3 questions every music educator should be asking themselves

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Working with students and teachers in a variety of different situations and locations has taught me a lot. No matter where you are in the world kids are kids, schools are schools and music is music even when the contexts seem worlds apart.

Music education is filled with passionate teachers and practitioners who are working their socks off to try to enable quality and meaningful musical experiences for students who may only ever access music at school. So whilst on the surface the context may seem different, many of the underlying challenges and learning for us as educators is the same.

Why do we do what we do, how can we do it better and how can we persuade others of the value of what we do for the kids in our schools who deserve all the benefits that a music education can bring?

For the last year, I have been leading music workshops for teachers across the UK, in Australia, America and in SE Asia. As the content of these sessions has grown and developed with each workshop that I do, there have been a few underlying questions that I have started to ask the participants. Questions that I never really asked myself when I was in the classroom, but that I wish I spent more time considering.

The workshops are always practical. Everyone plays from the very first session to the end of the day. It’s exhausting and it’s exhilarating. It’s what music is all about.

As part of it, teachers become musical learners and experience the content in ways that then ask them to reflect on their own practice and what their students might need in order to be successful and achieve in their lessons.

Unpicking the experience, process, learning, understanding is a key part of ensuring the sustainability of what we cover in those training sessions. And so we do this through pondering a few key questions. I have given some thought to the 3 questions that I feel provoke the richest discussion at the end of the workshops.

1) What are your aspirations for your learners when they come to the end of their engagement with music in school, or with your music programme? 

Is it important to you that they are able to read staff notation or that they can pass a graded qualification in music theory? Be ready to take a music exams course?

Many teachers value instrumental skills or an open mind and willingness to listen to a music in a range of different styles and genres with some understanding. But when I ask teachers directly, it’s surprising how few have actually thought about defining and articulating those aspirations beyond the general curriculum information that ‘all students will play a musical instrument and sing’ or that they offer ‘a broad and balanced’ selection of topics.

I know what mine are now and I have got it down to an elevator pitch that works for me. It is to create independent, musical, informal learners who can pursue their own individual love of music in any way that is appropriate for them so they can build on the learning and experiences they had in the music classroom at school.

2) What are your own values as a musician and as an educator?

For many music teachers, much of their music education would have taken place outside the classroom in instrumental lessons and participation in ensembles outside school.

It’s very difficult to be successful at A Level music without having had some form of additional tuition (can you really get to grade 6 level on an instrument with all the associated music literacy and composing skills just through having classroom music lessons once a week for an hour if you’re lucky?).

But it’s a very different way of learning music and I’m not convinced it can be replicated in a classroom with 25-30 students, a slightly random mixture of instruments and often just one or 2 rooms.

It’s interesting to reflect on how many of our values as musicians influence the answers to question 1 above. Why is it important for students to be able to read music? Why do we want them to be able to follow a conductor? Why do they need to know how many # are in the key of E major or where the viola section sits in an orchestra?

Those are things we absolutely needed to know to progress as instrumental musicians and competent composers grounded in a theoretical approach to music learning. But is it right for our classroom learners? What are their values as musical learners, listeners, creators, advocates, fans, participants and how do we consider those as well?

Then there are our own values as educators. To offer inclusive opportunities for all students to access music, to ensure that all abilities are adequately supported and challenged, to manage behaviour to allow all students to learn, to create vibrant learning environments and safe spaces to work.

Matching up our values with those of our departments, schools and the students themselves takes some thought and often more than a little compromise.

3) Why do you teach what you teach? 

When I was training as a teacher, one of the school mentors came to run a session on planning to deliver GCSE music. The task was to look at the syllabus and plan a unit of work. Before we presented back our carefully crafted outcomes filled with listening sheets and short guided practical tasks he said that the first thing he wanted to know was what would be the value of that learning to the students.

Why had we chosen these tasks, for us or for them? We couldn’t answer. We had chosen to teach things we were knowledgable about and comfortable with but we had planned for our needs not theirs. One of the questions that I always ask now when a teacher asks for a resource for a particular topic is why.

Why are you choosing to teach reggae to your year 8? Or riffs to year 9 or instruments of the orchestra to year 7? What will they be learning that is in line with your defined values and aspirations and which builds in progression through your curriculum from a start to an end point?

Once you know the answers to those questions then you can think about an approach to deliver the learning that is appropriate for all learners, but getting the approach right isn’t enough if the content hasn’t really been thought through.

I will continue to ask these questions and refine my own answers to them. Meanwhile why not share your elevator pitch or ask your team at your next meeting if they can define the values that underpin your lessons, curriculum, department.

If nothing else it’s a great reminder of why we do what we do every day, even when some of the every day challenges of getting the job done can sometimes seem too daunting to overcome. 

Music for everyone? Absolutely.

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In my last blog post I wrote about my visit to my old school, Monks Walk to see how AS students were getting on with exploring some of the Trinity Rock and Pop Session Skills resources in their lessons this term.

This was my second visit to my old school this term, having left the classroom in July 2015, and in both visits I have been really interested to see what has happened to the students who have now come through informal musical experiences in class all the way from Year 7 to A level.

Monks Walk was a pilot school for the original Musical Futures Herts Pathfinder Project which looked at informal learning in the classroom back in 2004 and I was lucky enough be one of the first teachers to work with Lucy Green and the Herts Music Service to be part of the initial research that now underpins Musical Futures as we know it.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers adopting informal music learning into the classroom is about how they can synergise these approaches with the demands of a more formal music exams system.

On my previous visit to Monks Walk, I led a practical workshop for local primary teachers in my old classroom. It was so lovely to be back, to work in spaces I was familiar with and to catch up with students and staff to see how they were getting on.

