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.

#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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

#MFLearn19 Haphazard and Holistic Learning Part 1

The Full week 4 #MFLearn19 page can be found HERE

I am from the UK and it is often pointed out to me by Australian colleagues that this means I talk too fast, too quietly and using too many words. So making a video presentation for the Musical Futures International online course, #MFLearn19 was definitely outside my comfort zone.

I have decided to summarise what I talked about in a series of blog posts to contribute to the #MFLearn19 output that is coming in from teachers across the world as a result of this course that has been expertly created, curated and led by Steve Jackman.

It has been great through this course to revisit some of the core MF pedagogy through #MFLearn19 and also to learn more broadly around the 5 principles of informal learning how they translate into practice and link out into wider research.

It’s not just in the presenter videos where this has been happening. The weekly chats in the Musical Futures Chat Facebook group led by the fabulous Kellee Green, MFI Champion from Queensland Australia, but also through the Music Your Way network of teachers in Canada and from teachers posting on Twitter. These groups are digging deeper into the questions posed by the MF Learn presenters and it is great to get more insights into how MF is used and adapted, as it always has been by teachers 15 years since the original pilots of informal learning first took place. The beauty of it being free and open access is that anyone can take part and the more people that engage with the topics and talk about them, the more buzzy and exciting it will be

I am going to write my blog in 3 parts to try to sum up some of what I discussed in my video as presenter of #MFLearn19, week 4 on the topic of haphazard and holistic learning.

I want to start part 1 with a little Musical Futures history and context and where the term ‘haphazard learning’ first originated, before I get into the topic of holistic learning and differentiation in part 2 and then finish with some questions and a round up of what people have been saying in their blogs and discussions about the topic in part 3.

I know we have people taking this course who are new to Musical Futures and might not have been aware of its origins and the research from which it has grown. And for those of us that have been around for a few years now, it never hurts to revisit our roots now and then.

They put forward a proposal to test on a larger scale some pilot work that Lucy had already been doing some early testing with in some schools in London. The basis of the Herts pilot was to take the approaches that Lucy had identified and researched previously in her book ‘How Popular Musicians Learn’ and explore what would happen if these were applied in the formal music education setting of the school classroom. Lucy’s findings were published in this book, Music, Informal Learning and the School – a new classroom pedagogy and Lucy later went on to look at how a similar approach might work in an instrumental learning situation, with her findings later published in her book Hear, Listen, Play!: How to Free Your Students’ Aural, Improvisation, and Performance Skills.

Back at the start, we were asked to give one class of Y9 students per week to the pilot and given some simple instructions as teachers. We were to hand over the choices about what, how, when and with whom the students would learn and as teachers told to step back, observe, empathise with goals students set for themselves and find ways to support them to achieve these.

Lucy and the research officer and project manager for the pilot, Abigail D’Amore were regular visitors to those lessons, supporting the work, helping us all to reflect on what we had observed. They also built a positive rapport with what was in my case a really challenging year 9 class in a school who had previously had music on a half termly carousel, but for the purposes of this project were the only Y9 in the school who were allowed to have music for an hour a week for the whole year!

As the pilot unfolded, I realised that this approach couldn’t have been further from the way that I learned music myself. I already knew when got my first job in a one-person music department in a very challenging school that they didn’t really want to learn music the way I had been trained through my own music education and on my teaching placements to teach it.

I found I had no experience either musically or through my training as a teacher to know how best to engage these kids with music in school. The opportunity that the Musical Futures Informal Learning pilot gave me to reflect on what was happening week by week, then subsequently as I tried to roll out the approach with other classes eventually became a 10 year mission to relearn how to learn and teach music and one which continues today.

Based on her research into how popular musicians learn, Lucy shaped her findings into 5 characteristics of informal popular music learning practices into 5 principles which were then tested in the classroom. She summarises a longer description of Principle 4 as “engaging in personal often haphazard learning without structured guidance”

In year 2 of the original pathfinder, we entered a roll-out phase and in those early days we latched onto the phrase ‘haphazard learning’ and used it in our presentations to other teachers.

