“First Access” and musical pathways. Have times changed and can we change with them?

Masque photo
Let’s Make a Masque Competition, 1986

This week I spent a really interesting morning leading a workshop for Trinity College London and Music For Youth with a group of experienced music education sector folk to look at mentoring and feedback.

There were 2 specific aims of the session. To identify what the terms “inclusivity and diversity” mean in the context of assessment and feeedback and the second was about how our own musical identity and musical journey can influence how and what we feed back.

We started by taking it in turns to share the journey that had brought each of us to that room on that day. What came across was a very real drive to want to give young people similar musical opportunities and musical experiences to those that we had all been part of. Common themes and shared pathways emerged, and for some there were emotional moments as people recalled events or experiences along the way that had had a very memorable impact on them.

It seems that the ‘first access’ to music that all of us in the room had encountered that started us on our musical journey or pathway was one of the following:

  • at primary school
  • inspired by a musical family or family member
  • as a result of music happening in the local community

The next step for most of us was to then become involved with the county music service in some way, usually to play as part of an ensemble. All of us had been teachers or composers or performers of music at some point in our careers.

For some, although it was primary music that hooked them in, secondary school music hadn’t been of particular relevance (not the case for me, but definitely a theme in discussion). It was at that point that the musical pathway seemed to divert to routes that existed outside of school.

Perhaps those of us who took part in that session are very much products of the music education focus, structures and values that were prevalent during the times that we came through the system. Perhaps we just followed clearly defined pathways that were laid out for those of us that happened to find ourselves on the first step no matter what it was that helped us to take that step.

I left the session wondering whether those same pathways to and through music education still exist. And if they don’t, whether we have been successful in replacing them with new ones. Should we be looking for musical pathways that accommodate new ways of learning, tools to help us to be creative, different ways of hearing and making music and a range of approaches embedded in structures that underpin a completely musical education?

All of this sits within a shifting educational landscape in the UK which threatens arts and cultural education in ways that I would have found it hard to imagine back in the days when the photograph at the top of this post was taken.

And so to part of my story.

When I was in Year 6 in my tiny village primary school where music was the life and soul of every day, we wrote, performed and recorded our own ‘Masque’, supported by our teachers.

All of the top classes were involved with the drama, words, lyrics, music, costumes, scenery and it occupied months of planning and creating and rehearsing and presenting (no SATs to prep for in those days!) until eventually we found out we had won a national competition to perform ours at the Royal Opera House in London. I played a recorder solo that my best friend had composed and that the whole class had devised words and a melody to fit with.

There was no question that after a primary school ‘first access’ musical experience that ended like that I would continue with music. I learned to play the clarinet (paid for by my parents), attended a music centre every week, I went to a secondary school with an incredible music department, symphony orchestra and concert band, I was part of the County ensembles and that pathway led me to a music degree and into music teaching and beyond. My musical pathway was clearly laid out (for me) in front of me and I followed it.

So my thinking this week has been about whether those pathways still exist and if so are they still the most relevant ones that can truly embrace inclusivity and diversity, whatever that means in the context of where and how we are working? If not then what might replace them? Is it time to refresh the old and embrace the new and if so, then how can we do that when the experience of so many now running the show was so much ‘of its time’?

My worry is that if we can’t find a shared vision and approach and set aside our own musical identities in order to embrace those of others to make this possible, then we risk the vibrancy and creativity and excitement of music making being lost to many.

Notes:

I’ve very much enjoyed recent reading about the history and context of music education in the last 50 years, particularly the writings of John Finney, Gary Spruce, Neryl Jeanneret, Ruth Wright and others that add a huge amount of context to the every-day experiences I encounter when I am working with teachers and reflecting on my own experiences. 

Life without music is meaningless, music without life is academic.

Leonard Bernstein

Skills and Knowledge and the Music Curriculum

Back in November 2017, I was invited to be part of a panel at The Music Mark Conference entitled “Securing the Future of Music in the Curriculum – Instrumental Skills v Music Knowledge”, a title which forced me to hone some thoughts into a 5m presentation and which I have continued to reflect on since.

The panel was co-ordinated by Dan Francis who has summarised his presentation in a blog post here and this is a good overview of some of the background to the choice of title for the session as well as some insights into the current music education sector in the UK.

