From Listening to Appraisal?

Music teacher Arthur Sealy takes up the issues raised by Raymond Deane in his recent article on the use of his composition Seachanges (with danse macabre) in the Leaving Cert. examination.

Didn’t Deane provide us with quite a shocker? ‘Read this,’ I said to my students, thinking it would enlighten them, among other things, about the type of questions they could expect, or not expect, in this year’s June exam. ‘Do you think,’ asked one of them in response, ‘that the Department will change the questions because of Deane’s article[1] and the kind of questions he would like to see on the paper?’

I laughed at the thought! That the composer of Seachanges (with danse macabre), one of the prescribed works for Leaving Cert. Music, might exert any influence over Department exam-setters is simply ridiculous. Those initially responsible for the writing of the Junior and Leaving Certificate Music syllabi at the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment), and those responsible for the implementation of those syllabi and setting of exam papers at the Department of Education and Science, do not appear to take on board the concerns of those of us who work with students at second and third level,[2] no more than they listen to the concerns of such an eminent composer as Raymond Deane who has a personal interest in the syllabus. Deane’s article may illicit reactions of outrage and caso acerbo from readers of JMI, but it is unlikely to influence those responsible for setting papers at the Department. I hope that time proves me wrong.

Deane’s critique of the 2002 Leaving Cert. Music Listening Exam, and in particular the questions on the Higher and Ordinary Level papers relating to his own work,[3] merits further comment. His principal contention relates to the absence of context and the importance of music appreciation in relation to the prescribed works, and it is regarding these two not-unrelated issues with which I am concerned here.


The unresolved and often harsh sounds made me feel uneasy due to the complex and unorthodox nature of his music… Each of the different sections provoked different emotional responses in me. I really liked that.

I personally don’t like the piece. Maybe this is because I don’t understand it yet. I’m more used to tuneful and melodic pieces, something that I can sing along to. The piece, however, ends on something which is ‘normal music’ or tuneful stuff, while all the rest of the piece is so dissonant and difficult to listen to.

This piece is not my style of music. It has no set rhythm, which can simply be annoying. The melody is all over the place and sounds like it was at first randomly thrown together and then harmonised.

It makes me feel irritated and uncomfortable because of the harsh sounds. Just as it was getting really agitated it changed to a spooky, eerie kind of sound and then continued into the harsh melody. The first thing that came to mind was a toothache, the way the pain comes and goes.

I thought this was interesting. While, the piece didn’t explore melody at all, it sounded very dissonant. The instrumental choice was really effective in creating a sombre, brooding, almost violent mood. In contrast to a lot of music which elevates the listener, this piece draws the listener in. It makes you reflect on the inner, darker side of life.

The above comments from students in my Leaving Cert. Music class of 1999 were not in response to a first hearing of Deane’s work, but rather to Gerald Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1, one of the four prescribed works in Group A of the syllabus.[4] I include the comments here as being broadly representative of the articulate responses I and many of my colleagues receive from our students. Anyone familiar with Barry’s music will appreciate his preoccupation with ‘line’. And so, the students’ comments above about ‘more melodic pieces’ and ‘didn’t explore melody at all’ should be understood as perfectly normal when we account for the fact that many students who arrive at Leaving Cert. level have neither the language to discuss music nor the context within which to focus the subject of their study.

In foreign language studies, no less than in English at Leaving Cert. level, students are expected to provide written personal responses to still pictures and films that they have studied, poems, novels and short stories that they have read. When it comes to the Music syllabus within the Leaving Certificate Curriculum (if the type of exam questions in recent years is any indication), there are no such expectations, and students are required only to provide, as Deane clearly outlines in his article, an understanding and aural awareness of ‘symbols’.[5]

The need for context
I found myself in conversation recently with a music graduate who last year completed his course leading to a Higher Diploma in Education, as part of which he took the ‘Music Methods’ elective. Music Methods focuses on approaches to teaching music in the classroom and introduces student teachers to the prescribed works for Leaving Cert., in some cases for the first time.

