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Composing the Future

On 1st October 2019, Sound and Music announced the findings of their National Music Educators’ Survey, Can Compose. The report, which is based on responses from over 500 educators, is the first of it’s kind to look specifically at creativity and composers.

Sound and Music believe that composing should be a core element of every child’s music education – and 97% of their respondents agreed.

One of the areas of the report is the identification of 5 key barriers (from the over 600 barriers that were reported) that prevent young people’s progression in composing:

  • Many young people lack the skills, knowledge and confidence to compose their own music
  • There are concerns about the relevance of opportunities for young people 
  • Many educators lack support and training in how to teach composing 
  • There is limited, patchy and unequal access to resources and opportunities 
  • Composing as a core part of music education is undervalued 

These are worrying findings for those of us who believe in the importance of opportunity for creativity and access to music for young people, however not a great surprise to the MWC team who see a wide range of musical opportunities for young people in schools in many areas, but speak to teachers who do not have the skills to teaching composition or do not have access to the necessary resources.

Sound and Music suggest that these findings point to the need for changes in perceptions, provision, practice and policy.

As well as identifying the barriers to young people composing, Sound and Music’s report also identifies 5 outcomes to address the barriers:

  • There should be more opportunities for young people to compose in and out of school 
  • Opportunities for young people to compose should be more relevant and diverse 
  • There should be improved provision of training, support and resources for educators, music education hubs and schools 
  • There should be improved progression pathways through better networks and signposting 
  • More value should be placed on composing

Sound and Music state:

“We want to see a world where more young people have the opportunity, skills and confidence to create their own music; where their creativity and imagination can flourish; and where the composers of the future, key to the success of many of the UK’s creative industries, are nurtured.”

This is a sentiment that we, at MWC, fully support.

Key Findings

Key findings from the report include:

97% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that creating and composing music should be a core element of music education

96%  of respondents agreed that creating and composing music enables children and young people to develop their identity and their wellbeing

97% of respondents also agreed that there should be more opportunities for students to compose their own music

Young peoples’ confidence and performance opportunities

An important point for consideration is that young people’s confidence in composing declines throughout their time in education up to the age of 16. By age of 16 and over, the confidence in composing seems to return a little, however, the number of young people participating in music education in schools at this stage is a very small proportion of all young people. One concern is that many students lack confidence in themselves as composers and worry about being judged. The report suggests this lack of confidence to experiment and make mistakes when learning to compose has its roots in a number of the issues identified throughout the survey. The report further suggests that this lack of confidence is compounded by the systemic deprioritisation of composing compared to performing.

Also highlighted in the Sound and Music report is the fact that opportunities for young people to hear their own compositions performed live are extremely limited. The research found that there is a mismatch between students composing and works being performed.

Teachers confidence and CPD

The research suggests that teachers and educators are not accessing training and Continuing Professional Development focused on composing with only 41% of respondents reporting that they had received composing-focused Continuing Professional Development (CPD) within the last 5 years. Educators seem to value to CPD with 45% of respondents agreeing that “CPD for themselves and colleagues” that be the activity that would most benefit young people. Linked to this is a lack of confidence in educators regarding assessing composing, particularly for exams. Educators’ confidence can be undermined by exam boards’ assessment methodologies, which are not always perceived to be reliable or transparent.

As educators do not always feel confident teaching composing, the report found that schools increasingly rely on external music tuition to fulfil curriculum and examination requirements, which particularly impacts composing,

The question “what would most benefit young people to compose music?”, 38% of those respondents directly involved in teaching music, and 45% of those respondents working for organisations, said that better teaching resources would help them support composing activity.  This was broken down with categories most frequently given as school facilities, equipment and space (34% of responses within this category), including the need for more technology and equipment; insufficient breakout spaces for group composing activity; and a lack of accessible instruments for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. This last point is highlighted in the finding that music educators struggle to support young people who face disabling barriers to composing and creating music.

Also identified as something that would help young people compose was access to composers. The report suggests “Providing young people with more opportunities to work alongside composers, and supporting composers in developing their skills as educators, are two important steps that educators feel the music education sector needs to take.”

