Preparing for the ARCO

RomainRomain Bornes writes the guest blog post this month about the ARCO and his experiences. Romain’s musical career started in Toulouse, France, beginning piano lessons at age four, and singing in La Maîtrise de Toulouse. In 2014 he moved to Bristol, where he started learning the organ. He is now Organ Scholar of Bristol Cathedral, where he accompanies the cathedral girls’ choir, and Clifton College, where he directs the student chamber choir. He became an Associate of the Royal College of Organists in 2020, and will be taking up the position of Organ Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, in September 2020.


The Associateship of the Royal College of Organists is a diploma which, the RCO states, “indicates a standard of professional competency in organ playing technique, essential keyboard skills and interpretative understanding”. This is a highly prized qualification – many churches and cathedrals internationally regard the RCO’s qualifications of Associateship, as well as Fellowship, as reliable benchmarks to evaluate organists’ standards.

While obtaining the ARCO may seem at first like an insurmountable challenge, it is entirely obtainable through methodical and disciplined work. The exam is modular: there is a repertoire playing component, a set of keyboard tests, as well as two written papers. These components focus on different aspects of the organist’s skill set, and each one is very demanding – passing all of them requires a thorough command of the instrument, fluency and versatility at the keyboard, as well as supporting knowledge and understanding of harmony, counterpoint, and history of the organ.

The first thing to do if you are considering the ARCO exam is to check the current year’s syllabus (which can be found on the RCO’s website), and see exactly what the exam consists of. The syllabus has changed many times over the years, so many of the components your teacher or friends sat may not be up to date still!

Once you have familiarised yourself with the syllabus, you can start preparing for the exam. Firstly, you should choose pieces from the repertoire list. This will necessarily contain a work by J.S. Bach (List A), and two works by other composers. The pieces you choose should be contrasting in style to give yourself the widest opportunity to demonstrate your ability to play in various different styles. The exam will be at one of three places – London, Huddersfield, or Edinburgh. You will have 1 hour 30 minutes of practice on your exam organ. This time is invaluable for success in the practical exam, as it is the only opportunity you will have to get to know the instrument. Before this, if you can find an organ with a similar layout to the exam instrument, do as much practice as you can on that instrument. If your usual practice instrument is electro-pneumatic action or digital, try to find a tracker action one to practice on. When you apply for the exam, you will be sent a copy of the organ’s specification. You will also be able to use a fixed setting of divisional pistons (the details of which will be sent to you), and set your own general channel. When going into your practice session, you should already have a clear idea of what stops you’ll be using. It is also very helpful to bring someone else along with you for your practice session, who should stand where the examiners will be seated. This is to check your registrations are balanced: remember some pipes will project further into the building, and the sound you receive at the console most likely won’t be the same where the examiners are sitting. When you have your registration all figured out (and the pieces learned, of course!), make sure you’ve performed it many times before the exam day. It is essential to consult other experienced organists and gain as much feedback on your playing. When you walk into the exam, you should ideally know the music from memory – you should be confident, calm and focused during the playing.

