HMC Cluster Meeting

We hosted an enjoyable HMC Cluster meeting at my school, City of London School for Girls in early June. I enjoy the conversations about what and why we do the business of Music Education and we all agreed, after spending a few hours hearing from two provocative speakers (Aaron Williamon and John Finney) and the later conversation turning to more practical thoughts, that we should meet again and keep talking. 

John Finney (Cambridge University) explored how we can conceptualise music education, commenting that Key Stage 3 is often perceived as the ‘wasted years’, where challenge and progress can be absent. Through five case studies he was able to focus on questions of how we can encourage numerous points of departure in the classroom, facilitating students finding their own voices and responding with freedom. John sees music education as one rich in human interest, celebrating the otherness in musical cultures and imbued with ethical considerations. 

Classroom four was where John highlighted how we can achieve a deeper response in Music through the focus on human interest with musical objects that are complex and contextually rich. The lessons would ‘avoid early closure’. John’s reference to Richard Taruskin’s ‘Danger of Music’ highlighted his increasing interest in how little children can engage with writing about music. 

His overall message was one of embracing complexity, allowing time for a deeper response, and a response that came with flexibility and a sense of identity. 

Colleagues asked John about the restrictions of the curriculum, and John countered this by suggesting giving space to think was a form of rigour, and there was indeed more scope for critical thinking, and avoiding ‘saming’ musics of other cultures into the western art music mould. There were comments about the pressures of inspection and ‘box ticking’, and another colleague referred to the breadth of teaching music and how it engages with other areas (such as history, art history etc.). 

The mission of the research from the Musical Impact presentation by Aaron Williamon (RCM) was to investigate ways of enhancing the mental and health well-being of those training in conservatoires. The studies involved large numbers of students. The outcomes were revealing – perfectionism rife, students doing minimum exercise (not very good at planks!). Though Aaron was not able to share the next steps until the evaluation of the research is made public in the coming months it is clear it will be important reading for Music educators. 

John stayed at the end of the day to watch the results of the Year 7 Music Day at the Museum of London. He mentions his experience on his blog: ‘Yesterday I enjoyed very much the compositions of the year 7s of the City of London School for Girls performed in the Museum of London where they had been working all day and responding to ‘The City is Ours’ (see http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/the-city-is-ours).

There were eight newly created works, none of which I or the girls could possibly have imagined at the beginning of the day. Their teachers I imagine entered into the day without giving much thought to ‘learning’, rather more thought to the subtleties of their teaching and being sensitive to the personhood of their pupils. (I like the idea of teaching without learning. [3])’

You can read the full post here: https://jfin107.wordpress.com/

On Wenlock Edge

A joy to work with London Philharmonic Orchestra Education team for the first time writing and presenting a seminar on On Wenlock Edge, a set work for Edexcel. Detailed process but a joy to select excerpts, explore wider listening and create bespoke examples. Edexcel have made some great choices but students will be busy over the two years with a great deal of repertoire to study and to investigate the wider listening. 

Understanding younger audiences: reflection 

Understanding Younger Audiences was collaboration between City of London School for Girls (CLSG) and Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD). I worked with Professor John Sloboda and Dr Karen Wise. 

Background

I approached Professor John Sloboda soon after joining City of London School for Girls (CLSG) with a view of making connections between CLSG and Guildhall School (GSMD). As expressed in the Memorandum of Understanding, ‘the overall strategic case for tangible collaboration between the two organisations rests on their co-location within the Barbican Estate, their joint commitment to the education of the gifted, and their championing of the arts (particularly the performing arts) as the hallmark of a civilised society and an educated citizenry’. This co-location within the same estate was the impetus for the contact but I additionally saw this as a vehicle for my pursuit of authenticity in how we would approach the teaching of Music at CLSG. This Authenticity would be achieved through working with aspiring professionals to encourage my students to engage particularly with Western art music, the musical rhetoric that was increasingly criticised in recent music education debates as it is seen as disconnected from the musical tastes preferred by students. A desire to ensure Western art music remained a vibrant part of the curriculum is of paramount importance. Additionally, I caught an article by John Gilhooly (Wigmore Hall) lamenting the decline in audiences for song cycles and considered how certain genres could slip through the classroom, and could easily be neglected when creating school-based music curriculums. I saw this as a challenge. My work in the classroom coupled with my work with Pro Corda, Royal Opera House Education and NMC Recordings led me to foster the opinion that pupils respond well to ambitious musical choices made by the teacher, and if I were to foster a genuine engagement with Western art music by my students I would need to make the engagement not only ambitious but visceral.

