Composing water at GCSE and A-level

There regularly seems to be a composition brief about water. Many composers have attempted to capture unending, unpredictable and delicate water and it remains a challenge to do well. You can hear perhaps the most famous example of a river in music <a href=””>here</a&gt;. Notice how the river is established musically (the flowing water manifests itself in the flute line that gradually moves to other instruments, gradually extends) by a theme that is a development of the opening material. The rhythmical flow of the opening remains for much of the movement; this is important as the water never stops flowing. Think carefully about this as it would be easy for your river to vanish every time you encountered a new environment along your river’s journey. Smetana cleverly keeps the river going.

Debussy and Ravel both have captured watery figures on the piano with immense skil; perhaps listen to <a href=””>Reflets d’un l’eau</a>, <a href=””>Jeux d’eau</a>, and <a href=””>Miroirs</a&gt;. Think how the more angular the arpeggio the more moving the water is; more stepwise movement would create a gentler flow. You can manipulate the speed of the water pattern to show how the river is progressing on it’s journey. Consider too how the use of register helps to create the size of the river; lower register will help to create the necessary depth when the river becomes wider and this might be matched by a slower moving river pattern.

Texture becomes an essential element in capturing water; showing interweaving of various strands to help create the unpredictability. If the water is moving slowly perhaps consider how the harmonic rhythm will help to illustrate this. Consider how more adventurous harmonies will show the mystery of the water – think about Carnival of Animals movement ‘Aquarium’.

Takemitsu might prove inspiring for capturing water and it’s ambiguity. Listen to <a href=””>’I can hear the water dreaming’ (1987). </a> Schubert was an expert at watery accompaniments too; try <a href=”″>’Wohin'</a&gt;.

What other water-themed pieces do you know?

Swafford’s ‘Beethoven: Anguish and Tragedy’

Thoughtful Christmas gift of Jan Swafford’s recent Beethoven biography made an interesting read; still in progress but it is a brisk read. A module on Beethoven was part of my first year of undergraduate studies (taught by David Wyn-Jones, author of The Life of Beethoven) and I recall his warning that anything about the composer could come up in the examination. It’s early fifteen years ago now and I don’t recall the precise details of the lectures but reading Swafford’s book has brought a great deal back.

I had forgotten how much Beethoven (according to Swafford’s reading of his life) was such a business man with regards to publication; critiquing the critics too in the publisher’s journals too. I never recalled him being so conscious of his talents and his conscious control of being different and leading a new path; Swafford highlights Beethoven’s letters to his various publishers and occasionally he made a point of the newness in certain works. I had never recognised the obvious attempts of composers to not only connect with a broader historical trajectory but one that was so recent; Beethoven seemed highly concerned with his connections with Haydn and Mozart. As well as his concern for surpassing his recent forbears and I had never considered the less successful parts of Beethoven’s career and Swafford weaves these honest details in well.

Thought I’m not finished with the book, and despite some repetitive points (which are rather helpful as I feel like I’m really getting to know the biography through such repetitive passages) it seems like an honest account of a life that can’t really be untangled from his output as a composer. Swafford doesn’t sensationalise (entirely) the aspects of Beethoven’s biography that have fallen into popular conscientious, but helps paint a broad picture of a composer that I had always respected as a significant figure in musical history. I had just never recognised how much he worked to ensure that would be the case during and after his lifetime.

Bach Mass in B Minor: Vivace Chorus and the Brandenburg Sinfonia

Bach’s Mass in B minor is a work of immense symmetry, beauty and power and Jeremy Backhouse brought it alive with the Vivace Chorus’ performance on Saturday 15 November at Guildford Cathedral.

It can be a difficult acoustic but the chorus, orchestra (Brandenburg Sinfonia) and soloists were balanced with aplomb. The opening Kyrie was carefully shaped, and the central duet was sung with obvious delight by sopranos, Alice Privett and Alys Roberts. The trumpets cut across the ensemble beautifully in the Gloria. What was most noticeable was the clarity of the diction and the carefully graded dynamics. I particularly enjoyed the duet between Alice Privett and tenor, Richard Dowling; their voices blended well in the Domine Deus.

The second half started with a wonderfully firm account of Credo. The opening two choral movements were energetic with rhythmic vitality. The duet was equally rich with clear text, shaped diligently throughout by the soloists and Jeremy Backhouse. Et incarnatus est and the powerful Crucifixus that followed were controlled and paced with a sense of the tortured harmonies. The chorus excelled here. Et in Spiritum Sanctum was sung effortlessly by baritone Samuel Queen with the obbligato oboes d’amore parts adding a fitting plangent colour.

We were treated to such warmth in the Sanctus and the Osanna was triumphant, showing how well the Vivace Chorus can manage the demands of two-choir singing. The two solos (Benedictus, Agnus Dei) were two poignant and expressive moments following the intensity Backhouse achieved in the previous choral movements, with an impressive flute solo. The final Dona nobis pacem showed all that makes the Vivace Chorus such an enjoyable choir to hear; there was a sense of enjoyment on everyone’s face, committed singing and surprising us all with a strong firm sound until the very last note.

Bravo to the Chorus, soloists, orchestra and particularly to Jeremy Backhouse. It was clearly a labour of love for Bach to compile this complex work and that love was evident in Jeremy’s strong leadership to bring together an enjoyable evening of a great work of the choral repertoire.

