In last week’s blog I attempted to place First Access in the context of a general music education for all children. I proposed that the year-long engagement of all yr3 pupils in their string playing had provided a worthy musical foundation and a set of ‘serving competencies’ on which they could now build. It would provide a valuable basis for their development as composers of music, for example. And it was the matter of composing music that I was involved in last Friday.
The Listen, Imagine, Compose project  was holding an away day sparked into life by Pam Burnard’s creative metaphors and through the presentations of three secondary school teachers who had embarked on programmes of action research and who were now reporting on it.
Fran, Ruth and Sarah were addressing important questions: why compose; how to nurture the confidence to compose; sustain pupil’s journeys as composers; achieve more meaningful composition work; understand the significance of collaborative composition. These were some of the matters enquired into and that the teachers were exceptionally articulate about.
It’s not easy here to do justice to the ways in which the teachers were involved in intense levels of reflective practice. (Their powerpoints will no doubt be available later.) But it was clear that these teachers were changing, learning – and their pupils were too. Both teachers and their pupils were coming to understand what it meant to compose music, and it seemed to me that the climate of their classrooms was changing too. Conversations were becoming richer. Dialogic practices were emerging.
Of course, I may be over interpreting to soothe my own predilections. However, together the teachers illustrated well the power of carefully conceived action research to bring about change and to secure ongoing reflective action.
Fran, Ruth and Sarah provided the meat on which we could chew for the rest of the day.
In the afternoon and before small group discussion of key themes, Kirsty Devaney tuned us up for debate by leading us in a whole-group interthinking exercise by presenting us with ‘talking points’ (or at least that’s what I call them).
Talking points are not easy to create and I thought the question ‘Is bird song music?’ an especially good one.
Kirsty asked us to literally show where we stood on this. Those responding ‘yes’ stood at one end of the room and the ‘noes’ at the other.
I quickly decided ‘no, bird song is not music’. I had in mind that music was humanly organised sound. That was that.
However, in recent days I have thought about the question again and recall reading a book called ‘The Music between Us: is music a universal language?’  in which there is discussion of animal musicality. On further reflection I think the issue might revolve around whether we believe there to be a boundary between the human and the animal. I like a music education that involves thinking about music, whether about how it is made, practised, what it’s for or what it might mean.
One of the small-group discussion points that followed addressed ‘listening and the development of aural imagination’.
To imagine music is to think (bring to mind) what is not present, what is absent but that could be present. This was my starting point.
My suggestion that asking a pupil to imagine the trumpet that was being listened to be heard as a clarinet was a bit too much for other members of my group.
I had thought of this example after hearing from Hertfordshire music teacher Lizzie and about how she gets her pupils to use (perhaps its training) the aural imagination. There they are hovering over a xylophone and yes they can be asked not only to imagine what the sound they are about to make will be like but also asked to think about the sound they are about to make as something quite different to what they know the xylophone is capable of. In playing the xylophone can they, for example, imagining the sound of a flute. All very fanciful you will say.
By the way, can you catch your earworm and manipulate it?
I wondered whether pupils even know that they can imagine music. Could they be taught/trained to imagine music on the way to music lessons?
I was clearly in the wrong group as I later learnt that another group had been talking about audiation and coming much closer to my starting point. It was only a starting point for thinking about aural imagination and I recognise the danger of reducing such a vast and dynamic idea.
It’s good that days like this don’t seek to find answers or even agreement. Just get us thinking, that’s enough.
And remember First Access has a place within a much bigger scheme that is a general music education and where composing music might even have a central place.
 Higgins, K. (2012) The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? The University of Chicago Press.