We've got rhythm

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Michael Burnett looks at how music composition can be taught as part of the national curriculum.

Thousands of people watched violinist Rafal Payne win the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition on television last week against stiff competition. But a few outstandingly talented and charismatic teenage performers, fascinating as they are to watch, represent very little of the reality of music education, which is often stretched and underfunded.

And now that composing is established as part of the national curriculum, there are more opportunities (and headaches) for teachers and pupils than ever before. Help from music professionals, including at the BBC, is, often imaginatively, at hand, however.

Composer Bill Connor's latest piece, In the Arm of a Spiral, conducted by him recently at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, had significant input from 300 pupils from North Staffordshire secondary schools and colleges. They played alongside the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, but they had already made an important contribution as composers as well. They provided ten substantial sections of the work, each of which is based upon a planetary theme, as part of a BBC Phil education project, Aiming High. During the process, the composer and individual members of the orchestra worked with pupils in the schools. And, in the run up to the performance, Connor completed his 40-minute work by integrating their compositions into it.

Hearing the pupil compositions in rehearsal, I was struck by the effectiveness with which they communicate their theme, space and the planets: the confident management of syncopated rhythms and development of motifs in "Mars", and the use of an interesting combination of ostinati in the build up to a climax in "The Moon", for example. And it was clear from talking to the young composers that they felt a great sense of pride in their achievements.

"We just kept on improving the piece and we've got so much better at playing it", says 13-year-old Hannah Pode from Newcastle-under-Lyme School. Hannah played the saxophone in the performance of "Mercury". The music her group had invented wasn't "just pretty melodies - it opened up new ideas for all of us".

But how do projects such as Aiming High come into existence? And how do they relate to the curriculum needs of music teachers and their pupils?

Martin Maris, the BBC Philharmonic's education co-ordinator, says: "The solar system, thematically, is bursting with possibilities as an introduction to creative music-making. And, in the Stoke-on-Trent Community Partnership, which enables business and education to work together, we had an infrastructure readymade for the project's development. The national curriculum and GCSE have made music accessible to young people and that has to be good. But some teachers lack confidence in the teaching of composition and projects such as Aiming High can support teachers, and their pupils, in this challenging area".

Certainly, the teachers involved spoke well of the project. Martin Drew, head of music at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College said: "It has opened musical doors and had a value that is immeasurable." And Jean Thorley, from Blackfriars, a special needs school, says: "Our children don't get much opportunity to compose and perform with others. But they've involved themselves in the rhythm section of "Mars" and really enjoyed the experience."

Other projects can be found to help both pupils and teachers. A recent Lloyds Bank Young Composer Workshop in Manchester featured six works by composers under 19. (It is to be followed by a Young Composer Surgery, at which aspiring youngsters will be able to discuss their scores with an expert, during the BBC Young Musicians 96 Extravaganza at the South Bank, London, on May 6). The works were played by the BBC Philharmonic, discussed with their creators by professional composers, and two of the participants, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Stuart MacRae, were commissioned to write pieces for performance next year.

Cheryl's composition, a concertino for cello, piano and percussion, was described as "wonderful and heart-rending" by one of the professionals. And the 15-year-old's response to the workshop was ecstatic: "I thought it was absolutely brilliant hearing my music being played".

Cheryl is at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where an orchestral piece of hers was performed when she was nine. How does she react to the fact that composing is now included in the curriculum for all state school nine-year-olds? "I think it's right. Composition should be for all because it's a means of expression. Young children can use sounds to draw pictures and develop their imagination. This can give them a sense of achievement and be really satisfying."

But specialist music teachers are the exception rather than the rule in state primary schools, and those who are specialists often don't focus on composition with their children. "Of course, you can't have professional composers in primary schools", acknowledges Cheryl, "but there must be a lot of children who are inventing tunes in their heads but can't write them down because of lack of help."

All of which, from an unusual perspective, helps set national curriculum requirements in context. For, without the provision of sufficient, suitably qualified, specialists it is difficult to see how composing in schools within the state primary sector can be tackled in any really meaningful fashion.

Jo Glover, senior lecturer in music at Bath College of Higher Education, and joint editor of the termly magazine Primary Music Today, insists, however, that primary class teachers are well placed to develop young children's composing abilities, if trained adequately. "Class teachers can enable pupils to work with sounds individually and in groups", she says. "The key with primary level composing is for teachers to use the same kind of teaching approach as they use with language teaching. They should create opportunities for children to compose. And then provide them with feedback on what happens, musically, in their compositions".

One opportunity for primary children to compose arose in relation to this week's Leeds Sound City festival. Five schools were invited to compose and perform a pop song. Harry Lea's class of nine-year-olds from Windmill Primary accepted the invitation: "The piece came entirely from the children", he says. "And they just used voices". "We sang bits of tunes", said pupil Darren Pogson, "Put the bits together and talked about if it were a good tune or not".

Stephen Pusey is head of music at Homewood School, a comprehensive in Tenterden, Kent, with a deservedly good reputation for its pupils' compositions. How had he and his department raised the profile of creative work? "We were lucky in getting a local authority grant to support a composer-in-residence. And we've involved parents by giving concerts of pupils' compositions, many of which stem from GCSE course work."

A problem secondary teachers face is the dichotomy, in both approach and content, between GCSE and A-level music examinations. "This is a difficult one", says Pusey. "GCSE composition teaching must have a theoretical background. At this level you can get away with 'It sounds good'. But teachers should encourage pupils to ask why they've done what they've done if they are to lay the basis for A-level study. The other problem is time allocation within the curriculum. At least two periods of music weekly at key stage 3, and three at GCSE, are essential for continuity".

Chris Artley is director of music at Ibstock Place, a south-west London school which also puts a special emphasis on composition. He points out that a lack of resources and accommodation often constrains teachers in their attempts to implement composing activities.

You do need proper facilities", he says. "You can use voices, ask the children to bring in instruments, even make instruments. But you're talking about a very different activity compared to schools which can provide pupils with the equipment and space to compose successfully."

A group of children from Ibstock Place came first in the 8-11 category at last year's TESYamaha Youth Rock and Pop Awards. Josh Harrington sang lead vocals: "There were three of us", he said. "The drummer and bass guitarist came up with some ideas. And I just made up the tune to go with their ideas. The song's a mixture of rap and rock, and composing it took us about five lessons." What was it like performing the song at the Earls Court awards ceremony? "I was in front of everyone on stage and felt I could make a mistake any minute, performing to all those hundreds of people. But I did it right. And it was really exciting. "

The national curriculum, and GCSE and A-level syllabuses, provide a framework for action in schools on the composition front. And there is effective work going on. But better training in the management of composing is needed for many primary class teachers, and for some specialist teachers at both primary and secondary levels. Which means that, at present, it will often be up to those already with the skills - individual music teachers, departments and external agencies, such as are mentioned here - to take a lead in inspiring the creativity of pupils. "For some, Aiming High was a life-cheering experience", says Martin Maris of the BBC Philharmonic. "For others a mind-turning conundrum. But, for many, it was pure magic that will live inside the participants for ever. The point is, this project made a difference".

BBC Philharmonic Education 0161 244 4014; Lloyds Bank Young Composer Surgery 0181 895 6144; Primary Music Today 01225 873701 or 0181 392 3438; Leeds Sound City 0113 247 4746; TESYamaha National Youth Rock Pop Awards 1996-7 01536 460370.

The third Music Education Conference organised by Music for Youth will focus on key stage 2. It will take place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on July 8. Registration forms from Music for Youth, 4 Blade Mews, Deodar Road, London SW15 2NN (0181 870 9624)

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today