A Real-World Solution To Create Impact In Music Progression

This is specifically written for school leaders, for heads of music and for the parents of my GCSE music students.

We’ll shortly be going into Year 9 mocks. Historically in a 3-year KS4, it has always felt too early to be awarding an attainment grade as the GCSE Music qualification requires much applied development of knowledge to allow students the opportunity to access the full range of marks.

However since becoming an examiner, I’ve learned that my perceived ‘full range of marks’ is not necessary to grade work in an earlier part of the course. I will never meet the students I’m examining for, but it is clear from the evidence I’ve seen and reports I’ve heard that there are many challenges students around the country face in helping them to maintain a sense of progress in what they do. Some students do not have the same teacher all the way through their course, in some cases illness prevents subject leaders from being present at key times and then there are many individual changes of circumstances for the students themselves.

In most situations there isn’t an ideal setting, however just as described in my “real-world knowledge” post, if we Know the students, we can inspire them to be ambitious about their GCSE outcome over 3 years of study.

When examining I often find myself reflecting to try and imagine the circumstances each student has worked in when composing their music. In a range of 0-36, I’ve experienced work across the full available range of marks, including some that is far beyond GCSE standard. This is therefore helpful to consider. Imagine a year 9 student who has an inspirational teacher. Due to ill health the teacher is away for their year 10 and most of year 11 and although the school does what it can to cover the subject specialist, the year 9 student struggles to independently make progress. The greatest progress has therefore been made in year 9 and their musical understanding has mostly come from that year. So the progress in year 9, however simplistic it feels, is crucial. I wonder if they’d have had the opportunity to write a complete piece of original music in year 9, whether it would be of a comparable standard to what was submitted for coursework in year 11?

A flexibility in mind-set is required, that doesn’t require students to have learned all one perceives necessary to succeed before testing. As soon as a composition is written, immediately then analysis, evaluation, discussion and marking can take place.

This year, I’ve encouraged our Y9 and 10 GCSE students to self-assess their work as they look to be more independent. To support this, I’ve simplified the mark scheme as below. Students are not trying to give a specific mark – they’re trying to fit the music they create into a category.

Complex & Inventive (8/9) – 32-36

Developing with devices (6/7) – 25-31

Music makes sense (4/5) – 20-24

Works but repetitive (3/4) – 16-19

Clashes (2/3) – 12-15

Not in control (1/2) – 0-11

I still continue to teacher-assess work to ensure students understand what each category means in practice. However this extra interaction helps to encourage conversation about quality and development of product.

How to really know our music students.

In my earlier blog about measuring students’ ability in music, I described how every student is completely unique and therefore un-definable. Every student has a different musical experience profile. Using the KS2 Maths & English data to ‘know where a student started in music’ is nonsensical. However I still consider that measure as an indicator of ‘academic ability’. It’s not necessary to argue what ‘academic’ means in relation to this, but it does provide our first comparative measure that categorises students (very) generally as top, middle and lower ability. If we consider their ‘academic ability’, alongside the following categories it is possible to create a range of Year 9 GCSE Music starting points.

Thus I’ve developed 6 discrete musical starting points, each beginning a coloured line, for students to advance from. The KS3 grades below can be understood more here. At the start of Year 9 I meet with each individual student and we decide together, which of these best describes their experience so far. This best-fit is only temporary as the system encourages students to far exceed their potential.

The 6 Music Lines of Development

Lower B – Purple Line – expected grade at end with good progression 3, with outstanding 4

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– No extra-curricular experience

– No awareness of music theory

– KS3 result in music D (developing) or S- (nearly securing)

– “Lower” academic ability

Lower A – Red Line – expected grade at end with good progression 4, with outstanding 5

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– Some extra curricular experience

– Minimal awareness of music theory

– KS3 result in music S (securing) or S-

– “Middle” academic ability

Middle B – Orange Line – expected grade at end with good progression 5, with outstanding 6

– May or may not have grades 1-2, but some instrumental experience

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

– Awareness of functional theory (understanding of how music works)

– KS3 result in music S

– “Middle” academic ability

Middle A – Yellow – expected grade at end with good progression 6, with outstanding 7

