Composition as Curriculum Activity

An article first printed in the Scholarships Supplement (Rhinegold Publishing, 2005)

Like many British composers, I earn my crust teaching in HE music. During my 25 years in the university sector, composition has entered our students’ school experience; much else has vanished, meanwhile. Though I might be expected to laud this, I fear that the reality is anything but rosily ‘progressive’. For me a principal teaching goal remains the wider understanding of art - art that represents subversion resting upon technique; yet the curricular development of recent years shows a diminishing appetite for that technique!

Setting GCSE students to compose without prior literacy in place may be fun but is no basis for development, since they lack expressive tools for what they want to say. A colleague, for example, received a cry for help: ‘I can’t do the bass clef’, a youngster lamented, ‘and I’ve A Level Music tomorrow!’ My colleague need not have worried; the boy still got an ‘A’. Equally serious is the commodifying of compositions brought about, teachers tell me, by pressure to dash for grades and avoid risks – to stick to winning formulae. Nothing could be more alien to composition than avoidance of risk; the result, which I see regularly, is a formulaic GCSE theme and variations, written in a hybrid ‘tonal’ language with regimented phrases that is quite alien to the Classical style.

I told the bass clef story to the music executive from a body providing our children with syllabus and qualifications. The response came: ‘that’s great! He wasn’t burdened by knowledge’! I argued that technique and terminology bestow power; it’s not snobbish but responsible if curriculum designers uphold skills, since students deprived of training now will be shipwrecked in classroom, rehearsal or other workplace, and will not thank us then. No other field is denigrating its own training as are powerful forces in music education, who fear that theory is ‘boring’ – and thus bad for recruitment (ok, ‘participation’). I do not assume all teachers agree with me, but wonder just how much acceptance surrounds this surreptitious earthquake, shifting a belief in training that has supported our culture from Machaut to Birtwistle.

This is closely related to the repertoire debate. Objections to ‘pop’ within the syllabus are ritually caricatured as pro-classical, but they are actually pro-learning - for executives openly admit in the press that increased pop elements relate to recruitment rather than content. I use popular materials in my own teaching, but because they show something rather than to ingratiate my syllabus with students. Materials chosen only for ‘relevance’ today will, alas, be ‘irrelevant’ tomorrow.

I cannot say for sure if teachers feel angry to be recruited as beaters in a pheasant-shoot for large syllabus providers, but I do know many who are unhappy with an imposed orthodoxy, hostile to depth yet obsessed with breadth. In 25 years, victims of this ideology of fluffy betrayal will demand of us ‘why did you let it happen?’ Do we have an answer ready for them?

Piers Hellawell is a composer and is Professor of Composition at The Queen’s University of Belfast.