Jonathan Savage, MD of UCan Play, was delighted to deliver a keynote address to the Excellent Engagement – Music Technology, Progression and The Future event held at Liverpool Hope University.

Titled, Contemporary Approaches to Composition: Reframing composition in our schools (or ‘Thinking about Composition in Our Schools’), Jonathan presented this thoughts on composition in light of the work he has done this year for a new charitable trust that is creating a new undergraduate degree in partnership with the music industry.

Here’s an outline text of what Jonathan presented to the conference.

Contemporary Approaches to Composition: Reframing composition in our schools

I’ve met and chatted with many folk making a career as a contemporary composer. These include composers of library music and those working in sound design.

Their approaches to composition are informed by:

1. Creativity

Imagination and the ability to think and do things differently. Not just the attribute of an individual. Embedded, contextualised and is facilitated through rich environments where individuals can play together.

2. Collaboration

Contemporary composition is underpinning by collaboration. Physical and/or virtual. There is a team based approach at Radium. John’s network of musicians and contributors from around the world at Arms Production Music.

3. Commitment to live sound

Right sound, right place. Too important to be left to chance or another’s sound library. Found sounds, sampling, careful and nurtured sensibility to sound. The imagination to hear things differently and recognise sonic potential, to be led by sound and to sounds.

For us as music teachers, it is important to recognise that these models of composition go far beyond the skills associated with using a digital audio workstation such as Cubase, or learning to notate a score in Sibelius.

4. Cohesion

Technology, used productively, can reinforce a holistic, cohesive model of music education in which performing, composing and listening are integrated.

For me, this is at the very heart of what it means to teach music musically.

At UCan Play we’ve seen very productive work done with loop stations such as Roland’s RC505.

Roland’s new RC202 – a production model – that will be available shortly and reduces the cost of entry to this fascinating new performance, improvisational and compositional practice significantly.

I’ve been asked to reflect a little on the broader educational context of our work as music educators and how this

Growing conservatism in education. Fact and knowledge based approaches dominate the curriculum. GCSE and A level reforms in Music are retrospective. Key Stage 3 curriculum which was broad and balanced is now shrinking. At primary phase the notion of a ‘foundation’ curriculum is one that is replaced with core subjects and enrichment.

In the context, the arts are being diminished. Polly Toynbee article in the Guardian:

Education secretary Nicky Morgan last year warned students off studying arts, saying it held them back for years. How profoundly wrong she is. Facts soon fly out of mind and out of date too. Future-proofed education breeds creativity that spurs enterprise of every kind: nearly a quarter of the UK workforce is in creative employment, according to the charity, Nesta – higher than any other country. Research shows how the arts improve attainment in all subjects: drama improves literacy, music improves maths and early language. The arts make most difference to children from low-income families – those who get arts teaching are three times more likely to get a degree and a job.

And she goes on.

This conservatism in educational policy is insipid, narrow minded and pernicious. It is having a devastating effect on the arts in schools. Music education is facing a crisis on many fronts.

As an aside, please can I also highlight an important piece of research being done by Alison Daubney and Duncan Mackrill, with the support of the ISM and Music Mark.

They have launched an online survey to gather a longitudinal view of secondary school music provision in order to investigate and document any changes within the curriculum across Key Stages 3 and 4 (time, accessibility and models of delivery), staffing levels and uptake of music within and beyond the curriculum.

Anecdotally, numerous factors appear to impact upon music education across secondary schools; the survey aims to document changes and provide more substantive evidence and reasons for them. Ally and Duncan know from a pilot study that they carried out last year that there are a range of changes – positive, neutral and negative, so they are trying to map these and also consider reasons for possible changes.

Please could you respond to this questionnaire so that they can present a more complete picture of music education over the past five years and projecting into the 2016-17 academic year.

We have a complex relationship with technology; but you are not a gadget! Lanier strongly argues that recent developments in our culture deaden personal interactive, stifle genuine inventiveness and change us as people.

The digital revolution in musical production has been staggering in its impact in how music is created, performed, received and shared. But is it all entirely positive? Does it all count as ‘progress’. I would argue not.

Within an educational setting, careful consideration needs to be given to the affordances and limitations of technology. I’m sadden by the numerous classrooms I visit where children are seated facing away from each other, headphones on (surely a ‘technology of isolation’) staring at computer screens doing some sort of mundane composition task. Is this a music education attuned to the key principles of teaching music musically? No.

At the heart of the interface of creativity, technology and education there should be one thing:


A few years ago I had several months off work with sciatica. During my recuperation, I was introduced to Pilates. My Pilates teacher constantly talks about mindful exercise. Not the repetitious, unthinking drilling of the body as evidenced in so many modern gyms – the cause of my lower back problems. Carefully chosen exercises, done slowly, carefully, mindfully! Pilates works the body from the inside out from the core of our physiology. It is about relearning and strengthening one’s posture, basic movements and stability.

What a great metaphor for the creative use of technology in learning.

Our pedagogy as teachers or designers of learning spaces should be underpinned by careful, mindful choices. Wise choices about the tools we and our students are using. It is about their deliberate use. There is a skill here that develops over time. No quick fix but the results from careful, regular engagement are highly beneficial. It is about a focus on the core. What is the key learning that I am trying to facilitate in this music lesson? Is this tool I’ve chosen the best one for the job. The subject always come first. The tool follows. Does this tool allow me to teach music musically?

Done skilfully and conscientiously, this can result in a quietness, stillness and security in our pedagogy as teachers or designers of learning environments. It will result in mindful teaching and mindful learning that will last a lifetime.