How important is planning composing at GCSE?

I spent a lovely afternoon meeting the Music Department at the Stephen Perse Foundation Senior School. We discussed approaches to developing free composition skills at GCSE and reflected on the value of pre-planning; how much is useful, necessary? I wondered if the more one plans *before* the actual composing does it speed up or limit the process? How precise should this plan be? What should it contain? 

IGCSE Music has the freedom of no briefs: candidates can write whatever they choose as long as one of the pieces is in the remit of Western Art Music. This freedom presents considerable challenge. Spending the time to consider carefully what is the aim of the composition – a reflective piece or something to capture a scene or atmosphere for example – and then how the various musical elements (melody, rhythm etc) can be exploited to satisfy that aim is useful planning. GCSE composition is not about the utmost artistic freedom – it is an opportunity to show developing fluency in the manipulation of musical elements to write music. The more one’s brief makes decisions about musical elements in a composition the more one knows what they have to do to get where they want their composition to be. An architect considers the whole before the rooms and so must a younger composition consider the whole piece, blocking out the various larger units before embarking on the notes. 

Plans of course can change and the relationship between a plan and our changing compositional ideas creates a conflict that makes the process even more exciting. But without a plan we have nothing to resonate against, nothing to incite discussion even with ourselves. A plan helps a teacher to understand how a pupil is thinking. We can see what facets of the composition the pupil is most precise about and which ones are needing attention. We can help pupils to improve certain elements (such as harmony and structure) through guiding them towards these elements in their plans. 

Time spent preparing a plan – through listening and reflection on musical ideas from other works may be of use – will be time well spent if during the process a pupil gets lost as they can refer to their plan and remember where they are going. It also shows us how much further we need to go until the end. If indeed there is an end to composing – is it merely abandoned than finished? 

Composing with words

Asking a pupil to come up with a rhythm or a melody can be very intimidating. They have complex musical ideas swimming in their heads yet they might not possess the technical or notational capabilities to share these ideas with others. For me, the biggest hurdle in composing is getting the ideas and sharing them with others.

I start with words. I found the following activity useful for getting a class generating small ideas and to then experiment when them to explore what composing can be:

1. Play word association: then when students say a word they particularly like they should make a note of it. They could then add additional words before this.

2. Pupils can repeat their group of words as a pattern; explore removing elements or changing the way they say it. We’re now introducing the use of rests and dynamics/timbre. If the pupils are in different groups, then different groups can do different things so we’re now experimenting with texture.

3. Move to clapping the rhythm of their words. This will be immediately more interesting than a rhythm of crotchets and quavers that might have been created if that had been the starting point. Pupils can then experiment with layering up their different rhythms.

4. Add pitch – melody – by having pupils play or sing their rhythms on one note. Maybe join the individual rhythms together to make longer rhythms? Maybe add additional pitches to make the line even more melodic.

5. Reduce the number of rhythms even further by combining all rhythms in one group to make one long line. The group can have a few pitches and decide when to use them. Different groups could use different sets of pitches to create harmony when performing the groups lines at the same time.

A difficult activity to explain…! But one that can’t be written down really but should be progressed by the teacher on an individual basis. Every class is different. But starting with words and progressing towards pitches speeds up the composing process for less experienced composers, and it gives a sense of what composing is: experimenting with sounds and how they can be combined.

Winterreise re-imagined?

I had high hopes for Daniel Behle and his Winterreise arrangement, performed at the Wigmore Hall on 19 April. I had in my mind the ‘reimaginings’ of Christopher O’Riley, Luciano Berio and could not decide whether I would hear a mere extension of the original or something completely different. The interpretation of the cycle was engaging and I enjoyed the drama; there was always the sense that the strings were either not utilised enough (plenty of sul ponticello tremolo) or did not really extend the material piano but merely provided some additional material that didn’t add much in my mind. The final song, however, was expertly judged. The string timbres were perfect for the hurdy gurdy man and playing directly on the strings of the piano was the right sinister timbre. Perhaps the final song was arranged first and inspired the rest of the project? I’m not sure a venture will catch on with other cycles but it reminds us how ‘complete’ song cycles are in their voice/piano duo writing.

Nonetheless an interesting idea. A complete YouTube performance is here.

Composing water at GCSE and A-level

There regularly seems to be a composition brief about water. Many composers have attempted to capture unending, unpredictable and delicate water and it remains a challenge to do well. You can hear perhaps the most famous example of a river in music <a href=””>here</a&gt;. Notice how the river is established musically (the flowing water manifests itself in the flute line that gradually moves to other instruments, gradually extends) by a theme that is a development of the opening material. The rhythmical flow of the opening remains for much of the movement; this is important as the water never stops flowing. Think carefully about this as it would be easy for your river to vanish every time you encountered a new environment along your river’s journey. Smetana cleverly keeps the river going.

Debussy and Ravel both have captured watery figures on the piano with immense skil; perhaps listen to <a href=””>Reflets d’un l’eau</a>, <a href=””>Jeux d’eau</a>, and <a href=””>Miroirs</a&gt;. Think how the more angular the arpeggio the more moving the water is; more stepwise movement would create a gentler flow. You can manipulate the speed of the water pattern to show how the river is progressing on it’s journey. Consider too how the use of register helps to create the size of the river; lower register will help to create the necessary depth when the river becomes wider and this might be matched by a slower moving river pattern.

Texture becomes an essential element in capturing water; showing interweaving of various strands to help create the unpredictability. If the water is moving slowly perhaps consider how the harmonic rhythm will help to illustrate this. Consider how more adventurous harmonies will show the mystery of the water – think about Carnival of Animals movement ‘Aquarium’.

