Engaging young people with new music

Two things always surprise me about using ‘new’ music with my classes; one, they consistently will describe it as ‘odd’ and secondly they will question its value as ‘music’. It makes me smile every time. With scientific precision pupils will find much ‘contemporary’ music to be unattractive. Something changes though, if I introduce the music. If I can use an amusing anecdote, and somehow highlight the process behind, or during, the work, the students’ interest is peaked. They are keen and receptive to listen.  Equally surprising is how remarkably fresh and recent music from over 100 years ago can sound to unsuspecting ears; classes can hear Henry Cowell’s The Banshee as something ‘new’.  Our students need to see that composing happens now, and that there are equally interesting characters in the living world of contemporary music as there are in the often more familiar world of more popular musics.

I encourage teachers who attend my music teaching courses to make use of recent music; I make the case that we are teaching composing today so why not use the music of today? The ABRSM Spectrumpiano series is ideal. Full of short pieces, many with their processes and design clear for young composers to investigate and ultimately experiment with. I obsess over Gabriel Jackson’s September Chorale, and this becomes a laughing point for the teachers as it features so heavily in my discussions. What I love about all the pieces in the ABRSM volumes is that they can’t be pigeon-holed by our students: “I don’t like classical music” is powerless against these pieces. They are forced to abandon their stereotypes and engage with the music. Whether they like it or not is suddenly less of an issue. What is immediately noticeable is a willingness to engage with sounds and how the composers have woven them together because they’re fresh and beyong immediate categorization. It keeps the students guessing.

Originally published on Sound and Music Blog here.

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