Image Courtesy of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Playing with Sound
Tell us about yourself as a musician.
I started playing the cornet with a local brass band and continued to play with brass bands all through my childhood and teenage years. I started playing the trumpet and got into playing big band jazz around the age of eleven. Locally there was a fantastic youth jazz orchestra that played to a very high standard, so I did a lot of that. Later, I auditioned for the County Youth Orchestra and the County Youth Band. Because trumpets don’t always do that much in orchestras, for quite a while I chose the band rather than the orchestra – there was much more to do!
I went on to study classical trumpet at the Royal Northern College of Music. I loved playing Baroque trumpet music and for the last two years that I was there, I was part of a small chamber ensemble called the St Anne’s Ensemble, with my friend and fabulous soprano, Elizabeth Llewellyn. We performed a lot of trumpet and soprano duets together. I started doing research and found wonderful pieces for trumpet and soprano. It was finding these pieces that helped us develop the ensemble, realising that there was a body of repertoire out there that not many people were playing at the time. Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen Battle had an album called Baroque Duet and that was where I found out about so much repertoire for that combination.
When I was at music college I would often volunteer to play composers’ new work and loved playing 20th century music. Despite an interest in Baroque trumpet music, I was disappointed that I just could not get a grip on the natural trumpet.
What three words would you use to capture your musical self?
I came up with omnivorous, sound and imaginative. Omnivorous because my musical tastes are wide. I listened to a lot of different musics from round the world and have always been interested in listening to the music of other cultures. I’m also into 20th and 21st century music. I could be very happy playing brass band music, jazz, or classical music, so I’m not pigeonholed into one particular type of music, but I didn’t grow up listening to or playing much rock and pop music. Sound, because whether you are a performer or composer, you are being playful with sound. How do you use sound to communicate and express things? Whatever I’ve done in my musical life, I’ve bought imagination to it and I think musical imagination is something that’s very important to me and something important to nurture in young people, as well.
Do you think imagination is something that comes naturally in most young people that you work with?
Alongside my career at BCMG, for a long time, I worked as a musician in early years settings. A lot of my work there was very improvisatory, so yes, nearly all of the children I came into contact with were playful with sound.
Tell us about the first instrument that you learnt.
Well, I think the cornet was just clipped by the recorder! I think I was taught it by my infant teacher and I remember very clearly being part of little recorder ensembles at school. Then one day, two guys from the local brass band came into our tiny local primary school of about 45 children and demonstrated a load of brass instruments and said, “if you come along on a Wednesday night we’ll give you an instrument and we’ll teach you for free.” I ended up with this battered old instrument, you know the sort of crumpled cornets in a cardboard box? I started learning with the brass band every Wednesday night. When it was clear I was progressing quickly, my mum and dad found me another teacher.
How did you begin to develop an interest in composition?
Maybe before an interest in composition, it was an interest in 20th century music. I was bought up in Scarborough. There wasn’t much classical music going on, but every now and again, the Northern Sinfonia would come down and play in the Spa. Often they’d have a piece of contemporary music in the programme - sandwiched between two popular classical pieces.
I didn’t do any composing until GCSE and I don’t remember really being taught how to compose, but I did compose some really strange things. I’m not really quite sure how I knew what to do, but I composed a piece called Three Times Across the Fourth Bridge, for the school wind band, which used the numbers three and four to generate a kind of 12-tone row. It was a truly awful piece of music - so repetitive, but I did conduct our wind band playing it!
When I was at the RNCM I took the composition option, but I don’t particularly remember getting on with my composition teacher, though we did have a fantastic 20th century music lecturer, Doug Jarmen. I also ended up doing education projects with the Halle Orchestra and met people like Gillian Moore who was so seminal in setting up the education programme of The London Sinfonietta. So, I really came into composing through education projects and the idea that here we were, doing the things that I had wanted to do as a kid, giving young people a chance to create their own music.
What role has music education played in your musical journey?
Apart from learning the recorder, I don’t remember having any music lessons at primary school. At secondary school, classroom music was pretty dire. We sang, Candle in the Wind, played little tunes on a xylophone, maybe sang a song or two and wrote about how many children Beethoven had. There was no preparation for GCSE Music whatsoever, but at the same time my secondary school, a state secondary modern in Scarborough, had a fantastic school jazz orchestra and there was another one in the area.
So, much of my music education took place within youth jazz orchestras and within brass bands outside of the classroom.
What role has education in general has played for you?
I have strong values about education, which are being challenged at the moment, having been confronted by what my son is doing in lockdown and comparing that to what I was doing at his age. In some ways things seem very advanced, with so much focus on knowing the terminology of particular bits of English grammar.
