Written by Matt Allen, Former Head of Music, Chessington Community College.
Edexcel, AQA and OCR – Exam Specifications from 2016
Let’s be clear from the start – these are not textbooks. They are much, much more than that.
These three books embody the concept of the Study Guide in every way. They lead both the teacher and the student through the application of the aims and objectives set by the Exam Specifications. In other words, these books are designed to guide you through every requirement of the courses they are written for; specifying what is required and suggesting ways in which to achieve those goals. Advice and examples abound in performing, composing, compositional techniques, listening skills and musical analysis. As such these books are invaluable tools. 21st century tools too, as all the books have web links to even more content.
All three books begin by outlining the qualification content and any options presented by the exam board. Then, in unique ways, they cover the content for Performing, Composing, specific compositional Techniques, Listening exam techniques and the bulk of all three books’ contents – Musical Analysis of set and/or recommended musical works. From this year onward, the full A level will be dealt with alongside the shorter AS level course.
In all three cases there are some overlaps in both coursework and examination requirements. The differences for each course are very clearly labelled throughout all three books. It does make for a bigger book but going through the content they all appear to be just as detailed and thorough as the former single exam books were, if not even more detailed. Having taught three different AS/A2 specifications, I found myself reading through constantly thinking – “how useful!” and “I wish they’d had this in the last book!” and “that’s just what I’d need!”
The focus of all three books is to give students the advice they need to get them thinking about the assessment requirements. I was particularly impressed that the authors didn’t just “teach to take the test”; all three discuss the “why” of performing and what it might mean to performer and audience. So, whilst there is a careful work through of the exam targets; there are also plenty of comments that remind the reader of what lifts the performer/performance from good to sublime. It also struck me that each exam board has a rather different perspective when it comes performing; all give the candidate choices of solo and/or ensemble work. Edexcel adds improvisation; OCR adds accompanying another performer; and both AQA and OCR offer a Music Technology realisation.
The sections on Composing are extremely impressive. The AS/A levels demand a lot more out of the composer than was acceptable for GCSE and these books do a great job of both raising expectations and explaining them. The practical guidance in all three is absolutely outstanding. Ideas and exercises for set brief work, free composition, and composing within an Area of Study are also included where appropriate. The content is so good you would be able to use any of the books as a sequential way to develop composition skills. Considering the paucity of really top quality composition texts applicable to these exams; the Composing sections alone make these books a must have for any AS/A level course.
One of the regular topics amongst AS/A level teachers on social media is the matter of the “Four-part Harmonisation” or “Bach Chorale” exercise. Both the Edexcel and AQA books cover this topic comprehensively. In order to match the three OCR areas of “Pitch organisation”, “Rhythms and metre”, and “Textures”, the book breaks it down into excellent “Technical Exercises”. The Edexcel book also has an excellent section on Serial Technique. Careful detail and lots of practical ideas and guidance is demonstrated in all of the books. They provide examples and samples with commentary and analysis; showing the students what they need to do and suggesting ways of doing so. Although not designed as a textbook, it is easy to use and leads the learner practically with help along the way.
The skills required for success in the listening exams are clearly identified in all three books. The same basic objectives are met in different ways by the exam boards, so content is slightly varied to match. None of the books contain listening skill questions, but I would tend to use software like Auralia and Musition for AS/A level skill development anyway. The AQA book has an excellent section called “How to write about music”; identifying what things you might need to talk about and how to clearly explain what you mean when describing music. There is also a separate “How to Listen to music” section in the AQA book. Edexcel includes a similar “Appraising” section and OCR’s is titled, “Exam preparation”.
Analysis / Set Works
This is the biggest section in all of the books. Whether there are specified pieces to learn about, areas of study, or recommend listening; each book covers each exam content to the max. Thorough analysis is included in the detail required for AS/A level. I was really impressed by the clarity of the layouts and the quality of the information contained. Along with that, there are example questions with the answers at the back of the book too. The options and compulsory pieces/areas for study are also clearly labelled. I really liked the further listening suggestions too. These encourage students to grow beyond the parameters of the exam specification on their journey to musicianship.
If you teach AS or A level music, you need to buy at least one of these books, possibly even two! The content is of a very high standard throughout; I believe these books could very easily become the foundation of high quality AS/A level subject delivery and learning. You can turn to a Study Guide for every part of the course. Yes, you will still need exam board materials such as the Edexcel Anthology and scores for AQA & OCR pieces. But the Study Guides will help your students develop and practice the skills and knowledge they need in a user friendly, accessible and practical way. I’ve always used a Rhinegold Education Study Guide to support AS/A2 teaching and I’m very pleased to see the high quality and superb tradition is going strong in the form of these three volumes.