Halfway through the first session, two year 13 students came in, picked up a bass and a uke and just started to play along with the group. Rachel is a violinist and Mark a bassoon player, both have come through the informal classroom approaches that Monks Walk staff embed into all teaching, both took GCSE music and are now in the A2 group in year 13. None of the adults spoke to them, they were caught up in the task and the challenge of having to perform with others they had only just met.

But Rachel and Mark listened and responded musically without any need for words. They didn’t talk to the group or to each other but what they played shaped and complimented the performance perfectly.

For me they absolutely epitomised what I had always aspired to for the students I taught and something that I had to really work hard at personally. As a notation-dependent classically trained musician I found it so difficult to pick up an instrument and jam. It was way out of my comfort zone and I froze at the thought of not having the dots there as my safety net. I didn’t feel like I was a very good musician, even though my qualifications and training suggested otherwise.

In addition to this I realised that I also really wanted the students I taught to value and be valued for their musicianship, whether that involved jamming on a bass guitar with a group of strangers or leading the school orchestra. I wanted them to feel that music is about being part of something, that having the confidence to enjoy it and not be afraid to put yourself out there is something valuable to take away from your music education.

Here are Mark and Rachel at the workshop. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared again. But they left me in no doubt that they will be back and that they will always have a musical voice that can and will be heard in the Monks Walk School music department.

 

Session skills at A Level: a fit or a miss?

 “Having the audio to play along with stops you stopping. With a backing track you have to keep going, just like in real life” Jennifer

I’ve just got back from a visit to Monks Walk School where this term, Head of Music Jennifer Rotchell, has been using the Trinity Rock and Pop Session Skills resources to teach year 12 who are following the new OCR specification for A Level Music.

The session skills are a choice between improvising or playback and each comes with an audio track and related notations for students and sample resources graded 1-8. In a Rock and Pop exam situation students are given some time to prepare then they play to the examiner. But could they also be relevant in the classroom?

At Monks Walk, a thriving music department built around access and inclusivity for all student, those who opt to take music beyond KS3 at Monks Walk are often informal learners used to learning by ear and playing together in class, as well as accessing more traditional forms of music learning where relevant. Jennifer wanted to see if the Session Skills resources might enable her to retain the practical “we learn as we play” approaches embedded lower down the school in lessons which the students are used to, whilst allowing them to access all aspects of what has traditionally been quite a notation and theory-based qualification.

The discussion today identified several ways in which Jennifer and her students felt that using the Session Skills had helped their learning so far:

  • Using the backing tracks for the Play Back component meant that students copied and internalised stylistic features that weren’t an obvious part of the score
  • Having to listen whilst performing helped with understanding the music and with score reading
  • Improvising  is a stepping stone to composing, for example the students explored breaking the music down into cells then how to develop them
  • The approaches could then link into the set works
  • These resources were a good way to keep learning musical at A level
  • The fact that the resources are linked to exam grades helped Jennifer to pitch the materials at the right level for the students, with the potential to progress as students became more confident with the skills and understanding gained

Jennifer will be updating recordings and video of the students’ progress to her class blog and we look forward to hearing how they get on!

“It’s sight reading but not quite sight reading! You listen to it and play along”, Will

” It was quite difficult, I’ve never really done much of this before” Natasha

 

I’m back!

 

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#BigGig

It’s been 7 months now since my last blog post. I took a bit of a break as I needed some time to really think about the myriad of things I have been reflecting on across the second half of this year and how best to try to put into words all the things I have learned, seen and been part of since I last sat down to write.

Since that last post there have been planes, trains, queues, more queues, hotels, trams, buses, taxis, currency I could’t quite get my head around and Uber is now my friend. Every trip has been filled with things that have made me think, reflect, adapt and refine and I have learned an incredible amount and met some inspirational people along the way.

I’ll start by saying I am so incredibly lucky. I am passionate about music, schools, teachers and students. At heart I will always be a teacher and it’s the same motivation that got me through 18 years in a secondary school classroom that has driven me through the last 7 months and brought me back to this page ready to fill it with some words that have been forming in my mind for a long time.

On my travels I’ve learned one important thing. Teachers are teachers, kids are kids and music is music. No matter where you are in the world, the challenges and rewards of what we do to make music education accessible, relevant and meaningful are the same. I have also learned that it’s amazing what it is possible to do with a class you have never met before armed only with a bag of chopsticks and some chairs!

The other thing that held me back from writing has been that I’ve found that sometimes words aren’t quite enough to bring to life the vibrancy of a school music department or what it’s like to lead workshops and training days.

How can I describe the buzz around working with teachers, hoping that one idea or experience will resonate enough to persuade a teacher to go back into school and try something new? Or that excitement you feel as an observer when a music class comes to life and you just feel a shift in something in a lesson that makes you feel grateful to have been there as it triggers the spark of an idea for something to try, think about, build on.

Then there are the passionate discussions with colleagues, new friends made, so much to talk about. The endless frustrations and blocks that seem to be increasing in music education and the lack of tangible solutions to make things easier but which it always helps to share and discuss with others in the same boat whether in the UK or overseas.

Of course there are always things that don’t work. A workshop that falls flat because you didn’t quite pitch it right or the tech fails that can destroy even the most well-planned presentation before it even begins.

In many ways it’s all been just how it was when I was teaching. A bit of luck, a lot of learning from experience, the ability to be flexible, finding the right balance between winging it and planning something in such detail it couldn’t possible go wrong right? Wrong. But always learning, adapting, reflecting and changing. The teacher in me will never let that go.

I am going to have a go in the next couple of months at finding some words to share some of what I have come to believe I’m right about and some of the many things I have been wrong about. But more likely I’ll end up realising I haven’t found many answers after all and that I’ll probably have to spend a whole lot more time in 2017 continuing to look for them.