GCSE Composition – Composer Matthew Kaner’s advice for students

monochrome profile photo of composer matthew kaner

Matthew Kaner shares his thoughts on how GCSE composition is taught and whether music departments should approach it differently

Helen Tierney
by Helen Tierney
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For many music teachers, GCSE and A level composition coursework is the most challenging aspect of their teaching. Students likewise consistently find composition modules stressful to complete.

The way the topic is typically presented in various music syllabi for GCSE and A level has drawn criticism for imprecise wording, the weighting in marking criteria, and the quality and relevance of set composition briefs. What should be a process of discovery and delight in the musical imagination can often lose its charm and purpose – not least due to the pressures on all concerned relating to deadlines and target grades.

Teach Secondary talked to composer Matthew Kaner about his route into composing for a living, and what advice he would offer for any students struggling with the demands of GCSE and A Level composition.

Kaner is an award-winning composer, as well as a Professor of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His past works include a collaboration with the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, which saw Kaner’s setting of the poem Pearl performed during the 2022 Proms season. His music has garnered critical acclaim both in the UK and internationally, and his debut album, Chamber Music, was released in November 2022.

Educational value

Did you start composing early on in your school days?
I wrote a few pieces when I was at primary school! I’m not sure I really knew I was composing – just having fun at the piano, really. I wrote them by ear, and wouldn’t have known how to notate them at that point.

There was a very inspiring choir mistress who ran my local church choir, which I sang in as a treble. I was fascinated by her ability to sight-transpose, improvise and compose; seeing her at work made me want to try writing music myself.

What help and support were you given in composition whilst at secondary school?
I only became more serious about composition when I began studying for my GCSEs. I was a terrible violinist, but my head of music seemed to notice that I wrote more interesting music. It wasn’t until I got to A level that we actually sat down together and talked through some of my pieces – but even then, it was very ‘light touch’.

The first one-to-one composition lesson I really had was in my final year at university. Though I can still remember how an ensemble came into our secondary school and showed us how to use some techniques found in the music of Shostakovich and Bartok.

How restrictive do you think the composition modules are at GCSE and A level music?
I teach an undergraduate module at the Guildhall that prepares students for teaching composition, so we look quite closely at the GCSE and A level syllabuses. To be truthful, we often laugh at the criteria, sample papers and ‘commissions’.

The requirements can be quite far-fetched and restrictive, and it seems that rather than emphasising the step-by-step acquisition of skills, exams focus on the students achieving an end product that’s completely unrealistic for that stage in their creative and musical development.

I see it when students apply for the degree course – huge orchestral scores for travel agency adverts was something we had a lot of one year. It takes years to learn how to orchestrate, and is a travel agency advert really that inspiring a task for an aspiring young composer? What’s the educational value of that kind of task?

Eclectic mindset

Are there any life experiences, or aspects of your teenage years, that you draw on in your music now, or which have particularly inspired you?
Yes, many. My aunt is a cellist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and I often got to see her perform and rehearse, including lots of new music, throughout my teenage years.

I also took a lot of inspiration from jazz musicians around that time, and attended some incredible performances by artists like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock at the Barbican during my late teens, which left a very strong impression on me.

In the early 2000s, the BBC Proms season was still widely televised, and I vividly recall watching long interview segments with composers as eminent as Mark Anthony Turnage, Oliver Knussen and Helen Grime on BBC4. Steve Martland was a regular guest in the BBC TV box too, and would often comment really thoughtfully about any new works being performed. That made me realise how composition was a viable career path and something I might at least try to aspire to.

Straight out of school I was also very fortunate to do a couple of weeks’ work experience with the then learning manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Lincoln Abbotts, and gain insights into day-to-day activities of the orchestra, the amount of new music it performs and the educational work it does.

Where would you direct any aspiring school-age composers looking for further support and experience?
There are some fantastic summer courses out there for aspiring young composers, including one run by my colleagues at the Guildhall School, as well as another at the wonderful Sound and Music – the UK’s national organisation for new music.

Lots of new music groups also run special educational workshops across the UK, such as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Riot Ensemble. If you can make it to any live performances of new music, there’s nothing quite as exciting as hearing something for the first time.

Who were your own composer role models and inspirations as a teenager?
As a teenager I was fascinated by all sorts of things, ranging from contemporary jazz to Indian classical music, new and older Western classical music, dance music – anything I could get my hands on, really.

Obsessions have always come and gone for me, but I still try to maintain that eclectic mindset – I can never predict where the next exciting discovery is going to come from, and always try to listen with open ears.

If you were to give one piece of advice to student composers, what would it be?
Listen to as much different music as you can! Keep an open mind, and try to challenge yourself to engage with things you might not necessarily understand on first listen – some things take time to appreciate.

When it comes to your own music, have the courage to try things and take risks, but also look closely at others’ music. There’s so much you can learn from looking at scores and trying to work out how a composer creates and manipulates sound and musical material.

Helen Tierney has run music departments in comprehensive schools for over 25 years, was an advanced skills teacher for secondary music in Barnet and now works freelance in music teaching, examining and dementia work; her book, Music Cover Lessons, is available now (Rhinegold Education, £39.99)

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