Pioneer – the Rotherham musical. Ambition and reality from a composer’s perspective.


Pioneer – the ambition

To involve as many children as possible in creating and performing a celebration of their home town (during one school year avoiding any busy periods completing the project from start to finish in seven months). The three creative areas to explore were composition/songwriting, drama and dance. The plan was that each school could develop a scene and/or scenes (as practical) that would be put together with others to create a review style production. These scenes would be linked by the story of the main characters. Creative writing was considered although including this would have meant the project could have taken months longer to get to an agreed script stage and this would have put the rest of the project back some months.

Pioneer – team work and collaboration – realising the ambition

The plan was simple, stage the performance of the musical in March 2017 starting from reading the script the previous September. To achieve this goal a team was put together with each member having a number of skills to be able to write, teach and direct during the project. The choice of the right person for the job was key as all the creative and management skills were equally important in fashioning the project that was always biased towards working with the children to achieve a performance. Organising the workload into sections, dividing the script into scenes that could be managed by individual schools, was integral to effectively combining all the parts into one coherent show in a short time period (one day).

Pioneer – calendar of events

Spring 2016 – youth focus group sessions ‘what are your concerns, could these be developed into a musical, what sort of music would it be…?’

June 2016 – Callout to 110 (approx.) schools: junior, secondary and special, would they like to be involved in the project?

August/September 2016 – Script commissioned and written.

September 2016 – Participating schools identified (20 for composition split equally between junior and secondary including SEN) and visits arranged.

September/October 2016 – Introductory composition/songwriting sessions in schools, links made to drama/performing arts tutors.

November 2016 – Second composition visit with ideas recorded/photographed.

December 2016 – Timetable of drama and dance visits circulated to schools.

December 2016/January 2017 – composition of the music using ideas transcribed/arranged from school visits plus creating other music not covered by the schools. Demo recordings produced with vocal guides of the complete musical including incidental music and sound effects.

January to March 2017 – Drama and dance visits to schools, professional cast rehearsal sessions, choir rehearsals, orchestra call, youth brass band rehearsals, stage, sound and lighting equipment identified and ordered.

March 28th 2017 – Technical rehearsal day with cast, musicians, dancers, choir…

March 29th 2017 – Dress rehearsal and first show (including feeding everyone between shows).

March 30th 2017 – Matinee and evening shows (plus food again).


At each school I visited it was clearly stated that two year groups would not take part the Year 6 and Year 11 cohorts. The main reason for this was that nothing should distract them from the year of work leading to their examinations and tests, I was told that nothing they composed would be suitable for GCSE and having three afternoons of drama and three days of shows would be too disruptive in the year of SATs.

One major difficulty from some schools, that only became evident at the time of the performances at Magna, was having enough staff to accompany the pupils for three days out of school. Some schools dropped out very close to the final shows because of lack of staff and/or lack of time for rehearsal of the project. Extra projects, like plays/musicals, generally rely on the enthusiasm and dedication of a few, and in many cases only one, member(s) of staff in school and if circumstances change for that individual or few then it is the extra work that is often abandoned in favour of the curriculum.


Approximately five hundred pupils were involved in this project, from Year 3 to Year 12 in mainstream and SEN schools, working with professionals to create a unique and memorable work of theatre. Two sold out shows to a paying audience who were very appreciative and a video of the performance are testament to this. The project offered opportunities, with no auditions or prerequisites, for a once in a lifetime experience to many of the participants. If it inspires some students to progress into enjoying music, theatre and/or dance in the future it will be more of an achievement but at the moment this is too early to measure.


And finally

Would I do this again? Yes. Working with a good team all focussed on bringing the musical to life with a professional approach was inspiring. Seeing and hearing the performances from everyone involved was excellent and it was an experience that many of the children will remember into their adult lives (I still remember my first performance on a real stage at Oldham Lyceum Theatre, age 7, with Princess Margaret in the audience). I visited schools in the many diverse areas of the Borough and all the pupils that I saw were engaged with the project and created interesting and memorable ideas. On a personal note I also found tasty coffee in every area I travelled through, much needed at the time.

© P.R.Birkby 2017


About derangeddrums

Composer, percussionist, musical director, teacher and educator. My music has been written for audiences in palaces and in the street. Music is my vocation and my passion and I hope you enjoy it too.
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