Imagine Compose BCMG Project Reports >

Imagine Compose was a two year partnership project with Birmingham Music Service funded by Youth Music that aimed to encourage and nurture beginner instrumentalists to compose and improvise from the beginning of their musical lives. Written by Professor Martin Fautley, Dr Victoria Kinsella and Kirsty Devaney.

Activity Panel

Project Summary

Imagine Compose was a partnership project with Birmingham Music Service funded by Youth Music that aimed to encourage and nurture beginner instrumentalists to compose and improvise from the beginning of their musical lives. The two year project was led by composer Liz Johnson and consisted of: workshops with children; professional development sessions for teachers and emerging professional composers; commissioning new pieces for beginner ensemble; and, the development of online composing activities for young people. BCMG worked with four ensembles: Handsworth Area Ensemble; Gilbertstone Area Orchestra in South Yardley; Anderton Park Ensemble in Balsall Heath; and Harborne Area String Ensemble. 

The project was evaluated by Professor Martin Fautley, Kirsty Devaney and Dr. Victoria Kinsella of Birmingham City University. The following pages are an edited executive summary with the option to download the full research report below. Online resources developed through the project will be added shortly.


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The Imagine Compose project trod new ground in many ways. We know that composing in classrooms in the UK is now well-established at secondary school level. We know too that musical engagement with the National Curriculum in primary schools can probably be best described as being ‘patchy’, with there being something of a lottery, depending on whereabouts an individual pupil lives, and where their primary school is located. However, this is all about curricular composing, in Imagine Compose we have what might be termed extra-curricular composing, with pupils who are near the novice end of the novice-expert continuum, and who are in receipt of lessons which are either based on, or focused around an instrument. This distinction is important, as formal music tuition (FMT, in some literature, (inter alia Seddon & O’Neill, 2006)) is normally built on what has come to be thought of as a traditional model of instrumental instruction.

It is important to note that that in the Imagine Compose work a number of pupils had come to their instruments through widening participation routes of whole class instrumental and vocal ensemble work, also known as ‘first access’ or ‘wider opportunities’ (WO). In the Birmingham version of the WO model, pupils can elect to continue after their initial year of WO teaching and learning, these groups being known as ‘electives’. Interestingly, despite an initial report by Bamford and Glinkowski (2010), we do not know a great deal about pedagogies and practices entailed in WO and elective learning nationally. This is an important distinction, as many of the pupils participating in Imagine Compose had come via this route, and although we know very little about the nationwide practices in this regard, nonetheless we believe that in many cases very little individual or group composing takes place during the course of the interactions.

Positive Impact on Young People

  • Heightened awareness of creative aspects of music making, not solely focussing on re-creation of extant works
  • Exploration of personal instrumental techniques
  • Thinking about music, learning things for a purpose rather than because they are in a tutor book
  • Engagement with new forms of notation
  • Meeting positive role models (other then their instrumental service teachers) engaged with process of creating new music
  • Taking responsibility and ownership for their own music-making
  • Performing in public works which have never been heard before, and which were created specifically for the young people in the project
  • Explored playing in different ways from the norm


Music Hubs

  • Have you considered how composing fits into your overall work-plan?
  • Have you considered how ensembles might function as learning groups, as opposed to performing only modalities?
  • Have you addressed how instrumental music teachers might need focussed CPD to be able to work in new way?
  • Published ensemble music programmes may not feature composing, how will you address this?
  • Introducing new ways of working needs planning and reflection time built in. Have you done this?
  • Hubs might need to think about music provision as joined-up whole, rather than focussing solely on re-creative aspects of performance. Is this the case for your hub?
  • Hubs may need to find ways of valuing the creative musical utterances of novices - do they figure in your area concerts, for example?


  • What do schemes of work involving composing entail? 
  • How does extra-curricular music fit with these?
  • How does cooperation work with regards to ensemble music making? Does this affect how you view ownership?
  • How do you assess group work?
  • Class teachers, especially in primary schools, will need major subject-specific CPD to help them develop this work when music hub staff are not at hand?
  • How do you liaise with visiting instrumental music staff? 
  • How can you help your pupils between sessions?
  • How can everyone involved in a project get together? Does it rely only on goodwill?
  • How do schools make best use of their local music hub services?
  • How do schools celebrate the music that their pupils have produced?


Arts Organisations

  • How do you view composing projects with novice ensembles?
  • How can you interact with extant ensembles, especially in hard-to-reach areas?
  • Are you providing CPD for the creative agents you work with? How do you know if it meets the needs of the end-user?
  • How does what you offer fit with what schools want? Do you know? Have you asked? 
  • If musicians are being paid to spend time reflecting, but school staff are doing it in their own time, is this equitable?
  • Are all the hub partners aware if what each other are doing?
  • How do you present composing and creative work done by school pupils?


Policy Makers

  • Creativity matters to the UK. How are you fostering it in young people?
  • Young people making music together is a worthwhile activity. How can you help it happen?
  • Education needs highly-trained staff. This takes money, but, importantly, time. How can you help this to take place?
  • Many arts organisations offer programmes for schools. How can you encourage this?
  • How can school budgets allow for time for creative work? How does the EBacc impinge upon this? What about Progress 8?
  • Are hubs enabled (and funded) to work properly across all areas that they are required to do?
  • How is musical creativity showcased locally, regionally, nationally and internationally?