Composition for MMA

This article appeared in the 100th issue of MMA’s Ensemble magazine. 

My year with the MMA focussed on composition this year and started with the Composition Day (the final of the Amadeus Composition Competition) at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. I arrived for the afternoon and worked with the students on how one might tackle the revised composition briefs for GCSE and A-level as well as exploring the possibilities of writing for the piano. My preparations for the day had been my recent work on the ‘Fanfare’ project with Royal Opera House Learning: the priority had been to engage with repertoire from the Opera House while encouraging a focus on the compositional process as a priority rather than the product. The resources pack we devised for the ROH project had far more questions to consider for the students than answers. For me, composing is questioning. We question what material we will need to achieve a certain brief, concept and emotion and we question what we will do to manipulate the material to create an interesting journey for the listener.

On the Composition Day back in March (2016) I worked progressively through the different styles of briefs students are likely to encounter (Film music, fusion, Western art music, popular music) and we considered them holistically (i.e. what will I need to consider to satisfy this Area of Study) and explored a worked example together as a group. My repertoire examples, as much as I could, came from the work of living composers. I want the students to see their writing as part of a longer term trajectory of compositional approaches that is ongoing, rather than spend too long in the distant past. However we did explore music by composers that are no longer with us. I find the ABRSM Spectrum series to be an invaluable compositional tool for GCSE and A-level students. It has an encyclopaedic quality containing a variety of composers and displaying a breadth of approach. What is most important for me is the length of the pieces; they are mostly short. Short works mean students can perceive their entirety in one viewing. A lengthy score can make it a challenge for less experience students to conceive as well as perceive the longer term structures, which should be the priority for considering works as models for our students’ composing.


I could not help but talk about Henry Cowell when discussing piano writing with the Composition Day participants. Not only is he far less recent than his output as a composer suggests, he reminds us that we can be brave to experiment with timbre when we consider the piano. I did warn the students against plunging metal chains onto the strings but there are other things students can consider that avoid any aggressive preparations. Introducing extended techniques was to open the students’ palettes to broaden their concept of what composing is. It too often becomes a note-combining exercise devoid of considerations of the sonic qualities these notes possess when they are produced on a particular instrument. Every instrument has idiosyncrasies that are worth exploiting to enable not only our students to gain the best marks they can but to allow their compositions to be the best pieces they can. Extended techniques encourage this focus on timbre as the key means through which we can compose in an authentic and musical way.

Later in the year I joined the MMA Conference in Lancaster to present a workshop on approaching composition in the classroom. I have worked a great deal with teachers on CPD courses over the past five years and it is endlessly enjoyable to share practice and discuss the approaches we can take to cater for the diverse musical needs we are presented with in the Music classroom. I always start with words. We explored activities that use words as a way of developing interesting rhythms, moving to adding pitch, exploring timbre, then developing textures, harmony and structure. Within ten minutes you can devise a class composition (only using voices) where each student has brought their individuality to the work (using their name to create a rhythm) and we can progressively explore the musical elements one can manipulate as a composer by building up the rhythmic strands from each student to create longer lines and ultimately layer these up to structure some music. This collaborative composing works well at the start of GCSE Music, helping to manage the transition from the group work of Key Stage 3 to the individual work at Key Stage 4 and beyond.

Modelling on pre-existing works forms a big part of my composition teaching approach, and one I’ve cultivated through the use of ABRSM Spectrum but also through projects such as the recomposing project I led with Pro Corda in 2013 and 2014. It shifts the focus from finding their winning musical idea to how one can experiment and manipulate an idea. I have found it is not too long before students start to form their own musical fragments and can use their experiences from doodling with pre-existing material to inform how they will approach their own original ideas. Fostering confidence in behaving like a composer should take priority in the classroom and behaving like a composer means spending time doodling, and refining musical ideas. The more time we spend looking at how other composers did this, the more confident our student composers can become.

