It’s that time of year when the British ABRSM theory exams are looming – there are about 3 weeks to go and students are knuckling down everywhere. One of the hardest questions to self-assess is, of course, the composition question. I spend a lot of time working with students specifically on composition guidance, and from time to time readers of the website send in their answers to the question in the practice test on mymusictheory.
You can read about another student’s answer to the same question atÂ http://musictheorydigest.blogspot.com/2010/02/grade-v-composition-example.html
This is the example I was sent today:
1. Length & Balance 1?/2
2. Neatness 1/1
3. Notation AccuracyÂ 1?/2
4. Performance Directions 1/2
5. Suitability to Instrument 1/1
6. Sequencing 0/2
7. Cadence points 1/2
8. Overall impact 1/3
1. The piece is the right length – 8 bars, and you’ve balanced up the incomplete first bar correctly in the last bar. However, there is a lack of balance within the piece. It’s better to assume that 8 bars are divided into two halves of exactly the same length, and create two phrases (a question phrase and an answer phrase) of 4 bars each. This is really just one long phrase of 8 bars.
2. Exceptionally neat – nice work.
3. Two points, which are VERY common mistakes in students’ work!
4. Well, there are certainly a lot of them! But, (and this is an important point), it really does feel like you put your hand in a bucket of dynamics and then threw a handful at the music ;o) Dynamics MUST make musical sense. In bar 3, you write a P. Bar 4 contains no markings, so we must assume it’s the same – P. The first beat of bar 5, suddenly, is F. There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for this – there’s no crescendo, and it’s not a new phrase. If you change the dynamic SO drastically, a new phrase would seem logical, but then again it’s not a good place for a new phrase…. In bar 6 you’ve written a decrescendo which apparently should be played through a rest (can you make a rest even quieter?!) and the mP marking should be aligned with the actual note to give it a solid meaning. You’ve written Allegro as a tempo, so one crotchet is going to whizz by very fast – there is not enough time to have a diminuendo on just one crotchet. Bar 8 has a similar problem.
5. Fine. It would suit a very flamboyant type of violinist!
6. This is the real weakness of the piece. You’ve tried to show off your (very good) knowledge of things like triplets, ornaments and syncopation. But in doing so, you’ve written a piece which has no connecting factors. The title of this post is “Less is More” and that really is the case in grade five theory composition. Don’t feel that you need to include everything you know about!
7. The final cadence is clearly a perfect cadence. I’m not sure where the “middle” of your piece is supposed to be, so I can’t find a cadence there either!
8. You might think I’m a bit harsh only giving 1 point here. I can see that you’ve worked really, really hard and have tried to gain a lot of marks in this question, so I think you might be a bit disappointed with what I’ve given you. You are obviously a talented musician, hard-working and I would put money on you being a pretty good violin player yourself, am I right? I think you are throwing your energy in the wrong direction in this question – keep in your mind that this is a theory exam – not a practical. Your composition needs to demonstrate that you understand the principals of balance, sequencing, and underlying structure. If you were going shopping for a violin and played what you wrote in order to test the instrument, I think it would be perfectly appropriate – some bits of scales, arpeggios, big dynamic range and so on. But as a self-contained piece of music, it lacks the glue to hold it together. It leaves the listener feeling rather unsatisfied and wondering if that was really the “piece” or just the “warm-up” before the real piece begins.
If you’d like to sign up for my video course on composition for the Grade 5 ABRSM Music Theory exam, seeÂ http://www.mymusictheory.com/for-students/video-courses/403-video-course-grade-5-composing-a-melody-for-instruments for more info!