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Developing Process Based Inventing Activities: A Spider’s Web of Intrigue

and Creativity 2

Paper presented at the Sixth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition,
Keele, United Kingdom, August, 2000.

Charles Byrne
Department of Applied Arts
Faculty of Education
University of Strathclyde
Glasgow, Scotland

Tel: 0141 950 3315 / 3476


Fax: 0141 950 3314
e-mail: c.g.byrne@strath.ac.uk

Introduction

In 1997, my colleague Mark Sheridan and I established the SCARLATTI Project which
aimed to investigate and document the teaching approaches and methodologies used by
Scottish secondary school music teachers in the area of Inventing (Composing, Improvising
and Arranging) and to share good practice, findings and thoughts with interested colleagues.
It was envisaged that a number of teachers would be able to access and share information
via e-mail and world wide web based discussion groups and music teachers who subscribed
to the project were invited to contribute to the SCARLATTI HyperNews discussion group
established at the Clyde Virtual University. HyperNews has the facility to link quickly and
easily with other sites and we began to create a bank of information and materials that we
hoped teachers would find of some use. It is within this context that we began developing
the Spider’s Web Composing Lessons.

Models of teaching composing

In looking for models of good teaching in composing and improvising and for background
reading that could be of use to practising teachers, we found much of interest in the
‘teaching thinking’ literature, particularly DeCorte’s idea of a ‘powerful learning
environment’ (1990). Having been Principal Teachers of Music in busy, urban secondary
schools, we recognised this phenomenon as being almost exactly the same as ‘lunchtime’ in
our own music departments. A budding Rock band is busy learning and perfecting a song,
pairs of youngsters are helping each other learn their parts ready for the Wind Band
rehearsal, two or three guitarists are composing a song together and a student piano player
is leading a small group through songs from the film ‘Titanic’.
In this scenario, capable peers may be working with novice songwriters or performers.
‘Modelling’ of expected levels of performance is given and support, or ‘scaffolding’
(Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976) for further learning is provided. Encouragement and advice
is offered, and accepted and this ‘coaching’ gradually gives way to ‘fading’ when the
learner has gained sufficient experience to be able to regulate her own learning (DeCorte,
1990; McGuinness & Nisbet, 1991).

We looked at Guilford’s work (1967) identifying the stages in the creative process outlined
by Dewey (1910), Wallas (1926; 1945) and Rossman (1931) and we were intrigued by the
emphasis placed on reviewing and evaluating within each of these models. The link between
creative thinking and problem solving which, according to Guilford (1967) are essentially
the same major operation, led us to conceive of a series of composing lessons consisting of
short musical steps. At any point, students would be able to ask questions, solve musical
problems and make decisions as to the development of the musical material as a result of
their own evaluation and reflection.

Process, Product and Passing exams

The purpose of the Spider’s Web Composing Lessons is not to facilitate the study of
children’s compositional processes and products. Rather the purpose is to provide
opportunities for novice composers to develop skills and strategies in handling musical
materials within an organised framework.

New approaches to teaching and learning composing often cause teachers to think
immediately of problems, usually assessment. Many music teachers in Scotland adopt a
fairly short term approach to Inventing; the examination led syllabus dictates that a folio of
compositions, improvisations or arrangements must be completed by a certain date so, the
product immediately becomes the focus of attention, rather than the process. It may be that
some music teachers are uncomfortable “with the prospect of designing activities for pupils
which add to their general educational and musical development rather than accomplish the
desired objective of preparing a folio of inventions which will secure them a good pass at
Standard Grade music” (Byrne & Sheridan, 1998a, p. 299). Barrett (1998) observes that
while Kratus (1994) and Bunting (1988) place an emphasis on the compositional process, it
is interesting to note that “Bunting (1988) acknowledges that analysis of students’
compositional products is an important part of any assessment procedure” (Barrett, 1998,
p.14). It seems that it is not only in Scotland that if it moves, we must assess it.

