Key Words – “caught not taught”?


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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.

In January 2015, working with Musical Futures Australia Director Ken Owen and the fabulous Nick Flesher who acted as our external observer, I was part of a pre-pilot test of the ideas that took place with the support of Hackney Music Service at two primary schools, Whitmore Primary and St Matthias C of E Primary in London.

At Whitmore, Ken and I spent 2 days working with a Year 4 class. It was a massive learning curve for us in many ways and we were able to really put all of our ideas, assumptions and preconceptions to the test.

Each day lasted approximately 4 hours and there was an assembly performance to the whole school and parents planned to showcase the outcomes the children produced as a result.

I will write more about this, I really did learn a huge amount from these children, however there was an unexpected but really welcome outcome of the pre-pilot that came out of Nick’s interviews with the children. Neither Ken or I had spent any time ‘teaching” key musical concepts or key words to the children we “just played” and of course, as musicians ourselves, we used relevant musical language as we worked through the approach with the class.

Bu then at the end of the first day, when Nick asked them to go over what they had learned, he found that they were using various key words in context as they explained what they had been doing, something that none of us had expected.

When we watched back the video taken during the student conversations, we certainly didn’t expect them to have grasped so much in such a short space of time.

So with this in mind, I am adopting one of Musical Futures’ key phrases that used throughout the Musical Futures Non Formal Teaching approaches on which Just Play is founded.

Musical concepts,  key words and other relevant musical knowledge can be “caught not taught”. Use them in context, model and reinforce through practical application and no matter the age of the students involved, they can and will internalise these.

Imagine the implications of this for the much-loved ‘Elements of Music’ projects and ‘Dr P Smith”, the assessment criteria that demands that students “add dynamics” in order to progress to the next level. What if, as Musical Futures so heartily advocates, we “Just Play”?

8 thoughts on “Key Words – “caught not taught”?

  1. Lovely stuff. I learnt this approach up at my Mufu training couse and have used it ever since, usually with Italian words that are more beautiful/mysterious/seductive than their English cousins (I am lucky in that there are no particular words I have to teach).

    one thought: Might we need to think about how to make sure all classroom teachers feel comfortable with this approach? Some may have had negative life/professional experiences of being exposed to unexplained technical vocabulary, not just in music but elsewhere?

    And one question: Did you find that the words you used were the same as the ones in the national curriculum or not? (I’m going to guess the latter!). I think our most-used argot at our school is now “once round/twice round”and”tight”.

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    1. I think we just used words that were relevant to what we were doing as and when it happened. Because we conversed ourselves in that language, it was natural to do that with the children as well. So for example maybe one of us would say “the keyboards could be louder there” or we need less bass-it’s a simple step to use the word dynamics there I guess although that isn’t a word I use naturally I would have to force it in there deliberately I think.

      Some words I find do come naturally, I’d be much more inclined to refer to the timbre that I would duration for example!


  2. “dynamics” tends to be a musical conversation-stopper doesn’t it?Our inclusive ensemble now “does” dynamics but I don’t use the word. I am sure I’ve never used it.

    Like you though, I have used “timbre”. Someone offers something on a different instrument against the ukes and it’s a good way of adding to the instinctive comment off “oh that was a cool sound”.


    1. I like timbre. “can you hear the different timbres” seems a nice question whereas “have you added dynamics” less so. It doesn’t help that dynamics is also a key word in drama but means something else!


  3. “Timbre” is perhaps less likely to interrupt a musical conversation. Whereas dynamics is forcing us to talk about loud, quiet&the contrast between them all at the same time &without emotional involvement – which is rarely something I want to do.


  4. Timbre is an interesting case. Came into play with Boulez and 1950s-60s total serialism and adopted by music education rather than musicians. Musicians seem to prefer ‘tone colour’ or ‘the feel of the sound’, or no such generalisation (monster word) but metaphors like ‘cutting’, ‘brittle’, ‘spikey’, ‘velvety’ ….
    Anna’s blog is preparing the ground for a time when there will no longer be talk of ‘key words’. How we talk about music teaching can change the discourse.


  5. I like to introduce cellos with the instrument either cushioned on the ground or held by one child whilst two other children hold each end of the bow. The two bowers bow until we get “that cello-ey sound” (which I’ve demonstrated). If we make things harder in some way, we tend to “lose the cello-ey sound” and have to fight to get it back. I’m pretty sure they get what “that cello-ey sound” means. Even a bad cello “cellos” its sound if the bow is straight and rosined.
    I don’t think I use “timbre” in this context because “that cello-ey sound” is understood by everyone.

    I struggle with “cutting”, “brittle”, “spikey” and “velvety” because I do not connect sound with texture in my own brain. I prefer voice/sound-based metaphors such as “pleading”, “crunchy”, “clashing” “screeching”. I think these are less ambiguous in a music-teaching context.

    May I add in “timbre”‘s favour that it is a graceful seductive word, a word I like to dwell on? Beautiful words can be introduced because they are beautiful, I think. Just as treble clefs can be introduced just because they are beautiful and the ritual of drawing them makes you feel part of a mysterious conversation that you do not understand but would like to join in one day.


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