Based on what we had seen in the classroom we related this to our observations that learning was happening in peaks and troughs, as you would expect really, as opposed to the ideal of students steadily getting better and better at something in a straight ascending line. Something we are expected to aspire to in these days of targets and flight paths and predictions…

We all experienced the week 3 or 4  ‘dip’ with informal learning where suddenly it all seemed like a terrible idea as groups struggled, argued, went backwards in terms of progress. The classroom was chaos, everything was haphazard and it was tempting to stop the whole thing and just give up. But we learned that if we just gave it another week then suddenly groups started to get back on track and things changed for the better.

So when describing this dip, we asked teachers to think about strategies for how they might support students working in groups through the low points of this haphazard learning whilst still maintaining that general ownership of the learning that we had found so motivated and engaged them. We talked about supporting individuals, rather than applying one size fits all help, and how the suggestions for the role of the teacher that had been laid out in the pilots, to watch, step back, empathise, model could result in truly personalised learning experiences in a music classroom and supporting students through to an end point where the journey was more important than the outcome.

It was also easy to describe the noise and chaos of a typical Musical Futures lesson as haphazard, something that you might find in the informal world-look they are all learning at their own pace and finding their own way through! Or as my Musical Futures International colleague Ken Owen often says at workshops “have you ever played in a band?”

So if you attended an early Musical Futures training event or presentation, that’s why you might have seen ‘haphazard learning’ appearing on the slide as principal 4 of the 5 principles of informal learning.

To find out how the focus changed from haphazard to holistic learning in how we now present the 5 principles of informal learning, you will have to check out part 2 of this blog coming soon! Meanwhile, how might you describe Musical Futures lessons in your classroom? What does ‘Haphazard Learning’ look like and where do you look for the really valuable musical learning that takes place when students are given the freedom and choice to work this way in the classroom?

Why I am excited about #MFLearn19

#MFLearn19 is a Connectivist MOOC.

I am told by my good friend and colleague Steve Jackman who has designed the #MFLearn19 program that the plan is for participants to collaboratively develop and design the content through participation, blogging, sharing and networking. I like the sound of that because I think successful CPD relies hugely on bringing in and learning from the experiences and thoughts and ideas of those who participate-a bit like Musical Futures’ approach to informal learning on which the core content of #MFLearn19 is based.

The way it works is that guest presenters get things started by making a video that introduces the weekly topic and what happens next depends entirely on the participants.

Hopefully they will take something away and try it in the classroom. Maybe they will jump onto the discussion forum and talk about it with others. Perhaps they will write and share a blog. But there is no guarantee that any of this will happen.

It doesn’t matter. This really is a case of ‘you get out what you put in’. It’s free, open and with the exception of a framework of weekly topics, a completely blank canvas.

Part of the reason that I am excited by it is that it reminds me a bit of what became known as #MFPilot2013, an initiative that I devised for Musical Futures UK as part of the Find Your Voice pilot back in (unsurprisingly) 2013.

At the time, our Musical Futures colleague and mentor David Price was writing his book, Open-how we’ll work, live and learn in the Future. Over dinner he told me about the origin of MOOCs-open collaborative online courses that at that time were expanding out of universities in the USA. Musical Futures had just put out a call for pilot schools to try out some new ideas for singing in the classroom and we ended up with over 100 applications for just 15 places. I wondered if it might be possible to ‘open’ all the content that we would be providing for the ‘official’ pilot teachers to use and let anyone who wanted to be part of it do so and create a mini MOOC of our own.

It was a huge risk. The main content we had available consisted of some videos of a face to face training session led by practitioners where the pilot teachers took part as learners and had opportunities to work together to devise ways to try the ideas in their classrooms.

First of all, we had no idea if the approaches themselves would work. Would they engage the students in the pilot classes? Would teachers be happy to deliver them? Would the material need to be refined, edited, designed, given the once over by objective experts in the fields of singing and classroom vocal work to ensure that it was good enough?

