One music teacher’s mission and vision

Here a music teacher was asked to write a few paragraphs about her ideas for music in the school for those attending the school’s Spring Concert.

“For me, music is about working together, and about participation. In the making of music, pupils work with the song or the piece, they work with each other, and they work with their audience. They learn to work with themselves. And when by concentration and practice a performance hits its groove, music can activate a joy or elation in expression that can go on to inform and permeate achievement across the disciplines. This is why music can be – and I believe should be – at the centre of a learning community. But the ideal of participation and collaboration means little if music remains the preserve of a select few. From the moment I arrived at the school this year, I have made it my mission to involve all the children of the junior and senior school in making and performing music. Because we have many children of different ages and abilities, children with different interests and backgrounds, this has meant broadening the kinds of music that we learn, sing, and play, and it has meant developing creative instruction and programming to enable every child to find her rhythm, or his line. By expanding our instrumental exposure – to ukuleles, djembes, and keyboards – and above all by whole-class singing, at the school we are helping students to create transformative experiences and performances that every child can share in, equally and with joy.

The Spring Concert this year has afforded a platform for our established groups and ensembles. But it has also given whole classes an opportunity to perform together, in their own ‘ensembles’. This could be considered a risk! But I am excited for this to be the school where every child is a musician; where every child can approach music with seriousness – faithfully practising, carefully learning, courageously performing and aiming for musical excellence in whatever capacity she or he is capable of. Some children can only play one chord on the ukulele, whilst others can play everything and sing at the same time – this is ok! Perfection is not the goal; instead, I hope all our students can, in their own ways and at their own levels, access that aliveness that comes from performing a piece of music with enthusiasm and commitment.

It has been a huge pleasure for me to see the whole school contributing to our musical life throughout the year – not only in concerts like this one, but in assemblies, lessons, in auditions – and in the hallways! Our pupils are capable of breathtaking musicianship, but they are also capable of something greater, which is listening to one another, trusting one another, and having fun with one another. All of this happens when we bring music to one another – that is, when music brings us together.”

Placing musical concepts in the order of things

Does using the so-called ‘elements of music’ as a classificatory framework lead to obscuring the particularities of musical phenomena and the erosion of difference?

I have derived this statement from Adorno’s concept of identity thinking. [1]

I will try to show how a critique of what Adorno calls identity thinking raises questions about the desirability of a concept-led music curriculum. As an alternative I will propose a music curriculum drawn forward by musical meaning making in which musical concepts know their place.


  1. Music is non-conceptual
  2. There are concepts about music
  3. But the concept is not identical with the musical object or musical practice (the thing) which it claims to represent
  4. Thus, the concept mis-represents the reality of the thing
  5. The reality of the thing is more complex than can be contained by concepts (words)
  6. In this process of mis-representation particularities revealing its infinite uniqueness are lost
  7. The thing’s uniqueness and incomparability with, and infinite difference from other musical things is negated
  8. A concept-led music curriculum values homogeneity over difference

The so-called elements of music – pitch, timbre, rhythm, pulse etc. (and paralleled in visual art: colour, line, perspective, composition etc.) and their subsidiaries are examples of concepts about music.

The musical elements are used widely within music education as the preferred classificatory framework. In enabling discourse about music the framework acts both positively and negatively in the way that it narrows, contains and constrains responses to music. This is exemplified well in the GCSE Music written exam.

This classificatory framework emanates from a western art music tradition, yet comes to be freely applied to all musical traditions and their diverse practices. Application easily becomes insensitive to a vast range of cultural expressions and their characteristically idiosyncratic musical features. [2]

Thus, the tendency to diminish difference through assigning a musical element – concept, as a common denominator across different musics.

Furthermore, in the language that is sanctioned through a concept-led curriculum there is little place for the personal, poetic or the lyrical. Again, we see this most vividly played out in aspects of the GCSE Music written exam.

The order of things

To be clear, while music is non-conceptual, concepts about music inevitably play a part of music as a subject of the curriculum. However, I suggest finding their place in the order of things is worth considering. So, what would this look like?

It would assume that what was being brought to the classroom offers something of complexity, something rich with context and charged with the possibility of in depth meaning making. [3] Secondary school music teacher Jo did this by playing Steve Reich’s Different Trains to her year 9 pupils.

Music critic Richard Taruskin writes:

‘… in Different Trains (1988) Mr. Reich went the full distance and earned his place among the great composers of the century. …  Mr. Reich based the melodic content of the piece on the contour and rhythm of ordinary human speech. But in his case the speech consisted of fragments of oral history, looped into Reichian ostinatos, then resolved into musical phrases conforming to normal tunings, scales and rhythms of ‘Western music’, imaginatively scored for string quartet. These speech melodies were set in counterpoint with the original speech samples, all of it measured against a Reichian chug.’ [4]

What if we presented the above for year 9 pupils to read? What sense would be made of it? You might say, ‘not much, it’s packed with sophisticated concepts’. I counted twenty-five! A lot of abstractions there. And a lot not accounted for in the music.

But what is a speech melody? I guess year 9 know what a melody is and they have sung and imagined a good many musical phrases. Fragments of oral history? Counterpoint? Reichian ostinatos? String quartet? Not so likely.

Perhaps these will be things we talk about, ideas that become a part of our classroom discourse over time as work unfolds, as a curriculum response to Different Trains emerges. [5]

Taruskin continues by telling about the significance of Different Trains. Reich’s childhood train journeys from coast to coast and the train journeys of children to Auschwitz.

I note above that Richard Taruskin places Different Trains in the 20th century canon of art music and Reich becomes a ‘great composer’. What a ‘talking point’. Jo’s pupils are well schooled in purposeful talking with ground rules well internalised.

And there are lots more talking points to intersperse and enrich the sustained periods of music making. Who is a great composer? Who decides? What is art music? What is a canon? What’s your canon? Why does it change? Does it?

So perhaps the Taruskin text rewritten by the pupils and the teacher could be a central resource.

What narratives, musical and literary, will pupils produce as they develop their processes of making life narratives through music?

In the pupils own musical narrative creations, what range of musical techniques might be useful?

How will technologies serve the musical impulses that arise?

At what points will Steve Reich be invited (metaphorically) into the classroom as a guest?

What range of interventions (disruptions) might the teacher have in mind to help deepen and sustain the work? Will these come from the pupils ?

How will the work generate fresh thinking, further possibilities, ideas about other good places to go?

What novel concepts will have emerged to enrich understanding of the music made. Tariskin has given us the Reichian chug.

Well, that’s enough.

A whole term’s work here, at least. Not led by concepts. Not a project driven by key concepts or enslaved by knowledge organisers, but one which allows conceptual thought to emerge through recognising something of the uniqueness of Different Trains and its realities. Its objectification is kept at bay.

Engaging with Different Trains here is led not by concepts but by an impulse to make meaning, the reason for engaging with any music in the first place as Chris Philpott points out. [6]

So, not a concept-led curriculum, rather one from the outset for making musical meaning.

Does using the so-called ‘elements of music’ as a classificatory framework lead to obscuring the particularities of musical phenomena and the erosion of difference?

Well, that depends you might say.


[1] Adorno’s critique of identity thinking is central to his magnum opus Negative Dialectics.

[2] It may be interesting to note that Keith Swanwick argues that it is features that strike us about the music we experience, not concepts.

See Swanwick, K. (1994) Musical Knowledge: Intuition, Analysis and Music Education. Routledge.

[3] See   

[4] Taruskin, R. (2010) The Danger of Music and Other Utopian Essays. University of California Press. Page 102.

[5] On emergent curriculum see Cooke, C. and Spruce, G. (2016) What is a curriculum? In Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary school 3rd. edition (eds) Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Routledge.

[6] See Philpott, C. (2021) Music and the Making of Meaning. In Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Fifty Years of Sound and Silence, (eds) John Finney, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Routledge.

A music teacher’s professional development and why cognitive science might not be of much help

It was in the early 1990s that I made an application to my school’s deputy head to attend a weekend course at Dartington College. The course was on music and special needs education. But would my school fund my attendance? There was a period of deliberation and then two questions were presented to me: ‘how would the course enhance my teaching’ and ‘how would it contribute to the school’s priorities for development’?

I had taken the course to be self-evidently valuable to both my own and the school’s development. However, I made the case in writing and was duly funded. Whether the course had any long term impact for my school I can’t say. It was certainly an enriching weekend.

It was at this time in the early ninties that the culture of education significantly changed. While teacher control of the curriculum had been taken away by the mid eighties there now came the terror of performativity. The new managerialism was beginning to bite and with it the teachers’ struggle for agency.