Concern about the future of music in schools

A concern that MWC has raised in numerous blogs is the challenge that music as a curriculum subject is being deprioritised. In the Sound and Music report, 78% of respondents identified the deprioritisation of music as a curriculum subject or lack of time for music within the school curriculum as barriers to young people composing their own music.

Recommendations

The report goes on to identify ways to create opportunities and support young people to compose. These recommendations link to key areas:

  • Creating more opportunities for young people to compose both in and out of school
  • More relevant and diverse opportunities for young people to compose
  • An improved offering of training, support and resources for educators, music education hubs and schools
  • Clear signposting to improved progression pathways with better networks
  • A higher value to be placed on composing

To read the full report visit http://soundandmusic.org/projects/can-compose-national-music-educators-survey

Talent Drains and Unequal Opportunity: The State of Music Education in the UK

On the 19th March 2019, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) published their Live Music Report. Drawn together following interviews and reviews of material from the media and other sources, the report covers four key areas:

  • The Live Music success story
  • Problems in the ticketing market
  • Challenges facing music venues
  • Threats to the talent pipeline

This research comes hot on the heels of Music Education: State of the Nation, a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the University of Sussex, which was published in February 2019. 

Abandoned music classroom, image Tiffany Bailey

Image: Tiffany Bailey 

The fourth area of the new DCMSC report explores some of the challenges facing the music talent pipeline and makes some recommendations. It draws on a wide range of sources of information, from interviews with the Royal Albert Hall’s Artistic and Commercial Director and input from the Musicians’ Union to an interview with Noel Gallagher taken from the Daily Record.

It covers a number of key areas that are adversely affecting the talent pipeline, including music education in school, the music curriculum, the impact of the EBacc, the work of Music Hubs, sustainable income streams, and access to employment opportunities after Britain leaves the EU.

The discussion around music education highlights that not all professional musicians have studied music in a formal setting but agrees that for some disciplines, formal music education is necessary. The report states:

Music is compulsory in the national curriculum up to the age of 14; however, we have heard concerns about a ‘policy clash’ in music education, with the consequences of the English Baccalaureate, the rights of Academies to diverge from the national curriculum and local authority funding cuts leading to a ‘postcode lottery’ in the quality of music education.

Abandoned music classroom, image by Clay Gilliland

Image:Clay Gilliland

The fact that music lessons are not a compulsory part of the curriculum in all schools is contentious and has been debated for some time. This issue was highlighted in Music Education: State of the Nation:

The entitlement to school music education was recently reaffirmed by the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb:  

‘… high-quality arts education should not be the preserve of the elite, but the entitlement of every child. Music, art and design, drama and dance are included in the national curriculum and compulsory in all maintained schools from the age of 5 to 14.’

Here Nick Gibb specifically states that the national curriculum is only compulsory in maintained schools. In 2017, 77% of primary schools were local authority schools while only 31% of secondary schools counted as ‘maintained’ (Fullfact.org). These statistics do not include private schools. The reality is, 69% of local authority secondary schools do not have to teach music as part of the curriculum.

The DCMSC report raises a number of problems with this. For example, there is the real concern that students are not being made aware of the wide range of opportunities in music (e.g. sound engineer and tech careers), leading to a potential future ‘talent drain’ in all areas of the industry.

Discussion of the EBacc links to the findings of Music Education: State of the Nation highlighting that 59% of nearly 500 schools surveyed think that the EBacc has had a negative impact on the provision and uptake of music.

The State of the Nation report compares GCSE music entries from years since 2014/15, showing the drop in applicants:

Change in music uptake and exam entries between 2014 and 2018

This image clearly shows the change in cohort size and change in music entries. Compiled from Department for Education data. Taken from “Music Education: State of the Nation” report.

The DCMSC report also raises the challenge of Music Hub provision stating that although 700,000 children were taught to play a musical instrument through a Hub and 89% of schools benefited from Hub support, quality of Hub provision is not of a consistently high quality.

To address this, Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council, England confirmed that investment will be made to “build quality measures” into the Hub system. The DSMSC recommends that, “as part of its review into the effectiveness of the existing National Plan for Music Education, the Government should conduct a thorough study of where provision by Hubs is good and where it could be improved.” It also highlights the importance of Hubs receiving sufficient financial resources and workplace expertise for evaluation of their work and impact.

