When we think of music written for children, we tend to think of tone poems and shimmering ballet suites, swans and nutcrackers, wolves and gingerbread houses – Prokofiev, Britten, Humperdinck, Rimsky-Korsakov.

Composers of such playful works often seemed embarrassed by them: Saint-Saëns refused to have The Carnival of the Animals published until after his death, Grieg disavowed In the Hall of the Mountain King. Other composers were belittled for them: Christopher Tinker’s liner notes to the recording of Imogen Holst’s choral works mentions her “songs for school pupils” as “choral dabbling”, as if her work with schoolchildren had held her back as a composer.

Imogen Holst conducting at Dartington Summer School
© Britten Pears Archive

But the interwoven work of music education and composition for children is something that many composers have held dear to their artistic development, and defended as an expression of their politics as well.

For Imogen Holst, working with children was a part of her determined championing of amateur musicianship, work which she described as “a sort of do-it-yourself music teacher” with the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (which eventually grew into the modern-day Arts Council). This work became vital in forming her sense of the composer’s role in the community.

Composers like Peter Maxwell Davies and Judith Weir carried the same torch into the twenty-first century, both bringing their advocacy for music education into the role as Master of the Queen’s Music, and using it to shape that position. In Tom Service’s Guardian report on Weir’s ambitions for her ten-year posting, he describes one of her key objectives as “embarking on a nationwide exploration of the state of music education in order to create pieces that will be useful for schoolchildren and amateur musicians.”

Alex Paxton conducting a children’s choir
© Alex Paxton

A number of young composers working today are taking the formula even further, bringing children’s language and children’s own weird and brilliant worlds into the musical landscape, as well as bringing young people more directly into the compositional equation, both as performers and as creators. These values animate the work of composers Alex Paxton and Kate Whitley, both of whom take their work for and with children very seriously.

In an interview about his Ivor-Novello-nominated piece Candyfolk Space-Drum, Paxton playfully describes how, in his time working as a music teacher, he “spent lots of hours playing this really amazing instrument, which is a primary school collection of children, mostly in groups of thirty, but also occasionally in groups of hundreds.” He describes, with great affection, the charm and chaos of this “amazing, beautiful little gobbet of sonic humanity”.

“It’s a beautiful sound to bring into the concert hall, it’s amazing, thirty kids singing in kind of heterophonic unison,” he tells me when we speak a few weeks after his nomination. “They’re natural musicians, just like they’re natural artists, they’re wonderful to work with.” Paxton’s work for children includes small-scale songs for children’s chorus – with such instant hits as “Pudding Tummy” and “Don’t Lick Clothes (Even If They Smell Nice)”. It ranges also to larger works, such as Noggin the Nog and the Whale, a joyful, chaotic children’s opera for five hundred instrumentalists and massed chorus (with audience participation). Overall, his aura as a composer is one with easy appeal to a younger audience, with his love of playful instrumentation (kazoos, MIDI synthesisers), video-game references and The Teletubbies.

But writing for children is not all fun and games. Composing in a teaching context comes with its practical constraints, which Paxton describes as “lots of open strings, lots of tiny instruments, writing in a kind of musical language that is relevant to the kids” – “they have to really enjoy it or they don’t come to the sessions”, he adds wryly. (Peter Maxwell Davies thought along the same lines: “you can’t get away with anything phoney; when you write for children, you have to write up. It has to sound good in their terms. You almost have to think as if you are their age.”)

To Alex Paxton, this joyful, somewhat messy work felt like the “ultimate antidote” to both traditional music education and the uncompromising approach of some of his contemporaries. Composing with children, he tells me, is fun, and flexible, and sometimes very silly. In his recent release illolli-pop, he includes what he describes as “children making bird noises, making armpit fart noises, forty children shouting ‘no!’ as loudly as they can”. But it isn’t just the sounds children can make Paxton is interested in, it’s their creative energy in itself: “I love songwriting with young children. They have the best ideas. It’s so quick and improvisational.”

