Tag Archives: Creativities

Meet the CSPACE Team – Kirsty Devaney

Name: Kirsty DevaneyBlack and white headshot

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 Interests:

  • Music Education – composing in classrooms
  • Creativities in education and school
  • The creative & composing processes
  • Assessment of creativity
  • Technology in music education

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.Screen shot 2015-01-28 at 23.14.51

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:

  • Two online surveys (KS4 & 5)
    • Follow-up telephone interviews
  • Five case studies
    • Semi-structured interviews with music teacher
    • Focus Group interviews with students (KS4 & 5)
    • Classroom Observations
  • Semi-structure interviews with ‘composer-educators’

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 startimusic percng 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!

Listen Imagine Compose

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), Birmilisten-imagine-compose-ngham 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.

Composition Consequences
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.

Score 1Performace 1

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.

Score 10 Score 9 Score 8 Score 7

Reactions from Teachers and Composers on the activity:

  • It is like the game ‘chinese whispers’ – how others interpret your first bar is nothing like your original intention
  • Shape is important in music
  • Performance is an important part of the composing process
  • Anonymising the process (no names) so students will be less worried about what they produce
  • I liked how dynamics were not an afterthought but were there from the first bar
  • It would be interesting to start this in year 7 (with graphics) and see how they are when they reach year 10. If they were just used to coming up with material quickly.
  • The ‘composer’ is now a ‘collective composer’
  • Lot of different ideas developed in different ways
  • Titles are important
  • What would happen if you had the title at the beginning rather at the end of the task?
  • Employing peripatetic staff an extra for 30 minutes to perform the final composition at the end of a lesson

To find out more please go to:



‘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