I recently composed a piece called The Elephant and the Mouse. The title appears in a specimen examination paper of ‘Briefs’ in the new A’ level specification from AQA, and my piece is intended as an example of how a candidate might go about the challenge.
It took me back to my early piano lessons with the wonderful Vera Crawford-Phillips. A typical piano lesson (as I remember it) would end with her saying ‘Now dear, I’m just going to write what you need to do in your practice book, and whilst I do that, why don’t you play me what an elephant sounds like’ and – as a happy 6 year old, gloriously losing myself in the moment, I would go thump, thump, thump in the bass, the connection between the slowly lumbering beasts I had only ever seen in Bristol Zoo and the sounds I was making being (to my mind) patently clear. When, next week, the challenge was to play like a mouse, my hands would stretch in the opposite direction and go scurrying around the upper keys.
Children today typically spend far more time looking at a screen than I ever did (there was only grainy black and white television). It concerns me how an invitation to compose is met with an almost instantaneous desire to sit in front of a computer and have the focus of their brain dominated by the visual impact of the illuminated screen. The frame of the screen seems to imprison the reach of the imagination, and more often than not the only place to insert notes is on the stave (perhaps we need a NSPLL – a Notational Society for the Preservation of Leger Lines). It is as though they compose visually.
Yet children in their creative play, be it outdoors or on the stairs, are just as imaginative as they ever were. I used to dream of playing cricket for England, flying to Mars with my teddy bears or constructing elaborate mazes. And my wonderful piano teacher took that imagination and encouraged me to respond to it with musical invention. Of course the elephants went thump, thump in the heavy tones of the bass whilst the mice scurried lightly around the tiny strings at the top of the piano, but she made my brain make that connection and be delighted (as only a 6-year old could be) in the results of my creativeness.
So when I compose The Elephant and the Mouse today, little has changed. I now know that elephants can ‘trumpet’ – the ones in Bristol zoo never did that – so the trombone takes the elephant theme, but the bass still thumps in the cello, and the scurrying mouse is portrayed by the piccolo. Yes, I have more technical know-how these days, but that imagination is key, and I am so grateful that my piano teacher turned it on for me.
I believe we should be doing far more to encourage today’s young children to be thinking in similarly imaginative ways, not because the results at GCSE composition will improve (though that would be welcome) but because it is such a vital skill to ‘think outside the box’ – the box of the computer screen. Oh, and we do not need to assess and measure the results with all the trappings of targets, assessments and statistics, we just need to encourage them to be imaginative. Who knows what then they might be able to imagine in whatever area they subsequently gain the technical know-how, musical or otherwise.