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Thinking About Music About Thinking

"The affect on the pupils involved has been marked. They are now thinking for themselves, creatively (both individually and collectively), and to coin a phrase "thinking outside the
box". The skills they have acquired will undoubtedly make them more successful across
the curriculum and more importantly in life. They are already displaying thinking and
team-working skills which are far beyond those of their peers; there is no question
that they have a head start. The music has provided a vehicle for something much
bigger. Our pupils have grown; they will question, they will challenge, and they
will demand to know more"

[Tim Vinall, Director of Performance Music, Brockhill Park School]

Although at first it might appear that time devoted to creative music making is at odds with a teaching strategy that concentrates on the three R's, it is my observation that creative music composition offers so many benefits that it should be placed at the heart of our education system. The students involved gain so much more than simply a growing number of musical compositions. So what's going on? Is it simply down to the 'power of music' or are there other factors at work?

Since every music teacher will have a particular approach as to the best way to facilitate the composing of music in the classroom, what follows is based on my own experiences of working with students on group composition. This essay examines some of the mechanics behind my methods in the hope that it might provide insight into the relationship between composing and cognitive development.

First of all, whenever I work with a class of students on the creation of a new piece of music, whether or not we have chosen to begin with a concept to help focus and inspire any composing, one of our first tasks is to choose the first sound. Quite often I start this process by simply asking, "Has anyone got any ideas as to how to begin?" Generally, this is followed by a silence. I have presented the students with a question that asks a genuinely unknown answer. The silence can sometimes seem awkward; however, it carries a lot of significance as within it also lies the realisation that it is they, the students, who are collectively responsible for their soon-to-be composition.

Eventually a suggestion is offered and immediately the idea is tried out. As a group we consider if we like the idea (and the answer is usually affirmative) and then we are in search of suggestion number two, which will perhaps follow this sound or maybe happen at the same time - the students decide. As the students gain confidence, their ideas are offered at increasing speed and it is not long before the beginnings of a composition emerge. Our musical activity, therefore, involves a journey, and a journey into uncharted territory. Although, from the outset, certain parameters might be understood, such as who will perform the music, or which instruments will be used, exactly how the end result will turn out is still unknown.

This characteristic of the composing can be off-putting; however, it is precisely this aspect that makes the exercise such a valuable activity. The task at hand does not involve the students recalling information that they know; rather, it invites them to create new information (which didn't exist before). Therefore they have to generate ideas that not only build on the composition so far but that also offer potential for the piece's development. Each answer is a possibility and every contribution makes a difference. Thus the students are offered a different scenario than that presented by many of their other activities due to the composing's open-ended nature whereby each suggestion poses an interesting conundrum.

To help the students with this, I guide them through the myriad of possibilities on offer with a one-step-at-a-time approach where every contribution is considered and its affect on the music contemplated. Together, as a group, we discuss and question each person's suggestion and this results in an activity where all feel that they are contributing to the composition, even though it might only be a few who are actually playing their instruments at a given time. Although some ideas will be acceptable and others put aside for later consideration, the students are encouraged by the fact that no answer is fundamentally wrong. And so, what could be a daunting process is made accessible, and within a short period the students have gone from the silence that began the process to a situation where there is a profusion of ideas being generated. What's more, it seems that the more I hold back and give the students free rein to take charge of this process, the more they gain.

Every so often we stop to record the composition so far. To begin with, when the students listen back, it is quite clear that they are mainly concerned with their own contribution; however, this focus gradually changes to the piece as a whole. The students discuss what they have heard, zooming in on individual parts and then consider how they affect the wider composition. They make suggestions for improvements, not only to their own contributions but also concerning other parts of the music. They take on the role of teacher to demonstrate and relay these ideas, and at other times they have to adapt their suggestion to suit the skills present in the group and then manage the execution of this new version.