I chose to focus on the skills vs knowledge aspect of the title and I had in mind mainly KS3 music because that’s the most likely place most students will get some music at school as the entitlement to music in UK state schools continues to diminish.

Examples of a skills-based approach in music

I hear quite often now about music teachers choosing to follow a ‘skills-based’ curriculum at KS3.

Looking at some of the online discussion and in visits to schools, this approach looks to be students learning music through playing music, the musical knowledge and understanding then growing from the experience of actually creating something musical.

When thinking at its most basic level about a skills-based approach, I think about the idea of learning to play a musical instrument in a classroom context. With this in mind I am reminded of the year 9 class all sat at keyboards wearing headphones playing Ode to Joy on Keyboards from notation.

In this scenario, the learning starts from prescribed repertoire using materials that have been chosen or made for the learners and the music itself often only exists after the process has been completed.

To access the task, students in this class need to know how to use the materials they have been given. (It might help to have heard the music as well, but it isn’t essential to have done so).

As a contrasting example, the teacher leading this class at Shrewsbury International School, Bangkok, also follows what he calls a skills-based curriculum. In this lesson, year 7 are getting under the skin of Electronic Dance Music through playing along, breaking down the patterns and then composing their own beats to then be transferred to computers.

Later the sounds can be manipulated and explored through technology. The teaching starts from what exists within the music and builds from there.

Students in this class need to know how to respond to the music they hear and adjust their responses appropriately. For them, the answers lie within the music and finding them is an experience of discovery.

It seems there’s some variety within this ‘skills-based’ approach. So digging deeper, can we define a difference between developing instrumental skills (in the sense of knowing how to play something) as the first example suggests and ‘musical skills’ (a bit more holistic) in the second?

And does one approach engage students more than another?

Or perhaps it’s not the curriculum content and choice between skills or knowledge that’s important after at all, but the teaching, the approach, the relationships?

More on that in my next post.

And so what of ‘knowledge’?

First we have Nick Gibb’s narrative about the importance of the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum, this recent speech  being just one example, see his Twitter feed for more!

I’m not sure I’m confident about what this means in practice for music especially when you throw in the multitude of other seemingly diametric options available to teachers informal/formal, theory/playing, notation/no notation, prepare for GCSE/prepare for something else and on and on and on it goes.

Should the emphasis be on knowing about music, knowing pieces of music or knowing how to do something related to music?

John Finney has recently written a series of blog posts articulating the need for some clear pathways through the ‘conceptual confusions’ around all of this and he articulates this so much better than I can.

But one final thought.

Should this debate be better defined by musical pathways, for example by the content in GCSE/A Level (and international/vocational equivalents)? These seem to test some aspects of musical knowledge, understanding, theory, language etc. at a point at which making a judgement about the effectiveness of music education in schools seems logical.

The balance of skills and knowledge within such qualifications is apparent, yet the concept of KS3 as preparation for GCSE when just 6 or 7% of students take that qualification doesn’t feel right either.

Perhaps what’s being tested at this level doesn’t always join up to that aspirational line of progression through classroom music in ways which make it easy for music teachers to bring students through in just a classroom setting. ie. Do GCSE and A levels in music really test what can be achieved only through a classroom music experience regardless of whether that’s skills or knowledge? I’m not convinced they do and it doesn’t help teachers find a simple route through this minefield of choices and decisions.

Perhaps the answer lies in what it means to be ready to take GCSE-so defining the required balance of skills and knowledge (and ENGAGEMENT with classroom music) necessary to access those examinations courses.

Arguably it’s a failure to find a balance between all 3 of these essential ingredients that have resulted in the precarious situation music is now in in schools with its low numbers, high costs, just for the few and irrelevant to the rest.

Chuck in the appalling lack of subject specific CPD for music teachers and the decline in university-based teacher training and it’s no wonder we don’t seem to be making much progress (pun intended) with all this.

Despite the wealth of research, papers, journals, chapters, books that exist on the topic of music education, many teachers still end up with a KS3 pick and mix of topic-based 6 week ‘schemes of work’ that follow the listen to music, be told about the music, play some of the music (if you’re lucky) go into groups and make up some music, perform and assess and then repeat pattern, with little consideration for exactly what is being learned (and built upon) in terms of skills or knowledge.

So what happens if you strip out all the background noise and just look at what is in front of you. Then what might be found?

