Awards Guidance

Dean's Award

"Rather like learning to drive, the singer engaged in Voice for Life training is in the driving seat of a dual-controlled machine. When you are in doubt, or lose your way, you trust you will be helped not to crash by the singers around you and your choir trainer! But the Bronze exam can feel much more like the driving test, so the wise instructor will have given you some opportunities before the day to 'drive solo' and gain the necessary confidence 'behind the wheel.' Perhaps a solo verse in the Carol Service, or a short solo line in an anthem one Sunday, will get you started. You will learn not to be disconcerted by your own sound, and how to keep pitch securely without any help from neighbouring voices. We all may suffer from nerves in this situation and there are helpful tips on page 12 of the Voice for Life Dark Blue book. Always use your warm-up exercises before solo work, to help your voice to work at its optimum. The tonguing exercises (page 9 of the Dark Blue book) are good examples.

Whether adult or child, a successful Bronze [Dean's] award Candidate will perform with some confidence and technical security, the notes engagingly 'lifting off the page. If the whole exam is prepared to that standard, the examiner will hope to award a distinction. Most of us, however, have some weak areas, whether in the voice, in our technical grasp, in sight-reading or elsewhere. But it is still possible to gain a pass, or even a merit, if conscientious preparation has been made to meet the challenge. The examiner will be disappointed, however, if one aspect seems to have had no preparation whatever, as sometimes this can make all the difference between a pass and a fail result."

"Firstly then, study your local Bronze (Dean's) syllabus and ensure you understand each requirement, so you can make a decent attempt at it. Ask your choir trainer, or another helpful adult, to give you a short weekly training session, to cover all the aspects of the syllabus, for a couple of months leading up to the exam. Your priest, minister or chaplain might like to help you prepare the Section E requirements. Look back over the pages in the Voice for Life Dark Blue book that relate to any part of the syllabus that you still find challenging. If you can work towards the exam together with another singer for mutual support, so much the better: you can help each other by spotting strengths and weaknesses, and encouraging each other to work hard at particular things before next week's session.

Secondly, you will see that the syllabus contains some criteria for success. Do your choir leader and your training partner think that you already show many of the characteristics of a good' candidate? Do you, for instance, ' project the voice well? Convey the mood of the music and reflect the meaning of the text? Articulate consonants clearly?' Some of these, at least, should become second nature. And if they do, the whole choir benefits from your increased confidence and skill. These things are infectious.
Opposite each of the 'good' criteria, you will see a statement that may characterize the 'poor' candidate. It is, again, a statement of habit: you would never be penalised badly for anyone small slip, but where the same thing happens repeatedly and spoils your performance, the examiner must take note. It is rare to fail at Bronze standard, however, on the basis of just one 'poor' characteristic: it would have to be very severe and obtrusive. More often, a disappointing result emerges from a combination of weak aspects that have not been determinedly tackled over a long enough period of time. The mark sheet that you receive after the exam alongside your result will always make this clear.

Sample sightreading testThirdly, you should help each other with practising the technical tests. Frequent practice, as part of a weekly routine, can help develop confidence and the ability to overcome slips. As the 'good' criteria have it, you should be ' able to sing with conviction even when wrong. There are useful pages of examples, such as the one shown, in the Voice for Life Choir Trainers Book (Order ref F0100) pp. 166-171. Helpful aural training examples are included here too.

It is worth considering using a music stand in the final weeks of your Award practice and on the day itself. It can help prevent tension building up from having to hold your music, and (if it is adjusted to the correct height) you can stand near it, perhaps a little to one side, and show that you know your pieces confidently without constantly referring to the copy.


Good singing habits

None of this is rocket science, and your greatest strength lies in week-by-week participation in your choir s ministry. Be self-critical, and aim for the very best sound you can produce, each week as you sing. Don’t be distracted by any less motivated members. Ask for honest, constructive criticism from others, so that any bad habits, perhaps more evident to others than to you, can be rooted out. With your Dark Blue targets all fulfilled, you should already know your own strengths and weaknesses, but sometimes, after the tick in the target box it is easy to relapse into old habits of posture, breathing or diction in the absence of gentle reminders!

The Bronze award is the preliminary singing assessment for RSCM members. After it, you may well be inspired to re- double your commitment and look towards preparation for the intermediate, Silver award which is also offered by your local Area. Good luck, and good singing!

[Extracts from an article by John Wardle from Church Music Quarterly, March 2006]


Bishop’s Award

“If you already hold a Bronze award, or a similar alternative qualification – and once you have completed your Red Voice for Life book - you will be ready to consider entering for the next assessment, the RSCM Silver standard award. (Many Areas [including London] refer to this as their Bishop’s Award). The Red targets, all successfully completed, provide you with the launch pad for Silver success. Having already passed the preliminary award, and attended one or two helpful training events (offered regularly, we hope, by your area) you will be well prepared to enter the exam room a second time.


Why take this award?

Younger singers in your choir may often be entered for the Bishop’s Award at this stage of training, but the new area syllabuses have been designed to appeal to older choristers too. You will already have gained considerably in confidence and experience from your Bronze training, and will now be helping to lead your section as new music is learnt. You will understand the importance of being able to sing 'more than just the notes on the page’. If you sing a lower part, you will be able to hold your line accurately, balancing the sound sensitively with the other parts around you. Preparing for the Silver award will also ensure that you continue to build your personal singing confidence, helping the whole choir to tackle new, more demanding challenges successfully. Your musical knowledge will be increasing significantly, too. All these factors will be helping to enhance your own, and others, singing ministry, week by week. Singers who perform well enough to gain a merit or distinction in their Silver assessment are strongly encouraged to go on and begin preparation for the RSCM Gold


Hitting the mark!

