March 2002

Back to School

by Alan Charlton


Every now and then, an advert comes up in the musical press for a 'composer-in-residence' at a school, nearly always an independent school. Many composers will have considered applying for such a post but are often daunted by their perceptions of the environment itself and the potential effects it may have on their compositional development. Many questions arise that can only really be answered through experience. What is the standard of musicians at a school and how open-rninded are the pupils? How enthusiastically is contemporary music received among staff and parents? To what extent do other duties get in the way of composition? How well does a composer-in-residence 'fit in' in such an environment? How does a residency affect your compositional output outside the boundaries of the school?

I must admit these were some of my thoughts when I took up my residency as the first Eileen Norris Fellow in Composition at Bedford School in 1999. The position of composer-in-residence at a school is probably the nearest thing to the court composer that we have in this country. All the pieces written for the school have some sort of function, primarily that of developing and challenging young instrumentalists and singers, but also adding to the vibrancy and excitement of school life. The practical benefits about being 'in residence' are that you soon acquire a detailed knowledge of pupils' musical strengths and weaknesses, allowing compositions to be written specifically or adapted quickly so that they conform to the abilities of a certain set of players. Because of the rehearsal routines in school - generally a rehearsal of a particular group only takes place once per week - you have time to revise compositions and work on a piece in what amounts to ten or so mini-workshops before the final product is performed - a luxury that is rarely afforded to you in any other musical context.

How does this sort of post affect your 'style'? Are you forced to compromise and become less'individual', or even to write pastiche? This largely depends upon how technically difficult your personal musical language is to perform at its simplest level and the sorts of pieces you are asked to write. In my own case, I found that I had to simplify my rhythmic language considerably - rhythm seems to present the greatest challenge to young players - but countered for this in the development of a richer and more personal harmonic language. Often the limitations of ensembles provided an excellent starting point in themselves as, to take an example, an ensemble encompassing a broad mix of abilities suggested a deployment of forces within the group that was in itself original. This type of problem turned out to be just as challenging a discipline as, say, working with compositional systems. You certainly end up discovering mediums that previously you may not have even considered: a few years ago I could never have imagined writing a cantata for 9-11 year olds for instance, but found the experience surprisingly rewarding.

There are considerable benefits to your level of professionalism, too. Pieces have to be finished a long time before performance, as sufficient rehearsal time is essential in the school environment. You also find yourself being far more specific about interpretative issues in your scores and parts - because you are working with relatively inexperienced musicians, articulation and phrasing become more precisely marked, dynamic markings are more polarised and cues become more frequent and more helpful. The experience of writing for certain abilities, occasions and audiences enables you to judge how to pitch the level and tone of a commission more effectively.

These sorts of concerns and more will be discussed in the first ever conference about school composers-in-residence at Bedford School on Wednesday 22 May 2002. Although the main aim of the conference is to give composers an insight into what can be achieved in such a position, it is also intended to give schools an idea of the benefits of an association with a living composer. It is hoped that through the sharing of ideas from many different viewpoints, some sort of consensus will be reached on how to draw on a composer's skills in a way that is most mutually beneficial to school and composer. There will be talks from composers, directors of music, a performer involved in contemporary music in education, and from the spnm. Some of the pupils at Bedford School will be performing works written specially for them in a concert and workshop. The day is rounded off by a panel discussion on all topics relating to this field and will attempt to offer suggestions as to how such schemes can be set up, and whether there are potential solutions to securing funding. So hopefully many of the mysteries surrounding the school composer-in-residence will be uncovered.

Alan Charlton is the Eileen Norris Composer-in-Residence at Bedford School. Works composed by Alan Charlton for the school can be viewed on his website, For further details on the conference click here.

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Previous articles:

January 2002
spnm in 2002

December 2001
There's no word in Finnish for workshop

November 2001
New Opera?

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
Composing for dance
from start to finish

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!