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Trinity Rock & Pop Workshops

trinity rock and pop workshops

I know that I’ve already posted about Trinity Rock & Pop a couple of times but, at the end of my last blog entry, I noted that I would be attending one of their workshop sessions.  I attended the session at Chamberlain Music in Haslemere on 2nd March 2012.  First up, I have to give credit to all of the staff at Chamberlain Music, who were very helpful and remarkably friendly on what must have been a long day for them.  Credit also needs to go to the representatives from Trinity Rock & Pop, David Bobby and George Double, who were incredibly approachable and honest in their approach to the whole session.  

Before the session
Regular readers will be aware that I’m currently redesigning my Key Stage 3 Scheme of Work with a focus on using traditional music performance grades as part of the scheme of assessment, so it will probably come as no surprise that I was eager to learn more about this new set of exams and the resources that would be published to accompany them.  It was particularly interesting to me that Trinity Rock & Pop is focused on using well known pieces of popular music that include vocal tracks in the backing track CD.  Anyone that has ever taken the (fantastic) RockSchool graded exams will know that the material used has been specially composed for the examination and doesn’t include a vocal part.  This is with the exception of their vocal grades, which take the same approach as Trinity Rock & Pop (using existing material).  These pieces are perfectly suited to the difficulty level required for each grade and covers the specifics of each style without the learner having to trudge through lots of repeated material due to the repetitive structure of many pieces of popular music.  
When I first discovered that Trinity had abandoned this in favour of using established repertoire, I was a little concerned that candidates would find themselves playing the same four bar chord progression over and over until they got to a guitar/keys/bass/drums solo.  Although this would represent much of the reality involved in playing one of these instruments in the real world (chord, chord, chord, chord, fill, chord, chord…), I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was appropriate for a graded exam.  
That said, I thought that the use of this material would be a big motivating factor for many pupils because they recognise the piece or even just the simple fact that they like playing songs rather than instrumentals.  I have many pupils in my school that would be excited to play their part along to a CD that includes a singer.  As a result, I was eager to see more of what was on offer but I certainly wasn’t ready to part with (the school’s) cash.  
One of the first things that jumped out at me when David Bobby played us the first song and put the sheet music on the projector was that my concerns about lots of unnecessary repetition were pretty much put to bed.  The pieces that the candidates will perform are not straight transcriptions of the original recording but are an arrangement that is designed to sound like the record but present it in a manner that is suitable for the grade in both challenge and structure.  Most of the early grade pieces are just one page long (two for keyboards – curse that extra hand) and include both some work that is accompaniment and some that is focused on the instrument itself.  My main fear was instantly put to rest here and it also provided a better explanation for the Trinity/RockSchool vocal grade discrepancies than Nicholas Keyworth provided me with last week.  
It’s also worth noting that some of the keyboard arrangements, especially at the lower grades, don’t include a voice track on the accompanying CD so as to allow the candidate to take on the lead line, providing more of a challenge.  When entering three pieces for the exam, it is likely that the candidate would mix both accompaniment and lead roles, which seems quite sensible to me as ‘real world training’.  
Looking at the arrangements for various instruments, it seemed to me that Trinity’s staff have done a good job of matching existing repertoire to each grade in a manner that is consistent with other exam boards.  
What, no scales?
A feature of the exam that is likely to stand out is that there is no specific part of the exam where candidates will perform scales or arpeggios.  Instead, there is a ‘Technical Focus Song’ for each grade, which must be included in the performance.  This gives the examiner the opportunity to check that the candidates have genuinely mastered certain elements of playing their instrument and these are explicitly stated in the guidance for each of these pieces.  The emphasis here tends to be on playing techniques and not on music theory concepts such as scales, etc.  Part of me likes this idea and, in the higher graded examples that we were shown, it appears to work quite well (which gave me food for thought in terms of adding this to what I do in the classroom).  On reflection, however, I feel that some of the lower graded pieces are looking at techniques that, whilst vital, could be assessed in any piece and that it wouldn’t always be possible to check that candidates have mastery of the expectations that a specific grade would usually imply.  As a result, at this stage I’d be happy to consider a Trinity Rock & Pop grade a good measure of someone’s playing ability but I wouldn’t be so certain of how secure their theory knowledge is. 
