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March 24, 2009
Vol. IX, No. 10

"Let's Talk About Inclusion"
I tried my hand at the AGO Certifications a few years ago. The Service Playing Test took some work but it went well and I passed. The Colleague Exam was another animal. As the date for my exam neared, I knew I wasn't completely prepared but rather than cancel I went ahead with it. I felt fairly confident that I could pass the Repertoire section; it was the Keyboard Skills section that was giving me some trouble. Specifically, I had a pretty good handle on everything but the Sight Transposition requirement. However, my thinking was that if I didn't pass the Keyboard Skills section, I would re-take just that section at a later date. Meanwhile, I would gain the experience of going through the process. And who knows, maybe I'd get lucky and pass everything.

Before the exam, you are given the use of a room with a piano for twenty minutes in order to prepare in advance the various elements of the Keyboard Skills section. My plan was to complete preparation of all of those elements, except Sight Transposition, in as little time as possible in order to have as much time as possible to prepare the Sight Transposition element. When the time came, that's what I did. I was hoping for a musical selection that was not too difficult but alas I was given what I believe was a four-part excerpt of something atonal or maybe in Phrygian mode. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling lucky. It did occur to me that I had time enough to write out the transposition but that just seemed wrong. I knew I wouldn't feel good about myself if I accepted recognition for proficiency in a skill I didn't truly possess. So, in preparation, I played through the piece as many times as time allowed and then went out and did my best, which obviously wasn't good enough, as I failed the Keyboard Skills portion of the exam.

Interestingly, on the way from the piano room to the organ for my exam, the exam proctor informed me that there had been cases where examinees did indeed write out the sight transposition. While I made a different choice, I don't blame anyone for doing that. However I do question the existence of this loophole in the exam, as it represents a contradiction. If someone has made the effort to learn how to sight transpose, why should they need or be given time to practice this exam element in advance? I don't understand why sight transposition would be tested any differently than sight reading.

The other issue I have concerns the scoring of the exam. I was reminded of this recently when I received an email from a community member who was quite upset over his exam. I'll spare the details but let's just say the scoring system leaves the exam process open to charges of subjectivity and elitism. This is not an opportunity to play the snob or burnish one's ego. As for me, when you've been playing organ for 35 years in who knows how many churches, have a B.Mus. in Organ Performance from Oberlin, and a church organist position on Park Avenue, it can seem a little silly to get a comment on your exam that amounts to, "Keep on trying and maybe you'll get somewhere someday."

In addition to the above-mentioned email, another trigger for this Rampage was an essay by John Walker that was included in the "From the President" column of the March 2009 The American Organist. Mentoring, working together, yada, yada, yada, the obligatory pandering for digital organs and of course, inclusion, especially newcomers and those with lesser abilities. I'm sure Mr. Walker had the best of intentions but most of what he said came off as platitudes aimed toward the elite in the Guild. And his remarks on inclusion just didn't jibe with my experience of the CAGO exam. I definitely view that as an exclusionary event.

I recently received a mailing from AGO HQ trying to convince me to re-join. Lo and behold, one of the features of membership was the five levels of certification available, with the benefit to me that I could earn respect and command a higher salary. Something like that anyway, I wish I hadn't thrown it out right away. But are you kidding? I don't mean to deny anyone their accomplishments but what relevance do the certifications have for the average AGO member? Of the five levels of AGO certification, only maybe one of those is attainable by a majority of working organists. The requirements for the upper three are incredibly difficult and I would say that 99.9 % of church musicians can't even begin to pass them. When I look at the requirements, I think someone would have to be crazy to try. What job do they prepare you for? Exactly how much more of a salary will you command? $10,000? It's like going to MIT to get a job working at a grocery store.

If the goal is to challenge people, build their self-esteem, encourage involvement and recognize accomplishments AT ALL LEVELS, I think the AGO needs to rethink the certification program. I'm not suggesting that they pass everyone who takes an exam like so much Social Promotion but a good starting place would be to question why the next level up from the Service Playing Certificate is so difficult for so many people to get through? I know a lot of people besides me who have struggled with it.

The AGO is not paying me so I'm not going to go through all the possibilities but it doesn't take much imagination to envision a certification structure that's more real world as well as supportive instead of a barrier to entry into an exclusive club. Maybe they could model themselves more on the Boy Scouts. There are lots of ranks. They reward early. The Tenderfoot rank is very attainable.

But most importantly, I would strongly urge an end to the practice of conducting exams in private with anonymous scoring. Having the requirements reviewed and satisfied in a public setting and by a group of peers would be much fairer. The atmosphere would be more "inclusive" if it resembled an organ studio class rather than an execution.

And just to end on a lighter note, I'd like to have the following elements added into the exam structure, as early in the process as possible:
1. Play a prelude pianissimo while two people converse loudly within 10 feet of you.
2. Submit to fifteen minutes of belittlement.
3. Explain how you feed yourself on your organist salary.
4. Make a convincing case for your church to repair the pipe organ rather than replace it with a digital instrument.

Photo by photo, the gallery is growing. This week I've added a photo submitted from Kansas. Take a gander!

Renovation completed! Some of the articles were posted many years ago and the links were no longer valid. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I was able to find replacement links for almost all of the articles. Now that the library is cleaned up, I can start adding new material.

No new news here but this page is new and new pages take time to grow. If you are a builder or know one, please forward to me for posting press releases on your latest projects. Let the world know what you're building!

Have a great week!

Dan Long

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