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Alison Willis on the Listen Imagine Compose Away Day (2018)

When I was invited to the Listen, Imagine, Compose Away Day I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a project to do with composing and education but very little beyond that.

What I found was a structured and carefully thought out day of thought provoking presentations and discussions reflecting on how composition is taught and assessed in secondary schools. As the day progressed three things became apparent;

i) The day was going to raise more questions than it answered about teaching composition….
ii) I (rather unusually) agreed with almost everything that was said.
iii) Every secondary school teacher starts Year 7 with a topic on African Drumming!

The big question was “What does progress look like in composing?” Attempting to unpick this were a collection of academics, composers, teachers and representatives from exam boards. I found myself agreeing with many (sometimes quite contradictory) points of view because I was, metaphorically, wearing several different hats. I am a professional composer who also runs workshops in secondary schools, a trustee of a charity that supports young composers and also a qualified secondary school music teacher, (although I currently teach Key Stage 5).

I have enormous respect for secondary school teachers and this was reinforced throughout the day. Everyone knows that teachers are drowning in paperwork and assessment targets (Progress 8 anyone?), but add to this the challenges of class sizes edging towards forty, limited resources and in some cases only an hour a fortnight to deliver six topics that meet Government expectations, you can see why so many teachers are thinking of leaving. According to a recent National Education Union survey, 80% of classroom teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession in the past 12 months because of their workload and there is a current shortfall of 30,000 in teacher numbers1.

However, the teachers I spoke with lit up when they talk about their classes, speaking knowledgeably and passionately about the subject they teach and the difference they can see it making to their pupils. One of the questions raised early on in the day was, “Why do you teach music that way?” When you think about it, who ever really asks that? When in a busy teacher’s schedule is there time to actually sit and think in the abstract? Isn’t it more a case of choosing topics that can work within your timetabling/space/resources constraints, making lists of what the pupils need to know (and checking it against the Government list for each year group) and trying to keep every pupil engaged to a greater or lesser extent? Will your Schemes of Work stand up to the next OFSTED inspection?

The Curriculum Planning session after lunch gave us the opportunity to really step back and think. Following some rather impressive magic tricks using silver hoops to illustrate curriculum topics, (a clever starter to get everyone’s attention at the start of a lesson after an excellent lunch!), a group task raised some interesting questions about where composition could fit into the chosen topics. As a composer I thought it could fit everywhere, but as a teacher I could also see that some topics would make it more accessible to everyone than others, suggestions on our table included blues, song-writing and minimalism. As a trustee of a charity supporting young composers I wondered how much creative freedom there could be in “composing” a twelve bar blues or a minimalist piece on computers within the available timeframe? The next question was “What is a composer?” Each group was asked to classify given statements into “Thinking as a composer”, “Identifying as a composer” and “Doing as a composer”. Some statements were obvious, particularly those related to using musical elements and creating structures, however some were not so obvious. The theme that emerged on our table was quite strongly related to experimentation and not being afraid to reject or adapt ideas and how this might contribute to developing an individual “voice”. It was surprising then that hardly any of the teachers I spoke to had considered teaching composition through practical music making. In my experience most pupils will engage with the process and you can feed in a great deal of technique and terminology along the way.

Practical experimentation and thinking time were two themes that had emerged from the “Meet the Composers” session earlier in the day. Duncan Chapman, Jackie Walduck and Kirsty Devaney talked about using context, imagination and improvisation to explore new sound worlds in their own music.

“But”, I found myself asking, “Where does this kind of creativity fit into a secondary curriculum?” Any A Level teacher will tell you that the most creative compositions don’t always get the best marks. In fact, I would encourage my most creative composition pupils to truly experiment in pieces that never get anywhere near an exam board, where my experience is that a good pastiche will score better every time.

The final session of the day built on the curriculum planning session, asking the question “How do you measure progress?” The discussion centred on reintroducing topics in a spiral, giving different year groups the opportunity to apply new skills every time it came round. Whilst this seems to work well in terms of performance and appraising it was less clear how it would be apparent in composing, particularly in the topics suggested as good “targets” for composition in the earlier session. There is after all possibly only so much you can do with a twelve bar blues…. As I said at the start, the day was a welcome step back from all the participants’ day to day work, informative and challenging in equal measure, sharing good practice but also producing more questions than answers. Can you quantify creativity? Can music for all survive in a target driven state education system? Without the time and space for experimentation how will our young composers know they are composers at all?

As musicians we know that music has immense value, both as a challenging academic subject but also as an integral part of being a human being. As Nietzsche is alleged to have said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” This government’s emphasis on STEM subjects and subsequent limitations through the EBacc on the music curriculum are truly frightening, with suggestions from researchers that music could face extinction in secondary schools.2 Musicians are communicators, team players, self evaluators and problem solvers, all government approved “key skills”, yet a private pupil of mine recently gave up playing his instrument as he “needed Business Skills” more than music. He was an excellent musician, composer and thirteen years old.

What sort of future are we creating if we do not allow our young people to access music and the arts? How will our future composers and performers find their voices if Music is not available to them in their formative years? What needs to change to enable progress in composition is surely that Music education needs to be valued as an essential part of creating a sentient and creative generation who will continue to create exciting new music when we are all old and grey. Our secondary Music teachers are, Canute-like, trying to halt the tide of cuts and bureaucracy that threaten to wash these future performers and composers away.

Let’s return to the original question, “What does progress look like in composition?” Certainly being able to apply increasing levels of knowledge and skill to different genres is a part of it, but for me it would also be every young person being given the resources, the confidence, the skills and the time to experiment with sound to create new music as a fully recognised, valued and properly funded part of their education and beyond.
Only then can the composers of the future begin to find out who they are.

Alison Willis is a composer and educator, particularly enjoying collaborative, issues based and historical projects, whose works have been performed across the UK and internationally. She is also a trustee of the Martin Read Foundation, supporting young composers.