Choosing a good jazz piece for HSC Performance

(updated 2019)

Here is a short guide to choosing the best pieces to play for HSC performance. Your choice of repertoire can easily mean the difference between high and low marks. In general, you need to find pieces that will give you the best opportunity to show off your strengths and not highlight any weaknesses in your playing.  

What makes a good HSC performance piece?  

Start by looking at pieces that give you the opportunity to demonstrate at least all of the following:

  • Technique
  • Expression
  • Style
  • Contrasts
  • Ensemble techniques (if it is an ensemble)

Read the marking criteria for your course!

 Links to marking criteria: Music 1;  Music 2;  Extension

Understand that HSC music is not about what is fun for you: it is an exam, not just an ordinary “gig”. What is suitable for the average jazz gig is not necessarily good for HSC. In fact, more often than not, it will be completely wrong! There is no such marking criterion as “REALLY SWINGIN’, MAN!” Find a piece that has substantial composed content. The most common structure in jazz tunes is the AABA 32 bar song. These tunes have only 16 bars of music in them, and that by itself is nowhere near enough for an HSC performance. In fact, it is nowhere near enough for any performance.

Many jazz tunes have simple, minimalist “heads” – quite deliberately. The composed part of the piece only serves as a context for the improvisation. Sometimes, it is only really there so the composer can claim credit and copyright royalties for the tune. What really matters is the improvisation. The improvisations on recordings ARE compositions. You can transcribe and perform them. This is where the real substance of most jazz pieces lies. However, there are jazz and rock compositions that have substantial composed material as well as improvised sections. Some composers worth a look include:

  • Pat Metheny
  • Latin jazz – many composers
  • Charles Mingus
  • Steve Vai
  • Joe Satriani
  • Shawn Lane
  • Frank Gambale
  • Steve Swallow
  • Duke Ellington
  • Mike Tomaro
  • Maria Schneider
  • Plus many more…

Should you improvise in the HSC?

No not really, unless you are a very advanced and experienced player. That doesn’t mean you are the best player in your stage band at school, or you or your mum think you are good: it means you are one of the best young jazz players in NSW and you pretty well sound like a professional when you solo. Very few high school students are at this level.

The best options are a) Use or adapt the solo from the recording b) Use parts of the solo from the recording and parts of your own c) Plan your solo so that it is improvisational, but basically the same every time you rehearse it d) Only improvise if you are seriously good at it and immune to performance nerves.  

Some other advice

From ‘HSC Marking Feedback‘ in the NESA HSC Exam Pack:

‘Students should:

  • did not select repertoire that allowed them to explore a range of expressive and technical opportunities
  • presented performances where there were balance issues between the accompaniment and/or ensemble within the program
  • presented pieces that were too long and often impacted upon their stamina and the musical outcome
  • did not have the technical facility or musical understanding of the genre
  • often did not convey any sense of musical structure or sustain momentum throughout the performance
  • did not maintain secure tuning, particularly when performing within an ensemble.

Areas for students to improve included:

  • choosing repertoire that is technically within the student’s skill level and provides opportunities to demonstrate technical and interpretative skills
  • rehearsing in the chosen performance space prior to the day of the exam with attention to equipment positioning to assist accompanist/ensemble communication
  • engaging with their ensemble rather than focusing only on their own part.

Here are some general comments from the NSW Board of Studies (2010) Notes from the Marking Centre. Summarised from 2009 HSC Notes from the Marking Centre – Music. Some comments specifically aimed at teachers only have been left out. Visit the Board of Studies website to see the full text as well as comments about composition and musicology.

General comments:  

  • Ensure the use appropriate volume for the performance taking into consideration the performance space.
  • Sound checks should be completed prior to the examination so that long delays do not occur. Only minor adjustments should be made between pieces.
  • The candidate should ensure that their part is not doubled when using pre-recorded backing tracks as this is a breach of the examination rules.
  • The candidates will be examined on all instrumentspresented during the exam. For example, if a candidate sings and accompanies themself on guitar, both voice and guitar will be marked as part of the same performance.
  • Issues of endurance should be addressed throughout the course. Students should select repertoire which will allow them to sustain their level of performance throughout their program.

Music 1:In better performances candidates

  • were very well prepared and chose repertoire tailored to their strengths, demonstrating high levels of technical and interpretive skill
  • demonstrated high level awareness of ensemble including cohesion, balance and a clear understanding of role
  • demonstrated effective use of balance and variety within each individual performance
  • demonstrated an awareness of musical structure and momentum, with sustained energy and facility
  • displayed consideration for expressive qualities, personal interpretation and dynamics within the style
  • demonstrated a familiarity with the performance space including attention to appropriate sound levels and balance
  • presented repertoire that highlighted the candidate’s musical strengths.

In weaker performances, candidates:

  • focused on creating a diverse program rather than high-quality individual performances
  • presented repertoire which was beyond their technical skills and tended to expose weaknesses rather than accentuate strengths
  • chose repertoire that provided limited scope to demonstrate technical and interpretative skills, or very brief performances with similar limitations
  • did not effectively understand their role within an ensemble
  • were unable to sustain engagement and momentum for the duration of the piece
  • did not adequately consider the stylistic, dynamic and/or expressive features of the repertoire.

Music 2 (core & elective):

In better performances, candidates:

  • selected appropriate repertoire that allowed them to fully demonstrate their musical ability
  • conveyed and sustained a stylistic understanding and a convincing performance
  • demonstrated the requisite technical facility for the repertoire selected
  • successfully explored the diversity that the Mandatory topic offered
  • took time to tune and organise their piece prior to commencing the performance
  • displayed secure and sustained intonation.

In weaker performances, candidates:

  • ensure the chosen repertoire is carefully matched to skills and technical ability
  • be familiar with and understand the performance space and equipment, including starting backing tracks and using microphones correctly
  • ensure accompanist/ensemble positioning is well considered and allows for effective interaction and engagement between performers
  • have supportive and well-rehearsed accompaniment that allows for a secure musical outcome
  • ensure sound checks before each piece are short and focused
  • avoid splitting programs.

In better performances, students were able to:

  • present repertoire to display musical strengths and a sense of musical expression and sensitivity to the style
  • sustain engagement and momentum for the duration of the piece
  • explore vocal/instrumental tonal capabilities
  • display personal engagement throughout the performance.

To see more of these comments and updates, plus lots more including the syllabus requirements visit the Board of Studies website.

By Saul Richardson, Jazz Workshop Australia Copyright, 2019.

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