CPD was now a means of serving a culture of accountability, unremittingly generic in nature and  linked to accountability measures derived from whole school improvement agendas involving the silencing of what teachers might see as beneficial to both their professional and personal development. But in 2016 headteacher Tom Sherrington writes:

‘CPD should be teacher-centred (as opposed to school-centred); it needs to be designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers: their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes or skills need to change as a consequence in the long term. In the same spirit, appraisal or professional review systems should be geared towards supporting teachers in their career development – rather than serving accountability processes as the prime objective.  Teacher-centred appraisal can still be rigorous at the same time as being developmental and positive for all concerned.’ [1]

Tom was opening the door to fresh possibilities. CPD ‘designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers.’

I was interested to hear from a music teacher whose school has exemplified just this principle. I have invited the teacher to tell her story of change and this is change for the long term.

On singing and changing a culture: reflections on a year as Head of Music

I teach Music in a large mixed comprehensive academy in Kent, with ten classes of about 26 pupils in each year 7, 8 and 9 cohort. This year is my tenth at the same school, which I joined as an NQT, and where I am now completing my first year as head of department.

Despite my (excellent) PGCE training course which included a strong and varied focus on the teaching of songs, in the early years of teaching I found singing in the classroom an uncomfortable challenge. I found pupils were embarrassed by the very idea of singing in front of each other, and looking back I was overwhelmingly anxious that they should enjoy Music lessons and be instantly engaged by them. Most of us have experienced as new teachers the cringingly awkward moment when a class proves very reluctant to sing, or refuses completely, and I either moved on from singing activities quickly with relief or, increasingly as terms went by, avoided them altogether. My schemes of work used to have a diligent little tick sheet at the front, with the old KS3 Programme of Study so that I could show to anyone who cared which parts of it would be covered. The first of its “Key Processes” used to read “Pupils should be able to sing in solo or group contexts, developing vocal techniques and musical expression”. This always seemed a ridiculous impossibility if I’m honest, and this tick box always remained blank, as I preferred to do without the embarrassment, hassle and (I assumed) poor results that would ensue. Nobody ever commented or even noticed.

I had a choir, which contained in those early years about fifteen girls from a range of year groups. Never any boys – what boy would go to that? – except for the occasional year 7 who’d perhaps sung in choir at primary school, came for a few weeks and soon lost interest. I suppose the sound my girls made was adequate, sometimes good, and we went on the department’s first Music Tour in 2010, also taking the Jazz Band and the newly formed and popular African Drumming group, but the choir was the smallest ensemble and I felt pretty powerless to do anything about it.

On returning from maternity leave in June 2012 I noticed that the upcoming year 10 class for the following September contained several boys who had sung quite willingly in pop bands that my maternity cover had organised. I decided to grab this opportunity and make the choir compulsory for all GCSE Music students from that point onwards. The events that followed this decision are another story entirely, with resistance (including some tears) from many and even some letters of complaint from parents, but we stuck by the decision as a department and by and large we had a choir which now included boys and girls.

Soon after my appointment as Head of Music last year I met with the leaders of our local Music hub (Bromley Youth Music Trust, an excellent Music Service which has always provided us with peripatetic instrumental teachers). I asked for a new singing teacher to be provided, as I had noticed dwindling numbers of singing pupils and wanted to be able to recommend a teacher to any potentially keen pupils, something I’d not felt confident to do with the existing teacher. Almost as an afterthought, I mentioned that I had never had any singing lessons myself, wondering vaguely if some instruction on vocal technique could be passed on to benefit my newly reformed choir. The deputy principal of the hub happens to also be the head of vocal teaching there, and he offered to help. My school agreed to pay for four lessons as CPD; I never intended to have any more than this as I was not particularly interested in singing for myself at that point.

I was completely unprepared for what happened in those four lessons. Completely amazed at how many things I had been doing (and teaching) wrong in my own singing in the classroom, and at the difference in both the sound and the physical sensation of singing with an improved technique. I had always assumed that you could really only sing well if you were gifted with a nice voice, which I was not, and I had absolutely no concept of technique. Looking back I’m embarrassed by my own naivety in going into those first lessons. I know there are different ‘schools’ of singing teaching and do think I was particularly lucky in my teacher, but from what I discovered I was able to do things immediately with my choir that helped improve the sound. I was hooked! At the end of four lessons I persuaded my school to pay for another ten – they were happy to, as ten lessons costs around the same as a single day’s inset normally would. I’ve had about 20 lessons now and, following the events described below, the inset coordinator at school offered of his own accord to fund another term of 10 at the end of this one. I’ve joined the Music hub’s adult choir, attending as and when I can fit it in around work, and also auditioned successfully for a local chamber choir, relishing the challenge of the required sight-singing that this has presented. I always thought I was an alto, but it turns out I’m actually a soprano and, although I’m still only very much at the beginning, I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey and the learning process.

It might sound a bit trite, but I’ve found singing to be of huge benefit to me personally as well. I suffered from post-natal depression following the birth of my second child in 2013, and am still prone to bouts of anxiety and feeling very low. Singing, though, really does help. I don’t understand why, but I am happier and more relaxed when I’ve been singing – just teaching it in the classroom sometimes now as well – and my family have commented on the change. I’ve even been inspired to practise the piano again after years of not really touching it. Small children have inevitably been the main reason for this of late, but somehow I now feel like a musician – and a learning musician – again, instead of an often exhausted mother and teacher with little time, energy or enthusiasm for new ideas.

The principal of the Music hub suggested in our initial meeting that I put on a concert in the autumn term involving the whole of year 7. I remember smiling politely, privately remembering my past attempts to involve whole classes in concerts, which were exhausting to pull off and had short-lived (albeit satisfying) results, and resolving not to attempt anything so ambitious in my first term as head of department. However, later following my first singing lessons, I decided to try it. I had read some material on project-based learning and was inspired by the idea of giving pupils a real performance to work towards, so with the agreement of my second in department I designed a scheme of work and we started in the first weeks of September.

Year 7 responded positively on the whole, with the inevitable few reluctant participants, but an explanatory letter home signed by myself, the head of year and the headteacher proved helpful in quashing most parental objections, and in fact we found the vast majority of parents to be very supportive. Each class was taught a separate song to perform, which were to be judged as a competition, in addition to a massed medley of “Swing low, sweet chariot” and Debbie Wiseman’s “No wars will stop us singing” – this one was added only in the final weeks before the concert, which happened to fall on Remembrance Day. I taught seven of the ten year 7 classes myself this year, and found teaching so much singing very tiring, but also exhilarating; my own singing lessons were continuing roughly once a fortnight, and my teacher was an invaluable help in showing me how not to over-use my voice, and suggesting ways of making particular phrases or parts of the songs easier. He also agreed to be the competition judge. I gave the concert the name “Everyone Sings” because I found myself saying this constantly to pupils (or anyone for that matter!) who said “I can’t sing”. The final event was something of a logistical challenge, which we simply could not have managed without the support of the head of year and the ten form tutors, but the Hall was packed and the sound of 260 pupils singing en masse was an extraordinarily arresting finale. Medals were awarded and pupil reports later written, allowing us a fascinating insight into their perception of the event, and showing how memorable it had been for them.

Back to the compulsory GCSE choir for a moment. I am now in the second year of insisting on this, and also made a point last year of explaining to year 9 pupils considering GCSE Music that this would be required. The current year 10 class of 17 pupils (6 boys, 11 girls) contains several confident singers and many reluctant ones, but I have tried to be relentless in getting them to sing not only in the weekly choir rehearsal but in lessons too. When we studied Handel’s “And the glory of the Lord” we spent several lessons just singing it, working through each part in turn and singing along to the recording in whatever register was comfortable. They sang a gospel version of “Joy to the world” in the Christmas assembly for a week (although some bribery in the form of chocolate was needed for this) and I have a stash of quick rounds and simple part songs that I pull out for moments when they are doing something menial – putting resources away in their folders or waiting for computers to load, for example. They will now sing anything and at any time – on several occasions I’ve returned from a last-minute dash to the photocopier at the start of a lesson to find them singing, sometimes in several parts, whatever happens to be on someone’s mind at the time.

Year 11 complained, by the way, at the start of the year that “choir had got too big” because of the influx of year 10s, as well as the growing number of lower school pupils who come along (I don’t think I mentioned that everyone who comes on the Music Tour now has to sing in the choir) It’s actually now called “Big Choir”. I was really surprised, but suggested half-heartedly that we start another smaller group for them. Chamber Choir was born and now comprises 6 girls and 6 boys, mostly in years 10 and 11, who are able to access harder songs with a greater focus on reading music.

