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GCSE Music (9-1) - Help With How To Score High Marks - 32 Solo Performance Tips From A Moderator

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Debussy Quote

This blog post is going to give GCSE music students and teachers some tips on how to score a higher mark for their solo performance. It is likely that some of these tips will also be useful to A-Level music students or students studying any music course where performance is required.

My background is in education and performance. I have many years of experience teaching GCSE and A-Level music in the UK and overseas and I have also served as a head of music and a moderator.

A moderator is someone who views a selection of coursework for an exam board and checks the marks that the teacher has awarded. It is a highly rewarding job, because you get to hear many performances but it can also be frustrating when the same mistakes are being made by students and even teachers. I hope this blog post will help anyone involved in performance and help raise the standard and marks gained by some students.

GCSE Music Study Guides to help Performance.

It is important to get the correct study guide for your course. Check with your school if you are provided with a free copy and if not I highly recommend buying one. You could even ask any ex-students from your school if they will give your theirs! Some can be found below, using my affiliate links.


GCSE Music Solo Performance Practice.

Practice is incredibly important. You might be a grade 8 instrumentalist, a keen drummer of average ability, someone who likes singing or you might even have started your GCSE music course in year 10 with no additional musical experience outside of your key stage 3 classroom lessons. This last situation is 100% fine by the way, and there is no reason why you cannot be just as successful at GCSE music, as the grade 8 instrumentalist!

A big problem arises when the students expect to spend most of their music lessons each week jamming or playing their instruments during lesson time. This is a mistake, no progress will be made. A better approach would be, to do the bulk of individual solo practice outside of lessons. Treat it as an on going homework.

Nice easy tip and time saver for teachers there who have to justify the homework students are being given to senior leadership. Just assign them solo practice as ongoing homework. You could even keep a practice log. Follow this affiliate link to a cheap and useful diary that I use.

As a teacher, I would be putting the pressure on my students to work on their instrumental (or vocal) practice outside of lessons because, for most students, it is already their strength compared to composition and exam skills. So, from day one, it is better to focus on weaknesses in lessons and do practice at home.

It might be, you have opted for GCSE music but have no instrument. In which case, becoming more serious about singing, playing keyboard or even guitar would be your easiest options. The school could lend you an instrument or you could find one second hand.

Teaching GCSE Music Students How To Practice and How To Perform.

Something a GCSE class needs, straight away in September, is an opportunity to perform to each other. This should first be done in a class lesson or spread over a few lessons. Have the students evaluate or even mark each other using the official mark scheme. As a music teacher or head of music, I would always schedule a concert early in the year as an annual event. A recital concert for year 10 and 11 is a perfect way to promote music in school and give the students the much needed performance practice they need. They can invite family and friends and watch each other perform.

Prior to this, students should be taught about how to practice their instrument and how to prepare for a performance. If you are a music teacher who is not keen on performing yourself (yes they exist!), please do not create fear for your students by telling them how you feel about it. Invite a local musician into class to give a mini masterclass or use one of the visiting instrumental teaching staff if your school have them, in order to generate motivation towards performing.

I appreciate that GCSE music coursework needs to be recorded and not performed live but students need performance experience in many settings to develop skills and learn from mistakes. Find time to read my E-Book, it gives a lot of advice.

If you are a student reading this and your teacher hasn't created these opportunities, then do it yourself. Ask some sixth formers for help or parent governors. I cannot imagine any school that wouldn't be keen to put on a concert. A recital concert is also incredibly easy to organise as it doesn't require a very big space. Each student is performing as a soloist and apart from basic sound playback or accompaniment, it can be sorted out with minimal effort.

GCSE Music Students Need Positive Performance Experience To Eventually Score High In Coursework.

In a perfect world, a performance should be perfect. If you perform perfectly, you will feel good and be more likely to want to perform again. If you know you are going to perform perfectly then there is no fear. Okay, in a real world, performances are not always perfect, but it is possible to create a situation for yourself which makes perfection easier to achieve. This is going to lead you to score higher marks in your GCSE music solo performance.