– May or may not have grades 1-2, but some instrumental experience

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

– Awareness of functional theory (understanding of how music works)

– KS3 result in music M (mastering) or S+ (nearly mastering)

– “High” academic ability

Upper B – Green – expected grade at end with good progression 7, with outstanding 8

– Grade 3-4 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 2-4 Music Theory Understanding

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

Upper A – Blue – expected grade at end with good progression 8, with outstanding 9

– Grade 5 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 5 Music Theory already achieved on entry

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

Progress in music is never linear. The most common rate of progress is little-by-little until the spring of year 11, when there is significant increase as things all come together. This rate of progress makes data managers nervous though. So I began to think about whether students could push their ambition much earlier in the course. With “The Wheel of Music Ambition” as it’s now apparently called, we can certainly make sure everything is in place to support them.

When I first developed the 6 starting points, it was to try to define a close-as-possible ‘musical start and end point’. Manor principal, Simon Barber asked in the development of this new system whether it was possible for students to move between the coloured lines. I initially responded ‘no’ as I’d set out specifically to try to prove a specific start and end point in music, but Simon was absolutely right and from this development we’ve created a real-world success, inspiring real ambition amongst the students.

On the first occasion of discussion with the students, they instantly made a visual connection to the London Underground map. They saw the lines as tube lines and the circles (points at which we’ve chosen to measure grades) as ‘main stations’. When at a ‘main station’, it’s possible to get onto another line. This has developed conversation amongst students about what it’s like to be on each line and the different things they’re having to think about. It’s also naturally created ambition in students wanting to discover what’s necessary to be at a higher level station when the next opportunity of grading happens. Students are also very aware of the possibility of going down to lines below, but as such no-one has ever moved down (yet).

For senior leaders, the system has created a method to ‘target-set’ based on musical experiences and musical outcomes. Ultimately this is the only information they’re really concerned with, as it gives a real-world outcome in a P8 hypothesis. Based on a starting point, it shows what should be achievable at the end of the course. It’s still not relevant to KS2 banding alone, as the calculations for progress 8 are related to, but it’s so much more helpful in our real world.

By each measuring point (3 times a year at Christmas, Easter and July), students complete the following:

– whole or part of a real GCSE Music exam paper – for AQA, section A only /68 in Y9 and 10

– Compose an original piece of music

– Perform a piece of music or create a Production Via Technology

None of these measures is ever an ‘easier version’. There’s no point. Students are graded in composition and performance as if it’s their final year 11 work. As much as targets are mentioned above as required by schools, in reality students are offered the opportunity to achieve 100% of the available marks. It is counterproductive to suggest students aim for anything less.

When I worked at Huntington School in York, headteacher John Tomsett challenged us to think like the British Cycling team had done in their preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games. They used the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ as a method to create the ultimate outcomes by constantly looking at how every detail of preparation could be improved. Inspired by this, every grading point on the GCSE course is immediately followed by an AMG point, although the AMG chart is available for students to look at whenever they like. Often AMG conversations help students to independently identity the aspect they would like to improve next. It also encourages students to plan and request specific help to advance. Students may also request a hypothesis at any time to see the impact each change will make.

AMG 1: Year 9 and 10

In the first 2 years of development, I consider the ‘long brushstrokes’ of the assessments, being careful not to over-measure and to make sure my focus is on their learning, rather than the numbers. Therefore just one number for each of composing, performance and exam each term. The far left-hand column shows their KS3 result (Developing, Securing or Mastering). Students without grades have joined the cohort from other schools at Y9. The red column of target grades based only on KS2 data is interesting to compare to the targets with good or outstanding progress created by the Musical starting points, but ultimately irrelevant. The “expected attainment December” column shows the ‘main station’ point they should reach. The column just before that shows their actual real-world GCSE grade based on grades that term. These grades are given based on the previous year’s grade boundaries and update automatically using a Lookup table (if you’re reading this and want to know how to programme that, let me know). To the left of that, the overall % is the easiest column for students to understand as ‘the bigger picture’ as they see their exam progress grow.

