GCSE and A-level Composition

Here’s an extract of my talk I was due to give at the MMA Conference at Eton College.

I am sure we are all excited (and nervous?) to see how our students’ compositions will perform this summer. In the conversations I have with colleagues in other schools there is a consistent feeling of the unknown, and a feeling that whatever strategies one uses this year to help candidates perform well as composers will not yield the same results the subsequent year. There is something exciting about this, despite it feeling frustrating, as it means we can keep renewing and reconsidering our composition teaching. We are all blessed with GCSE A-level composers that either “get it”, and find their flow quickly with a composition or those who have a creative blank and seemingly no solid ideas (and a mixture in between), so being armed with a flexible approach that will cater for the individual is increasingly important for composition at Key Stage 4 and beyond.

The part of the process that seems to take the most time for most students is generating an initial idea. Ideas flow much more readily when the concept is clear: what is this piece going to be for (occasion) and what should it convey (mood, character, or narrative?) and for whom (audience)? Once we are clear about this – and the briefs some examination boards are occasionally clear on this front – we can make decisions on the resources we need to achieve it (instruments and particular playing techniques), and even the structure (how will we pace and convey the brief over time). Only then we can start to consider the types of gestures the composition will need to generate the desired effects: you might listen to the openings of Beethoven symphonies and discuss the differences, and the effect. The more planning at this earlier stage the better, as when the compositional concept is clear and well-formed, the writing becomes achievable.

Teachers can obsess about their students showing ‘development’ in their compositions. It is a challenging concept to convey when we use examples of Beethovenian development. It can be paralysing rather than inspiring to explore accomplished development processes. I prefer to think of the ‘play of comparison’ Arnold Whittall describes when we are hearing something for a second time: we are comparing it to the first hearing. I encourage students to think about increasing and decreasing tension, and creating versions of melodic material that are more exciting or relaxing the feel of an idea (for example by removing some of the angularity, or rhythmic complexity). Developing an idea need not always be on the microscopic level, and getting the ‘play of comparison’ between repeating sections is essential for a composition to perform well at GCSE and beyond.

I enjoy using the ABRSM Spectrum books as a starting point for class discussions exploring ideas about structure and idiomatic writing particularly. The great thing about many of the Spectrum pieces is that they are short: students can conceive the structure in one viewing (rather than trying to comprehend a composition that lasts many pages), and many are approachable. Some use interesting sounds, such as harmonics, and these make great talking points. It’s fun to discuss the titles and investigate why the title fits the music. The series as a whole represents a rich opportunity to engage with music by living composers. All of the repertoire in the series shows that great compositions use the capability of the chosen instruments well: encourage GCSE and A-level composers to embrace the idiosyncrasies of their chosen forces and show the examiners (and listeners) that their composition could be performed exclusively by their chosen instruments and nothing else.

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