What I did like was the alternative to sight reading that is provided.  Candidates can choose to improvise over a chord progression (very similar to RockSchool) or can choose to do a ‘Playback’ piece.  This seemed like a great little idea to me.  The examiner will present the candidate with a score and give them thirty seconds to read it, this score has a musical phrase followed by an equal number of blank bars.  The idea is that the candidate will hear the musical phrase and must then play this phrase back straightaway.  Slightly unusually, this is completed over a backing track that doesn’t stop between each play.  The candidate gets one unassessed attempt and then the track starts again and the examiner pays attention.  The reason that this appeals to me is that the reality of being a session player these days rarely involves playing a piece straight from the dots.  You will probably hear a MIDI version of your part, whilst reading any score that you’ve been presented with and then it’s time to play.  Within the confines of an exam, this is probably as close to that experience as you’re going to get.  
Using these resources in school
By the time we got to the break, I was sufficiently impressed with the resources that were presented that I purchased all of the books that have been published (that’s grades initial, one and two for voice, guitar, keys, bass and drum kit).  This wasn’t just motivated by my new KS3 SoW but also by how useful these pieces would be at KS4.  It’s often a nightmare for anyone teaching GCSE Music to find suitable pieces for rock & pop instruments that take care of both the solo and ensemble requirements of the exam board but here is a whole host of material that provides you with pieces that are perfect for GCSE ensemble performances.  So, a well stocked Music Department could make use of a RockSchool piece for solo performance and a Trinity Rock & Pop piece for ensemble – job done.  No more spending your weekend transcribing the part that a bass player is doing (Ever tried finding bass scores for popular songs anywhere else?  Goodbye social life.).  No more cutting up or Sibelius-ing a guitar score so that it doesn’t include that ridiculously difficult guitar solo.  No more educated(?) guessing of what AQA/Edexcel/OCR/WJEC will consider the difficulty level to be.  The use of material from both exam boards is quite simply a gift (okay, a gift that I spent over £160 on… but a gift nonetheless).  
Not teaching GCSE?  No worries, I think that’s an excellent choice!  Performance  BTEC or RSL Music Practitioner candidates now have a whole host of options to choose from when performing (combine ABRSM, Trinity, RockSchool, LCM and Trinity Rock & Pop – could you really ask for more).  Even better, David Bobby assured us that this repertoire would be continually expanding using the board’s new download store, which gives you sheet music, tips, a demo track and a backing track for £2.99 a song.  There’s just no competition to that in terms of quality and pricing; you’d be lucky to find just the dots for that. Okay, some of the song choices are a little bit twee, especially early on (‘I Am the Music Man’ instantly comes to mind), but there’s some very recent stuff in there too (‘Dollar’, ‘Price Tag’, etc). 
This really is a great opportunity for schools to make use of some fantastic resources even if you never put any of your pupils in for the graded exam itself.  If you do decide to put a reasonable number of pupils in for the exam, then Trinity will be willing to send an examiner to you (on request, they’ll even send an examiner trained for both their traditional exams and Rock & Pop).  I’m not certain if I’ll end up going down this route but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the publications.  
Moving forward…
So, now I’m here with a bunch of resources that need to be integrated into my department’s work and the new framework that I’m busily setting up.  It’s been a big relief to see that this material has been published as I’m doing this, which is allowing me to keep a larger element of pupil choice than I thought may be the case.  Since resources have only been published up to grade 2 (apparently grade 3 is done but there was some delay dispatching), I’ll be keeping my eye on the publication dates so that I can have everything up to at least grade 5 (see here for why). Has anyone else looked into these courses and come to similar/vastly different conclusions?  I’d be really interested to hear from you if you have.