A great example of a real-world success already is with the student 7th down. He achieved an average of 24.2% in term one of Y10. We looked together to see that he’d particularly struggled with how to approach the listening questions and also how to retain element information contextually, so that helped to create a plan together for intervention. One half term later, he’s advanced to 43.8% and in real-life is significantly more encouraged and confident in the classroom.

Finally, the colours in the “expected attainment” column are as follow:

– Red – below the ‘main station’ point expected on that student’s coloured line

– Orange – on the ‘main station’ point

– Blue – above the ‘main station’ point

In the case of Red or Blue, the student has moved to another line.

Having completed the first term’s projects and seen how much many of the class were struggling to make the expected progress, we has some very open and honest discussions together. All students had worked hard in the first term, but something wasn’t fitting together. We realised that everyone struggled with harmony. So I put aside the scheme for this term and wrote the new harmony project described here. The impact in progress is already significant as many of the reds are now orange, and we’ve just finished for half term today. There’s still another 6 weeks of learning until Easter.

AMG 2: Y11

This version takes the mock grade as (hopefully) the worst case for the exam mark and considers the live overall result – in the gold box on the right – together with the ‘live and always improving’ coursework elements. The main focus in the last two half terms has been recordings of performance. Students can record their own performance work and securely upload using @Showbie to receive feedback. For it to count for their final exam though, it has to be recorded with me under exam conditions. The development of performance is most helpfully done on an individual basis, so we use the AMG to identify the aspects of performance students could improve. It was easier for students to calculate grades this year with the removal of UMS, so the Y11 AMG is now simpler too as it just adds up the weighted marks and compares them to the previous grade boundaries.

It is a further nonsense to compare specific individual grades in music year-on-year as no two students are comparable. But to give an indication of the impact of these AMGs and the implementation of ‘The Wheel’, grades for our centre have gone from being A*-C equiv. 67% to consistently 90%+ and A/A* from 10-30% to 40-70%. I will also say, I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet and there’s certainly lots more development to come. But this is working well for us so, if it helps, go ahead and try it at your centre.

Happy half term 🙂

Harmony & Control: Real-world curriculum design to inspire confidence and ambition in music

This term’s lessons for GCSE year 9 music are all about Harmony & Control. Control, though not an element of music, is one of the fundamental skills or levels of skill there is. Without it, the outcome is uncontrolled, messy or unintentional chaos. If we don’t model ‘control in music’, we should not be surprised when this is something our students struggle with later on.

We began 6 weeks ago by focusing on melody first, exploring how we can create a natural flow in our music, how we can split musical ideas into phrases and how a phrase usually sounds complete or incomplete at its end. From week 2, we used an ABAC melodic structure as a (Control) point of focus and decided on some other aspects of control, for example the B phrase sounding unfinished (imperfect) and C very definitely sounds finished (perfect), presenting an opportunity to discuss cadences and immediately showing connection between how melody and harmony have to be considered together.

Having composed a simple 8-bar melodic shape of the 4 phrases, we added a complementing bass line as described in my “Hot Chocolate” post.

In week 3 we discussed ‘texture’ as the layers that make up the harmony, and how we could change the relationship between how the layers worked together to vary the texture. It was also an opportunity to discuss instrumental timbre and range as we added a 2nd violin and viola to create the configuration of a string quartet. Having made these controlled (purposeful) decisions, and deciding for the moment to write diatonically in D Major and homophonically with the rhythm of the cello part, students found it very easy to ‘fill-in’ the inner voices, again using p244 of “How to Write Great Music” as below. Further interesting discussions could be heard around the class as to whether there were ‘better solutions’ of which notes to place in which instrument, which led them to independently discover how to control inner parts by making small (step-wise if possible) movements rather than larger leaps of unwanted intervals.

Still within that same lesson, about two thirds of the class continued to then create a development of their first 8 bars by incorporating scalic motifs and auxiliary and passing notes within their lower 3 parts. There was great excitement and beaming smiles around the room as students realised how straightforward it was to develop their own complex music by having a controlled consideration of melody, harmony and texture.

