Practical Projects at York
For new students, the first few weeks of university life are challenging. However well adjusted, a student setting out on a new academic course, in a new place often far from home, among a new community of adults, is bound to be daunting. For many it can take weeks or even months to feel settled. For music students at the University of York, the first weeks are made even more challenging by being confronted, in week one, with details of the annual ‘Practical project’ in which they are all required to participate. At the same time, however, the project has the effect of throwing them immediately into intensive group work (two full days a week) which helps them quickly to become acquainted with fellow students and to be recognised by other members of the department. Beyond this, it often helps enormously to boost their self-esteem by allowing them to demonstrate their skills and personalities at an early stage; by the fourth week of the year no-one is ‘unknown’. By the fifth week the project is all consuming: technical rehearsal, dress rehearsal and three evening shows. Within five weeks of beginning their university career they have participated in the creation of something genuinely worthwhile. It is a fact that most York music alumni define their year group according to the Practical Project in their first year.
Looking back on the six projects I directed over 26 years, I realise how much I learned from them myself, especially about the importance of allowing full collaboration from the students. My first project was the realisation of my own long-term composing project The Big Bang. I came to the project with a more or less completed score, assembled over ten years before I joined the York staff. I had clear ideas about how it should be staged. At the same time I realised that there needed to be roles of some kind for a large number of students (about 50 at that time), and I encouraged composers to write short ‘prayers’ to be inserted at points in the show. I gave conducting and directing roles to a number of students, and allowed them to experiment with some of the numbers and devise their own staging ideas and choreography. But in later projects I worked on the principal of giving students as much control of the process as possible. In three of the projects this extended to actually creating the content from material provided by me or researched and sourced by the students themselves. Indeed it was the second of my projects – jointly directed with Dr David Kershaw – which unlocked the process for me. The idea was to devise a show around railway music (see Doing the Locomotion below). The amount of potential material, both musical and dramatic, was vast. David and I set the ball rolling with a number of ideas, and then over the summer preceding the project 2nd and 3rd year students plunged enthusiastically into the history of railways and their representation in film, music and theatre, and came up with hundreds of more ideas. At the start of the academic year, along with the new intake of first year students, we began to sift and evaluate all this information. I also ran workshops to encourage students to devise their own more abstract responses to railways, which resulted in a number of short sketches and musical items, some of which found their way into the final show. The success of this way of working gave me the confidence to launch more open-ended and ambitious projects: the task of recreating a Kabuki play, adapting it to our concert hall and our UK audience; the adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy as a music theatre show; a celebration of the work of James Joyce, sourced from his novels and set against the political backdrop of the 2016 Easter Rising in Dublin. At the start of each of these projects, new students must have though me completely mad; 2/3 year students perhaps very slightly less so. By the end of each project, however, I think everyone involved could feel that they had been involved in something very special. For myself, I can say honestly that the satisfaction I have derived from these six projects far exceeds the satisfaction I derived from any of my professional successes or any of my other teaching. Oh yes, because I maintain that the Practical Project is not just teaching, but the best way of teaching, because as well as knowledge and transferrable skills – which it delivers in spades – it also builds confidence more quickly than any other form of learning I know.