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Understanding Younger Audiences

It’s now over half-way through a project I devised with some students from Guildhall School to explore my pupils’ perceptions of attending classical music concerts. It felt the right time to reflect. 


The project is something of a collaboration between me and Guildhall School’s Understanding Audiences research project. My aim is to understand how young people want to experience classical music. There are plenty of initiatives to bring classical music to younger audiences but how often do teenagers get to curate a performance on their own terms? Not many. 


This project is a pilot as I was keen to make it manageable within the confines of the school week and the schedule of the players. A piano quartet were recommended to be involved by the Head of Chamber Music and I devised a six session structure, that would bring a group of pupils from my school into a working relationship with the ensemble to devise a concert. 

  1. The players introduced themselves by a short performance and then the pupils instigated conversations by asking the players questions and vice versa. The pupils expected the players to be older, and less ‘cool’. The chance to chat to the players and develop a rapport was important. 
  2. This session was an opportunity to see the ensemble begin work on a new work and the pupils were able to ask about how the ensemble works, and the mechanics of chamber music. The pupils brought their instruments and joined in with the group. 
  3. This session was an opportunity for the group to play a selection of music from which the pupils would choose their programme and programme order. It was great to hear the pupils lead discussions with each other about choice and where to place items. 
  4. This session explored how the space would be used and how the concert would run. After some encouragement the students took real ownership of where the ensemble will be placed, lighting, programme and how the experience would feel for the audience. 
  5. This will be the dress rehearsal following the pupils preparing the logistics.
  6. The concert. 

Following the concert we will evaluate. Already it has been rich with issues and revelations for both parties. Researchers from Guildhall School have been joining to document aspects of the project, to help me reflect at this mid-point but also for their own interests in how this project might lead to future and further collaboration of this nature. 

For me, it is the authenticity that is the most important element. The pupils are discovering a great deal about the repertoire, logistics of being in a chamber group and to learn about the business of classical music performance. What pleases and excites me the most is that the pupils are revealing their own thinking about the classical music experience that speaks to them and not to them through adult ears. 

A joy to collaborate

Joining City of London School for Girls back in September 2015 was an immense joy. Since being a student I had visited the Barbican hundreds of times to see concerts, films, dance and exhibitions. It was a John Cage weekend during my postgraduate years that sticks in my mind as being the best experience. It was my first opportunity to engage with one composer over the course of the weekend and to attend events in different parts of the Barbican centre. It was the Musicircus performance in the foyer spaces that was the beginnings of my collaborative-obsession: ‘John Cage’s Musicircus is simply an invitation to bring together any number of groups of any kind, preferably in a large auditorium, letting them perform simultaneously anything they wish, resulting in an event lasting a few hours. There is no score, no parts, nothing specified except the concept. ‘You won’t hear anything: you’ll hear everything,’ Cage said’ (Peter Dickinson, https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/20/john-cage-and-his-musicircus?client=safari). There were performers everywhere, and I was enthralled by how music brings people together. 

We collaborate so readily as musicians in performance, and my own desire to collaborate came from my composing. I wanted students to work with live musicians as I had always done as a student and my initial attempts to collaborate involved bringing players to my school. It’s this authenticity that inspired the pupils, and this is particularly evident in non-Western music. I invited a local gamelan musician to be resident at the school and we devised new music in groups. The gamelan musician then introduced me to a Nigerian drummer, then through him I discovered a Taiko group and so on. Collaborating with performers brings a great deal of expertise in a subject where we are expected to know a very broad spectrum of musical traditions to help cater for our diverse student body. These musicians also bring a whole web of connections; we start to build a library of experts we can draw upon to support musical learning. 

The City of London has eight schools that it supports and January 2016 was the first time these schools worked together to put on a concert at the Guildhall. I was new at my school and embraced the opportunities and saw the potential of working together. It was not an easy task. Emails are sent, responses are few and meetings were impossible to arrange as you never managed to get everyone involved in one room at one time. What helped was having someone at the Corporation to take the lead and be the hub. They helped to ensure communication remained open, and chased up those who were slower to respond than others. The concert was a huge success, particularly as I was thrilled to see students admire the performances of their peers from other schools. As the event moves to Milton Court in January 2017 I’m confident it will be another vibrant and exciting event. 

