Tag Archives: birmingham conservatoire

‘I Can’t Compose’

Written by Kirsty Devaney, PhD student, School of Education

Composing is a part of the current GCSE and A level examinations. Although composing is a part of the national curriculum not all student have significant experience of composing before they reach GCSE if they decide to take a GCSE in music. The word ‘composing’ to many GCSE and A level music students can be associated with fear a lack of confidence and not knowing where to start.

The Young Composers Project was set up by Birmingham Conservatoire for students aged 14-19 to help overcome these issues and allow students experience professional composing practice and work with current Conservatoire students.

“I want them to have the experience of being a musician: creating, interpreting and responding to music…feeling musical.(Mills, 2002)

The scheme has been an action research project over 16 months with a total of 22 students. Data was collected from:

  • Semi-structured interviews
  • Online open blog
  • Video interviews
  • Student self-evaluation forms & graffiti walls
  • Interviews with classroom teacher

YCP [session 2] -23

Kayla Findings:

Three main contributing factors relating to student confidence are:

  1. Preconceptions of composing
  2. Assessment of composition in school
  3. Sharing their music with others


“That you have to be Mozart to compose” (Mills, 2002)

Students pre-perceptions were that the workshops would focus on notation and that other students would be ‘better’ than them.The mixture of students working alongside Conservatoire composers & young professionals helped demystify composing, diminish stereotypes and show a clear progression route.


We created a safe environment & community for them to experiment with their music without fear of assessment or getting it ‘wrong’.

“I like the way that nothing is deemed as ‘bad’. It’s really great to be in an environment where you can compose whatever you like without fear of people not liking it.” (YCP Student 2014)

Sharing music with others:

At the start of the project students scored very low in confidence for sharing their ideas and said they had received negative remarks in the past. Informal sharing of ideas and works in progress, with positive feedback from peers and tutors, was done in every session.

“All composition pupils feel desperately exposed in bringing their first efforts for scrutiny. A chance negative remark, however, can send them plummeting down…” (Odam, 1995)

The best thing about the group is the mixture of backgrounds…There’s a really good atmosphere.” (YCP Student 2014)

YCP [session 3] -6

Action points:

  • Ensure composing reflects real composing practice (commissions)
  • Combination of open and closed composition tasks
  • Encourage live performances of the music where possible
  • Plan for a mixture of whole group, pair and individual composing work at all stages
  • Allow the opportunity for students share their ideas with the group
  • Give regular positive and constructive feedback without the mention marks or grades
  • Allow students to find their own process of composing
  • Create a safe environment to try out new ideas without fear
  • The need for notation must come from them
  • Introduce living composers & songwriters new music into the lessons
  • Signpost other composing opportunities in the area

6 Links Between Research and Composing

Written by Kirsty Devaney, PhD student, School of Educationme with ensemble

Some interesting discussions were initiated today after a session about academic writing, lead by Alex Wade. I am fairly new to the word of research but I feel I am starting to fit into this ‘new world’ or ‘field’. For 5 years I trained as a composer at Birmingham Conservatoire – I wrote more music than I did words! I have had to transition from thinking in term of music, to thinking in words, sentences and paragraphs. I had experience of academic writing during my undergraduate studies but my PhD felt like a completely different way of thinking and viewing the world. How would my years of experience as a composer help me get through my 80,000-word thesis?

Upon doing my PhD for over 1 year, I have discovered that there are a lot more similarities between research and composing than I first thought.

  1.  We all have confidence issues

The feeling of ‘not being good enough’ impacts both academics and creatives at various stages in their career. I wrote an article titled ‘Feeling Like a Fraud’ discussing how our preconceptions can increase the pressures we place upon ourselves and how it can impact our own confidence and productivity: https://thesamplerblog.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/kirsty-devaney-on-feeling-like-a-fraud/

  1. We have to receive negative feedback

Whether you are having a piece of music performed in front of an audience, or sending your article off for peer review, it can be hard to receive negative feedback. We are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position and it can be hard to take criticism on something personal to you. Having five years of 1-2-1 tuition in composing has definitely helped me during my PhD supervision sessions. It is about being able to stay positive and learning how to take advice and feedback.

  1. It is personal 

Whether we meant to or not, our research and writing reflects what is happening in our lives and this is the case for composing too. It may not be conscious decisions but what we create does reflect what is important to us at that moment in our lives. Often we only realise this when looking back on older work and reflecting.

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  1. We spend hours on the tiny details

We have to have an obsessive quality to spend hours on what may seem very insignificant to other people but sometimes just changing a word in a paragraph or changing a note in the music can make all the difference.

  1. How we view the world changes

When you are completely involved in something it starts to affect the way you think and perceive the world. When I started composing full-time I started to observe the world in a different way: I would ask myself ‘can I turn that into a composition?’ and I would keep a diary of all my composing thoughts. Now that I have been doing research my question is: ‘how could I research that?’ My diary now has a combination of research questions and compositional ideas.

6.   We need space for individual work but we benefit collaboration 

Time alone can help to solidify our own thinking but collaboration can help develop our thoughts and allow a space to discuss ideas with broaden our thinking. Collaboration as a composer can take many forms such as working across disciplines and working closely with your musicians. Collaboration in research can benefit from cross disciplinary work, discussions with peers and working with your research participants in methodologies such as action research.

Going into my second year of research I am starting to realise how my compositional training can enrich my research and aid the writing of my PhD. Research and writing are both creative processes and they involve discipline, communication, dedication and putting yourself in a position open to criticism.