Back to (home) school on Monday – a few reflections

Platforms/products we have been using to set work for EY- Y9 students

  • Google Classroom used across the whole school to set and assign work and to communicate between staff and with students
  • Musical Futures International – the entire resource catalogue is free to anyone who has attended a workshop. Some free resources for uke, songwriting, Music for Film and Soundtrap are available here . Lost your login? Just go to this page, enter the email you used to register for the workshop and reset your password. No luck? Click here for help
  • Charanga digital music programme EY/PRIMARY – currently free for 30 days. Ready made home learning units available for ages 4-11 and Yumu, which enables work from within Charanga or created yourself, to be set and monitored via an easy to use platform
  • Cool 4 School funky, Fun, On-Line Songs with Movement and Dance EY/PRIMARY – Currently free for 3 weeks then 25% discount on subscription until September
  • Music First SECONDARY – free subscriptions to the MusicFirst Classroom and a range of integrated software for students and teachers which includes Focus on Sound are available for the duration of closure. However any work created or completed by teachers and students is only available during the free subscription period and will be deleted once in-person school sessions resume.
  • Musication percussion play alongs EY/PRIMARY – YouTube
  • Beat Goes On Body Beats – YouTube – Daily live sessions and some pre recorded resources ideal to use as warm ups or fun activities
  • Soundtrap for Education – online collaborative music studio SECONDARY – extended free trial available

There are so many organisations offering free trials, free resources, free support, it’s tempting to sign up for them all there and then only to find that there just isn’t time to explore what is on offer and think of ways to integrate it into what is already in place and going well. I have also found that it takes me ages to get my head around the operational aspects of each platform or resource, for example how you set and assign work, add students to groups, create tasks and if necessary to seek support! My aim this term is to keep it simple, manageable, realistic and do more of what works well and what the students are telling us they enjoy.

Reflections so far

There is a lot of white noise around on Social Media with the same questions being asked over and over (how do I do an online ensemble rehearsal? Does anyone have an online project for Y7/8/9…). The constant round of sharing and gathering information  – here’s a list of free things, here’s another, right let’s all add free things to this google doc, I’ve listed lots of good things on my blog, shall we all share ideas for free things, we are an organisation wanting to help… This means that some days, filtering through all of this really distracts me from the job in hand. So I need to focus on setting work that is meaningful, engaging, fun and as musical as possible for my own classes and try not to get distracted by what everyone else is doing!

I have decided to just contribute to and follow one list of ideas. I chose the thread in the Musical Futures Chat group on Facebook as it’s very much teachers sharing what they have found and hasn’t been spammed by organisations looking to push their own products across multiple groups.

A key filter when it comes to resources is that we can’t assume that students have access to a musical instrument at home, especially the little ones. So any work that we set has to be able to be accessible for all students. This sadly rules out many of the ‘how to play’ videos or online lessons unless they can also a part for chair drumming, body percussion, junk percussion or voice.

A few specifics

The other day I emptied my brain via a series of tweets about some more specific things I have learned so far home learning with my own children (aged 10, 13 and 17) and home teaching – my husband and me, both teaching at different schools. I want to expand a little on some of these and to make sure that these reflections are at the front of my mind as we head into term 3, still unsure of how long schools will be closed here in Thailand.

  1. Remote learning for music requires an entirely new approach. I had forgotten how much of music teaching and learning is social and democratic. Warm ups, games, singing, playing are all so much more fun when you do them as a group, supported by a teacher who can read the room, direct the pace, bring it to life. This term I am looking for activities for EY and primary children that also work if you are doing them alone at home. I am also going to try harder to support the music work my own children are set. We can all take part in Ollie’s Body Beats session or dance along with a Cool 4 School track. And in a house of 5 musicians we should probably be playing some music together – something we never seem to get around to….

2. Most of the platforms we use require a log in for individual students. But no matter how easy we try to make the process, click here, log in with these details, complete this task which you will find HERE… it’s too easy to forget what that actually means the children need to do in practice. They have to find the work for that lesson, be able to sequence and follow activities right through to the end, perhaps not always sure what they are aiming for. We can’t always rely on parents being on hand to help. Like me, they might be working from home as well or helping other children and some just struggle with technology. We have had the most success with platforms students have already used at school like Soundtrap. They know how to log in, they are familiar with how it works and how to collaborate. So this term I will stick with things they are familiar with and do more of it, rather than try to introduce too much that is brand new.

3. Over the last few weeks, we started to notice a pattern with our KS3 students using Music First where we can see their activity and notice patterns in their engagement. Most would look at a few of the information pages then skip straight to the quiz, score badly and claim to have finished! In a year 9 songwriting project using Soundtrap, rather than complete the 3 clearly defined tasks we set in order with step by step tasks to complete, they jumped about, didn’t read the instructions and the result was no complete tasks, just bits and pieces of work not quite what we wanted, that were really hard to feed back on coherently. I have watched my own children do that as well.

