Today is a personal milestone as I mark the end of my various roles at Musical Futures, an organisation that has been central to my professional life for more than 12 years now.
I have been fortunate to work with incredible people and to have learned so much from others that has informed my thinking, my practice and to learn what has driven me as an educator and a musician. All valuable things I hope to take with me into new directions and challenges that lie ahead.
As things come to an end, it’s always such a great opportunity to reflect, to remember key events or moments that became significant in the journey. So I start with some of those.
I remember spending time in my classroom at Monks Walk with Lucy Green, looking aghast when she explained that to be part of the MF pathfinder pilot I would be allowing year 9 to make choices over repertoire, planning, musical needs and defining their own pathways through tasks.
It terrified me, I was the teacher, how could the students possibly be able to achieve anything if they were given too much freedom? I knew only one approach to music teaching-the one I had experienced for myself outside the classroom as a classically trained clarinet player, dependent on notation and very under confident with leading or delivering practical workshops as a music leader. Lucy’s book “Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy” (click for details) is a fantastic summary of that work that was just the start of 10 years of trying to get it ‘right’ in my classroom!
Lucy completely understood the classroom context and how teachers needed to adapt to make sure the pilot was a success. We enjoyed unpicking what we had seen the students achieve in the lessons and recently spent some time over Skype discussing the difference between haphazard and holistic learning and how one student from that very first pilot class made it onto the X Factor. This came as no surprise given that through MF he was able to express himself very successfully through singing and performing!
I have had endless edu-banter with David Price over so many issues, from the value of social media in the education community to the challenges of increasingly target-driven changes in our schools. Most recently we spent some time over breakfast on a glorious Australian summer day discussing the current edu-twitter debates over teacher led learning and direct instruction vs PBL and student centred approaches, a conversation that I look forward to continuing in the future.
I have worked with driven, creative and passionate people like Abigail D’Amore, who brought real balance and clarity to some of the big and hugely ambitious ideas we had for driving Musical Futures forward and who played such an important role in grounding MF in its pedagogical roots. Abi was also central to building the organisation as it now stands, independent in its own right having successfully transitioned from a fully funded project to an organisation now looking to a new future in the capable hands of Managing Director Fran Hannan.
Most recently I have loved co-developing the MF Just Play resources and training programmes with Ian Harvey and Ken Owen at Musical Futures Australia. It has been so valuable to look at the whole of MF through fresh eyes with them and with their teachers.
We have worked together to refine and plan and deliver new ideas and approaches and it has shown me that Musical Futures truly does have relevance anywhere that there are teachers looking for new ways to engage their students with music. Kids are kids, teachers are teachers and music is music. Let’s find a fit for everyone regardless of context.
They also taught me that it’s OK for training days and classroom music to be fun, that fun doesn’t make the intention any less rigorous or meaningful, just a far more enjoyable experience for everyone!
But of course along the way I have met and worked with so many teachers in schools and dedicated folk in the UK Music Ed sector that I think sharing part of my MF story as I will do below is by far the best way to thank everyone for the support and friendship I have found across my time with MF.
Musical Futures has been a massive personal journey for me, first as a practitioner having to completely redesign my identity as a musician and a teacher, then as I travelled and visited schools and worked with teachers to really try to understand what Musical Futures is when it is translated into practice at the chalk face.
I have also been trying to understand how and why it impacts on the lives of thousands of students and teachers across the world and how it can continue to change and adapt to the needs of those who are looking for ways to keep music relevant and meaningful for students in schools.
When I left Monks Walk in the summer of 2015, in my leaving speech, my line manager asked staff whether they had any idea of Musical Futures actually is.
Nobody could answer.
He had designed a poster that summed up what he thought my interpretation and use of Musical Futures in my classroom was. He described it as ‘a parallel solar system’ where everything is noisy and practical and chaotic and creative and the words he chose really summed up what Musical Futures had become in our school
Fun, Challenging, Inspirational, Groundbreaking, Inclusive, Excitement, New Experiences, International.
I was so happy that over the years of observations, discussion, disagreement, negotiation, banter, partnership, collaboration and so much more that this was the impression he had formed of it. It was a lovely way to leave.
Musical Futures can be all those things. But how do you know when you walk into a class that it’s Musical Futures in inspiration or design? Is there a definition, a description or something that remains consistent no matter how and where it’s applied?
I’ve been visiting MF schools over the past 7 years or so, but back in October 2015 I led a tour of MF Champion schools accompanied by a group of teachers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada that really gave me the opportunity to reflect on this.
What I found is that Musical Futures doesn’t look or sound the same in any of the schools I’ve seen. It feels like Musical Futures, I know Musical Futures is there, but I have struggled to pin down how that actually translates into practice.
Our visitors also seemed to find it hard to define what made the lessons, departments and teachers ‘Musical Futures’ lessons, departments and teachers. Other than that they and I had said they were and that they use the MF approaches and resources in much of what they do, my question remained. What does ‘an approach’ actually look like when it’s applied in practice?
