Project aims for national standard in music education

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Kayla Bladzinski, 8 of Arnold, runs out of the room smiling after taking a music test of the new Achievement Program.  The program is a venture by Carnegie Hall and Canada's Royal Conservatory of Music to establish nationally standardized testing of music skills.

For generations, music students have been getting gold stars, certificates and other pats on the back from their teachers. But a budding musician with high marks in one state is not necessarily on the same level, judged by the same criteria, as a budding musician in another.

Such positive reinforcement may soon carry a lot more weight countrywide.

Launched by Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the Achievement Program seeks to establish the first national standard in the United States for measuring musical aptitude in students of all ages.

At about 90 assessment centers across the country, adjudicators, who themselves have undergone a training process for the task, have been busy evaluating students this month during the first assessment sessions of the Achievement Program.

In Maryland, tests can be taken in Germantown and at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, where nine piano students were recently assessed. Students of other instruments, along with singers, are expected to participate when the next assessments are held in the spring.

"When someone says, 'I've been playing piano for 10 years,' that could be a good thing or an uh-oh thing," said Jennifer Snow, the Achievement Program's chief academic officer. "With the assessments, the student can find out where he or she stands. It's a way of being connected to music students across the country."

That sense of connection is something British-born Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, learned early.

"I come from a country that has national standards, which are valuable not only in terms of motivation, but setting the bar for future projects," Gillinson said. "When you passed a certain-level exam, people everywhere knew what that meant."

That's the aim of the Achievement Program, which provides a detailed and extensive curriculum for graduated levels of study, from "Preparatory A" to "Grade 10." For each level, repertoire lists are provided, along with exercises in ear-training, sight-reading, harmony and more.

Assessments are held twice yearly. Students can take the exams when they feel ready; there is no dictated timetable. Certificates are issued to students who successfully pass each grade level.

Carnegie Hall, an iconic concert venue since 1891, has long been involved in educational activities. The project of building a nationwide program to measure musical development took shape after surveys revealed a widespread interest in the concept.

The Royal Conservatory of Music's exam system, in use since the 1890s, when graduates began moving into the provinces to teach and set up assessments, emerged as a favorite model for an American version.

About 120,000 students, from young children to nonagenarians, take the Royal Conservatory Examinations annually in Canada, where there are about 5 million alumni of the program.

One of them is the dynamic, New Brunswick-born soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who enjoys a high-profile international career. She started lessons in piano and voice at the age of 7.

"When you're young, classical music is a huge chunk to chew off," Brueggergosman said. "This system gives you a method not only to learn to be better technically, but also to develop an appreciation for classical music, from Baroque to modern. It's a win-win."

The soprano had an idea early on that she wanted a life in music.

"And for a Type-A, goal-oriented control freak like me, I needed to know I was progressing by steady increments," she said. "The system provides that. For other people, it can be a leisurely stroll through music appreciation. You don't have to go on to the conservatory, but if you do, you're that much farther ahead."

Among those who went through the exam system in Canada, but took a nonmusical path afterward, is the country's current prime minister, Stephen Harper.

"He has a Grade 9 piano, which is not easy," said Peter Simon, president of the Royal Conservatory of Music. "And he is not shy about telling Canadians that he would not have been PM without this, because it helped him get over nervousness and taught him poise and concentration."

The Achievement Program has attracted partnerships with the National Guild for Community Arts Education, the National Association for Teachers of Singing and the California Association of Professional Music Teachers And since the program was officially announced in March, it has been adopted as the official music teacher association state curriculum in Ohio, Massachusetts and Wyoming.

"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."

Reiko Bladzinski, an Arnold resident, agrees. Her daughter Kayla, 8, was among the student pioneers in the assessments held at AACC.

"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."