Put Young People’s Voices First – Our Principles for Composing in Music Education

A young composer explaining their work to a teacher #CanCompose
Judith-Robinson-Headshot

Hello, I’m Judith Robinson, and I’m Head of Education at Sound and Music, the UK’s national organisation for new music.

The New Year is always a time of reflection for me, a point each year when I stop to draw breath, consider where I’ve been in the last year and what changes the new year might bring.

And in this spirit, I’ve been reflecting on what actions could be made by the music education sector, so that we can change how we support young people in composing their own music.

To clarify: composing means creating new original music or sound, in any style or genre. It encompasses electronic music, grime, notated music, improvised music, singer-songwriting or any other kind of original music. And it’s an activity that can take place anywhere, in or out of school.

In October 2019, we published our #CanCompose report, drawing on the results of our National Educator’s Survey.  In our survey, 97% of respondents agreed that composing should be a core part of every young person’s music education, and 96% of respondents valued the positive impact that creating their own music can have on young people’s sense of identity and wellbeing.

Yet respondents were almost unanimously in agreement (97%) that there are insufficient opportunities for young people to compose or create their own music. Between them, they shared over 600 barriers faced by young people, pointing to serious structural deficiencies in how young people are supported to create their own music.

This might all sound very daunting. How can “serious structural deficiencies” possibly be overcome? What can any of us as individuals or organisations do to make things better?

Here at Sound and Music, we’ve been thinking about the first steps…

In the second part of the #CanCompose report, we identified a number of changes (or outcomes) to help to focus our efforts, alongside 21 recommendations. You can find them in the full report here.

We’ve already talked about the changes that are needed at a policy level; our Chief Executive Susanna Eastburn MBE gave a brilliant keynote speech at the Music Mark conference in November 2019 on this topic.

So, in this blog, I want to focus on the positive changes we should make, starting with young people themselves and reflecting on their musical and creative journeys.

In the #CanCompose report, these changes are summarised as:

  • More opportunities for young people to compose in and out of school
  • More relevant and diverse opportunities to compose
  • Improved progression pathways through better networks and signposting

Also at the Music Mark conference, I ran a session for delegates that spent some time exploring how the music education sector might better support young composers. It was interesting to hear from colleagues on how the three outcomes above might be addressed and, although groups of delegates were thinking about how to support young people with a range of different musical interests and approaches, there were clearly some common themes emerging from the ideas and experience in the room.

A second, very useful source of information I have drawn on are the evaluation forms and focus group transcripts gathered during our annual Summer School for young composers.

A student and tutor workshopping a piece at the Sound and Music Summer School
A piece being workshopped at the Sound and Music Summer School

We’ve taken the emerging themes from both sources to draft some guiding principles, shaped by the needs and interests of young people themselves. These are work in progress, so please let us know what you think…

Principles for Composing in Music Education:

  • We need to talk to young people to find out what their musical intentions are, what music do they want to compose? Where, how, and who with?

    This will ensure that young people are engaged and connected with the music they are creating, enabling them to develop their musical voices and shape their own musical journeys.
  • Young people should receive support and guidance from at least one educator (who might be a teacher, a mentor, an industry specialist or a professional composer) who has the skills and expertise to support their creative learning, and knowledge of possible progression routes.

    This will mean that young people can learn, acquire new musical and cognitive skills and find their own, personal progression pathways.
  • A variety of individual progression routes should be available and accessible to young people.

    This is in recognition that young people have different creative journeys depending on their interests, needs and motivations.
  • Young people should be able to connect with other young composers and performers.

    This will mean that young composers and music creators have a peer group to create music with and don’t feel isolated.
  • Young people should have access to the resources they need including live musicians, software, recording studios and assistive technology.

    This is because young people need the tools to create and share their music.
  • Music educators should be networked through their local music education hubs to other music education providers including arts organisations, youth organisations, Higher and Further Education institutions.

    This will enable progression opportunities to be spotted and signposted, and gaps in provision to be filled.
  • The development of creative music skills should start early as part of the curriculum in early years and primary schools.

    This will mean that children’s natural creativity is nurtured, and they learn to be confident music creators in tandem with developing musical skills as singers, instrumentalists and listeners.

Can you help make this happen?

We would love to know your feedback on these principles, to hear about your experiences and to better understand what has worked well for you! We have learned so much from our #CanCompose respondents and the value of sharing our experiences cannot be underestimated.

With your help, Sound and Music will:

  • Share information about opportunities and resources for young people, as part of a new central hub for creativity and composing in music education – work with us to augment this information by filling out our form here>>
  • Shine a spotlight on good practice across the country – we want to be generous about sharing fantastic examples and celebrate those who are already doing great things, please help us!
  • Create an Alliance for Composing in Music Education – a national network of organisations supporting young people and creating progression routes. We want to launch this in 2020 and are looking for strategic partners across the UK. Please let us know if you are interested!

Fill out our call for information here

What else can you do?

  • Speak to young composers in your area to better understand their needs
  • Think about how your organisation can support young people, for example through creating opportunities for participation, continuing professional development for educators and drawing on the expertise of composers working within your organisation
  • Ask your music education hub or leadership team what they are doing and if they’re aware of the opportunities, resources and support available
  • And please play a role in ensuring that there is wider understanding that a music education is more than learning to play an instrument and singing
  • Join our mailing list>>


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