It is often difficult to comprehend the depth of musical understanding we can reach in any 11-16 lesson, but this new approach to harmony has this term, I feel, pushed the boundaries again. To have progressed from ‘not feeling confident about composing a simple melody’, to feeling confident enough about all of the above to independently compose beautiful music, is absolutely mind-blowing. Often our ‘high expectations’ is not enough. #youngpeopleareawesome

I decided for the moment however, that this level of depth was as far as was helpful to go in their exploration of harmony (for the moment!). Instead, from week 4, I presented a similar challenge but from a completely different angle, ensuring the task was new for everybody and completely out of their comfort zones. To succeed, they had to use the knowledge developed above and their experience of controlling music. They have to prove not only understanding, but ‘confident understanding’ to succeed in this new challenge.

In week 4 we were visited by the amazing Dr Kirsty Devaney (@KirstyDevaney) who has written a brilliant article about her time with us, including some very helpful thoughts on gender in music and technology. We are greatly appreciative of the time we were able to spend together and many of the students she met have been inspired by her time with us.

In that week, the new challenge began with a lead sheet for a song (above). Students had to study the chords in verse 2 and, using Sibelius, compose a 4-part string quartet arrangement for the 8 bars of the verse. This was to be a new timbre to be introduced in verse 2 as a development of texture in the overall production and students were encouraged to listen critically as they tried to develop a warm/rich ‘sound’ for their string parts. The second challenge was more practical, but of equal value in the composing process – they had to export the audio of their string arrangement (so now considering file format, sample rate and bit depth) and discover a secure method to transfer this into GarageBand on their iPad. I had specifically encouraged them to do this as ‘audio’ to challenge their critical listening of making sure the string parts worked before continuing. If they found there were clashes later on from not having control of the process, they would have to go through this extra part again to fix it.

Once into GarageBand, students now had to take a new risk. They had to maintain control of the harmony of their 8 bars, but compose and record parts for piano, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, drum kit and an extra drum kit track to use for fill-ins or cymbal crashes.

Some aspects of musical learning appear simpler to me, but I often learn that my understanding of simplicity or difficulty can be wrong. This was especially true in this situation – students had not realised that all instrumental parts follow the same harmony in the music. I’m not sure at which point in my own musical learning I first discovered this, but thinking about it, I’ve never taught this before. It was particularly poignant to see that even the most able seemed surprised. This discovery opened a door in their learning. It has especially given them more confidence in improvisation or recording when using unfamiliar instruments.

In her observations, Kirsty mentioned a student who had struggled with this task, becoming stuck on the development of the drum kit part. That student returned the next morning and after 3 or 4 minutes of intervention, she was creating music independently again and perhaps even more confidently than before. Often it’s so important to see moments when students ‘get stuck’ as positive. They’re opportunities for greater understanding.

Having now produced an arrangement of their verse including 4-part harmony strings, bass guitar, piano, acoustic guitar and drum kit, students this week were considering structure and texture. These are (with harmony) the most mis-understood elements of music at GCSE. The vocals for the song are still to be recorded and that will happen next half term. For now though students have to repeat the above for the chorus immediately following their ‘verse 2’.

At this point, I’m offering less controlled guidance. Students have to decide how the role of each instrument will remain consistent or develop as they go into the chorus. Which of the 8 instruments they will keep, how they will plan rhythmic changes in each part, will the energy of the music become greater or less? All of these decisions are now their own in these last two weeks. The harmonic progression is more complex in the chorus, with more changes of chord and the pattern or rate of harmonic change is also quite different. Due to an instrumental section after the chorus, that new section is also 11 bars instead of 8, so much more to consider. The video below shows my modelled example I made as they watched in yesterday’s lesson – the section you can hear took 10 minutes to model from blank screen including descriptions of where, why and how.

The song is “Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)” by Hillsong United.

Title Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash

Using real-world knowledge to inspire confidence and ambition in music

‘Data’ is probably the least favourite word in a music teacher’s working life. Often ‘data’ relates to a series of numerical values and the need to find a ‘best fit’ to ‘make the data work’, rather than considering the real-world situation of each music student.

