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As composition becomes increasingly sidelined in school music, Natalie Watson discusses a mentoring scheme providing professional support to promising students.

Photo of ORA Singers in rehearsal for one of their new commissions
ORA Singers in rehearsal for one of their new commissions
© Nick Rutter

“It’s time to write your composition,” says the music teacher. “Off you go.” To some students, this is quite literally music to their ears. Armed with the tools for writing a new work, their head full of ideas, they begin putting pen to paper. But for a large percentage of individuals this instruction leaves them blank, unequipped and downright scared.

The programme is designed to allow a creative exchange throughout the period of composition

It’s a little bleak, but for a lot of schools across the country (never mind the ones that are no longer able to keep music GCSE or A level running in the classrooms) music composition is often the element of the course that can be left unguided.

Don’t hear me wrong, music teachers do a fantastic job, many of them giving hours of their personal time to put on extra activities to support students in their music tuition. There’s just the fact that within the classroom there often isn’t time to guide each pupil to develop their compositional ‘voice’, fill their minds with examples from the historic compositional giants, and to nurture them individually so they can express themselves through their music. Remedying this is a huge task, but one that ORA Singers has set about exploring.

A new generation

We are a professional vocal ensemble with a primary aim of creating 100 new choral commissions by 100 living composers. And we recently expanded our pursuit of compositional excellence to include the mentoring of a new generation of choral composers.

Always on the lookout for the best in compositional talent, we devised a Youth Composer Competition aimed at students from non-fee-paying schools to select individuals who lacked experience but demonstrated huge potential. Ten finalists from across the country were chosen to be mentored, each receiving ten hours of guidance from a hand-picked tutor from our line-up of commissioned composers.

We have also launched a new educational resource to expand the mentoring programme from these ten into the tens-of-thousands. The Composer Create website (supported by our project partner, the Signatur charitable foundation) is a tool for the aspiring choral composer. Alongside hints from some of the singers themselves, the resource features worksheets, blogs from two young emerging choral composers, and video testimonies from composers.

Value of mentoring

Emily Pedersen, one of the competition finalists, says: “I first looked into composing when I was unable to find a piece of music that perfectly described how I was feeling. After that it just snowballed. It’s a way for me to tell stories and to express feelings when I can’t find the words. I want to study composition at a conservatoire after finishing secondary school but can’t afford professional lessons, so this mentoring scheme is an especially important part of the competition to me.”

Richard Allain, Emily’s mentor, reflected: “In composition, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Each mentor will be working closely with a young composer, and, unlike other competitions where pieces are submitted by a deadline for a cash prize, the programme is designed to allow a creative exchange throughout the period of composition. This enables composers to refine and develop their work long before it is in front of the judges.”

Richard continues: “Studying composition at university, there was a sense that we were judged by how well we could emulate the great contemporary composers at that time. I could ‘write' music from a technical point of view, but I was writing for an academic vacuum – not for real people. I left university having heard very few performances of my music, so the matter of finding my own creative voice was much harder to realise.

“The intensive individual mentoring these young composers receive from their assigned tutors acts as an anchor to the reality of the profession as well as an inspirational role model. Perhaps the greatest opportunity offered to these young composers is that they won’t have to write begging letters and wait years to hear their music. Their scores will be performed – and that’s an experience that simply cannot be matched in a purely academic setting.”

So, with the mentoring currently well underway, we wait in anticipation to see the development of these young finalists over the next couple of months.

Natalie Watson is Group & Development Manager for ORA Singers.
Tw @orasingers

The Competition Final Concert is to be held on Saturday 27 July at King’s College London.

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Photo of Natalie Watson