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Music 1: Preparing for the viva voce

This article (written by Debra Gilmore from Sydney Boys High School) provides Music 1 students with valuable advice on preparing for the Musicology viva voce examination.

Viva voce (n). An examination where questions are asked and answered orally rather than by written paper. The Macquarie Dictionary The Musicology viva voce is a two-way discussion between examiner and student in which the student must demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of music in the topics studied. Music 1 Stage 6 Syllabus, page 40.

Introduction
Decide on the topic
Find the resources
Practise the viva voce
Outline summary sheet
Consider the space
The examination

Introduction

The viva voce examination requires students to spend ten minutes discussing their chosen topic with the examiners; a focused musicological discussion. Ultimately, it will be up to the student to give the examiner enough information about their topic and to demonstrate depth of knowledge and focus of study. It is important to remember that the musicology elective is equivalent to other electives and requires a similar amount of preparation. The focus is always on the music and the musical concepts. The examiners really want to hear about the music, and how the concepts have been used in relation to your topic.

There are a number of stages of preparation for this examination:

Decide on the topic, the specialisation within the topic and the hypothesis. Find the resources and analyse the music through the concepts. Practise the viva voce. Prepare your Outline Summary Sheet. Consider the set-up of the space you will be using.
Be positive, articulate and knowledgeable in the examination.

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Decide on the topic

There are a number of approaches, but students need to keep in mind that a topic that really stimulates and interests them will be a pleasure to research and prepare.

It is easier to have an aim or hypothesis1 to discuss musical details.This will enable you to form conclusions about the music, and not just list facts about it. It will also assist you to structure your viva voce.

Choose a focus within the topic

Too broad a topic may end with a viva voce that is superficial as you try to cover far too much. Too narrow a focus is just as damaging as it restricts the depth of exploration of the music. Remember that the focus is always on the music and the musical concepts. For example, if you were discussing an aspect of music in film, the examiner really wants to hear about the music, and how the concepts have been used to create the music for a particular scene; not about the plot or characters.

A wide range of listening in the topic area will help you to develop the premise you will ultimately take in your studies. So if your topic is film music, you need to move through a few steps to decide upon a focus that will then lead to a hypothesis.

Film music.
Genre: action films.
Examples used, Matrix, Terminator.
Use of technology in the music of the two films.
How is it used to good effect in the music?
What musical material can be focused upon and used in discussion?

By deciding upon the musical examples that can be analysed through the musical concepts, you will begin to draw out the detail required for the focus or aim of your viva voce. You may find that as your research becomes more detailed, similarities and differences start to become clear. And then the structure of the viva voce will begin to take shape. After more research into the music, you may find that your hypothesis may read:

The films Matrix and Terminator demonstrate the use of technology in music in contrasting ways.

It is now time to write an overview of what you know and understand. What do you hope to achieve by the end of your study?

1 Hypothesis: a proposition assumed as a premise in an argument.The Macquarie Dictionary

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Find the resources

Which musical works will best serve your focus and hypothesis? From the musical works you have selected, choose a series of short excerpts that will support the basis of a discussion.

Each excerpt needs to be reasonably brief (not more than 10-15 seconds) and demonstrate one or more concepts that can be easily discussed. Depending on how you have approached the topic, you may only need 4-6 excerpts.

List them in order of importance. This may be chronological, by order of merit (in terms of your topic), or grouped according to your study of the concepts. Do not limit your listening simply to the works you choose to use in the viva voce. You may be able to draw all your experiences in listening into some of your answers.

Analyse the music through the concepts

When selecting these excerpts, keep in mind that each one needs to be analysed using the concepts of music. And remember that the concepts are used differently in each piece of music. For example, the chosen topic may be the role of the bass. In rock music, the concepts of duration, pitch and dynamics and expressive techniques will be appropriate, but if you have a different focus and want to explore the role of the bass in an orchestra, you will have to recognise the difference and focus more on pitch and tone colour. Ensure that the musical excerpt is the most suitable you can find. Sorting out these excerpts can take a lot of time so don't leave it to the last minute.

Finally, ask yourself how relevant each musical excerpt is in terms of your hypothesis.

Consider which musical examples you can demonstrate

Examples could include rhythmic motifs (played or clapped), melodic lines, riffs, specific instrumental techniques, or demonstrating stylistic characteristics by singing: bends, drop-offs and scat in jazz, or melisma as melodic decoration in rock/pop music. Become confident with these examples by practising them regularly.

Some topics suit the inclusion of musical score excerpts. These may be the same as a recorded excerpt or in addition to them. On a score, you may be able to demonstrate melodic lines, key changes, chordal patterns, changing musical textures and much more. Remember that whatever you wish to be discussed needs to be briefly stated on the Outline Summary Sheet.

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Practise the viva voce

Practise the viva voce with your teacher and classmates to help you realise where more detail needs to be included, or conversely where too much irrelevant information slows down the momentum of the viva voce.

Video each of these sessions over a period of a few months so that you can sit down and analyse where you have weaknesses and strengths. Focus upon your strengths, and build up your weaknesses. For example, if you generalise and talk in circles when someone asks you a question about tone colour, do a lot of study on the terminology used to describe tone colour and practise it.