My next two posts will unpick some experiences that have helped form some of my thinking about this.

The first, published as a guest blog for Musical Futures International,  is about what happens when all you have between teacher and learners is the music. The second is about what happens when students make some of the choices and what can be learned from that.

But I want to finish with something that Steve Jackman, teacher of the year 7 class in the video above said when he summed up his approach to music in his school.

If you spend 3 years learning about swimming, you would expect to be able to swim at the end of it.

Perhaps after all the answer is that simple. Start with the end in mind.

  • Steve Jackman @sjeeves
  • John Finney @JohnFinney8
  • Musical Futures International @mufuinternat
  • Trinity College London @TrinityC_L
  • Anna Gower @tallgirlwgc
  • #MusicMark2017
  • Dan Francis @danfrancismusic

3 key risks to cultural education in the UK

The government believes that cultural education forms an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum, and that children and young people should be provided with an engaging variety of cultural experiences throughout their time at school. Policy Paper, cultural education DFE, July 2013

This week I was asked what I thought were the main challenges in the UK facing those of us who support a holistic cultural and arts education within our schools and local communities.

The obvious answers would of course include cuts to local authority budgets and national funding, which are now affecting some of the biggest arts venues in London as well as community venues, libraries and museums across the UK.

Or the EBACC, which as this article from Deborah Annetts, chief executive of Incorporated Society of Musicians and founder of the Bacc for the Future campaign suggests, negates the potential impact of the recently announced £96m of funding, promised to support the most gifted students with access to arts education. Music for a few not for many.

But in answer to the question I chose the following:

  1. The risk of forgetting those at the very end of the journey to opening access to arts education-the students.

In the UK there are a huge range of organisations all wanting the same things. To find ways to open up access to the arts for all. Many of these focus on work with teachers and schools. However, the danger is that funding can quickly be eroded by getting people round a table to talk about the issues and reach agreement whilst actually making things happen takes much longer.

How can we ensure that initiatives and projects are needs-driven and learner-driven and that data is used not just to measure effectiveness, but to identify key areas where diminishing funding and support for arts education can have the maximum impact for those who need it most?

2) Communication.

It’s difficult to reach the people who can most easily affect change. Where are young people? They are in schools. Where are parents who are part of their local community? Many of them engage with schools.

Schools are a central and vital part of the local community and provide a huge opportunity to open up access to organisations trying to engage and work with local communities.

Yet we constantly hear of organisations trying to reach teachers and teachers trying to reach organisations and still a gulf that lies in finding the right language, the shared aims, the pressures of time and knowing how to reach the right people to make those conversations actually translate into practice.

It would be great to find ways to create more relationships that truly work in partnership and establish a balance that responds to local need and the sharing of expertise where it’s most needed. Without doing so then the challenge of communicating the right information to the right people in the right way remains a key barrier to making things happen.

3) Sustainability.

Many arts opportunities are often high quality, large-scale events and those who participate (or watch) never forget them. However many can be ‘one hit wonders’, expensive to run and once over, there is little evidence of or support for sustainability and impact over time.

The question of how to reach more people and to engage them for longer has long been a key focus for organisations looking for solutions to the challenges we face in the UK around arts and cultural education and opportunities in the current climate.

It’s great that there are structures in place that support collaboration and shared aims and values for arts and cultural education such as the Arts Council funded Bridge Organisations, The Music Education Council, the recently announced Youth Music National Alliance and the grass roots campaign to save East Sussex Music Service from threatened cuts.

But perhaps the greatest risk of all might be a failure of more arts organisations to find success in working together. If ever there was a time that this was needed, it’s now.

Key Words – “caught not taught”?

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Musical Futures International offers teacher professional development and workshops across the world – find out more here

A few months after I wrote my blog about Key Words and the value of using these in context as opposed to focussing on the elements of music as distinct entities, I started to work on a new Musical Futures approach for primary teachers and students which eventually became known as Just Play.

At the time, my role was as Head of Development for Musical Futures in the U.K. and my remit was to work in partnership with Musical Futures Australia to develop an approach to support generalist primary teachers to deliver whole class music making with their classes.

The resulting training and resource offer has since been adopted as one of the key Musical Futures approaches and is currently being delivered to over 2000 teachers across Australia as well as in Asia, UAE, New Zealand, Europe and the U.K.

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