Writing for School and Amateur Orchestras

*On 21 August 2006, I was part of a forum at The Orchestras of Australia Network Conference, held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The material that I delivered was taken from the following paper.*

Composing for School and Amateur Orchestras

I have been invited to speak today specifically about composing for school groups – and it’s something of which I have had experience – but I think that it can be extrapolated to a whole range of other musical organizations, and not just that involve young people.

If I may be indulged to go into a bit of personal history at this point, in order to present some background to my compositional experience in this area.

Between 1991-2 I was studying a Master of Music degree at the University of Melbourne. I had not written much music for young or amateur players before this point – well, other than the fact that I obviously was a young amateur myself! The university environment was very much directed at the ‘high-end’ side of performance, and in fact writing music for amateur players was actively discouraged by my supervisor as it was felt that the music produced would not be ‘academic’ enough.

In 1993 I was lucky enough to obtain a position at MLC School in Sydney, with the job of Director of Strings. The idea was always that this would morph in a subtle manner into a sort of Composer-In-Residence position, and the job from the start was equally weighted between string teaching and classroom composition teaching.

Initially I was concerned at taking the job in a secondary school. Apart from the issues of not previously having taught classroom music, more important was the issue of being somehow pigeon-holed as a ‘schools composer’, as if that was some sort of second-best option or admission of failure, maybe for composers who couldn’t make it in the professional world, stuck writing Z-grade concert band music and unable to be taken seriously.

How wrong I was!

I worked at MLC School from 1993 until 2003, during which time there were many opportunities to write works for varying ensembles, from student groups covering Year 1 to Year 12.

The great thing I’ve found about writing for school and amateur groups is that it forces you as a composer to be extremely clear, precise and concise about your ideas that are being conveyed. There’s nothing like having your music subjected to a group of teenagers who fundamentally don’t want to be there to bring you down to earth from the academic ivory tower. These students are real people who the composer needs to win over, or risk being booed off the stage, or worse.

One of the first orchestral works that I wrote for the school ensembles at MLC was for the full school to sing with orchestra, entitled *Believe in Yourself*. This is an 8 minute work that involved every girl in the Senior school. Part of the process required me taking rehearsals of the entire school packed into the school hall and trying to get them to be involved in the music.

I’ve found that when composing music for young and/or amateur groups, that it’s often very beneficial to be direct in the musical approach. This is not to say that composers should ‘write down’ for the performers – I believe this will only have a negative result for all concerned – but rather, try to be straightforward and comprehensible. This may take the form of some sort of hook or concept that the young performers can appreciate.

In *Believe in Yourself*, I took the approach of using aspects of heavy metal as a starting point for the music. This idea eventuated through my own musical interests at the time, but also worked quite nicely against the text. There was also a theatrical element of having the young female performers produce gutteral shouting noises rather than sing in the more traditional manner which helped the piece gain momentum and conviction from the performers, particularly when working against the text in question:

Believe in yourself, who you are, what you stand for,
Believe in yourself, for what you want and more,
Believe in yourself, no matter how hard it seems,
Life is a story to be told when you believe in your hopes and in your dreams.

Dealing with, acknowledging and embracing the technical limitations of the performers is also very important. There are some counter-intuitive aspects to writing for young musicians that become clear – such as, that it is easier for young people to play fast music rather than slow music: even though we may consider faster music more challenging from a technical standpoint, adequate tone production may not exist for slower music, and there are issues of concentration spans to also be taken into account. It is the composer’s challenge to come up with the best solution with which they are happy, but then again, every commission presents some sorts of challenges or another.

For composers, there will also be aspects of innovation that need to be considered. Most composers will aim to be original in what they do, at least to some extent. My experience tells me that students will respond to originality, though one should probably not attempt to re-invent the musical wheel in a work for school orchestra. It’s important to remember that the students will not have the range of musical experience with which to compare or contextualise a vast range of radical notions – more than likely they’ll think it’s just stupid and either switch off or otherwise disrupt rehearsals and/or the performance.

Mind you, there are times when utilizing non-standard techniques can be very handy. For example, in a piece called *Robin Hood Variations* for mixed-ability junior strings, I used graphic notation and a variety of extended string techniques for an entire movement. The use of these techniques and notation system put all students onto the same level, so that there was little if any differentiation between those students doing 7th grade AMEB and those who had been learning for a term.

For example, a recent work written for young musicians is the first movement of *Balkan Connection*, entitled “Makedonsko Oro”. This piece was written for performance by the MLC School Chamber Orchestra at their biennial Opera House Concert, the theme of which was “Music from Around the World.” For this concert we were looking for a work that included traditional elements from Eastern European music, and we were unable to find one: hence I wrote this work. Balkan traditional music is characterised by additive metres, florid ornamentation and generally fast tempos. When writing this work I was aware that some of these aspects would be foreign to a lot of the students, and so was therefore happy to create a piece that was quite straightforward to digest musically, and very much in the string orchestra tradition.

As a composer writing for school and amateur organizations, I went from hesitation from possible typecasting (i.e. the ‘schools composer’) to really enjoying writing for these mediums. In composing works for the NSW Department of Education, Border Music Camp, the 1998 ASME Conference, Ars Musica Australis and most recently the 2006 Orff Schulwerk conference, I have found that in fact, writing music for young musicians, and experiencing the rehearsal and performance processes, warts and all, to be usually much more fulfilling than the equivalent composing for professional orchestras. What the younger musicians lack in technique, they will more than compensate in terms of enthusiasm, brutal honesty, lack of pretension and sheer raw energy.

