I spent a lovely afternoon meeting the Music Department at the Stephen Perse Foundation Senior School. We discussed approaches to developing free composition skills at GCSE and reflected on the value of pre-planning; how much is useful, necessary? I wondered if the more one plans *before* the actual composing does it speed up or limit the process? How precise should this plan be? What should it contain?
IGCSE Music has the freedom of no briefs: candidates can write whatever they choose as long as one of the pieces is in the remit of Western Art Music. This freedom presents considerable challenge. Spending the time to consider carefully what is the aim of the composition – a reflective piece or something to capture a scene or atmosphere for example – and then how the various musical elements (melody, rhythm etc) can be exploited to satisfy that aim is useful planning. GCSE composition is not about the utmost artistic freedom – it is an opportunity to show developing fluency in the manipulation of musical elements to write music. The more one’s brief makes decisions about musical elements in a composition the more one knows what they have to do to get where they want their composition to be. An architect considers the whole before the rooms and so must a younger composition consider the whole piece, blocking out the various larger units before embarking on the notes.
Plans of course can change and the relationship between a plan and our changing compositional ideas creates a conflict that makes the process even more exciting. But without a plan we have nothing to resonate against, nothing to incite discussion even with ourselves. A plan helps a teacher to understand how a pupil is thinking. We can see what facets of the composition the pupil is most precise about and which ones are needing attention. We can help pupils to improve certain elements (such as harmony and structure) through guiding them towards these elements in their plans.
Time spent preparing a plan – through listening and reflection on musical ideas from other works may be of use – will be time well spent if during the process a pupil gets lost as they can refer to their plan and remember where they are going. It also shows us how much further we need to go until the end. If indeed there is an end to composing – is it merely abandoned than finished?