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.

 

Session skills at A Level: a fit or a miss?

 “Having the audio to play along with stops you stopping. With a backing track you have to keep going, just like in real life” Jennifer

I’ve just got back from a visit to Monks Walk School where this term, Head of Music Jennifer Rotchell, has been using the Trinity Rock and Pop Session Skills resources to teach year 12 who are following the new OCR specification for A Level Music.

The session skills are a choice between improvising or playback and each comes with an audio track and related notations for students and sample resources graded 1-8. In a Rock and Pop exam situation students are given some time to prepare then they play to the examiner. But could they also be relevant in the classroom?

At Monks Walk, a thriving music department built around access and inclusivity for all student, those who opt to take music beyond KS3 at Monks Walk are often informal learners used to learning by ear and playing together in class, as well as accessing more traditional forms of music learning where relevant. Jennifer wanted to see if the Session Skills resources might enable her to retain the practical “we learn as we play” approaches embedded lower down the school in lessons which the students are used to, whilst allowing them to access all aspects of what has traditionally been quite a notation and theory-based qualification.

The discussion today identified several ways in which Jennifer and her students felt that using the Session Skills had helped their learning so far:

  • Using the backing tracks for the Play Back component meant that students copied and internalised stylistic features that weren’t an obvious part of the score
  • Having to listen whilst performing helped with understanding the music and with score reading
  • Improvising  is a stepping stone to composing, for example the students explored breaking the music down into cells then how to develop them
  • The approaches could then link into the set works
  • These resources were a good way to keep learning musical at A level
  • The fact that the resources are linked to exam grades helped Jennifer to pitch the materials at the right level for the students, with the potential to progress as students became more confident with the skills and understanding gained

Jennifer will be updating recordings and video of the students’ progress to her class blog and we look forward to hearing how they get on!

“It’s sight reading but not quite sight reading! You listen to it and play along”, Will

” It was quite difficult, I’ve never really done much of this before” Natasha

 

I’m back!

 

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It’s been 7 months now since my last blog post. I took a bit of a break as I needed some time to really think about the myriad of things I have been reflecting on across the second half of this year and how best to try to put into words all the things I have learned, seen and been part of since I last sat down to write.

Since that last post there have been planes, trains, queues, more queues, hotels, trams, buses, taxis, currency I could’t quite get my head around and Uber is now my friend. Every trip has been filled with things that have made me think, reflect, adapt and refine and I have learned an incredible amount and met some inspirational people along the way.

I’ll start by saying I am so incredibly lucky. I am passionate about music, schools, teachers and students. At heart I will always be a teacher and it’s the same motivation that got me through 18 years in a secondary school classroom that has driven me through the last 7 months and brought me back to this page ready to fill it with some words that have been forming in my mind for a long time.

On my travels I’ve learned one important thing. Teachers are teachers, kids are kids and music is music. No matter where you are in the world, the challenges and rewards of what we do to make music education accessible, relevant and meaningful are the same. I have also learned that it’s amazing what it is possible to do with a class you have never met before armed only with a bag of chopsticks and some chairs!

The other thing that held me back from writing has been that I’ve found that sometimes words aren’t quite enough to bring to life the vibrancy of a school music department or what it’s like to lead workshops and training days.

How can I describe the buzz around working with teachers, hoping that one idea or experience will resonate enough to persuade a teacher to go back into school and try something new? Or that excitement you feel as an observer when a music class comes to life and you just feel a shift in something in a lesson that makes you feel grateful to have been there as it triggers the spark of an idea for something to try, think about, build on.

Then there are the passionate discussions with colleagues, new friends made, so much to talk about. The endless frustrations and blocks that seem to be increasing in music education and the lack of tangible solutions to make things easier but which it always helps to share and discuss with others in the same boat whether in the UK or overseas.

Of course there are always things that don’t work. A workshop that falls flat because you didn’t quite pitch it right or the tech fails that can destroy even the most well-planned presentation before it even begins.

In many ways it’s all been just how it was when I was teaching. A bit of luck, a lot of learning from experience, the ability to be flexible, finding the right balance between winging it and planning something in such detail it couldn’t possible go wrong right? Wrong. But always learning, adapting, reflecting and changing. The teacher in me will never let that go.

I am going to have a go in the next couple of months at finding some words to share some of what I have come to believe I’m right about and some of the many things I have been wrong about. But more likely I’ll end up realising I haven’t found many answers after all and that I’ll probably have to spend a whole lot more time in 2017 continuing to look for them.

