Month: May 2019


Before I start this post, there is an immediate definition problem with the word “creativity”. Some people think it means someone inventing something new and original and some people think it is simply about creating something. It’s almost like the difference between painting by numbers and painting a picture without numbers. For this post, I will use Ken Robinson’s definition “the process of having original ideas that have value”. I don’t always agree with what Sir Ken says but I think his definition is a fair one and so we will go with that.

The controversial words in Ken Robinson’s definition are “process”, “original” and “value” and that is where we get the most conflict. I would agree with Sir Ken that creativity certainly is a process – I don’t want to go down the route that creativity is something you are born with or inherit genetically. Even if there is any truth to this, it won’t help us in schools to develop creativity if we are simply going to write off large proportions of children for not having the right genes. I really do believe it is something you can learn but I’m not sure it can be something that can be directly taught as a transferable skill. I am pretty good as a music composer and I’ve been told my poetry isn’t horrific but my creativity in Art is awful and I can barely create an edible meal. As far as original goes, I am unsure that anything really is strictly original. Everything created is in context of something else that has been either influenced or copied. I would argue that there really isn’t anything truly original, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Value is the hardest to define. I guess KR would say that value is determined by the person or people who have created the product or people who have benefited from it. And of course this definition is insufficient because creativity doesn’t always have to result in a concrete end product, although much of the time it will.

Most people I have encountered who talk about creativity don’t create much. Almost every music or instrumental teacher I have met doesn’t compose their own music. They don’t write poems, they don’t write stories, they don’t even write blogs. Some say they don’t have the time, that teaching is all encompassing but others say that without the notes they can’t perform anything. I have heard absolutely fantastic musicians say they cannot compose anything. But they all have an opinion that creativity is incredibly important, even if they don’t do it themselves. Whatever we think about creativity, there are definitely barriers that are very strong, even amongst the workforce that are actually entrusted to deliver a generation of creative individuals.

This might sound a bit depressing and unfairly critical. However, I have seen some notable exceptions. One music teacher I met a few years ago fell into the job by accident due to a maternity leave and she actually did create music but never said she was a musician. No matter how much encouragement, she had made a distinction in her mind that she was someone who taught music, wrote music, performed music in church but wasn’t a musician because she didn’t have a music degree or a PGCE in Music. She also wrote stories and poems but didn’t bang on about creativity whilst creating absolutely nothing like some people; she just enjoyed it and got on with it. The most creative person I think I have met was a guy I met at university who taught himself the guitar. He listened to more music than almost anyone else I knew even though he was studying science and not music. He went to charity shops and bought everything on vinyl for 10p including albums of random British Northerners from the old collieries playing Hammond Organ renditions of flamenco music. He was good because he had such an eclectic taste in music that he had so many influences to draw on with his own compositions. This resulted in his own music being (dare I say it) original. Finally, one teacher I knew created some wonderful compositions but then left after a year to do a Master’s degree in Composition. Something we need to learn in the education sector is that if you really want creative individuals, we need to give time so people can actually have time to think and time to create. If a teacher is composing music in their PPA time they are not messing around, or not doing the day job, they are actually improving their own skills and subsequently the skills of the children they teach. If a teacher feels the only way they can be creative is to actually stop teaching children, we have a serious problem.

What I find fascinating about people who don’t compose music is that many have this erroneous idea that the compositional process is something mystical, enigmatical and spiritual – yet at the same time they think that anyone can do it and everything has value because creativity is linked to personal expression. These ideas have more to do with romanticism than creativity. The truth is that creating music is not mystical, enigmatic and spiritual and really is a process of making choices based on knowledge of what you know has worked in the past and perhaps a hunch of something that might work, again based on what you know has worked in the past. And going back to Sir Ken’s definition, not everything that is deemed creative has value because it depends on the thought process going on in the individual’s mind. If you are cathartically banging a drum whilst your partner randomly hits a triangle, you aren’t being creative. You’re just messing around. You may have got children in groups, making up music about living in the jungle but if the sum of your thought is “we are going to bang this drum because they have drums in Africa and there are jungles in Africa” then you really are not being creative at all. Most composers in the past and present have commissions, you are asked to compose something that someone else has asked for. You can put your all into it, but whether it is you consciously or subconsciously making choices or those of a customer, you are doing the same thing. All require choices, thought and compromises. And whatever the final product, most creativity is about trying to create something even if you might not get something tangible at the very end of the process.

Often the reason children end up with something that really isn’t very good isn’t because they don’t have creative minds; it’s because they either can’t play anything well enough to use to accompany themselves or create upon, they don’t have the technical skills to create on a computer or they don’t have the theoretical knowledge to know what will work and why. They may be unable to write music down. If they haven’t listened to a lot of music they probably won’t know how music is structured. But most importantly, to compose you need time to think. And you don’t get much time to think in a music class. So what we need to do to make children better at creating music is to improve their performing skills, their aural skills, their general musical knowledge, their theoretical knowledge and their technical skills. And give them time to think.

Demystifying creativity is very important. I have very little time for Ken Robinson’s view that we educate children out of creativity. The idea that we are born with innate creativity that dissipates as you experience the education system is completely contrary to contemporary cognitive psychology. What is closer to the truth is that you learn what you think about and you learn the most when you think very hard about something. And creativity can only exist if you have something to think about. So how can you educate someone out of something you have barely experienced?

