Key Words, Key Words, Key Words

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I wrote this blog back in Feb 2014 after  we welcomed candidates for interview for a Head of Music post at our school and as part of the interview they were asked to teach a lesson. During the formal interview in the afternoon, they had the opportunity to feed back on how they felt it went and three of them expressed surprise that our students “don’t know their key words”.

I wasn’t involved in the observations and didn’t see the lesson plans so my opinions do not in any way reflect the lesson content used yesterday, but I have seen many examples where at the end of the lesson groups perform to each other and are questioned on how they used dynamics, texture, pitch etc. (An aside but it always seems to be dynamics first-the least important of the musical elements in my opinion “Oh you’ve finished? now add some dynamics”, but I suppose if  ‘DR P SMITH’ places them first they are accorded importance that way?)

In this context, one or two students might put their hand up to answer or fill in a sheet and tick some boxes, but I’m pretty sure there’s much more to musical learning and subject-specific language than this.

My line manager asked me today if I was worried about our KS3 students, “Are you worried that they don’t know their key words Anna?” He had a smile on his face as he did so and therefore the rant that followed can be justified in that it was provoked! We are well supported in our school and being challenged in discussions like this is usually a helpful part of our line management process. They listen to us and respect our subject specialism and choices in our teaching. We are lucky because some SLT hearing this feedback may have reacted differently

My view on this was reinforced by a conversation with one of our instrumental teachers currently working with GCSE students in a school on a one to one. He gave an example of one boy who was able to recite the meanings of many keywords, notably the musical elements. However he was unable to identify them in music he heard and had no idea how to use them to develop his ideas for his composition, yet he was achieving an A* in his ‘vocab tests’. The teacher was horrified and asked how this was possible. Tracking back it turned out that music at that school was taught mainly via powerpoint and handouts. They rarely played anything other than the composing ‘lessons’ that took place every week which involved them going off into rooms and working on their corsework. He had never had the opportunity to apply keywords in a practical context and didn’t really understand them even though he had probably been ‘taught’ them since primary school. Contrast that to this tweet that was posted during #mufuchat describing a GCSE music lesson where students learned the main musical characteristics and key words about a set topic by playing it:

A few years ago, I listened in as an A2 student (aged 18) was rehearsing a clarinet piece with an accompanist as they prepared for her exam. I deliberately listened for how musical terminology was used between them to see whether the way this is taught in school has any relevance to a ‘real life’ musical setting. It was interesting. Phrases like “Let’s go from the repeat” or “Don’t forget to drop down for the pianissimo section” or “Make more of the accents” showed how the keywords had, over time become part of the language used when musicians talk to each other about music. Did that student learn these words in school music lessons? Probably not. More likely as they learned to play their instrument these arose in context and more were absorbed the more complex their repertoire became.

But is this something we could or should expect younger students to be able to do?

The way I see it is that on the one hand you have the product-a piece of music that is being created, shaped and refined. It could be a performance, composition, improvisation whatever. On the other you have a set of key words, dynamics, rhythm, pitch, structure etc..

In some approaches an over-emphasis on learning and using keywords could result in neglect of the product. So you could end up with a potentially less-than-brilliant piece of work to which students are being asked to apply these words as part of the feedback process. They might know that dynamics means volume, but feedback that suggests they “vary the dynamics” or “use layers” doesn’t really explain how or why they should do this to improve the piece musically, especially if it doesn’t sound that great in the first place!

On the surface you can tick your literacy/keyword/lesson objectives, but underneath this, does it actually improve the musical outcome or the musical learning? I’ve seen this a lot in lessons I have watched and my frustration is always that the music could be so much better if

a) the feedback is given in a way that students can understand how it applies to their work and more importantly how it makes the music better. If this means not using keywords then so be it.

b) the balance is adjusted away from the predominance of keywords and towards supporting students with creating musical outcomes, using language in context as it happens.

Understanding the construction of music, how pulse and rhythm, bass lines, chords and melodies come together, first in pieces they recognise and then in more unfamiliar music, exploring these by playing them, talking about what they are doing, listening back and refining after every lesson, discussing it informally does not preclude the use of keywords. However it does mean their use may not be obvious to anyone watching and here is what our visitors yesterday didn’t find, because actually they weren’t looking for the right things in the right place.

I’m not sure that this year 7 class would have managed to create THIS if I had restricted the process to a set of elements they had to change in the piece, or make them list the musical elements they could change to improve it (it’s unfinished by the way)

I’m not saying, don’t use keywords, actually the opposite. Use them in the same way that the A2 student and accompanist did and model to students how the words form part of the language musicians use. For me at least, that’s a far more sophisticated form of literacy.

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