When you review a practice viva voce consider the following:

Are you taking a moment to think exactly what is being asked? It can be easy and tempting in stressful moments to just start talking. Think carefully and answer the question that is being asked.
Can you be more concise and clear in your explanations? Practise becoming familiar with the language of the concepts and know how to use the words and what they mean.
How can you improve your answers and responses to questions? Are you mumbling or rambling when you are unsure of your response to a question? Go back and check all your information relating to that piece of music and the concepts that apply to it.
Did you miss any opportunities to use a recorded example that was prepared for that type of question? Again, try not to rush answers, and think about your store of musical resources. Use them as much as possible.
Did you miss any opportunities to demonstrate an answer on your instrument? Sometimes this can be an extremely quick and effective way of communicating the appropriate musical concept.
Does the viva voce summary sheet give others the opportunity to ask questions that will focus on your area of study? Summary sheets need to be carefully prepared.
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Outline Summary Sheet

Students may focus on a specific area of the topic studies, which they will outline for the examiners in the Viva Voce Outline Summary Sheet.

Music 1 Stage 6 Syllabus, page 40.

Remember that the Outline Summary Sheet will give the examiners a framework on which to base their questions, so practise writing out the summary sheet until you feel you have a good structure for the viva voce and all the information is included in a succinct form.

Summary sheets need to focus on the areas of the music that you will be discussing. These sheets give the examiners a clear understanding of the scope of your study, and allow them to go straight to the important areas of discussion by basing questions on the information given. The viva voce has to allow you, the student to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your knowledge. Very brief summary sheets are a disadvantage to the student and overly detailed summary sheets will not allow the examiners time to discuss everything mentioned.

Be mindful that you have ten minutes to discuss your topic with the examiners, so aim to keep your topic sheet concise.

For example, you may divide your summary into three sections, and create two or three subsections within each. Imagine that you have approximately three minutes for each section, for questions, answers and the playing of musical examples. There will then be one minute to sum up, if the examiners ask you if there is anything else you would like to add. Once you break it down like this, you realise how efficient you have to be in communicating your knowledge and how careful you have to be with your inclusions on the summary sheets.

Start with the title or premise of your topic. Here are a few examples:

Topic: Rock music To demonstrate the role of the bass in the music of (name of performer).
Topic: Australian music To show how the use of indigenous instruments has shaped Australian Rock music in the last twenty years.
Topic: Film music To highlight the musical differences in three films of the same genre.
Topic: Jazz The solos of Charlie Parker; how they define Be-bop.

After the hypothesis, structure the outline sheet through headings and point form sub-headings. These subheadings could be structured by musical example or by musical concept. Each dot point needs to expand on the concept and point the examiners in the direction of the focus of your study.

On your outline, include the title of the musical excerpt and composer/performer. It may help to add the tape or CD cues as well.

On page 37, the syllabus states: The candidates may keep a copy of the same Outline Summary Sheet for their own use in the examination.This means you have a reference as well while in the examination.

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Consider the space

Consider the space you will be using. Practice with the equipment and the space you will be using for the examination. Become familiar with the technology you will use in the examination.

Lay out all CDs in a predetermined and easily accessible order. CDs: number and name the track. Include minutes and seconds for your chosen example. Use a machine that is familiar to you. If you have compiled your own CD of musical examples, ensure that the labelling is correct, and check that it plays on the equipment you have for the examination. (Some players only play commercial CDs.)

If you are using an iPod, create a playlist in the correct order and ensure that you can connect the iPod to a suitable device for playback.

Musical instruments and electric/electronic equipment: check that is in working order. Leads, contacts, and amplifiers need to be in excellent condition. If you are still not sure, try to have a back up for leads and amplifiers.

Make it easy to move around if you have to. For example, if you need to use the drum kit or electric guitar or keyboard, set up the room so that it easy to move about and still be within a reasonable distance of the examiners.

The examiners will be interested in seeing what you are demonstrating, so consider both the distance and the angle of presentation.

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The examination

Be positive, articulate and knowledgeable in the examination. The examiners are interested in finding out what you know about your topic and the music you have chosen to study for this topic. The Outline Summary Sheet will allow them to structure their questions so that you can respond with musical detail.

You need to remember that the viva voce will be timed, and that you and the examiners have ten minutes to explore your topic. To start the viva, a student may be asked a broad question, but it is vital that you get straight to the musical examples as soon as possible. The examiners will then have the opportunity to ask quite incisive questions about your excerpts and musical observations.

Be careful not to labour a point. You do not want to run out of time, and still have your best examples to come!

Towards the end of the examination, you may be asked to sum up, or add anything that was not covered in the discussion. This needs to be brief and succinct

Some types of questions that you may be asked:

This is an interesting topic. How did you come to choose it?

You have a few musical examples here, which would you like to start with?

Before you play this excerpt, could you explain what we need to listen for?

How does this show…?

What is the role of…?

Can you explain the use of…?

These questions, as you can see, are broad but allow a student to give detailed and perceptive answers. A good working knowledge of the concepts, but more specifically about the music studied for the topic is paramount.

It is also apparent that a carefully structured Outline Summary Sheet is important in determining the direction of questioning in this examination.

The musicology viva voce is a chance to demonstrate your musical knowledge of your chosen topic. With careful planning, consistent work and practice, it should be a positive and rewarding experience.

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