It was silly of me really not to realise that would happen because this is exactly what I do! If I can skip to the end of something and not bother watching or reading the detail then I’ll do that because I am always in a hurry.

I’ve noticed that in some of the instructional videos teachers are making have a lot of talking at the start. I’ve seen some examples where after all the explaining, the task is so simple – today we will learn to play the chord C on a ukulele that I can imagine my own 10 year old hearing the lesson objective, playing C once on his ukulele, not watching any further then settling back to watch an hour of YouTube!

With that in mind, I liked this example. Straight to the point, something students can watch, play as they hear and enough challenge that they might need to do it a few times to get it right!

4. This one speaks for itself. I have 5 of these hello videos to do this week and I am dreading it. I would love to play some music for them, have the kinds of conversations we have in lessons, but I have always struggled talking to a camera because I am so reliant on reading the room and engaging with the people in it when I am teaching. I need to remember that just seeing me and having a little hello message from their teacher is the most important thing to students as they continue to be isolated from the school community, their friends and teachers. Hopefully as I do more of them, I’ll feel more confident and do a better job.

5. Outcomes. Asking for a video or photo is one way to get an idea of what they have been doing. We made these optional for primary children, but I found that they either all came in across the week as and when, which makes feeding back on each an endless task, or loads came in on a Friday afternoon or over the weekend which made it hard to have looked at them in time to plan the next lesson.

Younger students don’t always understand HOW to submit something so we make videos to demonstrate the process so that parents can help. Some children may only have an iPad or phone to do all their work on, so creating a video, saving it, uploading it can take time that we should factor into the allocated lesson time, not expect it to happen outside that time when they need to have moved onto other subjects. In a 30m primary lesson, filming an outcome and uploading it could take that whole 30m to do. This term I might suggest a ‘performance’ week where their one task is to submit something they have been working on – their choice – rather than try to cram that into every lesson.

6. In the same way that when we are in school, music is much more than just a curriculum subject, I think there is a balance to be found between encouraging families to participate in music, enjoy music as part of their downtime as well as ensuring that complete their weekly lessons. We have started to collect some of our favourite video examples to share with class teachers or to be included in online assemblies. All class teachers have access to Cool 4 School and Charanga and we are also looking at how we can provide some fun, optional music activities that families can take part in at home if they want to. My childrens’ school are starting up a Community Choir this term, hoping that teachers, students and their parents will take part. That includes me I guess!

7. I’m going to finish with my favourite part of all this. Although I am sad that I haven’t had as much opportunity to teach in the wonderful Bromsgrove music spaces (I finally got my dream classroom and a desk in an office!!) and I haven’t had much time to get to really know the children and staff before we closed, it is great to be part of a team working together to get this right. We catch up daily, we share ideas and laugh at the realities of working at home, weird cat behaviour and the sad implications of the current booze ban in Thailand that we are navigating through.

But I think that the most important thing I have learned so far is that I miss teaching. Making videos and setting work just isn’t the same. I miss the children, their music, being part of the school community. And I imagine that if I am missing these things then the children and parents are missing them too. I hope that when the world reopens we will really appreciate what being a music teacher is about and build on what we have learned as we navigate through this huge and sudden change in the way we teach and learn music. Good luck everyone returning to ‘school’ this week. You are not alone….

“We don’t do D”

I have come to believe that it’s not the system, the approach, the instrument, the qualification or the content that defines what makes a good music teacher. It’s the difference between ‘doing D’ and ‘we don’t do D’.

As part of my training and development role with Musical Futures International, I was recently involved in leading workshops to support the implementation of a new curriculum for music. One session we were asked to deliver was approaches to teaching whole class ukulele – an instrument specified in the curriculum to be taught at upper primary level. The curriculum specifies that at this level (ages 9-11) that,

“Repertoire should be based on the following tonalities:

• C pentatonic mode

• C, F, G major and A minor.”

Note: I am deliberately not identifying the curriculum as I don’t want to be in any way critical of what is in it. What I am interested in is how literally it has been taken by teachers and that is why Musical Futures International was there – to start to challenge teacher mindsets, not about what is being taught but how and why through a series of intensive and practical CPD workshops for teachers.

Part way through the workshop we put up the uke chord D on the screen and my colleague Stephen asked the teachers whether they recognised it and could play it on their ukes.

Their reply, ” We don’t do D”.

Surprised, we asked why not. What do you do if a song has D in it? The answer – teachers transpose the songs into C and only use songs that have C, Am, F and G in them.

