My early morning train towards Hampshire started to fill up with with teenage commuters early in the journey, and by the time we reached Farnborough it was obvious just how popular and populous the town’s Sixth Form College is. As you’d hope from such a big institution, the College has quite a few students working towards Music A-level (over 60 at present). But the commitment to music here goes well beyond keeping up the numbers. Farnborough’s music curriculum is led by Ben Dowsett, a composition graduate and former student of Robert Saxton and Sebastian Forbes. Both these immensely eminent composer-teachers were visiting, as I was, for an A-level composition day, together with Farnborough former pupil, Stephen Willey who works amongst other things on music for interactive social media. Steve gave a great seminar about how to respond to a composition brief (his interesting whiteboard matrix, devoted to an AS-level composition task, is pictured here). What with some of the unusual musical requests I receive these days, I was all ears about how to ask myself properly the questions ‘why are you writing this piece, who is involved’ and so on.
It was very much agreed by all of us, students, expert talkers and musicians (who spent the afternoon workshopping compositions) that the skills we learn as composers extend far beyond the concert hall and studio. Learning to plan, to think structurally, to predict performers’ psychology, even to get a group of people to attend a rehearsal together – these abilities stand us in good stead far beyond our musical practice. So it’s depressing to learn that Music A-level, with its fairly hefty composition element, is here and there being quietly dropped from the curriculum of some schools and colleges. (Sixth form student Digory Price has launched a change.org petition about this proposed change to the curriculum at Strode’s College, Egham.) Not for one moment during my day in Farnborough did I feel I was teaching a fading or irrelevant specialism – quite the opposite in fact, as I absorbed everything I could about the world of gaming music and composition software from a highly expert 16-18 demographic.