I’d now be happy now to be known as a ‘schools composer’.


I am probably preaching to the converted here in terms of speaking about the value of commissioning new works for schools and amateur orchestra, but nevertheless, I feel it is important to put forward a few points.

One defining feature of the composition landscape that has emerged since the early 1990s is the tremendous diversity of aesthetic and musical output from a wider range of composers. This diversity is now accepted and encouraged. It’s tremendously important to get a sympathetic match for any project you are considering.

**Resources** like the Australian Music Centre and ABC Classic FM can really help in this regard. The helpful folk at the AMC seem to have a good handle on the temperament and interests of a wide range of Australian composers, and would be happy to help and advise on getting the best person for your organization. The range of music at the AMC helps enormously with research.

Composers are always happy to be approached about writing new works, and the nice ones out there will be just as happy speaking to the local orchestra as the London Philharmonic. Sometimes composers don’t want to, or will not be able to do the work, which may be the case for many reasons – such as prior commitments and/or aesthetic and practical directions – organizations should approach composers at least a year in advance if at all possible.

**Established or in-demand composers** will of course require more notice, but organizations need not feel timid in approaching them. The worst that can happen is they say ‘no’. You may be pleasantly surprised. The fee payable will obviously be greater than other composers, since they are in most demand.

**Technical limitations** – it’s best to be upfront to the composer, and provide a realistic expectation of what the technical standard that will be available to them. All composers would love to have an outstanding cor anglais player at their disposal, but for every new commission we have to work with what is available. Generally it’s fair to say that composers will probably write something a little too difficult that requires revision (well, maybe I’m just projecting myself here!) – organizations should not hesitate in negotiating with the composer if this is the case.

**Occasional works** may be of interest, but most usually, of a shorter-term to a composer. If there’s a possibility that a work may have a life afterwards, they’re much more likely to make the time available to write the piece.

**Recording** – if there’s an opportunity to have the piece recorded, again, the composer is much more likely to want to write the piece. Again, it’s taking the work past the ‘one-off’ stage and helping it to have a life in the future.

In the end, I can only speak for myself in saying that perhaps the most interesting type of project that could be offered to me is more than a single, one-off commission. Composition is generally a very solitary task and extremely time-consuming in terms of the time spent working on a piece as compared to the end result. The most fulfilling projects are more long-term ones, that involve perhaps a number of new works over a time period, with more than one performance. This enables a better relationship to evolve over time, and from the composer’s perspective, may offer them the opportunity to experiment or try out a few different approaches without the succeed-at-all-costs mentality that can accompany one-off works.


For younger composers – maybe writing works for orchestras will not be so desirable in the future. Or maybe we’re just in a ‘holding pattern’ phase at the moment, and a new creative era is about to begin. There are many opportunities for young composers these days, and certainly many more than 15 years ago. This should mean that the standard is increasing significantly – there is certainly more competition for opportunities and commissions. Presenting an opportunity to a young or emerging composer has interesting possibilities: imagine commissioning a ground-breaking work that becomes a mainstay of Australian music!

The increased inclusion of creative composition within the various syllabuses around Australia means that there will continue to be opportunities for composers to undertake a similar compositional path as I have outlined here today. Here in NSW, there are a number of composers in residence in independent schools – for example, Andree Greenwell has recently been Composer in Residence at The Illawarra Grammar School, and composers are or have been working at MLC School, The Kings School, Caringbah High School, North Sydney Girls High School, the Sydney Conservatorium High School and Newington College, to name a few of which I am aware. There are many benefits to the students out of this – firstly, they get first-hand experience of a working composer, and practical access to some of the many issues with which active composers deal with on a regular basis. Such composers may act as role models for students who are interested in exploring their own creativity, and that composing music is/was not the exclusive domain of the Dead White European Male. By performing and studying new works relevant to them, or maybe even written for them, students can more easily feel that they belong to a living culture. This was certainly the case for me. When at school I was a member of the Wollongong Conservatorium String Orchestra, and as part of this orchestra we performed new works by Andrew Ford and John Wayne Dixon, each conducted by the composers. The exposure to these new works and the new ideas contained within them lead me to a path of further exploring those ideas in my own music.

Our contemporary culture is one that is flooded by music – in everywhere from media to the supermarket – but 99% of the music to which we are exposed has very little to do with the classical music tradition. Perhaps it will essentially be the work of grass-roots organizations such as schools and amateur music-making bodies in helping to create links between music creators and Mr, Ms and Miss Everybody that will be most crucial in ensuring the long-term future of the classical music tradition.

One thought on “Writing for School and Amateur Orchestras”

  1. Thank you.
    Shall be reading after logging off.
    What I’ve seen – I like.
    My wife, Bettie van Wyk, has been the originator, conductor, transcriber – pretty well everything – for the “Sentrumorkes” of “Hoërskool Roodepoort”, Johannesburg, South Africa, for nearly 21 years, and for some years ditto for the “Andante Ensemble” – (Andante because they cannot play Allegro yet.)
    Shall be hunting around wheter there’s music which she might be able to use?

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