I wanted to ask whether they had thought about why their students are learning ukulele at all. Is the instrument just a tool through which students can tick the required boxes – I can play C, G, Am and F on the uke, I can almost play C, G Am, F on the uke, I aspire to playing C, G, Am and F on the uke etc etc….

It seemed a missed opportunity to give students whose only engagement with music might be in the classroom the incentive to go home, pick up a ukulele and play any song that they want to learn that isn’t in C.

Perhaps they might compose their own songs, using a range of chords other than C, Am, G and F to create a mood, a feel, a tonality that allows them to express themselves musically or to tell their own story.

Where is the stretch and challenge for students who can or want to play more than just those 4 chords, but might never get the opportunity to try or demonstrate this in class?

And a quiet voice in my head was wondering how quickly the students might get bored and disengage if all they were ‘allowed’ to play was C, Am, F and G…

The next day we taught a model lesson to a class of 40 upper primary students all of whom had their own ukulele. We used a current song, one that many of them knew and they immediately started to sing along as soon as we played them the track. It had D and Bm in it.

In 10m they were able to give a class performance. Some students just played one chord, some played two. Others played the full sequence of Em, C, D, Bm using a simplified one finger, one fret, 3 strings hack that we showed them to move from D to Bm. At first, they played along with the song so the track became their safety net. Those playing just one chord had a part which fitted within a wider musical context. All could assimilate and copy aspects of the musical style as they played along.

Everyone participated. Some sang as they played. Some embodied the pulse or mimicked the sounds in the music through movement. Some came to life where previously they hadn’t stood out in the warm ups and rhythm activities we started the lesson with. Most left the classroom humming the song. Some asked to take the resource (something I had just thrown together to use with my own classes) so they could practice.

It was raw and unfinished but it had an outcome that went from nothing to something. It was an experience for those students of an end point which then revealed possibilities for unpicking and rehearsing and improving and learning over subsequent lessons.

Our hosts were pleased to be able to video that lesson as an example to the teachers of how restricting the content or making assumptions about what students could or couldn’t do could lead to missed opportunities for valuable musical learning and participation.

My reflections

  • Perhaps the limiting of the repertoire in the curriculum is there to get teachers across the starting line with instruments and approaches they probably haven’t experienced themselves. If that’s the case, then that’s a great start point. So if CPD like ours is pushing the teachers beyond those initial boundaries therein lies the key to bringing a curriculum document to life. Put it in the hands of teachers then offer regular CPD to make what is in it engaging, contemporary and relevant to their students. The best way to improve is to keep learning and developing as teachers and as musicians and it never stops. For as long as we are teaching, we are learning….
  • Developing hacks that get all students playing first, engaging them with a real musical experience is important. Then diagnosing what they need to do it better, teaching through a range of approaches and strategies until defined musical objectives are reached, makes classroom music more democratic and keeps teachers searching for fresh approaches to keep classroom music musical
  • I am worried about the continuing debates about one approach being better than another. The need to be trained in Kodaly, Orff, EYFS pedagogy etc to be able to successfully teach primary or EY music, questions about whether secondary trained music teachers are in fact qualified to teach primary or EY music, can generalist teachers ever successfully teach music – on and on and round and round it goes.

I am sensitive to the discussion as I am now teaching EY-Y9 music in an international school having spent 18 years teaching secondary music in the UK. I have also worked in teacher development, leading workshops with adults for the last 17 years. Some of these debates have led me to question whether I ‘should’ be doing these things. Am I sufficiently qualified to be teaching primary or EY music as my initial teaching qualification was secondary?

Perhaps if I considered that my development as an educator stopped when I got my QTS certificate then some of these accusations might have some merit. But in my experience visiting and teaching in classrooms across the world, some my own, others as a guest or an observer, I have come to believe firmly that it’s not the system, the approach, the instrument, the qualification or the content that defines what makes a good music teacher. It’s the difference between ‘doing D’ and ‘we don’t do D’.

I believe that teachers who ‘do D’

  • are creative and confident enough to risk failing before they succeed
  • find their way to CPD whether that’s attending in person or reading, learning, engaging in debates
  • can build relationships with their students and their colleagues that allow for democratic learning to take place – learning can come from teacher to student and equally teachers can learn from and with their students
  • recognise that there are many ways to learn and teach music and that being open to these is the first step in finding your own approach and voice
  • have thought about what their students are learning, have asked why, and then considered how they will get there, in ways that allow for everyone to be a participant in their own musical journey
  • create opportunities to tease out what their students can do rather than start with assumptions about what they can’t do

About Musical Futures International

The Musical Futures International approach is to start with music that students recognise, like and engage with. It suggests using the music itself (rather than notation or theory) as the start point for learning. It advocates student choice where possible/appropriate and explores strategies for learning through large-group, small group and independent music making.