Although we left singing with year 7 for a while in the term that followed “Everyone Sings”, to focus necessarily on other skills (including whole-class keyboard lessons) I wanted if possible to rekindle some of the enthusiasm the concert had generated, before the summer and the start of year 8. So this term we have embarked on an Africa project, which will culminate in an afternoon concert given by each half of the year group, to an invited audience of years 4 and 5 from the Junior school down the road. Each class will perform a piece of West African drumming and sing an African song, and then join in a massed performance of “Shosholoza” in (hopefully) three parts. I have drafted in my year 10 class to boost the part singing and demonstrate that boys and girls higher up the school are also singing (and because I tried out teaching the African songs to them ahead of starting the project, to see what would work, and they were intrigued!). So far, year 7 have accepted it without complaint – watch this space!


[1] See

Foundational listening

In 1899 William McNaught identified three mental faculties that all methods of teaching listening assumed children to possess.

  1. the observation of what is heard at any given moment
  2. the recollection of what has previously been heard
  3. the comparison of what we hear now with what we have recently heard [1]

We would perhaps want to add

  • the prediction of what is to come

McNaught was writing about the teaching of listening and the methods by which children are taught to listen. [2]

Might it be a good thing to teach children that they possess the potential to

  1. observe what is heard at any given moment
  2. recollect what has previously been heard
  3. compare what they hear now with what has recently been heard
  4. predict what is to come? [3]

This would require some deliberate teaching about how to think in sound.

Powerful knowledge and valuable know how for those acquiring it, an example of meta-cognition. [4]

Pupils would of course learn to do this anyway in their own time and without being taught.

Deliberate teaching implies formal learning with the intention of empowering the pupil and overcoming the unpredictability of ‘own time’ learning.

McNaught’s bigger picture was the teaching of sight-singing.

If you can sight-sing you really can claim to be able to read music.

I have often wondered what is meant when we talk about reading music. What is actually meant? Clearly it is more than cracking a code-decoding symbols.

Sadly, there is no shortage of poorly conceived approaches used to teach children to read music in 2020, and perhaps rather more than there were in 1899.


[1] McNaught, W. G. (1899-2000) ‘The Psychology of Sight-Singing’, Proceedings of the Musical Association 26, 33-35 cited in G. Cox (1993) A History of Music Education in England 1872-1928, Scolar Press: Aldershot.

[2] This was before the gramophone and the music appreciation movement. The idea of listening was embedded in the act of making music – singing and playing.

[3] In Lucy Green’s theory of musical meaning ‘inherent’ musical meaning works in the same way. For a thorough discussion of the significance of inherent meaning see Green, L. (2005) Meaning, autonomy and authenticity in the music classroom, (pp. 3-19) Professorial Lecture. Institute of Education: London.

[4] Furthermore, this might lead to think of listening as being a foundational element of a curriculum rather than a part of the listening, composing, performing trinity.

And all shall be musicians

John Blacking’s 1973 publication ‘How Musical is Man’ proved to be a catalyst for rethinking the role of music in society and culture, and of society and culture in music. [1]

Blacking had spent three years living with the Venda people of Southern Africa. We learnt that in Venda society all take part in music-making and even those who are deaf dance.

How musical is man? Who is musical? Who is the musician?

Blacking’s publication coincided with fresh drives to democratise our own musical culture. Wilfred Mellers, John Paynter, Christopher Small called for all to be thought of as artists, for all were endowed with creative capacities. To be as an artist was a part of who they were.

But while music education’s attempts to ensure that all were artists and musicians, the many still seemed to be experiencing something falling short of this ambition.

By the cusp of new century there had emerged a crisis of confidence followed by a renewed attempt to democratise music education and yes, again, the call for all to be musicians.

There was talk of cultural democracy and facilitation, of musical identities and musical engagement, of informality in place of formality, every child a musical instrument, and now the goal that lessons will be musical and that, yes, all will become musicians.

A while ago I gave four essay titles to undergraduate music students as part of their ‘Music and Musicology Now’ paper.

Select one

  1. ‘We teach music in school primarily because we want children – all children – to grow as musicians.’ (Janet Mills)

Discuss the above statement in the light of competing claims on the music education of the young.

  1. To what extent do Philpott’s ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ justifications contribute to finding purpose for music education?
  2. The extra-musical benefits of a music education currently expressed as ‘the power of music’ serve to undermine the legitimacy of music as a subject of the school curriculum. Discuss.
  3. From a historical perspective, what might be the defining characteristics of ‘a long overdue renaissance’ in music education in Britain?


Cox, G. (2010) Britain: Towards ‘a long overdue renaissance’? In (Eds) Gordon Cox and Robin Stevens, The Foundations of Music Education. Continuum. (pp. 15-28)

Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum. In (Eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge. (pp. 48-63).

Hallam, S. (2015) Executive Summary in The Power of Music. International Music Education Research Centre. (pp. 9-19).

The most popular questions were 2. and 3.

In discussing the question raised by Janet Mills students noted that:

  1. Musical identity is self-assigned
  2. A musician implies advanced performance capability

The implication of 1. is that identifying as a musician is a decision made with reference to others who are like or different to me and that this is culturally dependant.

But it was pointed out that to ‘grow as musicians’ didn’t necessarily imply ‘becoming musicians’ in the sense of 2. above.

There was general consensus that ‘to grow as a musician’ was necessary but not sufficient and overall represented a weaker music educational justification.

There was much more sympathy with Chris Philpott’s ‘hard’ justification presenting music as a remarkably virile source of meaning making. And this argument went a good way to music being thought of as academic in that the critical pedagogy implied involved a disruptive form of ‘thinking’.

In our discussions I was introduced to a new concept.


Which basically means ‘by product’. And that’s how most viewed ‘the power of music’ argument. While recognising that engagement in music from an early age provides for a wide range of benefits, these should be seen as ‘by products’ of a good music education – valuable, and extremely so in certain circumstances, yet not sufficient.

Students were fascinated by the work of 19th century music educators and their devotion to aural development through singing. (I couldn’t resist telling them about John Curwen’s visit to Sarah Glover’s schoolroom and how Julie Andrews got her tonic solfa completely wrong.)

They observed too how legislators had continually expected pay back from a music education. 19th century moral rectitude and 21st century resilience and British values.

I did conclude that it would be good if these students were to read John Blacking’s ‘How musical is man?’ And Tia De Nora’s ‘Music in everyday life’. They were up for it.

‘All shall be musicians’ is a laudable aim but it is problematic.

And the line: ‘some will become musicians and oteres music lovers’ misses the point of a general education.

How about ‘knowing how to make music well’?


[1] Blacking, J. (1973) How musical is man? University of Washington Press.

Teaching or supervising?

This short piece by Chris Philpott is in response to Mark Phillips’ keynote speech at ISM Trust’s Where to next for music education? conference and is in the spirit of critical debate. Taking back control of music education: Mark Phillips (

Chris writes:

Based on over 40 years experience in music education I agree with much that Mark has to say, for example:

· The ISM has been exemplary in their support for music education as a subject association and has been willing to air both praise and challenge in relation to policy and practice (the best in my view since MANA and NAME); 

· While the priorities of the EBacc have not helped the cause of music education, it cannot take all the blame for current issues in music education; 

· The teaching of ‘musical’ music lessons is the best way in which music educators can advocate with students, parents and SMTs alike; 

· We need to take personal responsibility for the musical quality of our lessons; 

· In order to deliver ‘musical’ music lessons, teachers need to behave as musicians themselves (although this is not only achieved by ‘training’ but also through teachers being encouraged to trust and believe in their intuitive musicianship – especially non-specialist primary teachers); 

· The number and consistency of good quality, ‘musical’ music lessons is problematic. 

However, having agreed these things I think that Mark illustrates his case by constructing an unhelpful binary. 

The binary is wrapped up in the question that Mark poses: Teaching or supervising? Based on the examples presented by Mark (and my own experience) I would suggest that: (a) this is not really a choice that needs to be made by music teachers, (b) intended or not Mark’s argument appears as a thinly disguised critique of informal pedagogies.

I make no comment on the quality of the examples observed by Mark, but I do not think they constitute a case for setting supervising against teaching as if it were one or the other. It could be that supervision is a perfectly acceptable pedagogical approach and that the benefits of it cannot always be seen in a single lesson. As Lucy Green’s research into informal pedagogy suggests (and this can also be said of my football team, Gillingham) – these things take time. 

I am worried about the impressions that are left around the supervisory (research led) aspects of informal pedagogy, when Mark says ‘it’s not about the image, the style, the coolness of pretending to be in a pop group’ and that there ‘was no way it was ever going to sound like the original song’. In relation to ‘image’ I doubt the children ever expected it to be cool in this way and as to how it sounds, so what if it is different. 

