GCSE Music 2016: ensembles?

I spent the morning going through the four main specifications with a group of teaching colleagues from other schools. It was good to spend the time (nearly 4 hours) discussing and spotting some intriguing similarities and differences between the boards. 

The set work and unfamiliar balance is one I’m particularly concerned with: Edexcel gives 85% of the listening paper to set works questions while AQA gives the same weighting to unfamiliar music. The final question in Edexcel wants the candidates to compare a set work to an unfamiliar and related work. Intriguing and potentially a challenging prospect. 

Composition briefs are certainly varied giving attention to ‘audience and occasion’; Edexcel sample briefs stuck out for me being imaginative in their design and engendering a creativity. The other boards had sample briefs that were rather limiting (OCR appeared very remedial and conversely wouldn’t encourage as much creativity in my mind as it aims to do). The mark schemes were varied – OCR having  succinct attempt to cater for a broad range of composing while Edexcel had a very detailed three category approach. The use of the word ‘complex’ bothers me (with regards to texture). 

A final question I was left with after this morning: what is an ensemble? It seemed that one could avoid an ensemble with the wording in the AQA specification: 

Music performed by the student in conjunction with at least one other musician (one of which must be the student being assessed), in which each player or singer has a unique and significant part (ie that is not doubled).

Does that mean a student could count an accompanied solo as an ensemble? If one was to sing a Handel aria the accompaniment is unique and significant? So a singer could perform an accompanied aria for their solo AND ensemble? WJEC makes it clearer that “Lieder accompaniment (or similar skill) is an acceptable ensemble, when the learner is the accompanist but not when the learner is the soloist”. 

I had a feeling another board would allow no solos; and what is a “solo” any more? Have the boundaries been blurred as a guitarist being ‘accompanied’ by kit and bass is an ensemble yet it may be submitted as a solo? Should candidates merely submit two performances where they have significant parts in each so it will allow those performers that do not play instruments that have a large body of solo repertoire, or those musical idioms that rely on certain combinations of timbres to be submitted in an authentic way rather than be compromised to fit with a specification? Or perhaps I’m reading into this too much… 

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