At our teacher development workshops we encourage teachers to look at alternative approaches to teaching music that might be different from the way they themselves learned.

We ask what happens if you start from the music rather than from notation or theory? If you can sing it can you play it? If you can hear it can you play it? If you can play it, can you better understand it and learn through and from being immersed in a musical experience? Can you become more musically creative if music itself becomes the tool for learning? is there value in making music together in groups, large and small as well as developing through personal practice that often takes place in isolation? This isn’t unique to Musical Futures by the way. There are overlaps and synergies with other approaches and we aren’t dogmatic about it. There are many ways to learn music…..

12182709_429702253901645_6494282431312617426_o

From the Archives – July 2014

Background and Context

The inspiration for this post came from my first trip to Australia. Musical Futures Australia had been up and running there for 4 years and finally I had the opportunity to see first-hand how something I had been so immersed in in my own classroom, my teaching and as part of the Musical Futures UK project team had transferred to a different context. 

(My blogs from the trip are archived here  and here and will be the focus of future reflective archive posts on this blog.)

The 2014 trip had 3 key objectives.

Firstly, we were taken to several schools to watch some Musical Futures lessons. As a classroom teacher, this opportunity to visit schools was the best professional development I had ever had. I brought back ideas for better organisation of the space in my classroom and across the department. I watched completely practical lessons, free from some of the pressures that I felt I was under from various OFSTED and whole-school directives of the time. I came home with so many new resources and lesson ideas to try. What stood out was that it was OK to be a practitioner in the classroom and play and learn alongside the students. I also saw Musical Futures informal learning work with primary children for the first time as part of the fabulous Trafalgar Primary School Music Program led by Ben Smith.

One other thing I learned from the school visits was that at their workshops, the MF Australia team had initially put an emphasis on whole class music making and non-formal approaches rather than start with informal learning as we had done in the UK. This had been something of a hurdle for me as a teacher, with whole class composing and improvising being so far from my own experiences as a learner and a teacher that I was finally inspired to go back and give it a go. It eventually became my preferred approach for all my teaching, moving away from my comfort zone of using small groups in practice rooms that I had always gravitated back to previously regardless of my good intentions.

It is interesting that the development of supporting resources for whole class music making originated with the MF Australia development team. They acted on feedback from teachers who said that they needed some support to get started with using more practical approaches in their classrooms and these are given free of charge to all teachers who attend a Musical Futures Australia or Musical Futures International workshop. For teachers like me who have attended a workshop and bought into the approach, but aren’t sure where to start, these have been a great support.

Next we were introduced to the organisational structure of Musical Futures Australia. Their strategy was underpinned by a need to commercialise – something which as a fully funded project in the UK, we hadn’t previously needed to consider, but which was to become important in the next couple of years as Musical Futures UK sought to retrospectively commercialise what had previously been offered for free. There had been plenty of discussion about whether the ‘context’ in Australia was different and what we could learn from our differences and similarities.

There was a declining focus on subject-specific CPD for music in the UK at the time and increasing demands on music to align with a ‘one-size-fits-all-subjects’ approach to teaching, learning, monitoring and assessment. So it was refreshing to be able to reflect on what really had an impact on student engagement and achievement in music and how as an organisation, Musical Futures UK could continue to keep this at the centre of our work in the next stage of the organisation’s development.

Finally I led several workshop sessions at the first MF Australia teacher conference, #MF2 and live blogged the whole event to share with our growing teacher networks back in the UK. 

One of my sessions was about assessing Musical Futures and the following is lifted from the blog that I wrote at the time. 

I am left with just one question. Are we any closer to finding solutions for meaningful and  musical assessment for music, particularly at KS3? I worry that much of the Music Education narrative in the UK consists of the same people having the same conversations, whilst in schools, music teachers become even more isolated than ever in shrinking departments and coping with declining numbers. Just as I advocated then, the call to action from these reflections is for teachers to look at what is working in the classroom and do more of it. If an assessment activity isn’t helping students to get better at something, then question why you are doing it and try something else.

Originally posted on MrsGowersClasses, July 2014

Assessment: The solutions are there we just need to find them.

In Australia, assessment seems far simpler. Teachers devise rubrics and assess students against these. I felt quite envious that they don’t have to deal with some of the issues we do as teachers of music in England. I won’t list them here as they make me depressed and I’m coming back from this trip with so many ideas and positive thoughts about music in schools that I want to hang onto those rather than dwell on the frustrations I’m coming back to.

However, as I led the session, I realised that whatever we have thrown at us to cram into our teeny hour per week (literacy, numeracy, key words, levels, speaking and listening, DIRT, marking policies and on and on it goes…) we MUST look first at what already exists in our lessons before bringing some new piece of paper or work book so that we can say we’ve complied.

