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How useful are AGO certificates?

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  • How useful are AGO certificates?

    I think it's a good idea that AGO have examinations and certificates. It just makes it formal and like other careers such as CPA in accounting etc.

    But American Guild of Organist have 5 different levels of certificates, from Service Playing which is basic requirements of the job, to Associateship or Fellowship which are really high standards professional examinations.

    And I have heard people's different opinions on these certificates, it seems the number of people taking the exams decrease a lot over the years for some reason. Some people have a bachelor's degree or master's degree in Music so they probably don't need a certificate. Or, is it true that a college degree actually works better than a AGO certificates?

    And since there are different levels of the certificate, does it mean the higher it gets the more useful it becomes? I saw a chart of NYC substitute organists, about more than half of them have AGO certificates, but only a few of them are at the level of Service Playing (the lowest level), more in CAGO and many in higher level such as AAGO and FAGO.

    As for me,,, I am a new organist with about half year's experience on it, was never a music major in college.
    Compared to a lot of musicians I might be not even so talented. I am more of a visual artist, but music has been always important to me and I am glad I found the field of Organ&religious music as something I really love to pursue, just for the fun of it.
    I have been thinking about taking the Service Playing exam recently. I guess after one or two more years of study I could probably get that certificate. Not for any particular purpose but just think it's a good achievement.
    Maybe after a few more years (within five years I guess?) I can try the Colleague (CAGO). But I can't picture myself taking the AAGO or FAGO, they seems to be too hard, impossible to achieve that level without a life time study, and I am already more than 25 years old.

    I just wonder, besides giving myself some pleasure and feeling of achievement, what else could a certificate (especially the Certificate of Service Playing which I would try) bring to me?

  • #2
    I believe that the AGO exams/certifications are of great benefit to those who want to excel in the career of being an organist. It's a personal goal for people, much like obtaining additional educational degrees in a person related field of study.

    I came up through the ranks without ever having gotten a college degree. I started playing in church at age 13, and now after 58+ years, I still enjoy every moment that I am seated and playing at the console. I now hold an organist/pianist position at the 2nd largest ELCA Lutheran congregation in my region of Arizona, so I did something right along the way.

    The AGO certifications are worth the time, in my opinion, but rather doubt that getting any AGO certification will result in an increase of your salary at a church. Educational degrees, MM, DMA, would most likely demand a higher salary ... but it all depends on the church and their financial condition.


    • Sarah Weizhen
      Sarah Weizhen commented
      Editing a comment
      As for the salary my guess is if a church requires an organist with master's or PHD degree, or higher level certificates, the church must have some special needs for them (like having a super complicated big organ or a super big choir etc), and thus they should pay them more.

  • #3
    They are helpful in getting a job as a professional organist. Otherwise, their benefit is the sense of accomplishment that comes for completing one and also the discipline that comes through the work of preparing for one.


    • Sarah Weizhen
      Sarah Weizhen commented
      Editing a comment
      Yeah I agree with you. And also the requirements in those certificate examination helps to understand what is necessary to learn as an organist

  • #4
    I think that a more-rounded education is also a benefit.

    Here in Canada we have the RCCO (Royal Canadian College of Organists) and RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) There are other regional music conservatories that offer exams on various instruments. When I see children, young adults and more mature adults go through any of those systems, they are forced to learn more than "just a few pieces". Technique, ear training, sight reading, etc. - all show up at some point. We may not be naturally inclined to study these, no matter how beneficial they are. The exam system makes sure that we acquire at least some skills in those areas.

    These exams place things like technical skills at a level that matches the repertoire we're working on. They are. therefore, appropriate to our playing ability.

    When I see musicians who can't do basic musical tasks beyond playing the few pieces they have learned, I can respect them, but I wonder why they failed to pursue ALL of their potential.

    My personal belief is that the more we know and can do, beyond just playing repertoire, the better we end up playing that repertoire.

    As far as certificates and jobs, they are helpful in terms of an employer being able to place you in somewhat of a category of ability. There are always limitations and exceptions, but for the most part, if I'm comparing someone who has a Fellowship Diploma with someone who has the Service Playing Certificate, I already have an idea what they can do. If I opt to still audition them both, I will allow them to surprise me if they can equal the expectations of the diploma, or if they go beyond them or fall short of them.

