Klavier Festival Ruhr
zur deutschen Version English language selected Petruschka
Creative music teaching in schools

The philosophy and value of practical music making in the curriculum and practical advice to the teacher.

Classroom practice
Professional musicians in schools


Creative music teaching starts from the premise that every child can invent music. It involves children in hands-on experience of developing and performing their own musical ideas through a set of progressive tasks. By devising tasks that guide children into creating their own music, the teacher can gradually introduce them to the basic skills and tools of composition.

Creative music teaching has transformed pupils’ attitudes to music in school in Britain and has broadened the spectrum of musical activity to include pupils of all abilities and background. It takes place within the normal music curriculum of singing, performing existing music and learning about the history and background of music.

This style of teaching is now universal in British schools at all levels and is expanding rapidly in European and Scandinavian schools.

Linking creative work to the classical repertoire

Children best learn to love and to understand music by making it themselves. Experience shows that children find musical problem-solving stimulating and fun. If classroom music making is linked to a great piece of music and the children tackle and solve similar musical problems to those faced by the composer, they gain a real insight, involvement in and critical appreciation of the composer’s music. The trick is to borrow simple musical elements, in this case from Petrushka (Petruschka in German, Pétrouchka in French) by Igor Stravinsky, and to find ways of enabling the children to invent music in the classroom using those very same musical materials.

It is better not to let the children hear the target music until their own work is complete and they have performed it to one another. The aim is never to imitate the music of a great composer; it is rather to develop the children’s own creative and critical faculties and, in doing so, to give them insight into a great work of art. The children, of course, make their music on classroom instruments, using the Orff instruments and any instruments they may be learning, whereas Stravinsky wrote his music for symphony orchestra.

What children gain from this process

1. Musically - Children who have worked in this way are quick to recognise “their” music in the music of the composer. They show an increasing ability to explain what the composer was trying to achieve and how he did it. They also gain and reveal a surprising critical awareness of what he did well and what, in their opinion, not so well, together with the confidence and vocabulary to express their critical opinions. Composers whose music can spark the imagination of the children and does not necessarily demand a sophisticated command of compositional techniques are ideal for this approach. Thus many 20th century composers offer exciting educational opportunities whilst, for this approach, Mozart, with his immense command of a complex and sophisticated compositional technique is much less approachable.

2. Socially - This style of music teaching, where complete classes of children, irrespective of their background or ability, invent and perform their own music, has educational advantages beyond music  . Music is a social activity and this process develops important social and personal skills. The children are encouraged to work in small groups, discussing, developing and refining their ideas. This develops the ability to listen, to negotiate and compromise and to reach an agreement, to accommodate those who may be more or less able than themselves, to present themselves in public, and to develop the discipline necessary to perform as an ensemble. Above all, it increases their self-esteem and self-confidence.

3. Learning to listen   - Many children live their home lives under constant bombardment from pop music and television. The result of this is a lessening in the ability to listen with concentration for any length of time. Teachers report that creative music is a valuable tool in helping children to listen better. They listen with concentrated interest to the music produced by groups of fellow pupils and, when they themselves have grappled with specific musical challenges, they listen with interest to the solutions that famous composers found for similar challenges (eg how to compose music for the fairground scene in Petrushka).

Explain to the children that there is a sort of contact   between performer and listener and always ask performing groups to wait for absolute silence before starting.

Using other stimuli for creative music making  .

It is not, of course, essential to take a classical masterpiece as the starting point for creative music teaching. Many different starting points are possible; for example: a story, a personal experience, a picture, a musical technique (ostinato, variations), a musical structure, a film. The important thing is that the pupils are set well defined, progressive tasks to fulfill, so that they invent their music within parameters that they understand and can manage and enjoy.

Classroom practiceSetting the task

Set the task carefully (for example: if you were selling melons at a fair, could you capture the attention of the passers-by by inventing a really rhythmic and entertaining chant), then divide the children into groups (not more than 6 per group) to work on the task. “Invent some music for…” is far too open a task and may lead to confusion and lack of direction.

Be sure that the children understand precisely what the task   complete is before they divide into groups.

Encourage the children to try out their ideas quickly. We discover what works and what doesn’t by trying it out, not by talking about it. A group of children can discuss (and argue about) ideas all day long.

Working in groups

Groups have practical advantages social and personal development. They provide more hands to put musical ideas into practice and they bolster the confidence of the individuals within the group.

Groups often work better sitting on the floor. This allows children playing xylophones etc to kneel behind the instruments with their hands at the correct level for playing. Xylophones on tables are almost invariably too high to play.

Encourage each group to sit in a circle. This too is more easily done on the floor. Group work is about discussing and playing together, and this can best be achieved when each member of the group can hear and see what everyone else is doing. A circle also makes for easy discussion when the children are planning their music.

