Do you have a pulse?

I was just reading and commenting on a Facebook post about A-Level Music entry requirements and someone cleverly put –

“If they have a pulse I will let them take A-Level music”.

Funny, I laughed.

But it got me thinking.

We need as many students as we can get, but we also have the battle to get results and reach targets. But what should our approach be to this problem?

I must say that every year I have a wide and diverse range of abilities at Advanced level. I have students who are more “classical” and students who are more “rock/pop”. Some students can compose to a high level and some haven’t even taken Grade 5 theory.

I don’t think there is a “right way” of approaching this but I do think that there are a number of things that we should consider before we say YES or NO to a student.

I think in the first instance we should say YES. We should ensure that students know that if they really want to take A-Level music then they can. But this yes must come with a condition – they must commit to continue to play their instrument, have lessons and they must build upon their current situation. It doesn’t matter what stage a student is at, if they keep working then who knows what they can achieve in the future. I often find that just being in the sixth form changes a student and their entire approach to their studies.

It is also important that we don’t compare every student to our very best student. In the world of music if we all looked at Lang Lang or Yo Yo Ma as a way of judging our own abilities then we would give up. If we just look at our Grade 8 student who can do Bach Chorales in their sleep, then we may rule out students who may well be more of a C grade, but can still take (and should take) A-Level Music.

So a dialogue is needed, but I believe that this must build on the fundamental principle that yes, if you have a pulse, then you can take music for A-Level.

I think we also need to consider their target grade if we are going to be truly open and accepting of all students. If a student is going to get D grades across the board then why shouldn’t they get one of them in music? Is that a wrong approach? I mean, in many ways I believe schools need to be accepting of all abilities. But your school may be different I guess. I would say that once on the course you never know what will happen, but initially it is good to consider their target grade.

Don’t get me wrong though, I have said NO before. I remember chatting to a student with his parents and the conversation was along the lines of:

“He is wanting to do medicine at University, can you guarantee him an A grade?”

“No, I can’t I am afraid and in my professional opinion right now, I am not sure he can get a A in music”

I hated saying it, but I had to be honest and not give myself a hard time two years down the line. But what I do is always consider things on a case by case basis and go from there. I like to really chat to students and make sure that they know what they are letting themselves in for.

I think the other thing to consider with A-Level music is that it does rely on a fundamental determination to improve and succeed – like most A-Levels I guess. And so I also look for that in a student and I put my belief in them where possible.

Here are a few things to look for and consider:

  1. Do they play an instrument/sing regularly, properly and seriously.
  2. Do they mind performing in front of others – the recital is something they need to consider.
  3. Do they appreciate a wide range of musical styles & composers?
  4. Do they enjoy composing?
  5. Do they have a growth mindset, one that won’t let them stop – NOT YET anyway!
  6. What is there target grade?
  7. What grade are they on their instrument/voice?
  8. Was GCSE a positive experience for them or would a fresh start be just what they need?
  9. Can they read music enough to tackle the Chorale/Compositional exercises?
  10. If they can’t read music well in Year 11 are they prepared to learn by the start of Year 12.
  11. And of course, do they have a pulse!

It is so hard in the current climate to turn down students, but it is also important that we get it right for them. For some students taking A-Level music will be just right for them when considered in the bigger picture of their other A-Levels. But of course it isn’t right for everyone and as teachers we just need to inform and inspire students and then hope that they do their bit. There is no right answer and so have the conversions and go with your gut! You never know what will happen, they may surprise you!


  1. Yes! I totally agree. I currently have 11 doing A-Level Music, and several of them are going to be strong C grades, having reached Grade 6-7 standard in performance by the end of Year 13. This is a really decent standard and we shouldn’t forget that these kids have probably made far more significant progress in the last two years than the starry Grade 8+ students! It angers me somewhat that Grade 7 is seen as ‘standard’ now, as it means students who start an instrument in Year 7 or 8 are unlikely to be advanced enough to consider AL Music in the future.
    But do you know – these kids have got so much out of studying A-Level Music, not least the confidence to ‘give it a go’! It’s the C-grade kids who have been the most committed in ensembles, the most enthusiastic Music Prefects and been the best role models for younger students.

    1. Totally agree. Keep doing what you are doing and keep putting the students first. It is so hard when the benchmarks are so high. But I watch students go from nothing at age 13 to grade 5 by age 17 and I am so proud of them.

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