One of the examples that came up in the session was of teachers asking students to fill in a log sheet. This could have their lesson objective at the top and at the end of the lesson they could make a note of what they have done. This is a great idea and I’ve seen it done a lot in the UK.

However, I’ve also seen how this can make more of a burden for us as teachers if it’s scrutinised too closely by an observer.

What happens if the students veer away from their original objective as so often happens in Musical Futures lessons? It’s usually quite a good thing, they start with one intention then realise they need to address something else first, so we help them to do this. The conclusion that ‘they didn’t meet their learning objective’ could be damning if that’s a non-negotiable for the observer. If they hadn’t written it down, the observer may have talked to the group about what they want to achieve in the lesson and what they hear could be far more complex and sophisticated than they are able to write down underneath the date.

Similarly, I find the ends of the lessons to be the most productive time in my lessons. The faffing with instruments and equipment is done, minor squabbles settled and they are often producing some quality work. So if this is the case, why stop them, give them a piece of paper and tell them to fill it in unless you are sure that it’s going to help them in the next lesson?

There are still rooms to be tidied, decisions to make amongst the group about who is doing what before next lesson, so often they will scribble a rushed few words dump their sheet and disappear. Again, the observer could argue that the quality of their written work, spelling, literacy isn’t acceptable in that lesson, that’s not what we want either!

There may be better ways to do it. Get it recorded or videoed, they may record it on their phones so they have a marker of where they have got to and what they have achieved.

Or why not play dangerously and every now and again just let them work right through. They can share what they have done verbally with anyone that wants to know! I’m a fan of regular performances as well, but not at the end of every lesson. I’ve heard too many forced Q and A sessions where a teacher is desperately trying to to coax a keyword out of the class in response to a group performance and ends up giving them the answers as they dash out of the door because they are out of time.

These are examples of music teachers trying to prove what they already do well. I’m wildly generalising, I’m sure there are some real quality examples of these log sheets being completed to a high standard and impressive quality discussions and performances at the end of every lesson. But in my classroom I find the hour goes too fast and I can’t get my students to recognise the value of this when they could still be working on their piece.

We do it in other ways, at various times in a project they complete an online questionnaire or do a piece of written feedback, but it’s given time and importance and I explain how it will be used to help me plan or support them better or to assess how they have understood the musical processes they are going through.

So the next time you are told to include something in your lessons that could be in danger of getting in the way of musical learning that’s going well, stop and step back. There’s a chance it’s already happening and you might be able to tease it out, rather than invent something that creates more work for you and doesn’t do much to move their musical learning forward.

If it’s not there then there may be a way to do it, but let’s look inwards at our musical practice first before we look outside the music classroom for solutions.

From the archives: 10 things I loved about teaching music back in July 2012

This article was originally published on my classroom blog mrsgowersclasses here.

At the time, way before platforms like Google Classroom, Show My Homework, Seesaw etc. became widely available, I had started to look at different ways to give students immediate access to recordings of their work and the opportunity to comment and reflect on what they were doing.

I used this form of ‘student voice’ as evidence for SLT work scrutiny and to try to keep the increasing demands for evidencing ‘making progress’ as practical, relevant and musical as possible.

But ultimately this was about creating a deeper understanding of what individuals were thinking about their learning to help me offer more targeted and useful support during the madness of a typical music lesson at my school.

With students spread in groups across any available space we could find, my challenge was in doing my best to ensure that they all had the opportunity to make the best use of the time, resources and spaces available to them.

This article is comprised of quotes from students in years 7, 8 and 9, taken from the various forms of online feedback and reflection that we were using at the time (please note that typos are theirs and not mine!)

As I was very much involved with bring much of the emerging and developing Musical Futures pedagogies to life in my classroom, I was also trying to stay true to Lucy Green’s 5 principles of informal learning across all my teaching (LINK HERE and more information HERE) and the original title of the post referred to that. However I think the 10 themes that emerged from the student feedback are relevant no matter how music is taught or learned in the classroom.

With many of the links to the original work no longer live, I have left number 10, “We are creating musicians”, blank. The fantastic piece of writing that one of the year 9s created that I chose for number 10 was lost forever when the platform it was held on was ‘retired’.

So perhaps teachers in music classrooms in 2019 can fill in some related quotes from their students for that one.

It would be good to collect more evidence that keeping music learning musical remains a focus in schools across the world. Perhaps this is much needed in times where justifying a Music Education for all students is becoming increasingly important.

