Let the music do the talking

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Terror is the word that springs to many teachers' minds when they think of the increasing emphasis being placed on creativity, improvisation and composition in the music curriculum, and their role in helping pupils to create their own music.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Teacher Placement Service recently ran their first combined workshop for teachers and musicians to help them "explore, through group composition and improvisation, ways in which the skills of teachers and players can be shared through a common programme of creative work".

The one-day workshop, held at the music school at Napier University's Craighouse campus, was led by Alec Roth, a composer with much experience of conducting workshops with both teachers and musicians - though never together.

Four teachers - Carol Madden (Deans Community High School, West Lothian), Scott Sneddon (West Calder High School, West Lothian) Edward Coleman (Loretto School, Musselburgh) and David Knox (a woodwind instructor based at Gracemount High, Edinburgh) - took part. Working with them were a BMus student at Edinburgh University, Tony Young, and three musicians from the orchestra - Brian Schiele (viola), Harry Johnstone (French horn) and Adrian Bornet (double bass).

Alec Roth spent much of the morning breaking down the inhibitions and anxieties generated by bringing together a group of strangers. By the afternoon, they were not only working remarkably well together, but producing music at a rate far in advance of anything they had anticipated.

Roth has no magic formula but stresses the importance of making participants work initially on creating music without being allowed to talk about it. "The more talking they do," he says, "the less music they will make. Building trust is crucial in this kind of process, and while they may have felt that some of the ice-breaking games and exercises were a bit silly, these exercises made what we were able to do in the afternoon possible."

Having warmed up after lunch on an instant orchestration of a tango by Astor Piazzolla that Brian Schiele had brought with him in piano score, Roth divided the workshop into two groups, each of which had to create their own composition within half an hour.

The results were played through after 20 minutes, and both groups were given a further 10 minutes to complete their work before playing it in front of a student audience. They both came up with imaginative and coherent exercises, but most remarkable of all was the improvement that took place in the final 10-minute session.

Alec Roth believes the teachers will take away specific ideas and processes that can be applied in class, but the real focus of the workshop was the effect it would have on their own perceptions and confidence in approaching composition and improvisation. The teachers themselves believed the experience of creating music through improvisation could be invaluable for children who are not musically literate.

The workshop did not address, however, the problems of how to assess creative music-making and how to help young people meet the rigorous standards of notational ability expected at Higher grade.

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