The other part of the practical exam is the keyboard tests. This section tests your ability to play music you haven’t played before, in various different formats. You will have to play four short tests – three of these (transposition, score-reading, and score-reading) are compulsory, and the fourth is a choice between figured bass realisation, improvisation, and harmonizing a melody. The actual exam lasts no longer than 5 minutes, though you will be given the tests to look through for 20 minutes before the exam, away from a keyboard. For this reason, it is preferable to start the exam with the keyboard tests, while they are still fresh in your mind. Preparing for these tests requires thorough, methodical daily work, over a long period of time. All four tests must be played at least once per day to make the significant progress needed to get to ARCO standard. There are plenty of resources to find tests. For transposition, there is plenty of material right where you are – any hymn book in your organ loft containing standard 4-part hymns will be perfect for training. When you become more confident with basic hymns, an excellent book for further progress is Sumsion’s 100 Transposition Exercises at the Keyboard , which have more interesting harmony, with more frequent modulations. For score-reading, cpdl.org is a great place to start – there are countless Renaissance open scores by Lassus or Palestrina. When you are confident with four-part score-reading, you should try and read through five-part open scores – when you can do these relatively well, you’ll be more confident with the four-part exam. For sight-reading, any combination of easy organ pieces, such as Anne Marsden Thomas’ Graded Anthologies for Organ , or Oxford Service Music for Organ . The sight-reading test will almost always require you to add or remove the Great / Pedal. As part of your practice time on the organ, therefore, you should practice finding the dedicated foot piston, so you aren’t taken by surprise during the exam. If you have time, you should play one of each test during the course of your practice, having prepared them for 20 minutes beforehand, away from the keyboard (so as to not waste time during your practice). The other test will be your choice – you should choose whatever feels more natural to you, and is going to be the most helpful in your career as an organist. If you have done figured bass in the past, choose the figured bass option – similarly, if you play in a church that requires you to improvise before services, you might choose improvising as you’ll already be experienced, and it’ll likely be more helpful in your day-to-day life than the others. Whatever you choose, you want to be able to do it fluently by the time you reach the exams, as with all the other tests. One particular aspect of the tests examiners are very keen on is the metronome marking. You should play as close as possible to the marking for each test as possible. You will get a metronome in the waiting room, but not in the exam – you should practice getting tempos without a metronome. In the weeks leading up to the exam, you should start doing “mock” test runs: print out the four tests, work at them for 20 minutes, with a metronome, and then record yourself playing them. You can buy and download past papers from the RCO website, which can give you an indicator of the sort of thing you should expect when you take the exam.

The two written papers are taken on a separate day. They last three hours each, with 7 questions in total. Paper I tests the candidate’s understanding of harmony and counterpoint, and Paper II tests the candidate’s aural skills and historical knowledge. Questions 3 and 4 of Paper II focus on a particular period of organ music and then a particular work or works written within that period. For instance, in the exam seasons Summer 2019 and Winter 2020, the set topic for question 3 was France, 1870 – 1950, and the set works for question 4 were Langlais’ Suite Française and Suite Médiévale . These topics change every year: therefore, you should begin study on these subjects when you plan on taking the exam in the next Summer or Winter exam season. Otherwise by the time you take the exam, the set period and work(s) will have changed. When studying for these, you should, of course, listen to music, and learn about the composers of that period – you should also read plenty of secondary literature regarding that period. It is also crucial to learn about the most important organ builders, organ building trends and styles of that period, as that may well come up in the exam. Where relevant, understand how the organ building innovations of that period, if any, influenced compositional trends. Learning musical quotations from that period is also vital – learn passages of a few bars from as many pieces as you can until you can write them down from memory without a keyboard, so you can quote them in the exam. You will be provided with manuscript paper to do so, and you should refer to the passages you quote in your essay. That will always gain you a few marks at least. This isn’t necessary for the “set work(s)” question, however, as you may take your own copy of the score into the exam – you should make sure you have a blank copy to use.

Before booking the exam, you should make sure you are fully ready to take on the challenge – you should be confident enough that you’re able to get a pass before you book it. You should get feedback from as many people as possible, attend masterclasses and events, and use the resources available to RCO members. Before each exam, there is a “Preparing for CRCO, ARCO and FRCO” day-long event organised by the RCO, during which you will attend workshops directed by RCO examiners – this is a very helpful way to get familiar with what the examiners expect of you. Once you’re confident and ready to take the exam, you can book in from the RCO website. Before you do, you need to be a member of the RCO. After you book the exam, you will be emailed an Information Pack – this will contain your candidate number (which you need to remember!), your allocated practice time and exam times, a copy of the exam organ’s specification, details of the fixed divisional channel for all candidates, your own general channel number, and a sheet to write your general settings into. You should take all of this to your practice session – if you want to use your general pistons, you will need to write them down, as they will need to be prepared for you before your exam.

Preparing fully for the ARCO exam is a monumental challenge. However, it is far from impossible – by taking advantage of all the resources available to you, and working through the syllabus methodically, you can make sure you have the skills required to become an Associate of the Royal College of Organists.

If you would like to write a ‘Monthly Feature’, do please get in touch. It can be about anything to do with the organ. Perhaps your experience on a course you’ve attended, buying a new organ, the day in the life of an organ builder, my favourite organ. I’d love to hear from you!

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