AQA GCSE UNIT 4 – Old Spec.

Having blogged about Unit 2 yesterday I have received some requests for my thoughts on Unit 4, so I thought I would put some ideas down related to this. The angle I am taking here is that the compositions are basically done but now need some time spent on them to get them fully exam ready. It is important the steer students towards success but not do the work for them of course! As teachers we need them to listen to their work with a critical ear and make changes to their work.
I think one of the key things for me with this unit is to look at the mark scheme with the students and forget for a moment the style/structure/theme of the piece. I think we can sometimes get so bogged down with the fact it is say Theme & Variations or Ternary Form that we forget to think about the actual music. At the ned of the day we are trying to get our students to pack their pieces full of excellent music, music that is worthy of the top marks.
I think it would be good to sit down with students and really look at what the mark scheme is asking for, I like to get them thinking about the following:

  • The composition is musically stimulating
  • The composition is imaginative and largely satisfying
  • The composition is largely effective
  • The composition is partially effective
  • The composition works but at a basic level
  • The composition is very rudimentary

Where does there piece sit if you were just using the criteria above? It can be really helpful for the students to think about this. Is there piece actually stimulating to listen to – peer assessment can help with this. Or is it just partially effective – maybe it is a little short and doesn’t ever really get going. This can be a helpful starting point.
The next stage is for the students to assess how they can improve their work. If it isn’t stimulating enough or if it is only largely effective, how can they move it forward. It is then important for them to turn to their chosen Areas of Study. Have they packed their piece full of features from their area of study. I also ask my students initially if they have changed:
Tempo, Texture, Time, Key, Tonality.
I then get them to think about what features could be included:
AoS1 – Rhythm & Metre:

  • Different time signatures?
  • Syncopation?
  • Triplets?
  • Scotch Snap?
  • Dotted rhythms along with a general range of different rhythms

AoS 2 – Harmony & Tonality:

  • Have you changed key at any point?
  • Have you included a pedal note?
  • Could you use a Cycle of Fiths Progression?
  • How about an Inverted pedal – great for the opening of a cinematic piece
  • Have you included different chord inversions?
  • Does your harmonic rhythm change throughout the piece?
  • What about cadences – imperfect? ii – V – I etc

AoS 3 – Texture & Melody:

  • Have you explored a range of textures?
  • Does your melody clearly develop – inversion, augmentation, diminution etc.
  • Have you included any ornaments in your melody?
  • Have you switched the melody between instruments?
  • Have you used a melodic sequence?

AoS4 – Timbre & Dynamics:

  • If you have strings, could they be Pizzicato at any point?
  • Have you used mutes on brass?
  • Have you included an appropriate selection of dynamics? Crescendos & Diminuendos etc.
  • What about adding some percussion to create some colour as well as some rhythm?

AoS5 – Structure & Form:

  • Does your piece have a clear structure and have you defined it?
  • Have you included the key features of your chosen form/genre/style?

Hopefully going through this list with students will help them to think about their piece. For me I am always looking for about 2.5-3 minutes of enjoyable and interesting music that contains a journey through the piece, clear development and a sense of fulfilment. What you want to avoid is music that sounds formulaic. Remember that the chosen style is important, but what is more important is the actual music making. You can write a blues progression fairly quickly…but how could you then develop on this or play around with it. Students need to not be so tied down that they aren’t creative.
Of course some of this is opinion and at the end of the day when we are up against it in the classroom at this time of year getting coursework done we just do what we can. But I feel that every composition can be made better with just a little thought. A piece that has a new title added, some extra dynamic markings and maybe a tempo change in the last section will be all the better for these simple additions. SO don’t fall into the trap of not making students look at small changes.

So there are a few thoughts on Unit 4. please get in touch if you have any questions and I may put up a blog with more detail about styles my students have used in the past that work. Yesterday a boy informed me that he is writing a blues piece of a Piano Trio. Seems like a strong idea, interesting and with a clear structure – Great stuff.

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