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Composers' personal learning composing Canadian music for strings.



The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funded the research project entitled New Sounds of Learning: Composing for Young Musicians. This study examined the parameters of educational music in which 16 new works were commissioned--8 string works and 8 wind works over a four-year period (Andrews, 2012). This project was carried out in partnership with the Canadian Music Centre (strings) and the Ottawa Catholic School Board (winds). None of the participating composers had training in educational music, although all of them had previously composed for students and/or amateurs (Andrews, 2013; Andrews & Giesbrecht, 2013).

Educational Music Composition

While there are several music composition programs offered by Canadian academic institutions, there are no composition programs or courses focusing specifically on composing educational music for young people (Andrews & Carruthers, 2004). Educational music is also viewed as being of less quality by the composing fraternity than music written for professional musicians (Colgrass, 2004; Hatrik 2002; Ross 1995). As Hatrik (2002) confirms, "many professional composers who write music in the Western tradition do not possess the know-how to compose musical language that is appropriate to young people." This is because there are no universally set parameters for composing educational music (Andrews 2009, 2012; Colgrass 2004; Swanwick 1999), or strategies for teaching composition for young musicians (Andrews 2004a; Cox and Stevens 2010; Stone 1963).

Composition can be fostered and developed in educational settings when students are given the proper materials, notational strategies, compositional parameters, or electronic tools (Hickey 2001; Lefford 2007; McCord 2004; Morales-Manzanares, Dannenberg, & Berger, 2001; Rine 2005; Soares 2011; Webster 2011). Participants in these studies stated that they liked using computer scoring programs to compose because of the immediate feedback they receive. Researchers found that implementing compositional constraints, such as using a framework, length of time, rhythms, or being limited to one scale, can be helpful when composing music (Rusinek 2011; Soares 2011; Webster 2011). In contrast, Folkstead (2011) found that having limitations or prefixed ideas about composition based on prior experiences, training, or education can be a hindrance to a person when trying to compose. Though the views of these studies are conflicting, Folkstead (2011), Rusinek (2011), Soares (2011), and Webster (2011) agree that prior musical experiences do affect a musician's ability to compose.


Research Process

The dominant theoretical framework employed in creativity research involves four dimensions: place, person, process and product. Researchers examine environments that promote creativity, characteristics of creative individuals, the nature of the creative process, and the creative product itself (e.g., Amabile & Tighe, 1993; Kiehn, 2003; Hickey, 2001). In the New Sounds of Learning study this involves examining the prerequisite conditions for composing, the composer's personal learning, the compositional process, and musical piece (Andrews, 2012).

Integrated Inquiry was employed throughout the New Sounds of Learning Project. This method combines protocols from different groups of participants, inter-related protocols, qualitative and/or quantitative, or the same protocol administered in different time periods to obtain multiple perspectives on the object of inquiry (Andrews, 2008). Overall, the New Sounds study combines multiple data from four phases. Each phase focuses on one the four dimensions of creativity, and in each phase a different question was asked, a unique protocol was administered, and data was acquired from two different time periods (e.g., Andrews, 2012). The key question for this phase of the New Sounds of Learning Project was:

What do composers learn from composing educational music? An interview protocol was developed based on aspects of the composers' learning from composing educational music. Questions were selected from those developed in an international study on the dimensions of music composition (Andrews, 2004b). Questions focused on the composers' overall experience, critical issues they felt were in need of being addressed, their perspectives on collaborative efforts, and how teaching educational music composition can be improved (see Table 1). The interview protocol was refined in consultation with composers, educators and media representatives on the Ontario Regional Council of the Canadian Music Centre. Interviews were undertaken with seven of the eight commissioned composers--three in 2007-2008 and four in 2009-2010. One composer declined to be interviewed for personal reasons. Of the seven composers, five were men (three mid-career and two early-career composers) and two were women (one early-career and one mid-career). They were selected for their educational commissions through a juried process by members of the Canadian Music Centre, and all had been recognized with provincial, national and international composition grants and prizes. Five of the composers held doctorates in music composition and two completed their doctorates during the New Sounds of Learning Project. The interviews were approximately one-hour in length and all but one were carried out in person in a variety of locations (i.e., private studio, hotel, school, Royal Conservatory, restaurant). One composer was interviewed by teleconference as this individual was out of the country at the time the interviews were undertaken.