“Roughly speaking, you stand a 20% chance of gaining a distinction result, and only a 5% chance of failing your Silver Award. What can you do to increase your likelihood of obtaining the former, and reduce the chance of the latter? Needless to say, you will want to sing all the right notes, but, by itself, that is not going to guarantee you success at this level. The music you will sing for your Silver assessment will, of course, be of a generally more demanding standard than you sang at Bronze. The hymn, for instance, will have a greater number of lines in the verses, and you may well be expected to sing certain verses unaccompanied in both your psalm and your hymn. Anthems (often drawn from the RSCM Silver Collection) are more difficult, and altos, tenors and basses must now sing their own voice part. In other parts of the Silver Syllabus, too, such as sight singing, and Section E (choir in context), the content of the tests has progressed considerably from Bronze.

There are several 'pointers' that you should notice in your Silver syllabus.  Marks awarded will give considerable weight to interpretation and musicality in your prepared anthem. As you sing, the examiner will be listening for maturity of tone appropriate to the candidate’s age and experience. And every syllabus contains helpful guidance (or 'criteria’) for candidates and their trainers. For instance, 'good' candidates will demonstrate a good dynamic range and an understanding of phrasing and articulation, show an appreciation of musical style, appropriate to the piece being performed and be able to convey the mood of the music and reflect the meaning of the text.

Your RSCM-validated examiner will listen, mark and report, encouragingly wherever possible, on many or all of eight specific technical aspects of your performance in Section A (Using the voice well):  Posture & presentation, tone & breathing technique, intonation, accuracy of notes or pulse, diction, phrasing & articulation,  confidence & security, sense of style.  If you are assessed as 'good' (or better!) at three or four of these, the examiner will be hoping to award you a distinction, if the rest of the exam is at the same encouraging standard. Even if there are 'some lapses' in a couple of these aspects, you may still be awarded a pass (or better) mark. But ' significant concerns' that are heard, even in one aspect (intonation, accuracy or tone breathing, in particular) can lead to a fail mark, as they will often spoil the overall performance for the listener. Significant concern over intonation means that the pitch wanders a lot, perhaps with an uncontrolled vibrato, or stays unhappily over' or 'under' the notes – a sure sign of underlying, and by now habitual, problems of production. Poor posture can also contribute to a fail mark, if as a result other aspects frequent breathing or unfocused articulation, perhaps) suffer too.

Another 'pointer' should also be borne in mind.  In order to pass, candidates should demonstrate consistency throughout the examination, though a pass mark in every section is not required. Although it is not compulsory to obtain a pass in Section A, the marks in this section account for half of the total. So don’t enter insufficiently prepared, hoping to make up your pass marks dramatically elsewhere. Examiners are instructed to use a full range of fail marks, where necessary, just as they habitually use a full range of pass marks.

Examiners like to hear a voice performing with panache and ‘developing confidence and tone that can usefully help to lead others' in the choir. You will be capable by now of producing an expressive, pleasing quality of sound, but don’t always 'sing at one level' - give some nice dynamic variety, too.

A word for choir trainers about a boy’s treble voice ' hitting the mark' at Silver standard: if a boy has obtained a good Bronze result as a treble, do consider fast-track Red book training, provided that motivation is maintained. There is often only a narrow window of opportunity before his treble voice starts to lose its best quality. Take advice perhaps from the leaders of an Area training event that he should attend during this preparation. Often, the message  is don’t delay. Once his treble voice is past its best, it is much wiser to adopt changing-voice training strategies (see the Voice for Life appendix in the Choir Trainers Book) while his new, young adult voice settles in. Don’t ask him to try and sing treble beyond his capabilities, as this will only lead to disappointment all round.”


How else should I prepare?

While Section A of Voice for Life is of fundamental importance, the other sections are designed to help you develop your knowledge and understanding, of the music itself and of the choir’s liturgical role in performing it. By attending some RSCM training (whether, ideally at this stage, a residential course, or an Area singing day), you can increase your confidence in preparing for this award. The problem of sight singing confidence, however, is not cured by a 'quick fix' but, rather, by regular practice. Aural tests, too, need regular, sustained practice for good results. It is a good idea to devote some training sessions together (as you did in advance of your Bronze award) to specific practice of these tests. Constructive criticism from others in the group is always a good way to increase your motivation for success!

Don’t 'switch off' your mental powers during your Sunday service. Be there regularly, and constantly refresh your knowledge: 'Why is this anthem appropriate today? What is its mood, its key and its important stylistic qualities? Do I understand all the Italian expressive terms I see? What fresh insights about this festival or season are given me today in the sermon, or in the words of this new hymn?' All this will help you answer questions in Section E, about the significance of seasons and festivals that you celebrate in your own church. The source and meaning of various liturgical texts must be known. You will also need to take two copies into the exam room of some chosen items of music, and to explain to your examiner how music helps people to pray. Prepare comments on both the music and the words of your chosen piece, and show that you are aware of the contribution your choir should be making to the worshipping life of your church.

Above all, do enjoy this second, intermediate assessment experience. The examiner will want to put you at your ease, and you will always be encouraged to show the best that you can do.

Good luck!”

[Extracts from an article by John Wardle from Church Music Quarterly, June 2006]

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