Flautist, music teacher and Founder of I can compose, Rachel Shapey, explains how she came to create the award-winning composition website and introduces her latest online course
‘It’s ok for you, Miss, you have all this music in your head and just need to write it down. We can’t do that.’
This was a comment from a Year 11 pupil in a class I had just inherited in a new school. We certainly had our work cut out for us: two compositions to write, performances to record and set works to analyse – there was little time and morale was pretty low!
Following this comment, I realised that the class held the perception that a whole composition was conceived in my head and it was just a small matter of writing it down. They weren’t aware that composition is a process, which doesn’t just happen overnight.
A new and different approach was needed. What if I tried making the lesson into a workshop and became the composer rather than the teacher?
The next lesson, I told students that I was also going to compose a ternary form piano piece (their set brief) alongside them. This got their attention but aroused some suspicion.
‘Why are you going to do that? they asked.
‘Well, it’s only fair that if I’m asking you to do something challenging, that I have a go at it as well. That way, I can find out which parts might be problematic and we can tackle it together.’
Demonstrating the compositional journey
For that half term, we started each lesson together around the piano.
‘First we need a melody. How should I do that?’ We discussed what makes a good tune, created four bars and wrote it up on the board.
‘Right, now it’s your turn.’ The class then followed the model they had just seen and successfully wrote a melody.
‘Ok, now we need to develop our melody. How can we use the first four bars to help us write the next four bars?’ and so on.
Our lessons followed this pattern of workshop-style demonstration and individual follow-up composition. The more confident students started to go in their own direction and those who valued the safety of the model composition could refer back and follow it closely. After a term, every student had composed a piano piece and, more importantly, gained confidence.
As a group, we reflected on the approach and these were some of the comments:
- ‘It didn’t seem as scary’
- ‘We knew what we needed to do – you showed us without doing it for us’
- ‘It was fun when you did the piece as well – it didn’t feel like we were doing it on our own’
In a way, this approach is nothing new or groundbreaking; modelling is an important part of any lesson. But the difference here was that students could see the composition growing and developing over a number of lessons. They came to each lesson eager to see what was going to be added and knowing that they could achieve something similar in their piece.
Developing the approach
I’ve always encouraged students to compose using their instruments rather than just sitting at a computer. In an ideal situation, they have access to instruments and the space in which to play them.
However, this is not always the case and in many music classrooms, pupils strongly associate composing with being at a computer. While technology is very useful and has its place, it’s no substitute for ‘raw’ creativity.
I appreciate that Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) have transformed the way in which pupils can record and develop musical ideas but improvising and trying out ideas on instruments should be, as far as is possible, an integral part of any composition lesson.
This too needs to be modelled: as a flautist and pianist, I regularly demonstrate using my instruments – it’s vital that classes view their teacher as a musician and not just a teacher.
Transforming classroom methods into an online format
So how did my composition website, I can compose, come about?
Well, there’s a real lack of resources for composition and I’ve often thought that it would be great if there were an online resource bank for students and teachers. I just never thought that I would be the one to create it!
As schools are increasingly using digital resources, I thought, why not have a digital composition platform? I can compose initially has three key sections: an Inspiration page, featuring a diverse range of pieces with commentary, a Teachers’ Area and online courses.
Writing each course is a lengthy process: first, I compose a piece. My aim here is not to write something full of complex techniques requiring highly advanced skills but to present an ‘achievable’ composition.
I then break down the composition into small, manageable chunks and gradually build it up throughout the course, thus demonstrating the compositional journey. At the end, pupils can download and listen to the finished piece so that they have a model that they can refer to – just as I would do in the classroom.
The courses are not about adhering to the mark schemes of various exam boards but rather focussing on learning valuable composition techniques and considering the piece as a whole, not just a series of bars. I want students to enjoy composition and, from my experience, this enjoyment comes when there’s a structured approach with space for individual freedom and creativity.
How the courses work
Each course is divided into sections made up of a number of lessons.
The first section always takes the student through background research and listening around the course focus. I spend a substantial amount of time finding interesting repertoire and presenting features of the style.
Interactive features such as quizzes, dropdown question boxes and videos keep the content fun and engaging.
The challenges of creating the online lessons
Writing online composition courses has presented some interesting challenges:
- I know it’s obvious but there’s no class in front of me! In the real classroom, I can respond to the pupils’ needs accordingly and answer any questions they have. When writing a course, I am constantly trying to pre-empt what pupils might ask and which concepts might need clarifying.
