A Level Music Exam Musings…..

I sat my A level music appraising exam on Monday June 10th 2024. Firstly thank you for all the lovely well wishing comments on my Facebook post, I really appreciated each and every one. I know I’ve been quiet about it and I’ve held off on posting this as I needed a little time to process it all. So here is the post mortem. Grab a cuppa and have an entertaining read! 😂 

Here is the format of the exam, each section has at least three or four other parts to it:

– Impressionism Q: where you learn and analyze/memorise three scores, two of which you will get asked questions on and have to compare extracts. 

– American Musical Theatre Q: Sondheim and Schwartz. “Usually” you get a question on each one composer and an essay question.

– Aural Q: you have a lead sheet to follow as you listen to the extract and notate the missing bars with rhythm and pitch, then correct another pitch and rhythm error and name a chord.

– Brahms Q: you get asked several questions and have to compare certain sections to each other, talk about compositional techniques, chords/ harmony etc.

– Symphony Q: which could be about anything between 1830-1910. I.e. how composers adapted structure, included programmatic elements, how instruments were developed and how composers used them, which composers you consider the most important etc.

Again just for some context and to show the amount of work involved, you learn three Impressionism scores, several musical theatre shows by Sondheim and Schwartz, in my case I did the Brahms Symphony 1 Movement 4 Q and learned that score, as well as learning about three or four other symphonies. It’s a lot to try and remember, in addition to working on the aural.

So how did it go…. Long story short, IT. WAS. AWFUL. And no I’m not being hard on myself/modest or dramatic. It was the hardest exam I’ve ever done, much harder than anything I ever did in my music degree course! 60 odd pages of revision notes seemed to count for nothing.

Revision must be hard when you break out the industrial strength coffee and have a pen graveyard!

The exam itself is 2 hours 15 minutes long and I was grateful for every second of the extra time I was allowed because of health issues. I answered every question, however I know a vast portion of what I wrote is likely to be incorrect or certainly not what they were after. A couple of guesses were definitely made! Although I feel annoyed and frustrated for my own lacklustre exam performance, I really feel for the poor students who are wanting to go into higher education in music and need good results. At the very least to come out the exam, not feeling like a complete and utter failure which is how I felt!

There has been (up until this year) a sequence in the musical theatre question where they alternate the two composers Sondheim/Schwartz each year. So although I had revised both (it was Sondheim last year), we were expecting Schwartz this year…. but nope, they did a Sondheim essay question again which was a bit of a curve ball. The excerpt they asked questions on was difficult too.

• Impressionism, well….. there was so much to wrap your head around harmonically and melodically with knowing where it was octatonic, whole tone harmonies, pentatonic sections, motifs, find various chords and what similarities and differences are between the three that looking up what two french words meant didn’t even cross my radar. One of the questions was what did “en dehors” mean in the Reflets dans L’eau by Debussy. I made an educated (but incorrect) guess and googled it when I got to the car!

• The aural question was just horrid. It was written in bass clef to start as written for Cello, but changed to treble clef one note before you had to fill in the blanks of pitch/rhythm which for me I found quite difficult. There were 5 whole bars of that to do, 5!!!!! I’ve never had 5 bars to do in past papers! It wasn’t a particularly singable extract so I couldn’t even hazard a guess melodically. How anyone can remember 5 whole bars of rhythm and pitch unless you have perfect pitch is beyond me especially when within that question you also had to name a chord and correct a rhythm and pitch error. I think i may have got 75% of the rhythm correct, but I guess we will see!

• Brahms – dear old Brahms. I “may” have redeemed myself a little here and there again, I may not have! I felt I answered the questions half decently and remembered which sections were which. However at this point, I wasn’t trusting myself so I’ve really no idea.

• The Symphony – was a tough question. Discuss how composers used Harmony and Tonality in symphonies from 1830 -1910. Well. What a nightmare question (for me at least), one I hadn’t anticipated in all honestly. I had looked at programmatic elements, structure, instrumentation, motifs and a few other things, but not specifically harmony and tonality. So although I answered the question, I know it didn’t answer the question fully as I couldn’t remember enough.

I know this was A level and therefore not going to be a walk in the park, but it seemed exceptionally hard. It would seem more logical to split the paper up like they do for other subjects. To split the Brahms and Symphony questions out from the others, it would be so much better for the students and give them a fighting chance of not feeling a complete failure at the end of the exam! So there we go, its done and I cant do anything about it. I just hope that my three A grades from last year, and my composition and performance from this year will drag my grade up to something half decent! We await results day in August!

Lynsey x

Lynsey Blair

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