A Composing Conundrum

The last few weeks I have had the pleasure of starting to get to know my new year 10 GCSE group. They are an incredibly mixed bunch of young musicians and enter the course with from a range of backgrounds.

To start the course I asked the students to complete a short questionnaire about their hopes and anxieties about the course as well as about their prior musical experience. When reading it I found a lot of the expected responses. Many took the course because they enjoyed it at key stage 3. All of them were looking forward to the practical elements of the course and building on their knowledge of a range of musical styles. But one answer stood out. In answer to the question ‘is there anything you are worried about on starting the course?’ at least 8 of the 15 students answered with the same single word. Composition. In another instance last week I was chatting to a year 10 girl who was telling me she was already regretting not taking music GCSE. I asked her why she didn’t and her answer was ‘I can’t compose’. The same girl performed a song she had written in a concert in the summer, which would easily have got an A or higher at GCSE.

I was thrown by this. At key stage 3 our young musicians are composing at every corner of the curriculum, years 7 and 8s queue up to show us the music staff their new ideas for a yearly composition competition. We have concerts showcasing student compositions and pupils are keen to take part. So how come they don’t see themselves as composers at the end of year 9?

I tried to unpack it with year 10 the following lesson. In discussion they said they were nervous mostly about two things: composing alone and having to produce notation. In many of their heads GCSE composing means working entirely on Sibelius and creating scores of music. Composing a song using a guitar and voice or composing using Cubase was, in their heads, of lesser value at key stage 4. Is there something I have done to instil this view or is it a wider issue?

So here comes some thinking about composition at key stage 3. I have already have plans to map out progression in composition this year as part of a new assessment framework, but getting our young people to view themselves as musicians and young composers early on is vital. The use of student and teacher language is going to be a vital starting point. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.