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Stars and bars

Space can be used to inspire young composers, says Owain Jones.I like to take a thematic approach in my schemes of work and one of my earlier Year 7 projects is entitled The X Files, which has a science fiction focus.

One activity is called "spiral space", designed to develop basic composition skills, introduce the concept of drone and build on earlier work with graphic music scores.

The flexible nature of the project means that it can be easily adapted to introduce other new concepts and allows for differentiation between pupils of different ability. It's also enjoyable and the pupils have produced interesting and quality compositions.

A large spiral is drawn on the whiteboard to represent space. Pupils then suggest things that might be found in space, as weird and wonderful as they like. Typical responses include planets, stars, spacemen, the moon, a black hole and aliens. These are written or drawn around the spiral.

Next, we give a classroom performance of the image we have created. Each pupil chooses a musical instrument - we have glockenspiels and xylophones, keyboards, a variety of untuned percussion, plus anything the pupils want to bring in themselves. They then improvise musical ideas to represent each image, focusing on rhythm, dynamics, pitch and timbre. Ideas range from short rhythmic bursts on the snare drum to represent a rocket, cluster chords in the bass of the piano for the black hole, short chromatic melodies using synth effects and pitch bend on keyboards for aliens and even the first couple of bars of Twinkle, Twinkle on the glockenspiel to represent stars.

The concept of a drone is introduced and I play two notes over and over on a metallophone in the background to represent the spiral. Before performing the graphic score as a class we usually discuss the best way to read it - from the centre outwards, or from the outside to the centre, how quickly to move from one image to another and how long sounds last.

These issues are usually overcome by appointing one pupil as a "conductor". After a first performance, pupils are asked to appraise its success and give suggestions for improvements before we attempt another performance.

As an extension to this activity, pupils are then put into small groups to produce their own spiral space compositions, with lower ability pupils perhaps contributing simple musical gestures on percussion instruments while those of a higher ability can be encouraged to compose brief melodies and chords for each symbol

Owain Jones is curriculum team leader for music at the Bromfords School in Wickford, Essex.

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