Whatever your ability, for your first solo performance, select an easy piece or song to perform. Your goal is to enjoy it and have a positive experience. You are performing in front of your peers, which is something a lot of experienced performers find the most challenging. Find a piece or song you are already confident with, no matter how easy. Practice it a lot and the chances are you will perform it perfectly. Have belief in yourself. If you are not playing it perfectly in your practice, then recognise the mistakes you are making and fix them using slow, careful steps.

I appreciate there are requirements for GCSE music students to perform music that is of a higher difficulty, to score higher but no actual coursework should be recorded in year 10, so it makes no sense forcing students to perform difficult music to start with. Get them confident in performance first.

GCSE Music Students Need A Strong Positive Role Model As a Teacher.

When you eventually perform and record your GCSE music solo performance, the one you will use for your real coursework. It is likely you will be in a room with your music teacher and not many or anyone else. You cannot record it at home, it must be in front of the person who is assessing you. It is essential that you feel comfortable in this environment. Performing in front of an audience can often seem much easier than performing to your teacher holding a recording device.

Recording light

As a teacher, there must be trust and nurturing going on from year 10 in order for students to feel comfortable in this situation. Many a brilliant performance can be lost due to a student being uncomfortable or unprepared. The way around this is honesty and openness in all lessons and especially when giving feedback to students. They need to know you as the teacher are an expert and that you have experience which is vital to their success. They need to see you as a famous musician almost, and not just a teacher.

I always found the boys who played guitars or drums in my classes were massively confident performing in front of me but the female vocalists in the class were not at all to start with. It can be a real barrier, but one that needs working on from both sides. By year 11, those students should all be totally calm and relaxed in a performance situation. If you have not performed to your teacher until the day of your official coursework recording (probably with the deadline looming) you are set up to fail, so bare this in mind.

This being said, get confidence from the official mark scheme. Usually, the top marks for accuracy can still be achieved even with 'small slips in pitch or rhythm'. If you make a mistake, showing how you pick yourself back up and how that error is not going to impact the rest of the performance can actually earn you credit.

Setting Goals For Solo Performance Will Help You Score High.

Regardless of your ability, and presuming you have taken my advice to start, performing something easy first, then you are now ready to plan ahead. Coursework does not need to be recorded until year 11. Regular performance lessons or performance opportunities throughout year 10 can be scheduled and those opportunities can be recorded but it cannot be used as your coursework (unless you break your arm and cannot play guitar for a year!).

For GCSE music, usually a grade 4 piece performed perfectly (or very close to it) will award you full marks. Finding what difficulty a piece of music or song is, can sometimes be challenging but your teacher will have that information from the exam board. A piece or song lower than grade 4 will result in you not being able to achieve full marks, even if you perform it perfectly. A piece over grade 4 can give you an edge in that, regardless of how well you perform it, you will be rewarded with extra marks. Some exam boards might be slightly different but generally I would say these statements are true.

Hard musical notation
Don't try and find the most difficult piece to perform!

I have seen students perform lower difficulty pieces and score much higher than those who performed harder pieces, so be careful. Try and find a selection of pieces which you can use as your options and start recording them. If you have been shown the marking criteria, you can have a go at marking your own performances or just ask your teacher to do it. There is no limit to the number of times you can attempt to record your solo piece, but remember, your target must be to perfect it.

If you cannot perfect it, perform an easier piece. When this strategy is used alongside regular, good quality practice, it is very easy on any instrument (or voice), with good guidance, to get yourself up to grade 4 in the time you have.

Any instrument can be learnt online and musical theory courses are also available. Use break times and lunch times, find out about musical opportunities with your local music service and look for community based music groups you could join. Commit to getting better, make sacrifices in other areas of life and find extra time to put to this, it will be worth it.

That is lots of help already, so let's get into some specific tips. I hope that these help you score higher marks with your GCSE music solo performance. They are not in any special order, but can serve as a nice checklist for you.

If you do not understand some of this, then research it online, speak to your class teacher, speak to ex-pupils, book me for a lesson or use the online courses I shared above.

1) Get into a daily practice routine at home. Use a metronome!

2) Take private lessons from a specialist on your instrument.

3) Find more opportunities to perform during year 10.