I’ve been relentlessly pursuing other opportunities for collaboration across the City Schools and more recently we have been working with VCM Foundation to run a Young Leaders programme for singers drawn from four of the City Schools. This cohort of 30 singers has worked with real purpose to develop singing workshop leadership skills and they’ve flourished working with students from different schools. It took a huge marketing offensive to make it know that the project existed. I recommend not giving up and always look for an alternative way to get the opportunity known to the school. Music teachers are rarely at a desk reading emails, so try sending to community service co-ordinators, head of years etc. 

Collaboration also happens in the way my department approaches our work with students. We all have different areas of expertise and we strive to make the most of our skills to support the girls effectively. Regular conversations about what and most importantly why we do what we do is our greatest source of collaboration. Dr Ally Daubney visited last summer (2016) to facilitate further collaboration as we reviewed our KS3 Music curriculum. She encouraged an entertaining discussion about the whys much more than the whats, helping us develop our curriculum for the year ahead. It is this regular collaboration as colleagues, working with external experts that keeps us restless and always seeking out new approaches that keep the music curriculum right for the girls we have today, not the students we had yesterday. 

No amount of emailing can replace a good conversation. I made a big effort to meet local organisations when I moved to the City with a view of developing opportunities to enrich the musical education for the girls. The City hosts a wealth of cultural organisations and the Museum of London have been a joy to collaborate with. We had our first ever Year 7 Music Day working with the Fire of London exhibition as the starting point for creative work. After a morning exploring the exhibition girls worked in groups, facilitated by a teacher, to develop new compositions that were performed at the end of day. Not only was the student collaboration a pleasure to see and hear but as a team of teachers we needed to collaborate effectively. This took plenty of planning to ensure the schedule worked for everyone. 

I’ve learned lots of interesting lessons through collaboration: 

– start with a conversation and not an email: meet people and get to know their work. 

– Understand how the other partners in any project work; what systems, procedures shape how they operate and mould schedules to their normal ways of working. Collaboration is more effective when it feels part of everyday life. 

– Be flexible: if you believe in a project be ready to be the first to make a sacrifice for the greater good and long term success of a project 

– Be persistent and know the benefits for the pupils – this is the selling point and the why behind everything we do

– Win over the management: no project will succeed or progress until it’s been sold to SMT. Be clear on the benefits for pupils and work to make any project be an extension of your school’s mission/development plan or the mission of the group of schools. 

– Consider the barriers before presenting to the other partners – be ready to have the answers to questions and solve them without them needing to ask. 
We get very wrapped up in our own schools, and the competition between schools can hamper collaboration. We are so much more efficient if we draw on the skills and knowledge of others and we quickly realise all those worries we had are shared by our colleagues in other schools. More often than not we have a solution to someone else’s problem, we just need to find any excuse to start a conversation and see what we can share. 

NMC Composers

The commission from Rhinegold with NMC Recordings is near completion. I was able to visit Music Sales and interview Judith Weir for the video that will accompany the resource on her work and it struck me that as a whole the commission will reveal some powerful yet practical composing advice for young people. Judith made some really important points and I think students will gain a great deal from exploring this repertoire by living composers. 

The resource will appear in November as part of the Rhinegold Education Online Classroom. 

ROH Fanfare 2016

Fanfare 2016 webpages are now live! It was a pleasure to work with the Learning & Participation department to develop new resources for teachers and students. 

http://www.roh.org.uk/learning/schools-and-colleges/fanfare 

The webpages include:

  • Fanfare 2016 resource pack – this is an updated version from the one handed out at the CPD workshop (also attached as a PDF)
  • Fanfare motif bank – a selection of motifs teachers and students can listen to from our productions
  • Details on how to enter the Fanfare competition – including key dates and terms and conditions
  • Audio links to past winning fanfares

Please note that students are now asked to include use of at least TWO motifs from our Fanfare Motif Bank in their fanfares. 
Entries for Fanfare 2016 open on Tuesday 1 March and close on Friday 25 March.

