The topic of #mufuchat this week and a challenge session at the forthcoming #mufu2014 conference, composing is another area in which I need to do better. In fact the more #mufuchat sessions I participate in, the more I realise how much work I need to do to refine my own practice and avoid becoming complacent just because I’ve been doing the job a long time.

This term I’m doing 2 composing projects with KS3. The first is our annual year 7 house music competition. In previous years, we have started with a workshopping lesson to identify a groove that the class decide they would like to form the basis of the piece. They then go off into friendship groups to work this into an idea which I record and post online. We identify the ideas we think would form the best verse, chorus and instrumental sections and the composers of these ideas teach them to a bigger group. Finally we put it all together as a class, perform and record it. I document everything and students are encouraged to have an input at every stage. There is an example from last year HERE.

The enthusiasm the students have for this is evident on the voting page where they sat at home and voted thousands of times for their songs, using the comments section to support each other and praise the songs created by other classes. Although the recordings are no longer all live, the votes can still be seen under each house entry and it’s a testament to the tenacity of some of our students when they get really competitive! Click HERE for a look. I should say that the winning 4 songs are performed live in front of an audience of 200 at the final, giving students that may not normally perform in a concert the opportunity to do so.

This year I am into the second week of this and something has changed. Because I had a couple of weeks to spare, I introduced the students to a taster of the Musical Futures Find Your Voice project and this included using mobile tech. Many students downloaded garage band and other apps, having tried them out on our school iPads (we have 9 in the department) they needed no encouragement! Suddenly they started asking (in the corridors, at break, at lunchtime) to show me things they had composed at home on their own devices. So when I set their homework last week-to come back with an ‘idea’, could be lyrics, chords, melody etc-so many of them came back with ideas that I have started a sharing wall. Students are going to email me their pieces and I will upload them. The ideas they compose in class are on their learning logs on the blog. For the first time, I may be able to encourage some to compose outside the classroom using the refinements we make in lessons as we create our own house song. This is a really exciting development, I just hope I can find the time in lessons to acknowledge and support this extra dimension!

In the case of THIS group, their own ideas were so much better than the workshopping we did, that we decided to get rid of that and start again with the ideas they came up with themselves. I was particularly impressed with this group [link to follow when Soundcloud starts working again] who met together in the week and arrived at lunchtime to perform their song. Chords, lyrics and a drum beat, great stuff and likely to form the start point for the whole song.

My year 8 are embarking on a different project. Having tried workshopping blues to build some classroom ensemble skills, done a band instrumental unit to build some instrument skills, and lots of warm ups to try to get us working together as a class, with limited success, I decided to take a massive risk. Last week I said that they could have free reign to compose a piece of music to be played at a showcase performance in the last lesson of this half term. They could use iPads, instruments or voices and work with friends. I gave them no guidance whatsoever and let them go expecting the worst as we have struggled with clapping a pulse in previous lessons! From the start they were engaged.

At home, I’m asking them to watch a selection of videos and in the next lesson to apply what they have learned from these to their pieces (note to self do not put the pop piece first!). There was a lot of talk of verses and choruses today.

The boys in particular opted for my iPads, one group choosing to rap over a backing track they threw together, whilst girls used their own devices, often to record themselves, listen back and make improvements . One group auditioned each other for the lead rapper part and then this week decided on a theme for their rap, refined the backing track and one rapper became 4. Another group broke away from a larger group, took an iPad and worked together to arrange some samples into a piece. I listened and suggested they break up the 3-part texture and think about creating a new section after 8 bars. At the end of the lesson they came back with this (recorded outside with no amplication sorry-I have said before that I’m really short of space!)

One group of boys chose to play drums, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and keyboard. The drummer has just joined us from a London school where he has had free drum lessons. I thought he would be upset that we can’t offer these and find it hard to adjust to lessons where you have to teach yourself quite a bit, however he has thrown himself into lessons and took a lead in this piece. As we finished the lesson, the guitarists were on YouTube trying to work out Am, G, Dm chords to match with what the keyboard player had come up with.

Finally, 4 girls who have driven me mad all term by chatting, complaining and doing very little, composed this. In the lesson, they smiled, talked positively to me and had evident pride in their work. I’m really proud of them too.

My only issue is being able to spread myself thinly enough to help them to refine their ideas. Today I had 8 groups all doing different things in different places and there’s only me! My plan is to review recordings as much as possible and have a plan ready for them to crack on with related to the prep so they can get started. But I also want to retain the freedom that seems to have motivated them so as ever it will be a fine balance.

Does informal composing work? So far so good……