WHAT MUSIC CAN TEACH US – (1): Flexibility of assessment (First published on Thursday, 13 August 2009)

Today’s quotations:

“The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers”. Brian Greene, physicist

“Let no one think that flexibility and a predisposition to compromise is a sign of weakness or a sell-out”. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

“I am positive that flexibility is a feminine characteristic”. Emma Bonino, Italian politician

I now want to look at what happens in the Music exam system, and to show how it can point to the answers of many of the criticisms which I have been analysing.

First some facts.

There are two routes for students to follow.

One is based on schools, and leads to GCSE (as an optional subject) and then on to AS and A Levels.

I am sure that it is possible to find large numbers of people who will bemoan the fall in standards in these examinations. Certainly, when I last taught A Level, one could say that the demands of the harmonisation component were considerably less than they were some decades ago. But this is to ignore the wider context of the exam. I would argue that as a musical education, it would be hard to sustain those criticisms. In this the exam reflects the goals I have been calling for, that the school system should primarily be concerned with the education of the whole population. By no means every student who takes an A level (of whatever sort) then chooses to make that subject his/her subject in University, or a career.

I think for the case for the value of GCSE Music is much more overwhelming. I remember interviewing a guitar student who had followed the old system, and saying that I assumed that she already understood chord movements. She denied this vigorously, saying that she had been able to get a good mark simply by the fact that she saw harmony tests as a sort of puzzle, and had no idea at all what the result might mean or sound like. This chimed with my own experience of entering an exam in Music Theory, and being astounded that there was total silence.

When Graham Vulliamy and I wrote “Pop Music in School” we pointed out that Music was one of the least popular school subjects, despite being one of the most important interests of the large majority of students outside school. This in good measure due to the fact that Music lessons were concerned to a large extent with sight singing (a difficult skill) and the lives of the composers. Also “Music” was defined exclusively in “classical” terms,

This is certainly not the case now. The range of the exam both in the aspects of music it covers and its openness to style gives opportunities for students to study and succeed, even when they are not very interested in the wider range of academic work. I remember several contemporaries of my son who were not very able as musicians but got a passable grade which thus recognised their achievement. This came out of a mixture of encouragement by the Music teacher and the possibility of doing a lot of work by focussing on styles (e.g rap) and instruments (e.g. the electric guitar) which appealed to them. The relevance of this to my earlier arguments should be clear.

The second route in musical education is the Grades system. Normally there are eight levels as the basis. To this have been added examinations with a variety of names (Preliminary, Steps etc) which have the aim of grading the progress from total beginner to Grade 1 into smaller steps. In particular this has arisen from recognition of the needs and capabilities of young children, for most of whom the distance to Grade 1(which requires scales, pieces, music reading etc) was intensely depressing and daunting. I have met far too many adults who were put off for life from learning an instrument, which they imagined to be a grinding and soul-deadening process. The division of the learning process into smaller steps fits entirely with my call for a system which makes it possible for the mass of people to gain recognition for their efforts and talents. To my mind it presents a model for education.

Now this may seem at odds with a system where there is rightly increasing criticism that students are over-examined. But I think it is not, because there is an important difference. The Music student takes things in small steps. The relevance of the exams is obvious. Above all, they prepare for them at their own pace.

I appreciate that this could cause massive headaches for the current education system which likes to think of “cohorts”. Students are grouped together and must run at the same pace. This very convenient – but are we talking about convenience or the best interests of our young people ? The system does not exist, because no one has really tried to formulate a different structure, that is tailored more closely to the diversity of talent and motivation between students.

Apart from a more subtle grading at the novice level, a similar process exists post-Grade 8. Instead of the earlier leap to the standard basic professional qualification (Licentiate e.g. LRAM) there are now typically two intermediate stages. Again this gives flexibility. It gives recognition to those who decide that they do not wish or are unable to go so far. It is possible to get a meaningful qualification without the commitment to full professional training.

This means that there might be as many as 14 steps from first interest to full professional status, as compared to the 3-4 tiers in academic subjects. Each step is therefore less awesomely significant.

Today’s moral: Within the spectrum of Music examinations there is a wide range of competences which are tested – you can for example study the Sikh Musical Tradition (LCMM/Thames Valley Board) – and two major streams – one for “broader education” and one for “applied skills”. In the latter progress can be made in small increments, but the more talented can rapidly move to the most advanced levels. The system therefore exhibits how it is possible to cater for a wide range of interests, in a very flexible manner.