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Abigail's Blog: Humbug!

Posted on 8 October 2019

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The nature of language in public and private life has bubbled to the surface of topicality in the past weeks. You might think at this stage that it just needs doing, no matter how or that it needs doing in the right way and not until the right way can be found, or indeed that it shouldn’t be done at all. Whatever your view, it’s pretty clear that when we get to the other side – wherever that is – repair will be needed. There is a dent in our sense of what we share.

All of this emphasis on language made me think about music and what music has which language doesn’t.  Where language isn’t up to the job, music usually steps in – at our moments of joy, grief, celebration, reflection, fear.  Whatever kind of music people are referring to, when they talk of its power, they often say that it expresses something or makes them feel something which goes beyond words. And that it has a repairing quality.

As it happened, this week Sound and Music, the UK’s national agency for new music, published an illuminating report called #cancompose, which highlighted a crisis in creativity in music education. As the emphasis on literacy and numeracy in formal education has increased in the past two decades, the space for music has been squeezed and given a lower value than other areas.  The effect of this is that we have lost an area which made a significant contribution to nurturing and developing creativity in young people. Sound and Music’s report demonstrates that composition is an A1 way to develop creativity but that now there is very little of it going on in music education any more.  Ironic when all evidence shows us that two of the top facets which the citizens and workforce of the 21st century will need are creativity and individual resilience.

I know, from our work at The Glasshouse International Centre for Music, that what this report records is correct. I also know that there is a massive appetite for composing from young people. And they are doing it on their own time in so many different ways – digitally, acoustically, alone, in groups. But not so much in school. At The Glasshouse the range of different kinds of composition going on is really broad – from the eight composers we had in last week working with Royal Northern Sinfonia, building skills in writing music for chamber orchestra, to the 100+ young people who come through our CoMusica programme each week, MCing and Djing to high levels and often using music as a way of getting life back on track, to the 20 musicians who took up residence with us over the summer to create new work in retreat, learning from each other and guest mentors in our Summer Studio, to the weekly adult class where people from all walks of life are taught staff notation for 90 minutes for the pure pleasure of it.  These wildly eclectic circumstances and differences in the people involved have a common thread of creativity.

And some of this creativity will eventually drive new compositions which rise to the top -which become the Imagines, the Four Seasons, the Vossi Bops, the Wuthering Heights – iconic works which speak to so many of us beyond words.  I hope that Sound and Music’s report will start to shift policy so that composition moves back to centre stage in education. We need great music for when words are not quite working for us and we need to nurture young peoples’ creativity to build our collective future.