- Much of delivering any school lesson and engaging pupils is down to the teacher’s personality and energy. It’s why it’s such a tiring but rewarding job! I’ve adopted a friendly, chatty style and have written each lesson as if I were speaking to a class and delivering the material in person. Students receive a certificate and award on their personal dashboard once they have completed a course.
Creating a new course: How to compose a competition piece
I’m keen to offer a wide variety of courses on the composition website and there are many courses currently in the pipeline. Composing a piece to demonstrate the techniques and capabilities of a particular instrument has often been set as a coursework brief and How to compose a competition piece is coming soon on the I can compose site.
On a personal level, I was looking forward to composing a piece for flute and piano and researching virtuosic repertoire.
Naturally, I was drawn to the late-romantic music of the French flute school, where the repertoire was composed specifically for the end-of-year Paris Conservatoire flute competition. Paul Taffanel became Professor of Flute in 1893 and revamped the repertoire as well as writing his own method book and competition pieces. Although not an innovative composer, Taffanel’s student, Philippe Gaubert, wrote idiomatically for the flute and captured the French impressionist style. We look in detail at his Fantaisie as a good example of a contest piece but could also have studied the Nocturne and Allegro Scherzando.
Both pieces begin with a slow, lyrical movement, demonstrating the rich lower register and offering an improvisatory feel. Moving quickly through the registers to land on high, pianissimo notes, requiring impressive breath control, is just one of the challenges presented to the flautist.
The subsequent fast movements display the instrument’s agility and bright top register, requiring clear, neat tonguing and careful attention to intonation. This is all within the context of Theobold Boehm’s flute modifications (1847) and introduction of a silver, rather than wooden, instrument.
But for those flautists searching for more contemporary repertoire, look no further than Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube or The Great Train Race for a showcase of extended flute techniques such as percussive vocalisations, use of quarter tones, lip-bending and multiphonics. These pieces include an explanation about the techniques and are intended to make audiences smile and gasp – they have to be heard to be believed!
One of the concerns with composing a competition piece is that the existing repertoire is pretty challenging – that’s the whole point – but can leave students with feelings of ‘I can’t possibly do that!’
However, in writing the course, I was careful to reassure students that their composition didn’t necessarily need to match the difficulty level of pieces they’ve found. It’s important to go back to the brief and remember what it is that we’re trying to learn. In this case, it’s taking a detailed look at what our chosen instrument is capable of and how we might demonstrate its techniques.
The future for I can compose
In 2018, I was shortlisted for the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs (I have multiple sclerosis – MS) along with four other applicants.
Four of us won £10,000 for our businesses and the overall winner (Josh Wintersgill from AbleMove) received £30,000.
I pitched I can compose to Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and the awards panel at Easyjet’s headquarters in London. They were fascinated by the composition website and asked lots of questions about teaching music in the classroom and about how I see the business growing. Sir Stelios couldn’t believe that (a) teachers had to teach composition in school (‘Surely it’s something that you can either do or you can’t’) and (b) no-one had already created online composition courses.
The award has been transformative at this early stage of the I can compose journey as I have been able to fund the website hosting, marketing and develop the business further (for example, in December, I launched the additional Teachers’ Area on the composition website which has downloadable resources for teachers to use in the classroom).
It’s certainly an exciting venture, with pupils and teachers valuing the level of detail and a clear, structured approach. With three award nominations in the first six months of launching, there is clearly something attractive about the concept. The response from teachers and students has been really positive. Going from classroom teacher to entrepreneur has been a steep learning curve but my mission remains the same: to make composition fun and accessible to all students.
Header photo: Winners of the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs (Rachel Shapey and Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou on the right)
About the author
Rachel Shapey (BMus PGCE LRSM) is the Founder and Director of I can compose, an innovative company dedicated to inspiring the next generation of great composers.
She is an experienced music educator and worked for 12 years as a Secondary classroom teacher in a variety of educational settings, including a state-funded specialist music school, a sixth form college and, most recently, an independent grammar and preparatory school.
In the latter years of her teaching career, Rachel focussed almost exclusively on enhancing students’ and teachers’ experience of learning composition – this is her passion. Consequently, she has produced a vast array of resources and courses focussing on music composition and has also developed her own unique teaching method.
The I can compose composition website is now Rachel’s primary focus although she maintains close contact with a number of schools to ensure that her work remains relevant, applicable and accessible to students and teachers alike.
Rachel has been shortlisted for three awards within six months of launching the company; these include the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs and Outstanding Music Education Product in the 2019 Music Teacher Awards for Excellence.