I think about how much freedom I had in my primary education. There was very little structure to it, but a lot of passion from particular teachers. The Head teacher, who also was our class teacher, put on Twelfth Night with us. We were also able to do very individual projects. I remember doing a project about Sweden, because I had a Swedish Penpal. I remember lots of nature walks, poetry and reading for pleasure. I enjoyed creative writing, but I was also good at Maths. Maths education at primary school was basically “Here’s a book, and just get on with it”.
Secondary school was a big shock for me, going from 45 children in a primary school, then to a Secondary Modern of over 1000 children travelling to the local town. It was an ‘okay’ education, but how amazing to have a such an opportunity to play to such a high standard in a jazz band?
Who was your most influential school teacher and what impact did they have on you?
The person who stands out would be a man called Tony Turner. He was a big band musician, and he led both our school jazz orchestra and the local area jazz orchestra. The local area jazz orchestra was called the The Easy Band. That stood for the Eastern Area Schools Youth. These bands were of a very high standard. Tony took us to the National Festival of Music for Youth, we played at the Schools’ Prom and we went on tour to Madrid and Spain. They bought in really exceptional solo artists, Elaine Del Mar (jazz singer), Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Don Lusher (trombone), extraordinary big names which created the expectation of incredibly high standards. Tony galvanised young people into playing big band jazz and was also an early adopter of music technology in education.
You’re the Director of Learning for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Can you describe the work that BCMG do in Birmingham?
BCMG was formed in 1987 by members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle. The idea was to form a small ensemble that could play new music for a smaller group. The myth is that it was formed on the back of a tour bus by two cellists from the CBSO, Ulrich Heiden and Simon Clugston. They had just played some Beethoven and were speculating what it would have felt like to be the first people to ever play it. It was formed with that idea of performing world premiers and working with living composers. That’s still very much what we do today – the performance of new music.
Our standard line-up is 16 musicians. We perform works for smaller ensembles and we’ve commissioned a piece for 1000 voices shouting in the street. I remember a piece by Berio, Accordo that involved four wind bands. We give concerts at the CBSO Centre, which is our home but we’re a completely separate organisation from the CBSO, though we live in the same building. We also have strong relationships with places like the Aldeburgh Festival, the BBC Proms and Wigmore Hall.
In 2000 I was appointed their first Education Manager. The idea was to develop their education work and to have a strategy for that rather than doing a few stand-alone projects each year.
Our strategy is about supporting young composers. Our programme starts at eight years old and goes through to working with student composers from the University of Birmingham where we are Ensemble in Association, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Cambridge University. We also work with emerging professional composers.
Another part of the strategy is supporting the performance of new music by young performers, including new commissions.
All this work is supported by research activity and by continuing professional development (CPD) work with teachers and composers. There are also activities within the wider community such as Family and Community workshops and concerts. In all our projects, we try to utilise the strengths of the group - the repertoire, the links with composers, and brilliant musicians.
How have you created opportunities for children to develop their composing?
One of the very first projects that we developed at BCMG is called Music Maze, and it’s one of the very few projects that I have led throughout my time at BCMG. It’s a very diverse group of young people in terms of some having never played an instrument, some having just started to learn one and occasionally you’ll get a grade five cellist or something similar! But it isn’t always the grade five cellist who’s the best composer.
Because I’m always interested to make sure that there’s a connection with what we’re playing in BCMG’s concerts, we take a piece from an upcoming concert and explore it in creative ways. Thinking about the pedagogy of those workshops has been a real driver for me. The children come for a whole day, make music with some BCMG musicians and then we perform it to their family and friends afterwards.
We then started to think, well okay, what about the more advanced composers? So we developed something called Feel the Buzz which is now called Creative Composing Lab. In that project young people aged 14 - 18 compose for our musicians, so instead of composing for each other, they’re composing for an ensemble of two or three musicians. This means they can go far beyond what they can compose for their peers. The young composers also have incredibly valuable conversations with our musicians about the sound possibilities of their instruments.
We later evolved the Zig Zag ensemble, which is more of a creative devising ensemble – the young people don’t notate their music but make the music up together. Some of it is set beforehand and some improvised in the moment. Each one of these projects has their own sense of identity, but there is a progression through for young people.
Though in recent years we’ve asked young people for a donation for taking part, it’s always been really important for me to still have it completely free at the point of access. It’s also important to recognise that some young people will not come to the CBSO Centre, for all sorts of reasons. We therefore also have a really robust schools’ programme, going into schools and providing CPD for teachers as well.
If you had to pick one, what would your favourite composition project be and why?
