the American College of Musicians

Pioneers of Music Teacher Competency Examinations

​Robert Ambrose

​``The American College of Musicians (ACM) began in 1886 as a subcommittee of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA).  According to the original Prospectus issued in 1886, the goal of the College was to raise the standard musicianship.  It is evident that the founders were primarily concerned with those who were to teach music : 

It is a lamentable fact that... we have no uniform standard of attainment for those preparing themselves for the vocation of musician.  (Especially it may be said of the private pupil who) enters upon the difficult and responsible duties of a Teacher without any idea as to whether his preparation has been sufficiently thorough or not... How many promising pupils have been utterly ruined by these `Think-they-know-enough` teachers?... Each teacher and each school of music has created an original standard, and the inevitable result has been diversity, where there should have been uniformity. 1 ``

`` The idea for the ACM came from Edward Bowman, a prominent musician and educator from New York City.  Members of the MTNA elected Bowman to the presidency in 1882, and he took the opportunity of his presidential address at the 1883 meeting to officially recommended the organization of the American College of Musicians.  In that address he asked if music teachers should be certified.  His answer was in the affirmative for two reasons:

(1) to protect the public from incompetent teachers, and (2) to protect teachers who have made adequate preparation.  The public would gladly avail itself of a standard by which to judge of the fitness of some contemplated teacher.  Is not such a movement of paramount importance to the well-being of the whole profession?  The cause which presents itself as most feasible to me is the incorporation of ta National College Teachers 3

​At the 1884 MTNA meeting in Providence, organizers established the ACM.  Of the 575 members of the Association, 129 charter members participated in the organization of the College.  As the main goal of the College was to raise the standard of the profession by developing examination for entrance into the the organization, the charter members immediately set about forming a committee to develop the examination. 4``


`` the ACM divided the theoretical requirement for the Public School Examination of 1887 into four sections.  The first section required the candidates to illustrate


(a) How he would teach the Pitch of Tones, and the Relative Length of Tones.

(b) In what manner and in what order he would explain to the pupil the use of each character in Musical Notation, including terms relating to the rate of movement, terms and signs of Expression, Accent, and the terms of Musical Form, i.e Section, Phrase, Period

(c) In what manner he would teach intervals and scales?

(d) In what manner he would teach Sight Reading

(e) He will detail the subject matter of a complete course of study suitable for each of the usual Common School Grades, including High School.21

The second section required to candidate to write an original exercise for sight-singing for each of the first five school years were then explain when during the year pupils should be able to sing them.

Finally, the examination required the candidate to answer seven questions about music teaching.``


   Music teachers of the the day probably did not feel the importance of the American College of Musicians immediately.  In retrospect, however, the College and examinations were very important to the music education profession for many years.

​   First, the ACM examinations represented the best thinking of the time on what music teachers needed to know.  The individuals chosen to develop the examinations were leaders in their respective fields.  Perusal of teacher tests and books on the preparation of teachers, such as Issac Stone`s nineteenth-century classic on testing, The Elementary and Complete Examiner, shows the examinations to be among the most rigorous of their times 25. 

   Second, the examinations, particularly the Associate examination for public school candidates, contributed to the legitimacy of the music teacher profession, thus strengthening the argument for music in the public schools.  Edward Bailey Birge has observed that `In public education the development of the period (roughly 1861-1890) was in the direction of the well trained teacher.  Teaching rose to the level of an art and a skilled profession`26  With this growing emphasis on teacher competence, accountability became extremely important.  The ACM examinations gave music teachers legitimacy and led to the inclusion of music in more and more public school across the nation.

​   Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the American College of Musicians was the first organization to attempt to develop standard for music teachers/  Homer Ulrich commented on the difficulty of this task:

Certifying a music teacher`s competence has traditionally been more difficult than that in any other professional filed.  Music study most usually begins long before higher education is undertaken.  Self improvement is often successfully achieved outside the framework of formal (that is , traditional) study. 27

​Many state began developing their own teacher certification examinations after recognizing the excellence of the ACM examination.  Through the early twentieth century, many states began attaching themselves to the Music Teachers National Association and submitting their certification plans for review by that organization.  Nearly one hundred papers delivered on teaching and certification at MTNA meetings through 1975 illustrate the importance of teacher certification. 28

   Today, Music teacher certification remains one of the most discussed and debated topics in the music education profession.  Teacher accountability is an important issue, and individual states continue to develop and modify music teacher competency examination.  The American College of Musicians was the pioneer in this field, and the profession continues to feel its influence one hundred years later

- Newton, Massachusetts

Ambrose, Robert. “The American College of Musicians: Pioneers of Music Teacher Competency Examinations.” The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education, vol. 15, no. 3, 1994, pp. 236–247. JSTOR,