An initial meeting with John was helpful in shaping my thinking and to devise a pilot project that could initiate a collaboration without a complex commitment from either party. This pilot project was to investigate the performance-audience relations in a school context by a chamber ensemble from GSMD working with a group of Year 10 students in 6 sessions during a school term culminating in a concert at the school curated by the students, the process and outcomes being documented/evaluated through collaborative research jointly owned by the two organisations.

I saw this as an opportunity to trial an approach to creating authentic classroom experiences as an enhancement to the curriculum, in addition to understanding how younger students form relationships with Classical music and particularly the string quartet/chamber music genre. GSMD saw this an opportunity to provide a professionally relevant extra-curricular enhancement to a student group, and to investigate this as an innnovative route to deepening performers’ understanding of, and connection to their younger audiences in the context of their ongoing professional development.

It was felt the ideal conditions for this pilot were to take place in the autumn term of 2016, and I was able to commit the necessary resources and managerial authority. The Understanding Audiences Programme at GSMD committed the staffing resources to jointly plan and execute the documentation and evaluation component of the project, and the Acting Head of Chamber Music, Matthew Jones, agreed to work with the parties to identify and recruit a suitable student group for the project. The selected group was a piano quartet comprising one postgraduate student and three undergraduates. The group met with me and John to be introduced to the project so they could make a decision to be involved. A small remuneration was offered for their participation.

Session 1

The group of CLSG girls were given very little information about the project prior to the first session. I am familiar with how students of secondary school age have preconceptions about ‘Classical Music’ and it was important to me that they would be able to approach this project with as few preconceptions as possible. They were told that they would devise a concert with a group of musicians from GSMD and the first session was an opportunity for them to meet the group. The Piano Quartet performed two movements from the Walton Piano Quartet as their introduction and the response from the girls was extremely positive. They were noticeably impressed by the playing but most obviously by the youth of the players. During a discussion that followed the performance, where the girls were encouraged to facilitate a conversation with the players to learn more about them, one girl commented on the relatability of the players and how she expected them to be much older. The questions veered quickly away from the music and became more about the players’ backgrounds. The conversation was plentiful. It was agreed by the players that at the second session they would ‘jam’ with the CLSG girls and they should all have their instruments ready to do so.

Session 2

The Piano Quartet seemingly had forgotten their proposal of a ‘jam’ and had prepared to show the CLSG girls their rehearsal process by playing through some Brahms they had recently started to work on. The Brahms had less of an impact on the girls; likely because this was not as veraciously varied in character and mood as the Walton, and the group were not communicating the Brahms with the same competence as the Walton at this stage of their rehearsal. The girls were invited to join in at the mid-way point and all played through the slow movement of the Brahms.

Session 3

I encouraged the GSMD group to demonstrate a selection of repertoire that the CLSG girls could select, and put in an order of their choice, for the programme for the concert planned for session 6 of the project. The pianist from the GSMD group had additionally prepared a Gershwin arrangement for piano quartet. It was impressive to see the girls were taking increasing ownership and my own interjections were increasingly minimal.

Session 4

This was planned as the session to explore the space. This needed more input from me but I prevented too much interference and opted for statements such as ‘what would be even braver in your choice of seating?’ to encourage greater departure from convention. The girls moved chairs to different locations and experiments with the piano quartet being placed further apart from each other. This dislocation revealed ensemble issues that I hoped the girls would have noticed bu the opportunity to discuss how the placement of the players is vital to the success of the ensemble’s performance was missed.