Music Maze, because it’s so much my baby and I’m so involved with it. But if I didn’t pick that, the Listen Imagine Compose project (with Sound and Music and Birmingham City University) would be a very very close second. Bringing together teachers, composers and academics was a dream.
I also loved Minifest, where we basically got the primary school classes to devise their own day festival. They created Flash Mob performances that went into others children’s classrooms and musical games in the playground – but that was in the days when there was really generous funding for arts education in schools.
What are the three most important or useful things you have learnt about children and young people composing?
Firstly, even the very youngest can compose and improvise. When I used to improvise with very young children, what they came up with would have repetition and ostinato, there’d be form and there’d be variation, they would make up original ideas combining instruments into particular kinds of patterns and that has been so important to me to have that experience and to know where it all starts. I think everybody should go and work in early years!
Secondly, a real understanding that a child’s approach to composing is not the same as that of an adult’s. I’ll give an example here of taking an idea and developing it. Ask children to go off and make an idea. They come back and they’ve actually bought an entire piece of music which you then have to help them unpick! Very occasionally at Music Maze we’ve had very open sessions where we’ve said “you can compose whatever you like”. Some children will ask each other about their instruments and what they can do, other children will make a narrative and start composing to that narrative. Others might just mess around with some sounds, even with primary school children.
What advice would you give to schools to encourage increased quality of composition work?
I am in the middle of writing a chapter with Gary Spruce for the practical book that goes along with the theoretical book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. The first section is all about setting composing briefs well and knowing what you’re asking of the children, that is, whether you are asking them to be creative, or trying to teach them a particular technique or process. This has huge implications for what your role is, what the learning outcomes might or might not be and the pedagogies you might use. So, setting the brief or task well, you might say ‘framing it’ and the idea of bringing [in] some more authentic practices.
One of the questions the Listen Imagine Compose project asked was ‘what do professional composers do and how can that inform classroom practices?’. An example of that might just be encouraging children to compose for particular purposes or a school ensemble, so there’s a reality to the task at hand. Thinking about questioning and feedback strategies is particularly important if you’re working on open briefs. The Listen Imagine Compose project still informs so much of my thinking. When you’re planning the sequence of schemes of work across the secondary curriculum, what is progressing, in terms of the composing doing and thinking? What it is to think like a composer and to choose sounds with intention?
I would say reach out to your local music organisation. Come to Listen Imagine Compose CPD sessions!
What would you like to see changed in government policy on music education?
I would love composing to be part of the core offer of music education hubs. I think there’s a problem high up in government with equating classroom music with learning an instrument. I would like classroom music to be recognised as something in itself, more clearly. In relation to the model music curriculum debacle, I’d love to see real experts bought together and by that I mean experienced teachers, academics, musicians and composers. Not to develop a prescriptive curriculum that’s going to straight-jacket people but some guiding principles. Let’s get rid of some of these cyclic discussions about notation and technology and genre. Let’s stop calling certain academics ‘The Blob’. Also, in visual arts pupils are asked to document their creative process and this is assessed along with the final product, whereas in music, it is only the final product, the composition, that is assessed.
Your role at BCMG has created opportunities in which you work with several teachers, partner organisations, musicians and children from around the city of Birmingham and beyond. What are your top tips for effective partnership work?
One of the things people can read is a chapter that Professor Martin Fautley, Dr Victoria Kinsella and I wrote together, about collaborations, called Musician-Teacher Collaborations: Altering the Chord. It focuses on BCMG’s Resolution Project and is about respecting the skills, knowledge, experiences and practices of everyone involved. I’ve seen too many music and arts projects where only the artist is seen as the expert, comes in and does a load of stuff, maybe confuses everybody and then disappears, leaving the teacher to pick up all the pieces.
So, I think we need to see this as a sharing and a pooling of skills, not as an expert coming in, but it being about what we can learn from each other. Projects have worked best when time has been made away from the classroom to plan and reflect together. I think it’s really important when working with schools that it connects to teachers’ worlds and contexts. At the same time, a level of challenge is also important, asking “have you thought about doing it like this instead” or, “why are you doing it like that?” Making sure that the musicians and the composers I send into schools understand the contexts within which they’re working is important to me.
What are the most important personal qualities that have helped you in your work over the past twenty years?
I’ve been told I’m good at blending ambitious ideas with practicality, so maybe pragmatism comes in there. Not being swayed from our core purpose. Having a very strong strategy all the way through and not just chasing funding because it’s there, have all been important. Being a practitioner as well as a manager and being interested in pedagogy has helped enormously.
