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.