    There will be many examples of both:
    - those who have a diploma or certificate and we wonder how they ever managed to get it because their playing doesn't come anywhere close to meriting such a reward;
    - those who have no diploma or certificate but could put many diploma/certificate-holders to shame.
    That's just life.

    Where I live and work, there are so few people applying for any jobs that most employers are happy just to have a warm body on the bench. I do use my own credentials (both university and RCCO) to guide salary levels at my place of employment.


    • Sarah Weizhen
      Sarah Weizhen commented
      Editing a comment
      Yeah you are right. I believe that if a person doesn't learn something else besides just play repertoire, there would be a celling of what they can play. Because as the repertoire gets more advanced, they require the organist to have more skills to understand them play them well, .
      When I was a teenager learning the piano, my teacher didn't teach me anything besides playing the notes. One reason is I was still kind of in the basic level, but the biggest reason is she doesn't have time to talk about those things, she prefers to let me go through as many pieces as possible, so she never even mention music theories, ear training, improvise, etc... It's only much later I noticed that I have missed all those important things in music.
      Now I am not just learning the organ repertoires, I am lucky enough to have chances to get some practical experience, such as singing in a choir (which trains my sight singing skills) and play for some service (which gives me real experiences with corporate with singers etc). And I am learning theories and ear trainings when I have time.

  • #5

    IMHO, AGO certificates have limited usefulness. If a person doesn't have any formal education or a degree, then the certificates serve to fill the need of alternate credentialing, and are skills-based.

    On the other hand, college degrees are primarily academic credentials with some performance skills mixed in, while the AGO certificates are primarily performance-based (except the paper-based portions of the credentials–like harmonization/composition based on a melody).

    With either credentialing system, one needs to keep in mind that in order to obtain these credentials via demonstrable skills, the skills MUST be kept up, or whatever credential you have is useless.

    What I've found with the AGO certifications is that they're based primarily on Liturgical/Catholic knowledge and/or skills. For those whose primary work is with hymn-based, traditional Protestant churches, only about 1/2 to 1/3 of the skills required for an AGO certification are useful in such a denomination. If your work includes contemporary worship styles, then not much of the AGO certifications apply. As stated before, AGO certifications primarily support Liturgical/Catholic worship skills.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the wrong one to ask about AGO certifications. I had a rather bad experience with the AGO as well as their certification program (related to the prior paragraph), and I now refuse to participate in that organization, believing it to be a money-making organization. Of course, that could have just been the 3 chapters I've been involved with.

    Best with your studies.

    Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
    • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
    • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
    • 9 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 6 Pianos


    • Sarah Weizhen
      Sarah Weizhen commented
      Editing a comment
      Thank you so much Michael. I see what you say. I don't have too much experience with the AGO testing system etc but right now it seems it fits my needs. Since it's not possible for me to get an extra college degree on the organ.

    • myorgan
      myorgan commented
      Editing a comment

      If you choose to attempt some certifications with paperwork, be absolutely sure your music theory skills are up to peak standards. Skills that are listed are the tip of the iceberg, and allude to many more required skills (i.e. counterpoint, analysis, reading figured bass and open score, etc.).

      Best with your certification efforts.


  • #6
    Sarah, great topic. It got me wondering where I might stand on the "AGO Certification" scale this weekend. I downloaded the requirements and read through them. What I really liked were the lists of repertoire pieces at the different levels. Several are public domain and I downloaded a bunch over the weekend and started playing my way through them. It's been a fun weekend trying these pieces out. I'm hoping that if I find some pieces that I like a lot, I can incorporate them into my prelude/postlude at church. I'm probably not going to actually take an AGO exam (unless something major happens) because I already have (and pay for) two professional certifications and membership in their respective organizations.
    Home: Allen ADC-4500 Church: Allen MDS-5
    Files: Allen Tone Card (TC) Database, TC Info, TC Converter, TC Mixer, ADC TC SF2, and MOS TC SF2, ADC TC Cad/Rvt, MOS TC Cad/Rvt, Organ Database, Music Library, etc. PM for unlinked files.