Guest post: “an unforgettable experience” at PowerPlus

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PowerPlus is a unique composition project led by members of Ensemble 360 and Robin McEwan (Sheffield Music Hub) in partnership with Music in the Round.  It primarily focuses on pre-GCSE music students from secondary schools across Sheffield and their compositions.

Under the guidance of Robin McEwan, the students are asked to compose for a variety of ensembles as part of their assessment.  Throughout the year, workshops are held where the students are invited to have their work performed by members of Ensemble 360.  Here, they can talk to the players one-on-one and vice versa and get feedback from the musicians and Robin on their work.  Across the eight hours of performance, over fifty original pieces are recorded by a professional sound engineer so students can submit the performances as part of their composition portfolio and also use them for promotional work.  The workshops are held at the Upper Chapel, one of Music in the Round’s prestigious venues.  This building has great acoustics and is perfect for small ensembles.

I was lucky enough to attend a PowerPlus session for String Quartet and experience how significant this project is.  Preceding the compositions, the second movement of Ravel’s Quartet in F was played to demonstrate a variety of different textures that can be used when writing for this particular ensemble.

PowerPlus has been running for over a decade now and some schools have been involved since it began.  Robin says: “One great thing is the change from beginning to end. I look at the school and see it develop throughout the year and the impact of participation resonates back at the school.  The students pass it down the line to the years below them.”  When asked why he started this programme Robin replies with: “Lots of teachers are asked to teach composition but they themselves have no training.  I like to bring people up to a good standard of composing by embedding skills in both students and teachers.  The best thing to do is to teach high skills at the earliest possible time.”

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“Although there is less pressure for the Ensemble in these workshops, it doesn’t mean that they don’t struggle with the occasional piece!  However, the most important thing is that they get the chance to communicate and influence the students across the barrier.  The musicians are able to impart their knowledge to the people who are really listening at the level they need and you can feel the link between composer and player.  The Ensemble treats the students as equals which shows that they believe in them giving the composer the confidence to do things.”

Robin has been working with King Edward VII School for over 10 years and I spoke to three students from there about their experience with PowerPlus.

“It’s been an unforgettable experience; very entertaining and well-organised.”    Angus

“It’s been great, really enjoyable.  I feel really proud and the musicians made it sound better! I’m so impressed how much effort they put in.”    Ilya

 “After hearing it live there are a few things I would change but it made me proud and it was good to listen to it off a screen.”    Angus

In forthcoming years, schools will host PowerPlus concerts over the year making the students’ work even more accessible to their friends and family; the project itself will be fundamental to music-making in schools.

To me as a composition student at University, projects like these are enormously valuable and helpful. Hearing your work performed live by professional musicians is completely different to listening to it in a tiny room through a computer.  I have participated in things similar to this and it is a wonderful opportunity and privilege as not many students get the chance to do it.  Receiving feedback from the musicians is great as they can give advice on how to improve technique and playability, and it also gives the composer the option to ask questions and change things on the spot.

Elizabeth Lees was doing work experience in the MitR office. She is a composer and second-year music undergraduate in Liverpool. Follow her on Twitter

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