Dreaming or awake - Composition in the classroom

by Professor George Odam & David Walters

A major three year music education research project funded by Yamaha and led by Professor George Odam in association with the Music Research Institute, QCA and NCET sought to find evidence of good practice in Composing in the Classroom with a particular focus on the use of keyboards.

George Odam, Professor of Music Education at Bath Spa University College and David Walters, Director of the Music Research Institute, provide an overview and describe the initial progress and practicalities of the project.


Co-operative learning - Stage 1 - Perceived problems - Teaching methods - Reports - Electronic report forms - International virtual cafe - Stage 2 - Yamaha research post - Video and book - Training programmes - Joining in

In the 1970s, Prof. John Paynter provided a practical educational focus for composing in the classroom, eventually coalescing in the Schools' Council Secondary Project based at York University. Paynter took up and developed ideas about children as composers which had been prevalent in the avant-garde of music education, particularly those of Murray Schafer in Canada, Peter Maxwell Davies and George Self in England.

It is these ideas and the work arising from them that we call the "Creative Dream". Applied to the classroom, they required not only teachers with specialist knowledge of composing techniques, but a great deal more practical equipment and suitable spaces for use by the pupils than is readily available in many schools. The reaction of pupils to the development of composing in the curriculum has been very positive overall but efficient working practices have been difficult to establish.

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Co-operative learning

A good deal of idealism was built into the original concept and teachers have struggled with the reality of trying to adapt their inadequate teaching environments, equipment and training opportunities to accommodate and develop this work. At the heart of the problem is the difficult balance between co-operative learning techniques which encourage groups of children to work with minimum supervision in order to maximise limited resources and the individual creative work which is at the heart of the initial process of composition.

Few symphonies or pop songs have been written by committees. Even the Beatles worked as individuals first before their ideas were shared with the group. With the introduction of electric keyboards it became theoretically possible to provide all pupils with performing skills, using techniques borrowed from language laboratories. Unfortunately even language labs have met with only moderate success and as yet no one has established exemplary good practice with music laboratories, although there are many schools using such equipment.

In support of the place of culture within our communities world-wide and in Britain in particular it is vital that arts programmes within the National Curriculum are supported by effective methodologies backed by the development of appropriate resources. The central issue is the nurture and encouragement of creativity within all arts programmes and this presents many difficult and unresolved problems in assessment and delivery in the classroom.

In Music Education creativity is the newest and most challenging area of development. Only recently has it supplanted re-creation through performance of the music of others as a dominant focus for the majority of teachers of music in English schools. This has happened through research-led developments in the National Curriculum which require of the majority of teachers skills and insights in which they have not been trained or educated themselves. As a newer generation of teachers emerges with stronger personal skills in composing as the Higher Education curriculum itself develops they will need clear advice on good practice methodology within the classroom supplemented by judicious development of support equipment.

In the present delivery of creativity in the music classroom there are many problems related to physical and time-resources and research is needed in order to identify effective practice, to analyse it and determine models for training. In the first part of this work we have concentrated on teaching attitudes and classroom management.

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Stage 1

The project aims to focus on teaching pupils from 11 to 18 where results are a little more easily measurable, including GCSE and A Level Music (or their international equivalents), and where specialist teaching is involved. With the invaluable help of Kevin Rogers from the Dorset Professional Development Services the Music Research Institute was able to make contact with 14 Heads of Music in Secondary and Middle Schools in Dorset.
Keyboard Players "Fingering and the buildingof manipulative skills"

The first meeting of a pilot group of teachers in Dorset took place on Friday 18th July 1997 at the Music Research Institute. All the teachers taking part were experienced in teaching composing in the classroom. We were aiming to look specifically at the effectiveness of methods involving small groups, pairs, individuals and/or whole classes. Over the next four months - during the Autumn term of 1997 - we monitored over 260 lessons with an agreement of a minimum of one per year group per week. All teachers also agreed to teach one common lesson.

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Perceived problems

At the outset we recognised that there are problems in the teaching of composing. For example:

This project will not only highlight the problems but also offer insights and solutions into new methods and technologies.

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Teaching methods

For the first phase of the programme we wished to examine how effectively aspects of composing technique could be taught using the following methods:

Whole class

The entire lesson is actively taught by the teacher who engages the pupil through question and answer and by demonstration by the teacher and selected pupils or the whole class.
Group work
The lesson may start with a teacher-led plenary but will use most of the time with pupils working at a task in groups.
Paired work
The lesson may start with a teacher-led plenary but will use most of the time working at a task in pairs.
Individual work
An individual pupil is given the opportunity to present and try out ideas in sound with the class following individual work.