The overriding view here, it would appear, is that the prescribed works should ‘stand alone’. It is recommended that teachers should begin an exploration of a particular prescribed work in the classroom by isolating sections of the work and getting students to sing or clap rhythms, scales, arpeggio movement, melodies and countermelodies contained therein. In other words, students begin from within, breaking up the work into smaller components or ‘symbols’ (staying with Deane’s terminology) without exploring the musical, social and historical contexts of the work. Following this, students are then introduced to performing techniques, recording techniques (in the case of prescribed works by The Beatles and Queen/Mercury), compositional techniques (such as use of inverse), and so on. Introducing the work in this way allows it to ‘stand alone’, but it also deprives the novice of any external frame of reference. It is almost like studying a play by Genet without reference to the Theatre of the Absurd, Existentialism, and the recurring use of language and often-disturbing imagery which is common to Genet’s style of writing, notwithstanding the fact that the play is to be read in the French language, which has its own prerequisites. Such an isolated reading of a Genet play (or an assessment of any work of art) ‘out of context’ at the level of syntax and vocabulary only, simply does not do justice to the play or the author’s intentions.

I am all in favour of prioritising interaction with the students through a performance-based methodology as described above. But I do not agree that this is the best starting place, and it is here, I believe, where the problem lies, and where discussions with the Department of Education and Science should begin.

Could it be that there is a presumption that this necessary ‘contextualisation’ has already been provided to students? If so, perhaps as part of the Junior Cert. Music syllabus? Or as part of a Transition Year programme? Or as part of the first of two years at Senior Cycle (fifth year) leading to the certificate exam? Since 1998, when the new Leaving Cert. Music syllabus was first introduced, I have travelled all over the country facilitating weekend workshops with students and teachers, to which I will refer later in more detail. It is my experience that this contextualisation does not always happen in the classroom, and it most certainly is not provided within the Junior Cert. Music syllabus.

Not dissimilar to the Leaving Cert., where two groups of works are rotated in three-year cycles, the Junior Cert. syllabus rotates three groups (each of three works) on a year-to-year basis. In a total of nine prescribed works only one is by a contemporary composer. However, while Shaun Davey’s style has done much to promote traditional music, his ‘Ripples in the Rockpool’ from the Granuaille Suite could hardly be described as representative of contemporary music in Ireland. And all the more bemusing when juxtaposed with Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ concerto (from The Four Seasons) and Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2. (With reference to Deane’s critique of the ‘soundbite listening’ at Leaving Cert., where his work stands apart from its context within the ‘Macabre Trilogy’, and where the two movements of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique are prescribed in isolation, out of context,[6] here at Junior Cert., for example, only two movements of the Vivaldi concerto and two movements of Bizet’s suite are prescribed, a pattern which is repeated in all three groups of the syllabus.)

A ‘General Study’ question does allow Junior Cert. students to explore a particular area of musical interest, with a required study of two works from their elected area. Some students with their teachers (waving the flag, as I have done on occasion), choose to look at contemporary music from Ireland, and there is some scope here for ‘appreciation’ in the form of ‘What did you like or dislike about this music?’ But I have to report that few student with their teachers choose such areas, and students are more likely to look at rock or rap fusions, or the music of pop ‘boy bands’, or whatever else happens to tickle their fancy at the time!

There are teachers who will argue that context is provided to students through fourteen ‘categories’ of study ranging from ‘folk songs’ and ‘art songs’ to ‘illustrative and film music’ and ‘dance movements’. My experience of teaching Junior Cert. Music is that for students who are familiar with the type of questions which can be expected, based on exams from previous years, such study is for the most part by rote. Students can learn off two features and the name of a piece of music which is representative of each respective category. And they are often instructed by teachers to do so. Over three years, students build up some aural skills and the language to be able to answer some questions on an ‘unprescribed’ and previously unheard piece, but with multiple-choice questioning, students by and large are able to achieve reasonably good scores.

Vis-à-vis the prescribed works (again, at Junior Cert. level), it is also possible to avoid reference to any other work by the respective composer, or the other movements from the work, and again to learn (i) features of the music, (ii) information in the form of ‘data’ about the composer, and (iii) referential ‘symbols’ as described above, all by ‘rote’. I am ashamed to admit that I once drilled a student (from a different school and teacher) in such learning techniques with only five weeks to the written exam. (Her mother pleaded with me that illness had been the cause of such lack of preparedness in her exam year.) The student achieved a ‘B’ grade in the higher-level paper, having sung in a small choral group to account for 25 per cent of the total exam, yet never had individual vocal or instrumental tuition. The overall result was not due to any exceptional musicianship, but rather as a result of her ability to ‘learn things off’ quickly and systematically with instruction. Is it any wonder that such interested parties as Raymond Deane might perceive problems at Leaving Cert. level when such necessary foundations are lacking at Junior Cert.?