In the final recommendations, the DCMSC report focuses on a few key suggestions for music education.

One recommendation states that it welcomes Government’s intention to review the music curriculum, recommending,

The Government’s independent expert panel should engage musicians from different genres, stakeholders from across the music industry, and young people to ensure the new model music curriculum reflects how people make and consume music in the modern age, as well as the industry’s skills-needs now and into the future.

Another focusses on the EBacc and states: “

We repeat the call for arts subjects to be added to the EBacc to ensure all students benefit from a creative education at GCSE

Sources

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/733/73302.htm

https://www.ism.org/images/images/FINAL-State-of-the-Nation-Music-Education-for-email-or-web-2.pdf

https://fullfact.org/education/academies-and-maintained-schools-what-do-we-know/

Where Is My Money Going?

Securing the Value of Music Lessons

MyMusicPB.com is an interactive resource for music teachers, music services and music students that offers a way for teachers to stay organised, up to date and compliant with European data laws while motivating pupils of all ages. Its intuitive interface is free for teachers to use. The Music Workshop Company speaks to MyMusicPB’s creator, Phillip Brunton, about how the site can add incremental value to instrumental lessons and help build a strong framework to support learning:

“In the present climate of financial justification it is often hard to pinpoint how value is reflected in the cost of vocal and instrumental music lessons. With unlimited activities vying for students’ attention, it can be challenging for teachers to account for the impact of their lessons and add more value to those lessons, yet ‘value’ or at least cost is a question that is likely to raise its head when money is discussed. In developing MyMusicPB.com we identified three key ‘links’ that every teacher can strengthen to ensure that the personal enrichment value of music making is truly appreciated alongside its financial value.

Music lessons are a unique exchange. Parents pay for something that they are not directly receiving, and often making this payment to a school or music service rather than to the person teaching the lesson.  As it is rare for a parent to sit in on the child’s lesson, and even when they do they won’t necessarily understand what they are watching, so the parent’s perception of value for money is observed through the experience of the child away from the lesson. The parent’s assessment is based on the following points:

Is the student making progress?

It can sometimes be difficult for parents to appreciate the progress being made, with some technical and musical skills requiring a longer period of time to develop. Reports and external graded exam results can give a measurable feedback of progress, although these are rarely produced more than once a year, and only a proportion of students will receive top marks.

How engaged is the student?

For many parents, value for money is observed through the child’s enthusiasm, motivation and enjoyment in their playing; how engaged they are with their practice and other musical activities such as playing in an ensemble? Students who are motivated to practise, and who understand how to get the most from their practice, will make enjoyable progress, but when the child doesn’t want to practice, the result is commonly that the parent will decide to stop lessons. Students who practise will want to learn more and will learn more quickly, making lessons much more ‘cost effective’. However, students attend lessons for a very small portion of the available 10080 minutes that make up a week. The true measure of their learning is determined by what happens betweenthe lessons.

Is the teaching effective?

Parents also observe value for money through the professionalism of the service and the effectiveness of the teaching being offered. Regardless of how one becomes an effective teacher, effective teaching aims ultimately to guide and inspire students to become self-learners. The value of effective teaching extends beyond the lesson itself, and this means teaching effective practice skills. 

How does the parent observe effective teaching outside of the lesson?  

Is the teacher organised and keeping both students and parents informed? This is reflected through the effectiveness of the communication ‘links’ between the teacher, student and parent. How informed are the parents? It is perfectly natural for a parent to want to support their child, especially in the early stages of learning. What is my child working towards? How and what should they be practising? When is their next lesson and how are they getting on? How can we help?

The Practice Book

The paper practice book has traditionally been used as a teacher’s method of communication, informing students what to practise and sending parents important messages. Many teachers are aware that practice books never make it out of the music bag and they are often just used by the teacher as a reminder of what was covered in the previous lesson. As a teacher, does your use of a practice book truly reflect the value of your teaching? Could an interactive practice book be more engaging to the student, more efficient for your teaching and more effective in communicating with the parent?

3 Key Links

MyMusicPB, the interactive music practice book, identifies the ‘links’ between the teacher, student and parent as key to ensure that music tuition is effective and ultimately valued.   

