From the archives – From Good to Outstanding

In 2012 I started to write some reflections on what went on in my classroom on my blog Mrs Gower’s Classes. Mixed in with student work and the nitty gritty of day to day life in the music department, they tell an interesting story of 10 years working in Music Education in the UK. 10 years on, I am collating these so that they exist in once place.

To launch my new project ‘Music Now’ which will be a collection of these blogs, I am sharing the very first post I wrote reflecting on an INSET session I led for fellow teachers entitled ‘From Good to outstanding’.

Of course, as was the trend, arts subjects and PE were grouped together for staff training sessions like this and hilariously, at my school the seating went in order of priority of subjects with English, Maths and Science at the front, Humanities and Languages then Art, Drama PE and Music squished in at the back!

There were some positive outcomes from the session and we did decide to try to work more closely together as a group of teachers to try to avoid feeling isolated in our own smaller departments. It was good to work together in a group, rather than be lectured from the front by someone more familiar with core subjects than Arts and PE.

So to kick off the Music Now Project, here is the very first blog I wrote and you can read the original post and access the audio referred to in the article here.

At our INSET entitled ‘from good to outstanding’ at the start of term, I was asked to teach a lesson I had done previously to try to prompt discussion about what is an outstanding lesson in an arts subject. The group consisted of teachers from art, drama, music and design technology.

The thing is, the more I think about it, the more I am wondering whether there is any such thing as simply an outstanding lesson. My new scheme of work with year 7 has been about so much more than just individual lessons week on week. The projects develop organically, I start with an idea of what I think we will do, but the students have been so creative that it seems to grow and change according to their responses! So if you asked to show one outstanding  individual lesson, I don’t think I could do it. I could direct you to groups of students working feverishly on creating and performing music, learning together regardless of ability and prior experience. I could show you how I’m trying to encourage them to describe the music using relevant vocabulary and teasing out exactly what they played and the relevance of this to the piece of music as a whole. I could tell you the level at which they are working and you’d see me suggesting ways they can move their learning forward as I work around the class or groups. But whether they could tell you their level or not (and whether this matters) is a whole other blog. If outstanding teaching includes a 3/4/7 part lesson, complete with planned questioning, a ‘settling’ starter activity, mini plenaries and EVERY activity closely linked to National Curriculum levels then I’m afraid I fall at the first hurdle. But you can listen for yourself if you click on the D year learning journeys for the house music composition task on this blog.

Back to the point. I was given 45 minutes and I wanted teachers to experience a lesson from a student perspective. Can we remember what it’s like to be put on the spot, asked to improvise, contribute an idea, perform in front of peers? Do we ever really consider what students are experiencing in our lessons? Are they learning? The track above is the outcome we produced in our 45 minute lesson. I explained how this piece of music would then form the basis of the next point of study. In this case I identified ‘the elements of music’ traditionally our first year 7 project (not any more). How could we use the piece we had just created to learn about what the musical elements are, what they sound like and how we can manipulate them to create new sounds?

We never did discuss what was outstanding about that lesson. However it did open up a discussion amongst us about why as creative subjects we aren’t leading on creativity across the school. Fear of missing targets, of having to produce work that stands up to the ‘work scrutinies’ that SLT carry out periodically and the worry that we won’t tick the boxes were just a few issues raised. But one outcome was that we have pledged to try to work together more to look at what our subjects have in common and how we can learn from the approaches we use to offer a truly creative experience for our students. I’m looking forward to seeing how this moves forward (once the coursework is in, moderated, collated, sent off, breakfast, after school and weekend revision sessions are over and the exam season finished). Will we manage it? I hope so.

What is a ‘music education’ anyway?

Collating my blogs from the last 10 years, I recently found this unpublished piece that I wrote back in 2018. At the time, I had recently come out of the classroom. After many years working as a project consultant alongside my classroom music teaching  job, work opportunities overseas meant that I couldn’t maintain both. So at the time I was leading workshops, creating resources and developing training programs for Musical Futures International. My remit was to support the development of Musical Futures in international schools and to work with music organisations and music teachers across the world.

Supported by The NAMM Foundation, Musical Futures Australia had embarked on a series of teacher training and development events in China. Working with an organisation there, we visited many times over a 3 year period, working with children, families, teachers and giving presentations at various Music Education Conferences and trade shows as well as working in local Music Schools. After our first trip, I wrote some reflections for Musical Futures International (click here to read more)

We were never sure where this work would take us. Each trip was filled with surprises, unexpected schedule changes, communication issues, language and cultural barriers, but these became some of the most significant learning experiences for me as an educator of both children, adults and myself. It also opened my eyes to how a drive to educate people in music can bring people together and how the music itself can overcome even the most challenging of language barriers. 

It was hard to convey the nuance of our teaching message via translators, especially when they themselves didn’t come from a music background. It was hard to explain what we wanted to achieve from practical workshops. But in ways that only music can, when we played together, listened, shared musical experiences through playing and talked about different pieces of music we loved with each other via our phones, those barriers fell away. The experiences we had together resulted in reflections which I started to write at the time, and which I continue to think about today. Again, I reflected more on this in my previous article (click here to read more).

The post is unfinished. There is much more to be told. 