When reflecting on the overall experience of composing educational music, the participants stated they learned how to compose educational music while composing for this project. Two of the composers in their interviews indicated that they found it difficult, interesting, and challenging to compose music for young children. Some of the composers spoke about the difficulty of making the parts equally challenging so as to raise the skill level of the players, while at the same time, maintaining the students' level of interest. As one of them stated in the interview: "You have to ask: is this playable? Is this accessible?" and one has to "try to be as effective as possible." Another composer stated that when dealing with young musicians: "It has to be a fun experience. The students have to feel excited about it, while making them do two things at the same time (learn music, and improve their current skill level)." All participants indicated in one form or another that they all desired to write music that was artistically valid. As a composer commented, this project "helped me a lot in focusing, without really abandoning the idea of writing something that is worthwhile." Another learned that it was very helpful to seek advice from instrumental teachers to help to determine if the level of music was too easy or too difficult while others spoke of the parametrical adjustments (technical requirements, tempo, changing metres, rhythms) that they needed to undertake to write creatively valid music "without subjugating the artistic side of it."

With regards to compositional limitations, all participants affirmed that they felt it was difficult to compose music that covered all of the various skill levels. One composer stated that he was "unclear about the level of playing that I was writing for," and another stated that he had to "make the pieces more compact (and focus on the) limitations of the players' techniques, limited abilities, (which) wasn't too bothersome to me." And still another commented that he tried to address the limitations and different playing levels by having "different possibilities of ways to combine different parts" in the piece. One composer consulted a cellist instructor to keep the music "at the level that we want(ed) to keep it at in terms of difficulty"; another stated that he "had to keep in mind the harmonic language of the guitar" because the "guitar is hard to play fast"; and another commented that making the music "accessible to them [the students]" was important.

All participants advised young composers to interact with educators, teachers, and students in order to compose quality educational music. Some of the participants advised young composers to educate themselves about the difficulty level, learn about the repertoire, and to ask someone who knows about the instruments they are writing for. All participants stated in their interviews that the nature of the instrument needs to be taken into account. For example, a composer in his interview stated that he "tried to think quite practically about the actual physicality of playing the instruments, and needed to increase my knowledge of how people learn to play." They also recommended contacting instrumental teachers, students they are writing for, and school educators. One participant advised young composers to take composing educational music seriously, "make meaningful music" and do not "dumb yourself down." Another also advised to "think about the possibilities, don't be limited, give new sounds, (and) make it fun." In general all participants agreed on contacting teachers to ensure the appropriate level of difficulty of the newly-composed piece.

A majority of the participants felt that educational music composition should have been addressed in their initial training as they had no expertise in composing for young musicians. A composer commented that "schools, faculties and music schools across Canada ... don't have any composition that addresses this issue in training" and asked: "Why not a course in writing educational music?" Another also commented that "students of composition need to be able to write for more than just professionals."

While none of the composers indicated any stylistic changes in their approach to composition when composing for young musicians, all composers stated that writing accessible music for young people was essential when composing educational music. The composers suggested that composers contact educators and performers to improve the quality of music being composed. They commented that there should be a connection made between composition and education programs, and composers and performers, It was suggested that third or fourth-year composition students write educational music for a class. All participants stated they felt that only positive outcomes could come from collaboration between teachers and composers and that this would help composers to compose higher quality repertoire for young musicians. "It's so valuable because it puts them together." Two of the composers stated in their interviews that there could be a possibility of finding work and an extra source of income by composing educational music. One stated: "If you're looking for work, there's a possibility in educational music"; and the other noted that by "commissioning more music, (composers would) have an opportunity to write for educational purposes," but that it requires the "willingness of schools" to participate and fund educational music.

