the major and minor keys and must be played at a certain speed and with a certain fingering. This portion of the exam took me several months to be able to do.