How can music teachers help the GCSE music student excel in the performance exam?

I am currently teaching a wonderful student the flute who is in Year 11 and studying GCSE music. We were recently having a conversation about the course requirements and how she felt it was going. Some of her concerns took me back to teaching GCSE and all the good advice I would give my students and my team of instrumental teachers.

So here are a few top tips on how to help your GCSE Music Student.

Performance Exam – Solo

It’s always good to read up on the specific requirements and mark scheme of the examboard that the student is studying. It will always tell you the minimum and maximum time length requirements for the recording and the expectations in terms of the performance level. There is Edexcel, AQA, IGCE (Cambridge) and WJEC GCSE music courses. The BTec and MYP courses have different requirements to the GCSE course. All syllabuses can be found easily on the internet. Just make sure you look at the right examination year.

How do talented music students potentially lose marks?

The biggest mistake made for the solo performance is a student being advised to learn the hardest piece for the final recording. Over and over, I would recommend to students and their instrumental teacher that they need to play their best piece not the hardest.

The reason why playing their hardest piece is a mistake is that if a student is stumbling over the basic rhythms and pitches of the piece then they can’t obtain the highest marks for the accuracy area of the mark scheme and this will generally cause the other areas of the mark scheme to be marked down too (interpretation and expression). I have seen advanced level music students make this mistake and lose marks.

Let’s think about it. If you are playing a piece under stressful conditions and you are still focusing on playing the correct pitches and rhythms then you aren’t going to play confidently, musically or accurately. The recording would not demonstrate a musical performance and sadly an able player would then lose marks unnecessarily.

What should we do instead?

Firstly, help the student find a piece that is in the time frame requirement for the course. Ensure that they can play the selected piece almost perfectly and that within the piece it has an opportunity for the student to demonstrate control of their instrument and perform with music expression and attention to detail of the score. Although the exam boards are flexible about types of notated scores, the more accurate the score provided, the easier it is for the teacher and the exam board moderator to mark the recording. If you want to add tempo, dynamics and phrasing on to the score if it is missing then that is fine.

Some instruments have more trouble than others when it comes to finding good scores – in my teaching experience this is students who learn drums, guitars and voice. This is where looking at materials from practical examboards is a great source – ABRSM, Trinity, Rock School, etc. Tab notation is fine – just ensure that, where appropriate, some musical elements are included on the part (dynamics, articulation, tempo, etc). What I particularly like about the Rock School syllabus is that it comes with pre-made backing tracks which really does help the student play in time and create a more accurate performance. Also some of the pieces match with other instruments, so a guitarist can learn the same piece as a bass player and drummer and then perform it for their ensemble.

Accompanied or not accompanied?

Honestly, in my experience accompanied solos are the best way forward. Students perform more confidently and have the safety net of staying in time with the accompanist. This means that they gain a better mark for keeping to a steady tempo marking. If the piece doesn’t have a piano accompaniment then a backing track can be used. Always check the syllabus requirements before starting a piece with your student. If you don’t play the piano well, then spend some of the budget on hiring an accompanist to practice and perform with your students. I promise it is a worthwhile investment and takes away a lot of stress for you.

Ensemble performance

This is the area of the performance exam that students lose marks unnecessarily in. Most students focus on the solo piece and forget that the ensemble piece needs to be practiced. It’s not just learning their part that is important, but students are marked on how well they blend their part with the other ensemble members. This is easy to achieve if a student takes part in a weekly group but much harder to master if they don’t.

How can you help?

Again, check the specific requirements for ensemble performance in the syllabus before starting. In my experience, try to find other students of a similar standard to practice with and make sure the student being assessed has a separate part that it isn’t being doubled – this way they will gain higher grades.

Students can perform a duet, trio or in a chamber group. If singing, why not use a choir piece and assign one person to a part. Pick the best singers from choir to help out and ensure there is no doubling of the student who is being assessed. If your candidate is a singer and they want to perform a whole song then consider turning it in to a band performance with bass, drums, guitar, or piano. Be careful the song doesn’t become just a solo vocal part accompanied by piano as this is exactly the same as a solo and candidates have been marked down in the past for this. If one of your students plays the piano accompaniment then the pianist can be assessed for ensemble skills but generally not the vocal or instrumental soloist.

If your student plays in an orchestra or band then you can record the piece but you will have to ensure no one is doubling the part. So, if you have 3 clarinet players playing part 2 then remove the other two for the recording. Again, you might want to just take the best players on each part and record it. This will also reduce the technical challenges of recording the work and balancing the sound.

A teacher can be part of the ensemble but just be careful that the student is encouraged to lead the group / ensemble rather than the teacher. The candidate is meant to be demonstrating that they understand the skills of playing in an ensemble which is different to playing a solo.

The most important way we can help our students gain the highest marks is to ensure that they are clear what their ensemble is and have the opportunity to practice it frequently and not just a few days before the final recording.

How to schedule practical work and assessment?

I know that I have said this already, but first start by checking the requirements for the exam board. They do get updated and requirements change so it is important that you know what the end goal is for your student and how you can help.

I liked to dedicate 30% of my time throughout Year 10 and Year 11 to developing performing skills and giving students practice time. I did this for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it gave the students a dedicated time to fit in some form of practice. Many of my students were very busy doing school work and a whole host of clubs and sports after school, so of course the weekly music practice was what got missed off the list.

By including practice into my curriculum time, I could monitor their progress, repertoire and musical development over a course of time. I could give advice and help with getting appropriate pieces for their standard. Although we recommend that students should be having one-to-one instrumental lessons, in reality that doesn’t always happen. By including practical work into your curriculum it allows you to help and monitor those who for whatever reason are not having individual lessons still be successful and achieve.

I try to create ensemble opportunities within the classroom as much as I can and encourage students to use their instruments wherever possible. The more they play the quicker they progress and they inspire each other too.

I liked to record students throughout the course so that they got used to performing in front of their peers and the dreaded recording equipment. There is something definitely intimidating about that red record button! Let’s be honest, It gets us all nervous, regardless of age and ability. Recording students and grading also gives them a bench mark of their musical journey and an opportunity to hear what worked and what they need to practice next.

In the final year, I always separate the solo and ensemble recordings out. Students have the dates from the start of Year 11. I try to get the solo recorded as quickly as possible. I then would leave a few weeks and record the ensemble. This way students have a chance to focus on polishing up each one ready for recording. So maybe record the solo end of Jan or at the latest by Feb half term and the ensemble by mid March. Sometimes I also do a GCSE recital evening and record students. I have found that they perform much better in front of an audience and take the event more seriously. I ensure that I do this in January so that if they make any significant mistakes I have time to do another recording with the student in a class lesson.

I also spread out the final submissions of compositions so that they are not all due at the same time. This takes the pressure off for the students as we always have to remember that they have lots of coursework from other subjects. My goal is always to have all final coursework completed before Easter holidays, including paperwork signed by the candidates, so that I have time to mark it and get it ready to send off to the examboard. Then, I can focus with the students solely on the listening paper for the remaining weeks of the school year.

I hope you find this helpful and if you did please like the page or drop me a message.

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