15th November, Guildford Cathedral.

Preparing all for KS4 Music

My first Inspire Event for Teach Through Music focused on the transition to KS4 Music; well, more than that in fact. How do we ensure all pupils taking KS3 are prepared to continue into KS4? Is GCSE the only route after KS3? Typically 8% will carry on – quoted by Keith Evans in his provocative address during the evening of discussions and presentations. He is a staunch advocate for music lessons that are truly music lessons. No one disagreed! He sparked the debate whether there really should be a difference of approach between the different key stages. Plenty of useful discussions took place and Keith answered some pressing questions from the teachers who attended. The key message of music through music resounded.

Karen Brock curated and chaired the presentations by myself and other music teaching colleagues. Emily Boxer gave a passionate account of how her school manages the transition from KS3 to KS4. I gave a quick account of my experiences of listening and composing, followed by Julie Stanning showing how the wonderful work at KS3 can continue into outstanding lessons at KS4. Owen Bourne finished the set of presentations questioning whether GCSE Music was the right direction for students, make a strong plea for student voice in course design.

A real strength of the evening was the discussion with students. They were wonderfully articulate and gave a useful account of their school experience. Most striking is how they see a distinction between their school-based and out of school music making. A shame! Owen called for greater attention to student voice but later discussions reflected on the importance of imparting a certain degree of knowledge before students could make reasoned choices in their music-making. I think the debate will continue on how much content should be driven by student choice.

The new London Curriculum has a Music scheme well worth exploring, and it includes contributions by Karen Brock and Owen Bourne. A inspiring view of London seen from City Hall was the backdrop to the evening; a reminder that there is a great deal of opportunity for young people to make music in our capital.

Creativity and imagination in composition

It was great to meet a group of music teachers who attended my new course for Keynote, ‘Creativity and Imagination in GCSE Composition’. I was thrilled to be invited to write such a course; initially it felt rather daunting but it soon became apparent that I could draw on many previous experiences. Many teachers feel the pressure of exam success and careful study of examiner’s reports helped to guide my planning but a bigger influence for me were the experiences I had attending GSMD Connect short courses. These courses were practically based and looked at collective composition, an approach that guided all the activities I worked through with the teachers on my course.

It was wonderful to see that teachers were willing to take risks, and make music! They could see that by doing the process they learned how they could teach and adapt it. Teach Through Music is an initiative that equally preferences music-making by teachers as a means to improving the musical experiences for the pupils those teachers teach.

It will always seem a complex matter in how to help many music teachers who are less confident composers with strategies to guide their students through composition coursework. For me, it will always need a willingness from teachers to engage with the process themselves.

TTM Video

Do share this video with other music teachers in London

“Heard about Teach Through Music? We’re recruiting our final places for KS3 music teachers who want to get involved in this unique CPD opportunity for the year 2014-15. Funded by the Department for Education and the Mayor of London, Teach Through Music is a completely subsidised programme of professional development for KS3 music teachers not to be missed.”

CPD through Music

I took up singing lessons a year ago. I’m always on the hunt for a new endeavour and something that can feed my musical self as well as provide me with new ideas and repertoire for my own teaching. There’s something quite unique about being taught an instrument or voice as you form a very important working relationship with your teacher. Singing is something particularly different to other instruments in that you are your instrument; your teacher looks at you, not you holding or using an instrument, but you. That was rather intimidating at first but as the lessons progressed so did my confidence. My initial aim was to gain the confidence to use my voice in class and feel at ease leading singing and choral rehearsals. Little did I know I would catch the bug and have since taken some exams and sang in a local opera group and attended a summer school. Why am I hooked? The teaching is inspiring. There seems to be limitless opportunities to get involved and sing with others and there is plenty of repertoire waiting in the wings to be discovered. Practising is a joy; who knows if my neighbours think the same thing.

Enthusiasm is contagious though I won’t be rushing to sing opera arias at my classes but I’m brimming with my recent discoveries to share with my classes. I want to add a Musical Theatre project to one year group and to consider how we might do an outreach project with local schools being part of an opera. All because I’ve found a new resource in singing that comes from my own direct involvement in singing. I’ve not read a book, I’ve not chatted to other singers (well I’ve done both of those things too…) but I’ve been singing.

‘Too much music teaching continued to be dominated by the spoken or written word, rather than by musical sounds. Lessons were planned diligently, but not always prepared for musically’ (OFSTED 2012). I love discussing this quote on my courses for teachers as it raises an important issue for me. Rarely is it identified to mean how ‘musically’ prepared the teacher is for the lesson and often the teachers come up with several ideas on what this quote means. When do music teachers stop being musicians? It’s so different to other subjects in that we need to maintain our own musical skills so we do our job well. How often do we reflect on our own musical preparedness for our classes? How regularly do we maintain our musical skills by being involved in musical activities for our own development? INSET courses are great but are they keeping us active as musicians?

We want our music lessons to be taught through music; shouldn’t we be developing as music teachers through music too? I wanted to help develop singing in my school so taking up singing as a serious pursuit was logical for me. What opportunities are there for you as a music teacher to take up something new, or take time to work on an aspect of your own musicianship to help meet the needs of your department’s development? It surely is the cheapest and most enjoyable form of CPD to practise…?

Originally published as the September Guest Editorial on here