 

 

 

It’s not about genre-it’s about voice 

A few weeks ago I went as a guest of the National Children’s Orchestra to watch the under 13 orchestra perform at The Anvil in Basingstoke. My daughter was performing so it was interesting to be there as a parent as well as someone who works in and is passionate about the music education sector.

There I met a lady who has been a passionate supporter of both the NCO and the NYO. She said that that her reasons for giving so much to these organisations over the years was because they are strong progression routes for musicians, some of whom work their way from NCO to NYO to conservatoires and into professional orchestras.

I hadn’t thought about progression routes like this. I had got distracted by looking for progression routes for kids through school-primary, KS3, GCSE, A Level. Frustrated by the limitations there are for inclusive routes for everyone through music and bored of politicians banging on about ‘the orchestras of the future’ and how that should be the focus of school music, I had started to think that the needs of children like these mattered less perhaps because I feel they are valued more.

I realised too that I had been letting my own frustrations with how things are in the sector cloud how I felt about the work organisations like NCO are doing with the exceptionally talented youngsters who benefit from the musical experiences they offer.

I decided that it was time to face a few truths.

Of course these routes aren’t accessible to all. To reach the impressive standards that these orchestras demand takes years of financial investment in music lessons, instruments and a huge commitment from the children and parents to put in the hours needed. I know because I have 3 children and it’s bloody expensive. Where this may have previously been funded, it isn’t any more. That’s just how it is.

As I sat in the audience I was transfixed. These children, as a huge group of musicians had found their own musical voice. Raw and pure I could see the lines of each melody in the way they moved as they played. I could feel the music rise and fall as they played utterly as one. Every single child was totally immersed in that phrase, that note, that moment. It was spellbinding.

They had crafted something truly unique through a week of living the music together. Playing for hours each day, getting to know each other and the musicians they worked with, building to that performance. My daughter said on the phone that week “it’s not about the music mum, it’s about being together”. She’s right.

I realised that something that can have such a powerful effect on me as is absolutely to be valued. Yes these children are a privileged few. But it doesn’t mean that their musical voice doesn’t deserve to be heard just because it’s a little more crafted and refined through experience, nurture and time.

On the way home I thought back to the other musical voices I have heard over the years. I remembered the sulky year 11 girl, troubled and disengaged from school, singing her GCSE music solo performance at a concert and holding the audience absolutely still as they listened to the challenges in her life define that performance.

The orchestra of mixed ability musicians in my Les Mis band at the school musical who shouldn’t have been able to pull it off but invested so much time, emotion and cared so much that it was better than we could have possibly imagined. The lad who makes everyone cry when he sings because he has such a talent to express the melodies so that you can’t fail to be moved by them.

I saw it last week in a primary school where a class of year 4 working with their class teacher were so engaged in the task that there was a discernible shift in the room from it being about playing the right notes at the right time to the sounds locking into place and making sense through pulse, feel, ensemble.

It’s nothing to do with the genre, the ensemble, experience or investment of money, talent spotting, box ticking. It’s about passion, commitment, engagement, children caring very deeply about is important and meaningful to them and allowing those musical voices whether individual or collective to be heard.

We should value every single one of those voices. It’s crucial that we ensure there are a range of opportunities to hear all of them sound clearly through the talk and strategising that takes place around them or we risk drowning them out altogether.

Musical Futures and me

During the 13 years of my association with Musical Futures in a number of roles, most recently as a consultant for Musical Futures International, I have been fortunate to work with incredible people and to have learned so much from others that has informed my thinking, my practice and to learn what has driven me as an educator and a musician.

As my time on the core team at Musical Futures in the UK came to an end, it was a great opportunity to reflect, to remember key events or moments that became significant in the journey. So I start with some of those.

I remember spending time in my classroom at Monks Walk with Lucy Green, looking aghast when she explained that to be part of the MF pathfinder pilot I would be allowing year 9 to make choices over repertoire, planning, musical needs and defining their own pathways through tasks.

It terrified me, I was the teacher, how could the students possibly be able to achieve anything if they were given too much freedom? I knew only one approach to music teaching-the one I had experienced for myself outside the classroom as a classically trained clarinet player, dependent on notation and very under confident with leading or delivering practical workshops as a music leader. Lucy’s book “Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy” (click for details) is a fantastic summary of that work that was just the start of 10 years of trying to get it ‘right’ in my classroom!

