Today’s composers may be reinventing our musical languages using new technology, but can any of these sounds and processes find place in the traditional music classroom?...’ So reads the flier for a training session for teachers to be run by Sonic Arts Network in October 1997. It was to find answers to that question which prompted Sonic Arts Network to set up an education department six years ago; and although all the battles are by no means won, there have been, alongside all the other momentous developments in state education, significant changes in attitudes to electroacoustic music as well as a growing sense of the important role played by artists working in schools.

While in the 1950s Benjamin Britten drew attention to the way professional musicians and children/amateurs could be brought together as equal partners in the performance of large scale works, it was the composer Peter Maxwell Davies who demonstrated - from his teaching at Cirencester Grammar School in the 60s, and subsequently - that children could compose music as naturally as they do creative writing, and in the process reach an understanding of contemporary music making unequalled by decades of passive ‘appreciation’. Bringing this insight into a public recognition of what constitutes good arts practice was achieved in the 70s and 80s by arts managers like Kathryn MacDowell, who worked with Peter Maxwell Davies and the Scottish National Orchestra and Gillian Moore (another Scot) whose work with the London Sinfonietta became a model for orchestras, opera and dance companies throughout the UK.

A seminal project at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1989, directed by Robert Worby, showed how these approaches could be applied to the composition and performance of electroacoustic music, using small groups of talented schoolchildren from Kirklees, and a team of composers fired with enough enthusiasm to give lavish time with minimal financial gain and work with high street consumer equipment like cassette-based portastudios. Of the 180 teacher/education managers invited to the final workshop day and concert only the writer attended; and the following year when Tony Myatt of York University addressed the Annual Conference of MANA (Music Advisers National Association now NAME: National Association of Music Educators) he found that the assembled cognoscenti had no awareness of a living tradition of electroacoustic music, most assuming that ‘music technology’ was significant only in the sphere of popular music.

This may be contrasted with the situation now where a government document setting out the legal requirements (‘entitlements’) for Primary IT (information technology) in Music within the National Curriculum has been compiled with assistance from Sonic Arts and gone out to all 22,000 state primary schools and 8,500 secondary and special schools in England and Wales, bearing our logo and seven exemplar pictures taken at our workshops; classroom ‘materials’ (modular schemes of work) in IT and Music for teachers in secondary schools, commissioned by the Department of Education from Sonic Arts with a substantial grant for equipment for prior research and field testing; direct access to the reform mechanisms of the only A level syllabus in Music Technology (a post 16 matriculation course) in use in the UK and British Schools around the world; and Sonic Arts as recipient of a major grant for ‘new education’ by the Arts Council of England which funded SoundAbility - an innovative course in new music technology for teachers, arts practitioners and health workers in the field of physical and learning disabilities which has become a model used by other arts organisations and institutions; regular requests to provide education projects at major festivals and arts venues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including collaborations initiated by the South Bank Centre in London to provide education project management with other visiting arts organisations and individual artists such as James Wood (Centre for Microtonal Music) and Tod Machover from MIT.

The thinking out of which our education work expanded in 1990 was pragmatic and inclusive. There was a need to show that composing with new technology was not essentially different from other composing; sound itself was the common denominator, but also the point of departure to new musical languages enabled by technology: in today’s terms - from serious electroacoustic through rock and jazz to leading edge street cultures like techno, trance, drum’n’bass and so forth.

These aims would not be fulfilled by dropping cassettes of electroacoustic works from a helicopter onto the largest conurbations or indeed by any plan to achieve mass exposure to the genre! There was a recognition that electroacoustic music was already ‘out there’, finding its way into the ears of the young in a wide range of styles, commercial and otherwise, which are changing, almost imperceptibly, as they absorb electroacoustic insights. But there is also a more radical purpose, associated with inclusiveness and enpowerment: the wish to make the raw materials of music available to all - now possible, as never before, through new technology. The idealism of which this is an expression is well described in terms of history and society by Jaques Attali:

When power wants to make people forget, music is ritual sacrifice, the scapegoat; when it wants them to believe, music is enactment, representation; when it wants to silence them, it is reproduced, normalized, repetition... Today, in embryonic form, beyond repetition, lies freedom: more than a new music, a fourth kind of musical practice. It heralds the arrival of new social relations. Music is becoming composition.

It is, therefore, more than good fortune that we have, as a background to our aims, a National Curriculum which supports the notion of creative music making for all. Music as a practical subject is compulsory for every pupil aged 5 to 14, including those with the most severe physical and learning difficulties, and must be available as an option for 14 to 16 year-olds. It is not an exaggeration to say that as a direct result of the visionary work of John Paynter and other educators, disseminated through the Schools Council Project in the 70s and 80s, a radical view of the music curriculum - which places composing as a central activity for all pupils - became an orthodoxy in the 90s. Unfortunately, as orthodoxies do, this approach has begun to lose contact with its origin, which was rooted in the spirit and practice of contemporary composition. While the art of performance is supported by a network of instrumental teachers, and myriad local authority bands and orchestras, there still is no infrastructure to support the classroom teacher in implementing the ‘entitlement’ of all children to composing as a component of the National Curriculum. (The full musical entitlement for each pupil is Composing (‘Inventing’ in Scotland), Performing, Listening and Appraising expressed in Attainment Target for each activity at Key Stages within the age range.)