Session 5

Planned as the dress-rehearsal, this session required the CLSG girls to prepare the running order and walk the piano quartet through the concert that would be happening in the next session. The girls were prepared in a minimal way, working out the logistics and the shape of the concert occasionally in an improvised fashion but there was an obvious enjoyment in the process. Most striking was their use of iPads: they were communicating with each other via iMessage rather than verbally so it appeared they were not observing the rehearsal when they were actively commenting with each other.

Session 6

Due to examinations the concert needed to be moved from the original venue to the Main Hall (a spacious venue with a larger piano) and the girls and players adapted to the new venue with ease. The CLSG girls brought a selection of snacks and had the ensemble seated in the middle of the space with the audience arranged in a circle around the ensemble. The girls had produced a minimal programme, and the concert was introduced noting that the aim of the project was to ‘challenge conventions of classical music’, noting that there was a stigma attached to this music by them and their peers. Between items the audience were asked to stand and move three seats to their left, a novel way to deal with the fidgeting the girls had mentioned in a previous session. This change of seating also provided the audience with a new perspective on the players. The audience was small but it was noted that the group of girls that attended were close friends of the organising girls. Some staff attended, commenting that they liked the movement between items in the programme. I had an informal conversation at the end of the concert with the those members of the audience who were willing to stay and the players.

Outcomes

• The project helped to bring together a group of girls who had just started their GCSE Music course and were a diverse group of musicians; some were very able, some were less experienced and some identified as having no interest in classical music. It was clear that the girl who expressed no interest in classical music was engaged by the opportunity to work with live musicians.

• The relatability of the group was of vital importance. The girls were able to connect with ease in conversation and to players too were able to relate well with the girls.

• The format, over six sessions, seemed sufficient time for the CLSG girls and GSMD group to make meaningful connections.

• The GSMD group increasingly saw the project as a ‘gig’. Whether or not this

• There were positive audience reactions to the moving-round-3-seats arrangement. Reasons given for this were: 1. it was great to be so close to performers and see what they were doing. One staff member really appreciated being right behind the pianist to see the muscularity of his playing and the involvement of his whole body, and to be able to see the music over his shoulder. 2. It helped wake up the (audience member’s) body, prevented discomfort from sitting, and beat the urge to fidget. People avoided the seats right behind the piano – there were more seats than audience members so this was possible.

• There were only a few audience members who were not part of the project – a few staff and a handful of students. The students seemed to be mainly close friends of the project participants. 

• I reflected that the girls had not been especially radical or explored the creative possibilities in quite the way I had hoped, but had been rather conventional, and had seemed to me to just ‘want to get things done’. I wondered whether this was a symptom of them having so many opportunities already that this one didn’t seem so special. I discussed this with Karen Wise how this would be different in a different school, with a different group of young people (e.g. those who don’t play instruments, for example). I can see there is scope to create a team of students from a variety of City schools to curate a concert.

• it was interesting that the girl who gave the introduction to the concert told the audience that the project had been about breaking down their prejudices against classical music, which was felt had not been stated in that way when it was introduced to the girls at the outset.

• It was discussed how engaged the GSMD quartet was with the project, in terms of their own development, or whether they just saw it as another ‘gig’ – and something they were doing for the school and/or girls rather than a collaborative process.

• The organising girls gained confidence about how to talk about the music and to engage with the players. They all gained an insight into the curation process, albeit a superficial one, but nonetheless it increased their confidence in attending a classical music event.

Missed opportunities

• There was scope for the girls and players to devise original material that would have made the concert a deeper collaboration between the two groups. The Gershwin was very much music that the pianist connected with well, but it was not known by the girls and as such the impact was diminished. An arrangement of a melody known to the girls would have been of greater value in fostering ownership of the music.

• The technology to document the first session failed and as such it would be important for subsequent sessions to ensure any recording equipment is functioning well.

Next steps

• Would it be worth repeating this project involving a group of students drawn from several City schools?

• How to move this from being a ‘gig’ for the GSMD group and to a learning opportunity for both parties? Should a remuneration be offered or not?

• How to encourage greater ambition and/or creativity in the approach by both parties so the result generates meaningful insight into how the interaction between the players and a younger audience could facilitate increased engagement with classical music in the classroom but also outside of the classroom.

 

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.

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.