Some more thoughts on composition

I have written quite a lot about composition recently, simply because there is so much emphasis on this with the wide educational focus on creativity. I would have loved to have been at yesterday’s Michaela education debates but had to just follow the debates on Twitter.  Thankfully the whole building were tweeting like mad, it was hard to keep up!  The one I found the most interesting  was Guy Claxton vs Daisy Christodoulou on “Sir Ken is right: Traditional Education kills Creativity”.  I have been reading “Seven Myths” by Daisy and “Educating Ruby” by Guy so I know where the two are coming from in their individual analysis. Sir Ken of course is Sir Ken Robinson who is famous for his TED talk on schools and creativity (incidentally the most widely seen TED talk on Youtube).

Basically both authors are saying the same thing – we all want children to have creativity, it’s the means to get to this hallowed grail that they argue over. Claxton is saying we can teach creativity directly whereas Christodoulou says that it is through the teaching of knowledge that we become creative. One of her most poignant remarks was that Shakespeare’s very traditional education did not result in uncreative plays but quite the reverse, it was because of his education that he was able to be a creative genius.  Anyone who looks at Shakespeare’s plays can see that it would be impossible to write what he does without a traditional education.  You can throw out all the historical plays for a start.  Claxton’s argument rests on the idea that you can teach transferable generic skills, something that Daisy rejects.  Having read both books, I do think that the research favours Daisy, there just is not enough convincing evidence to suggest that generic skills can be transferred between domains.  In fact there is a lot of evidence to suggest the reverse.

So how does this relate to music composition in schools?  We have to think of what we do in schools and how it relates to creativity.  The first thing to understand is that composition at GCSE and A-Level is very different to composition pre-GCSE.  The main model at GCSE/A-Level is to compose using a computer either using Logic/Cubase or Sibelius/Finale, finally submitting compositions as a score or as a recording.  Sometimes the audio will be people playing instruments but more common will be students submitting work that is played by midi instruments.  I have absolutely no problem with this whatsoever – it makes complete sense. The only thing I would suggest is that we ensure that children have adequate computer skills before starting the course.  If the first time children encounter Sibelius or Logic is in Y10 or worse still 12 then they are going to be on a very difficult learning curve.  Anyway, this in my opinion is a good way to produce composition work and I have no complaints.  It is done quite regularly in the music industry and will prepare students for work at University if they choose to go or to have experience creatively making something if they choose to do something else.  I am very in favour of composition post 14, in fact older children should be spending close to 2/3rds of their time creating music as it is a higher level skill and one that they should be able to accomplish towards the end of their school life.

But in Early Years, Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 the model is completely different. There are some schools that are doing more computer based composition work in KS3 and this is probably a good thing, especially if they can get the core skills of sequencing and scoring correct.  But most schools have a system where young people get into small groups with tuned and untuned percussion instruments and collaboratively create music.  It is this system where the problems lie.  For a start, composition is mostly collaborative at KS 1, 2 and 3 and mostly individualised at KS 4 and 5.  Why?  The main reason I think is because the children do not know enough about playing an instrument or how to create music using a computer.  Also, collaboration is seen as a good thing for pupils to experience.  But like I have said before, all this results in is bad group work.  How can children create music, often with sound all around them when there are so many factors against them? Anyone who thinks you will get quality work out of a small group of mixed ability adolescents playing instruments has probably never worked with teenagers or is lying to themselves.  Also, how on earth can you assess this work?  What if person A in the group has done nothing and person B has done all of it?  There are ways around this, you can ask the pupils to write down who did what percentage of the work but this seems to be a recipe for social disaster in a class situation.  I am not denying there is good group work going on in schools, but I am saying that it is incredibly difficult to get right.  And I really don’t want to equate creativity with something that is poor quality.  That defeats the object of creative work.  Creativity is not supposed to be a process where you have to reject your ideas because other people are more vocal about their own. Creativity is not about bossing everyone else to play what you want them to play.  Creativity is about the spark of ideas.  Done right I am sure it will be amazing.  But the situation in schools is not good.  Children leave their musical education aged 14 with generally poor instrumental skills, next to no musical literacy and a poor attitude to classroom music.  This then filters through to the next generation and the next.  I am not blaming music teachers for this.  We have all experienced lessons where compositional group work goes wrong, it is really hard to get right.

If we are to stop this, let’s just play music.  They have band in the States and Canada which seems to work well and has worked well for years. There are some great Orff programs that use traditional instruments well in the classroom. Some of this has composition in the program but the main difference is they are much more structured than composition programs in the UK for Primary  and Lower Secondary Music classes.  If I were to make some changes to music teacher education I would make all music teachers do Orff Level 1 for a start – it should be compulsory for all trainees.  And I would encourage teachers to teach sequencing and scoring at KS3.

I always do composition work in classes for all ages – it is important to give all children the opportunity to create their own music, however badly or well it goes, but I think we need to get away from an expectation that composition happens every lesson or even every month.  We should not be putting pressure on teachers to be teaching composition when they are doing great work teaching the children to perform well.  I don’t really care what music work we do in schools as long as it is high quality and we prepare children for their higher classes to give them as many options as possible.  But in general, an emphasis on performing and aural work in the younger years as well as good musical literacy skills will be the best preparation for children if they want to take music further.



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