Travelling only a short way from home, I found myself in New Malden, the centre of the UK’s Korean community – South (possibly about 20,000 people) and North (maybe 600, the largest NK congregation in Europe). Exiting the station, I immediately encountered a large-ish group of people speaking, I imagined, Korean, and passed many shopfronts with the distinctive Korean script. That’s something I have a minimal familiarity with, thanks to the many excellent composition students from South Korea whom I’ve met over the years.
Just up the road at Coombe Girls’ School however, English was being spoken. First thing on Monday morning, the music department was trying to return to normal after performing the school musical, Bugsy Malone, at the weekend. Since I myself had spent Friday night at the utterly fabulous London production of She Loves Me (by Bock and Harnick, who also wrote Fidldler on the Roof) I could have happily spent all morning talking about old musicals. But no, we were gathered to discuss some A level compositions. Coombe GS is a comprehensive with a co-ed 6th form, and they support an A-level music class every year. It always cheers me to find this still happening in the state sector.
It turned out that the students had all chosen the option of writing a classical string quartet movement, rather than ‘free composition’. This latter option has become almost notorious for its unpredictable assessment when the exam is marked; and to be fair, it’s a much more difficult thing on which to pass judgement than composition in a classical style. I laughed when listening to an excellent ISM webinar about school composition teaching put together by Steven Berryman and Philip Cashian. They had asked everyone in Phil’s first year composition intake at the RAM about their experience of composition studies at school. Every person reported that they’d had no composition teaching to speak of, and little feedback during the process of writing rather than after completion. Most strikingly, all of them had received low marks for the composition section of their A-level. So the string quartet option – which is certainly no picnic, wrestling with bridge passages, development sections and so on – is usually seen as the dependable choice.