You can read more about the background and history of Musical Futures here


Original Title: Why I love my classes: 10 reasons to try Musical Futures in your teaching – Anna Gower, July 2012

1. They know how they are making progress:

“Last weeks lesson for our cover song project went very well. We all are making progress. The singing part is going really well and I think we could maybe even add some harmony parts in the chorus. The drummer part is good, we know what we are doing we just need to put it together. I think that everyone is working hard and at the end it will be amazing”

“In our last lesson we carried on learning how to play our chosen instruments and the track ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson. I’m playing ukulele and the notes I have to play are E D and C. It’s quite hard to play but when you get the hang of it it’s quite easy as you get used to the places where your fingers go”

“Last lesson, we carried on coming up with how we are going to play our instruments. We learnt how to play more notes in the song, my group and I have decided to play. The song has been easier to play each week. We improved our rhythm and timing in our last lesson”

2. They are having fun

“The lesson today was one of my favourite lessons so far. This was because we are doing our cover songs and we have actions and drama in our piece as the song is ‘Loser Like Me’ by Glee.It was a shame we didn’t get to show it at the end though as we were really looking forward to it. There’s always next week though!” 

“Todays lesson was really fun. We were again like last week working on our cover songs and my group is doing great”

“In last weeks lesson I was improving my keyboard skills by practising our groups band song that we will record next lesson. I had lots of fun because I enjoy music and how we do practicals every lesson:’)”

3. They understand how their part contributes to the piece as a whole:

“We are just finishing learning the words and we are adding harmonies. I am doing the lowest harmony all on my own because I have quite a loud and strong voice so I can project louder”

4. They are problem solving:

“This week was hard to start off with because we had technical difficulties with plugging the bass into an amp, but after that it was coming along really well. I love it”

“Today in music we practiced our version of ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson. Megan and Chloe practiced their bit on the piano that they had learnt. I practiced my part that fits in between the breaks in their parts on the acoustic guitar. I also learnt most of the song over the half term, so I could sing it with Chloe or Megan maybe. Adam practiced on some drums but they weren’t the same ones that we used last lesson as we were not in the same room due to an exam. Becky wasn’t in, so it was quite hard to practice it all together, but we all know what we are doing and hopefully next week we can properly practice it all together in A47”

5. They know how to improve:

“In my last music lesson my class practised again in our bands. In my group we played the whole piece all together for the first time but it was a bit simple. Miss Gower helped me make my piece on the piano more advanced so I now also play the chords as well. As I had only just been taught the chords, when it came to recording time our performance wasnt very good. I should have been playing slower, the singing needed to be louder and we needed a more steady drum beat. Hopefully when we come to record our piece next lesson it will be a lot better and we will get high levels”

“I thought that today went quite well. We got loads of practice and made barely any mistakes. I think that we need to work on our timing because when we were singing we didn’t know when to come in. We are also not in time with the piano. We could improve it by having the backing track and counting how many beats there are before we have to come in”

“I had played the drummer of the band, with Luke, Hannah and Maia. We have finally sorted out our parts and who is playing what instrument. The main structure of the song is going well as on the first week, we couldn’t find a suitable rhythm/beat to go with it. In the future we will add, once all of the song is completed, some improvisation parts to make it better. The lesson was productive”

“Lately we have been working on our Michael Jackson project. We had to perform “Beat It”. I played the piano with Charlie. It sounded quite good but there is definitely room for improvement on the timing and mastering our separate pieces. The drums, Louis, keep the timing well and it is everyone else, including me, that needs to keep up. A way of improving would be to slow Louis down and let everyone get in time and then speed up”

“In yesterday’s lesson we carried on working on our piece; I carried on with the keyboard part which is fairly easy. After practicing a few times the part got easier and I’m slowly managing to put the two hands together”

6. It challenges them:

“Today we were learning how to play along to beat it by Michael Jackson I was playing the key board. I found it easy to find the right notes I found it hard to play the notes fast and not get mixed up”

7. They want to do well:

“In our last music lesson we got quite a lot done because my group went at break to set up so we had the lesson time to focus on the work. The lesson went well, it did take a while to set up the bass and I couldn’t find one that worked however that did mean I could focus on learning my words and singing along with the riff on the keyboard. We didn’t have a backing CD which could be seen as a downfall however I think it helped us because it meant we could hear ourselves really easily and we could work on things more and improve anything that didn’t quite sound right. Chloe is doing a really good job learning the guitar part and so is Phoebe on the keyboard. Amy is a natural drummer however if something does go wrong just carry on instead of stopping the whole piece. Overall I think our group works really well together and what we are all playing sounds good and we could make it very good if we have time. I am enjoying what we are doing in music at the moment”

“This lesson in music I learnt my part on the keyboard. I found it difficult to understand the notes and play my piece of music in time. But towards the end of the lesson I had learnt my part. Our group decided to stay for 10 mins after to practice as a group and it sounded really good! I am pleased with my work that lesson”

“In this weeks lesson we practiced our ‘Beat It’ performance. There are four people in my group: Me, Rachel, Phoebe and Amy and between us we are (slowly) forming the song! Our last performance of Pachelbel’s canon went really well, so we are all quite confident. I am playing guitar, which is a new instrument for me, and so far I am really enjoying it even though I have already gained a blister on my thumb! So far, I can play an E major, D and C but I am struggling to keep in time with everyone else as the song is quite fast. I am really enjoying this unit so far and I cant wait to hear the final performance!”