And so, what does the Leaving Cert. syllabus say of student requirements, and could it be possible that the intentions of the authors of the syllabus have been ‘watered down’ and thus misinterpreted by the Department? Here’s what the syllabus says:

Ordinary and Higher level students must study all four works. Prescribed works should be studied in detail. In the case of each work, students must
• understand, identify and describe the range of musical features used
• study its musical style and place it in its historical context
• be able to analyse and describe patterns of repetition and change within the music.

In studying each prescribed work, higher-level students must also demonstrate an ability
• to make comparative judgements about music
• to evaluate interpretation and performance in the light of experience already attained.[7]

It should be noted that from time to time broader questions do appear on Leaving Cert. exam papers, for example, in relation to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 K488 (Prescribed Works Group B), in the form, ‘Identify two features of the classical style’, or, in relation to Bach’s Cantata No.78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, (Group A), ‘Mention two features of the baroque style which appear in this extract’. There seems to be a complete avoidance of ‘The Beatles Style’ questioning because, where such an obvious style exists (phrases with different words sung to a repetition of the same note, the extensive use of the chordal progression ‘VofV - IV’, etc) one could not postulate such a style without reference to and study of other Beatles’ songs.

I know that teachers, in most cases, are well equipped to be able to differentiate Baroque, Classical and Romantic styles. My experience again, however, is that teachers often tell students that this is the Classical style (in the form of a list of features to be learned, again by ‘rote’, and dished out if such a question appears on the exam paper), without allowing them to make comparisons with other works so as to hear and experience for themselves the similarity, the understanding of ‘style’, which distinguishes periods and composers one from another.

The same thing happens in relation to prescribed contemporary works in the syllabus. The question ‘Identify two features of twentieth-century art music as they appear in this extract’ can be adequately answered with simplistic responses such as ‘use of dissonance’, ‘changing time signatures’, and ‘absence of tonality’. (Anyone familiar with the diversity of compositional styles today will know that such features do not apply right across the board.) There are many teachers currently working in the field, perhaps as a result of neglect for so many years in the curriculum at third level, who lack for themselves, never mind their students, the necessary language to discuss such excellent works as Deane’s Seachanges (with danse macabre) and Barry’s Piano Quartet No.1.[8] The result is that some students miss out on the opportunity to explore the vast world of contemporary music in all its diversity. And why bother teaching ‘context’ when nothing more is required (on the basis of exam-type questioning to date) other than to provide such pre-formulated ‘rote’ responses?

In the last two years, Raymond Deane and I have discussed his work in front of over 1,600 students and teachers at Dublin’s National Concert Hall and other venues in Kilkenny, Waterford, Athlone, Cork and Limerick.[9] While the opportunity to hear Deane talk about the background to his work and the ‘philosophical context’ of the three works of the ‘Macabre Trilogy’ in particular, may not directly affect students’ scores in the exam itself (and such a view can only be based on the evidence of past exam papers), these four prescribed works (in Deane’s case, Group B) will remain special to these students all their lives.

They will always remember Seachanges (with danse macabre), regardless of how much they like or dislike it now, much in the same way, for example, that they will remember contemporary poems and poets studied in the context of Leaving Cert. English. Is it not the hope of every English teacher that students would develop a love of poetry, and use the ‘prescribed’ poems (or poems studied in class) as a stepping-stone to their own personal exploration of the vast world of poetry? And is it not inconceivable that our music students today might even choose to explore contemporary music further in the future, as listeners and performers, or even be inspired to compose themselves?

It is in this context, that of ‘music appreciation’ – and beyond the scope of the exam itself – that the composer’s meeting with students may have been of benefit. (I also include here an event organised in 1998 by the Post-Primary Music Teachers’ Association at the NCH in which Gerald Barry addressed students about his Piano Quartet No. 1.)