In the last few years changes in education have brought us ‘life without levels’, ‘9-1 GCSE grading’ and ‘flightpaths’ etc. These seemingly constant changes, have triggered some very helpful discussions with senior colleagues. Rather than requiring endless additional work, it’s created a genuine opportunity to question ‘What are we really trying to measure?’. It was a surprisingly easy conversation and presented a very simple outcome. ‘Knowledge’ was all that was needed. We need to get to Know each of our students as quickly as possible when they arrive at Year 7. It is helpful to Know about the types of musical experiences they’ve had in earlier life (or not had). We also need to Know about their home-life, their strengths and weaknesses, their ambitions and the things they worry about. However, little of this knowledge can be discovered through testing or by studying data from other subjects. We need to create opportunities to get to Know each student, to create a strong and positive, trusting, working relationship with them. A relationship in which they’re not afraid to give an answer or to question something they don’t understand. A relationship that inspires them to be confident and ambitious in their musical development. We want them to be passionate and independent in their own work and to have outstanding skills in communication and collaboration with others.

Rob Heath (@robheathmusic) tweeted recently about the challenges of grading performance skills, which has inspired me to write about this topic as soon as I could.

When I announced my intention to blog about assessment, Ally Daubney kindly directed me to the ISM Webinar from 2015 presented with Martin Fautley. It was fascinating, and very encouraging that many of my own decisions in curriculum/assessment design followed suggestions they made in the session, as well as giving me ideas to explore going forwards. If you’ve not heard it, definitely have a listen (https://www.ism.org/professional-development/webinars/a-guide-to-progression-curriculum-and-assessment)

In the Webinar, Martin spoke about ensuring the purpose of assessment was ‘what they learn’ (or Know), ‘not what they do’. They also challenged us to return to our values in musical learning. [for interest… during the session I listed these as my core values: understanding with enough confidence to create and share knowledge with others, creativity, functional understanding of how and why the different elements of music ‘work’, individual spirituality and reflection in approach, collaboration, internalisation, improvisation, application, control, invention, development, quality in production values and critical listening.]

The biggest challenge to overcome is time – the actual number of hours and minutes I have available to work with the young people. At this point it seems helpful to describe the context I’m working in. Going back 7 or 8 years, we were a Specialist School: Performing Arts and with that focus and extra funding had an amazing 3 hours/wk to teach every KS3 student in music, dance and drama. With the end of that funding and pressures elsewhere in the curriculum, our KS3 time was reduced to 2 hours/wk, although a new additional rotation subject was created to provide students with development in 2 essential key life skills; cooking and singing. This effectively ensured music education could continue to be 1-hr per week, although due to staffing and timetabling restrictions the hour unfortunately couldn’t be regular, making consistent progress more challenging. The singing part has now been lost to create more time in maths and English responding to the challenges of progress 8. Three subjects (music, dance and drama), does not easily split into 2 hours, but the collective impact we can have as a team on the lives of these young people far far outweighs personal ambition for any of the individual subjects.

Designing an inspiring and practical assessment model for KS3 Music

In music I have 19 hours per year to inspire each of my 468 current key stage 3 students. I teach all 468. Returning to the purpose of this blog post, designing an assessment model based on the values mentioned above, the DfE national curriculum programme of study and importantly, considering my own well-being and work/life balance, has to be approached passionately and positively. I also have to understand that that I might not be able to include everything as I want to, as there is a bigger picture to make it work within.

‘High Expectations’ as described in the first of the government’s teacher standards, is not enough with the given timeframe. ‘Sustained and exceptional expectations’ is required of all learners to instil the level of desire required to make any sort of comparable progress with students who have the luxury of a regular weekly hour.

Specific extra curricular activities are not an expectation within my teacher’s contract. However in addition to the 19 hours/yr, a possible 12 hours every week are available at lunch or in ‘after school’ time, to create more opportunities to develop relationships with our young people. In wanting to maximise how I can use those times, the assessment model has to not create marking in the lunch hour or in the time between 3.20 and 5.30 every day. When I first began in my teaching career (in 2008), I delivered the same ensembles programme every week and crammed in as much as possible, but, as popular as that was, it didn’t have the flexibility I now require to support the additional demands at GCSE and to lead the faculty.