There are anecdotes of what happened when we arrived to deliver a workshop to 50 violin teachers, only to find 15 x 4 and 5 year olds and their parents waiting to be given a 3h music lesson delivered by ‘masters of a new musical teaching method’. Or getting a conference room of 100 delegates at a lecture about informal learning jamming/singing/beatboxing together with limited musical instruments and a wing and a prayer (as it happens the room was rocking and it sounded amazing – phew). We really had to put our lived teaching experience to the test, most of all with a trust in our approaches and years of using them with children in the classroom, staying away from using play alongs or resources grounded in pieces of music none of the teachers or children had heard before, and returning to the true roots of Musical Futures, Lucy Green’s ‘informal learning’.

We were thrilled to see a translation of Lucy Green’s book hear Listen Play… which had been given to teachers as a required text, then watched as these same teachers tried to pick out melodies by ear, seeing how each of them responded, some with trepidation, a nervousness about doing something new in front of others, some wondered why this was of value in a system where many children reach diploma level on the piano by the age of 11. There were times where we wondered the same. We had to better understand music education in China before we could try to present aspects grown from our own, to be able to share the successes that we had had in contexts very different from these.

Then there was the reality summed up by a parent of a 5 year old child asking if her child only has 15 minutes per day in the crammed schedule of homework, tutoring and extra classes, surely this time is better spent practicing her exam pieces and achieving the certificate. Where was the value in ‘messing about trying to play her own thing?’ I often wonder how that child got on and whether she is still playing.

But despite all this, we observed and experienced the same ‘click’ that we were familiar with in workshops that we had led in more familiar environments. That realisation that there is more than one way to learn music and that there can be space for individual and personalised learning, even within the most formal of music education contexts.

And then there is the end of the story of our work in China which left me with many incredible musical and teaching experiences that I have since brought with me into my new roles as an International Teacher in Asia.

So here is the post as I found it, written on 27th July 2018 asking what is a ‘music education’? 

For the last month I have been on the road, participating in music education events in Australia, China and Baku.

As with all trips there were moments along the way that once home, have become thinking points for me. I found myself interested in the meanings and associations that people working in different parts of the world have when they use the term ‘music education’. Then considering this in the context of the work I was there to do and my own journey as a musician and educator. 

I’m going to write this in stages starting with something that has niggled at me since returning from China-what exactly is a ‘music education’?

In a twitter thread about knowledge, more specifically knowledge-rich approaches in the context of music in schools and teachers John Finney pointed out a difference between being ‘musically educated’ and ‘musically trained’ and reading that got me closer to making sense of some of what I saw in China.

As part of the Musical Futures International delivery team, we were invited to deliver workshops as part of the National Music Education Conference in Bejing, an event with a music education focus incorporated into the annual Music and Life show for the first time.

Our aim was to introduce the core pedagogy of Musical Futures to teachers who work in the instrumental teaching sector which in China is what is meant by the term ‘music education’. 

Musical Futures has always been an approach to classroom music, developed in the UK and then in Australia where the term music education is understood to encompass both music learning in school in a classroom environment and music learning in an instrumental setting, often in a music centre or music business existing separately from school. These 2 strands of music education often happen independently of each other and over the years there has been much discussion about the relevance of the core pedagogy of Musical Futures in instrumental teaching settings, whilst it has been shown to have great success in the classroom.

In China we asked about music in schools, but there was little to be learned. Music education doesn’t happen in schools there in the same way that it does in the UK, Australia or the USA. The entire focus of the conference was on music education as learning to play a musical instrument. 

Our supporters at the NAMM Foundation who fund much of our work in Asia have built a great relationship with music organisations in China and as a result we are seeing an openness towards looking at different pedagogies for teaching and learning music. At dinner one night we heard of previous attempts to bring Orff and Kodaly approaches to China, but our host for the evening felt these had failed because teachers didn’t ‘buy into’ the pedagogy. They teach the way they were taught and round it goes. The system perpetuates itself and the issues within it remain.

This was my second visit and as before, the language barriers and differences in experience between my own musical education and teaching contexts and those of the people in front of us challenged me so much as a teacher.

I had to be flexible, adaptable, musical and to know the content inside out in order to differentiate on the spot, read the room and give each workshop an angle that fits with the specific needs of the teachers and organisations we worked with. Each has a very different set of aims, but the core ethos between us and them remains a drive to engage with new approaches to the learning and teaching of music, despite our language barriers and differing musical experiences. Much to reflect on and learn from. 

But how much of making these workshops successful is down to my own music education? Which bits of my approach were musical and which were to do with teaching, communicating and understanding the content from the inside out, something which experienced teachers do every day?

Then there was another aspect to these trips that made me reflect on my own music education. It was the music. 

In Bejing I heard traditional Chinese instruments played live and for the first time I really heard the timbres and watched the musicianship in the performances as the music flowed between performers. The ensemble and the way the performers moved and communicated together was as beautiful as the music itself. II watched a group of women in traditional dress play and sing, the rawness of the tones in their voices told the story behind the music for me because I couldn’t understand the words. In Baku I heard Mugham for the first time, fascinating and completely unexpected, new timbres and techniques. I understood that no matter the differences in our music education, the people I met had been brought together through music and through a drive to bring music to young people through music education. We all get up in the morning to do the same job, no matter where and how we are doing it.