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GCSE Music: Setting Students up for Success in Free Composing

GCSE Music: Setting Students up for Success in Free Composing

The distinction between the GCSE Music set brief and free compositions across all courses is a really helpful element of the 9-1 GCSEs.

Whilst the concept of free composing opens up the floodgates for unique interpretations and requires a broad knowledge base from the class teacher, the opportunity for students to demonstrate their creativity and introduce genres and sounds of interest to them, is golden.

This is fast becoming one of my favourite elements of teaching on the GCSE course.

Here are a few tips on setting your students up for success in free composing:

Setting up for composing

Create the opportunity for experimentation with ideas. It might be that you use some of your year 10 teaching time for this (or year 1 of your course), or that you give time to this before you begin the official writing time.

Encourage students to develop a composers’ scrapbook of ideas. To build confidence, students should get used to hearing what they like and what they like less. Ideas that don’t make the cut, might be reintroduced later or in a second or third composition. The idea of encouraging students to start over again to rework their ideas is something that happens in industry.

‘Even now, I still have to re-do something if it doesn’t work for someone else in the team. I still have to chuck stuff out and start it again. It’s just something that goes on [throughout] your whole professional career!’

Howard Goodall, British composer (Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, Red Dwarf). Full interview available via Every Copy Counts.

Map out the time you expect your students will need, the time you need to cover both compositions, planning and writing time and factor in time to mop up. There will always be students who need catch-up time at the end of the process and all students need editing time to fine-tune their composition.

Teach from a theoretical perspective

There are some key components to building a composition. It’s imperative that you give time to the development of knowledge and skill for each element. Let’s take the use of chords as an example. During key stage 3 music (ages 11 – 14), students will have likely played through music using chords I, IV and V. You may have introduced ii and vi and you may have touched on extended chords, particularly with your musicians who have prior musical experience. Perhaps you’ve used the 12-bar blues or western pop songs as a means of delivering this.

Students may not have the full knowledge of how to build an effective chord sequence or how to select chords that typically work well together from a theoretical perspective, but perhaps they have used samples in a DAW like GarageBand, Cubase or Charanga to structure a series of chord loops together.

When it comes to GCSE composing, it’s great to begin with what students currently know. Assume that there are gaps in knowledge and revisit some of the prior learning. You’ll may have students you haven’t taught before or those whose excitement and interest has piqued with the start of the new course and are now ready to learn.

During the composing process

Sticking with the example of chords, I like to begin with a teaching task that provides a clear framework for the use of chords, such as developing adding a chord sequence to the continuo line (bass line) in Pachelbel’s canon. It’s a familiar tune that most of your students will have heard before as it’s used so frequently in media such as film and pop music, and is repetitive so gives the opportunity to focus on cycles of sound.

Can you introduce modulation? Bringing in a new set of chords.

Can you develop the chord sequence by changing the order of the chords?

Can you invert the chords to get used to different sounds and voicing?

You could take a similar approach with any of the building blocks of music.

The role of instrumental teaching staff

Can students have teachers play in a line they have composed? This can help with double checking instrument ranges and ensuring that writing is idiomatic.

Often, free composing is influenced by the work young people have been doing with their instrumental teachers. Ensure your instrumental teaching team have awareness and understanding of composing requirements and mark schemes to best support your students on their journey.

Editing and final tweaks

Editing should be ongoing. Encourage students to edit as they work and ensure you’re checking in with their creative ideas at regular intervals! There will inevitably be changes needed at the end of the process, especially with automation (volume changes), which I think are best left to the latter stages of composing with technology. But in general, editing needs to become a part of the overall composing process.

Benefits of working on free composition

  • Encourages creativity and individual style

  • Encourages independent thinking, curiosity & problem solving

  • Teachers have the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of musical genres and learn something new from students

If you would like to access more tips for tackling the free composition in GCSE Music, look out for blogs coming out during the rest of this month on The Creative Educator website! It would be great to support you or your team of music teachers directly. Use the contact form on the website to get in touch and we can devise a bespoke training session to build skills in this area.



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