“In the lesson, I was play this drums, I wasn’t sure who beat to play, but by the end of the lesson, I think I may have worked the beat out”

8. They help each other:
“In music today I played the drums. I was practicing for the Michael Jackson song. I was doing really well but I need more practice so I can get really good at it. Mitchell needs more practice but I will help him with the keyboards.I am on the drums as usual as it is my favourite instrument to play”
“Our group has potential but still needs to work hard at it to get the mark we want. I think I know my part on the drums so I am going round to help people with theirs parts that they are struggling with. However I hope our performance is good as we have put a lot of effort in to song!!”

9. They make me smile

“On the 11th June we began preparation for a recreation of Michael Jacksons Beat It. The power drumkit was used to regenerate the style of the music into the 21st century”

10. We are creating musicians …

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.

From the archives: From Good to Outstanding, April 2012

My current mission is to revisit old blog posts from when I first started writing to see how much has changed in music education since I wrote these early articles.

This post entitled ‘From Good to Outstanding’ was first published in April 2012 on my classroom blog mrgsowersclasses (original link here)

Re-reading this I wonder why in this INSET task they grouped the arts subjects together-highlighted in bold as it jumped out at me. I wonder if more could have been learned in cross-subject groups, in days where these subjects were far less marginalised than they are today. I don’t remember us sticking to our plan to share better across our subjects. There was no formal follow up to this session so I don’t know if it had any impact other than have a chance to make some music together and maybe challenge some myths about what we did in music at the school. A missed opportunity like so much in-school INSET time can be? Maybe.

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 me 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 some of the recordings that have survived on my original classroom music blog mrsgowersclasses accessible by clicking here 

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.

#MFLearn19 Holistic and Haphazard Learning Part 2

The Full week 4 #MFLearn19 page can be found HERE

In my last blog I talked about how we first started using the term haphazard learning when we presented Lucy Green’s 5 principles of informal learning to teachers in the early years of the roll out of Musical Futures in the UK. So what changed and why in how we now present principle 4 at our workshops?

A few years ago, I had a catch up with Lucy and updated her on some of the work we have been doing at Musical Futures International to build on the original work, first across Australia supported by the Govt in Victoria, into international schools in Asia and Europe and now working with instrumental teachers in China and elsewhere.

As we talked, Lucy said that she regretted using the term haphazard learning. We talked about how it’s not exactly the aim of every teacher to produce a ‘haphazard’ lesson nor is it a term that we might aspire to have appear in lesson observation feedback or student self assessment. How was your lesson today? Yeah well it was a bit haphazard……

Lucy talked to me instead about ‘holistic’ learning with haphazard learning being one natural outcome of this approach in practice. I decided to go back to the literature and then think about this all might work in classroom practice.

screen shot 2019-06-18 at 6.31.42 pm

Emily Wilson, #MFLearn19 week 5 presenter, found me some references that helped to clarify what holistic learning might mean in the context of informal learning.

screen shot 2019-06-18 at 6.31.53 pm

So if we take these one at a time:

“approaching whole “real-world” pieces of music, involving finding their own way through the learning rather than using music that has been simplified and structured progressively” (Green & Narita, 2015, p. 305).

I interpret this as being that the teacher has done nothing to the source material or stimulus, all students are given the exact same start point in the case of in at the deep end, a free choice of a piece of music, and more importantly space and time to respond to this in their own way. They are then supported by the teacher in ways that are personalised to the needs of groups and individuals as these needs become apparent.

“the task involved what is known as ‘differentiation by outcome’. In other words, all pupils were set the same task, but it was adaptable to the differing abilities of individuals, not by virtue of being divided up into separate, progressive levels of difficulty, but according to what each individual produced as the outcome” (Green, 2008, p. 187).

This point also acknowledges that students may be able to adapt the materials to their own needs themselves without the need for the teacher to have already made some assumptions and done it for them. Such assumptions might include what the identified ‘progressive levels of difficulty’ in that context are, or which students are capable of doing what. Decisions have sometimes been made before the students even have a chance to begin.

“Differentiation by support and response is often an intuitive part of the teaching process; we tailor our support, including our verbal feedback, according to the individual needs of our students (assessment for learning)”. Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School (2016, p. 179)

So here we have differentiation by teacher response, the other go-to differentiation strategy in music education.

