How Group Work Inspired Me To Compose

I remember my first composition well. It was 1987. I was 11 years old. Bros was a thing. I didn’t like Bros. Everyone was starting smoking and I couldn’t understand why they were deciding to kill themselves. My mother had died of cancer three years before so I didn’t have a lot of respect for what my classmates were up to. They all hated me, I was a year younger than them all (I didn’t do Year 6) and was very studious. I liked music lessons and I liked singing in the choir. They hated music lessons and only girls were in the choir. When it came to options in Year 9, I was the only one who put music down. I had to change it to Welsh as there weren’t enough people to run the course so I didn’t even do music in the first term of Year 9. Luckily my grandmother took me out the school and I was homeschooled for two terms before transferring to a better school.

Anyway – back to the original story of my first composition. My music teacher told me to get in a group with other students and make music with an ostinato. It was a complete disaster. No one did anything. I tried to get the others doing something but they bullied me for wanting to engage with the task; they just wanted to talk. In the end in utter exasperation I walked off and spent the rest of the lesson in a practice room on a piano creating my first solo composition. To this day I can still remember it and play it. It uses all the black keys. It even had a second section with a second contrasting ostinato. It has fluctuating major/minor tonality and doesn’t really belong in any key, although it’s close to G flat major. It’s pretty terrible to be honest but it was my first composition. I played it every day for about two years, basically every time I played the piano. My grandmother hated it because she heard me bash it out every day for two years. My music teacher didn’t like it because I refused to work with my group. But I didn’t want to work with any of them. Why should I be forced to work with people who beat me, threw darts at me and lit WD40 in my face? Why should I have to put up with the mental abuse that the teacher can’t really see as they move from group to group? And I remember thinking how awful the compositions of the other kids were, as I knew a lot of them could play instruments and they were stuck shaking a tambourine.

Luckily this dreadful group work didn’t last long because the next composition task was on tiny keyboards that the teacher had linked up in a system similar to a language lab. This was way better, we all had headphones and we were all in the same room. The teacher could listen in on any of us playing so we couldn’t get away with playing the demo button. We had a little manuscript book and we were asked to compose a simple four bar tune and notate it in the book. My teacher marked it and I got 8/10. I was much happier and felt much more secure. Everyone got work done in that lesson.

This was the 80’s, a very different time from now but kids are pretty similar. If the teacher isn’t watching, little gets done unless you are fortunate to work in a school where it’s cool to study. These do exist but you often have to pay for the privilege. Lessons work well when the teacher can see what the children are doing. Group work isn’t a terrible thing, and I do group work in my classes. Most kids aren’t little annoying boffins like me. But I will stand up for any teacher who dislikes group work. It isn’t necessary, it isn’t better than whole class teaching, it has many problems and if it isn’t done well it can be a complete disaster. I am currently doing some group work with my Year 4’s – most the kids like it, although I would say that there is a lot of frustration in the room as it is next to impossible to hear each group play. And last year there was a kid who just turned around and refused to participate. This year I’ve been a bit luckier with the kids. It doesn’t really matter if it’s me who chooses the groups or the children themselves, I find you end up with the same problems. Friends seem to get the work done more enthusiastically but if they fall out over it you have a disaster on your hands. If the teacher chooses the groups you can get some sullen and unengaged participants. I’ve toyed with the idea of cancelling the Y4 group work project and replacing it with a unit on whole class ukuleles. I would be happier, most the kids would be happier and more work will get done. But I’ve kept it in there because we are supposed to do group work in the music curriculum and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I never did it. But also, perhaps the frustration of attempting to create music in a group is a learning experience that could be indirectly beneficial.

Who knows? The sheer frustration might inspire another kid like me to start composing.