Webster (1988) proposes a theory of creative-thinking in music based on a synthesis of


convergent and divergent thinking. Many possible solutions to a musical problem are
generated and this focusing on the process, since thinking implies a present tense activity,
“becomes a kind of ‘structured play’” (Webster, 1988, p. 77). Students may have recourse
to knowledge or musical concepts already learned and may apply convergent thinking skills
in assimilating new and existing knowledge. Such an approach encourages teachers to
allow the student “space and freedom to think and experiment, while the requirements of
the product for examination takes a back seat. The process, however is under scrutiny and
the core skills components of critical thinking and planning and organising, employed in
the process can be rewarded” (Byrne & Sheridan, 1999). With the introduction in Scotland
of the new Higher Still courses and pathways there has been a slight shift toward assessing
the process with the requirement for students to complete a composing log giving details of
the compositional processes and techniques used (Higher Still Development Unit, 1997). In
these web based composing lessons, the emphasis is firmly placed on the process of
composing.

Composers in the classroom

As composers and secondary music teachers, Mark Sheridan and I had over twenty-five
years experience of creating materials for our students and we believed that learning to
compose could be both stimulating and fun provided that activities were framed
appropriately. Our teaching of composing and improvising in the classroom had been based
on giving students real musical problems which they were capable of solving rather than
mere paper and pencil exercises in the use of notation and chord boxes which, while they
may have produced “correct answer” type results, were, it is argued, of little musical
significance or value. In a recent study (Sheridan & Byrne, submitted for publication) we
describe these “correct answer” type activities as “Closed Critical Thinking Activities” in
which the student is given very little opportunity to experiment with or explore different
sounds and combinations. Although there may be more than one correct answer, free and
original thought is often excluded due to the contrived nature of the musical problem.

Here is an example of a popular composing activity. (Popular by teachers’ reckoning, we


have not yet asked the students!)

The class have finished playing “In the Mood” on keyboards and a natural composing
activity developing from this is to create a new melody that fits the chord scheme for “In the
Mood” and makes use of the same jazzy, syncopated rhythms (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Students are required to use the same rhythms and to select notes from the chord of C
major that will fit, creating their own tune. Chords are often shown in the form of chord
boxes which spell out either the letter names, the pitches in standard notation or both. Figure
2 is an example of one format.

Figure 2
Students are given few rules and are simply advised to use the notes of the chord to make a
new tune. Enlightened teachers may ensure that students use a musical instrument during
this "composing" process while others will expect students to use pencil and manuscript
paper and to check their results later, either by themselves, with a more capable peer or with
the teacher at the piano. Here is the sort of result that can be expected (Figure 3):
Figure 3

The contrived nature of activities such as this may be described as "occupying knowledge-
restricted problem environments" (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1985, p. 66). The student is
only allowed to use material contained within the problem to provide a solution. Thinking
must therefore be convergent since the process involves the solver in selecting one set of
permutations which closely match the predicted outcome. The moving around of letter
names on the page can, at best, be a logical-mathematical challenge and, at worst, a
meaningless and futile exercise. As Elliott puts it “One learns to compose by being
inducted into culture-based and practice-centered ways of musical thinking” (Elliott, 1995,
p 162) and not, surely, by moving letters and symbols around on a piece of paper without
any point of reference in the sound world being established. Composers often use the piano
to check material that has already been worked out in their head. Similarly, there is little
point in requiring a musical composition to be notated if, as Odam observes “a child (and
possibly the teacher) has interpreted the task of inventing a piece of music on a pitched-
percussion instrument as the random playing of pitches and their recording” (Odam, 1995,
p 43).

Inventing as part of Standard Grade Music

Evidence suggests (Byrne & Sheridan, 1998a) that the Inventing element of Standard Grade
Music (SEB, 1988) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the area where students achieve poorer
grades than the other elements of solo and group performing, and listening. In 1991, 36%
of candidates achieved grades 1 or 2 in the Inventing element of Standard Grade Music
compared to 53% achieving the same grades for Solo Performance. By 1996, the figure for
Solo Performance had risen to 63% while that for Inventing had risen to only 43% (Byrne
& Sheridan, 1998a). Teachers often admit to lack of confidence in teaching and assessing
inventing work and perhaps this is reflected in the fact that 90 secondary schools are now
involved in the SCARLATTI Project which represents nearly 50% of all schools invited to
participate. Teachers are always looking for new material and we were happy to use the
SCARLATTI Project web based lessons as a vehicle for introducing teachers to some of the
ideas discussed in this paper. Data from the University’s world wide web server indicate
that many individuals are downloading the materials but few are responding to the invitation
to submit feedback and evaluation of the lessons.