With regards to the differences in composing for professionals and young musicians, all participants stated in some form that they felt confident to write whatever they wanted for professional musicians. When doing so, they had no limitations on the music besides the constraints imposed by the people commissioning the work, such as length, instrumentation, and/or purpose. As one composer stated in her interview: "Professionals play what's on the page, students ... don't have the experience or the confidence to play it like a professional." Another composer commented that when writing an "educational piece, I really have to know that it's possible ... but achievable by a student at a certain level." Still another expanded on this idea by stating that there are "no restrictions for professionals (but with) young musicians (the) difficulty level needs to be addressed, if it's too dull, they won't play it." With regards to compositionally imposed restraints, a composer stated that writing for young musicians was "just an extra constraint. (There are) always constraints of some kind. (I have to) be aware of the practicality of it." Another composer stated that a composer needs to be "aware of those limitations, take on some kind of accountability for the music, and write creative material in the most effective way possible." Still another stated that she wanted to make sure that "the parts (are) interesting (and) wanting it to be fun" for the young musicians.



All the participants confirmed that throughout their involvement in New Sounds of Learning: Composing for Young Musicians, they had to learn how to compose educational music "on the fly" throughout the duration of this project. They gained the requisite knowledge by collaborating with the music teachers and by having contact with the students. This finding is consistent with research by Andrews (2004a, b, 2009), Colgrass (2004) and Swanwick (1999) that there are no established strategies for teaching composition for young musicians in the literature. The participants found the process of writing educational music to be difficult, interesting, and challenging. Lack of training in educational music was the key factor in causing difficulties in composing for young musicians. If educational music composition had been addressed in the participants' education, there is less likelihood that these difficulties would have occurred. Despite this situation, all the composers composed educational music that they felt challenged the students and maintained their interest.

The participants cited players having restricted technical abilities as the main cause of limitation when composing educational music. They felt that some fingerings may be impractical due to the size of the students' hands. Melodic structure should also be taken into consideration as long phrases may not be possible for students to play as lung capacity, diaphragm control, and embouchure have not yet been developed. Direct contact with students and collaboration with the music teacher represent the primary advice provided by the participants to young composers writing educational music. The music must be challenging, at an appropriate developmental level, and enjoyable for the students to learn. Andrews and Giesbrecht (2013) also found that there needs to be a balance of technique, challenge, and player enjoyment when composing educational music.

University music composition programs should include educational music composition as part of their degree requirements (Andrews, 2004a, 2013). The lack of training gives credence to the view in the music community that educational music is of a lower quality than music composed for professionals (Colgrass, 2004; Hatrik 2002; Ross 1995). Kratus (2007) comments further that music teachers do not receive training in composition but are now being asked to teach it in schools (e.g., Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010b). Consequently, "many music teachers feel less competent to teach composition to their students" (Bowmen & Frega, 2012, p. 370).

According to Armstrong (2011), "invention and generation of musical materials are fundamental starting points for any composer" (p. 86). Teaching composition in school classrooms is not a possible or feasible task for educators when they themselves received no prior training on how to compose music. In our personal experiences, educational music was never addressed in our undergraduate music degrees. We learned about serialism, post-tonal theory, atonal theory, chance music, along with a myriad of compositional texturing techniques, but never how to write challenging, interesting and developmentally-appropriate music for young musicians. If composition students were provided the opportunity to compose educational music in their training, eventually an entire generation of new composers would be adept at composing music appropriate for young musicians.

There is a market for educational music but it has not been developed in Canada to the same extent as it has been developed in the United States. It is a circular process. Composers need to be commissioned by school boards to write new music. If the new music is accessible, there will be a demand for more commissions which encourages publishers to make the music widely available. Publication stimulates demand and also the commissioning of more music. Composing educational music inevitably engages a range of educational stakeholders--composers, teachers, students, parents, and publishers (Andrews, 2011).

