"It's a very clear, yet challenging, learning structure for every instrument," Simon said. "When kids start lessons, you can clearly show them and their parents the sequence of progression."
"This gave her even more motivation to practice," Bladzinski said. "And she couldn't wait to do [the assessment]. She wanted to get here early."
Each assessment is done privately, just adjudicator and student. No parents, friends or other students; no competitive pressure. (Fees for assessments range from $69 to $266, depending on grade level.)
Kayla had been smiling right up until she stepped into a small practice room for her Preparatory B exam. The smile faded as she took her seat at a piano bench and looked up at Ontario-based adjudicator Lois Simmons, who evaluated 32 students in Germantown and another six in Morgantown, W. Va., before arriving at AACC.
When Kayla burst out of that room about 15 minutes later and ran down the corridor, an electric grin lit up her face. She jumped into her mother's arms, then repeated the gesture with her piano teacher.
"It was really fun," Kayla said.
She expressed only one disappointment — having to wait four to six weeks to receive her certificate. (In the case of a student who doesn't pass, adjudicators provide suggestions on how to improve before retaking the exam at a later date.)
Kayla's teacher Helen Smith-Tarchalski, a Peabody Conservatory-trained pianist who has a private studio and also teaches at AACC, prepared four students for the inaugural assessments.
"What I like is how the Achievement Program offers the same appeal, inspiration and direction to all of them," said Smith-Tarchalski, regional representative for the Achievement Program.
Sean Hanley, a 15-year-old from Annapolis, is a case in point.
"It forced me to learn pieces quickly," Sean said. The soft-spoken, poker-faced student set another goal for himself, besides technical accuracy, when it came time to face the adjudicator: "Show more personality," he said.
He appeared to have succeeded, judging by the way Sean high-fived Smith-Tarchalski when he emerged from the test.
Leigh Emerson of Lothian, wearing brightly colored gloves to warm her hands until the last minute, then headed in to be tested for Grade 6 piano and soon emerged beaming. "I'm really set for the next one," she said.
So is her mother, Lynn Emerson.
"This program has come along at the perfect time," she said. "It has opened doors for Leigh. It gives her more tools for her toolbox and will give her confidence. My husband is from Toronto and grew up with the system. He was a Grade 8, and Leigh wants to get past that."
Simon estimated it could take 20 years for the Achievement Program to become fully successful, and about four years to judge the likelihood of that outcome. If the program takes root, there could be bonuses, as there are in Canada, where students can get school credits for participating in the Royal Conservatory Examinations.
"This system opens doors to discuss with state education authorities about doing that in the U.S.," Simon said. "It may also help start a discussion about granting tax credits for music studies, which may be a long, long way away in the U.S., but it did work in Canada."
Gillinson is sensitive to the possibility that some Americans may balk at the idea of setting a national standard.
"When it's government telling you what to do, people hate that," Gillinson said. "But no one is telling them they need to do this. The Achievement Program is about creating an opportunity. All we're saying is that we want to create the best program we possibly can, and join us if you want to."