Spider’s Web Composing Lessons

The first lesson in the series makes use of text and graphics only and asks students to make
decisions on rhythms and melodic ideas using very few pitches. Critical responses are
encouraged through the use of questions such as “Which rhythm did you like best and
why?”. Students are reminded that “this is a disposable, process based activity. Remember
all the steps if you can but feel free to forget all of the notes and rhythms which you have
just worked with” (Byrne & Sheridan, 1998b).

The second lesson, ‘Pattern Duet’, builds upon some of the ideas in the first lesson and
makes use of sound files. These were recorded using a Roland Digital Piano and MC-50
Sequencer. Each short segment was then recorded onto a Mini Disc Recorder and converted
into aif format which can be recognised by web browsers. The music notation graphics for
all lessons were produced using Mosaic Composer software from Mark of the Unicorn.
Small pieces of notation were clipped using the Flash-It utility and then converted to gif
files in Claris HomePage 3.0 web site design software.

‘Pattern Duet’ introduces the notion of combining different melodic ideas and the sound
files allow the student to hear the melodic shape of each pattern although not in
combination. Teachers and students will have to devise methods of doing this in the
classroom, whether by using recording devices or by setting up the activity for small groups
of instrumentalists. Individual students could work at a computer workstation, responding to
the material on an electronic keyboard with a built in sequencer. Hyperlinks are included in
this lesson in order to provide definitions of new or unfamiliar concepts. For example,
transposition is illustrated in the section built around the chord of G major and a definition
is also given. Finally, understanding of the concept can be checked by asking the student to
make the transposition that will make each pattern fit with the chord of E minor.

The third lesson in the series, ‘Happy Birthday Mr Smith’ illustrates how an effective piece
of music can be created using a limited range of notes and some interesting, yet simple
chords. This is an example of an exploded composition, allowing the student to feel and
hear how a piece has been developed from a tiny musical idea. Users are able to hear parts
separately and in combination with each other and the generation of material, textural
considerations and instrumentation are explored.

Although these composing lessons represent pitches and rhythms in conventional notation
the sound files have been included as additional points of reference. It is important that
teachers do not simply treat these lessons as yet another paper based exercise that can be
‘marked’ later on. There is, quite deliberately, no emphasis placed on students being either
able to or required to write down their compositions in any conventional way. Of course,
students may want to begin to do this and activities such as these may well provide the
motivation for some to learn how to use notation. Salaman (1997) asks “ what musical
purpose staff notation serves in the lives of average pupils” (p. 148) and if the answer has
to do with wanting to record an interesting musical result then the purpose of learning
notation has moved beyond that of acquiring inert knowledge (Scardamalia & Bereiter,
1985).

Feedback and evaluation

So far, there has been little feedback from teachers or students regarding the lessons’ ease
of use, suitability of tasks and the practical implications of their use in the classroom.
Electronic evaluation forms are included on the web site although few have been completed
and returned. Those that have replied to the request for comments and feedback suggest that
the activities are appropriate for secondary years 1 and 2 students and the third lesson,
Happy Birthday Mr Smith being useful for years 3 and 4 as preparation for, guess what,
completion of the inventing folio. As models for the use of text and graphics they have
proved useful for student teachers.

The lessons are no substitute for good teaching and good teachers will know how much
help to give individuals and when to provide support and advice. Each set of tasks and
examples could be done either by individual students or small groups working together. The
results of working through ‘Pattern Duet’, for example, could be a series of MIDI files or a
new set of material that could form the basis of another project.

Further development

Other composing lessons are planned including one which introduces a new thinking tool
for composers which draws upon different views on the stages of the creative process
(Dewey, 1910; Wallas, 1926, 1945; Rossman, 1931; Weisberg, 1986) as well as the work
of Tony Buzan (1974) and Edward de Bono (1976, 1982). The ORIENT thinking tool is
intended as an aid to helping students through the composing process. It will not actually
compose any of the music but it should help the novice composer organise his or her
thoughts and ideas, providing opportunities to allow them to check how the composing
process is going.

Once again, the emphasis is on the process and is offered to music teachers in an effort to
move them away from the product oriented approach in the hope that they will see the
importance of providing useful skills in composing and thinking that students can apply in
later life and which will form the basis of a continuing interest in creative work in music.

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