Composer Richard Barnard tells us a bit about his composing practice and his work in Horfield CofE Primary School in Bristol as part of the Listen Imagine Compose Primary project, including a wonderful invitation to compose.

I have been a professional freelance composer for many years. This has involved a huge variety of work from operas and short film scores to chamber music and comic songs. In recent years I have focussed on choral music, where I see a place for my voice in a thriving ecosystem for new music both in my home city of Bristol and across the world. Hearing your own music performed is always a thrilling and visceral experience, but there is something very special about choral pieces. Singers embody the music in an unmediated, physical way. Even when writing for instruments, I try to keep that sense of physicality, breath and vocal lyricism.

(excerpt from I Am The Song (2021) commissioned by City of Bristol Choir, words by Charles Causley) 

I have always combined composing work with music education - what might be called being a ‘composer in the community’. I have led creative workshops with combinations of children, young people, adults, amateurs and professional musicians. This often involves working with opera companies, orchestras or music festivals to create bespoke projects designed specifically for the participants. Particularly rewarding projects have been working with creating song cycles with people living with dementia, and operas with autistic teenagers.

In my education projects I try to bring in ideas from my composing work, and take away ideas too. For this LICP project, I am working with two Year 4 classes at Horfield C of E Primary in Bristol. It is a school already bursting with music! The teachers and I realised that the focus needed to be on giving the pupils specific techniques and tools to help them realise their ideas and open up new possibilities. Encouraging expressive freedom and creativity was, as always, a crucial part of this, but the teachers at the school were already good at this and wanted ideas for helping children think and grow as composers - to be ambitious in what they could invent, imagine and achieve.

For the first schemes of work I choose to focus on a specific piece as a starting point, and home in on some general techniques that the children could absorb and fire their imagination. One class focussed on Joplin’s Elite Syncopations the other Bach’s Goldberg Variations. One of the teachers specialised in dance so we decided that during the term, each class would work with her to choreograph a dance to their chosen piece. This was a useful way of the children getting to know the music in depth.

Two key ideas for the children to understand and use in their composing were sequence in the Bach and syncopation in the Joplin, so we explored those techniques with the children, using listening, discussion, analysis, musical games, visual notation, and individual composing on instruments.

One particularly successful lesson in the G is for Goldberg scheme of work involved the idea of a Secret Code created by turning their melody based on the notes of a G major arpeggio into numbers, then Decoding it by applying it to another arpeggio (i.e. creating a musical sequence).

This film features some of the music created by the children at Horfield Primary School in response to my invitation to compose:

I always like to maintain the connection between improvisation and composition and avoid anything that breaks that connection. (Improvising can be both with or without an instrument i.e. in one's head or with physical sound). It’s easy to assume that teaching formal notation, theory or technical information breaks that connection, but I think it is the opposite. I think it is vital to give pupils these basic tools, as well as technology to capture and manipulate ideas in an improvisatory way. Helping a pupil to understand how to use a major chord; a pentatonic scale; a syncopated rhythm; giving them high quality music to respond to and absorb, will inspire and open up their creativity and capacity to create original ideas. It is often tricky to discern whether or not children are composing something that sounds complex because they haven’t been given the tools and concepts to compose the music that they actually want to hear… sometimes randomness is randomness by accident, not design. 

With enough inspiration, freedom, and encouragement, along with the tools and technology they need, children can compose amazingly complex and iconoclastic music, but they have to be given the chance to have the building blocks on which to build their palaces of sound.   

Listen Imagine Compose Primary is a partnership between BCMG, Sound and Music, Birmingham City University (research partners), Birmingham Music Education Partnership, Bristol Beacon, and individual schools in Birmingham and Bristol. The project aims to:

  • Work with teachers and composers to develop meaningful and relevant composing activities for children
  • Better understand children’s composing and how they progress as composers
  • Improve the quality and frequency of composing in primary schools.

For further information, please see our Listen Imagine Compose Page.