Collaboration by composers with teachers and their students supported by researchers is an appropriate means for establishing the parameters for composing educational music (Rusinek, 2011, Schubert, 2011). Having multiple points of view on the same subject allows the traits, characteristics, and commonalities to emerge at an increased pace. Though the literature on composing educational music is very limited, there are initiatives across Canada to improve the quality of music composed for young musicians. For example, the Canadian Music Education Research Collaborative (CMERC) is a collaborative and communicative effort among Canadian music teachers and researchers. Members focus on "regenerating music education in Canada through research and action in areas such as networking, new technologies, advocacy, inclusivity and accessibility in seeking funding" (Beynon, 2009, p.4).

There weren't any major changes in the participants' compositional approaches; however, accessibility and quality were main concerns for all participants. These concerns are expressed regularly in the literature (Colgrass, 2004; Hatrik 2002; Ross 1995). Participants also wanted to write music that was enjoyable to play. To do so, composers created music which included aspects of the students' musical culture, such as rock beats and bar chords. The inclusion of popular techniques is an extremely important aspect of creating musically relevant educational music (Leung 2004; Swanwick 1999).

Whenever a composer is commissioned to write music for professional musicians, there is usually a set criterion for the music by the commissioning party (e.g., the instrumentation, the nature of the performance, etc.) (Hatrik, 2002). Moreover, professionals have the expertise to simply review the score and then play what's written correctly. In contrast, the participants felt that when composing educational music, one has to also take into account skill level, motivation and interest of young musicians. To do so, they adopted a pragmatic approach, that is "what works," and worked hard to create educational music that was accessible. Overall, they avoided complexity which is the key factor differentiating music for professionals and music for young musicians (Andrews, 2009; Colgrass, 2004; Hatrik, 2002).


This inquiry is based on the research question: "What do composers learn from composing educational music?" Through their involvement in the New Sounds of Learning Project, composers learned that there are specific conditions necessary to compose successful educational music. A consensus was reached by the composers on these conditions: direct contact with the students; knowledge of their students' capabilities; a working knowledge of the instruments; ongoing collaboration with teachers and students throughout the compositional process; and a desire to compose technically appropriate, challenging and enjoyable music for young musicians. This research involved a small group of composers and the findings would be strengthened by a replicating study. Future inquiry is needed to identify specific compositional strategies that can be implemented to promote students' musical skill development.

The CMEA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2014 Pat Shand Canadian Essay Competition. Dr. Bernie Andrews and graduate student Adam Duncan, both of the University of Ottawa, are this year's recipients for their essay entitled: "Composers' Personal Learning Composing Canadian Music for Strings." The authors will receive a $300 cash prize, donated by Dr. Pat Martin Shand.


This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Grant No. 410-2006-2529.


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Adam Duncan is a performer and studio teacher of guitar and sitar, and also a graduate student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. He studied the sitar with India's foremost sitarist, Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, for a period of 8 years. He continued his studies at the University of Ottawa where he completed a Bachelor of Music for classical guitar and composition, a Bachelor of Education, and a Master's in Education focusing on music education.

Bernie Andrews is Professor of Education at the University of Ottawa and principal investigator of the New Sounds of Learning Project. He teaches music certification and graduate courses in creativity and the arts. His research focuses on educational music, interactive teaching strategies, research methods, and teacher development in the arts.
Table 1

New Sounds of Learning: Composing for Young Musicians
Interview Questions

1 Can you describe your overall experience composing educational

2 What are the limitations when writing for young musicians?

3 What are critical issues that need to be addressed?

4 Can you offer some advice for young composers?

5 How can we change teaching in music composition programs?

6 What do you think about collaboration between teachers and

7 Was there any change in your compositional approach or

8 Are there differences between writing for professional musicians
and writing for young musicians?
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Title Annotation:principal themes: 2014 Pat Shand Essay Competition Winner
Author:Duncan, Adam; Andrews, Bernie W.
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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