How to Ace a History Exam

Here’s where I hold my nose and go against all my principles of educating.

The topic of the music history exams was being discussed on a forum recently (Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada; The Achievement Program in the US). The syllabus lays out requirements for the course, has an extensive list of terms and genres that students are responsible for, and includes a decent bibliography of resources that can be used. Because the 2nd and 3rd courses are genre-based, the door should be quite open for exposing students to a marvellous, rich history of music.

BUT if you want a good mark, you need to know the extremely picky details in the small-font Explorations book that they publish. Everything you need to know is in there. Given the constraints of time for most students, teaching to the test using this book will at least prepare them for the exam, if not necessarily give a good knowledge of the history of music.

Scott Ashby of Ashby Musical Enterprises explained it well on the forum. He gave me permission to quote him here.

I teach music history online, so I understand exactly what you’re talking about.

I think part of the problem lies in the history of these courses since 2002.

For many years, the standard “bible” of these history courses was the Machlis
Enjoyment of Music textbook. Each course was assigned certain pages from the
book. The advantage was having well-defined edges. If it was in the book, you
were responsible. If it wasn’t in the book, you weren’t. The disadvantages
were that many students would parrot back Machlis phrases on the exam without
demonstrating comprehension. Also, Norton would continuously release new
editions of the book (sometimes more frequently than the seven-year syllabus
cycle), requiring students and teachers to buy new (expensive) texts in order to
keep up with the requirements.

In the 2002 syllabus, the RCM changed the paradigm and made the syllabus the
standard rather than a specific text. They then attempted to outline the
general expectations and pointed you to a variety of texts and internet sources
for your information. The Exploring Music History study guides were a helpful
outline, but without information. It was a nice idea, but a bit extreme for
junior high and early high school students who aren’t used to doing graduate
school research. It put a lot more burden on the teachers.

So, all that to say that the current syllabus and Explorations series (which has
a lot of information, but does not spell out all of the options available like
the syllabus does) is an attempt to return the pendulum to the middle between
word-for-word expectations and the ill-defined problem approach. I can imagine
that considering the history of these approaches, it must be difficult to keep
the exam graders consistent with one another on such a vast quantity of

Apologies if I’m being too defensive of the RCM. I don’t work for them and I,
too, struggle with the constant attempts of keeping courses aligned with the

Scott Ashby

Kudos to those teachers -there are a few! – who still offer wonderful history classes, especially in groups – online or not. I actually love teaching it – I get to talk non-stop about one of my big passions in life. I give some background, we listen to at least part of the required selection with a score, and of course I highlight all the picky points that I know will surface on the exam – coaching for the exam, if you will.

Recordings of all the required repertoire abound on Youtube and, as a teacher friend and I discussed over coffee yesterday, the internet has made our lives much easier, as students are far more likely to click than insert a CD. Practicing the essays that are suggested in the Explorations books – multiple times – and doing the practice exams are critical preparation for the exam (yes, more money out of the student’s pocket), especially the Additional exam at the back of the booklet. It generally has a slightly different format than the others and is a foretaste of what is to come in the following years. I keep copies of student’s marked exam for reference each year, particularly for the essay questions. I’ve written about and offered more suggestions here.

If anyone is in a place where there are no music history teachers available, I can recommend Scott and his online program.

Image credit: Oracle ThinkQuest

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About LaDona's Music Studio

Musician, pianist, teacher, blogger.
This entry was posted in Books about Music, Examinations, Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Ace a History Exam

  1. Pingback: 3 Ways a Failed Exam Helps You - Schooled for Life

  2. Pingback: Why Exams Aren’t the Best Option «

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