Tag Archives: Music

ISM webinar: Which way now? GCSE music challenges and choices

Kirsty Devaney, PhD student, School of Education, @KirstyDevaney

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:




The emphasis on Music Education for All

Written by Ian Axtell, Subject Leader for Music Education, Secondary Partnership Coordinator.Axtell_Ian_main @IanAxtell

The emphasis on Music Education for All is crucial.  Music is powerful, unique and a fundamental right for everyone.

The provision of music education for everyone throughout their compulsory education, promoting “participation, inclusion and diversity” through “democratic engagement and social justice” (Spruce in Harrison & Mullen, 2013: 23), is a shared passion but the politicised discourse surrounding music education has created confusion and uncertainty.  The result is a model of “Progression in Music Education” shared in the NPME (DfE/DCMS, 2011: 18) which is more about achieving excellence for some in the context of instrumental skills rather than providing a rich and inclusive music education for all.

music perc

English education had a very strong vision of music/arts for all developed by The Arts in Schools Project in the 1980’s.  This vision was reflected in the “2000-2010 renaissance in music education” (Spruce in Harrison & Mullen, 2013: 26).  This renaissance focused on the child as an agent in their own musical learning, not devoid of knowledge but active and engaged in music making in terms of performing, composing, listening and evaluating/appraising.

There needs to be a clear articulation of music for all IN ADDITION TO progression routes for those who are particularly talented.  There also needs to be a recognition that “excellence” can be achieved in a rich variety of ways, not just through traditional instrumental routes.   The model shared by Ben Sandbrook (2012: 4) provides an appropriate vision of excellence that includes:

“an array of musical progression journeys”.

However, can everyone achieve the same level of excellence, even if their routes and end points are different?  A utopian glass ceiling perhaps?  I would argue for an open ended vision of music for all.  Not predetermined and limited by closed notions of what “should be” but which provides the potential for what “might be”.


Current politicised education discourse focuses on the acquisition of knowledge.  The argument is to enable social mobility but at what price?  There is a real danger that thinking is closed.  The teacher simply has to transmit a hegemony of predetermined, formalised knowledge.  Learner agency and engagement are neglected or even ignored.  In music education this has resulted in an emphasis on the acquisition of instrumental skills and the formalised theoretical knowledge associated with reading music.  This knowledge is important, particularly when developing excellence in particular areas of music, but a focus on acquiring this knowledge does not recognise that music is also an open, living art form with the potential to build on what has gone before, look forwards and challenge our perceptions.

Music education makes us think.  It has the potential to be transformative.

I would like to see the music education sector value its rich diversity and reclaim the lost ground in terms of music education for all in the context of compulsory education.  Funding to support instrumental teaching is crucial but not the beginning or the end of an inclusive and diverse music education for everyone.


DfE/DCMS, (2011), the Importance of Music: A National Plan for Music Education. London: Crown Copyright.

Harrison, C. & Mullen, P. (2013) (eds.) Reaching Out: music education with ‘hard to reach’ children and young people. Salisbury: Music Mark/Addison Design Ltd.

Sandbrook, B. (2012): http://www.bensandbrook.com/sites/default/files/A%20skeleton%20strategy%20for%20progression%20v4.pdf Accessed: 18/08/2015.


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:



Supporting Music in Schools

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.”

Screen shot 2015-01-28 at 23.15.02“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

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.

for wards deskIMG_0388

  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.


Exchanging Notes

Written by Dr. Victoria Kinsella, Research fellow in education.

In April 2014, the National Foundation for Youth Music announced grants to support 10 Exchanging Notes projects across England. Since September, each project (a partnership between a school and specialist music provider) has been working with young people at risk of low attainment, disengagement or educational exclusion to see how participation in regular music-making activities can enable achievement of musical, educational and wider outcomes. The 10 projects comprise a wide range of educational contexts, all developing innovative approaches and working with a variety of different musical approaches and styles. This includes; music technology, learning an instrument, singing, group percussion, song-writing, music mentoring, production, performance and musical communication.

Screen shot 2015-01-28 at 23.15.15

I am very excited to be working as part of a team of researchers at Birmingham City University on this longitudinal four year action research evaluation. It is hoped that the results of this project may have great significance to the music education sector to stimulate fresh thinking and support the aspirations set out in the National Plan for Music Education.

Alongside regular visits to the settings, we have already had two national meetings hosted at the University. These meetings have provided a great opportunity to share effective practice, discuss challenges, disseminate early findings and build an exchanging notes community. I look forward to observing the second term of music activities and keeping you updated on its progress

National Meeting at Birmingham City University 2015