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How can we help pupils Listen, Imagine and Compose?

Judith Robinson, Project leader for Listen Imagine Compose,  blog on creative composing (originally posted in 2016)

I come from a generation of musicians who didn’t get much opportunity to compose.  Like many young musicians getting to grips with playing their instruments, I did a lot of “noodling” in my practice time and even committed some of it to paper.  I did the old O’ Level, which involved writing perfect cadences and not much else and when I got to university, where I thought I would finally be taught to compose, I discovered I needed to have an existing portfolio of pieces to qualify for composition lessons.  So I never got the support and guidance that I wanted and needed as a embryonic composer.

As I was starting out as a teacher and workshop leader in the late 1980s, along came the National Curriculum for Music which said that, from now on, all children would do composing, taught by their classroom teachers, who would receive lots of continuing professional development so that they could gain the necessary skills and confidence.  Teachers who had embraced this way of working were given the spotlight at high profile events like the National Festival of Music for Youth.  It all felt very exciting and as if a brave new dawn had arrived.  Never again would pupils lack the opportunities that I had!

Sadly, over 25 years later, many music teachers still find teaching composing the least accessible element of the curriculum. There is a lack of understanding over the nature of creativity and whether it can be taught and there can be a disjoint between the processes professional composers use and what happens in schools.

A key question here is how could we change things, when we know so much about the benefits that creative activity can bring.  For example, could we learn from the creative processes that composers use, and how can we work with teachers to make an impact on the creative lives of young people?

I’ve been working on Listen Imagine Compose for the last 7 years.  It’s a partnership between Sound and Music, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Birmingham City University, involving teachers, composers, researchers  and “critical friends” contributing to a process of symposia and action research.  Our first report, by our lead academic Martin Fautley, published in November 2013, made over 50 recommendations for teachers, schools and arts organisations and can be found here.

It’s worth taking a look at all of the recommendations, but the key ones are these:

  1. Teachers and composers have different skills and can learn from each other.
  2. Composing is a process that is also developmental.
  3. Composing entails higher order thinking skills
  4. Exploring unfamiliar and challenging music: “Performance and enjoyment is not enough” (Ofsted November 2013)

Of course, a list of recommendations is not much use unless they are put into action, so that’s what we did next!  During 2014, we worked on the recommendations and accompanying “nuggets” of good practice we had identified and then piloted two year-long Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for teachers based in Birmingham and London (the London one was through the Teach Through Music programme).  The CPD is highly reflective, challenging teachers to think about who they are as teachers and musicians, as well as extending and changing their strategies for creativity and pedagogy in the process.  Teachers were able to personalise their learning through undertaking action research in their classrooms, mirroring the original Listen Imagine Compose research process, and adding to our body of knowledge as a result.  Our evaluations showed that teachers believed that they had made significant improvements to how they taught composing in their schools.

You can find out more about how the CPD we did with Teach Through Music here:

Since then, we have worked with Birmingham City University to devise a way in which the CPD can be offered as an accredited course, leading ultimately to an MA in either Teaching and Learning or Educational Leadership.  What is innovative about the course is that it can be delivered locally wherever there is demand from secondary music teachers, in partnership with local hosts such as Music Education Hubs and cultural organisations, whilst participants can still access the online resources of libraries and tutors at BCU.  This model is new for 2016, and we are hopeful that we will be delivering it for a group of teachers somewhere in the country come September! There is more information on the CPD here.

And finally, as Listen Imagine Compose enters its 7th year, we are bringing together the whole Listen Imagine Compose community in a special Away Day, hosted by the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education in July.

(Judith Robinson, July 2016)