Let’s have some serious fun

I discovered this wonderful video clip from a 1985 documentary following the vocal group ‘Fascinating Aida’.

It reminded me of the King Singers equally amusing video about the history of Music:

And then the even more amusing:

I don’t see it as a problem to make something amusing of something serious; the Kings’ Singers performance shows, in a very sophisticated way, some important stylistic trends (as perhaps the Pentatonic Evolution of Music attempts to do too) through making these characteristics humorous as they well may be to the uninitiated classical music listener. Being willing to poke fun at something perceived by the uninitiated as ‘serious music’ does a great deal to welcome them into a musical world/work/object that carries a great deal of elitism; this is ‘serious’ music and it requires ‘serious understanding’. It doesn’t really. Some of it is rather ridiculous.

I love working on graphic scores with Year 8, and will always use the above clip. They laugh. I like the fact they laugh as I am not trying to say this is ‘serious art’ (as much as the canon will make out) but that it asks questions about the nature of what music *is* and what it *can be*. They perceive that question and enjoy perceiving it as the performance makes them question their perception of ‘serious music’.

With Year 10 as they embark on composition I want them to feel free to create; not have the burden of ‘serious music’ on their shoulders stifling their creative energies. I show them plenty of music that we can discuss to yet again if the serious veil and encourage the questioning of what music is and what composing can be. Zubin Kanga’s performance of Molitor’s Tango (I was lucky enough to see this live and review it here) shows that composing is more than the control of sound but also the control of time and the choreography of that sound and time. They immediately understand the title and amidst some laughs too. These laughs quickly subside as the pupils revel in the idea that they are free to create whatever sounds they want and we can quickly get to discussing why some sounds work better than others, in certain contexts.

The third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, in my mind, is some serious fun. Berio masterfully combines a vast collage of ‘masterpieces’.

Teach Through Music – Artist collaboration (1)

I’m so grateful to TTM for giving all the Fellows an opportunity to work with an artist. My initial priority for such a collaboration was to investigate opera writing for children. Getting a new post during the TTM year meant my priorities changed; I would be the musical director for Into the Woods at my new school. I needed to get to know this fascinating musical – one way was to see a brilliant performance by the American Musical Theatre Academy students, and the other was to meet with Mary King and discuss the musico-dramatic preparation for each role and the bigger vocal issues I would be dealing with.

Session 1 with Mary was today. I’ve had lessons with Mary before and she is nothing but inspiring and direct, not shying away from being unrelenting about technical matters. I’ve discovered over the past couple of years since starting my vocal journey that singing teachers are by necessity very physical and teach holistically. You are your instrument and it needs immense sensitivity and a warm, encouraging approach to foster good working relationships between singer and teacher. Vocal health assessment was my first concern today and I sang some Handel (Rodelinda / Act 2 – Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena). As someone who doesn’t hear me sing too often she has that objectivity to check up on vocal health and technical things; it was good to be reminded of 360-degree breathing and highlighting any pharyngeal tension. So useful as always and good to spend time on ensuring the homogeneity of tone by removing consonants and focussing on how the jaw is involved in articulation. Useful things for me to consider and to listen for when I’ll be coaching the company this autumn at my new school.

Talking through Into the Woods was the primary concern (post vocal health assessment!) and what I really appreciated from Mary is that insight into the requirements of the roles, holistically; not only the vocal demands but the acting necessities and the attributes that will help to bring the character to life in a convincing way. We talked through each role picking out some of the vocal requirements – patter being essential for Cinderella and Red Riding Hood for example – and considering casting implications.

Looking forward to the next session and getting into more detail about the show as I begin to plan for the autumn.