Kate Whitley
© Ambra Vernuccio

Kate Whitley, composer and co-founder of Multi-Story, replying to my questions over email, also emphasises the joy of bringing children into the compositional process. “The young people I’m working with at the moment are the most inspiring, creative, amazing group of people I’ve ever known. They are so creatively uninhibited, generous, and there's so much love and enjoyment in everything they do.”

Since 2011, starting in Peckham and then expanding across the UK, Multi-Story has been staging live music events in car parks and unexpected spaces, bringing the spirit of community music to as wide an audience as possible, with children directly involved in the process. As Kerry Andrew writes in her liner notes to a recording of Whitley’s I Am I Say (a gentle, environmentally minded piece with a libretto by the poet Sabrina Mahfouz): “The children are an integral part of the work, not just an afterthought – they are the musicians at the heart of the work”. In keeping with this spirit, the children’s choir are credited as co-librettists.

Kate Whitley’s I Am I Say (2015) for children’s choir and orchestra

Whitley takes the same generous reasoning beyond the creative field: “I think in general people tend to underestimate young people, especially those from backgrounds that are underrepresented in leadership roles. The more ownership and freedom we give them, they absolutely grow into it.” The influence on her work as a composer, then, goes both ways: “I think I learn more from them than they do from me. I think listening to young people is extremely important in making sure we are moving forward, changing, learning, and finding ways forward that can counter prejudice and discrimination and build a better future.”

Does this mean composers have a responsibility to take on this kind of community work? Alex Paxton’s reply is carefully nuanced. He describes the work of teaching as “a lifetime challenge” and an opportunity he is deeply grateful to have received when he was “young and bouncy”, but also as “frankly exhausting”.

“I get uncomfortable,” he says, “when artists are talking snobbily about teachers, who work very hard and have a very giving profession. When I worked in schools, I’d see 200 children a day between 9am and 3.15. You can’t compute the sheer number of reactions you’re facing in that context.” He emphasises the importance of respecting the specificity of the teaching profession, and putting resources there, rather than into one-off outreach projects.

Kate Whitley adds, “Music education in the UK needs way more money and resources. All the schools we work with are vastly under-resourced. It should be possible to spend your life doing music whatever background you’re from, but unfortunately given the current social and economic injustices in the UK, it just isn't at all.”

Multi-Story Orchestra visiting a school
© Ambra Vernuccio

It was notable that in their recent funding round, Arts Council England increased funding to many arts organisations focused on outreach and grassroots music-making. Whitley’s Multi-Story was among the organisations added to the National Portfolio. That they felt pressure to do so would seem to indicate a wider attrition in provision of music education by local and central government. Evidently, arts organisations are being asked to step in to fill a yawning gap where state educational provision should be.

Paxton is pragmatic. “School is ultimately a collaborative environment,” he says. “As a composer, it would be quite easy to complain about the condition of music education, but actually, the more experimental, egalitarian musician in me recognises that this is part of living in a community, there is only a certain amount of money and there is every type of student to accommodate for.” He concludes that “teachers are the real superstars” and “better human beings than us more reflective artists.”

Kate Whitley after a Multi-Story performance
© Ambra Vernuccio

No matter what challenges the world of music education may be facing in the coming years, both Alex Paxton and Kate Whitley seem excited at the prospect of doing more writing with and for children. Most recently, Whitley has been working on Awake! which she describes as “a really joyous uplifting piece” about “someone striving to find their own path, before becoming more at peace and confident with who they are”.

Paxton’s dream, meanwhile, is “to become the Roald Dahl of writing music for children”. As a first step, one of the big ideas driving his work at the moment is “to make music as creatively immediate as drawing is for children”. When schoolkids draw pictures, he explains, they are used to having those pictures validated as art, whereas in the world of music there are a lot more barriers in place to that sort of immediate sense of contact and recognition. He hopes to empower children “to make music like they make pictures, and feel like they’re being creative immediately.” A fine way for today’s artists to encourage a new generation of young composers to write their own Noye’s Fludde – or indeed their own Candyfolk Space-Drum.