As an interactive resource, it successfully organises and connects the teacher’s planning, notes and assessments with the student’s practice, focus and progress. Parents can be more informed and appreciative of the process due to improved communication, and they can offer more support to the child through the built-in weekly progress indicators. Students become more engaged through the interactive features of the practice book, leading to more practice, progress and enjoyment.

Some more important answers…

How much does it cost?

MyMusicPB is free to use for all teachers. The linking interactive student practice books can be purchased separately by the parent or teacher. Alternatively, a school, music service or Hub may purchase a user licence, giving all their students and their parents access to a linking practice book. This offers better value for students.  

What support is there for teachers?

Schools and music services have ‘Admin Access’ to key data, which allows them to further support their teachers, students and parents. This strengthens links between all parties, and adds value to both individual and group lessons.  

Is it mobile optimised?

As an online application, MyMusicPB can be accessed from, and is optimised for use on, any device.

What about my privacy?

MyMusicPB actually addresses and solves the problems faced by many schools and music services due to GDPR and is fully GDPR compliant. When parents register, they give direct consent as to what data is held, and data is kept on a secure server with encrypted access. 

Find out more

For further support and resources on efficient music learning, please follow MyMusicPB on twitter: mymusicpb@phillipbrunton 

And visit mymusicpb.com 


If you would like to know more about The Music Workshop Company’s range of bespoke creative experiences, would like to be featured on our blog or would like to ask us anything else, contact the team today!

Survey Returns Bleak Picture of Music Education in Schools

A recent University of Sussex survey of 500 schools in England shows a worrying picture for music in schools. The findings, released at the beginning of October, show that staffing levels in music departments have fallen in nearly 36% of schools, with 70% of surviving music specialists required to teach outside their subject to fill gaps.

The report, by Senior Teaching Fellow in Education (Education), Duncan Mackrill, also highlighted a 10% fall in the number of students taking a GCSE music course since 2016, fewer schools providing GCSE music as an option, and only some schools offering the subject out of school hours. Of the schools surveyed, 18% do not offer GCSE music at all.

[Image: Tiffany Bailey via Wikimedia Commons]

The picture is worse for A-level music. The report reveals that the number of schools offering A-level music has fallen by more than 15% in the past two years, while the number of schools teaching music technology has dropped by 32%.

Younger students are also being impacted. Only 47.5% of schools say music is compulsory for 13 to 14-year-olds and many schools only teaching music as part of an “enrichment day” once a year.

[Image: Wordbuilder via Wikimedia Commons]

Nearly 60% of the schools that completed the survey say the promotion of the EBacc and focus on academic subjects by the government was having a negative impact on music provision in their establishment.

In an interview in The Guardian, the report’s author, Duncan Mackrill, says:

Music’s place in the secondary curriculum continues to be precariously balanced or disappearing in a significant number of schools. Without a change to require a balanced curriculum in all schools, we are in danger of music education becoming, in many cases, the preserve of those who can pay.

And music provision is potentially under further threat in the coming months as the Government announced earlier this year that it will not fund the pay rise for centrally employed teachers, the majority of whom are music specialists. This means that any pay rise offered to teachers employed directly by the council, such as instrumental teachers, will need to be funded by local authorities.

The (Local Government Association) LGA estimates that this would cost councils £5.5m, an extremely large amount for local authorities that are already struggling financially. In its report on the LGA website it states:

If councils, which face a £3.9 billion funding black hole in 2019/20, are left to pick up the cost then some would have little choice but to reduce CET services such as music tuition.

There are around 5,000 centrally employed teachers who provide a range of services including those who teach children and those who play key roles in supporting education professionals. It is believed that at least half of these are teaching music. It’s also pertinent that many of the local authority music teaching schemes often waive or lower fees so children of low-income families can take part.

In an interview in the Independent Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, says:

The UK has a proud history of musical excellence and many of the most well-known artists in the world over time would have benefited from music lessons. For many young people, it is a vital part of their education and future life opportunities, but this could be at risk unless the government commits to fully funding the pay increase for all classroom teachers, including music teachers.

Ever since the introduction of the EBacc, high profile musicians have spoken out against the threat to music in schools. Also talking to the Independent, singer Ed Sheeran says,

If you keep cutting the funding for arts you’re going to be damaging one of Britain’s best and most lucrative exports.

