Curation, Not Composition: Strategies for Healthy Collaboration in the Classroom

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Curation, Not Composition: Strategies for Healthy Collaboration in the Classroom

Mike Roberts, composer and sound artist specializing in electronic, choral, and community music; Founder/Head of the Electronic & Produced Music Department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, U.K.


The author (white shirt) leading a drum circle in a medieval barn, using farming tools and implements.

It was during a choir rehearsal, at age nine, that I decided to become a composer. Choir was an oasis of joy in an otherwise difficult school experience; I simply lived for each opportunity to sing. Since then, it’s been my joy to witness, time and time again, music’s transformative power in community—never more so than in communities of singers, and never more powerfully than when those singers are empowered to compose their own songs.

My first experience writing collaboratively with a choir was a real paradigm shift. I was commissioned to set to music an adaptation of the novel News from Nowhere by William Morris, a writer who believed that happiness is directly related to creative opportunity and that art should be for all rather than for a privileged few. His message resonated with me, and I decided that everyone involved should have an opportunity to participate in creating the composition: music by and for the people! This approach won the commission, and so we scheduled a six-week series of creative workshops that yielded over 350 distinct and highly usable musical ideas created by the participants for me to weave into 70 minutes of music. Thus was born the “News from Nowhere Fellowship Symphony.”

Workshop with the author (standing) and soprano Joyce DiDonato (center, black shirt).

People are much more likely to ‘own’ a stake in a project in which they have creative input. Over the years since News from Nowhere, I have developed a range of strategies to engage musicians and non-musicians of all backgrounds in the creative process of making music, most often with choirs. I’ve employed these strategies in recent projects such as Singing Our Lives, which brings displaced people, asylum-seekers, and local communities together to compose new music, and Joyce DiDonato’s EDEN project (supported by ITAC), which uses creative exercises to galvanize young people into environmental action. (Links to further details about these projects, including free performance materials, are available below.)

I’ve come to view this process as curation, rather than composition. In the curation process, the first principle is receptiveness. I try to approach the project without any preconceived musical ideas that might risk stunting the voices of others and overlooking their lived experiences.

The second principle is preparation. I try to find out as much as I can in advance about the participant group, attending their activities as an objective observer before planning anything. If that’s not possible (as might be the case, for example, with incarcerated participants), I’ll communicate with those who normally work with the group.

The third principle is accessibility. FAB (Fun, Achievable, Beneficial) activities are more likely to elicit genuine musical ideas than activities with a perceived attainment level. I aim to make participants feel “This is something I can do”—and then to take them on a journey that ends with them thinking, “Wow, I didn’t realize I could do that.” It’s a delicate balance that comes down to planning enjoyable, collaborative activities tailored to the group’s comfort, not my own.

Here are some practices I’ve found helpful for creating accessibility.

Drum Circles: As an entry-level activity that can quickly increase in complexity, I’ve found drum circles to be unmatched in providing participants with feelings of success. And their concepts can easily be adapted. On one occasion, we used barn equipment like buckets and washboards; on another, prison restrictions led us to fashion sturdy cardboard boxes into makeshift cajóns.

Drum circle with the author (center, blue shirt) and students at the Bishop Ramsey School, Ruislip, U.K.

Tech Solutions: There are many examples, but I’ll highlight three that I’ve found extremely useful (see this “Lock Down Workshop.”)

    • Punch Card Music Boxes, a tactile way to explore patterns of diatonic pitch
    • The free app PhonoPaper, which turns pictures into sound, helping participants to draw melodies and other musical ideas
    • Small audio recording devices, to record the material being produced

Vocal Improvisation: I’ll usually transition from drum circle straight into vocal improvisation, as it’s important to frame this activity in an atmosphere of confidence. Buoyed by success with rhythmic improvisation, participants improvise in a receptive group. I will move around the space with a discreet recording device, so that I can unpack the various threads of material later.

Thematic considerations: Unless the project is ‘music for music’s sake,’ it’s important to keep the theme of the project front of mind for everyone. Ideally, participation is inspired by the theme and expressed through the musical activity.

The final principle is authenticity. My approach is to help participants come up with the song’s DNA, motifs, and hook. I take care of the ‘crafting’ element post-workshop. Authenticity is key to ensuring that I only use the participants’ material—as much of it as I can—and stay focused on the theme or themes they chose.

These principles and practices have helped me curate the creation of truly collaborative songs—songs that have flowed organically from the input of project participants.

To view the EDEN Songbook, click here

To view other collaborative choral pieces, click here.


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