Other situations, like seminar presentation are of course possible and some lessons may well include more than one mode. We wished to compare the results of the same or similar work using these modes in parallel across all schools in the project.

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Forms were created which were duplicated on the Music Research Institute web site leaving teachers the opportunity to Email results direct to the MRI or indeed use more traditional hand written forms. Teachers were asked to record at least one lesson from each year group 7, 8 and 9 every week. The reporting sheets asked for input in five areas for each lesson:

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Electronic report forms

With part funding from Bath Spa University College the project had the opportunity to link up with the development of the MRI Internet site to create a closed conferencing system within the site for discussion and a place for the posting of research data and future music education based research projects. It was hoped that all the responses from the teachers in the first phase of our enquiry would be gathered via email.

At this stage the sheets have been collated by the Dorset PDS and then sent electronically in batch form to the MRI for import into a database enabling easy analysis and evaluation.

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International virtual cafe

Within the site the "The Creative Dream Virtual Cafe" can be used by the schools in the pilot as a hub to discuss problems, ideas and methodology.

The site also provides direct access into the Scarlatti Research Conference site at Strathclyde University and other sites of research interest. Through the web site we hope to extend the work to other teachers who would like to contribute data to the research.

Internationally we have formed links with the teacher training department of the Hogeschool Conservatorium in Alkmaar and through them to the Nederlands Association of Music Teachers. In Singapore we have links with John Howard at the NanYang Technology University.
Issues - keyboards and the teaching of composition



Physical Learning Environment

Aesthetic and Cultural Issues

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Stage 2

The pilot project with twelve Heads of Music in Dorset Schools has provided substantial evidence on the methods already used to teach composition in the classroom. There was a considerable amount of shared concern about current practice in terms of individual learning outcomes and progression.

It is clear from information already available that the electronic keyboard is the chief common resource alongside pitched percussion. Since the electronic keyboard is universally used in the home and in school throughout Britain, and indeed throughout the world not only for recreation but in the high level development of both commercial and art music, it is vital that the research focuses on the use and development of the electronic keyboard as a resource.

The next stage of the research will therefore undertake an in depth assessment of the use of keyboards for composing in the classroom across the UK. The research will aim to identify good practice and will also generate materials and resources, both written and recorded, for future classroom use. In terms of the use and development of appropriate equipment the second phase of the research will focus sharply on what present resources are, how reliable and effective they are, what good practice in their use is and how the resources need to develop in the short and long term.

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Yamaha research post

The Yamaha funded two-year part-time Research Fellow will be appointed in the Summer term of 1998 and will gather data in the following areas:

* with the assistance of QCA look nation-wide for effective teaching processes in use of keyboards in creative work at KS3 and recording results.
* make links with child development studies and the practice of teaching composition through keyboards at KSs 1,2,3,4 and beyond. e.g. sample size, variety of input from a selection of types and locations of school.
* set up working groups of local teachers who use keyboards in order to trial materials and discuss outcomes.
* make further links with other countries who already use keyboards in creative work.

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Video and book

At this time there are no fully researched training materials available to teachers who wish to develop their teaching of composing and who also wish to incorporate electronic keyboards. Good practice has not been identified or developed and there is little exemplary material showing clear evidence of progressive learning within a classroom.

We need video materials to demonstrate a variety of learning strategies including, general class teaching, small group teaching, individual programmes and music laboratory methods to show good practice taking place in a variety of settings with a range of children.

We also need a range of written projects or texts enabling teachers to incorporate keyboards into their general programmes. There is a need for a general text book which looks clearly and analytically at the effectiveness of the teaching techniques which have evolved and are in use in schools at present.

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Training programmes

With additional funding the Music Research Institute hopes to film good practice in action. The video film and book would be essential components of ongoing national training. The video, together with the book, would be central to the design and delivery of extended training courses both in keyboard work and composing via music education in-service award-bearing courses. Both resources would also be readily available to enhance the work of existing teacher training courses.

Courses could be designed to be offered within an accumulative credit system, with links into post-graduate degree opportunities for appropriately qualified teachers wishing to use the experience of their participation in the project as a basis for further work.

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Joining in

If you are a teacher with an interest in developing composing in your school join in with the debate and research. We need your help in getting a national picture. With internet technology this is merely a local call away into the MRI web site. With responses gathered from all over the country this research will benchmark progress in the teaching of composition in the secondary school.

In its action based research process it will also provide all participating teachers with the opportunity to reflect on their present practice in teaching composition and should encourage a forum for informed debate about the use of music technology in the classroom. The resulting materials will enable good practice to be carried forward by a new generation of music teachers.