The development of the symphony is an important element in A-level music syllabuses but it can be daunting to try to find fresh ways to approach the topic.
With the new school term upon us, many music teachers will be looking around for useful tips and advice to incorporate into their music curriculum.
Natalie Wild, co-author of The Symphony: From Mannheim to Mahler and Director of Research and Professional Development at the Music in Secondary Schools Trust (MiSST), has taught both GCSE and A-Level music for many years as Head of Music in various inner-city schools.
Here, she gives her top tips for approaching set works across the years and teaching the development of the symphony module at A-Level.
Approaching set works
When introducing a set work, try getting students to put together a class cover of it. Everyone can be involved – those who don’t play an instrument can sing or do some body percussion!
Listen to the work a lot but focus on different elements each time. I like to encourage active listening with movement. For example, if you’re concentrating on structure, get your students to stand up as soon as they hear a new section; if focusing on melody, they can mime the instrument playing the melody. This is an engaging way to develop listening and understanding all at once.
I also like to build quick-fire quizzes into the start of each lesson. These are a great way to build in retrieval practice as you can make sure that any questions that aren’t answered as confidently get carried over to the next lesson’s quiz.
Teaching the development of the symphony
Avoid the temptation to teach symphonies purely chronologically. This will limit students’ ability to engage critically with the subject and to draw together contexts, materials and ideas. Instead, select symphonies based on how they progressed or disrupted the ‘status quo’. This way, we can not only teach students about the subject matter, but also how to approach the genre critically and analytically.
Pick out key themes in the symphonies your students are studying and dedicate a lesson or two to exploring how to play or sing them. This will create a tangible memory which will help give students something recognisable to listen out for.
Lastly, build in some quick-fire starter activities to help students to make links between symphonies and topics. For example: ‘Which three symphonies would be the best examples to use when discussing programme music/sonata form/patronage? For each example, give a reason why'.
The development of the symphony is an important element in A-level music syllabuses but it can be daunting to try to find fresh ways to approach the topic. By using these ideas we can set them up not only for success at A-level, but also provide them with invaluable tools for further education.
For further reading, case studies and support, The Symphony: From Mannheim to Mahler by Christopher Tarrant and Natalie Wild, is available now.