5) Perform your piece perfectly. Nothing less is acceptable. Strive for full marks.

6) Make dynamics (volume levels) and style markings (e.g. staccato) stand out.

7) If your piece has limited dynamic contrasts, make some up, add them in and mark the score or provide details in writing along with a recording of the original track.

8) Play your piece at the exact correct tempo.

9) Practice running your piece or song through without stopping, no matter what happens, ignore slips.

10) Record your run throughs and listen to them back.

11) Note down any mistakes you are making and spend time fixing those issues, then repeat steps 9-11.

12) Read the comments in the highest mark boxes in the official mark scheme.

13) Tune your instrument daily, make accurate tuning a habit using a tuning device or app.

14) Ensure every note you play or sing is in tune and make intonation secure.

15) Perform in the right style for the music.

16) If improvising, use the full potential of the instrument, within your ability.

17) Listen to famous musicians or performers and be inspired by them.

18) Make sure you have the technical ability to do everything the music requires.

19) Perform with direction and flow, the music should always move forwards.

20) What story, image or mood is the music creating? You should be creating a suitable one.

21) Ensure your posture is correct and aim to perform in a relaxed manner.

22) Believe in yourself, be positive, encourage others to be positive.

23) Visualise getting full marks, run the imaginary scenario through in your mind.

24) Focus on sounding great, on every note.

25) Practice working on the basics, aim to master the basics of your skill and work on scales.

26) Bring out all the musical detail that the composer expects. Do exactly what is written.

27) Check the music you will use is well over the minimum time limit.

28) Ask for help as soon as you need it, do not fester or worry, find the answers.

29) If you require an accompanist, get it sorted early and rehearse with them more.

30) Make sure you look after yourself and your instrument, so both are capable of operating at a high level.

31) Do not attempt to edit or enhance your coursework recording. It must be recorded in one take!

32) Make sure you are recording in a place and at a time when you will not be disturbed.

GCSE Music Solo Performance Recording Quality Should Not Impact Your Score, Or Does it?

I once met a music teacher who was trying to convince their school to purchase extremely expensive recording equipment, in order to build a studio specifically for GCSE or A-Level music. If it is in the budget, then great, but as a head of music, I could think of many better things to spend money on. Some schools do have basic studios and if so, amazing, use it!

It is true, performance recordings must not be judged on the recording quality but despite this, you owe it to yourself as a student, or yourself as a teacher and the reputation of quality you deliver as a school to provide the best recording quality possible.

When the moderator has to listen to 20 recordings with poor quality sound. School bells ringing, people talking in the back ground (or worse) then they will quickly lose patience and it could then have a negative impact on your students marks or even the report which is sent to your exam officer.

I have witnessed music teachers having GCSE music students record their solo performance 'quickly' during break time, with other random students in the room and noise outside. I have witnessed music teachers recording students on their mobile phone during a lesson with the students instrumental teacher. I have seen teachers pull students out of other lessons, just because they have a spare 5 minutes and want to try and do some recording. Never, will any of these situations do justice to a students performance mark.

A recording should be done when there is a calm environment. SILENCE signs should be up (just like there would be for an exam). A student should know well in advance of the date and time of their recording. Some form of dedicated recording device should be used and every student should have the opportunity to 'sound check' before doing their recording.

I've been there, I understand the challenges and pressures of day to day life in schools but it just takes better organisation from teachers and students, no excuses.

Using a personal mobile phone isn't acceptable in my opinion, even though the recording technology on phones is very good. Many schools have rules about phones and you never know who might call you suddenly. It isn't professional and could lead to problems.

Zoom recorder

I recommend something like this (click this affiliate link to browse). Zoom products are fantastic and very easy to use. Shop around, ask in GCSE music Facebook pages for recommendations and spend time experimenting. Involve students in the process so they understand and do some research about how to achieve good recordings on a budget. I might even do a future blog post on that topic so if you want to be notified when it goes out, sign yourself up to this blog!

Good luck!

I hope you found this useful and thanks for reading. Please consider signing up to my blog and email list, where you can get my FREE - Performing From Memory pdf.

Mark Glover


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