Kirsty’s research is investigating how the assessment of composing in UK secondary school examinations is impacting the teaching and learning of composing within schools.
Kirsty’s research is investigating how the assessment of composing in UK secondary school examinations is impacting the teaching and learning of composing within schools.
Martin Fautley (Birmingham City University), Pam Burnard and John Finney (Cambridge University), Pauline Adams (Institute of Education), Jonathan Savage (Manchester Metropolitan University).
To read more go to: http://www.bcu.ac.uk/research/stories/listen-imagine-compose
To read full REF report download the pdf: Birmingham City University – 25 – Creativity in Education
Name: Ian James Axtell
Role at BCU: Senior Lecturer and Subject Leader for Music Education
What is the Field of Music Education?
Is the Universe of Discourse in Music Education under threat?
How can Signature Pedagogy in Music Education be defined?
Research you are currently working on: How can Signature Pedagogy in Music Education be defined?
Research methodologies you are using: Humanistic and interpretivist phenomenography underpinned by Bourdieu’s perception of epistemic reflexivity.
Current issues, thoughts and reflections on education & research: This is a fascinating time to be involved in education research since we are in an anti-intellectual turn in education policy discourse. There is an urgent need for genuine critical education research. The place of theory in education has been questioned but education research is responded by creating strong links between theory and practice through critical practice-based enquiry. The question remains whether genuine critical education research can save the education system from collapse under the false gods of knowledge-led curricular and evidence based research (or research that proves what policy makers have already decided).
Most influential research you have read/seen: Bourdieu, P (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Advice for new researchers: Join a community of thinking.
Mini fact about you: I am passionate about music education for all and how music can change people’s perception of the world around them.
‘Looking for the unexpected – Creativity and Innovation in Music Education’
On March 16th-19th a team of BCU music educators & researchers flew all the way to Lithuania to attend the European Association of Music in Schools (EAS). The title of the conference was ‘Looking for the Unexpected – Creativity and innovation in music education’, a hot topic for us in the UK with the uncertainty of creative subjects within schools due to the impending EBacc and forced acadamisation knocking at the door.
So Prof. Martin Fautley, Dr. Victoria Kinsella, fellow PhD student Samantha Clements, and I packed our warm winter clothes to prepare for snow and produced our presentations about our own research into creativity in music education. Director of learning and participation at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Nancy Evans also joined us at the conference to present alongside Victoria and Martin on their action research project with ‘Music Maze’.
How is ‘creativity’ defined in other countries?
The conference kicked off with a keynote from Pamela Burnard talking about ‘diverse musical creativities’, an interesting terminology. In her keynote, Burnard discussed the links between ‘real world practice and industry’ and what is happening within schools and out of school. She also mentioned important aspects of being creative including risk taking, autonomy and enjoyment. Burnard explores musical creativity further in her book ‘Musical Creativities in Practice’ and talks about how some may view musical creativity as:
‘a particular type of practice, perhaps that of the Great Composers, rather than to multiple possibilities’ (p.7, 2012).
There were many incredibly polished vocal performances during the conference covering vast amounts of repertoire, including a lot of traditional Lithuanian folk music. Burnard asked if one of the performances that morning was ‘creative’. Many automatically nodded and said yes. It was a striking piece of musical theatre, they varied how they used the space on the stage and use of props, and the combination between traditional folk music with modern day themes was striking. The students were engaged throughout and the experience was immersive. However, had the students been creative? There is no way of telling just from the performance. Creativity is a process (Wallas, 1926) and we could not know if the students had co-created the piece, made decisions, rejected ideas, improvised, or if they had just followed a strict set of orders from the choreographer or music leader. How did the audience define creativity? What made a ‘creative performance’?
Wallas: 4 stages of the creative process
Whilst attending other presentations I was surprised by the diversity of practice happening in Europe, differences in what they valued in music education and how they defined ‘creativity’ in practice.
Is composing inherently creative?
My own research focuses on composing within schools and I have witnessed many music educators that believe composing is inherently creative because it is ‘creating something new’. However in practice composing can be a very uncreative activity, guided by stylistic rules, criteria driven direction. The assessment can lead to creating pieces of music with a set number of techniques thus creating very ‘unmusical’ works – a kind of ‘composing by numbers’. The three aspects Burnard spoke about in the keynote (risk taking, autonomy and enjoyment) are not always found when students are composing in the classroom or for exams. In other presentations focusing on composing there were interesting approaches to how people approached teaching composing. This made me consider the ‘skills vs creative’ debate:
Should you learn the ‘rules’ first before you can break them?
