No such thing as a wrong note
More than 40,000 students sat GCSE music examinations this year and the number taking the subject at A-level rose to 6,500. Externally imposed syllabuses at both levels emphasise listening, performing and composing activities. Otherwise, they offer a variety of options to schools and colleges. But what is it that some teachers bring to the implementation of those syllabuses which enthuses their students to the extent that their departments earn high musical repute?
Tony Coffey is curriculum manager for performing arts at Landau Forte College, Derby. And he is proud of a recent Office for Standards in Education report describing aspects of the institution's GCSE performing arts work as excellent. Dance, drama and music students take the Northern Examination and Assessment Board's Expressive Arts course, the revised syllabus for which is thematically, rather than subject based.
Singled out for praise by the inspectors was his approach to musical composition. Mr Coffey says: "Composing in the classroom starts with improvisation, and our course enables students to create music spontaneously out of dance and drama. In not having such opportunities readily available, I think students doing pure music GCSEs are in danger of being shortchanged. The course also provides us with the means of quantifying and rewarding students' strengths rather than exposing their weaknesses."
Sponsored by the Landau Foundation and Forte hotel chain, the college caters for secondary students of all abilities from the city. "Our intake represents the whole socio-economic range of Derby's young people," he says. "Entry is by interview and, whatever their background or ability, potential students have to convince us that they really want to be here and learn."
To what does he attribute his teaching success? "A fundamental drive and passion for what I'm involved in, linked to a sense of spiritual awareness of what the arts can do. It's important to encourage students to enjoy making imaginative leaps in the creative process.
"For example, I always remind students that there's no such thing as a 'wrong' note. And it's vital that one helps them to develop a sense of confidence through the discovery that the world of sound expression actually belongs to them."
Under Mr Coffey's leadership, the college's students have achieved local and national acclaim for their theatrical productions. Most recently, their "Playground" received the outstanding performance award at the Music for Youth National Music Theatre Festival.
Also highly successful at the 1996 MFY Festival were three groups from Groves High School, Wrexham, a local authority 11-16 comprehensive. The school's quartet, Femme, proved one of the highlights of the New Music category when they sang some haunting and original material. The blues band gained an award in the same category for its skilled performances of some interesting student compositions. And the school's GCSE composition and performance group took an award in the composing in the classroom category.
Fifteen-year-old Annabel Spalding's stylistic "Short 'n' Swing" was featured during the group's performance. And Annabel, like Tony Coffey's students, makes improvisation the starting point for her compositions. "I made the piece up by experimenting at the keyboard until I'd found a bass line. Then I tried out melodies until I came up with one that would go with it."
The Groves High School groups are trained by music teacher David Wootton. How does he enthuse his GCSE students? He says: "I set no limits on my expectations of students, and I encourage them to experience the excitement of creating and performing their music. Composing is the key to what we do since I believe that all students are innately creative. And improvisation helps tease out ideas from students who lack faith in their own abilities."
What about performance activities? "Classroom and other performances are an integral part of the creative process because they enable students to re-define their ideas as composers. And listening to music widens their horizons in terms of technique and style. Resources are important but only as vehicles for students' self expression. It doesn't matter whether they use keyboards, percussion, guitars or computers. The important thing is that composing is fun."
Cyril Lloyd, who teaches composition at the British Record Industry Trust Performing Arts and Technology School in Croydon, shares Mr Wootton's views. "Composition is the most important element of the curriculum, whether at GCSE or A-level, and it's got nothing to do with ivory towers. Composing comes out of the classroom, where there's an interaction of student ideas. The results have to be performed and heard by others, including professional composers. "
The BRIT School takes 14 to 19-year-olds and, like Landau Forte College, provides education for the highly motivated. Third-year student Monique Alcock says: "There's no audition to get in, but they asked questions about my commitment to music as a career."
Emma Syrus, in her fourth year, is studying both an A-level in music and a BTec performing arts diploma. She says: "The BTec covers more styles of music, making it, hopefully, easier to get a job." Her composition "Hansel and Gretel" was performed at a Royal Academy of Music concert by BRIT School and Junior Academy students this year. Cyril Lloyd also teaches at the Junior Academy and this enterprising event enabled students to hear and perform each other's works, and then to have them discussed by composer Paul Patterson.
The Junior Academy selects students by performance ability and supplements the GCSE and A-level teaching of local schools by providing Saturday classes. Ex-student Christine Kennedy says: "I found the A-level aural tests straightforward because of my training at the Junior Academy."
Meeting music students at Priestley College, Warrington, another exceptional secondary school, one is struck by how their willingness to contribute - far beyond the requirements of GCSE and A-level syllabuses - adds to the work of a department with a high reputation locally.
How does director of music Sally Daunt maintain this reputation? "By creating good relationships with the students individually and by expecting high standards of them", she says. "By having high professional standards as a teacher and musician myself. And by having a sense of humour."