11th March 2020

GUEST BLOG: Fran Roach on the Composition Conundrum

Fran Roach is Head of Music at Kingsbury Green Academy, and one of our Secondary Music Champions. We asked Fran to write a blog on a topic of her choosing:

So it’s GCSE/A Level results day. You feel physically sick. You’ve spent your summer holiday trying not to think about it, but it’s the elephant in the room. Who do you think is more nervous? The student or the teacher? You hold your breath, open your students’ results and… the composition marks have been taken down again?! Your confidence is shaken. “But I went on all those courses… I asked the exam board for help.. . I tried new methods within the classroom… What am I doing wrong? Did I even do anything right? Am I a good enough teacher? Am I doing the right thing by my students? Am I preparing them for life as a musician post compulsory education? OK, so what should I try this year?” etc. etc. 

And then you start talking to your fellow counterparts in other schools and find out that others are in the same situation. Your emotions change slightly – “oh, well at least it’s not just me!” but then also, “oh, that means so many of our students are affected.”

This post is not an attack on our exam boards. I for one am very happy with the support given by our board, but it does give you pause for thought. 

When do we as professionals start getting disillusioned with GCSE/A level in its current form and do we ‘teach to the test’ (which seems to change all the time – thank you government), or do we focus wholly on our students, and teach them what they need to progress onto their next destination? Could there be a happy medium? 

So off I pop to the Music and Drama Expo at the Olympia, London, and drop in on a session entitled ‘The composition conundrum: encouraging creativity in the classroom’ with the speaker Paul Tierney. Now, Paul is a lecturer in music at North East Scotland College in Aberdeen, teaching students from age 15 to 70 something. He gained his PhD in composition from the University of Aberdeen. A safe pair of hands when talking composition in the current day, I felt. I looked forward to all the ‘tips and tricks’ and general epiphany that was going to explain where I was going wrong and how I was going to fix it. The students this year are going to get the best grades ever! 

I sit down, open my note pad (well alright, the notes function on my phone – I’m worse than the students), and eagerly start jotting down all the pearls of wisdom. And I did come to an epiphany.  The more Tierney said, the more familiar the situation sounded. Teach them the fundamentals. Don’t stray away from the traditional methods but incorporate the music tech where needed. Get them to understand the theory behind what they are doing. Expose them to as many different genres of music as possible, and try to start on their instruments, at least in the first instance. Look at set works and try to replicate them. Then their creative juices and individual ideas will take care of the rest. 

Ideal! Except, that’s what I’m already doing. I just need to do more of it. Reassuring, at least, but not entirely helpful. However, I’m at least glad that I am setting the students up correctly as musicians – my main objective! 

So then that brings me onto the issue with composition at GCSE and A level, and how it is assessed. I love the fact students create their own music as part of the qualifications. It truly is a key skill that needs encouraging and developing. However, is the assessment of the qualification in its current form fit for the purpose of producing the next generation of composers? 

Another stand I visited, Listen Imagine Compose, support secondary music teachers by developing their skills and confidence in teaching composing through research and CPD. They are accredited by Birmingham City University, and put me onto a study done by their own Dr Kirsty Devaney.  She recently completed her PhD at Birmingham City University investigating the assessment of composing in schools and was awarded the prestigious Anna Craft Award for research into ‘Creativity in Education’ from the British Education Research Association. Devaney pointed me towards a few articles for perusal, including her thesis, and I was incredibly pleased to see quotes from Judith Weir CBE, Master of the Queen’s Music, included in the study. The ISM study which forms part of the research can be found here and was conducted by Kirsty Devaney and Martin Fautley.

Judith herself, having links with Calne and its fabulous music and arts festival, was gracious in giving her time to us as a school (Kingsbury Green Academy in Calne) during November of this academic year to lead a fully inclusive composition workshop for our year 10 and 11 music students. I was brought back to this during the lecture by Tierney, fondly remembering when Judith showed our students her own composition process. Within the afternoon some of our SEND students produced piano miniatures by the end of the workshop, with Nancarrow-like textures and proving the techniques do work. Even if the efforts are not recognised by the qualifications.  Weir’s post on the workshop can be found here:

Devaney also said of the research that “Many composers discover composing through school but there is a worry that inconsistent marking at examination level may discourage young musicians taking music, thus impacting the place of music as an A-level subject.” 

And within Devaney’s PhD thesis she states that “knowledge and creativity is widely debated in music education. 

Lupton and Bruce (2010) identified four approaches to teaching composing, each with an interesting relationship between knowledge and skills: 

1. Learning from the masters
2. Mastery of techniques
3. Exploring ideas
4. Developing voice
(Adapted from Lupton and Bruce, 2010: 273) 

Lupton and Bruce (2010) described learning from the masters as a ‘time-honoured approach’ (p.274) based on knowledge involving pastiche and imitative composing. Mastery of techniques described the learning of a set of tools and skills, whereas exploring ideas focused on the process of composing through active learning and self-reflection. The final approach, developing voice, was aimed at developing self- expression but was found to be the most ‘underdeveloped’ (Lupton and Bruce, 2010: 276) of the four teaching strategies. Colwell (2003) commented that teachers may concentrate on teaching what is easily taught, finding that music assessment was often ‘deeply embedded in the teaching of skills’ (p.16), rather than promoting self-expression or creativity. This is important when considering the real-world applications and validly of the KS4 and KS5 examinations.”

Weir stated that ‘On an artistic level, the inclusion of composition in Music GCSE and A Level has been a great success. British conservatoires are buzzing with talented young composers, most of whom must have discovered their passion for creating new music while at school. But at the same time there is notable unease amongst teachers preparing candidates for the composition component of AS and A2 Music’, something I can personally attest to after visiting the music departments of many successful English schools in recent times.

Teachers are generally realistic people who don’t harbour exaggerated hopes for their students’ exam outcomes. So their thoughts about the uncertainty of the evaluation process expressed in [the research] should be taken seriously.

At any level, evaluating a completely new piece of music is a complex task. The authors’ suggestions for renewed focus on the evaluation procedure will I hope be the beginning of a wider discussion about how to do this fairly, without limiting the students’ possibility to produce work which excites their interest in contemporary music.’

I found it particularly interesting, and equally unnerving, that the second highest comment made by teachers all over the country was that creative responses were less likely to score highly than pastiche compositions, and that “Individual voice amongst the best students seems to go unrecognised”, “Examiners are confident dealing with a mixture of the banal and pastiche”, “I have had a surprise on several occasions. The most memorable are a very weak student who composed a very formulaic piece getting an A with an estimate of a hopeful D. The same year an outstanding and innovative composition from a student who had won national youth composition awards got a D.”

This certainly sounds familiar to me. But now I’m still in that composition conundrum. Do I teach pastiche composition to get the marks (and maybe still not get them even then)? Or do I encourage more creativity?