Lucy completely understood the classroom context and how teachers needed to adapt to make sure the pilot was a success. We enjoyed unpicking what we had seen the students achieve in the lessons and recently spent some time over Skype discussing the difference between haphazard and holistic learning and how one student from that very first pilot class made it onto the X Factor. This came as no surprise given that through MF he was able to express himself very successfully through singing and performing!

I have had endless edu-banter with David Price over so many issues, from the value of social media in the education community to the challenges of increasingly target-driven changes in our schools. Most recently we spent some time over breakfast on a glorious Australian summer day discussing the current edu-twitter debates over teacher led learning and direct instruction vs PBL and student centred approaches, a conversation that I look forward to continuing in the future.

I have worked with driven, creative and passionate people like Abigail D’Amore, who brought real balance and clarity to some of the big and hugely ambitious ideas we had for driving Musical Futures forward and who played such an important role in grounding MF in its pedagogical roots. Abi was also central to building the organisation as it now stands, independent in its own right having successfully transitioned from a fully funded project to an organisation now looking to a new future in the capable hands of Managing Director Fran Hannan.

Most recently I have loved co-developing the MF Just Play resources and training programmes with Ian Harvey and Ken Owen at Musical Futures Australia. It has been so valuable to look at the whole of MF through fresh eyes with them and with their teachers.

We have worked together to refine and plan and deliver new ideas and approaches and it has shown me that Musical Futures truly does have relevance anywhere that there are teachers looking for new ways to engage their students with music. Kids are kids, teachers are teachers and music is music. Let’s find a fit for everyone regardless of context.

They also taught me that it’s OK for training days and classroom music to be fun, that fun doesn’t make the intention any less rigorous or meaningful, just a far more enjoyable experience for everyone!

But of course along the way I have met and worked with so many teachers in schools and dedicated folk in the UK Music Ed sector that I think sharing part of my MF story as I will do below is by far the best way to thank everyone for the support and friendship I have found across my time with MF.

Musical Futures has been a massive personal journey for me, first as a practitioner having to completely redesign my identity as a musician and a teacher, then as I travelled and visited schools and worked with teachers to really try to understand what Musical Futures is when it is translated into practice at the chalk face.

I have also been trying to understand how and why it impacts on the lives of thousands of students and teachers across the world and how it can continue to change and adapt to the needs of those who are looking for ways to keep music relevant and meaningful for students in schools.

When I left Monks Walk in the summer of 2015, in my leaving speech, my line manager asked staff whether they had any idea of Musical Futures actually is.

Nobody could answer.

He had designed a poster that summed up what he thought my interpretation and use of Musical Futures in my classroom was. He described it as ‘a parallel solar system’ where everything is noisy and practical and chaotic and creative and the words he chose really summed up what Musical Futures had become in our school

Fun, Challenging, Inspirational, Groundbreaking, Inclusive, Excitement, New Experiences, International.

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I was so happy that over the years of observations, discussion, disagreement, negotiation, banter, partnership, collaboration and so much more that this was the impression he had formed of it. It was a lovely way to leave.

Musical Futures can be all those things. But how do you know when you walk into a class that it’s Musical Futures in inspiration or design? Is there a definition, a description or something that remains consistent no matter how and where it’s applied?

I’ve been visiting MF schools over the past 7 years or so, but back in October 2015 I led a tour of MF Champion schools accompanied by a group of teachers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada that really gave me the opportunity to reflect on this.

What I found is that Musical Futures doesn’t look or sound the same in any of the schools I’ve seen. It feels like Musical Futures, I know Musical Futures is there, but I have struggled to pin down how that actually translates into practice.

Our visitors also seemed to find it hard to define what made the lessons, departments and teachers ‘Musical Futures’ lessons, departments and teachers. Other than that they and I had said they were and that they use the MF approaches and resources in much of what they do, my question remained. What does ‘an approach’ actually look like when it’s applied in practice?

The key principles of MF are pretty clear so should I expect to see all of those in every lesson? Students working with friends, learning aurally, the teacher as facilitator? I saw many of them, but not all of them and not all of the time and as you would expect

I saw things that I thought worked really well and things I was less sure were effective. This was down to the interpretation, personalisation and moulding of the approach rather than the approach itself.

To find the answers to the million questions I had, I started by trying to identify what everything I saw in the schools and lessons had in common and I had some great discussions with the others in the group as we drove from school to school.

The first very impressive observation was the engagement, concentration and focus of the students we saw. More than that though, when we talked to them it became clear that they really care about their music work and the department, their teachers and the value of music in their schools.