Sheeran’s comments underline the fact that as well as being of significant value for individual children on a personal and educational level, music is a thriving industry in the UK. His remarks are backed up by a ukmusic.org report which shows continual growth in the UK music industry. Between 2016 and 2017 the industry generated £2.5bn in export revenue and saw a 6% increase in total gross value.

There are concerns about class privilege too, and the widening of the opportunities gap between rich and poor. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Independent:

The last thing that we need is any more pressure on the provision of music in schools … Local authorities clearly cannot afford additional costs on strained budgets and this will inevitably mean cuts. We are in danger of music becoming the preserve of only those families who can afford private tuition.

The Independent also spoke to the General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union, Horace Trubridge, who attributes his own career to the free music provision he enjoyed as a child.

It seems to me that we are now entering into an era in our profession when only a very narrow social stream of young people will make up the musicians of tomorrow. How will the tradition of fantastic bands and artists rising up from the housing estates and low-to-no income families continue?

Bands like Madness, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers and so many others with great stories and real, honest social messages to sing about. How will the UK’s wonderful orchestras fulfil the demands of the funding bodies to increase diversity within their ranks, when the very people that they want to attract are denied access to music education.

With the Government seemingly turning a blind eye to the destruction of music education in the UK, what is the future for aspiring young musicians and for the music industry? In a political climate where there is already a threatened skills gap forming, isn’t it time for those in power to face the music?


The Music Workshop Company would love to hear from you. If you’re interested in asking us about any aspect of music education, would like to feature in our guest blog or to book one of our interactive workshops, contact us today!

Creative Subjects Need Your Support

The Music Workshop Company has been following changes to the secondary curriculum in the UK with concern, as the implementation of the EBacc (English Baccalaureate) results in a worrying decline in take-up of arts subjects.

We’ve been supporting Bacc for the Future – the brainchild of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM). We spoke to the ISM’s Jessica Salter to find out how the campaign is progressing:

“Bacc for the Future calls for creative subjects to be included in EBacc and ABacc league tables, or for these qualifications to be replaced by a more rounded option. The campaign began in 2011 when the EBacc was first imposed. It’s now supported by more than 30,000 individuals and 200 creative organisations.

[Image: Tiffany Bailey]

The EBacc is a league table measuring schools by pupil performance in five subject areas. The intention is for ‘at least 90% of students’ (nationally) to be entered into the EBacc subjects, with only certain types of schools exempt. This essentially makes it a compulsory qualification for most school-age children in England.

For a pupil’s performance to count towards this new measure, he or she needs to have studied a minimum of seven GCSE subjects which must include English Literature, English Language, Maths, two or three sciences, an ancient or modern language, and history or geography.

If students are encouraged to study triple science and history and geography, this minimum of seven GCSEs becomes a minimum of 9.

It becomes clear looking at this list that the EBacc pushes creative subjects, like music, out of the curriculum and out of school options at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level).

The fact that the EBacc undermines creative subjects in secondary schools is a big problem. Statistics released by the Department of Education (DoE) in January showed an 8% drop in the uptake of creative GCSEs in 2017.

Add that to the 8% drop in 2016, and the figures are significant.

A recent survey from the BBC, which looked at 1,200 schools nationwide, found that 90% of these schools had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject.

The ISM continues to meet with parliamentarians to fight the EBacc. We still need your support and encourage musicians and music educators to actively participate to help us. You can do this by writing to your local MP and the Prime Minister about why creative subjects matter in our schools.

To find out more and to support our Bacc for the Future campaign visit baccforthefuture.org and follow us on Twitter @bacc4thefuture.”

Read MWC’s previous blogs about the campaign:

The EBacc and the Importance of the Arts in Schools

The EBacc and the Arts – An Educational Paradox

Government Bulldozes on with EBacc Despite Evidence

The ISM was set up in 1882. Today the organisation supports a growing membership of nearly 8,500 professional musicians from across the music sector. Its members include performers, composers, music teachers, music administrators, music technology professionals and portfolio musicians. The ISM provides a range of services including specialist legal and tax advice, template contracts, comprehensive insurances, professional development materials and select discounts – as well as fearlessly protecting musicians, the music profession as a whole and the wider industry through rigorous campaigning.


