New Exam Cycles in Irish Traditional Music

In 1980 Labhrás Ó Murchu, Ard Stiurthóir of CCE, came to me with the idea of putting a system together that would improve the standards of teaching Irish traditional music at home and abroad. It seemed a daunting task, as the music was being taught in one form or another from USA, Canada through Ireland, England, Europe to New Zealand and Australia. The most difficult aspect of this request was to find a method of deciding what might be considered a pleasing improvement in teaching methods and yet would this improvement protect the music and its varying styles and still allow the music to progress, intact, through time.

After many serious discussions it was decided at that time to bring all the resources of CCE to bear on the training of good teachers. This in itself was a fearsome undertaking, which could have serious repercussions in one way or another. I spent many sleepless nights thinking of this task and also mulling it over with some of the best intellects, resources and musicians available at the time.

My most explicit fear was that any interference with our music might alter its interpretation or genre in a manner that might not follow natural progressions or everyday development. It seemed a logical step at the time to put a team together of CCE’s ‘Best’, meaning 7 or 8 of its best teachers who had fairly sizeable classes and among many other aspects would have students that were making strides in the traditional musical world. Also, as well as the instrumental format there was the ‘Vocal’ format which was being carefully monitored and still is.

The decision at the time was to focus on the instrumental and carefully watch the progress of vocal ‘Sean-Nós’ classes (24 in total). These were projects under the umbrella of the ‘Gael Acadamh’ based in Spiddal, of which I was Chairman at that time. As such I could evaluate the progress or otherwise, of these classes, which were taught by rote (ear) including the use of cassettes and all the teachers were the best Sean-Nós singers available in the various areas. All these classes were in Gaeltacht areas, basically attended by children who had ‘Gaeilge ó Dhúchas’ as far as we could ascertain. While this might look like a very long period of evaluation before introducing into the CCE system, I would think not as the utmost care is required in a field as important as this one. The classes that were designed in 1980 were christened ‘TTCT’ by Senator Séamus de Brún who spent many hours trying to find some letters that would portray the true meaning of our efforts and translated to, ‘Teastas i dTeagasc Ceolta Tíre’. It has stood the test of time with just 400 teachers who have achieved the Diploma in one form or another.

Basically the structure is fairly simple. The course has a Director (Chief Assessor) and three more assistant Assessors. Their job is to pick a team of Tutors (the best teachers available in the country on the varying instruments). Then the Assessors have to audition those who want to achieve the Diploma from a reasonably long waiting list, with a view to covering all instruments as evenly as possibly. The week of the Diploma in July is a very practical one where the morning is given over to learning everything about the relevant instruments bearing in mind that we are there to improve ‘Teaching Methods’ but we are all very aware that we must respect whatever style the teachers have and, therefore, for the last 18 years we have meticulously and rigidly adhered to respecting each musician’s style and centered mainly on teaching methods. The afternoon is given fully to teaching in workshops. Pupils are brought into the Cultúrlann and the potential teachers conduct classes with them, covering all aspects of the music. All this is done under the watchful eyes of the Assesors and Tutors who guide the teachers through useful teaching practices. At the end of the week they sit an exam which is both written and aural. Their potential as teachers of Traditional Irish Music is then assessed for the Diploma.

New Exam Cycles

So far we have had quite good results from the TTCT and now we are attempting to bring in phase two of the system which deals with another aspect, in conjunction with the ‘Royal Irish Academy’ who are much more adept at examining standards than most other bodies might be.

This became the most daunting challenge of all, devising a system that graded pupils from one exam cycle to another, beginning at a stage where their knowledge of traditional music is practically zero, and graduating by one form of step or another until they reach a stage where their renditions are fairly presentable. Again a very formidable and knowledgeable team of tutors was assembled. In a period of a little over a year a system of Cycles was devised between the Royal Irish Academy and Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann ranging from the earliest Cycle called Elementary Cycle, Elementary Cycle One through to the top Cycle called Senior Cycle 4. The complete layout is as follows:

Elementary Cycle

Junior Cycle

Senior Cycle

Knowledge of Older Musicians

This will be in vogue until 1999. The programme will be revised regularly. There are suggested lists of tunes for each Cycle and the pupil’s own choice is acceptable, as long as they are comparable in standard. It was the intention from the very beginning to give these Cycles a new slant. It would be extremely important to have knowledge of the older musicians who lived in various localities as well as the leading musician with varying styles and wonderful melodies either preserved, varied or newly composed. A certain emphasis is placed on candidates having their own style and hopefully not blindly copying one another most especially in the later Cycles.

It is expected that while most of the work is done by rote (ear) from an early stage, that a little reading (Staff notation) will be done in each cycle. The reading proficiency may not be terribly high but it certainly will be a great help for those who wish to progress further. This will also be true in many other spheres such as practising variations, compositions, etc.

In Senior Cycle a short thesis on given or even chosen subjects must be presented to the Examining Body on which some questions may be asked, all of these subjects have to do with some aspect of the music which should be beneficial to the candidates. All in all the candidates are tested in all aspects of their musical awareness from Elementary Cycle 1 to Senior Cycle 4, this covers firstly their ability to play melodies from our vast store of traditional music, ranging from the simplest air to the most difficult of reels etc. This then is the most important part of the Exam Cycle and is called ‘Performance’. Next their hearing ability is tested ‘Aural Awareness’ from clapping rhythms to recognising the relationship of notes to one another, high - low, upper - lower and possibly imitating short patterns. Then next comes ‘Informal Musical Discussion’ where the examiner has a pleasant chat with the candidate on general knowledge concerning musicians in their areas or interesting musical topics even their written submission, should they have one. ‘Literacy’ covers very simple reading in staff notation, generally based on the time signatures of the tunes used in ‘Performance”.

The only section that benefits a percentage mark is ‘Performance’ and this percentage is not available to the candidate until Senior Cycle. Up until then the grades are given as follows.

A Performance:

B Aural Awareness / C Informal Musical Discussion / D Literacy

Performance is the most important aspect of each examination. To progress from one Cycle to the next, the following minimum results must be achieved.

A Performance
B Aural Awareness
C Informal Musicla Discussion
C Literacy
3 passes or 1 pass and 1 credit

It will be a big change for a candidate not to hear the word ‘fail’ - ‘Requires further attention’ is so much more acceptable as with a little more work many candidates might perform better and more often than not might return to the Exam Cycles with less tension. This is an enormous undertaking in the years ahead between CCE and the RIAM and I wish them well.