The key principles of MF are pretty clear so should I expect to see all of those in every lesson? Students working with friends, learning aurally, the teacher as facilitator? I saw many of them, but not all of them and not all of the time and as you would expect
I saw things that I thought worked really well and things I was less sure were effective. This was down to the interpretation, personalisation and moulding of the approach rather than the approach itself.
To find the answers to the million questions I had, I started by trying to identify what everything I saw in the schools and lessons had in common and I had some great discussions with the others in the group as we drove from school to school.
The first very impressive observation was the engagement, concentration and focus of the students we saw. More than that though, when we talked to them it became clear that they really care about their music work and the department, their teachers and the value of music in their schools.
Perhaps they feel some ownership over this (MF asks that learning starts from students’ own musical passions and interests) and so it becomes particularly important to them.
But can we or should we accredit this solely to MF?
Good teaching/relationships/structures/content=engaged students.
Perhaps MF helps or allows teachers to think about what they teach, why and how and the result is that compelling engagement I have seen everywhere I’ve visited. I needed to unpick this some more.
The second thing was the amount of music in the lessons. It was everywhere. I’ve made a list of the moments that stood out to me the most:
Whole-class workshopping with tuned percussion and classical instruments at Harrogate Grammar
Find Your Voice vocal work that has inspired a choir of over 60 students, boys, girls and staff at Fred Longworth.
It was in the sessions we led with the students, a class of year 8 at Monks Walk breaking down grooves using class percussion and in the Shake it Off workshop with 60 year 5 and 6 children at St John’s Primary school and finally at The Music Learning Revolution
At Benton Park it was a class of year 7 singing and playing enthusiastically and musically together while we joined in for a mass jam of Rocking all over the world.
It was the On Cue project at Morpeth where 80 students from 3 schools came together with facilitator Adam Sanders and created a piece from scratch which they then performed at The Music Learning Revolution at the end of the week.
It was the year 8 at Wymondham Academy turning round to the group next to them and asking to hear what they had done as the rest of the class worked on in their groups.
At Flegg it was a lunchtime club that looked and sounded so like a MF lesson as students went off into groups to copy and play songs they had chosen that we couldn’t tell when lunchtime finished and lessons started.
At Willingdon it was the year 8 boy telling me that since their new (MF Associate) teacher had started at the school, everything had changed. He could play bass now but he never thought he would be able to play anything.
At Steyning Grammar it was a 6th form Uke group playing informally with their teacher
And throughout the tour itself, we sang on the bus, we played music together and the moment that moved me most of all was in a pub where the teachers got up and played one at a time and together. I thought how unbelievably lucky their students are to have musicians of such quality teaching them. This reduced me to tears as they played truly from the heart and I realised that I was on a bit of a journey of my own, transitioning from being in the classroom at the heart of making music with my students to opening this world to so many more young people and their teachers through my new role with Musical Futures.
Can Musical Futures take credit for any this? Music lessons where the majority of time is spent making music? That “you just feel it” moment in the workshop at MLR where we sang and played and bonded through music?
And what about the tour itself? Bringing people together through music, forming friendships through a shared drive to find new and best practice to take back into classrooms underpinned by shared Musical Futures aims?
I decided to ask someone I thought might have an answer for me. Jonathan is an ex student of mine. A classically trained pianist and self-taught guitarist, he came through my school at a time where MF was slowly embedding into the department and music is his passion.
In the 6th form he came into lessons with younger students and helped them musically. He was also a Music Leader at a local primary school, supporting the teacher with music lessons with much younger children. They loved him.
You can hear from Jonathan in this video describing his musical experiences at school. In answer to the question ‘What is Musical Futures’ he said,
It’s an ideology, a group of people coming together because they want to make things better for themselves and their students
This is exactly what we were doing on our tour of schools. Looking for ideas, answers, we discussed and pulled apart everything we saw and reflected on everything we do and could do and might do. Have a read of what Michael Newton, one of our overseas visitors made of his own experiences and how MF has inspired him to
I talked this over with then MF CEO Abi to see what she thought. She had met with Peter, Head of Music at Morpeth School and told me how he had found Musical Futures to be
a catalyst for change
in his school. That’s absolutely what it was for me at Monks Walk. It took me to that parallel solar system that my line manager described and helped me start to make sense of it through evaluating my own musicianship and approach to being a teacher, my beliefs and values as a musician and an educator.
Musical Futures is more than an approach and it’s not just a downloadable resource. It’s not a 6 week ‘MF inspired’ project or a rock and pop scheme of work for year 9.
The Just Play workshops that have been running in the last 2 years in the UK, Australia and Asia are filled with people who tell us they had been inspired by a great musical experience in the workshops to go back into their classrooms and make something happen.
So to everyone who went on part of this journey with me, thank you. I’m sharing just a few of the photos that sum up for me what Musical Futures is all about. Musical Futures really is all those things my line manager says it is. But most of all it is the most inspirational and exciting personal journey that really can change everything.
Make something happen, instigate change? It’s a hell of a ride……