Last week we followed the rapid increase in the numbers of people teaching the piano during the Victorian period. The post also looked at piano lessons and the development and popularity of piano tutor books.

This week we consider what emerged in an attempt to raise standards of both teachers and players.

The Royal College of Music


For the more musical players and teachers (like Fisher mentioned in last week’s post) the free-for-all in the teaching profession damaged the reputation and beauty of music itself. There were increasing calls for greater regulation, certification and even a bill, which ultimately came to nothing, was submitted to parliament in 1901!

As a result of these moves, various steps were taken in an attempt to give the profession more regulation and raise the level of attainment.


This began with the founding of a national music school which, after several false starts managed to stagger into life as the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in 1822. Originally intended to teach children between the ages of 10 – 14 in both music and all other subjects of the curriculum, it had a troublesome early history, almost folding due to lack of funds on several occasions. Gradually its position became more secure until in 1873 its numbers reached 200 [1]. It is questionable however whether the quality of teaching in those early years was worthy of its illustrious name.

Good, British teachers were very hard to find. There were not enough of the right calibre in the UK to set the high standards needed and produce the exemplary methods of teaching required for such an establishment. Ehrlich comments that: ‘in general neither vocal nor instrumental standards were established with enough consistency and permanence to prevent an inexorable slide into mediocrity’ [2].

Female students dominated the student numbers. According to Corder these were usually: ‘remarkably good looking ladies – the female standard of beauty was always a high one’ [3]! At that time the conservatoire was mostly concerned with training them to be piano teachers.

This was a time, however, when educational options were limited for young ladies as universities were still predominantly male preserves. Presumably the lady-like nature of the piano allowed women to pursue their education in this regard. Rohr in fact argues that the foundation of RAM was perhaps: ‘the most significant single development for women musicians’ [4]. Although they were only able to learn the piano, voice and harp, the RAM produced a number of the leading women musicians of the time.

There was heavy reliance on students who were able to pay as funding was practically non-existent. In comparison to contemporary foreign conservatoires RAM came out poorly. The Paris and Leipzig conservatoires (both established a few years earlier) already had thorough programmes of study in place, and their directors, Cherubini and Mendlessohn respectively, were prominent musicians and teachers. At the RAM a considered curriculum was largely lacking and it had no decisive figurehead until the appointment of W. Sterndale Bennett in 1866.


In spite of these issues the formation of the Royal Academy of Music was quickly followed by the founding of many other colleges and academies in London and the provinces including the Royal College of Music in 1882, Trinity College of Music in 1872 and the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music (now the Birmingham Conservatoire) in 1886.

By the second half of the nineteenth century there were as many as thirty-three conservatoires in the London. These ‘conservatoires’ were largely set up by families and networks of teachers and unfortunately, many of them lacked both musical worth and honourable intent. According to Ehrlich: ‘they appear to have little in common except poverty of resource and, with a few exceptions, haziness of purpose’ [5].


A feature that many of the conservatoires had in common was the desire to provide teachers (and later pupils) with qualifications. Certification was rife in Victorian Britain [6] as people sought to better their situation and music proved an ideal subject for development in this way.

The Royal Academy of Music was the first to allow graduates to place RAM after their name. Colleges offering external diplomas quickly followed with the College of Organists granting the first diplomas through examination in 1866 whilst in 1874 Trinity College of Music awarded an Associateship or Licentiateship to students or non-students.

These immediately proved popular and the plethora of music colleges that now existed quickly adopted similar schemes making it difficult to tell quality diplomas from those lower worth.

From this point onwards, for anyone who wanted to be a piano teacher it was important to show potential students that you had ‘qualifications’, yet many of these were very easy to obtain. Scholes [7] recounts a personal story from 1910 of ‘how the slipper maker’s daughter got a diploma’.


The young girl in question was only just beyond the beginner stages herself but her father wanted her to become a ‘certified’ piano teacher so lessons with Scholes commenced. Two terms later the girl was withdrawn as her progress with Scholes was too slow for the impatient father.

Within six months Scholes noticed the name of the girl appearing in the Manchester Guardian as part of a list of diploma successes and he states: ‘the girl was now duly decorated’ and would be giving:

‘lessons in cap and gown, with a brass plate on her door bearing her name and a certain alphabetical affix quite indistinguishable by the population of these parts from the A.R.C.M.’ [8].

Such bogus qualifications meant that the genuinely well qualified music teacher often had to battle against very cheap lessons that were mostly unmusical, haphazard and technically unsound.


It was in an effort to raise the musical standards in instrumental lessons that the Society of Arts first initiated a series of local examinations in 1859 and when these lapsed a few years later Trinity College of Music took over and set up a system of external music examinations in 1874. The first of these were held in Gloucestershire and Scholes mentions that they were in response to public demand.

He quotes from the Musical Times of 1876 that the examiner:

‘commenced his duties at Stroud, and examined in one week more than sixty candidates…in singing and pianoforte playing’ [9].

This was to set the trend and practical and theoretical examinations very quickly grew in popularity throughout the country.


Following on from this pioneering work the Royal Academy of Music joined with the Royal College of Music to form the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) in 1889. Their stated aim was to: ‘improve standards and impose some uniformity’ [10], as much for the teachers as for their pupils.

The first examinations, after very little planning, were held in 1890 in 42 centres with over a thousand candidates (ABRSM, 2010). There were two ‘grades’ available at ‘Local Examination’ level (a structure that had been copied from the Oxford and Cambridge exam boards), Senior and Junior; at a cost of two guineas and fifteen shillings respectively. These were not cheap but such was their popularity that two more grades, at ‘Local School’ level quickly became available.

Both Trinity College of Music and ABRSM witnessed amazing growth in the numbers taking their examinations and both boards soon extended the system to other parts of the British Empire. As previously discussed there was an enormous desire for self-improvement throughout the Victorian period at all levels of society and according to Wright [11] the ABRSM was part of the great, national desire to improve, educate and modernise.

Wright argues that graded music examinations were: ‘very much a British phenomenon’ [12], emerging as a result of the prevailing social and economic conditions. In the same way Scholes claimed that the music exam system was:

‘One of the most remarkable features of musical education… and one which has no parallel outside Britain’ [13].


At the end of the nineteenth century and in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War the piano continued to play a central role in the leisure lives of many people. Ehrlich [14] estimates that, at its peak in the early twentieth century, there was one instrument for every ten to twenty people and that as many as 1 in 360 households owned a piano. It was an important part of Edwardian social life and, although it appears that the standard of playing wasn’t always high, it is likely that many homes enjoyed evenings of music-making around the piano.

During the First World War its popularity continued; however, the dramatic changes in society that followed meant the heyday of the piano was over.

We will be returning to the Social History of Piano Teaching later in July. So that you don’t miss it, make sure you have subscribed to our blog.

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This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Director & Co-Founder The Curious Piano Teachers

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