Creative Approach Teaching

And improvisation in UK graded music exams
by Audrey Podmore

Can a focus on creative music and preparation for music exams happily co-exist in instrumental teaching? It’s an uneasy relationship and one about which I have very mixed feelings. Examining boards do seem to want to make it possible, though, and in this article I will identify syllabuses, and other publications, aimed at supporting this dual approach. In the real world, in which many pupils only ever study music that is part of an exam syllabus, time for improvisation may only be available within an examination framework.

I believe that the ‘creative approach’ consists of more than just allocating time to improvisation and composition; it influences teaching and performing styles, repertoire selection, assessment criteria and even the teacher’s personal view of what constitutes music. However, since improvisation and composition are of more general interest, I will restrict myself to discussing these aspects in the present article.

Since the introduction of National Curriculum requirements, many instrumental teachers have felt under pressure, from pupils and schools, to make improvisation and, to a lesser extent, composition part of the instrumental lesson. To facilitate their incorporation into instrumental tuition, several examining boards have introduced creative options in graded examination syllabuses. This usually means a jazz syllabus, since there is a great dearth of musicians and compositions sympathetic to classical improvisation at an elementary level. (This is why, in its earliest publications, The Full Pitcher has concentrated on more classical repertoire.) Even without these new demands, though, it is often extremely difficult to cover all aspects of a syllabus. The vast majority of pupils have only a 20-30 minute lesson, which must often include time for instrumental assembly and maintenance.

I must be one of very few teachers (if not the only one), who has attempted to prepare pupils for the creative options in graded examinations of each of the three main UK boards. I say attempted because, with one exception, pupils decided that, although they had enjoyed working on the syllabus, they didn’t wish to take the exam. Usually, this was because they could see that the focus on preparation for this event would, in some respects, hold them back, hindering them from exploring new avenues. I think it is unsurprising that there should be a change in their priorities because when one becomes absorbed in creative activity, the approval of others and extra-musical motivating factors become less relevant.

Once they have reached an appropriate stage, the decision to prepare for an exam always rests with the pupil, as far as I am concerned: I have no need or desire to enter them. No one takes an exam for musical reasons! When their friends are bandying certificates around, though, it seems only fair to tell them the options open to them and to offer to prepare them, according to the syllabus of their choice. If they’re going to do an exam, I’m happier if it’s one that allows us to spend some time on creative work. I do find it rather bizarre, though, to examine an improvisation!

I believe that improvisation is about exploring and communicating ideas - if we have nothing to say we should keep quiet! And if we do have something to say we want the listener to respond to it, to be part of ‘the buzz’, not to sit assessing our grammar and vocabulary! Examining improvisation, or composition, can have an inhibiting effect on musical expression: as the exam approaches, the temptation is to ‘talk clever’ or to take refuge in familiar clichés. Why not leave this sort of thing to computers, which are much better at it?

I'm sure the musicians who have drawn up ‘creative option’ syllabuses are, by and large, eager to promote genuine creative musical activity and that they are conscious of the anomaly in the exam situation. I get the impression that they hope there will be a far bigger take-up of the ideas presented in their syllabus and its support materials than is reflected in the number of candidates taking the exams. This seems to be exemplified in the Associated Board’s decision to call their books of exam pieces "Clarinet Level/Grade One Tunes", etc..

So what are the options offered by the three main examining boards? As the senior graded music examiners, first mention should go Trinity College London, examining board for Trinity College of Music. Trinity has been offering music exams since 1877 The college also has a long history of support for creative approach music teaching, both through innovative teaching in its Junior Department and through courses provided /accredited for practising teachers. Of all the boards, they have the most flexible approach to candidate choices.

According to their website, "Each Trinity exam has a wide range of options that allows each candidate to perform to their full potential. This includes the option to take an improvisation test rather than traditional aural tests, to play a scale study rather than traditional scales or to offer a candidate's own composition in place of one of the syllabus pieces".

Trinity’s requirements for an ‘own composition’ piece have had a welcome revision, in the current syllabus, giving still further scope to individual imagination. It’s a pity, though, that there isn’t an option to sight-read the opening of the ‘Extemporization’ test. To my mind, it's hardly true that there is an improvisation option to replace traditional aural tests because, in the early grades, identifying the notes of the opening makes it more like a very difficult aural test. Even pupils who play lots of familiar music ‘by ear’ are put off by the need to play four bars, in this way, under exam conditions. We have to remember that anxiety has a negative effect on memory and grasp of new material. Lots of examples for extemporization/improvisation will be found in TLC’s publications, ‘Aural Awareness and Extemporization’, Books One & Two and ‘From Extemporization to Improvisation’. These are interesting materials to support aural development and melodic improvisation, away from the pressures of the examination room.

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) has long offered graded exams in ‘Practical Musicianship’. The examination is a demanding package of tests, such that I suspect entry must be very much a minority affair - I can’t imagine having time to prepare anyone for it, unless they were an exceptionally quick pupil. The support materials, though, three books in the "Musicianship in Practice " series are a great source to dip into in the instrumental lesson. Unique, as far as I know, in grade exams are the ‘Free improvisation on a given, motif, interval or texture’ and ‘Improvisation on a given poem.’

Four years ago, the Associated Board introduced ‘Jazz Piano’ examinations, grades 1-5. These are supported by an excellent range of publications, which I have found useful in a variety of teaching situations. There is a substantial manual, "Jazz Piano From Scratch, complete with CD to ease the way in for teachers unfamiliar with Jazz idioms. There is a book of pieces for each grade. Each book contains fifteen pieces - five ‘Blues’, five ‘Standards’ and five ‘Contemporary’ tunes. Candidates are required to play an improvised solo in the course of each piece and various scale fragments are suggested as the basis for these, though candidates are free to disregard them. There is also a book of "Quick Studies". The candidate has to sight read an opening idea, or play it ‘by ear’, and go on to create an answering phrase.

Last year, Associated Board Jazz offerings were extended to embrace clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet and trombone. Again, there is a superb range of publications, which will provide valuable support for creative music-making in all sorts of situations.

The third of our trio of boards is the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Guildhall candidates have the option of doing ‘Initiative Tests’ in place of the usual aural tests. The former include creating a melody from a given rhythm and completing a given melodic opening, which must first be read at sight.

Guildhall offers graded jazz examinations in flute, clarinet & saxophone, grades 1-5. Flute is quite a recent addition but the clarinet and saxophone exams have been running for some years. There is an improvisation requirement apart from any solos in the chosen repertoire and this is supported by an excellent book and CD, ‘Progressive Guide to Melodic Jazz Improvisation’. The improvisations are based on selected scales from the appropriate grade. The candidate must select one of three ‘modules’. The CD, which can be used in the examination room, contains backing tracks and examples of solos. This is a lovely free approach to melodic improvisation and it is also a fun way for pupils to practise their scales.

The ABRSM and Guildhall Jazz syllabuses make available resources appropriate to the musicianship and technique of the early grades. Formerly, there were lots of books on jazz improvisation, purporting to be for beginners, but they progressed too quickly and presumed familiarity with the jazz idiom. They were for people who had already acquired many instrumental and musical skills.

Hopefully, my pupils will go on declining opportunities to enter for exams but will also continue exploring all the good stuff put out by the boards (and The Full Pitcher Music Resources!) and having lots of fun, as they grow in musicianship!

© Audrey Podmore, 2004