The Royal School of Church Music (RSCM)

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Psallam Spiritu et Mente
- I shall sing with the Spirit and with the understanding also

On the 6 December, 1927, The School of English Church Music was inaugurated at Westminster Abbey, under the initiative of Sir Sydney Nicholson. It was created as a training college for Church musicians, and as an association of affiliated churches who aimed to uphold a high standard of music in worship.

A Brief History

Sir Nicholson (1875–1947), whilst being remembered mainly for founding the SECM, was also a choral director and composer, an organist at several major cathedrals (notably at Westminster Abbey), and an editor for the hymn book 'Hymns Ancient and Modern', which is still used in some Anglican churches today. He was knight­ed in 1938.

The college opened at Buller's Wood in Chislehurst, Kent, in 1929. During the first ten years of its existence, it organised major choral festivals in London every three years. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when many of its students were called to military service, stopped most of the work of the SECM. Throughout the war Sir Nicholson continued his itinerant teaching at diocesan and parish level from a base at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, and then from Leamington Spa. By 1945 the number of affiliated churches had increased to 1,300 members worldwide.

In 1945, King George VI commanded that the SECM was to be renamed the Royal School of Church Music, (RSCM), and was to be based in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral. When the original college closed in 1974 the RSCM directed its focus to short courses and to developing regional affiliates worldwide, run by voluntary committees. By 1952, over 3,000 churches were affiliated with the RSCM worldwide.

The RSCM is currently based in Salisbury, England, and has over 7,000 affiliated members, which are based in churches and schools or as individuals. It is a multi-denominational organisation (although is rooted in an Anglican background), and has links throughout the world. They have separate organisations in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Other contries are administrated by the English RSCM.

RSCM Choirs

The RSCM organises several auditioned choirs for both children an adults.

The Millenium Singers are 36 young adults, aged between 16 and 23.

There are also three 'Cathedral Singers' choirs, one based in the North, one in the South, and one in the Midlands and South West. Each choir meets several times in a year, rehearses together, and sings, usually in a Cathedral, towards the end of the course. Each region has a slightly different set up, consisting of two or three choirs. This allows for an all male traditional choir in the Northern Cathedral Singers (boys and men), and chamber choirs (men with either ladies or ladies and girls) in the other two. They will sometimes have a pool of singers from which a balanced choir meets for each session, rather than have the entire choir sing at a venue.

RSCM Teaching

The RSCM runs several courses for singers and organists, helping to develop skills that are being taught in parish churches. These run annually to different standards and for different age groups, and usually take place for a week. They are often based near a Cathedral, and the course singers take the place of the regular Cathedral choir (who get to take a holiday!). This usually means the singing of Evensong each evening, and the Eucharist on the Sunday morning. Although there is an often substantial fee for attending such a course (dependant on length, accomodation, board etc.) there are occasional scholarships available. These courses are open to all, so although occasionally members of a choir go together, there are many people who 'go it alone'.

A course entitled 'Skills of the Church Musician' is designed for those involved in leading choirs. It covers many aspects including basic music theory skills, directing, composing, heath and safety, and some legal aspects.

In association with the University of Wales, Bangor the RSCM offers a Certificate in Higher Education in Sacred Music Studies, which is a 1-4 year, part time course. There are four RSCM qualifications. The first three (RSCM Preliminary Certificate, CertRSCM and DipRSCM) are incorporated within the Higher Education Certificate and Diploma programmes at the University. The fourth RSCM qualification (LRSCM) is part of the postgraduate programme.

Voice for Life

The Voice for Life scheme is a graded system, focused on bringing good singing practice to parish choirs and beyond. Although initially brought in to help train young singers, it has now been expanded to include the adults in the choir too.

As a member of the scheme the singer, with the help of their director, works through the skills necessary to gain each level. These skills are usually a combination on musical theory (learning to read music and so on) with vocal technique. When you achieve a level you are entitled to wear a coloured ribbon with the RSCM medal when you are robed. The levels are named after the colour of the ribbon. Within the choir learning structure there are four levels (light blue, dark blue, red, and yellow). You can choose to take formal examinations to achieve Bronze (roughly equivalent to dark blue), Silver (red), and Gold (yellow). This scheme is usually followed by all the singers in a choir, so although they are individual achievements, they are also something that the whole choir can work towards together.

There are also further regional awards, such as the Bishop's, Dean's and the St Cecilia Awards. The names vary from region to region. There is a fee to enter the formal examinations, and there are age restrictions on one or two awards too. If you have managed to obtain several of these awards, it is not considered good practice to wear more than one at the same time.

RSCM Publishing

The RSCM are the one of the largest church music publishing firms in the world. The catalogue contains a vast breadth of music, from standards to brand new works, and has a lot of music specifically designed for amateur choirs. This can be pieces written for particular set ups1, or arrangements simplified for choirs that are unable to tackle more complicated works.

Contacting the RSCM

If you are interested in any aspect of the RSCM, you can contact them through the website. You could also see if your local parish church or cathedral is affiliated.

1Choirs with something other than SATB formation, such as unison-only or three part choirs, with a soprano, alto, and male lines are becoming more prevailent due to the lack of men in parish choirs.

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