Jane Werry writes:
I am worried about harmony. Actually about the teaching of harmony, and the fact that with every new A level spec the requirements for completing harmony exercises diminish further, to the point that with the 2016 specifications, you have to dig around to find it. If I stick with OCR, my A level students will only be able to submit harmony exercises if they do the option with the smaller proportion of performance.
The board’s response to this would probably be that if the Baroque religious music area of study is chosen, students will need to do Bach chorales in order fully to understand the music in question. How many teachers, though, would really get students to do harmony exercises if this is not actually a requirement for the exam?
It has long been possible to do A level music without doing Bach chorales. There have been many other options for technical exercises, including pop song harmonisation and minimalism as well as the more traditional string quartets and renaissance counterpoint. I know that minimalism, in particular, has been a very popular option. Perhaps the candidates who do Bach chorales are the ones who have teachers like me, who a) learned to do Bach chorales themselves, and b) believe it is good for their students – not only good, but immensely satisfying, illuminating, and (dare I say it) fun.
Not having any insider information on the motives or processes of either Ofqual or the exam boards, I do not know why technical exercises have become less and less of a feature of A level syllabuses over the years. My suspicion – and it is only a suspicion – is that they have been sidelined because they are perceived to be hard, and/or that the majority of candidates did badly in this area, so the boards have given in to making more of a feature of those aspects of the course in which students tend to do well. I suspect that this is also why dictation features very little in recent specifications (if you’re as old as me, you’ll remember the terrifying rigour of the Inter-Board Test of Aural Perception – a 3-hour behemoth of dictation in all its glory).
In my view, Ofqual should have insisted on technical exercises being compulsory in A level music, if their aim was to make the qualification more ‘rigorous’. I believe from my own experience that learning the ‘rules’ of Western tonal harmony is an essential part of becoming a good musician.
But perhaps I am a dinosaur. Someone who did their own A levels, and an intensely academic music degree, many years ago. Have things moved on? Do we still need to study traditional harmony?
There has been a whole smorgasbord of discussion about what it means to be a musician, much of which has focussed on what we do at KS3. I would like to divert attention to KS5, and ask the following:
- Do you feel that learning the principles of western tonal harmony is an essential part of studying music at advanced level?
- Would you go out of your way to teach harmony to A level students if it is not a compulsory part of the syllabus?
- At what point do you start thinking about the way that harmony works with your students? At A level? GCSE? KS3?
- Is creativity more important than ‘the rules’?
Jane Werry Director of Music/SLE, Hayes School, Bromley