Takemitsu might prove inspiring for capturing water and it’s ambiguity. Listen to <a href=””>’I can hear the water dreaming’ (1987). </a> Schubert was an expert at watery accompaniments too; try <a href=”″>’Wohin'</a&gt;.

What other water-themed pieces do you know?

Swafford’s ‘Beethoven: Anguish and Tragedy’

Thoughtful Christmas gift of Jan Swafford’s recent Beethoven biography made an interesting read; still in progress but it is a brisk read. A module on Beethoven was part of my first year of undergraduate studies (taught by David Wyn-Jones, author of The Life of Beethoven) and I recall his warning that anything about the composer could come up in the examination. It’s early fifteen years ago now and I don’t recall the precise details of the lectures but reading Swafford’s book has brought a great deal back.

I had forgotten how much Beethoven (according to Swafford’s reading of his life) was such a business man with regards to publication; critiquing the critics too in the publisher’s journals too. I never recalled him being so conscious of his talents and his conscious control of being different and leading a new path; Swafford highlights Beethoven’s letters to his various publishers and occasionally he made a point of the newness in certain works. I had never recognised the obvious attempts of composers to not only connect with a broader historical trajectory but one that was so recent; Beethoven seemed highly concerned with his connections with Haydn and Mozart. As well as his concern for surpassing his recent forbears and I had never considered the less successful parts of Beethoven’s career and Swafford weaves these honest details in well.

Thought I’m not finished with the book, and despite some repetitive points (which are rather helpful as I feel like I’m really getting to know the biography through such repetitive passages) it seems like an honest account of a life that can’t really be untangled from his output as a composer. Swafford doesn’t sensationalise (entirely) the aspects of Beethoven’s biography that have fallen into popular conscientious, but helps paint a broad picture of a composer that I had always respected as a significant figure in musical history. I had just never recognised how much he worked to ensure that would be the case during and after his lifetime.

Bach Mass in B Minor: Vivace Chorus and the Brandenburg Sinfonia

Bach’s Mass in B minor is a work of immense symmetry, beauty and power and Jeremy Backhouse brought it alive with the Vivace Chorus’ performance on Saturday 15 November at Guildford Cathedral.

It can be a difficult acoustic but the chorus, orchestra (Brandenburg Sinfonia) and soloists were balanced with aplomb. The opening Kyrie was carefully shaped, and the central duet was sung with obvious delight by sopranos, Alice Privett and Alys Roberts. The trumpets cut across the ensemble beautifully in the Gloria. What was most noticeable was the clarity of the diction and the carefully graded dynamics. I particularly enjoyed the duet between Alice Privett and tenor, Richard Dowling; their voices blended well in the Domine Deus.

The second half started with a wonderfully firm account of Credo. The opening two choral movements were energetic with rhythmic vitality. The duet was equally rich with clear text, shaped diligently throughout by the soloists and Jeremy Backhouse. Et incarnatus est and the powerful Crucifixus that followed were controlled and paced with a sense of the tortured harmonies. The chorus excelled here. Et in Spiritum Sanctum was sung effortlessly by baritone Samuel Queen with the obbligato oboes d’amore parts adding a fitting plangent colour.

We were treated to such warmth in the Sanctus and the Osanna was triumphant, showing how well the Vivace Chorus can manage the demands of two-choir singing. The two solos (Benedictus, Agnus Dei) were two poignant and expressive moments following the intensity Backhouse achieved in the previous choral movements, with an impressive flute solo. The final Dona nobis pacem showed all that makes the Vivace Chorus such an enjoyable choir to hear; there was a sense of enjoyment on everyone’s face, committed singing and surprising us all with a strong firm sound until the very last note.

Bravo to the Chorus, soloists, orchestra and particularly to Jeremy Backhouse. It was clearly a labour of love for Bach to compile this complex work and that love was evident in Jeremy’s strong leadership to bring together an enjoyable evening of a great work of the choral repertoire.

15th November, Guildford Cathedral.

Preparing all for KS4 Music

My first Inspire Event for Teach Through Music focused on the transition to KS4 Music; well, more than that in fact. How do we ensure all pupils taking KS3 are prepared to continue into KS4? Is GCSE the only route after KS3? Typically 8% will carry on – quoted by Keith Evans in his provocative address during the evening of discussions and presentations. He is a staunch advocate for music lessons that are truly music lessons. No one disagreed! He sparked the debate whether there really should be a difference of approach between the different key stages. Plenty of useful discussions took place and Keith answered some pressing questions from the teachers who attended. The key message of music through music resounded.

Karen Brock curated and chaired the presentations by myself and other music teaching colleagues. Emily Boxer gave a passionate account of how her school manages the transition from KS3 to KS4. I gave a quick account of my experiences of listening and composing, followed by Julie Stanning showing how the wonderful work at KS3 can continue into outstanding lessons at KS4. Owen Bourne finished the set of presentations questioning whether GCSE Music was the right direction for students, make a strong plea for student voice in course design.

A real strength of the evening was the discussion with students. They were wonderfully articulate and gave a useful account of their school experience. Most striking is how they see a distinction between their school-based and out of school music making. A shame! Owen called for greater attention to student voice but later discussions reflected on the importance of imparting a certain degree of knowledge before students could make reasoned choices in their music-making. I think the debate will continue on how much content should be driven by student choice.

The new London Curriculum has a Music scheme well worth exploring, and it includes contributions by Karen Brock and Owen Bourne. A inspiring view of London seen from City Hall was the backdrop to the evening; a reminder that there is a great deal of opportunity for young people to make music in our capital.