Perhaps they feel some ownership over this (MF asks that learning starts from students’ own musical passions and interests) and so it becomes particularly important to them.

But can we or should we accredit this solely to MF?

Good teaching/relationships/structures/content=engaged students.

Perhaps MF helps or allows teachers to think about what they teach, why and how and the result is that compelling engagement I have seen everywhere I’ve visited. I needed to unpick this some more.

The second thing was the amount of music in the lessons. It was everywhere. I’ve made a list of the moments that stood out to me the most:

Whole-class workshopping with tuned percussion and classical instruments at Harrogate Grammar

Find Your Voice vocal work that has inspired a choir of over 60 students, boys, girls and staff at Fred Longworth.

It was in the sessions we led with the students, a class of year 8 at Monks Walk breaking down grooves using class percussion and in the Shake it Off workshop with 60 year 5 and 6 children at St John’s Primary school and finally at The Music Learning Revolution

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At Benton Park it was a class of year 7 singing and playing enthusiastically and musically together while we joined in for a mass jam of Rocking all over the world.

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It was the On Cue project at Morpeth where 80 students from 3 schools came together with facilitator Adam Sanders and created a piece from scratch which they then performed at The Music Learning Revolution at the end of the week.

It was the year 8 at Wymondham Academy turning round to the group next to them and asking to hear what they had done as the rest of the class worked on in their groups.

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At Flegg it was a lunchtime club that looked and sounded so like a MF lesson as students went off into groups to copy and play songs they had chosen that we couldn’t tell when lunchtime finished and lessons started.

At Willingdon it was the year 8 boy telling me that since their new (MF Associate) teacher had started at the school, everything had changed. He could play bass now but he never thought he would be able to play anything.

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At Steyning Grammar it was a 6th form Uke group playing informally with their teacher

And throughout the tour itself, we sang on the bus, we played music together and the moment that moved me most of all was in a pub where the teachers got up and played one at a time and together. I thought how unbelievably lucky their students are to have musicians of such quality teaching them. This reduced me to tears as they played truly from the heart and I realised that I was on a bit of a journey of my own, transitioning from being in the classroom at the heart of making music with my students to opening this world to so many more young people and their teachers through my new role with Musical Futures.

Can Musical Futures take credit for any this? Music lessons where the majority of time is spent making music? That “you just feel it” moment in the workshop at MLR where we sang and played and bonded through music?

And what about the tour itself? Bringing people together through music, forming friendships through a shared drive to find new and best practice to take back into classrooms underpinned by shared Musical Futures aims?

I decided to ask someone I thought might have an answer for me. Jonathan is an ex student of mine. A classically trained pianist and self-taught guitarist, he came through my school at a time where MF was slowly embedding into the department and music is his passion.

In the 6th form he came into lessons with younger students and helped them musically. He was also a Music Leader at a local primary school, supporting the teacher with music lessons with much younger children. They loved him.

You can hear from Jonathan in this video describing his musical experiences at school. In answer to the question ‘What is Musical Futures’ he said,

It’s an ideology, a group of people coming together because they want to make things better for themselves and their students

This is exactly what we were doing on our tour of schools. Looking for ideas, answers, we discussed and pulled apart everything we saw and reflected on everything we do and could do and might do. Have a read of what Michael Newton, one of our overseas visitors made of his own experiences and how MF has inspired him to

be fearless

I talked this over with then MF CEO Abi to see what she thought. She had met with Peter, Head of Music at Morpeth School and told me how he had found Musical Futures to be

a catalyst for change

in his school. That’s absolutely what it was for me at Monks Walk. It took me to that parallel solar system that my line manager described and helped me start to make sense of it through evaluating my own musicianship and approach to being a teacher, my beliefs and values as a musician and an educator.

Musical Futures is more than an approach and it’s not just a downloadable resource. It’s not a 6 week ‘MF inspired’ project or a rock and pop scheme of work for year 9.

The Just Play workshops that have been running in the last 2 years in the UK, Australia and Asia are filled with people who tell us they had been inspired by a great musical experience in the workshops to go back into their classrooms and make something happen.

So to everyone who went on part of this journey with me, thank you. I’m sharing just a few of the photos that sum up for me what Musical Futures is all about. Musical Futures really is all those things my line manager says it is. But most of all it is the most inspirational and exciting personal journey that really can change everything.

Make something happen, instigate change? It’s a hell of a ride……