On 20th Nov we will be performing composer George Lewis’ new work Breaking. Read how Nancy, our Director of Learning and Participation designs a children’s composing workshop around his ideas.

It’s hard to describe this process, a process which I return to about once a month. The best words and phrases I can think of are… treasure hunt, circling, gathering, unpacking, and hovering!  And then, further on into the process – maybe a seed or leaf unfurling. It’s definitely not a linear process.

There will be between 15 and 20 children, aged between 7 and 11 attending the Music Maze workshop at the CBSO Centre. Though I will plan the workshop, working with me will be two BCMG musicians, percussionist Simon Limbrick and oboist Mana Shibata, as well as our Learning Trainee Abbie. In these workshops, I tend to lead the overarching structure, with the musicians working closely with the children in small groups.

The Treasure Hunt

Breaking is a new piece by George Lewis and therefore not much has been written about it, and there are no recordings to listen to. I start with a PDF of the score. I can get a certain amount of information from here – it's an octet and the instrumentation is there. I am not blessed with the ability to hear the music in my head from reading a score, but I can discern textures, shapes, individual lines, interactions between instruments, repetitions and variations, and some idea of the pitch world it inhabits. At this point, the piece still seems, not quite impenetrable, but it isn't giving me the information I need to plan the workshop.

I find this quote from George about Breaking, and listen to the BCMG Chats stream we had with him some time ago when he was first commissioned:

“We’re in a position where if we are at ease, we’re a little crazy, you know? We’re just whistling in the dark, as they say, and so Breaking has that sensibility about it. Things are kind of breaking. What does it sound like in the music? I went back to a methodology I haven’t visited since 2013, the idea of having integral repetition in the pieces. The idea is that the flow of things is broken, but also sustained. There’s a sense of instability I’m trying to maintain, a subliminal psychological sense where people shouldn’t feel complacent listening to this music, they should feel a little bit like where are things going? Where am I?" 

Circling and Gathering

The zoom chat is fascinating, he’s not talking about his new piece so much as about previous work. One phrase he uses jumps out at me, a "web of associations". The sheer energy of his music bowls me over. I love the breadth of his references and inspirations and, how he finds connections between seemingly disparate worlds – James Brown, Shakespeare, Laurie Anderson. I’m intrigued by how this "web of associations" is created and love the eclecticism of it – like a wild game of word association – the feeling you get on the bus where your mind is simultaneously at rest but also freewheeling. My mind drifts to our primary school project seminar last week, the need for preparing children to compose, and the different ways of doing this. One idea we played with was mind mapping. Could mind mapping with the children be a way of creating our own web of associations?

Gathering and circling continue, I’m watching random videos online of George’s music, him talking about music, and about composing. I’m trying to do two things – better understand George as a composer – his processes, starting point, his modus operandi - and to get to know his music – its sound world, its musical features.


I’m still not getting there. There has already been a performance of the piece by Das Neue Ensemble, our co-commissioners, in February in Hanover, conducted by our very own Artistic Director Stephan Meier, so, a programme note must exist. A few emails later I have a programme note, a few thoughts from Stephan, and a link to an interview. The link has expired but the programme note sends me scurrying down new avenues of research. Once again, I’m intrigued by his diversity of references for the piece - other music, literature, and feelings about the contemporary world.

I’m at a point now where I can ask myself some key questions, questions I return to consciously or unconsciously each time I go through this process: what is it about George, his music and this particular piece Breaking, that I can offer to the children as a starting point for their own composing? What would spark their imagination? What could be access points into his music for them? What is it about how George approaches composing that the children might find new and useful to their own composing?

To some, George may appear academic in his approach to composing, possibly out of range for young people, and yet his music bursts with exuberance and colour. It could be easy to dismiss his approach as too intellectual or too complex for the diverse range of children we work with, but, I have yet to find a composer and their music, from which meaningful and authentic ideas can’t be taken and offered to children in support of their own composing. 

What I’m not trying to do is invite the children to recreate George’s music, but to invite them into his world for a day.

There are different points to the compass – George, his music and Breaking, the resources we will have available to us on the day, and the children – their ideas and responses, but also the varying and diverse musical experiences that they bring with them on the day. Some will have been learning an instrument for a few years, others not at all. But it’s not just the musical worlds which they inhabit, but their life experiences that they bring with them too. I want to create a democratic, equitable space for everyone to be creative and learn from each other. What the ‘hook’ of a piece of repertoire does is remove the terror of the blank page, force me to approach each workshop differently and, give the children the opportunity to understand that composing happens in many different ways, as many as there are composers - and that starting points for composing can come from all sorts of directions. Importantly, I want them to feel that they are contributing to, and active agents in, the creation and future of new music.

A Seed

Back to Breaking – I look at the thesaurus for synonyms for break/breaking – smash, splinter, crumble, tear, crack, fragment etc.  How do things break? What things would the children think about/imagine breaking? Could they create their own web of associations – images about breaking, words, sounds, feelings….  Slowly an idea for the workshop is emerging. I return to George’s quote, ‘Things are kind of breaking. What does it sound like in the music?’. This, I decide, is the core, the seed of the workshop.

Starting points for children composing can be various – thematic, composing for an event or occasion, for particular musicians, exploring a musical idea from listening or playing, or from the imagination. There is also space for conceptual starting points – I see Breaking fitting into this category. Problems and challenges then cloud my brain – ‘but for something to break, there must be something there to break. What musically will break?’ I return to Stephan’s notes about George’s frequent use of repetition and variation as drivers in his music and think there is something in there to be used. This is not clear to me yet but it is hovering in my mind.


Flights of fancy follow… though some children will respond to words, others might need a more embodied approach – can I take objects to the workshop that break in different ways – match sticks, sugar cubes, paper, thread? Connected to this, how do we support children to go from the abstract or extra-musical idea of ‘breaking’ to concrete musical sounds? Thoughts of practicalities rush in – how are the children going to work – on their own, in pairs, in small groups, together? Each choice needs to be carefully considered as the implications are often far-reaching.


I find myself moving backwards and forwards – at one moment imagining possible destinations but definitely not deciding on one destination. I try to put myself in the shoes of the child and imagine how an activity might feel to participate in. I move from and between the macrostructure of the workshop to the micro, the tiny important details which determine whether the children engage or not, from the imaginative to the practical.

Ideas for activities and a sense of direction emerge and retreat, challenges and doubts still lurk in hidden corners but slowly, a sense of the day’s journey emerges from the shadows. 


Later on in the process, I have a workshop planning meeting with Abbie, BCMG’s Learning Trainee where she points out George’s use of sigimsae, a Korean technique of note decoration/embellishment found in Sanjo folk music. This is unlike anything we have in Western classical music. Different notes of a scale are embellished in specific ways with ‘warbles, shakes, glides up or down or with a straight tone’. In the workshop, after each group of children has created a simple melody (the ‘musical object’ they would later break), they spend time learning about and listening to Sanjo music. This leads to them adding their own embellishments to particular notes of their melody. You can hear this in the recording of one of the group’s final pieces.


Listen to what was created at the workshop


See what we have coming up for Young People