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Composing – where to start?

Catherine Barker

09 September 2019

As we begin the new school year, I’ve been thinking about creativity and how to start a creative composition journey with students. KS4 and KS5 requirements for coursework composing continue to challenge students across the schools I work with, so it’s really important that we start thinking with coherence about composition – across all key stages.

Why do we compose?
1. It’s a tool for learning about musical techniques and devices – i.e. composing with a device (an ostinato?) or to learn how devices work (Bach chorales…)
2. It’s a tool for understanding how technique and devices work together for effect – i.e. composing exercises linked to a set work at KS4
3. It’s a vehicle for simple and effective performances, where students have ownership over the musical material – i.e. ensemble improvisation that becomes more deliberate
4. It helps to to develop ICT skills: copy, cut, paste, looping etc.
5. A tool for expression, where students have freedom to express themselves

And, it’s an exam requirement, so we can’t get away from it!

In KS3 classroom, composing commonly occurs in groups but also pairs. Whilst a joint venture is useful, allowing students to take on roles within their musical comfort zone, some students sit back and let others do the heavy lifting. How do you assess individuals within the group?

GCSE and BTEC move quickly into a solo composition, often without much time for preparation, despite nearly 1/3 of the course being reliant on this. At KS5 and beyond, students continue to work alone but courses often either require a techniques approach or some form of original composition – sometimes both.

In a classroom context, compositions can be limited by the instrumental level of the composer – on whatever medium they are using. So, if you are using a MIDI keyboard some level of dexterity will be needed. On an instrument, some co-ordination or understanding of the instrument is critical. If using a DAW, proficiency with the tech platform drives the overall outcome. If the piece needs to be notated, it’s harder if the student isn’t able to make use of DAW for this (Musescore makes this much more viable). So skill level – and opportunity – with the medium can drive the musical material.

We teachers need to think carefully about reasons for composing from term to term: what do you want to get out of it?
And, we need to think about what tools will they need to be successful i.e. what have they done to this point? (Rosenshine link, interleaving)

All of this points towards the need for composition models that begin extremely scaffolded, where gradually scaffolds are pulled away over time. (Rosenshine link)

It’s worth plotting out over a key stage where students have the opportunity to develop composition skills. If it’s only once a year, for example, will this be enough?

The typical early part of music curriculum delivered by a music specialist will spend lots of time building ensemble skills, developing a strong sense of core pulse in a class, keeping singing alive, as well as address contrasts in music (inter-related dimensions). If approaches to composition are carefully blended with performance activities, it’s authentic and helps to build a foundation for creative work over the longer term.

Start with starters: On a basic level, asking students to improvise in a body percussion circle is the first starting point: one bar/two bars, the class imitates. Similarly, short vocal phrases (scat) can be used in any warm up activity. Building this into the routine of every lesson interleaves the skill over time.

This can be built on in longer performance tasks:

e.g. for rhythmic variation: West African drumming. a set piece (for example, ‘Tongalon’) which can be learnt over 3-4 lessons. In the drum break section, all students have the opportunity to improvise a drum break. This individual composition moment is very short within a set structure. Allows them to demonstrate creativity (drum tones, flams, rhythm variation)

e.g. for Melodic variation, teaching a Head arrangement and students improvising using a given scale in ‘break’ sections. Again, this is a solo exercise for students. Can take place on their own instrument. Or, improvising over the top of a riff (for example, over the Bolero ostinato in the Musical Contexts H&R unit)

e.g. A Theme and Variations, where students have learnt a simple melody, and then adapt the melody (rhythmically, tonality, accompaniment, dynamic, instrumental range/timbre). Well suited to pairs exercise, also use of ICT. Framework is clear, allowing potential for strong models to be used.

e.g. Arranging a song: choosing a very repetitive study piece, students have to make decisions about structure (intro/outro), texture. Bastille ‘Of the Night’ is a good study piece, linked to Corona’s ‘Of the Night’ and Snap’s ‘Rhythm is a Dance’. Within a group but decisions are made corporately. Decisions for each role made clear: bass rhythm, drum groove, chord inversions/voicing

In this way, you have asked students to manipulate all the interrelated dimensions through a combination of these tasks. Composition is very much blended into performance.