What works for you when teaching composing in the classroom?

Pupils composing at Fallibroome Academy
Pupils composing at Fallibroome Academy

I was delighted to be invited to host a recent MufuChat on the theme: “What works for you when teaching composing in the classroom?” I was also interested to know more about:

  • What sorts of starting points do you use for composing
  • How do you handle the transition from group to individual composing (for exam purposes)
  • Are there tensions between what kids want to compose, and what you feel exam boards might want
  • What does good CPD look like?

I chose the questions as they directly link to some exciting work I’ve been doing on Listen Imagine Compose, working for Sound and Music with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Birmingham City University.  Listen Imagine Compose has researched how composing and taught and learned in secondary music schools and – through drawing on Professor Martin Fautley’s 2013 report – we have now designed CPD for secondary music teachers that has an option to be accredited as an MA in Teaching and Learning. http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/listen-imagine-compose

The hour-long chat was conducted at a furious pace and there was a wealth of knowledge, creativity and experience in the Twittersphere!  Here is my attempt to capture those thoughts and ideas, using the words of the Mufu Chatters themselves.

Approaches to teaching composing

  • Important to recognise that we all compose differently. We must make sure students know this too.
  • One teacher’s compositions developed from melodies that popped into her head. Took ages to realise not everyone composes that way!
  • I’m still a big believer in synoptic #musiced – composing/performing/listening integrated.
  • It is important students have time to be creative before committing ideas paper. Sometimes the product is invisible for a while. I think it’s important to remember this. Learning sometimes has to be invisible to actually happen! Avoiding pressure to show progress on paper.
  • Teaching composing effectively involves careful differentiation and encouraging a fine balance of both skill and creativity.
  • Games to scaffold and provide frameworks which allow room for uniqueness.
  • Modelling, 1 to 1s, a framework for weaker students and pointing the more able to a range of extended listening.

What sort of starting points do you use when teaching composing?

  • Need to put pupils’ intentions at the heart of the process.
  • A good stimulus can help whether a picture, story, poem, song, riff, video clip. A mix of ideas that inspire a composition. Either a rhythm, words or a picture.
  • Starting is hard for many so some need to hear first, some need to play, some need to jumble note letters or rhythm fragments.
  • Start with a title – it helps pupils think about music as a finished product even before they’ve started. It gives something to come back to when stuck! My KS3 really like that. I often reuse A Level briefs for them: The River, Night before the Battle etc; just because a brief is for A-Level doesn’t mean it can only be used at that key stage.
  • Pentatonic scales are really good.
  • Motifs from pieces in BBC Ten Pieces eg first 4 notes of Beethoven (5th Symphony)
  • I like to get the pupils to sing/hum melodies and encourage them to work it out on an instrument. Even if it’s a simple tune.
  • Story board.
  • Composition using milk bottles, take-away menus, tin foil, pots and pans. Let’s encourage this at home!
  • When both teaching and doing composition; important to spend time before you start writing by listening (with scores if possible) then forget it all and go with your instincts. What you fed in (i.e. listened to) will come out naturally.

Development of ideas

  • With some pupils, it’s helpful to work on the ending early on, then return to the middle. Helps establish harmonic structure.
  • Creating & developing ideas before committing them down; avoiding ‘Sibeliusitus’! Writing things down can discourage changing and developing ideas later.
  • I wouldn’t say don’t write down, just not on Sibelius; capture ideas quickly, get good at quick sketches.
  • Bit of a simple idea but it does seem to help my KS3 students to think about structure… Print out notated composition, then scissors and tape, I’ve often done similar with A-Level.
  • I love my music tech but sometimes, paper, scissors & glue just hits the spot!
  • Mine explored something David Bowie used to do with newspapers – cutting up phrases etc
  • I love composers’ notepads. And recording ideas on their phones can be really useful to avoid forgetting ideas.
  • Record ideas. A virtual composer’s notepad!
  • I would start at bar 1. Maybe after creating ideas, motifs etc. Easier then to get logical progression.
  • Listening to a piece with a developed motif can be really inspiring. It’s also important to make sure that pupils understand how that motif was developed.

