Life and Creative Life

IMG_5173Just noticed that fruit is far more plentiful at the moment and it is over two months since I posted anything although to me it seems like last week. Apologies to any followers, you have probably now found a more productive blogger, and I will try to keep going in this new phase post PhD, post musical and post post.

I have been getting to the end of the academic year with exams, reports and celebrations of musical progress. After Pioneer the Rotherham Musical, with the musical direction and performances, it was difficult to return to my usual life of only composing, teaching, performing and assessing. Now I am back and hope to tell many people about the whole process of putting the musical together at the music and drama education expo in Manchester on the 4th of October, website is

As well as this the Dozens of Duets series is growing with the Dozens of Duets for Brass Book 1 priced in £.

Dozens of Duets for Keyboard Percussion Book 3 in £ or in $.

Solo publications are Seven Sounds for percussion soloist (3 timpani, tom tom and suspended cymbals) in £ or in $ and four arrangements with piano accompaniment for keyboard percussion instruments Solos for percussion in £ or in $.

I will try and be more regular with my posts, I have saved many articles to read and hopefully discuss in future blogs, although sometimes life just gets in the way.  Need to tell you about the new body percussion compositions I have been trying out with 300+ students, the Kenton band I have been performing with or the composers collective that has been rehearsing…

© P.R.Birkby 2017

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The Long and Winding (and Enjoyable) Creative Road


IMG_4602Last year I had the idea for Dozens of Duets and started to compose some new music and in no time I had approximately eighty works to include in the series of books. This first part of the process was interesting and enjoyable, creating new music and revisiting compositions from the nearly forgotten past, all with the purpose of including them in the collections.

The second part of the process, the reviewing, assessing and grading of the music to put with similar standard others, took much longer. The collection had grown to ninety six works and each of these needed to be judged for inclusion in books ranging from: Book 1 very easy to Book 8 recital music and most points in between with more emphasis on the easy repertoire.

The original plan was to compose a series of books of duets for most instruments, similar to the Study Suite for… book that has been used in music departments as standardisation repertoire, but this soon transformed into collections that are more instrument specific. The more the music became targeted to individual instruments then more music was composed and the database of music is now into the hundred and twenties and I have only published five from twenty planned Book 1s and one of the Book 2s. If everything goes to plan there would eventually be eight books of twelve duets written for twenty different instruments, six down one hundred and fifty four to go.

To get a good understanding of how each instrument is taught from basics I have had a number of conversations with expert teachers and in the early books the focus is on which notes and music pupils can relate to and attain during the first part of their journey learning the instrument. In these detailed discussions it was revealing to hear comments about exam systems, with their reliance on playing a major or minor scale in an octave, that do not fully inspire and challenge during these early stages. These discussions have then led to more compositions and the creative process has started again.

The books are published as digital downloads with all the early examples created in a landscape format for the flexibility of on-screen and/or print use and the books now available are:

Dozens of Duets for Bb Clarinet Book 1 or                                  $

Dozens of Duets for Bassoon Book 1 or                                        $

Dozens of Duets for Eb Alto Saxophone Book 1 £ or                $

Dozens of Duets for Recorder Book 1  £ or                                 $ 

Dozens of Duets for Keyboard Percussion Book 1  £ or             $

Dozens of Duets for Keyboard Percussion Book 2  £ or            $

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The Power of Three


The experience of teaching percussion in junior schools has made me aware of a new Power of Three to add to the already established writing, marketing and religious practices. This Power of Three is the effectiveness of pupil, pupil with teacher grouping (or teaching in pairs) that can be especially beneficial during the first stages of learning a musical instrument.

As Chi-chi Nwanoku explained in her conversation with Yinka Shonibare on the BBC Radio 4 programme Only Artists: musicians are educated, mainly on a one to one basis, to be soloists yet spend most of their time playing with large groups of people in orchestras. Early development of group performance skills can be beneficial for trouble-free integration into ensemble settings and having groups, bands and ensembles that early stage students can be encouraged to join is a necessity to aide musical and instrumental development.

A paper by Germany academics Allan Duarte Manhas and Olga Chindmes published in 2013 Instrumental lessons in pairs: Learning and/by performing together confirms the positive aspects of learning together. The research considered ‘abilities trained in the observed classes included: listening and reacting to each other, starting and finishing together, mutual musical feeling, critical judgment, playing in (and maintaining) the same tempo, technique, improvisation, prima-vista playing (together), duet playing, and working and finding solutions to different tasks together.’ (Manhas and Chindmes 2013)

They concluded that ‘teaching two (or more) students simultaneously is a very positive pedagogical approach, providing innumerable advantages for both students and teachers.’ (Manhas and Chindmes 2013) More current research is needed about this method of teaching and the results from this study have far more advantages than disadvantages to this method of teaching.

As well as a limited amount of research about the subject there are also limited resources so I set about creating more in two ways. One was composing and collecting music for the Dozens of Duets series of books and the other was to encourage the pupils to work together and compose their own works.

The pupils own works have been collected together and shared with all the others that took part in composing this year, they all now have music to perform at school concerts, and the book ones of the Dozens of Duets series are now starting to be published online.

I composed around one hundred pieces of music for the series and have/am adapting all these to work at the right standard with each instrument, Books 1 & 2 being easy/beginners standard leading eventually to Book 8 which will be advanced. Each collection aims to assist in enhancing listening and developing the empathy needed to perform in ensemble settings on each instrument and are being formatted for both screen and print uses.

The books in the series already published are:

Dozens of Duets for Bassoon Book 1

In US letter format

Dozens of Duets for Bb Clarinet Book 1

In A4 format

In US letter format

Dozens of Duets for Keyboard Percussion Book 1

in A4 format

in US letter format

Please have a look at the music by following the links and coming soon are Dozens of Duets for Trumpet, Cornet, Trombone and Violin, Cello, Bass and Oboe, Alto Saxophone and Flute. A musical resource to grow this Power of Three.