My point is that quality of the examples aside Mark appears to dismiss ‘supervising’ the space to make music, and in so doing does not consider the possibility that there are some elements of this approach that can be a part of a subtle, nuanced (informal?) pedagogy that can work. Indeed, the research evidence here is underdone to the point of non-existence in the Ofsted research review cited by Mark. Research review series: music – GOV.UK ( 

By way of example Mark recounts that in one lesson he was asked by a student how to play an Am chord on a bass guitar and this sort of interesting discussion (and possible ‘teaching’ moment?) emanating from the student’s ownership of the learning, is just what is predicted by research into informal pedagogy. No one said that such pedagogy is easy (nor the answer to the student question!), but this is no reason to assign ‘supervision’ to the negative half of a binary. 

Yes, the ‘circles’ project proposed by Mark does sound quite exciting, but this depends on how it is taught. I have personally witnessed some poor ‘work done on primary chords’ that have lacked musicality, fluency, ownership or understanding. Indeed, examples of just the sorts of lessons that have been problematic in classroom music since the Schools Council reports of the 60s and 70s (and probably before). 

The inference drawn by Mark from his examples is as follows: 

‘Reducing the role of the music teacher to that of a facilitator is doing our profession a disservice. It devalues the skill and importance of teaching music. We would not accept a football coach simply setting up a game, giving pupils a ball, and telling them to get on with it themselves’. 

This is an interesting conclusion where we now see ‘supervision’ as being synonymously and pejoratively the same as ‘facilitation’. As in the ‘games for understanding’ tradition of PE pedagogy, I believe that the relationship between teaching, supervision and facilitation in music needs nuanced consideration. The issue is not teaching versus supervision but a flexible responsive pedagogy that is true to the nature of music (and PE) and musical learning. 

By way of a contribution to the debate I think that the problem lies with definitions of what count as different types of musical knowledge, the relationship between them and the consequent pedagogical implications. These issues are commendably raised in the recent Ofsted research review cited by Mark in his keynote, which is worth quoting in full. 

‘We have said in our recent research review that it is essential that the musical curriculum provides pupils with robust, incrementally increasing and demanding musical knowledge – technical knowledge of how to play and sing accurately and fluently, constructive knowledge that understands how the music we play, compose and listen to is built and functions, and expressive knowledge so that we understand the meanings of music. These are not alternatives and they are not isolated silos – they are all essentials that work together to create what we all recognise as musical understanding.’ 

I for one am hugely encouraged to see mention of musical meaning here (and even in the MMC!). However, the issues behind the binary raised by Mark are also reflected in a lack of clarity in the review as to the relationship between meaning, technical skills and constructive knowledge (concepts?) in musical learning. This is exacerbated by the review’s poor coverage of research and scholarly activity (yes, scholarship is research) in this area. 

To take one example, probably the most celebrated research informed approach to the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy, is the work of Keith Swanwick. His writing on links between encounter and instruction, intuition and analysis is significant here and informed early versions of the English national curriculum. He barely gets two mentions in the review and neither of these include his seminal work. At best this is an unfortunate omission and at worst an ideological snub for ideas which perhaps fall on the wrong side of the epistemological and pedagogical tracks in the current ‘cognitive’ climate, especially given that Swanwick prioritises encounter and intuition over instruction and analysis as first principles of music education. I could go on with other examples but this is not the place for a full review of the review. 

The relationships between intuition and analysis, informal and formal, expressivity and concepts, supervising and teaching are part of ongoing and key debates in music education and it could just be that ‘facilitation’ holds the key to resolving these productive tensions. These are complex relationships and the review does not provide a well worked out account of them. 

To be fair I have some sympathy with Ofsted who are caught in the ‘cognitive science’ informed flood that informs much current policy and practice and yet they also appear to want a richer conception of musical knowledge that includes meaning. However, meaning cannot be ‘instructed’ or ‘taught’ at least not in the way assumed in the binary.

For example, did the original composers of the unnamed song cited by Mark know about the ‘circles’ they were using (other than intuitively)? – I doubt it. Such knowledge is important but not essential to the musically educated state and does not make the composers (or students) any the less musicians for not being able to name and recognise them. 

In short, a supervisory pedagogy is no more to blame for the demise of classroom music than the Ebacc. To be honest its lot has never been that great in my lifetime and various versions of ‘direct instruction’ that have little relationship to the material nature of music, its ownership and how we develop musically, must also shoulder the blame, and quite a lot of it my experience. 

There are also wider socio-cultural issues. For example, there are unfortunate cultural hierarchies of disciplines that don’t help the cause of music or the arts when SMTs make decisions about curriculum, when teachers choose how to teach and when children and parents make choices at KS4. 

In conclusion, I agree with much of what Mark says and, while not over keen on the phrase ‘taking back control’, we should certainly look to ourselves as music teachers as the first port of call when delivering a ‘musical’ music education. However, we should also recognise that the epistemological, pedagogical and societal context is complex and begs detailed and critical consideration. I also agree that we should aim to make classroom music ‘rigorous and as robust as it should be’, but of course this depends on what we mean by rigour and robustness in the first place. These notions are not self evident and not, I believe, to be found on one or other side of the supervision-teaching binary.

Chris Philpott

January 2022

Working with the hidden hand of Edvard Grieg

You will remember the BBC’s Ten Pieces setting out ‘to inspire a generation of children to get creative with classical music’. [1]

Here is a music teacher getting creative with Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King (one of the ten). And this is with Year 7 who we might assume are at Egan’s Romantic Stage of Understanding [2], so the topic Music, Story and Far Away Places makes sense.

The teacher has been telling stories and introducing story-telling music to the class and now the teacher’s imagination has created a series of lessons based upon an analysis of the Grieg – 16 beat structure: Intro, 4+2+2+8 with repetitions, an accelerando and with a crazy ending. With this in mind it is a case of let’s make a class piece and this will mean a sustained period of workshop-ing.

The teacher’s approach is what I call the deja vu method as pioneered by Richard McNichol and the LSO Discovery Programme: the teacher abstracts (or is it abducts?) key structural features of the work and from here enables pupils to create a homologous piece(s) in preparation for meeting the work itself as a deja vu experience. Through the engagement of the pupils with the structural features of the work in their own music-making ‘appreciation’ of the work itself is eased.

In this case the teacher is creating the homology through adherence to the work’s 16 beat structure. The first three lessons involve working together as a whole class to create the musical material that will give the structure meaning with motifs derived from the pitch set A, G, F, E. Using a rhythmic and melodic template all pupils make and notate a musical motif/ostinato. Individual motifs are reviewed by the whole class and three selected. These are rehearsed accompanied by the teacher on keyboard as support.

The process is one of drawing out ideas, testing them together, selecting-rejecting, providing time for small group and individual making of material brought to the whole, sifting and sorting – all leading to a piece in which Grieg had a hidden hand. As the piece comes together the teacher plays the bass guitar, serving to ground the performance.

The agreed structure:

Introduction: Unison rhythm on the note A
Middle Section: Ostinato 1 solo
Ostinato 1- all
Ostinato 2 solo Texture gets thicker
Ostinato 2 all
Ostinato 3- all
Gradually tempo gets faster, dynamics get louder!
Ending: 3 sudden stops – restart ostinato faster & louder each time. All end on the note A!

Two lessons are needed for assembling the piece and for intensive rehearsal (one way of thinking about rigour), making the piece into something that sounds satisfying. Managing a controlled accelerando with Year 7 is not easy!

Lesson 6 and time to listen to a recording of the class piece and then time for the music-making of Edvard Grieg. That will lead to questions and a fresh agenda to consider – time for talking, lots of it and integrated with lots of listening ‘in mind’ and with the music sounding; lots of thinking, thinking the music and thinking about it.

No, not some checking off of key words or learning outcomes, but a revealing of meanings made and with the emergence of new ideas to pursue about music and its making: how is it made, how does it work, who does it works for, why does it work – can music tell a story, why not, where shall we go from here? What about that rhythm, let’s play and play it until it changes into something else…

Who knows, we may be talking and playing ourselves into lots of understanding, as long as there is no early closure to what is now an on-going enquiry.

And what do you think about this deja vu approach to getting to know pieces of music? Let’s try another way. Any ideas!

[1] See
[2] According to Egan the Romantic Stage sees children liking facts, going deep and to the extremes, the strange. Loving stories and looking for the transcending qualities of people. Connecting to emotions.


Also: Finney, J. (2009) ‘Human interest and musical development: no knowledge without meaning’. In (eds.) Alexandra Lamont and Helen Coll, Sound Progress: Exploring musical development, NAME.

Informal music learning nurturing a confident form of musicianship.

To begin our new year I reprint Leslie Linton’s account of her research first published in the Music Mark Magazine 2013, a publication now defunct. I have not been able to activate the photographs that form part of it. Apologies.

The work is an example of systematic enquiry seeking to better understand a significant issue in music education. It may encourage others to similarly engage in enquiry and for their practice to be research-informed.