The respective roles of improvising and composing

  • For me it’s about seamlessly moving from improvising to writing, silencing the inner critic & score studying/listening.
  • Developing confidence in improvising as a means to composing, playing with sounds, playing with musical ideas.
  • For me improvisation can change. Composing involves improvisation but in the end idea is fixed.
  • I do (as a jazz musician) think improvising and composing are totally different processes/experiences but 1st is source for 2nd

How do you handle the transition from group to individual composing?

  • This is a real problem for many pupils. I still used group comps in KS4 for learning about new styles & genres.
  • I’ve seen projects where pupils slowly take over musical direction within a group so they transition.

Creativity and the creative process

  • Composing involves both creative and critical thinking.
  • Risk taking, developing ideas, improvisation along with more formal technique.
  • Students initially find ‘no wrong answer’ difficult to accept – but by the elimination of the fear of ‘failing’ composition, students are more forthcoming in trying.
  • Encouraging the idea that, in an original composition, nothing can be wrong if it is the way in which the composer intended it.
  • All about empowering the composer to feel in creative control.
  • Facilitating a safe space is core to our work and vital in encouraging creative freedom.

Teachers as composers

  • Music teachers who claim to be unable to compose music should try it. They will be pleasantly surprised at the results!
  • Really bugs me when music teachers say “I’m not a composer/ drummer/ singer…”. Art teachers don’t say that!
  • Art teachers can draw and paint. Drama teachers can act. Music teachers can compose music. All of them. And very well.
  • Many of our trainee music teachers (at BCU) don’t consider themselves composers at the start of the course but do by the end! How do you shift their mindset? Lots of practical workshops with a focus on value of composing for developing musical understanding. Also about changing perception. If they don’t specialise in composition for undergraduate they don’t think they are a composer.
  • Encouragement, good training and resources, get them to observe others working creatively with kids.
  • Artists end up with a painting. Important for musical outputs in performance or recording.

What does good CPD look like for teachers already working in the classroom?

  • Kids love being creative in music. Let’s work hard to help increase teachers’ confidence in delivering creative music programmes. Somehting to be encouraged rather than stifled.
  • Good CPD would be teachers sharing practice/ideas/resources/links, professional dialogue in a supportive way.
  • The CPD created by Sound and Music/Birmingham City University/Birmingham Contemporary Music Group aims to support teachers’ creativity not tell them how it’s done.
  • It’s important to empower teachers and draw out their creative potential. Also teachers know how children learn.

Some thoughts on the use of Sibelius

  • When pupils compose on just Sibelius they’re often placing dots on a screen without thought. Encourage them to play first.
  • I would never advise *writing* on Sibelius, always leads to bad places.

Composing in Primary & EYFS

  • Encouraging to hear from teachers who are composing in primary and EYFS!
  • Structuring the classroom and session works really well to create focus and engagement so each group is at a table and every 10 or 20 min there is group rehearsal or audition of what they composed ie a deadline. Kind of a plenary -eg audition pathway eg first level say composition if pass clap it if pass get instruments and play it.
  • A balance of creativity and structure
  • We start very simply in EYFS. This is an example of a composition with vocal sounds.
  • During whole class games/starters sometimes ask children to all offer an idea eg new sound or short pattern for others to copy. More improvisation than composing perhaps.

Conclusions and key messages

  • All composers approach composing differently and we need to find a way of enabling pupils to do the same.
  • It’s equally important for teachers and students to feel empowered and safe to be free to create.
  • That students often find composing the most challenging and most rewarding thing.
  • No matter what form it takes, a starting point/stimulus for composing is always helpful.
  • Need to take risks and experiment, safe space to create in, think/imagine/create before committing ideas.
  • That risks are always to be celebrated, as is respecting each student’s personal journey?
  • Go for it. Many resources available to support creative music making activities. Kids will love it!

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