In my last post I reflected on skills and knowledge in the music curriculum and in this one I aim to continue the theme of stripping the debate right back to the real core components of music teaching and learning.
One of the true core elements of any musical experience, of course, is the music. But what place does ‘the music’ occupy in music education and more specifically how music is taught and learned?
One thing I have always wondered as a teacher is whether it is possible to teach music only through music making? What if you couldn’t lecture or explain and there were no power points or worksheets to support? What if we really did talk less and play more in music lessons? How might practice need to change?
In October 2017, as guests of The China Musical Instrument Association, Best Friends Music and Culture and Dalian Fuyin Music I was part of the Musical Futures International team delivering workshops to teachers in China. The delegates were instrumental teachers, some were working in retail stores in Shanghai and others were teachers from a music school in Dalian with a focus on Rock and Pop teaching to individuals. Most had little or no experience of playing or teaching in groups.
We ran 4 workshops with 3 different groups, each with around 30-35 participants. We had a few translated materials, a translator (who was not a musician!) and perhaps one or two people out of each with some understanding of English (bearing in mind that understanding the words didn’t always translate into understanding the concepts and meaning behind those words).
To make things harder, the generally understood non verbal gestures or assumed cultural understanding around music teaching and music making that I so rely on weren’t there either.
For this reason, China felt like the most ‘foreign’ place I have been to. And I had a job to do without any of the tools that have become such a key part of how I teach.
I had always wondered, is it really possible to communicate both musical skills and understanding of key concepts and approaches when the language, experiential and cultural divide is so wide?
How would I need to flex and respond, adapt my approach to keep everyone engaged, make sure they understood what to do, get them playing instruments they had never played in ways they had never played music before and communicate the key messages of the workshop-all things I do all the time, yet always with the safety net of being able to stop, explain and move on.
The critical moment came during the 4th of the 4 workshops. Suddenly there was a shift in the room and we all clicked discernibly into mutual understanding.
It happened while we were playing.
All we had in common was the music and all of the learning had to start from that mutual common ground we felt as we played together. Then by stripping back any explanation or teaching points to the simplest key points through the interpreter we found our rhythm together.
It wasn’t about skills and it wasn’t about knowledge or assessment or selling a resource. It was about making a perceptible shift together towards something. It was amazing. It truly felt that we were ‘starting from the music’ and it happened because the default tools of my trade weren’t there to get in the way of that.
From this experience came 2 new key areas for Musical Futures International to consider in relation to the teacher development work that the organisation delivers across the world.
- How can the organisation support teachers to #talkmoreplayless
- How can teacher professional development workshops truly help teachers to explore the key aim of the organisation (lifted from the home page of the website and used on the opening slide of the presentation used in China)
“There are many different ways to learn music.
We help teachers to think differently about how and why they teach it.”
And a few more general questions:
1. When we say start with the music, which music? Music they choose or music that is chosen for them? Music that teaches something or music that is enjoyed purely for the experience? ‘My music’, ‘your music’ or ‘our music’? Where in this conundrum does the notion of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum fit?
2. What skills, knowledge, experience, confidence and support might teachers need to deliver music teaching that is solely based on ‘the music’?
3. Finally, what might the benefits be for teachers and students to learn music in this way?
In the absence of any video of that key moment (because I was too busy doing it to film it!), there is a playlist of little moments captured throughout the trip.
To finish, I have chosen a couple of photos that sum up the experience for me.
This teacher caught my attention throughout the workshops because I could see on his face everything from total bafflement when he tried to play ukulele for the first time to that lightbulb moment of shared understanding. We couldn’t discuss it, talk it over, I have no idea how he felt after the workshops, I don’t know his name.
But I will always remember his journey across the 2 days that we worked together and I wonder if he felt the same as me in that moment where we realised that playing, exploring, creating and ‘doing’ music truly does bring people together.