‘Teaching for Engagement’ is a phrase I’ve taken directly from Emily Wilson, this week’s guest presenter #MFLearn19. I loved the ‘Reggae Jam Classroom Snapshot’ she shared as part of her PHD research as I’m a proper nosey parker who enjoys hearing about (and learning from) the nitty gritty of other people’s music rooms. For me, music teaching is always an integration of performing, composing and listening. I’ve been fortunate to build my curriculum over 17 years in 4 different countries with a huge variety of students, a huge range of resources and some awesome colleagues in a range of subject areas. In the video Emily says that “when improvising and composing, students showed a high level of engagement” and it made me think that many of my most memorable and joyous moments in my music teaching career to date, have come from creating original music with my students.
I wouldn’t naturally term myself a ‘composer’. I busted out 3 original pieces for my own GCSE music paper back in 1994/5. There was a piece for 2 violins and cello inspired by ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ which I was playing with the local youth orchestra, an Oboe Sonata inspired by ‘Scarborough Fair’ and a solo piano piece inspired by Satie (I still adore Satie). I wrote these individually with pencil, eraser, manuscript paper and my own instrumental know how. With no music technology available, we could only compose for the instruments people could actually play for us in class. We didn’t even have a multi track recorder! I found the whole process quite difficult (in comparison with performing and listening analysis) and didn’t think my ideas were up to much. There wasn’t any whole class improvisation to build composition ideas nor were there any set briefs from the exam board to guide us in a certain direction. I was just left to get on with it, using what I already knew, whilst the teacher worked with the more challenging members of my state school class. A – Level music was about compositional techniques – Bach Chorale, String Quartet and 12 Tone Serialism – taught in a very dry manner. Then at University, because I was also studying French, the composition option block was closed to me. It never occured to me to just write my own music for fun as I was actually very happy playing other people’s.
It was teacher training that closed, what I perceived to be, my composition gap. John Paynter and Peter Aston’s ‘Sound and Silence’ was referenced by many of the writers in our ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ set reading text. There was brilliant interactive session with the education consultant from The London Sinfonia, using classroom instruments to compose around William Walton’s ‘Long Steel Grass’ but most importantly, a new friend who had majored in composition at a leading conservatoire, needed a violinist to work with her on a new piece in a music studio. I turned up expecting to be presented with my part but instead my friend just scribbled the notes for Indian Rag Bhairav (morning raga) on a piece of manuscript, pushed me through the studio door and then gave instructions through the headphones “ascend 2 octaves, now come down again, use more vibrato, try repeating the top 3 notes over and over, imagine just waking up in the morning and play a flourish”. It was utterly bonkers. And utterly engaging.
‘Being a bit bonkers’ isn’t such a bad way to make your music teaching memorable as I’ve found in my teaching career to date. My blogs are already littered with the creative composition tasks I’ve done with students in the realms of Hip Hop and popular music. I’ve taught GCSE and A-level composition and examined for both of those specifications (grading composition is fodder for a whole other blog post). But I want to share the joy that comes from writing original show music with students.
At the American International School of Mozambique, the utterly inspiring Colleen Fletcher and I decided that we’d stage a modern version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ using all students in our Y9-11 performing arts classes. In Music I looked at how Romeo and Juliet had been depicted in compositions through the ages and we began to think, how can we create our own depiction using our own instrumental skills and the resources we have available? And so it was that each class had a STOMP inspired number, using the scaffolding set, which we devised through whole class workshopping and improvisation. My Y11 hip hop word artists chose and created backing tracks to set Shakespeare’s text. A talented Y10 saxophonist wrote an original piece to accompany the balcony scene. The ballroom scene was an absolute riot of rock songs written by the group themselves and I combined choir and hip hop crew to create an exquisite piece for the heart wrenching ending leaving not one dry eye in the house. Spurred on by this success, the following year we wrote an entirely original show called ‘Africa’s Story’ with all the students in Y7-11. Drumming, Gum Boot Dancing, Marimba Ensemble, animal vocal calls, solo songs – it was all devised with the students in class. Everyone acted, everyone danced and everyone took their turn in the orchestra pit. It was awesome.
In London, with wonderful Head of Drama Rhian Davies Jones on board, it was always my Y10 music class in which I would set the real world composition task of writing for the school production. For the play ‘Oliver’ the students worked in groups of 4 to write leitmotifs for the main characters which we then inter-weaved together during rehearsals, editing and adapting as needed to match the stage action. For ‘The Grim Tales’, each group had a tale to bring to life musically. One student wrote a recorder part especially for me that worked brilliantly with his tabla.
Here in Bangkok, I’ve updated ‘Guys and Dolls’ with student arrangers. DJ deck scratching worked a treat in that score. I also worked a folk inspired original score with students for ‘Twelfth Night’ using Bali pan, violin, uke, double bass, guitar, body percussion and voice. We wrapped on that just 3 weeks ago.
There will always be many ‘seat of the pants’ moments when you write show music with students, and my husband awaits the inevitable moment each year when I sob on his shoulder saying ‘it’s a mess and we’re on stage in 2 week’s time!’. But as Clara Schumann said, “There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it”. The students are always immensely proud of what they can achieve and their parents/carers are always blown away.