As part of BCMG's £20 for 20 years fundraising campaign we invited Professor Martin Fautley from Birmingham City University (BCU), to reflect on the ongoing relationship between BCU and BCMG and between practice and research:

It is remarkable to note that the BCMG learning programme is 20 years old this year – happy birthday BCMG learning programme! I thought I would take this opportunity of a significant birthday to reflect on the relationship that we in the school of education and social work at Birmingham City University have had with the programme, and with its leading light, Nancy Evans, over a goodly number of those 20 years.

To be involved in composing with children and young people is a complex matter. We do not have the same established pathways for composing and young composers as we do for instrumental music. The well-trodden pathway of the graded music exam has no equivalent in the composing sphere. Indeed, the very nature of composing itself is not as clear as the instrumental route, whether this be in practical terms, philosophy, or theorising.

There have been, I feel, many advantages to us working together over a long timescale. Normally, researchers are afforded all too brief windows of opportunity by short-term funding of research and activity projects, not just in music, but in educational research generally. I personally feel very privileged to have been able to work with Nancy and BCMG over many years, as it has been a worthwhile antidote to such short-termism, has allowed for the development of ideas and thinking which have taken time to develop, and has facilitated the luxury of longer-term reflection and consideration. This may seem a strange thing to say, but composing is by far the least well understood process in music education. Despite composing having been a statutory part of the National Curriculum in schools since 1988, it is the one area that we know many teachers report finding problematic. Thanks to Nancy’s pioneering work with BCMG, hopefully this is now less the case than it was 20 years ago.

One very concrete way in which this can be exemplified is in the projects Nancy writes about in her blog entry here . From a researcher’s perspective, there are a number of things I would like to draw attention to in the work that we at BCU have done with BCMG over the years. One of the most important of these is in directly contributing to the work and thinking of the BCMG learning and participation department, and from there to the wider music education community, and, especially for us as academics, in helping to theorise this too. As academics we invoke theory to help us explain things, we are interested in the why, as well as the what and the how. Nancy describes how Dr Victoria Kinsella and I worked with the Through the Music Maze project, we did this using a modified form of the research methodology known as think aloud protocols. This is where an expert practitioner is interrupted mid-flow, as it were, and asked to explain what they are doing there and then. Nancy allowed us the luxury of not quite stopping her mid-flow with the children, but certainly being able to ask her questions as her music maze sessions were taking place. This thinking aloud can also be thought of as being what Donald Schön (Schön, 1983) would have categorised as reflection-in-action. This was followed by immediate post-session reflections, where another of Schön’s ideas was employed, namely reflection-on-action. The differences between the two should be apparent from the labels Schön gave them, but essentially involve thinking whilst doing something, and then thinking about it after the event. The issue for researchers is normally that those involved in doing something are normally far too busy to stop and talk! But here we did, and it was fascinating! The reason that this was useful as both a research and an activity methodology was that it enabled all of us – workshop leaders and researchers, to really try and get to grips with what helping children and young people to get better at composing really entails.

The reason I have been emphasising this point is that we know that in music education it is much easier to be involved in doing music, in making it, than in thinking about learning. Indeed, without wishing to be rude about some outreach programmes, what we tend to see is lots of doing, but not much learning; and certainly very little consideration given over to development and progression over time. This is where working with Nancy and BCMG has been really interesting. Nancy and BCMG do care about these things, and are concerned with not just doing all the time, but in developing learning, and importantly, thinking too.

The thinking that working with BCMG has enabled for us as researchers has been significant in our published work, and with our academic conference papers and presentations. To be able to work with a world-class new music ensemble on our doorstep, with a thoughtful and reflective learning and participation department committed to developing the next generation of young composers has been highly significant, and we are looking forward to the time when we can resume working in person together in thinking and activity related to young composers.

Here’s to the next 20 years. Cheers!


Professor Martin Fautley
Faculty of Health, Education, and Life Sciences, Birmingham City University


Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, Aldershot, Hants, Academic Publishing