The teacher’s role  .

When children are working creatively, the teacher’s role is in some ways similar to that of a referee in a football match. Once the task is set, move between groups to see that the children understand what they are supposed to do, that every child in the group gets the chance to contribute, and that the work moves forward in a positive way. Try to keep your input to a minimum. Only if the children can really find no way forward, try to help them, by posing questions that will enable the work to move forward;

  • What would happen if you...?
  • Can you find a way of...?
  • Is there a way of...?

Dealing with noise in the classroom

Group work can present some initial problems. Musical ideas cannot be explored without making sounds. And several groups of children working with voices and instruments in one room can generate a considerable amount of noise.

Ideally, of course, we would be able to send each group into a different room to work. In practice we are often obliged to keep all the groups in one classroom. Periodic review of work in progress (each group in turn showing what it has achieved whilst the rest of the class listens in silence) helps to keep the noise within manageable bounds. It also shows the individual groups what other groups have achieved, which can cross-fertilise ideas and create a healthy sense of rivalry between groups.

Dealing with difficult children   requires special sensitivity, as the essence of this work is enjoyment and cooperation.

When groups perform to one another, remind the children that music starts and finishes in silence.

Children who learn an instrument

If you are lucky enough to have a children in the class who are learning an instrument, ask them to use their instruments  , however rudimentary their level may be, in the classroom creative work. It makes little sense for children to learn instruments and not to use them in classroom music making.

In the Petrushka project children who were learning instruments were asked to use them as part of the project. We did not know at what level the children could play, so I simply asked them to start playing and tried to find ways of combining them to create a spontaneous piece of music. The most important thing about this process was that each child should succeed.

Curbing your own enthusiasm

It is all too easy for the enthusiastic teacher to invent a piece of music by telling the children what to do. Children, like composers, are able to decide for themselves   what they like, what they do not like, and what works musically and what does not. In music, as Stravinsky demonstrated   when he overturned so many existing conventions, there are no longer any absolute rights and wrongs; all is a matter for individual taste and conviction. Throughout the creative process we aim to develop the child’s musical confidence and awareness whilst also developing and forming his or her taste by relating the work to the work of real composers.

Putting the groups together

In some projects the work of each group can stand on its own as a piece of music. If, as in the Petrushka project, you are creating a fairground scene, however, the very essence of the scene is that groups compete with one another.

When helping the children with this process, try to do it by asking questions and encouraging the children to try out the ideas that emerge. Some classes are able to discuss how they will put their groups together with minimal assistance. Other classes will need the help of the teacher.   Sometimes it is helpful for the teacher to decide on an order for the groups to play in, to try it out, then to encourage the children to discuss its effectiveness and suggest their own improvements and alternatives. When a child suggests an idea, always try it out and see what the class think of it. Discussion on its own may leave some children behind; it is difficult to conceptualise musical ideas without hearing them.


Children enjoy performing the music they have invented and it is often a good idea, at the end of a project, to encourage them to perform to another class or during the school assembly. If, as in the case of the Ruhr Petrushka, the project has taken place in partnership with other artists and organisations, the performance might take place in more exotic surroundings. It is important, however, that we never forget the value of the process   of experimentation and decision-making that takes place in the classroom. The imminence of a performance should not be allowed to dilute this.

Professional musicians in schoolsBackground

Since 1977, when the first creative partnerships between schools and professional musicians were initiated in Britain, the involvement of professional musicians in education has advanced steadily. Today every professional orchestra and opera company in Britain has its own education department and substantial numbers of musicians and singers work regularly with teachers in the classroom. Partnerships between schools and professional music organisations are now developing throughout Europe and Scandinavia.

The role of professional musicians in the classroom

In some of our projects in the Ruhr area we have been fortunate enough to work with professional musicians  ; in the Petrushka project in partnership with musicians from the Bochumer Symphoniker. Professional musicians bring to the classroom a high level of performing skill and an advanced knowledge of how music works. They are adept at solving musical problems.

Professional musicians are not normally classroom teachers and their role should not be confused with that of the class teacher. In Bochum the musicians adopted the role of the children’s colleagues, helping the children to develop their musical ideas and performing as part of the children’s own music. The pedagogical part of the project and the classroom organisation was the responsibility of the class teacher and the workshop leader.

It is important that time is made for the musicians to perform to the children   in the classroom. Encourage the musician to perform a serious, high quality piece of music and insisting on silent, concentrated listening from the children. Ask the musicians to avoid television signature tunes and guide the children away from “can you play……?” questions. Close contact with a performing musician can be a profound experience for a child. After the performance, lead the children in a discussion of the music   they have just heard:

  • “What did you notice about the music?”
  • “Did you notice that...?”
  • “Why do you think the composer...?”
  • “How did the music make you feel?"
  • “Why do you think that was?”