Since the introduction of the syllabus in 1998, under the auspices of Waltons New School of Music, I have developed and facilitated a series of ‘Weekend Workshops’ on the core components of the syllabus. These workshops were intended to provide what we called ‘complementary perspectives’ on the Prescribed Works (Groups A and B) and Core Composing.[10] They were an opportunity for students from different schools to come together at university centres and other venues the length and breadth of the country. It is now estimated that well over three thousand students and four hundred teachers attended my workshops on composing and the prescribed works,[11] a sizeable impact when it is considered that just under four thousand students each year take the exam (a number which has been rising with each passing year).[12]

While my teacher colleague May Costello has provided an excellent workbook for use by students and teachers, I am currently working on a comprehensive coursebook, the first of its kind for this syllabus, which is based largely on the work I did for – and the experience I had with – the workshops. The coursebook has been a work in progress for some time now, and while promised before it is now about to come to fruition. Entitled Soundscapes, it will appear in three volumes covering Composing and Prescribed Works Groups A and B respectively. I am writing these books – as I have conducted the workshops and indeed written this article – because I am convinced that ‘context’ is the best starting point for study of the prescribed works.

Let me briefly describe the approach which I adopted in the ‘Listening’ workshops. Each of the four two-and-a-half-hour sessions (over two days) dealing with each of the four prescribed works (with Groups A and B treated in separate workshops) provided an analysis and complete overview of the prescribed work, beginning with an extensive presentation of the musical, social and historical contexts for the work, with a strong audio-visual dimension to each session. To quote from the advertising brochure for the workshop dealing with Group A and the session on Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1:

Listening to contemporary music requires ‘deconstructing’ traditional approaches to melody, rhythm, harmony and form. We take this as our starting point…

From the session dealing with Bach’s Cantata No. 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele:

While tracing the influences and different periods in Bach’s life, this session examines Cantata No. 78 and other works by Bach which deal with the themes of death, lamentation and Christ as helper and Saviour…

And the session dealing with Queen/ Mercury’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’:

This session includes a comprehensive analysis of the lyrics and off-the-record score of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ while also examining the panache of Mercury’s rock-operatic writing and performance style in other such memorable works as ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’…

In the case of Deane’s work, a brief presentation of some of his other works – including Marche Oubliée and Catacombs, the two other works in his ‘Macabre Trilogy’ – after an extensive discussion among the students about their ideas on music and how they respond to the diverse world of contemporary music (with my sometimes playing Donnacha Dennehy’s Swerve, or juxtaposing the use of uilleann pipes in Gerry Murphy’s Dialects and Roger Doyle’s Under the Green Time), served to put Seachanges (with danse macabre) in a broad context. I took a similar approach in sessions on Mozart, Berlioz and The Beatles. At times my approach was intended to be provocative, as in the case of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (Group A).

[…] Shakespeare’s plot centres around the paired themes of ‘death’ and ‘forbidden love’, both of which, not by coincidence, are also central to Tchaikovsky’s own life as a homosexual man in nineteenth-century Russian society. ‘Death and Forbidden Love’ [my title for the workshop] investigates the connection both musically and historically. It offers students the opportunity to explore the background to this work and at the same time be drawn into the mystery surrounding Tchaikovsky’s life and ultimate fate.[13]

The initial research for these workshops provided me with the basis for my Soundscapes, Book Two and Book Three where (i) the composer for each work is presented in a comprehensive music-historical context, (ii) the work, while provided with a thematic and formal analysis, is seen in the context of the composer’s complete oeuvre, and (iii) a section entitled ‘The Exam’ for each work focuses on exam-type questioning, and (iv) ‘Beyond the Exam’. In this last section, in an effort to foster music appreciation, students are afforded the possibility to advance their own interests in one or more of the studied works and composers (beyond the narrow focus of the exam), with opportunities for related listening and research, within the context of the prescribed work, but at the same time beyond it. In the book, it is suggested that this could take place as part of class study in Transition Year (or a special-project focus) or even during the first year of a two-year study programme towards the Leaving Certificate Music exam itself.

