From the archives: Do you have to be a specialist to teach music? July 2016

This article was first published on Teachwire in July 2016. You can read the original article here . I am republishing it because some of the links in the original are now out of date and I think that the content of this piece and how I feel about it remains as relevant for me today as it was 3 years ago.

My reflections on reading this again are all about the idea of primary teachers feeling like they couldn’t or shouldn’t teach music. How strong and important that sense of identity as being a musician and being/feeling musical is. And what different perceptions are of what that actually involves wasn’t just amongst the teachers. I had seen similar in classes of students. “He is the musical one-he plays the clarinet. I just make things up on the piano”.

Over the course of our Just play pilots in the UK, as we tried to reach and engage primary teachers who hadn’t had any musical training, we often heard “music isn’t my job” “we have a visiting music teacher who does the music” I am not musical, I can’t even sing”, things that were replicated in the experiences our friends at Musical Futures Australia had as we co-developed and rolled out the programme together.

So originally in the development plan, Just Play was about creating a training experience that helped the teachers feel confident and supported to give music a go with their classes-we found the starting point for that in the work that Little Kids Rock were doing in the USA. The idea was that the scaffolded Just Play resource would be there as a support for those teachers to give it a go.

We found that although it was virtually impossible to get these teachers to workshops, independent evaluations of the pilot opportunities where teachers were encouraged along by their schools, as in the case of Fiona below, showed that it did work. Sadly these evaluations aren’t available online, so you’ll have to take my word for it!

However without establishing partnerships in the UK to expand the reach and message and help teachers and primary schools to feel ‘yes this is for me-I can and should teach music!’, plus the changing climate of some subjects being far more important than others in a crowded primary curriculum, plus a lack of access to instruments and the cost of investing in these as cuts started to bite this area of the work eventually fizzled out. 

Perhaps one day there will be a concerted and joined up effort to design and implement a training programme for UK primary teachers, ideally in partnership with the hubs and organisations here that all want the same thing – more music in more schools for more children. I hope so, because the impact we saw, even in these early pilots suggested that the early Just Play programme had some potential with its mix of practical and experiential workshops and take home resources to get started with straight away. 

“I’m really sorry, I’m not sure I should be here. I can’t play anything. I just sing Frozen songs with my kids in the car. I’m really not the right person to do this.”

Fiona is the headteacher of a primary school, and she has come to a taster session to find out if she’d like her school to get involved in a pilot project called Just Play, which is about whole-class music making at KS1 – designed to be delivered by any teacher that wants to make music with his or her class, regardless of musical experience.

Fiona isn’t the first person to come into the room, look at the guitars and keyboards all set up ready to play and panic. In fact, the faces in front of me often show a mixture of fear, skepticism and in some cases even tears.

Yet as we play together, support each other and experience music from the perspective of learners, I begin to see some incredible progress being made. Not just in actual musical skills, nor the perception that you need to be a specialist in order to teach music – but also in what music means to each of the teachers, and how they would like their pupils to be able to have these experiences too.

What is a ‘specialist?’

With restrictions on the time devoted to specific music training for primary teachers, and many members of the profession having had few music experiences in school themselves, it’s no wonder that “I can’t teach music” has become a deep-seated belief.

But what actually constitutes a music ‘specialist’? Is it having some instrumental skills, a music degree, performance career or specialist subject training? Are these sufficient to ensure that what pupils experience in those precious few hours of music – often squeezed into a hugely tight curriculum with so many conflicting priorities – will be enough? Or is there another way to make music accessible and sustainable in our primary schools by breaking down the specialist / non specialist barrier?

Those involved in the pilot project who were about to embark on teaching music with their classes described the characteristics of a Just Play teacher as:

• Confident
• Willing to have a go
• Knowing when to take take a step back
• Not afraid to repeat things
• Able to make it relevant
• Willing to let go of the traditional teacher / pupil relationship

Essentially, a list of characteristics you could apply to a good teacher of anything!

Leading by instinct

Watching Just Play in action in classrooms, I have had to throw aside many of my own preconceptions. Looking past things that, as a specialist, I would find easy to identify and correct – such as some wrong notes or slips in timing – I have had to accept that the benefits of whole-class music making don’t necessarily lie in just playing the right notes at the right time.

There’s another level of broad, transferable learning happening, and it’s happening in music lessons being led by specialists and non specialists alike. I’ve seen counting skills, listening skills, collaboration, focus, coordination, increased memory and improved wellbeing, among many other benefits – none of them expressly musical.

In addition, I have seen teachers leading musical activities instinctively, moving with the music, modelling, working with the children to shape sound into their own creations, and building on the strength of that teacher / pupil relationship that underpins so much in primary teaching. I have witnessed children jump ahead of the teacher, differentiating themselves and allowing space for the teacher to help those who need it.

Perhaps coming to music teaching without some of the preconceptions of what it should be like allows us to explore what it could be like for the children in our schools. Now there’s an exciting thought.

2 thoughts on “From the archives: Do you have to be a specialist to teach music? July 2016

  1. Anna, your last para sums it up for me perfectly. What drove me ( and still does) is the desire to learn more and this rubbed off on the children I taught precisely because I lacked those preconceptions. I would add , however, that I am my own worst enemy also in that I perhaps judged myself too harshly at times.
    Regarding Just Play, this enabled me greatly to do what I knew I was capable of but needed direction and support to manage.
    I was regarded by some as a music specialist but really I am a teacher who can teach and enjoys teaching music.

    Like

    1. Thank you for posting Etain. And of course we tested JP in the Monk’s Walk primary family too which was an important part of building the community music partnerships as well as getting people together for workshops and discussions and chats!

      Like

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