One interesting finding from the research noted how much the children knew about how they were learning and how they were thriving on thinking about their musical thinking (metacognition). Their’s seems to be a confident form of musicianship. We might call it critical musicianship.

Informal Music Learning in the Year 2 Classroom

Leslie Linton

The University of Western Ontario

October 2013

In January 2011, I travelled to England, along with a team of researchers from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, elementary and secondary school teachers, a principal, and a school board superintendent for a week of intensive training on the Musical Futures informal music learning approach. We visited a number of Musical Futures Champion Schools, spoke to Chris Philpott and his colleagues at the University of Greenwich about their activities preparing student teachers to work with informal music learning and attended a lecture and roundtable discussion session with the informal music learning project’s originator Professor Lucy Green. 

Upon our return to Canada, we launched a pilot project introducing informal music learning to two schools (one elementary and one secondary) in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. The success of this project has attracted interest from other music educators across Canada and is leading the way to a new chapter in music education in Canada.  Numerous professional development days, conferences, and demonstrations of the Musical Futures Program (especially informal learning) have piqued the interest of music educators across Canada. Many schools are beginning to adapt their current programs to include informal learning approaches with great success. 

The success of ‘Musical Futures Canada’ has provided an interesting situation for Canadian music teachers.  Canadian music education is very different from the sorts of models found in the UK as will be discussed later in this article. Teachers and students have been faced with considerable challenges to their previous conceptions of what music education is and their previous self-conceptions of roles of learner, teacher and musician. 

The elementary school where the research took place was a Catholic elementary school in a rural area in Southwestern Ontario and included Junior Kindergarten through grade 8 students (UK year 1 through year 9). As a research assistant assigned to the elementary school, working in the pilot project with grades 6, 7, and 8 (UK year 7, 8, and 9). I was completely amazed at the level of interest and engagement in informal learning demonstrated by the students. The participating grades had music class once per week, and rarely – if ever – was a student absent on that day. Their enjoyment was overwhelmingly strong and passionate, so much so that the music teacher gave up her lunch breaks to provide students with extra rehearsal time. 

My interest in the younger grades began as I watched the process of new students entering the second year of the pilot project.  They had not yet had the opportunity to learn in such a way, and their adjustments were not as much musical ones as they were in terms of learning style and social interaction.  Subsequently, I wondered what this program would look like if all students had the opportunity to participate in music classes through informal learning approaches, and whether or not it would be possible for the very young students to achieve these levels of cooperation, collaboration, communication and creativity. As a result, I wondered what their music making capabilities would be like if they already had the skills to work together, solve problems, create, motivate, and take charge of their learning.

In this article I will describe the most significant results of the study I consequently undertook; presenting one theme arising from the data related to each research question.  The first is the transition from the formal to informal approach, and how I accomplished this. The second is the skills that were learned by the students, and finally, I will discuss what informal learning ‘looks like’ and ‘sounds like’ with young children.

Background of Elementary General Music Education in Canada

Typically, music education in the elementary grades is based on formal approaches following the philosophies of Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze.  There is a specific set of skills that are taught according to grade level as a whole class in a formal style.  Even compositional or improvisational activities at an early age are ‘formalized’ through the pedagogy that is used featuring structured exercises to develop an understanding of Western Art Music traditions.  At around grade 4 (UK year 5) many students begin learning the recorder, until grade 7 and 8, (UK year 8 and 9) where formal band instruction often begins and continues throughout secondary school. The wind band tradition is prevalent in all provinces across Canada, although some programs begin in elementary school and others in secondary school, depending on the school board and funding.  Canada is a vast country with pockets of multicultural musical traditions interspersed throughout cities, communities and provinces, all of which affect the music education program in some way shape or form.  Although it is difficult to generalize in terms of what every Canadian student experiences in their music education, we can extract a few salient points that prompted my research.

  1. Most elementary students experience general music education, which is taught formally based on the philosophies of Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze.
  2. The field of education is changing and looking towards 21stCentury learning skills and these skills are not often reflected in the formal music classroom.
  3. Most students in Canada experience formal music education and now some are involved with Musical Futures.  There is a strong and sudden shift between approaches which may have a negative effect on teachers and learners as they negotiate between the two pedagogies.

While the success of the Musical Futures program has been well noted in the targeted grades of the Canadian pilot project, (grades 7 and 8 in the elementary school, and grades 9, 10 and 11in the secondary school), I worried about the disconnect between pedagogical approaches facing younger students and how this might affect their learning.  I also wondered if an informal approach in the early grades would change the musical skills that students acquired, specifically, would they be the same as those prescribed in the Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze approaches?  With this in mind, I developed a research study aimed at investigating whether or not such a program could not only be possible with very young students, but might actually benefit their learning in the music classroom and further connect to the type of learning they will experience with Musical Futures.  

Theoretical framework 

My main starting points came from Lucy Green’s research (2002, 2005, 2008), Katherine Marsh’s (2008) investigation of children’s music on the playground, and further Harwood & Marsh’s (2012) development of children’s musical cultures compared to Green’s (2002) study on popular musicians and informal learning. I found no documented studies which apply the main tenets of informal learning in the school setting to very young children. Therefore, by joining Green’s principles of informal learning to young children’s playground practices as Harwood & Marsh’s research (2012) has done, and by adding a pedagogical connection to the planned informal learning study, an approach was devised as follows: 

Informal Learning Principles(Green, 2008)Playground & Out-of-school practices   (Harwood & Marsh, 2012)Planned Informal Learning(Linton, 2013a)
1.  The learner chooses the music for personal goals. 1. The learner chooses the music to meet social and personal goals.1. Learner chooses the music to meet social and personal goals
2. Copying music by ear is the primary method of skill acquisition. 2. Copying music is achieved through aural/oral and visual methods. Movement, eye, ear, and gestural coordination is essential for learning.2. Music is presented holistically and copied by ear.  Music is presented aurally and explored visually.
3. Learning takes place in peer or friendship groups. 3. Learning takes place in friendship groups or familial groups.  There are many levels of participation (observer to song leader) and children participate or withdraw at will.3. Learning takes place according to friendship groups, which guide their choices of music.  Students are presented with a choice of music.
4. Skills are acquired in a haphazard manner, non-linear manner.4. Skills develop according to repertoire selected.  Holistic repetition is preferred.4. Skills are explored through repertoire and teacher facilitated activities.  Repetition is encouraged.
5. Emphasis is on creativity through listening, performing, composing, and improvising.5. Communal improvisation and composition occurs occasionally according to accepted conventions.5. Students are able to create through listening, performing, and improvising.

Table 1: Planned informal learning: An extension of Harwood & Marsh’s (2012) comparative chart. (Linton, 2013a)

Research design

Using this chart to guide the study provided a framework from which I designed three informal units guided by the following research questions:

Research Question 1: Can informal learning pedagogy, developed from the musical practices of popular musicians (Green, 2008), be successfully adapted for (Grade One) students?

Research Question 2:What adaptations are necessary for informal learning pedagogy to succeed in Canadian elementary schools, which are heavily focused on the more formal approaches of Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze?

Research Question 3: Can the informal learning practices of children’s playground activities as described by Marsh (2008) and Harwood & Marsh (2012) be transferred to the classroom, in effect bringing childhood culture to the classroom? 


In this study I worked with two classes of grade one (UK year 2) students. Each class had 18 students with an equal representation of males and females, as well as a mixture of European ethnicities.  The principal arranged the schedule so that both classes occurred at the same time of day (11:10-11:45), on alternating days. 

The participating teacher was a music specialist teacher with an Honours Bachelor of Music Education, Bachelor of Education, Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music and additional training in Kodaly methodology. With over 20 years of experience, she was a willing participant but was also aware that she was still required to ensure that students met the curricular expectations.

Description of informal Units

Unit 1 – Listening and copying vocally

Three songs were selected from a list generated by discussion with the students, and approved by the teacher and principal of the school.  The three songs were; ‘Trouble’ by Taylor Swift, ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry and ‘Go, Diego Go’ which is the theme song to the Nickelodeon Junior television show ‘Diego’.  I purchased the sheet music and audio files of each piece, along with 3 small MP3 players and 3 small portable speakers. I used the freeware audio program Pitch Shifter to change the tempo of the songs, so each MP3 player had one song with three tempos; the original song unchanged, medium and slow.  

In this unit, the students selected their groups according to the music they wanted to sing. They were all given lyric sheets for their piece, along with a task sheet. In some lessons, they were to set their own goals that was a new activity for the students. Some goals were verbal and some were written on the sheet of paper. At the end of the unit each group sang their song either with or without the MP3 player.  