In one particular presentation the teacher had developed a step-by-step approach to teaching melody writing with young recorder players. The music was rooted in folk tradition but focused on limiting the students’ choice in pitch and using grids to develop a rhythmic pattern. It was also based in western classical notation. The presenter commented that it was a way for students to learn about specific folk music traditions and techniques as well as improving notation reading. His approach to introducing composing to young students was quite radically different to my own but there were some similarities in that we both were aiming to introduce stages and steps for students. For me, instead of choosing which of the two pitches to use I ask students to decide when there should be sound and when there should be silence, referring back to John Cage’s quote:
‘The material of music is sound and silence integrating these is composing’ (1949)
We would then move onto the next step asking them for either high and low, or loud or quiet sounds. For this teacher it would be the next pitch or rhythm. I would initially see my own approach as more ‘creative’ but on reflection we were both still asking our students to make a decision and go along a process, but it was framed very differently. This leads back to one of the fundamental questions of ‘how DO we teach composing?’ Both of our approaches in rooted in a cultural and musical background, and we are both limiting students decisions initially, however one was focused on melody and the other on timbre and texture.
An aspect of composing that was present in this presentation, and one that I see regularly in the UK, was an obsession around pitch as a starting pointfor composing. Why is it that deciding on what key a piece of music should be, or what pitch to start with, the most important thing for music? Why not the title, the mood, the structure, the timbral quality of the instruments, the way it looks when performed, the rhythmic quality or the ‘feel’. I am not suggesting every young musician or teacher starts with pitch when composing but it seems more common than other areas of music. This focus on pitch may also impact on what a young person might think composing is about – I remember telling myself at the age of 16:
‘once I know how to do harmony, I will be able to compose’
For a start that phrase doesn’t even make sense, but I felt at that time there were inherent rules that I just needed to learn in order to be a composer. The more rules I learnt, the better I would be. But who dictates these rules – Society? Examination boards? Culture? The teacher? In music and composing there are rules we can learn, but the act of being creative is deciding how and when to use them, when to not use them, and when to change them, do something new and make them our own.
Reflections on my presentation:
On the 3rd day I gave my presentation titled: ‘Loosing Faith in the System: The implications of inconsistent marking, of AS and A level composing, on creativity.’ My talk used the results collected from my KS5 composing survey on teachers’ experiences of marking in A level. Results from 71 teachers found that over 90% of them had been surprised by an examination grade and many did not feel confident with predicting grades. The first aspect of my presentation involved delegates looking through the raw data from the survey and talking about what they felt the data told them. I enjoyed this aspect of my talk as it allowed them to ask questions and open up a dialogue with the audience early on in the presentation. It engaged them in the research from the start. I was also keen to see how other researchers in the audience would react to the data; one even commented saying how the research was ‘gold dust’ and examination boards would be very keen to see the full research.
In addition to the qualitative data, my research used the free text answers on the survey and 9 telephone interviews. In this section of the presentation I presented some emerging themes into what impact inconstant making has in the school:
1) Downward Spiral:
This is when, due to unexpected poor grades, teachers restrict what students can compose so that it is closer to the marking criteria. However as a result of trying to second-guess the exam board requirements the students do not enjoy the experience as much and therefore do less well in the exam.
2) Trail of interpretation:
As mentioned before, there is a danger of trying to second-guess what the exam board of examiner wants to see in the composition. As a result a trail of interpretation of what people think ‘good’ composing looks and sounds like is developed, leaving the student at the end of this line trying to compose what they think others want.
3) Ripple effect:
The final emerging theme is this idea of a ‘ripple effect’ – that inconsistent marking has an impact on the teacher’s confidence, which effects their teaching of composing (potentially limiting creativity), which in turn effects the students’ learning and experience of composing. The wider implications are that students decide not to take music as a subject at this level which endangers music as a subject in the school and therefore threatens jobs. At the end of this it could have a negative impact on the music industry in the UK as a whole.
I enjoyed presenting my early findings at EAS. It has given me confidence to present at future conferences including ISME and BERA, and practice into how to present to a wider audience from across Europe where there are diverse practices in music education.
BCU team presentations overviews:
The BCU team covered a wide range of topics at the conference. Martin Fautley focused on creativity within lower secondary schools. His results from a survey of over 100 secondary music teachers from Birmingham and London found that assessment was based on matching school expectations of predicted grades. It was also noted that that assessment was reducing creative opportunities in the classroom.
Samantha Clements presented her PhD research methodology involving gaming software as a tool for critical incident charting. This experimental way of collecting data was used in her pilot study with 4 trainee music teachers. She asked them to create ‘fantasy worlds’ which charted each of their ‘critical incidents’ in their life influencing their aptitude for different aspects of music education.
Victoria Kinsella has been working alongside ‘The National Foundations for Youth Music’ on their ‘Exchanging Notes’ projects across England. Victoria reported, from the first year findings, on the importance of multi-agency working for increased creative engagement and intrinsic motivation of young people.