At the outset, Sonic Arts Network Education made composer-led workshops its principle activity. It is essential that the composers who do this work should be at the forefront of their art as well as possess the qualities of personality and communication skills necessary to inspire and lead groups of pupils and teachers. We are fortunate in having composers of international renown, such as Trevor Wishart, Alistair MacDonald, Stephen Montague, Robert Worby, Peter Cusack and Duncan Chapman as part of our central team, and others, no less distinguished, such as Michael Henry, who are in touch with rock and street dance cultures. While keeping full management control of our artistic policy, and educational practicalities, our projects are styled to the needs of our client - be they local authority or arts festival. Projects usually consist of three days of workshops. These can, either, spread out singly over six or eight weeks - with equipment left in schools for pupils and teachers to carry on the work, or, together in a ‘residency’, which may be in a school, local authority teachers’ centre, or an arts venue. Typically, we deploy three or four composer-animateurs, each assigned to a different age group within the National Curriculum spread, or post 16 pupils doing A level music. All our projects have at least a 20% component of pupils who have severe physical and learning disabilities. Participants are not hand-picked for their musicality. On the contrary, we ask schools to include pupils of mixed gender, ethnic origins, and musical background (including none). The wish to be involved is the most important criterion. For groups of pupils with disabilities we ask for: i) those whom the school think would benefit from a music course, ii) those for whom practical music is difficult because of their profound and multiple physical and learning disabilities, and iii) those for whom music is normally considered inappropriate: pupils who are profoundly deaf, or react negatively to loud or unfamiliar sounds, or who are considered too emotionally fragile for the bustle of traditional music lessons.

The last day of a music project usually culminates in a performance by each of the groups, preceded by a sound diffusion workshop/rehearsal in which all have a musical role. These performances are frequently part of a professional concert in a significant arts venue, but the education department has a small mobile sound diffusion rig which can be easily set up in small concert halls, school halls, arts centres and galleries. We have also performed in venues as different as a Dalston shopping precinct, the Science Museum at South Kensington in London, and on local radio to accompany a laser sculpture shooting forty mile beams around the sky from Canary Wharf Tower. Source sounds may be from conventional or traditional instruments or voices, objects in classroom, or environmental sounds. We have taken pupils to record on dockside, in a mining museum, in a tunnel, and so forth. One project focused on Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, using the sounds of materials from which the building was made. For the performance four schools were assembled on different levels of the auditorium in this huge building. Each school had contributed to an overall piece which had within it movement of sound around the space.

Although our early projects concentrated on making tape pieces this soon gave way to a model where tape material became a component of greater or lesser significance in a range of sound sources played live by pupils. These may include conventional instruments - often unconventionally played - as well as objects as instruments, and samples, triggered in a variety of ways - with or without live processing.

Collaborations with other art forms have been particularly successful, especially when providing a relatively familiar context for the unfamiliarity of serious electroacoustic music. Moreover, concentrating on the common processes and language shared between emancipated forms such as dance or photography, has frequently helped to unlock the creative powers of those brought up on the formal strictures of western classical music. The South Bank Berio Festival - and within it the Sonic Arts Electric Voice concerts - linked education collaborations between composer Duncan Chapman and the Irish poet, Matthew Sweeney and between Trevor Wishart with the story teller Ian Clayton, in what must be one of the best of our seventy or so projects to date. Sweeney and Chapman were as adept in drawing our miniatures of words and music (with a hint of cabaret) from first year students in a Wandsworth Sixth Form College, and in creating Magritte inspired music theatre from an ethnically mixed class of 12 year old girl, as they were in motivating a group of adolescents dubbed ‘learning and behavioural difficulties’. The latter recorded and mixed an astonishing tape composition Ben the Rat Died, made from individual and collective responses to joy, pain, anger and fear. Seniors - aged 65-94, many with physical handicaps - meeting for two days at the South Bank Centre, pulled no punches in their choice of stories and songs characterising London’s East End in and between world wars. By recording and making samples, Trevor Wishart was able to give them extended control over their own voice material, weaving story line and accompaniment into a unified structure. All the pieces in this project were played live in a pre-Berio concert performance in the Purcell Room to an ample audience. Following up projects to establish good practice is easy to claim but difficult to achieve in a way credible to classroom practitioners. (Not a euphemism. Classroom teaching in state schools is a lifetime away from cloistered university or conservatoire teaching, and people qualified and willing to do it are decreasing in numbers, especially in primary education: latest Government policy may mean that music will disappear as an option from Primary Teachers’ Initial Training.) In Britain the ‘arts community’ and the ‘education community’ still touch at a few points and there are profound differences. Teachers and education managers are preoccupied with assessment and accountability; with the effective measurement of teaching and learning as it applies to individual pupils in whole classes. Artists abhor definitions and seek the flexibility to change and enrich their work as it proceeds. Teachers know that they have approximately thirty-six hours a year to deliver music education to whole classes (from 5-14 of the National Curriculum) in hour-sized chunks; and that if they don’t get it right in the first five minutes they will be scraped off the wall at the end of it! Artists seek to work in depth with small numbers over long periods of time. Teachers know they must put the highest priority on empowering their pupils, cutting, pasting and sizing the curriculum to suit the individual (‘differentiation’). If there is a public performance or presentation in view, artists tend - understandably - to be prescriptive in ways that could sideline the needs of individuals. With such a catalogue of differences it is not difficult to see why in unprepared contact, artists and teachers might polarize into caricatures of themselves! So is there any point in trying to bring artists and educators together?

My belief is that it is vital to establish a channel of communication between the work of living artists and classroom practice. Both have much to gain from each other. But isolated workshops will not achieve this; there is a need for national and regional strategies in which the projects and workshops become models of working, capable of adaptation to specific learning situations. In Britain we are beginning to recognise and delineate the role of education officers in this quest, who will, perhaps, one day, be jointly funded by education and the arts. Individuals with strategic imagination, sensitive to the legitimate concerns of teachers and artists, bifocal in their vision of arts and education, and skilled in midwifing ideas into good practice, enabling pupils in our schools and members of the wider community to find and fashion their own creativity.

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