Composing in Schools
In November 2020 I was asked by Sound and Music to be a panel member for a national Music Conference. The topic to be discussed was Composing in Schools and although I was actually teaching year 11 at the time of the conference, I was able to pre-record my contribution to the discussion. Here’s a summary of some of the points I made about Composition in Schools from the perspective of a classroom teacher, plus some additional thoughts that didn’t quite make the cut due to time.
The Big Questions to be answered by the panel on the day were:
How can we support young composers?
How can the music education sector work together to provide that support?
The benefits and importance of composition in music education
Opportunities for collaborative composition are vital to developing strong student composers. This work creates the possibility for students to work with their peers, can encourage engagement with art forms and genres outside of their own interests, the use of technology and the use of live electronics.
Through composition young people develop work-related skills such as teamwork, communication, appraisal and the ability to receive and act on feedback, often instantaneously and in the moment and have their horizons broadened to continue to feed the talent pipeline of future working composers.
Examples of the music education sector working together to provide support for young composers
If I go right back to the launch of the Birmingham Music Hub back in 2009 - 10, the creative ensembles saw key musical partners going directly into a broad range of schools across the city and working side by side with classroom music teachers like myself to support creative composition work. These creative sessions led to a sharing day of performances from each cluster. Students were able to bring their own instruments from the recorder, to classroom percussion, to tablas to cellos, to work through the chaos and creativity of live composition, based purely upon the sounds that had inspired the children. This was supported by suggestions of musical structures and the knowledge of harmony provided by amazing facilitators such as Birmingham Jazz, Ex-Cathedra and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).
Listen, Imagine, Compose, in it’s original format was another wonderful opportunity to work side-by-side over an extended period of time with an identified composer, and to take a perhaps abstract concept such as the musical squares concept, combining numeracy with creative composition, to support GCSE Music students in beginning with sound over symbol, to compose in small groups.
In another school I set up a two-year partnership with Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance to create a range of musical opportunities for students aged 11-16. For many of these students, this was their first experience of the possibilities that exist for them to study music post-18. They visited the Conservatoire, participated in live composition both with Trinity’s Jazz tutors at school and with Animate Orchestra on both sites.
How can we support young composers?
In the classroom, working with a Composer in Residence to support KS4 and 5 students created opportunities to stretch the most able students, and help to prepare students for further study of composition at a high level. Most Conservatoires and University Learning and Participation Departments could easily connect schools with composers to provide this sort of support.
As a classroom music teacher in 2020, during the first term of the delivery of a recovery curriculum, I’ve come to appreciate in a new way, the vital role that listening plays in exposing the building blocks of composition. In response to reduced group practical music-making opportunities in classroom-based music lessons, we could certainly benefit from an online listening bank arranged by genre, supported by targeted questions about the musical features heard in each extract.
Increasing the Technology Offer of Support for all Schools
I’ve always found the input of a specialist Music Technician to be invaluable. When students are able to work at computers to develop their compositions, specialist support enhances the quality of their work, as students are taught to make use of the most appropriate shortcuts, patches, loops and plug-ins.
At the time of writing, I’d love to see an increase in age-appropriate support for secondary aged pupils (11 – 16) where they can make their own music for free, using an online platform or website that doesn’t require additional hardware or too much memory for those who may be working from home on a mobile device or tablet. Google Chrome Lab is an excellent starting point and something that offers even more creative options allowing older students to express new and current sounds would be great.
Finally, a website or app allowing students to easily share their creations with the class teacher, linking easily to a range of the most commonly used systems right now such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams or Show My Homework, would be well received.