I think music teachers do differentiation by teacher response really well. The nature of music and the way it is often taught in groups or through playing allows us to get to know our students musically. We have the opportunity to give personalised feedback and even if it’s not possible to evidence every last aspect of this, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. As musicians we would never get better without that routine of create, play, feedback, rehearse, improve and then go again. So in informal learning, do we really need to be spending time differentiating materials before the students get to access them, or could we be more confident in what we already do well – to guide them and support them to develop their own strategies for differentiation.

I decided to have a look at the teacher forums to see the kinds of strategies for differentiation that were being suggested and whether I could find any examples of holistic learning in there.

What I found got me thinking about differentiation generally in music and how much the pressure to evidence the impact of feedback given with a view to improving attainment has somehow distracted teachers from that last point on the slide – Differentiation by teacher response. The examples on the next 2 slides suggest that much of the work has already been done by the teacher and the limits and assumptions of what students can achieve are already in place before they even start the task.

screen shot 2019-06-18 at 6.32.02 pmscreen shot 2019-06-18 at 6.32.11 pm

That’s not to say that differentiation by response isn’t happening as well. But what it does is remove that even playing field that Lucy’s idea of holistic learning offers the students. All have the same start point. Materials have not been adapted or differentiated by the teacher in advance.

Now nobody would argue that as the teacher you are responsible for what happens in your lessons, that’s the breadth and depth of content, the management of the space and relationships and the musical progress that the students make. It’s not OK to go and have a cup of tea while the students climb the walls in a practice room and it’s not about watching them struggle and fail.

But there is a balance to be found because as we start to narrow down the choices as our instincts as teachers kick in, we risk losing the opportunity for the students to show what they can do and have help to follow the pathways that they choose for themselves that is so intrinsic in informal learning.

It’s a really hard balance to find. Our instincts as teachers are really strong and there are huge pressures on teachers now to evidence everything, to make sure students make the required progress in visible and measurable ways, to fit into the mould of other subjects that are different to ours. It’s really really hard to step back sometimes and to hand that trust over to our students. The stakes are high.

So in the same way that the term holistic learning could be applied to differentiation, could we also apply this principle to some of the other aspects of Musical Futures that have already been discussed in this course. If it’s not about what we do, rather when and how we do it, in the case of differentiation thats differentiating after they have all started the task from the same start point, what then is the implication for choice of repertoire and choice of friendship groups.

We often hear of teachers offering a choice of pieces to play from a preselected list. Why not offer the preselected list as an option after they have started with a free choice. We hear about teachers getting involved for good reason in the choices about who to work with – why not save those interventions for after students have had a go at choosing their own groups. We know that teachers like to have chord sheets or guidance sheets with step by step suggestions for how to tackle the task available, why not offer those once students have started rather than before. As David Price, original project lead for Musical Futures puts it, “Just in time rather than just in case”.

And also perhaps we should consider whether we are preparing students well enough for informal learning. This diagram (tools, model, use) was designed to show how Musical Futures has expanded across the years to provide opportunities for students to develop some skills or tools (column 1) then undertake whole class activities that model how to use them (column 2) before they are sent off to have a go on their own. This can happen across a project that takes weeks or within one lesson, but it doesn’t rely on worksheets or notation or a quick listen to a piece of music as the star point, rather a shared experience that students are then able to consolidate and build on in groups before contributing again as a whole class if necessary.

screen shot 2019-06-18 at 6.34.45 pm

Whilst many aspects of the new resource-led Musical Units such as Just Play could be described as more formal in approach, and in contrast to the 5 principles of informal learning, they do accommodate some of the similarities that Lucy acknowledges exist between formal and informal learning.

  • Feel – we don’t let issues of technique get in the way of playing in the first instance
  • We play music we like with our friends
  • It’s OK for music to be fun

The following is a description that I like to use to describe how Musical Futures can sit alongside all kinds of different approaches and ideas as a means to engage students in classroom music before it can lead onto other and different things,

Music starts from a practical, hands on, music making session from which you can then build on the student motivation and enthusiasm for the subject and deliver really important understanding, skills, knowledge and hopefully a lifelong love of music.

Leading Informal learning as a teacher takes practice. It is never the same, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Its greatest strength – handing over the choices to students can also be its greatest challenge – how to support them once they have made those choices. But what it does do is to build trust. It makes us question ourselves as teachers and as musicians and challenges us to find solutions in collaboration with our students.

But it’s well worth giving it a go. You can learn so much about how you teach and how your students learn. Huge thanks to Steve Jackman and Musical Futures International for organising and running #MFLearn19 to give us this chance to be part of a global community of music educators reflecting on informal learning 15 years on from the original pilots.