On the final morning Nancy Evans from BCMG, Martin and Victoria presented research from an action research project with BCMG’s composing group ‘music maze’ from 8-11 year olds. The research focused on how the students responded to open-ended composing tasks. Some of the finding included that the children’s starting points were very diverse, and the way they composed and how much adult support and scaffolding was needed, varied.
We all enjoyed attending the conference as it helped stimulated discussions and debates with each other and with other delegates from outside the UK. Lithuania has a rich musical and cultural background and a country none of us had thought to visit before but would be excited to go back to.
Name: Kirsty Devaney
Role at BCU: Graduate Teaching and Research Assistant in Education. I teach on the Early Years and Primary PGCE courses helping teachers include music into their classrooms. I also lecture and run projects at Birmingham Conservatoire and teach composition and theory at Birmingham Conservatoire Junior Department.
Research you are currently working on: I am mainly working on my PhD investigating composing in upper secondary schools at examination level. I am looking at how the assessment of composing impacts the teaching and learning of composing in the classroom.
Other research includes a composing project with BCU, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) and Sound and Music. My role was assisting with the action research that secondary music teachers were doing with their students. I have also been involved in London scheme ‘Teach Through Music’ conducting interviews for the research on behalf of my supervisor.
I run a number of education projects at Birmingham Conservatoire and always include an element of action research. I am now planning a collaborative cross-disciplinary research project looking at composing and creative writing working working with Amanda French and Becky Snape.
Research methodologies you are using: For my PhD I am using a mixed methods approach collecting qualitative and quantitative data through:
I have taken a grounded theory approach to my research and each stage of the data collection informs the next.
Current issues, thoughts and reflections on education & research: With the introduction of the Ebacc music in education in under threat. Many teachers I work with regularly have said they have already seen an impact on what subjects students are deciding to take, with the more ‘academic’ students being pressured even more into taking not just the Ebacc subjects, but doubling up (e.g. 2 languages). This is leaving very little space for students to take other subjects such as music, art or drama. I worry that numbers will start to fall dramatically and that schools will pull GCSE, BTEC and A-Level music along with other subject. My little sister (currently in year 8) is starting to plan her GCSE options and she wants to do art, music, drama and textiles – why is this set of subjects seen as ‘inferior’ and why should her enjoyment of school, and potential future be decided by someone else who think they know what is best for her?
I also worry that exams are becoming more about ‘assessing what is easily assessable’ rather than assessing what is important. Teachers and students become very aware how to ‘play the game’, and ‘tick the boxes’ for the exams but this wastes time for students to be musicians, composers and having a meaningful musical experience. Teachers are under intense pressure to ‘achieve’ and get high grades with these exams – if they don’t the future of their students, their careers and music in the school is at risk.
Most influential research you have read/seen: Legg, R. (2012) Bach, Beethoven, Bourdieu: ‘Cultural capital’ and the scholastic canon in England’s A-level. The Curriculum Journal 23(2):157-172
Having been struggling with how Bourdieu’s concepts on ‘cultural capital’ & ‘social mobility’ relate to my own research, this article really helped me reflect on the data I have been collecting and how it links to wider social issues.
Advice for new researchers: I studied as a composer for 4 years and wrote more music than I did words; so coming to do a PhD terrified me! What I have come to realise that my background in composing has really helped my research and that is a strength not a weakness. Find your own strengths and don’t compare yourself to others around you. The more I talk to people the more I realise everyone gets ‘imposter syndrome’ at some point.
For me the PhD is about tracking how your own thinking has developed and grown over the years. It changes the way you view the world and how you make connections through everyday events.
Mini fact about you: I have a phobia of red jelly!
Download and read the full research on AS and A-level composing assessment here: http://www.ism.org/blog/article/composing-research-teacher-attitudes
Kirsty Devaney, PhD student, School of Education, @
Education PhD student Kirsty Devaney paired up with Dr Alison Daubney from Sussex University to host a webinar for the Incorporated Society of Musicians . This webinar is designed to help music educators to choose the most appropriate qualification for their pupils by considering the key changes and exploring the new qualifications from each awarding body in depth. What the video here:
Written by Kirsty Devaney, PhD Student, School of Education – Music
Listen, Imagine, Compose (LIC) is a project designed to investigate pedagogies of composing in secondary schools. It was funded by the Esmée Fairbairn foundation and organised by Sound and Music (SAM), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), with Birmingham City University as the lead academic partner. The Listen Imagine Compose report, written by Professor Martin Fautley of Birmingham City University, is based on six action research projects designed to investigate how composing is taught and learned. The results of the first phase can be found on the SAM website. The second phase of the research includes delivering CPD to secondary school music teachers. I have written about some of the observations and comments witnessed from the CDP days in Birmingham.