Then we didn’t know if videos could be sufficient to get across what the approach and tasks were. We knew that they couldn’t replicate a face to face CPD experience where you meet and talk and make music together. Would videos be enough to get people excited about taking part and give them enough material presented in the right way to be able to use it in their contexts?

The structure of #MFPilot2013 was really simple.

  1. I live blogged and tweeted live from the training so that people could see what was happening from the very start and feel part of something even if they weren’t there
  2. The videos from the training were then shared on the MF website. There was no sign up or log in needed.
  3. People were asked to register on a google form so that we could get an idea of how many people were engaging and where they were in the world
  4. We agreed that we would hold a Twitter chat every Wednesday for people to check in and share how things were going and encouraged those who had attended the face to face training to join in. Core team members also participated so that we were immersed in what teachers were saying and doing, ready to offer support or new resources if needed. I then archived the tweets so that there was a constant record for those who couldn’t attend live but who wanted to catch up afterwards and a record of how the project developed
  5. The #MFPilot2013 hashtag would be used for all posts related to the pilot and this became how the community was known on Twitter
  6. We created a Padlet Wall, an open space onto which people could pin video, lesson plans, comments, photos etc.

Here’s what happened:

So why did it work?

  1. There were a core group of ‘official’ pilot teachers who connected at the face to face training and were regular contributors to chats and the Padlet sharing space-it’s always easier to talk online to people you have met! Incorporating social time into the 2 days of workshops built relationships which continued in the online spaces.
  2. There was an excitement about everyone being in it together. I was teaching and using the approaches with year 7 as well as hosting the weekly chats and monitoring the hashtag and it was good to feel less isolated with a community of teachers across the world. We were all trying out the approaches and sharing ideas for what was working and what wasn’t
  3. It was all open so there was never a feeling that this was only for a closed group of practitioners or only appropriate for certain type of school or teacher-anyone, anywhere could be part of it
  4. We were honest that this was very raw and that there was a willingness from the team to take a risk in putting out something that was unfinished into a public arena and be honest about our reasons for doing so
  5. #MFPilot2013 grew its own identity away from the more central Musical Futures brand and eventually became #MuFuChat, a weekly Twitter chat about general aspects of music education that ran on Twitter until 2016. It has since morphed into #MuFuOzChat, a weekly discussion led by Musical Futures Australia Champions taking place every Wednesday on Facebook. 

The one thing I learned from #MFPilot2013 was that when developing and nurturing online communities of practice for music education, doing the same thing twice is unlikely to work. #MFPilot2013 was ‘of its time’. So I am excited to see where what Steve has developed for #MFLearn19 might lead and what all of us in #MusicEd can learn from each other.

It’s also exciting that Musical Futures International are supporting the project as it is a wonderful way to gain a better understanding of how the informal learning principles that have underpinned Musical Futures since its inception continue to transfer into the classroom.

Anyone can join in with #MFLearn19 any time. Follow this link to find out more…

And if you fancy writing a blog, using the #MFLearn19 hashtag, watching the presenter videos, joining in with a weekly chat, or just posting a hello on the welcome page, then it would be lovely to meet you!

Creativity and music education part 1

This year I submitted the session outline copied below, to the Music Education Expo, Manchester and was fortunate to have been chosen to deliver this presentation alongside fellow freelance music education consultant Alan Cameron at the event in October.

I didn’t end up giving the presentation as I was working elsewhere, but I am looking forward to wrapping this work into a new creativity pilot project that I will be working on in 2019.

As I was reading Martin Fautley’s latest blog and subsequent comments and discussion which calls asks for some consideration of similar points in the context of KS3 music in the UK, I was reminded of this report and the presentation and workshop I had planned to give.

It got me thinking about how much attention we pay as music teachers to how we can create and nurture an environment in which both students and teachers can explore creative approaches to music education – both in teaching and learning – and navigate the barriers that are thrown up along the way.

So I’m off to tackle my farily extensive ‘creative education’ reading list for the Christmas holidays. Any suggestions for what should be on it?


