Composing & Arranging

Music theory is a passion of mine. As a composer as well as a music teacher, I realise that teaching music theory provides the building blocks of a more complete musician. Put simply, “knowledge is power.”

So it was with great interest that I have noticed that the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), who lead the way in music examinations in the world, was having a major overhaul in the way they test music theory, starting from January 2018.

Why the change? What will be different? Are there any resources to help with the change?

Why the change

A need to modernise their exams and react to feedback from teachers and students has brought on these recent changes. Looking at the new specimen papers, you get a feeling that the tests are less ambiguous than in times past.

Differences

The changes will only affect grades 1-5 at the moment. The rhythm-writing in early grades is being replaced. This used to provide a nice little introduction to the basics of composing but I would imagine that the quality of preparation for this question would have varied greatly from teacher to teacher depending on their own skills or imagination. At the grade 4, there used to be the option of the word-setting question. That has now been axed as well as the option of writing a complete melody at grade 5. How will students cope with the transition into grade 6-8 where composing is a large portion of the assessment? I think that step will be harder for candidates from now on. I have long thought that, although the exams for grade 6-8 are excellent, the resources and support material for these higher grades are appalling and desperately need revamping by the ABRSM. But that’s a subject of another blog.

Gone are the SATB open and short score converting question which was extremely time-consuming. I really like the use of multiple choice questions for the meaning of performance directions. Generally, the exam looks a lot more inviting, modern, clean which is very welcome.

Resources

At the start of 2019, the old exams papers for 2018 will be posted as a preparation booklet but that is quite some time away. In the meantime, the ABRSM has published on their website two sets of sample exam papers as a free download.

I really like a free quiz page that you can share with students to give them practice with the new multiple choice question. That will continue to be a very useful resource do-doubt.

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Isn’t it more work to put together duets and ensembles?

Maybe. But sooooo worth it! Check it out…

  • Group playing is a team sport. Participants must work together—listen to one another. They must be able to start together and end together. They lean on each other’s strengths in order to pull off a good performance. They bolster each other’s courage and support each other.
  • It is in duet and ensemble playing that musicians learn the importance of balance (one part should not dominate the others). A good life lesson!
  • As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
  • A group musical experience transcends culture, age, gender, language and economic/social barriers. Depending on the arrangement, the musicians needn’t even be on the same technical level.
  • If there’s a good fit of musicians, it becomes a safe place for them to express themselves emotionally, to make mistakes yet still be accepted, appreciated and cheered on. It’s a great way to overcome the fear of performance. There is safety in groups!
  • In rehearsing duets and ensembles, students will be forced to confront their rhythm and work at it.
  • As a soloist, a performer chooses his/her own interpretation. As part of an ensemble, individuals sacrifice their own ideas to benefit the group. It’s an investment made toward excellence. And that takes any sting out of playing a part other than the lead.

Playing in a small group can become a life experience, not simply something done for a recital since opportunities to perform abound. Over students’ lives, there will be town festivals, community events, holiday performances and church services or functions, to name a few. Get ’em started young!

Here are a few ideas just to get you going.

Piano Ensembles

  • Lists of fun piano duets and trios compiled by Wendy Stevens at Compose Create.
  • A simple search on the internet will turn up dozens of piano duet and trio books.

Vocal Ensembles and Rounds

  • “Coffee Break” from the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
  • Taco Bell Canon (even though this is pre-recorded by one person, Jul3ia, I included it because it was in tune…).
  • Another recording of Taco Bell Canon (in my humble opinion, the next best), features 7 young men.
  • Here’s an easy-to-pick-up round, taught on youtube using “Dynamite”
  • “Dona Nobis Pacem” is a well-known 3-part round. Here are words I have my beginning students use:

Part 1. Quarter notes__ Quarter rests__ Give them each one beat.

If you should break them both in half, they turn into eighths.

Part 2. Three___ beats____ dot—ted half has them.

Three___ beats___ hold on just for three.

Part 3. Three____ beats___ dot-ted-half and then three eighth notes.

Wait__  wait__  Now you start a–gain. (the words dotted half are themselves 8th notes)

Other Duets and Ensembles to Consider

  • Add siblings, parents or grandparents as accompanists or on duet parts.
  • Create an ensemble of piano, guitar, and rhythm—maybe vocals, too!
  • Drum circles can be fun.
  • Create an ensemble of whatever instruments students can play. Have they learned recorder in school? Let them show off their skills here. If they know five notes on their band instruments they should be able to work into a piece you arrange for them.
  • Take simple two or three part rounds and have students play each part on piano or other instruments.
  • Let the audience be part of an ensemble with a call and response led by students. Or let all students participate.
  • Another way to let the audience be part of the ensemble is with Wendy Stevens’ Rhythm Cups.

I hope you’re as excited as I am to have a recital of Dynamic Duets and Excellent Ensembles! I thank my sister, Vicky Dresser, for sharing five of her magical music recital ideas. You can read about the other four here:

Really Rad Rock and Roll Recital 

Mickey Mouse Club Musical Review

Family Folk Song Celebration

Make it More than a Recital!

What are your favorite recitals? We’d love to hear! And be sure to post photos on your Music Teachers Helper website. 🙂

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When I was a kid, I loved buying expensive pads of manuscript paper. Trouble was, I didn’t quite know what to do with them!

Now, thirty-something years on, I’m always reaching for some manuscript paper to demonstrate to my students, scribble down an idea or to give to my pupils so that they can transcribe their latest creation. [···]

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