I’ve been so lucky to have some wonderful informal mentors. When I got to Birmingham, Robert Bunting, the Local Education Authority Advisor was very generous with his time and supportive of the programme. He was very willing to chat about what I was doing and never made me feel as though I was very young and very inexperienced. I was also informally mentored by Dr Susan Young, a world expert in early years music, and she got me interested in the world of research. I think of Martin [Fautley] and Gary Spruce as informal mentors, people who have always been willing to share and discuss ideas. In the early years of my time at BCMG, I was influenced by the composer Peter Wiegold on classical musicians engaging with improvisation and his approach to education work. Seeking out informal mentors, listening and learning have been a big part of developing the qualities I bring to the work.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project is Listen Imagine Compose Primary and the brilliant news is that we have £250,000 from the Paul Hamlin Foundation to run this! Had it not been for the lockdown, we would be in the middle of it. We will work with six primary schools in Birmingham and three in Bristol. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation are very supportive once they have decided to award you a grant. And they’ve given us a little bit of emergency funding which will allow us to do something with the schools in the interim before we start in September. This will allow us to build and sustain the relationships that we have with the schools.
We’ve got a great range of primary schools involved, from Druids Heath to Bourneville, to the border of Winson Green and Ladywood in Birmingham.
Within that you’ve got some schools with a specialist Music Teacher teaching music across the curriculum and some with a Drama specialist teaching music across the curriculum. In other places you’ve got a Music Graduate who’s the Music Co-ordinator, and then in quite a few other schools, you have generalists teaching music to their class. The hope is that whatever we develop, in the way of resources, practice, skills and knowledge, it will be relevant to a wide number of schools afterwards. People won’t say “oh we’re not like that school, it wouldn’t work with us” because we’ve thought about as many different contexts as we can manage.
How has the pandemic impacted you personally and as a professional in the arts world?
The pandemic has interrupted and delayed the dream project. In the first lockdown we produced lots of online resources for children which we hadn’t done before. We now have two sets, one for children who play instruments, and one for those who don’t have access to an instrument at home. Most of the resources connect in some way to existing pieces of music. We’ve tried to pitch what we’re doing away from and complimentary to what other organisations are doing. In the last few months we’ve also been delivering Music Maze workshops online.
We’ve done one on a string quartet by Stravinsky, another on a piece called Cirrus Light by Jonathon Harvey and then really recently, the piece, A Dust in Time by Huang Ruo that’s all about Tibetan Buddhist Mandalas. It took me quite a long time to get up the courage to do the online live workshops!
Personally, its been very challenging at times. My son is very curious about the world. He’s very passionate about dinosaurs and the ocean and fossils, but also, he’s only six and finds it hard to sit listening to short instructional videos and then to get on with work on his own without support, so it’s been tough! But we’re managing and getting into a better rhythm.
Who is your favourite song writer or composer and why?
I’ve gone for Stravinsky because, not only do I love listening to his music, I also love reading his writing about music. I find it fascinating and feel he was such a seminal figure in 20th century music. Working with chunks of sound and juxtaposing them together in radically new ways. I feel that he is the father of new music in so many ways.
If you had to name only three Desert Island Discs, what would they be?
This is today’s [selection]! I’ve gone for pieces that are representative of times in my life, rather than my favourite pieces. Ode to Queen Anne, Eternal Source of Light Divine by Handel which is a beautiful piece for soprano and trumpet that I loved to play. Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere because we love to sing it in the car really loudly together as a family. And then my last one is Egyptian singer Um Kalsoum and her song Inti Umri because I spent a lot of time in the Middle East before I came to Birmingham. I’ve continued to work in Beirut, Lebanon, over the years and so it reminds me of being in the café’s there and elsewhere in the Arab world.
What advice would you give to a young musician of secondary school age, aspiring to compose for a living?
Take part in projects outside of school with professional musicians and composers, such as the BCMG projects and the Sound and Music Summer School. Find like-minded young people to compose with. Make a habit of composing, just a little bit each day, even if it’s rubbish, so it becomes a habit and listen to all different kinds of music.
And finally How can young aspiring musicians, schools or music educational hubs work with you?
Our Creative Composing Lab is open to young people from all over the UK, particularly while we are on Zoom. We did a blended Creative Composing Lab where all the young people were on Zoom and the musicians were at the CBSO Centre with composer David Horne. The Projects like Music Maze and Creative Composing Lab are model projects that can be taken everywhere and adapted to local needs.
If you would like to get in touch with Nancy at BCMG, you can contact her via her social media Twitter @Cloudgazing
Performances of New Music
Support for Young Composers
CPD for Teachers on Composing
Schools’ Compositional Projects
Family and Community Workshops and Concerts