        Figure 1- Student Achievement Chart for the Diego group

Figure 2 – A screen shot of three girls practicing Taylor Swift’s ‘Trouble’. 

Unit 2 – Playing familiar melodies by ear

In Unit 2, students formed friendship groups of any size, and were given a xylophone along with an instruction sheet with a list of familiar songs. Their task was to figure out how to play the first phrase of a selected song. The unit culminated with performances for either the teacher, researcher or the class.

Figure 3– Student Achievement chart – the sticker indicates that this group figured out the song on the xylophone. 

Figure 4 – Students working together to figure out a melody

Unit 3 – Playing harmony and singing melodies by ear

The final unit involved singing a melody and playing harmony on a ukulele at the same time, after learning an unfamiliar song. I chose Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and used English lyrics. The students indicated that they were not familiar with the tune even after it was played. I chose two YouTube videos to ‘teach’ the song to the students. The first was a flash mob with a full orchestra and choir ( The second video featured the Muppets character Beakersinging the tune “Ode to Joy” to the sound “mee” (  The video includes intricate harmonies and is a 6-way split screen ending with Beaker’s experiment exploding at the end of the song. The students asked to see the video several times, as it is very entertaining.  

I chose the key of C-Major for this song for several reasons:

  • Differentiated learning – the C chord is easy to play on ukulele, and the G-chord is difficult.
  • Some students were taking piano lessons, and most piano method books start in ‘C-Position’. Using this key may have provided a link between school music and music at home through the piano, and allowing them to learn it by ear on another instrument.
  • All of the xylophones and other Orff instruments are in the key of C-Major, which facilitated the addition of other instruments in their performance.

The students were given a lyric sheet of the English words, a ukulele, and two chord sheets for C-chord and G-chord. The students were instructed to sing the song while playing the chords, and that they could do this in any formulation they wished.  Some alternated chords between peers, some conducted and sang while others played, and some used percussion instruments.  This unit was by far their favourite for several reasons, all discussed later in the analysis section.   The unit culminated with performances by each group. Some students indicated that they had ukuleles at home, however, none knew how to play specific chords or melodies, nor were they aware that the instrument needed to be tuned a certain way.

Figure 5 – Ukuleles were always tuned before class.

Figure 6 – Students learning ‘Ode to Joy’ from a YouTube video of the Muppets character Beaker.


This study utilized an action research methodology. In this 6-month qualitative study, the regular music specialist teacher and I worked alongside one another to deliver 3 informal learning units that I designed. Approximately 460 hours of audio/visual data was collected, along with researcher field notes, teacher field notes, and mid/ post-study interviews with all students and the teacher.  

At the conclusion of the study, the recorded video was transcribed and further divided into categories, themes and then specific codes.  A codes to theory framework (Saldana, 2012) was used to refine themes and produce one overarching category.

Research Question1, Theme 1 – Transitioning from the Formal to the Informal

My initial attempt at dropping the students ‘in at the deep end’ as it is described in the Musical Futures document, and successfully accomplished with older students, presented extreme challenges to students.  One student asked me, “When are you going to start teaching us?” These young students had already been well socialized into the expected patterns of school through two years of kindergarten, and perhaps preschool or daycare: that they are to listen to the teacher and only do what they are told to do. For example, kindergarten students are told when it is playtime, when it is story time, and how to walk down the halls. They begin to rely on instructions as information and knowledge, and when asked to do something without instruction, they have a difficult time. 

The formal versus informal approach should not be thought of as a dichotomy, but instead as a continuum (Folkestad, 2006).  In addition, the formal approach is focused more towards ‘how to learn to play music’, whereas the informal approach is directed towards ‘playing music’ (ibid). Informal learning pedagogy may enable teachers and students to participate in emergent pedagogies thereby positively affecting their potential to become lifelong learners of music. To address this very important issue, I developed a process to transition along the formal-informal continuum, and used improvisation as the element which disrupted traditional teaching and learning and encouraged more flexible boundaries and musical risk taking. I created the following diagram to guide the various lessons, which occurred over approximately one month. 

Table 2: Transition from Formal to Informal with Improvisation as the link (Linton, 2013b)

This diagram begins with the Formal Instruction circle; the first point is that the teacher chooses music.  This is a common occurrence in all music classes.  The second point refers to learning visually – through music notation. At an early age such as the grade one students in the study, visual cues are very important. Although formal notation was not used in the study units, it was noted that the absence of visual cues initially hindered their overall performances in Unit 1. For example, from my field notes:

‘I have been so puzzled by the difficulty the students are having with Unit 1; singing along to their favourite songs with the audio recording. I have watched them struggle in their groups, on their own, and even asked them why it was difficult (to which they had no answer).  I wondered what was so different from regular music classes, and I even wondered if the Unit design was wrong. Then today something amazing happened. I watched the teacher teach them a new song at the end of class. She played the intricate piano part as she taught it because it was going to be for their next mass. It was a very complicated piece, with words they hardly knew how to pronounce. To my amazement, they all sang the correct words, correct pitch and rhythm. I had an “Ah-ha!” moment that almost knocked me off my chair.  All the students were indeed learning visually but not by notation; they were watching every move she made. They watched her mouth, shoulders, eyes, eyebrows, and her upper torso.  These were theirformal cues they use for how to sing the song, and in Unit 1 I have taken their formal cues away and forced them to use their ears instead. I think they are experiencing the ‘sudden shift’ into informal learning.’

It occurred to me as we went along through formal activities into improvisation, that many students were uncomfortable. Some would freeze when it was their turn, some would refuse, and others looked worried and anxious. It was not immediately evident whether they were uncomfortable being the centre of attention , or with the musical activity, or both.  The teacher mentioned that it was difficult to watch her students in an uncomfortable situation, however, I encouraged her and the class to continue with the improvisational activities.  It turned out to have a tremendous impact on the socialization between students and bonding with the whole class.  They displayed moments of empathy when a student showed discomfort, and after a short while every ‘improvisation’ received an enthusiastic round of applause and shouts of ‘Good job!’ and ‘Well done!’. An interim interview with the music teacher illustrates some of the transitions the students faced:

Interim interview – Music teacher

Teacher – But you still need to prep for this, you need to prep for the uncomfortableness, with little games, focusing activities, improvisation, just like you did.

Leslie – Right. The feeling of the isolation within the group.

Teacher – And we treat them like a little blob.

Leslie – And I think that is why they are little uncomfortable, because they are doing something different than their neighbour and they keep looking over and noticing that.

Teacher – That’s an interesting thing yes, and they are 6 now.  We have always been having them doing the same things up until now.

Musically, some students had extreme difficulty with small, short improvisation activities and would ask me to tell them what to do. Others began the transition with more ease and allowed their imagination to guide their actions. By the end of the transition, all students were quite adept at improvisational activities and were ready to move to the informal part.  Many began creating songs at home and writing them down in their Language class during journal time.  These spontaneous moments of creativity were met with great joy and appreciation during music class when they would perform their compositions and then teach the entire class.  Many would tell the ‘composer’ how much they liked their song.

Figure 8- Composition “Bad Boy”

Figure 9 – Composition “If I could fly” with lines indicating duration of specific notes.

In summary, the transitional phase from formal to informal appeared to be a critical aspect in the development of their creativity and confidence. Creative aspects were seen through the many compositions that were brought to the class. This seemed to connect music classes to other classes, and to activities at home.  Their confidence increased as their improvisations were always met with applause and praise. The most significant aspect, however, was the bonding and support offered between students.  Their kindness and trust in each other while emotionally vulnerable during musical improvisations demonstrated a depth of maturity in empathic behaviour. This type of relationship continued into their informal groups and became an essential element of their learning process.

Research Question 2, Theme 1 – Adapting expectations to meet the potential of 21stCentury Learners

One of the most alarming aspects about elementary general music education is the lack of focus on the potential of the child as an independent, intelligent and engaged learner. Curriculum expectations dictating the skills required in music for each grade have not changed in many years, yet, mathematics, science, and language arts have all moved forward; so that children now learn concepts in grade 1 that may have been previously found in grade 3. Although music education is not only about the skills acquired, the curriculum skill expectations are an indication of what an influential body of music educators believe children can do – and most importantly, may become what educators will allow them to do.

One of the informal units in this study showed that students are able to play the C-Major chord and the G-Major chord on the ukulele, alternating when necessary, while singing in-tune to the theme of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.  This skill – to play and hear the chord progression I-V is listed in the Grade 5 expectations. It should be noted that in my research classes all students were able to do this with the exception of one special needs student with decreased motor function in her arms.