To design this assessment model I’ve therefore had to think very critically about what I’m measuring and how much can be measured given the time available. It’s challenged me to develop more open-ended tasks, only limited by each student’s ambition. The way I approach differentiation has also changed with more projects having the same starting point, then having flexible directions and outcomes to suit the progress of the variety of abilities.

I’ve also been forced to develop how and when I assess students, considering the encouragement they each need as well as the type of informative feedback I give them. I’ve found the most helpful feedback is verbal as it’s then a real-world relationship-building conversation. That method of feedback is also instant, and if a student needs to make slight adjustments to improve quality or understanding, that change can be modelled there and then within seconds.

Students in KS3 all make different patterns of progress. Therefore it’s important that I’m flexible to be ready to assess them at any time of their choosing within a lesson. Usually when I’m not leading a whole class discussion or modelling an example at the front of the class, I use a countdown clock to indicate the time left in each assessment period. During that time students may approach the teacher’s desk with one of two purposes. To request support, guidance or clarification about something they’re learning, or to show me proof of understanding (and to receive the next challenge). This proof doesn’t necessary always relate to achievement of ‘a box’, but often it gives me the opportunity to celebrate with them on achieving something they could not ‘do’ or ‘understand’ before. When a student does achieve ‘a box’ I can instantly record that on my master sheet (as below) and the student has a place to colour-in that box on a course sheet, (like the one in the post title image), in Showbie on their iPad, enabling them to keep track of their own progress. Incidentally, all the course documentation for that unit of work is also instantly available to them in the same area on their Showbie app.

The amount of different musical concepts that students are learning in these projects is extensive, however if I try to measure too much, I’ll spend more time ‘measuring’ and they spend less time ‘doing’ and therefore have fewer opportunities to explore, reflect and understand. Therefore I minimise the points of assessment to give them clear outcomes to aspire to, and focus on helping them to discover what they need ;to learn with confidence in order to sufficiently understand and control each outcome.

Similar to Martin and Ally’s example, as a school we adopted a 3-stage assessment model for ‘life without levels’. In our case, the 3 are: Developing, Securing & Mastering. There are aspects to understand that ‘everyone’, ‘most’ and ‘few’ can access and these feature in the 3 stages respectively. However outcomes worthy of ‘a box’ are often:

– Developing – using relevant skills and showing a basic working knowledge

– Securing – the above, but with sufficient understanding and skill level to control the outcome with confidence

– Mastering – having complete control of the outcome to the point where something new can be developed or transformed into something new

I designed the statements to define each ‘box’ using the exemplar materials provided by PiXL. I adapted the language to help students to understand the types of understanding they needed to be confident in before they could achieve each box.

The master sheet excerpt (shown above) is a real-world document, with names omitted for obvious reasons. It demonstrates the amount of knowledge I can expect to accumulate about a class after their first six key stage 3 lessons. The bracketed/numbered sections are as follows:

1. Each student’s perception of their previous experience. If they had a music lesson every week at primary school or had weekly singing they ticked the middle box. If they have been learning to play an instrument, with or without a tutor, or have played in the past, they tick box 3. Otherwise they tick box 1.

2. The first two lessons are baselines. The first, a test exploring each student’s awareness of music by listening to musical changes, instruments, melodic shapes and rhythms and considering their awareness of notation and other musical terms. The average score is around 24/50. ‘Generally’ (and cautiously), students with scores below 24 will need significant extra support and additional encouragement when they start to create, with greater support being required as the score gets lower. Students scoring 30+ tend to have had regular classroom lessons previously and students who have also studied an instrument with a tutor score 40+. Only one student has achieved the top mark (50/50) in the last 4 years and it is unusual. The second baseline is a performance baseline. Students are given the letter-named notes of the “Happy Birthday” melody, a keyboard/piano with a guide of how to find the keys and 30 minutes to practise. After this independent period, we video every student giving their best performance. The range of outcomes is fascinating and a helpful indicator of the real-world musical starting point for each individual student. The students achieving ‘S’ at this point have been able to give a controlled performance. I recently posted a video on @DaveLoweMusic twitter of “the amazing” Sam from this year’s year 7. Sam’s progress is amazing from the ‘developing’ performance in week 1.

