Brahms starting the conversation

In this school the Head of Music tells me that she has taught 16+ examination syllabuses from pre GCSE times through to the latest manifestation of GCSE. And it is the OCR Board that is being worked with this time round, a change which fits well with the way a music education is conceived of in this 11-16 school.

While there remain misgivings about aspects of the performance component of the exam and in particular its harsh discrimination against informal and self-taught musicians (i.e. the four-minute requirement) and those without the resources to fit the model GCSE performer, the opportunity to work with Rhythms of the World and the other Areas of Study makes good sense.

Today I am observing a year 10 GCSE class of 30 being taught by a beginning music teacher in the school. The Area of Study is The Concerto Through Time, 1650-1910. We have reached the Romantic Concerto and the class is presented with a YouTube performance of the slow movement of Brahms Violin Concerto.

All that follows in this two-hour lesson draws from the performance. It is what the class move out from and back into, a continual to-ing and fro-ing. It remains the source of conversation throughout.

Students appear keen to know more about what’s going on here and to widen and deepen their grasp of not just this example of the Romantic Concerto but of Romanticism as an artistic movement. Other than musical forms of romantic expression open up fresh thinking with links to the student’s historical, literary and wider artistic knowledge. It is easy to overlook that students come to music lessons with these perspectives.

Working sometimes as a whole class, at others in their carefully created triads, there is a lot of talking and thinking in response to poetry and artwork. A student reads some Byron and another refers to the ‘angstiness’ of a painting. But we are never far away from the Brahms as the class get to know the performance with ever-increasing attention to detail and without any loss of the whole as a musical experience in itself.

Gary Spruce in the chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’ chapter in the book ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ points out that recent music scholarship proposes that ‘ … music can be understood fully and by implication, taught effectively if only one takes into account the social, political, cultural and economic factors that impact on its production, dissemination and reception.’ [1]

Well, GCSE music hasn’t caught up with contemporary scholarship and this year 10 aren’t there yet either.

To have a GCSE component titled ‘listening and appraising’ rings feebly from this perspective. Perhaps ‘critical and contextual’ would move things forward.

However, here is a music department eschewing any kind of reductionism or teaching to the test. The class isn’t doing practice listening questions and there was a memorable whole class performance reconstruction of a concerto grosso earlier in the term. Their minds are expanding and there may well be a ‘dialogue of difference’ to enrich their critical acumen as they place Rhythms of the World alongside Concerto Through Time. [2]

Their Key Stage 3 curriculum has taught them well about difference. No monochrome curriculum dominated by culturally colourless musical performing skills, nor an incoherent tour of the world. Rather a curriculum of music making calling for thinking and feeling, and where fluency and expression are valued highly.

I am wondering whether the student’s grasp of 19th century musical techniques will impact on their composing?


[1] Spruce, G. (2016) Culture, society and musical learning. In (eds) Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Learning to Teach in the Secondary School. Routledge.

[2] See







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