Prior to this unit, none of the students indicated that they had heard the theme ‘Ode to Joy’.  I used two YouTube videos to teach the song to them. One was a flash mob with full orchestra and sung in German.  The other was a Muppets character ‘Beaker’ who sang the tune to the sound ‘me’ (strong emphasis on ‘e’).  From there, the students were given chord sheets to follow and the English lyrics. I provided copies of chord sheets and lyrics so that in the future if the students forgot, they could reference them easily.  I also hoped that perhaps when taken home, another family member (parent etc.) might look at the sheets and try playing along.  At the end of the study, the students took home a binder of all activities undertaken during the study.  I provided this binder to all students and included lyric sheets, sheet music, colouring activites, etc so that they could view their progress at any time. 

The students formed groups of varying sizes; containing anywhere from 2-7 children, and created different versions of the song.  Although all could switch from C-Chord to G-Chord while singing, some groups split the parts; C-Chord plays and sings, then another person plays the G-Chord and sings. These spontaneous solos were very interesting as students had to be concentrating on the other person and following exactly where they were in in the song in order to join in with their partner at the right time.  Other groups added percussion instruments, and other groups had conductors.

Figure 10 – Boy demonstrating the C-Chord. Note the green dots that assisted in locating the G-Chord

Figure 11 – Girl demonstrating the C-Chord. Note the lyrics sheet in the background that she followed while playing, without indicators of chord changes.

In post-interview questioning, the majority of students indicated that this was their favourite unit.  They liked playing the instrument and having the freedom to choose how they were going to present the song. They also indicated that they ‘felt like a real musician’ because they could play and sing.

Interview Transcript: Researcher (Leslie) and two girls

Leslie –  What did you like best that we did over the past 6 months?

Girl 1 – Ukulele

Girl 2 – Ukulele

Leslie – Why do you like it?

Girl 1 – That we get to make music with it.

Leslie – What does that mean, that you get to make music with it?

Girl 1 – That we get to play with it.

Girl 2 – Like with the frets.

Leslie – So if you were singing but not playing ukulele would you feel like you were making music?

Girl 1 – No

Girl 2 – No, not really

Leslie – But you feel like you are making music with the ukulele?

Both – Ya

Leslie – So what does it mean to make music? If you are someone who can make music, what can you do?

Girl 1 – You can play an instrument

Girl 2 – You can play the melody and harmony

These type of comments were found in almost every student interview; that if you can play an instrument you are a musician.  The students have pre-existing notions of what it means to be a musician and it is interesting that at such a young age they are able to verbalize the values that they hear and see in the music that surrounds them.

Research Question3, Theme 1 – Childhood culture; What does it sound like?

This question is an important theme in the informal learning process. At first, just like the older students, it appears that there is very little learning happening.  To outsiders it might look chaotic, noisy, unstructured, and that the children are not on-task. Taking a closer look, however, shows a completely different story.  

For example, this event took place during a music class when they were working on Unit 2.  Their task was to figure out ‘Mary had a little lamb’ by ear and play it on the xylophone.

Video observation – Group of 4 students; 2 girls, 2 boys.

All 4 students are playing different notes on the small xylophones at the same time. One girl does a glissando up and down, and then the other 3 copy and play glissandos. There is no conversation between the students while they play the glissandos. They watch each other and look to each other, smiling occasionally. This continues for about 2 minutes until the teacher enters the room. She approaches the group and they stop playing. The teacher starts singing Mary had a little lamb on solfege and the students begin playing mi-re-do as instructed. The teacher leaves and they return to playing glissandos.

After approximately 3 minutes of constant glissandos, they start playing Twinkle Twinkle little star.  The teacher returns and asks them to play Mary had a little lamb.  They play part of the song but it appears far from completion. The teacher leaves again and the students play glissandos non-stop until the entire class returns. 

Each group is asked to demonstrate their progress with Mary had a little lamb. As other groups are playing the 4 students in the observation group are quietly whispering to each other back and forth. When it is their turn to play for the class, the following occurs:

The girl begins the group by counting them in ‘1-2-3’.  

They play the entire piece together (2 phrases) in unison with every note correct.  They all play without letting the notes ring; they hold their mallets on each bar.  The piece ends with a girl playing one glissando up the xylophone.

This situation is very interesting for a number of reasons.  First, we have a group of students who initially appear not to be ‘on task’ and need to be reminded by the teacher to keep practicing the assigned song.  Second, we see that this group is actually quite well-coordinated and have decided to be ‘on-their-own-task’ by doing something they find more engaging; the glissandos.Third, while observing this video we could correctly assume that when asked to perform the piece, the students would be unable to do so; partially because they have not played it through once, and because they only played glissandos for 15 minutes. However, they figure out the notes before it is their turn, decide to change the texture of the sound by holding the mallets on the bars, one person counts the group in and the same person ends the piece with a flourish.

These students are obviously quite capable of playing a simple nursery tune, which leads us to wonder to what extent educators underestimate the abilities of students, and misinterpret their behaviours? Perhaps these behaviours may serve as indicators that the students are capable of more differentiated tasks.  

Another feature of the students in this study was their imagination and creativity.  It seemed that the informal learning process nourished and encouraged these musical extensions and provided a source of joy and excitement for students. One student, interviewed below, was particularly passionate about music:

Interview Transcript

Leslie – You had a journal, right?

Girl – Yes.

Leslie – You had some very interesting compositions in your journal.

Girl– Does composition mean songs?

Leslie – Yes it means making up songs.

Leslie– First of all, how old are you?

Girl – I am 6 ½

Leslie – And what is your favourite subject in school?

Girl – Music! (with great exuberance) 

Leslie– What makes music your favourite subject?

Girl – Well, I kinda want to be a singer when I grow up.  And like I have dreams, and I was thinking about this in class.  In my closet its like a little fort, and I was imagining that there is a lever and you pull the lever and it would like make a hole in the floor and there are music notes leading down to a music land.

Leslie – That is great, is this real?

Girl – No, but I wish it was!

Leslie – So you want to be a singer – do you listen to music now at home?

Girl – Yes, um for my birthday and for some presents I usually get CD’s.

Leslie – Oh and, what kind of CD’s?

Girl – Well I have a (inaudible) from my godparents and like its about Jesus and that stuff.  I just love this one song.  It is called J-e-s-u-s. (She sings a little of the song.)And its like so the dad’s part, mom’s part, older sister who broke her leg in the last show and I got to sing live.  And the other is Minipops. My favourite one on minipops is Party in the USA.  

Leslie – Who is the singer of that?

Girl – I think it is Hanna Montana.  She is my favourite person right after Taylor Swift.  She’s my favourite.

Leslie – What is your favourite Taylor Swift song?

Girl – Probably ‘Trouble’.

Leslie– What is one thing that you find easy in music class?

Girl– I would say that in music class it was easy to sing on the microphone.  Once I sang it and someone in grade 3 plays the drums and Mrs. D. played the piano.  I sang Rolling in the Deep. (she starts singing it)

Leslie – Good for you!

Girl – It was kind of like a band. I was over in the corner with all the grade 7 and 8 instruments.

Leslie –  What has your favourite thing that we have done since I got here?

Girl – Um probably Ode to Joy because we did a group of 4 and that was really cool.

Leslie – What was your least favourite thing?

Girl – I don’t have one.  

Leslie – Let’s say you are really good at music, what can someone do?

Girl – Probably play instruments, and sing without stage fright, do videos, do concerts, all that stuff.

Leslie – What’s stage fright?

Girl – Its when someone goes on stage and they are frozen.

Leslie – Do you have that?

Girl – No.  But the ——- do.  They live in the states and we are going to visit them.

Leslie – Let’s say that you are the teacher, what would you do?

Girl – I would probably do 10 times Taylor Swift Trouble, then 10 times Rolling in the Deep.  Then everyone would get a turn to go on the drums, bass, and microphone.  You can keep track of who had a chance to have a turn.

Leslie – You would be a good music teacher, I want to be in your class! 

This interview demonstrates how important music is in this young girl’s life as she imagines the ‘musicland’ in her closet and asks for CD’s for her birthday.  Among the other interviews, all students showed a preference for specific musicians and were quite enthusiastic when describing their favourite songs and groups of musicians. The difference between this group of students and other student not in the study, is that their favourite songs were a part of their learning in the music classroom. This element assisted in connecting their learning to home activities and connecting home activities to the school music program. Some students mentioned that their parents would try and play along with them, either through an instrument such as guitar and piano, or sing along with the songs they were learning. Her imagination about being the music teacher was interesting and there were other interviews of children with ideas about what music education should look like. It was also interesting that she imagined the music program with the instruments used for the upper years; drums, bass guitar, and microphone. In this study I specifically chose not to use those instruments to more closely duplicate what is typically found in Canadian music classrooms. This student’s proactive and engaged attitude about learning is especially important for continued interest and participation in musical activities. When given some freedom of choice, it appeared that the students become empowered and seemed to gain ownership over their learning; an essential element in every subject area.