If you would like to contact the Music Workshop Company to book one of our bespoke workshops, or if you have an issue, an event or anything music-education related you’d like to see covered in our blog, get in touch today, we’d love to hear from you: info@music-workshop.co.uk


MWC Advert Image

A New Beginning for Musicland

Musicland Publications has been a leading publisher of sheet music, tuition books, teaching materials, teacher training programs, and learning resources for the Music Education sector, for over 30 years. String teachers in particular will be familiar with its tuition books, classical and contemporary music for solo instruments and ensembles.

Earlier this year, the firm announced an exciting re-launch, and a change of management, as Simon Hewitt Jones takes the reins.

The back-story

Caroline and Alan Lumsden with their four children in 1986.

The Musicland catalogue was established in 1984 to distribute the music of Anita Hewitt Jones and her daughter Caroline Lumsden, both music education specialists. Over the course of 30 years, it has grown into a wide range of high-quality musical and educational resources that help children become immersed in practical and theoretical music. The library of compositions leads children from their very first experiences of music right through to Grade 8 standard and beyond.

Founder Caroline trained as a violinist and singer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before qualifying as a primary school teacher. Passionate about the social side of music, she believes that every child, whatever their background, should be given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and partake in group playing and singing, giving them a head start in life.

Caroline’s Musicland characters and rhythm training are used worldwide to help the very young learn to read music subconsciously. The method, developed at the Gloucester Academy, was subsequently adopted by StringTime at Junior Trinity.

What’s new?

In January 2017, Caroline announced the re-launch of Musicland Publications with Simon taking over the day-to-day management. Her decision to step back is largely due to taking time out to care for her husband, Musicland co-founder Alan, who is coping with Alzheimer’s. Simon, who is a virtuoso violinist and Director of the pioneering online teaching resource, ViolinSchool, is Caroline’s nephew, and as the business passes to a third generations, Caroline will remain closely involved with updating the catalogue and planning new publications, as well as delivering a limited number of workshops each year.

She says,

I know that my mother Anita (Hewitt Jones – whose popular chamber music compositions make up the bulk of the early Musicland catalogue) would be delighted that Simon is at the helm.

Musicland’s brand new e-commerce website at www.musiclandpublications.com features some of their best-loved string sheet music and educational resources.

The online shop features favourites such as Bread and Butter Pudding, Lollipop Man, the ever-popular Ragtime Serenade and Rumba, and many more, with new covers rolled out across the catalogue, and some of the ‘classic’ Musicland pieces now available again for next day despatch.

The new site means that the entire Musicland Publications catalogue will soon be available through most major sheet music retailers, including in Europe and Australia, with direct worldwide shipping.

Simon’s son Rubin… the fourth generation!

What does the future hold?

Musicland will be creating a plethora of books, video programs and apps for learners of all ages, and developing plans for the firm to become a state-of-the-art digital publisher for string music and educational resources. As Caroline says,

Anita was a deeply passionate advocate of music education, and we’ll be holding close to her values and legacy as we move Musicland forward into the digital age!

 

 

 

 

www.MusiclandPublications.com

sales@musiclandpublications.com

+44 (0) 20 3468 4744


The Music Workshop Company would love to hear your music education stories. If you would like to feature on our blog, contact us today

Composition, Improvisation and Creativity

The Music Workshop Company (MWC) runs a range of workshops based on a wide variety of World Music, including African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion and Singing.

We also run Music Composition workshops during which participants create and perform new music under the guidance of one of our workshop leaders. These workshops can be based on a theme or topic, or they can focus on a particular style of music such as pop, jazz or classical. Compositions are built up from ideas, notes or chords, often using improvisation, and built into a final performance where students play the pieces without sheet music.DSC_0033

Improvisation is an effective tool in a classroom composition workshop, and is not exclusive to children who play instruments. In fact, using percussion instruments or voice and getting children away from the technical constraints of their violin or clarinet can free them to experiment more confidently.

A workshop exploring improvisation can also be designed as a one-off event for budding musicians, perfect for an Arts Week in school, or for a group such as a youth orchestra or music summer school. It can even be used in the workplace as a team-building exercise and to develop creative thinking.

