As a rule of thumb, if you find yourself humming bits of a composition hours or days after hearing it, then the composer has done a good job. When Logan submitted his GCSE music composition – a setting of Churchill’s We shall fight on the beaches speech – it stuck in my head for weeks. A few years later, I can still sing the whole song from memory and recently, when I watched Dunkirk at the cinema, it played in my head again. Every time I find myself singing it, I think of Logan* and what he achieved.
I’d been working to improve my composition teaching with key stage 4 classes for a couple of years. I’d tried different approaches in the classroom, ranging from group improvisation to composing-by-numbers frameworks, and had used homework tasks to link music theory, listening and performance. The department had also benefited from a major investment in music technology resources when Logan’s class were in year 10, so by the time they were completing their controlled assessment compositions in year 11, I felt like I was finally starting to get it right.
Music was Logan’s passion beyond the classroom, he had always worked hard in lessons and was certain he would take GCSE music. But it was in no way an ‘easy’ option for him: years of private instrumental lessons had given him technical skill and factual knowledge, but he had no parallel confidence in his understanding of music. This really showed in his composing: it was cautious, lacked in fluency and, though he handed in various pieces, none of them managed to get a real authenticity or individuality.
Logan was increasingly doubtful about his own ability and, despite my own progress with teaching composition, I wasn’t convinced the penny would drop either. He willingly tried the various notation and recording processes, and became familiar with using Sibelius score-writing software. I suggested different starting points for composing, hoping that eventually something would inspire him enough to work confidently and creatively.
In the spring term of year 11, it finally happened. Since lyric writing was not rewarded in the GCSE composing criteria, I warned the class that, should they choose to write songs rather than instrumental music, they would be foolish to worry too much about the words. My ulterior motive was a desire to avoid a songwriting-as-teenage-breakup-therapy situation too close to the controlled assessment deadline. I wanted to get these compositions done with minimal emotional upheaval.
Instead, I suggested that Logan and a few of his peers use famous speeches to structure their compositions. Songs were written about Martin Luther King, JFK and various characters from English Literature set texts. Only Logan chose Churchill’s speech from June 1940 – and it transformed him. At last he was writing a song that he could sing, and that he wanted to sing. Great words had helped him to believe that he too could do something great, something worth listening to. With the tune written, he chose a musical style and looked at how other songs in that style used piano accompaniment. The piano part that he wrote wasn’t as memorable as the vocal melody, but it was still far better than what most students submit for GCSE.
Logan finished his song three days before the final deadline for submitting two pieces for GCSE marking and submission, at which point he declared that he wanted to write another song to replace his first composition, a mediocre blues piano piece. This time he used a favourite poem for the structure, and worked much more quickly. Again, the tune was memorable and the word setting effective, but it was his Churchill song that really stayed with me.
It was the first time that I’d ever memorised a historical speech, and it suddenly made me so much more aware of references to World War Two and 20th century political history. Uninspired by history in my own schooling, and unconfident in my knowledge of it thereafter, this was the first time that I really sat up and paid attention. Suddenly I was trying to piece together all sorts of events and ideas, bombarding my A-level class with questions about their history syllabus and, much to one girl’s amusement, asking her to ‘quickly explain’ the Cold War.
Logan and I both left the school when he finished year 11; while he went to a local sixth form college, I returned to university. When Logan asked me to act as a referee for a recent job application, it was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how much he has taught me – and how much I have learnt from so many of the young people I have taught.
That’s the beauty of education. I’m proud to teach the Logans of this world because they help me learn about my world – and how to teach others. There’s probably a historical reference that I could use to better illustrate my point – I’m so glad that I now have the confidence to find out.
* All names have been changed.
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