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. 


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.

Orchestral Disturbance

I stumbled upon this: ‘Modern Toss presents a comedy take on a Classical Music concert’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02ysg91

And that it does. It got me thinking that is kind of activity would be excellent to try with classes. Give them the video performance of a piece of music and let them recreate the sounds. They have to think about what might the sound of the instrument they see being played sound like? They also have to respond to an inherent musical discourse that the video shows. They might even judge through visual cues when musical ideas return and this might be something they mimic in their aural recreation. It could develop into an activity where groups film their performance and share this with another group, who then recreate the audio by only responding to what they see. They could then compare the versions. One video performance could lead to many different aural recreations that could encourage plenty of discussion and detailed analysis of the visual cues.

Above all I think it encourages imaginative thinking and anything that pokes fun at something pupils might consider to be ‘serious’ is worth trying. If only to break the ice.

Response to ‘How do we get music teachers the CPD that they want?’

My response to John Kelleher’s http://www.teacherandmusician.com/2015/08/how-do-we-get-music-teachers-the-cpd-that-they-want.html/#more-692

I think Music teachers need to see a wider variety of activities as CPD – not just formally organised events (that often cost a lot of money… how much is the average INSET course per day?). Joining a choir and being rehearsed by excellent practitioners (such as Simon Halsey and the London Symphony Chorus), attending a workshop as part of the SOAS World Music Summer School, going to the vast array of Classical music events to learn about repertoire, programming ideas? Music lessons are brilliant CPD – with the right teacher. Performing in amateur concerts and events? Reading is also valuable continual professional development. British Music Education Journal, Royal Musical Association Journals? Plenty on offer in print to keep our interest not only in Music but in Music education. We shouldn’t feel bad for not getting out too much – it is the pupils that miss out on lessons if we end up being a Music teacher that does CPD more than teaching. The volume of courses on offer is considerable and I can see why it must be difficult to choose. I think we need to embrace the rich musical offering available to us and not be chasing expensive and bespoke training that might have minimal (and short term) impact. We can be inquisitive learners without spending too much money and without missing too many lessons.

I do think perhaps Music teachers are given too little credit. They don’t need to be ‘taught’ how to teach. They need rich, engaging musical experiences that they can translate into their unique educational establishments. The process of adapting and developing resources is what makes teaching such a great profession when you have a deep love of your subject and a need to share that passion with young people. Sell them Music by being a musician, and not a participant in an INSET course where actual music is low on the agenda.

Conversely, I love working with Music teachers on courses – discussing and sharing ideas has always been a regular comment on the feedback from the attendees. One remarked that he ‘knew how his Year 9s felt’ after I made his group of teachers work on a practical task. It reminds us that for many Music is an intimidating subject; many feel not ‘good enough’ at it, and as such as teachers we perhaps might lose some confidence in our musical abilities and we might not want to be made to experience that anxiety: Just how pupils must feel. The more opportunities we grab to experience those musical anxieties the more we can empathise with students and be more persuasive in getting them involved. So great to see a Teachers’ Choir going. I hope more such things appear; teachers’ orchestra, big band, musical theatre group, a capella, opera… Music teachers need to be practitioners that are willing to make mistakes and above all willing to make music.

GCSE Music 2016: ensembles?

I spent the morning going through the four main specifications with a group of teaching colleagues from other schools. It was good to spend the time (nearly 4 hours) discussing and spotting some intriguing similarities and differences between the boards. 

The set work and unfamiliar balance is one I’m particularly concerned with: Edexcel gives 85% of the listening paper to set works questions while AQA gives the same weighting to unfamiliar music. The final question in Edexcel wants the candidates to compare a set work to an unfamiliar and related work. Intriguing and potentially a challenging prospect. 

Composition briefs are certainly varied giving attention to ‘audience and occasion’; Edexcel sample briefs stuck out for me being imaginative in their design and engendering a creativity. The other boards had sample briefs that were rather limiting (OCR appeared very remedial and conversely wouldn’t encourage as much creativity in my mind as it aims to do). The mark schemes were varied – OCR having  succinct attempt to cater for a broad range of composing while Edexcel had a very detailed three category approach. The use of the word ‘complex’ bothers me (with regards to texture). 

A final question I was left with after this morning: what is an ensemble? It seemed that one could avoid an ensemble with the wording in the AQA specification: 

Music performed by the student in conjunction with at least one other musician (one of which must be the student being assessed), in which each player or singer has a unique and significant part (ie that is not doubled).

Does that mean a student could count an accompanied solo as an ensemble? If one was to sing a Handel aria the accompaniment is unique and significant? So a singer could perform an accompanied aria for their solo AND ensemble? WJEC makes it clearer that “Lieder accompaniment (or similar skill) is an acceptable ensemble, when the learner is the accompanist but not when the learner is the soloist”. 

I had a feeling another board would allow no solos; and what is a “solo” any more? Have the boundaries been blurred as a guitarist being ‘accompanied’ by kit and bass is an ensemble yet it may be submitted as a solo? Should candidates merely submit two performances where they have significant parts in each so it will allow those performers that do not play instruments that have a large body of solo repertoire, or those musical idioms that rely on certain combinations of timbres to be submitted in an authentic way rather than be compromised to fit with a specification? Or perhaps I’m reading into this too much…