The most recent session was led by Martin Fautley and composer David Horne along with intentionally renowned BCMG saxophonist Kyle Horch. The aim of the session was to explore and evaluate compositional pedagogy techniques for creating music for a specific instrument, in this case the alto saxophone.
The first task presented was a type of composition ‘consequences’ game. Every participant had 1 minute to compose one very short section of music (a bar). They could use any type of musical notation (graphic, standard western notation, text). This was then passed around to the person on the right and they had to add a new bar whilst you had to add a new bar to the music from the person on the right. This continued until 8 pieces of music had been created collaboratively by a group complete with dynamics, performance details and titles. These were then performed by Kyle on the saxophone and recorded.
What was fantastic about this activity was that it avoided any sense of worry about the ‘great’ musical idea as it focused on what you DO with an musical idea. Due to history heralding the ‘great‘ composers and their ‘great‘ musical masterworks there can be a perceived view that a ‘great‘ musical composition is something that can just magically appear, whether it be in a dream or in a spurt of creative inspiration. The truth is composing is a lot of hard work that involves revisions, deleting sections, starting again, reworking ideas, trying aspects out with musicians…The consequences activity did not allow the participants to have the time to worry about the ‘greatness’ of their musical idea. They had to rely on instinct!
Along with notational aspect being developed in the task, the inner ear has an important role to play. The 2009 Ofsted report Making More of Music (Ofsted, 2009) highlighted weaknesses in ‘internalising sound as a basis for creative thinking’ in secondary school music. Gordan (1993) stressed the importance of developing the inner ear for music students, a term he phrased as ‘audition’. Composer David Horne required the participants to ‘half squint’ at the music and look at the shape to get an idea of the music. David told participants not worrying about the exact rhythms or intervals of the music, but rather to be able to imagine the general feel and understand the outline of the music. It was only after this were they then asked to try to develop the music further. The task integrated both the idea of ‘thinking in sound’ and how it directly related to the ‘symbol.’
‘Thinking in sound, imagining sound, constructing possible sounds in the head and improvising music all have to be established as skills before the symbols for these things to be learnt. When we eventually use the symbols we have already to know how they will sound.’ (Odam, 1995, p.4)
A question was raised about if composers write exactly what they hear in their heads. There can be a misconception that composers have complete pieces of music stored in their heads. David commented that only a small percentage of composers have perfect pitch and that composers often compose in a variety of ways including: on paper, improvisation, on an instrument, starting with a chord or rhythm.
Reactions from Teachers and Composers on the activity:
To find out more please go to:
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:
Three main contributing factors relating to student confidence are:
“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)
Written by Ian Axtell, Subject Leader for Music Education, Secondary Partnership Coordinator.
Ian was recently asked by Teachingmusic.org to post a guest editorial article on their website. Here are some highlights from the article. To read the full article please click here.
“During a recent school experience review a group of beginning music teachers shared their concerns about the assessment regimes that are now being imposed on some secondary music departments. The hope was that an absence of levels would provide the potential for more freedom, creating opportunities for school based music teachers to assess in ways that are appropriate for their pupils in a range of different school contexts. However, this freedom is being denied and instead music teachers in some schools are now being asked to comply with assessment regimes that focus on generic systems linked to core subjects…In the worst cases, music teachers in schools are being de-professionalised, their voices and opinions ignored in an environment that emphasises a deficit model of teacher performance. This deficit model seeks to identify shortcomings and demands compliance based on a narrow perspective of teaching and learning.”
“One type of activity for every child is prioritised, usually performing, in the context of a particular musical tradition, often a tradition in which we feel most comfortable. The problem with this reductionist approach is that we are in danger of forgetting what children can bring to their own music education. We also restrict children’s musical thinking so that they only make music in particular ways. Opening up the curriculum and creating the potential for musical thinking that includes more than just procedural knowledge or knowledge of how to play has certainly created some of the most rewarding moments in my teaching career. There is something particularly magical when you can create the potential for learning rather than just tell pupils what to do. This happens most powerfully when pupils are provided with opportunities to compose:
“Composing is part of the ‘real stuff’ in music”
(Mills, 2005: 45).
“I want to encourage pupils to think in other ways, particularly by analysing and evaluating what they hear and then make choices and bring ideas together by being creative. Performing then becomes part of a broader composing process where pupils are engaging with what Benjamin Bloom (1956) would identify as the higher levels of the cognitive domain.”
To read the full article please visit Teachingmusic.org
Bloom, B. S. (1956) Taxonomy of educational Objectives: Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain, New York: David McKay.
Mills, J. (2005) Music in the School, Oxford: Oxford University Press