The 2014 UNESCO report entitled Nurturing creative thinking (Kampylis and and Berki) identifies the following suggestions for ways in which creativity in education can be re-examined:

  • what students learn (e.g. a diverse range of skills and subject content following their own learning pathways);
  • how they learn (e.g. learning approaches and methods such as problem-based learning, constructivism, self-organised learning, instructional design, game-based learning);
  • where they learn (e.g. in any location within school buildings, foyers, lounges, common spaces and corridors, home, a youth club, or indeed in the street);
  • when they learn (e.g. after formal school hours and at any age);
  • who they learn with (e.g. not only with teachers and classmates, but also with a range of other people, such as peers, experts, and people near to or far from them, and by themselves with self-organised learning methods, etc.); and
  • for whom and why they learn (e.g. not just for themselves or for future employers, but also for their fellow citizens, society and industry, and for the world as a whole).

As part of a new partnership announced in 2018, Musical Futures International and Soundtrap have been exploring their shared vision for expanding opportunities for teachers and students to better embrace creativity and collaboration that starts in the music classroom but that isn’t limited by location, space or how people engage with music learning.

A synergy of hands on, engaging, practical music workshops and new ways to collaborate creatively online using cloud-based platforms across a range of devices has opened up new ways to embrace self taught learning within the more formal structures that traditionally exist within music education.

This session will explore through a practical workshop some of the points raised in the UNESCO report and model ways to start to acknowledge, use and nurture them in the classroom.

2) A practical workshop will establish key musical ideas from within the group and model the building blocks of composing and improvising. This will then lead to a practical example of how these can be supported and built upon using music technology both within the classroom and in students’ own time.

3) Delegates will be provided with a resource to use with their students to build on the learning from the session. There will be an opportunity for discussion and the sharing of ideas for how this might have an impact on classroom practice and to address some of the challenges that are raised by the UNESCO report.

Music for everyone? Absolutely.

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In my last blog post I wrote about my visit to my old school, Monks Walk to see how AS students were getting on with exploring some of the Trinity Rock and Pop Session Skills resources in their lessons this term.

This was my second visit to my old school this term, having left the classroom in July 2015, and in both visits I have been really interested to see what has happened to the students who have now come through informal musical experiences in class all the way from Year 7 to A level.

Monks Walk was a pilot school for the original Musical Futures Herts Pathfinder Project which looked at informal learning in the classroom back in 2004 and I was lucky enough be one of the first teachers to work with Lucy Green and the Herts Music Service to be part of the initial research that now underpins Musical Futures as we know it.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers adopting informal music learning into the classroom is about how they can synergise these approaches with the demands of a more formal music exams system.

On my previous visit to Monks Walk, I led a practical workshop for local primary teachers in my old classroom. It was so lovely to be back, to work in spaces I was familiar with and to catch up with students and staff to see how they were getting on.

Halfway through the first session, two year 13 students came in, picked up a bass and a uke and just started to play along with the group. Rachel is a violinist and Mark a bassoon player, both have come through the informal classroom approaches that Monks Walk staff embed into all teaching, both took GCSE music and are now in the A2 group in year 13. None of the adults spoke to them, they were caught up in the task and the challenge of having to perform with others they had only just met.

But Rachel and Mark listened and responded musically without any need for words. They didn’t talk to the group or to each other but what they played shaped and complimented the performance perfectly.

For me they absolutely epitomised what I had always aspired to for the students I taught and something that I had to really work hard at personally. As a notation-dependent classically trained musician I found it so difficult to pick up an instrument and jam. It was way out of my comfort zone and I froze at the thought of not having the dots there as my safety net. I didn’t feel like I was a very good musician, even though my qualifications and training suggested otherwise.

In addition to this I realised that I also really wanted the students I taught to value and be valued for their musicianship, whether that involved jamming on a bass guitar with a group of strangers or leading the school orchestra. I wanted them to feel that music is about being part of something, that having the confidence to enjoy it and not be afraid to put yourself out there is something valuable to take away from your music education.

Here are Mark and Rachel at the workshop. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared again. But they left me in no doubt that they will be back and that they will always have a musical voice that can and will be heard in the Monks Walk School music department.