Playing from memory and improvising are both concepts that can be intimidating, but they are integral to a creative workshop experience. This month, Matthew Forbes, professional cellist and MWC workshop leader, introduces the topic of improvisation, and explains why he believes it is so important to musical development.

“Few words in the vocabulary of the musician provoke such an extreme reaction as ‘Improvise!’

I have known it to strike fear into the heart of the most experienced professional, and yet to trigger excitement in the eyes of children. Why is this?

Many people seem to think that improvisation is a skill that you either can ‘do’ or not, depending on personality and natural ability. These people, in my experience, are the ones who confess themselves to be unable. And yet the only difference between them and those who ‘can’ is the environment and teaching that they have received and absorbed on the subject.

Matthew Forbes

Matthew Forbes

In the UK, and particularly in England, the opportunities to learn how to improvise have been very slow in coming. For as long as I can remember, to learn an instrument at school or privately, you must learn how to read music on top of all the physical techniques of the instrument itself. The two elements are inextricably paired. Moreover, the written word is sacrosanct. You must play THAT note, THEN, and for THAT long.

This is a lot to take in at once.

Is it any wonder then that so many give up or never reach their potential? Despite so many developments in the progress of literacy education in this country, why is it still assumed that in order to progress as a musician you have to be able to read as well as you play? As a professional classical musician who still finds reading music the hardest thing of all, it upsets me deeply to think that so many people stall in their musical experience because of this weight of responsibility to be a good reader. Not everyone is, and when learning a musical instrument or studying singing, the two senses that are most crucial must be the aural and kinaesthetic. Particularly for us boys, this latter sense is much stronger and more easily learned than the skill of turning a written symbol into a sounding gesture. The physical act of playing or singing can be far more powerful and satisfying than we give it credit for. The same part of the brain that catches a ball, holds a knife and fork and writes with a pen has limitless power to weave the same magic with a bow, a mouthpiece or a keyboard.

‘Some students respond well to the chance to improvise or develop skills away from written music.’ Maria Thomas, MWC

Think of some of the great non-reading musicians of the last hundred years: Art Tatum, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder to name a few. Their engagement with the music, the audience and their ideas had nothing to do with anything written down, yet their skill and attention to fine detail were as rigorously crafted as any great concert pianist or opera singer. Just because music is improvised does not mean it has to be jazz, despite the strong associations. Mozart, Beethoven, Messaien and many others were proud improvisers, developing their voice and their style through immediate participation.

Thankfully improvised music is more and more finding its importance in performance and music education now. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s schemes of work for primary and secondary schools all mention improvising as a vital skill for any musician, particularly in regard to any cross-cultural participation. To assume that “I just can’t do it” is like saying that because he has never done it, a professional chef can’t bake a loaf of bread. The myth that improvising is some magical power needs to be dispelled. Improvisation is as much a teachable and learnable discipline, along with sight-reading, playing chamber music or song writing.

The secret to it is to start from a place of comfortable familiarity and develop one step at a time from there. A child who can only play one note can still improvise! There is still rhythm, there are dynamics, structures and ideas. Similarly, the student who doodles incessantly and without focus needs a framework to turn their repeated random sounds into something coherent. photo 3

Any composing, whether written or not, needs parameters – a framework. Some musicians find these parameters comforting, some find them restrictive. In my fifteen years of teaching improvisation, the first category tend to be female, the second male. This is not a judgement on whether one is better than the other, nor is it any more than a general observation. But being aware, as a student of improvising, which one is more ‘you’ can be reassuring.

Music, in its bewildering beauty, is rich with potential angles from which to begin – rhythm, melody, visual stimulus or a deliberate effort to break free of convention.

 For young players this is particularly to be encouraged. All the times I was told, ‘Stop messing around and practise what you’re meant to,’ made me even more curious to find my own sound. I only realise now how significant this act of rebellion was.

 But improvising is not really rebelling – it is the musical equivalent of thinking out loud. Throw away that music stand for an hour. Play something. Sing something. See what happens…”

Whatever the level of musical or instrumental skill in your classroom or workplace, MWC can create a workshop to facilitate and develop improvisation. Contact us today to discuss a bespoke Composition or Improvisation workshop for your school, business or community group.

 

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