© P. R. Birkby 2017


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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

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Enjoyed it because I could play it.


Thank you to everyone that sent words of encouragement and/or congratulations on the anniversary of Urban Skyline. To celebrate the occasion I have uploaded a new composition, very different from the others, performed by a beginners orchestra. Stereo Sinfonietta was written to be performed by instrumental students within one year of taking up the instrument and uses the notes they know plus a little imagination to create the work.

Listen to the whole little symphony in four movements at and I hope this music inspires them to keep working and improving in the future. The feedback I have had so far is ‘really enjoyed playing it because they could!’ Just the right comment for music that was composed with the consideration of the performers as the most important element.

If you would like more information or to download the full score and set of parts for your community ensemble the link is

Happy listening to the 175+ musicians, all in very low-fi, and/or happy performing in the future.

(c)  Peter R. Birkby 2017

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My March Music


A musical, mini symphony and a percussion soundscape.

March 2017 sees the culmination of months of composing, revising and scoring for: beginner orchestra Stereo Sinfonietta, percussion group The onset of rain and for a community Pioneer – The Rotherham Musical rather than a reference to left – right, left – right – left… based compositions I have created in the past. The journey from concept to realisation of the musical has been years, the percussion work was prepared in a few months and in the case of the orchestral music it was completed in less than a week.

Each one of the compositions has had diverse aims and the writing processes have been varied. The main focus of the final realisations has been to allow the performers to excel no matter what experience they had on the instrument. This approach is in some cases quite restrictive and resolving the complications that arrive from using this method is all part of the process of composing for specific groups of performers.

Stereo Sinfonietta had the first performance on Wednesday 15th March at the North Lincolnshire Music Service’s Play Day in the Bath’s Hall, Scunthorpe. The Play Day is an annual event for any pupil/student in the borough that is at grade 1 and above standard to attend and be part of an orchestra. There were approximately 175 musicians at the event plus the Music Service staff and thank you to everyone who rehearsed and performed the music. The full score and parts are available as a download with more information at

The onset of rain has its first performance tonight as part of the annual concert given by the music department at the Winterton Academy. The ensemble performing the work is made up of five drummers who have been playing for a few years and five that have only been having lessons since September (2016). Good luck to everyone involved and enjoy. The music for this work is now available to download from


Pioneer – The Rotherham Musical has performances booked for Wednesday 29th and Thursday 30th March in Magna Science Discovery Centre. This is a renovated steel works that is a most appropriate venue for the story about a town that has had iron and steel at its heart for centuries. The music has been partly written by school pupils and I have completed the other parts to make the musical complete. To hear some examples of the music the overture is available online at

The performers are a mix of actors and school pupils and the Facebook page, with action shots from some of the rehearsals, shows how creative the pupils are Tickets can be ordered through (registration required first before finding the Pioneer ticket booking page).

If these compositions can inspire the participants to cultivate their musical and/or dramatic aspirations I would regard the works as successful and I hope that this has been achieved during a hectic March.

© P. R. Birkby 2017

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The composing of Rotherham’s Pioneers the musical


In my previous post I posed the question ‘how do you get young composers to create music for themselves that relates to their experiences?’ This was my main concern when visiting schools in Rotherham and working with the pupils to create ideas for the musical.

I used two main approaches during the project: one was to compose for scenes in the show relating to place and/or period, for example a railway station or the steelworks during the second world war, and the other was to use the lyrics that had been written by Karen Mulcahey. At the start of the project Karen and I had discussed whether the young composers would be obliged to use the scripted lyrics or whether they could analyse the lyrics and create their own song with a similar sentiment. We chose the latter yet during the project the pupils were happy to work with the lyrics and only occasionally requested little edits to allow for a better flow to the music.

During my school visits I was rarely allowed to work with any pupils that were taking exams that year. It seemed acceptable for Years 3, 4 and 5 in junior schools and Years 9, 10 and 12 in senior schools to take part but I never saw any Year 6 pupils (SATS year) and only saw a few year 11 (GCSE) students during my visits.

The junior schools all engaged with the project with various amounts of enthusiasm and from these pupils came compositions based on the scenes depicting a railway station, bombing raid on steelworks, factories and the sounds of a fair/fete/feast. The pupils were also creative in putting music to lyrics and during sessions often collectively developed full songs and various verse ideas for the different pioneers taken from the script.

Most of the senior schools seemed to be working to a prescribed curriculum and were much less flexible in their approach to the project. If composing a song was not in the syllabus then the only creative time on the project was during my visits. These visits generally lasted for a few hours and the results were a mixture of individual and group compositions. The senior school students were encouraged to compose using instruments and were often restricted in their composition by their performance abilities. In a few of the schools I visited there were some very talented performers, mostly guitarists or vocalists, and these students created some very interesting ideas although they had little concept of how and what they had produced other than it sounded good.

songideas_stbernards I am encouraged by the amount of composition that was created during the visits and would like to continue with the concept in other areas of the country for different music hubs. For the next project I would like the school visits to take place over a shorter period of time with only a few weeks between the introduction/description visit and the collecting of the draft ideas by recording workshops. In this first project there was a half-term holiday in the middle and because of this curriculum topics changed and the composition for the musical got a little lost in the schemes of work.

I am now in the transcription phase and hopefully the demos will be ready just after Christmas for the choreographer and director to take into schools to rehearse for the performance at the end of March. It is a tight schedule but has to be to fit in with the periods of participation before the schools close their doors to visitors and concentrate on many assessments. Will keep you informed of progress and is my composition  and publishing website.

© P.R.Birkby 2016

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