3. The codes along the top represent the boxes students are trying to achieve. D,S and M represent the difficulty of each box. When achieved, conditional formatting turns the developing boxes blue, the securing green and the mastering gold. For reporting purposes and when reflecting on progress it’s therefore instant to see where everyone’s up to.

To define the progress made by each student during the KS3 course, the boxes achieved have to be considered together with the latest product as created by the student. This ‘product’ could be as a performance, composition or combination of the two. I’ve found video evidence to be most helpful as long as you have a secure method to store the media and permission from each parent. Video is far better evidence than audio in being able to see the level of assurance and confidence each student has.

To be continued… developing knowledge for exceptional GCSE progression coming soon.

Inventiveness & Creativity

Having launched the new iPad Music competition last Sunday, I’ve spent the week discussing the concepts of inventiveness and creativity with my students. I chose these two words as they explain a meaning of “exceptionally creative”, which is given in the top-band on the mark scheme for AQA GCSE Music Composition. A student who is inventive is on their way to achieving a top grade in music composition.

But what does inventive mean? It must be a complex thing to understanding, being in the top-band?

Actually no. We’ve found that it’s not complex at all. In fact, it’s one of the easiest concepts to understand. However the difference between invention and ‘lack of invention’ is so fundamental in music creation that it’s an important consideration from the moment you begin. It’s not, as some possibilities in composition, something you can add later to get extra credit.

My year 7s were most excited when thinking about invention. They began to imagine inventors and the things they had invented. Having thought for a moment the concept was so clear to them. Inventiveness is, as one great answer, “creating something new, something unique that is unlike other things”.

But invention in music is not just what you make. It is defined by your approach to making it. I gave students this week the idea of approaching a box of Lego bricks. If I took 5 bricks out of the box, stuck them together, put them on the table in front of me and told people that it was finished, I have not been inventive. I had just ‘picked up some plastic bricks and stuck them together’. This act of choosing bricks and putting them together is important, just like in music we choose notes and put them together in a melody. But to then be inventive, we should pick up the shape we’ve created, look at it from different angles, imagine creatively what it could represent for us, imagine how we could make it into something else (“like a spaceship” was one answer this week). We should decide whether or not we like it. If we like nothing about it, just break it up and try a new idea or begin to develop it to see if it improves, but being cautious not to lose control and become frustrated. Being creative and inventive in music takes patience but is a joyful experience. When you discover an idea that you enjoy or inspires you, then you can start to dream about what that could become.

I mark many GCSE Music compositions every year. Inventiveness is sadly not frequently heard in a great number of pieces, but I’m sharing this in my blog in the hope that I can encourage students and teachers to approach this differently. So if you’re reading this in that context, think about this. What range of marks are you aiming for?

If it’s 1-24 out of the possible 36, in any style, you can write a simple melodic idea, that makes musical sense, make sure your harmony works. Higher marks in that range might be given if it’s in a structure so different sections ensure it’s not all the same all the way through.

Once you’ve got something that ‘works’ develop its complexity to prove your understanding of other musical concepts and devices (now getting you a mark of 25-31 if successful). However to get beyond 31/36, you must be inventive from ‘day 1’, having ambition to develop something amazing and spending often many hours shaping your initial ideas. Hopefully everybody should begin by aspiring to this, no matter their starting ability.

[a word of caution: this advice is my personal advice and is not a formal line from the exam board. The standard of how grades are awarded is set year-by-year by the board]

For my own students I’ve condensed the examination mark scheme to fit on one page (as shown in the title picture), making it easy for them to understand the standard of their work. I’ve found the examples of the types of musical devices shown to be useful for my students as they think of how they might develop their work. The gold boxes are what I perceive to be ‘GCSE pass’ standard work. As the gold area becomes richer/darker the mark increases. As much as I discourage students from learning-to-the-exam, in this case it challenges them to think more deeply about their music and creates a helpful point of discussion amongst the cohort.