In music education we simply don’t give children enough time to think and that is because we are continuously having to return to the basic concepts of rhythm and pitch because these are not learned early enough in Primary School. When you have children who can barely play a melody entering secondary school you know there is a problem. And I am not overstating the issue – I would bet all my chips on the premise that every secondary music teacher has some children in their class who can’t find Middle C on a keyboard, let alone play a tune with more than one finger. When you are thinking about where the keys are, it is very difficult to think about how to be creative. If you are driving a car you need to be thinking about the road ahead, not looking down at the switches to find out where the indicators are whilst you are moving forward.

If we really want creative musicians the answer is obvious. Improve basic instrumental, vocal, technical and aural skills in the most interesting way possible that allows children to get better and as a result be able to think about other things whilst performing. The majority of our work in Primary Schools must be improving performing and aural skills with the theoretical knowledge that goes along with that. Our secondary colleagues will be delighted with children who can sing in tune, perform melodies on recorders and keyboards, keep in time and recognize the basics in how to write music down. And creativity will flourish.

Choir Planning for Christmas

This is the time for music teachers to start planning for Christmas. Yep, it’s May. Some music teachers plan for the next Christmas in January so we may be considered a little bit late. What we need to do now is work out what groups do what and prepare the files before the end of term so every child who returns in August (we start in August) has a file with all the music ready. We are a largish international school and have many choirs. We have a Year 2 Choir, a Year 3 Choir, a Year 456 Choir and a secondary youth musical theatre group which is basically a choir that moves and are part of the secondary annual musical.

Next year we will be starting a chamber primary choir so the Year 456 Choir will probably have very few Year 6 members as my colleague who works cross phase is interested in starting an auditioned Y6/7 Chamber Choir. This will work out well as we have so many children wanting to join our choirs and we always make them non-auditioned. The new Chamber Choir will be our only auditioned choral group and will be for those children who want to take singing very seriously and sing in close harmony.

My group will be the Year 456 Choir and I will have them an hour a week although I am thinking of taking an additional rehearsal for Year 4 for twenty minutes before school starts. It is a two-part choir and for the new Year 4’s they will have had some experience but this is the first time they will be split into sopranos and altos. Our school has four houses and way I choose is simply that Romans and Vikings sing soprano and Normans and Saxons will sing alto. We could listen to their ranges but no song will go above an E flat so they should all be able to sing both parts. I will swap them over after Christmas when we get a new repertoire so they all get a chance to sing soprano and alto.

The next job is to plan from September to December and make sure that each choir doesn’t sing the same songs. My choir will have a repertoire of two international songs for International Day in November, a peace song for World Peace Day, two Halloween songs for Halloween and eight songs for Christmas. Because this is a lot of repertoire there will be some repeats from last year. We will repeat “Child of Song”, “Twelve Days of Christmas”, “Carols 4” and “Walking in the Air”. My colleague is thinking of some suitable songs but I have planned “Do you hear what I hear”, “Sleigh Ride” and “Colours of Christmas” and I have an ambitious idea of doing “Hard Rock Hallelujah” for Halloween. We will all have a meeting in the next few weeks about repertoire so we have a plan moving forwards. Nothing is set in stone but we want to get the majority of the planning done now as there are so many other things to focus on when the academic year restarts.

The reason we have to plan so early and thoroughly is that we only get fourteen hour-long rehearsals before Christmas and have to prepare a lot of material. Each song will be in an individual’s file with the full piano and two part vocal scores. Each song will be scanned so that we can send a copy of the music home for each child. We make backing tracks for many of the songs in the studio so children know which part to sing and how it fits together. These recordings are then sent home to practice. We work out the live instrumental accompaniments now, as no song will use a backing track – we strongly believe in live music. This means that the school orchestra will accompany the choir for about four songs. I spent a long time making full orchestral parts for “The Star”, “Twelve Days”, “Carols 4” and “We wish you a merry Christmas” last year and they were successful in our Winter Celebration and our final concert in an enormous mall in Guangzhou. This year we will make orchestral arrangements for “Do you hear what I hear”, and “Colours of Christmas”. We will make an arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” for the Wind Band and our string group will accompany the choir for a few songs like “Walking in the Air”. Nearly all the instrumental parts are hand-made so they exactly fit our strengths. We buy a few arrangements online but we have found you end up having to adapt them all, so it is sometimes easier to download something basic on MuseScore and then either adapt it or more likely rearrange it. I put all my arrangements on MuseScore for free.

Every song takes about three to four hours to arrange on MuseScore, about another two to three hours to make a backing track and mix down and about an hour to sort out files, photocopies and email the tracks and PDFs to the students. Most of this work happens in the summer but I try to get some done in term time. Each song will then need about two to three hours of rehearsal so that’s why we need everything prepared in advance, as we basically learn the songs very quickly and then just keep refining them over all the available rehearsals. We sing the songs without the files so the children need to learn a lot of words, hence the constant repetition.

If you don’t already do this, I strongly recommend you plan Christmas in May or before. It reduces a lot of stress in term time as many music teachers are expected to have a dual role of teaching great lessons and basically running an after-school events company. It may seem a bit unfair and there is a lot of work but that’s the job and as far as jobs go, it’s a decent, fun and rewarding one. And it is always amazing to hear from members of the public that no school does Christmas as good as our school.

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.