I hope readers of JMI will have seen (perhaps contrary to the impression created by Deane’s article) that the study of music at Leaving Cert. level need not necessarily be all doom and gloom. While serious questions need to be asked, and Department officials need to listen, there are many teachers who already in their classroom practice welcome the approach and methodology that explores ‘context’ and fosters ‘music appreciation’. This is why the workshops were so successful and why students and teachers came along to hear Raymond Deane, even though what he had to say about his other works (and what I had to say in the workshops about ‘other’ works beyond the ‘prescribed’ syllabus) bore no relevance to the type of exam-questions for which they were preparing.

While not attempting in any way to impose a teaching methodology, and not excluding performance-based approaches to the work as prioritised today in Teacher-Education Departments, I hope my coursebook will respond to the lack of focus on context and follow-on music appreciation evidenced in every exam paper to date. And I also hope that this article (together with Raymond Deane’s in the last issue of JMI) will stimulate some concerned debate about these issues. Perhaps there will eventually be changes in Leaving Cert. Music Listening papers. Wouldn’t the term appraisal, to coincide with a change in exam-type questioning and a much broader ‘listening’ focus, be so much more appealing?

1. ‘Don’t Expect a Seachange in Music Education…’, JMI 3:4, May/June 2003.
2. It is now generally accepted that third-level music department lecturers and heads of department in the Republic no longer consider an A1 grade in Leaving Cert. Music Higher Level as a reliable indication of a student’s level of musicianship or suitability for entry to music courses at third-level. I refer readers to Barra Boydell’s excellent article, ‘Third-level Music and the Leaving Certificate’ in JMI 1:4, May/June 2001.
3. One of four prescribed works in Group B of the Leaving Cert. Music syllabus. The other three works are Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, K488, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (II and IV only), and The Beatles’ Album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Three Songs Only: ‘Sergeant Pepper’, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, and ‘She’s Leaving Home’).
4. Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1 was initially included in the exam for each of the years 1999-2001 with the set of prescribed works Group A. The other three works in Group A are J. S. Bach’s Cantata No. 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet, and Queen/Mercury’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Group A and Group B rotate in a three-year cycle, with Group A returning for the exam 2005 for a period of three years inclusive, then with Group B returning in 2008 for a further three years, etc.
5. Used by Deane in his article as a reductionist term, to mean such things as scales and arpeggios, performing techniques, use of particular rhythmic ideas such as syncopation or triplets, repeating themes and motives, compositional techniques (such as canon, inverse, or use of sequence), etc.
6. Another example, with Leaving Cert. Group B, is how only three songs are prescribed from the celebrated Beatles’ Pepper album, with the title track removed from its obvious context as the first of a series of opening tracks that run into each other so as to present the illusion of ‘live performance’, part of the initial ‘concept’ behind the album.
7. Taken from Section 2.3.2; page 10 of the Leaving Certificate Music Syllabus published by the Government of Ireland, Department of Education and Science (available from Government Publications, Dublin).
8. Music departments at third-level, by inviting composers to present in-house seminars, are working hard to ensure that the current crop of students, some of which are our future second-level teachers, will be properly equipped to be able to foster awareness and pass on language-skills and an appreciation of contemporary music to students at second level.
9. ‘Raymond Deane in conversation with Arthur Sealy’ was co-sponsored by the NCH Education and Outreach Programme and Waltons New School of Music and presented in association with local Education Centres.
10. My colleague Harry Long also facilitated a unique workshop dealing with the type of Irish traditional music questioning at Leaving Cert. level. The first part of this workshop was strongly contextual, with a focus on historical perspectives.
11. In April of this year, I facilitated a teacher workshop, intended for those who had not previously taught the prescribed works Group A (which return as part of the exam in 2005) as well as recently or soon-to-be qualified teachers. While dealing with the works themselves, this workshop also explored the question of providing context to students for each of the works.
12. From 900 students in 1996 (old syllabus) to 1200 students in 1997 (interim syllabus) to 4000 in 2003.
13. The intention here was to look for ‘musical similarities’ between the Overture and other works, and to encourage students to decide for themselves whether they accepted the official ‘cholera’ version of Tchaikovsky’s death or were willing to consider the ‘unofficial’ suicide version, and the circumstances surrounding the first performance of his Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique).

Editor’s Note: The Department of Education and Science was contacted by the JMI for a response to Raymond Deane’s article. The Department suggested that the NCCA would be the appropriate body to reply. The NCCA declined the offer.

Published on 1 July 2003

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