Faith and hope and love we see,
Joining hand in hand agree,
But the greatest of the three,
And the best, is love.
Lots of things are arranged in threes. Why, do you think, is it so comforting to have three things in a group. Why do things always come in threes? Education, education, education. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Blood, sweat and tears. There are three bears, three stooges, three pigs. Quite apart from the Trinity. Do you think that when people come up with two things, they sit around until they’ve thought of a third? Music has its own Holy Trinity: Performing, Composing, Listening. May they never be divided.
Most people respond to music solely through listening. Most practising musicians (professional and amateur) are performers. Very few people compose. Many musicians don’t see composing as an integral part of their music making. And yet it is afforded special importance in music education. Why is this? My hypothesis is that it is music’s own ‘weasel word’ again, creativity. There is a perception that composing is the only ‘creative’ aspect of music, that if all you are doing is playing notes from a page you are not being creative. I have always derided this point of view. I feel at my most creative when performing and even when conducting. As I write this I am listening to a new (to me) recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. I already have two CDs of this so why listen to a third. They are playing exactly the same notes so why bother? They are profoundly different (Gergiev, Maazel & Rattle) in tone, tempo, accent, feel of the dance – in so many ways that could be a (rather boring) blog of its own. This is the creativity of the performers, to teach you something about a piece you thought you already knew.
I enjoy teaching composing and many of my pupils, especially at KS3, enjoy having a go at making their own music. I think it is an important part of a music education. I do not, however, think it should be part of a public examination for the following reasons:
- Some of my best musicians and many others who are capable performers simply do not find composing easy, natural or enjoyable. We do our best but several are put off further musical study because they would rather do almost anything else other than more composing. I appreciate that ‘easy, natural and enjoyable’ should not be the main criteria for a process but having struggled to get across understanding of even the most basic textures for so many years. I am unconvinced that an inability to compose satisfying music is a sign of lacking musicianship. Most will not go on to further study of music but will enjoy music through a lifetime of listening and performing.
- This is not how the great composers of the past learned to compose. I find composing in a GCSE or A level style very easy these days because I have a lifetime of understanding how the elements of harmony and melody fit together. Rather than teach students this detail first, we get them to compose and gather this knowledge intuitively, which of course they cannot.
- Pupils must compose to criteria: so many marks for melody, so many for harmony and so on. In an ideal world maximum marks would describe every really good piece of music. Of course it does not and I can think of many examples of wonderful music which would score less than full marks (Chopin Raindrop Prelude?).
- Most importantly, if an activity cannot be assessed reliably, it has no role to play in an exam. English has some experience of this, with Speaking and Listening. Composing is just not objective, no matter how well worded the assessment criteria. Think of all the contemporary criticism of works now considered among the very best works of art humanity has to offer. Every year at results time, music teachers’ forums are clogged with complaints about poorly assessed compositions. I will offer only two stories to illustrate: the first is of a pupil who, in the same year that his music was performed on Radio 3 (BBC Young Composer), received a low B grade for his AS composition. The second is a composing course with the principal examiner of the same A level, who was unable to account for the marks awarded for the example he himself brought.
The last point is the reason that composing played no part in public examinations before GCSE. It wasn’t that they didn’t think it was a valuable activity (they did) but rather that they did not consider that it could be objectively and reliably assessed.
What can go in its place? Compositional techniques, where pupils complete exercises in various styles of music, are more reliable and arguably more educational (we’re teaching them something rather than expecting something to come out of them). It is also how the great composers of the past learned the craft. I cannot explain this better than a regular poster on the TES Music Forum, ‘florian gassmann’ (a pseudonym):
“I was much in agreement with Rob Steadman (late of this forum and himself a composer) that the best way to assess compositional ability is through the use of closely specified techniques that can be assessed reliably, e.g.
- Extend this phrase with a modulating sequence to the supertonic
- Add three percussion parts in Calypso style to this tune from Trinidad
- Rewrite these four piano chords for a brass quartet of two Bb trumpets, Horn in F and Trombone
- Add a violin counter-melody to this tune sung by Madonna, taking account of the printed chord symbols, … and so on.
The great mistake with free composition is the fact that the boundaries are so wide that pupils don’t really know what they are supposed to do. For most pupils, it is better that they can be led towards an understanding of the many elements that go into a composition, rather than being faced with producing a fully-formed piece, which is something that very few can do well.
Are A-level students in English expected to write a Novella?”
And that’s in a language with which they are fully conversant. Imagine A-level pupils in Modern Foreign Languages trying to write novellas. Some might manage it but I don’t know what it would prove. Perhaps I’m just not creative enough.