In order to be understood the students learn to become more accurate in their use of language, and as their composition evolves their suggestions become more refined to reflect their growing perceptions. As a result their conceptual thinking abilities increase in complexity and they begin to better understand the sort of ideas that will be most appropriate for whichever part of the music they are working on. The dynamic nature of this step-by-step process engages all the students, as they are able to contribute whether or not they are actually playing. From listening to their recordings especially, it is easy to track the piece's development and this, in turn, enthuses them. The result is an activity which is self-fuelling.

From time to time, we play through the composition from the beginning. With each play back, the performance improves and the students begin to realise that they are truly involved in the creation of something great and that they have a real piece of music on their hands. They become more critical and utilise not only their creative thinking skills (where they are concerned with the generation of new ideas and alternative solutions) but also their critical thinking (as they evaluate their suggestions and make decisions pertaining to their quality). Thus, the music making process, when underway, becomes more reliant on a balance of the group's critical and creative thinking abilities. Too much emphasis on one or the other and the music making is affected.

"The value for the pupils was that each individual - no matter what the ability - was made to feel that they were making a valuable contribution to the whole ensemble. From that first session there was a definite growth of confidence and in self-worth and this development continued to grow in the subsequent sessions."

[John Houston, Head of Music, Fort Hill Girls' High School]

The interesting factor for me is that although the participants are engrossed in the composition of their piece of music, it becomes arguable that the real composition is not a musical one but a neurological one. What I find of interest here is not so much that I am watching the students becoming competent composers but that I am aware of a marked improvement in their conceptual, critical and creative thinking abilities. This is discernable not only from the growing complexity of their composition, but also from the way they observe, discuss and work together as a group.

Needless to say, this 'journey' takes time. Whilst a simple piece of music can be constructed using my step-by-step approach in, say, one hour, in my experience it takes considerably longer for the students to demonstrate some of the more advanced thinking skills mentioned above. I have conducted, for example, many one-week composition projects where I have worked with a class of students every day for five consecutive days. Usually, in these situations, it is around day four when the students' critical and creative thinking appears to complement each other and it is at this point when the music composing is raised to a new level. Interestingly it is also around this time when the students begin to incorporate expression into their playing with the result that their performance sounds more musical.

This experience then is a particular type of learning. It is not about the (quick) acquisition of facts or tricks; rather, it is a journey where every participant's contribution is valid and which is self-discovery led. It relies on and therefore makes use of a combination of various core skills. The participants gain experience in language, literacy, counting, sequencing, experimenting, inventing, testing, teamwork and expression as well as personal and social education. The composing students are involved in a process that not only relies on their listening and performing skills but also their observational skills as they watch for visual clues in the learning and also the performance of ideas. Therefore, the whole process provides a natural balance between the auditory, visual and kinesthetic. The activity offers every child the opportunity to contribute and make a difference according to their natural inclination, and because their suggestions are based on what they feel is right as opposed to what might be logically correct the activity provides a direct connection with how they feel.

This type of composing takes a commitment of time. If this is made, however, then the activity becomes about something more than just learning about how to compose and understand music. The students acquire self-management and thinking skills that affect every other part of their lives, and the result is that they are genuinely enriched.

"As music teachers we may feel that skills of listening, co operation, thinking and organisation are best taught through music, but I would suggest that music in this kind of context might be the best vehicle for teaching even higher and more uniquely human skills. Caring, sensitivity, creativity, self-confidence, reflection and forbearance were all in plentiful supply amongst the children. A timely reminder for me that education is as much about working towards this kind of Utopian society, as it is about producing a workforce which can read and write."

[Jonathan Barnes, Head Teacher, St Peter's Primary School]

© Robert Jarvis (March 2004)

All quotes are genuine observations of Robert Jarvis' group composing. Tim Vinall's comment relates to 'Europhonix' (2003); John Houston comments on 'Landscapes' (1995) and Jonathan Barnes refers to 'Adventures in Sound' (1998). Further information on the work of Robert Jarvis can be found at www.robertjarvis.co.uk