The Sociology of Childhood and Informal Learning

This study is informed both my music education research on informal learning and by research in the ‘new sociology of childhood’, which emphasizes  that children exercise agency in interpreting and reproducing childhood, while acknowledging that they are part of the overall social structure of childhood (Corsaro, 2011).  Peer cultures and agency influence behavior and learning in music education, even in the grade one classroom. This is possible because of the informal learning approach, as it is not a linear approach to development.  

According to Morrow (2011, p. 21-22) there are three main points to consider in the new sociology of childhood:

1.     Children are agents and active participants in the construction of knowledge.

2.     Childhood is a variable of social analysis because the ideas of childhood change through space and time.

3.     Childhood is also structural in that it is a permanent social category where the members change but its relationship to adulthood continues.

The new sociology of childhood is still a relatively young branch within the field of sociology and has yet to find its way into the general social structural analysis (Bühler-Niederberger, 2010). Understanding different perspectives is essential to the new sociology of childhood, which challenges researchers to question how we can better respect children in our thinking, how we can elevate the status of youth while drawing on the complexities of the everyday experiences of children and how we can use the diversity of the discipline to keep children’s best interests at the forefront (Morrow, 2011).The results of this study will provide insight into the appropriateness and success of informal music pedagogy in facilitating primary students’ agentic learning of music.


It is hoped that this study may result in a broader conception of expectations of music outcomes and schooling for young children that acknowledges the roleinformal learning may play. Informal learning may result in uncertainty surrounding the role of the teacher. However, the shift in focus away from the teacher to the learner is what is critical for music educators. Those who have been immersed in the western art tradition (whether as musicians or non-musicians, teachers or students) may have specific ideas of what constitutes ‘teaching music’ versus ‘learning music’ versus ‘musicking’ (Small, 1998) and values associated with each.  Addressing these beliefs may require further research and reform our expectations with respect to the values involved in the teaching and learning of music.  

Elementary music education may benefit from informal approaches as students in this study became extremely engaged in their own learning, often seeking additional musical information which was outside of their current tasks. When given the opportunity to become autonomous learners in the music classroom, the students in this study became collaborative learners, creative in their musical performances, communicated with each other both verbally (while in the planning stages; teaching each other, encouraging each other, etc.) and non-verbally (while playing music together), and displayed advanced critical thinking skills through their analysis, discussion, reflection and informed responses to their musical tasks and projects.

In shifting the focus away from how the teacher teaches and towards how the learner learns, we may begin to remove expectations concerning what each individual elementary music program should look like.  The shift away from prescriptive approaches and pedagogies may disrupt teachers’ beliefs with respect to the nature and purposes of music education as well as challenge their understandings of their roles as professional musician/teachers. This will in essence redefine and re-form the nature of music learning and the values associated with ways of learning in all settings whether formal or informal.


Buhler-Niederbeger, D. (2012). Childhood sociology – Defining the state of the art and ensuring reflection. Current Sociology, 58 (2) p. 155-164.

Corsaro, W. (2011). The sociology of childhood 3rdedition. London: Sage

Folkestad, G. (2006). Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning. British Journal of Music Education, 23,(2), 135-145.

Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. London: Ashgate.

Green, L. (2005). The Music curriculum as lived experience: Children’s ‘natural’ music learning processes. Music Educators Journal, 94(4), 27-32.

Green, L. (2008). Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy. London: Ashgate.

Harwood, E. & Marsh, K. (2012). Children’s ways of learning inside and outdis the classroom. In G. McPherson & G. Welch (eds.) The Oxford handbook of music education, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Linton, L. (2013a/b). Informal Learning in the Grade 1 ClassroomPaper presented at the 8thInternational Conference for Research in Music Education, April 9-13, 2013, Exeter, UK. 

Marsh, K. (2008). The Musical playground. London: Oxford University Press

Morrow, V. (2011). Understanding Children and Childhood. Centre for Children and Young People Background Briefing Series, no. 1. (2nded.). Lismore: Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University

Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Wright, R. & Kannelopolous, P. (2012). Informal music learning, improvisation, and teacher education. In Karlsen, S & Vakeva, L. (eds), Future prospects for music education: Corroborating informal learning pedagogy. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Flashmob of Ode to Joy

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In praise of systematic enquiryApril 25, 2014In “curriculum”

In praise of systematic enquiryMarch 7, 2020With 7 comments

In Search of Music EducationMay 17, 2019With 3 comments

Music as a social symbol at this Christmas Time

Better try over number seventy-eight before we start I suppose?’ said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas carol books on a side table. [2]

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, like much of his writing, contains references to music-making. Hardy’s interest in the social conditions of his characters is matched by interest in the social conditions of their music-making.

For Hardy music is social practice. Musical meanings and musical knowledge are made here and now together and bound to the meanings made through the relationships of those participating. And all this in relationship to their place in the social order.

In the case of Under the Greenwood Tree there is the story of the Melstock choir, a band of local musicians playing and singing in the west gallery of their village church. Their music is silenced by the installation of the organ and a well-tutored organist. The imagined mediocrity of the locals is replaced by the imagined more refined and civilising sounds of the organ and the organist’s playing.

The musically disenfranchised locals inhabiting Hardy’s rural Wessex had come to enjoy in Michael Gove’s words:

… a shared appreciation of cultural reference points, a common stock of knowledge on which all can draw, and trade, in a society in which we all understand each other better’. . . [3]

Well, of course, I am being a little ironic, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions such as those of Hardy’s musicians and their customs held in common, but to the proposition that:

… there is such a thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’. [4]

Or shall we say, not the Arctic Monkeys but the carollers on the western edge of Sheffield  whose singing this Christmas-time makes connections with that nearly lost repertoire of Hardy’s childhood time and now lost to the Christmas canon. [5]

The world of Wagner and that of Hardy’s local musicians along with the carolling in North East Derbyshire this Christmas present two utterly different conceptions of what music is, what it is for, how it is educative; what culture is and what it is for.

While there is the knowledge of the powerful [6] exemplified in the edicts of politicians and cultural administrators, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn this Christmas who will be in touch with incomparably more knowledge of music as a human practice and perhaps, just perhaps, of humanity too.

Number seventy-eight was always a teaser – always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap. But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint o’ practice.’ [7]

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!


[1] First published Christmas 2014.

Readers will find a number of previous blogs dealing with the idea of culture. This blog connects well with ‘How culture counts for music education’

[2] Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, London, MacMillan, 1964 page 24.

[3] Gove, M. (2011) The need to reform the education system. Speech made at the University of Cambridge, November 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Pubs preserve the carols dusted away by the Victorians. Guardian, Monday 15 December 2014 page 5.

See for this year’s programme of singing.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See I have simply appropriated the phrase ‘powerful knowledge’ here and don’t necessarily imply anything of Young’s thesis, interesting though that is.

[7] I do concede that I am in some part a romantic. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that nostalgia can be a rich source of critique should readers think I am indulging.

More than my musical ‘voice’

Following from last week’s blog.

And so to Biesta’s second factor preventing the arts (music) from being properly educational. That is, the arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [1]

In the light of an overbearing system of accountability where an audit culture rules, where opportunities for self-expression appear exceptionally constrained, this positioning of music education as antidote is attractive. Engagement, creativity, the child’s unique expressive voice easily become an unqualified starting point and end point of a music education.

While recognising the opportunities provided by a music education for children and young people to express themselves, to have a voice, or as Biesta puts it, ‘to appear as individuals in the world’, [2] expression in itself is never enough.

Biesta develops his argument by considering what it might mean to exist as a subject, a person who doesn’t simply do what they want to do, or who is concerned merely with shaping their identity, but one who learns that ‘to exist as a subject means to exist in dialogue with the world’. [3]

Biesta uses the image of infantile existence as opposed to grown up existence, the one placing ourselves at the centre of the world, the other in dialogue with the world. And it is in being in dialogue with the world that we learn not simply to follow our desires. [4]

I hope readers will bear with me for leading them into questions of what it means to exist, to be in the world, and in dialogue with it. But I do think it relevant to questions about what makes music education educational and what it might mean to be musically educated.

To be in dialogue with the world, (and now let’s say the world that is drenched with music and inhabited by music makers), involves learning responsibility for that which is different and strange, alienating and other.

In this way the musically educated person will be the one with an altered musical outlook rather than the one who has merely learnt to express themselves.

Gert Biesta’s recently published book ‘World-centred education: A view for the present’ is a full development of his argument. It is valuable in that it transcends the traditionalist-progressivist pit.


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge. Page 14.

[2] Op cit

[3] Ibid, page 15.

[4] I am reporting Biesta’s argument in an extremely concise way and in danger of barely doing it justice. However, I hope something of its character is communicated.