Photo: Ben Tomlin


David Woods on a composition workshop day at Royal Hospital School, Ipswich.

We started the day warming up in the beautiful chapel at Royal Hospital School, an acoustic that was just right for renaissance polyphony, and we led a vocal warm-up workshop with the GCSE students. We then sang through a whole range of repertoire from Tallis through to Rachmaninov, Pärt and Whitacre.

We then moved into a smaller assembly hall where we, alongside Toby Young, discussed different styles of composition and storytelling methods. We asked the students for scenarios and the Fellows used wordless improvisation to try and tell the story through music. ‘A scene at the beach’ was one scene that changed drastically with the addition of a shark!

After a break, we split into eight groups with a Fellow leading each group. We all had the same poem to set and we spent two 45 minute slots combining ideas. It started by all of us reading the poem out. We talked about the emotion of the words, what we were going to convey in the music and outlined the basic structure before working on individual lines and words.

The students each worked in pairs to come up with a tune for each line and some basic harmony. I would chip in with some suggestions for harmonies. We collated the ideas around the piano where they would all chime in with ideas to make the piece more melodically or harmonically interesting and coherent.

I really enjoyed watching them go from initially not knowing what to suggest to coming up with their own ideas, and finally their excitement at watching the piece come together. The moment they realised they’d written something that was actually really good is something I won’t soon forget.

After ‘mess’ (a military term for lunch, Royal Hospital being a naval school), the Fellows hastily put together completed compositions and performed them. We learnt from the previous time we did this and rehearsed them in front of the GCSE students so they could watch our rehearsal technique.

Overall, I feel the students learnt a lot from this experience. We covered a range of styles and showed them ways to turn their basic ideas into actual music. Every student had a different idea for the structure of the piece and a different harmonic and melodic approach, meaning they all learnt a different approach from each other.


Toby Young is a composer and producer whose work explores the space between popular and classical music. He is also a research fellow at the University of Oxford.


The NYCGB Fellowship Programme is supported by Principal Programme Supporter ABRSM with additional generous support from the Ofenheim Trust, and by programme partners Making Music and AOTOS (Association of Teachers of Singing).