In 1976 Raymond Williams, the Welsh cultural theorist, published the book ‘Keywords, A vocabulary of culture and society’. (1) It was revised and expanded in 1983. It is shortly to be republished. Raymond Williams had gathered his keywords and researched their provenance over a period of thirty years following the Second World War. The word ‘culture’ unsurprisingly has one of the longest entries. Each entry is in effect a mini essay through which Williams shows how words change their meaning over time and across contexts. Others have asked: how is it that words can have meaning? After all, many words can only be defined in terms of other words. (2) Rarely can definitions provide the meaning of a word or term. In this view reducing words to labels is the final act of meaninglessness.

In England it was about 1995 that words started appearing on music room walls. When asked one of those demeaning closed questions seeking out the saying of a word, pupils could be seen gazing bemusedly around the walls. This marked the beginning of a guessing game. What made it worse was that the words were often those monster words designated ‘the elements of music’, those wondorous abstractions far removed from the particularities of musical experience and the features in music that arrest attention (or not). As time passed these monsters came to be augmented by lesser monsters and often specific to a particular musical style or genre. As the prescribed vocabulary expanded the term ‘keywords’ became common currency. These had the advantage of being sub-sets of the monster words and genre specific. But still the guessing game continued and the practice of ‘coercive identity thinking’ flourished. (3)

As I observed the spread of ‘identity violence’, I became interested in another kind of classroom where there were no keywords on the wall and where the teacher talked to the whole class, groups and individuals in a register easily comprehended and into which were sprinkled unselfconsciously new and powerful words. They were at their most potent when this happened inside the discourse of music making, where they were no longer meaningless labels but context-bound and open to multiple meanings and interpretation, before arriving at some kind of consensus. Neither were these words necessarily categorisable into ‘technical’ or ‘expressive’ because there was a poetic quality to the discourse enabling meaning making to flourish.

In all this, from time to time, the pupils’ talk was nurtured through the use of ‘talking points’ (4) and as pupils’ productive talking became second nature so too did the expansion of the language used.

While I am consigning the idea of keywords prevalent in our schools to the dustbin we should perhaps seek to emulate Raymond Williams and discover a vocabulary of music and society. William’s task was to explore the actual language of cultural transformation. We must explore the actual language of music and society’s transformation.

(1) Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, Raymond Williams, Fontana Press, 1983.
(2) See ‘The meaning of words’ in ‘What does it all mean? Thomas Nagal, Oxford University Press, 1987.
(3) See my Blog Teaching Music Website, May 5th, 2013
(4) See my Blogs Teaching Music Website, June 9th, June 16th, June 23rd, July 7th, September 22nd, September 30th and October 13th for an exploration of the role of talk in reframing music education.

Formal and informal musical moments in a year 8 class

At Musicexpo last week Phil Mullin of Community Music fame made the assertion that the formal, non-formal, informal divisions are unhelpful. Whatever fresh thinking these categories may have given birth to, this has now lost its savour. At worst such distinctions invite a citidel mentality.

For Folkstadt (1) the distinction between formal and informal is a matter of orientation at any given time. Is it an orientation towards how to play music (formal) or towards playing and making (informal)? Chris Philott (2) explains how this is frequently ‘the instant switching between learning styles’, a constant flipping.

A central critique of formal learning has been its capacity to alienate the learner through separating learning from the social identity of the learner. The learner is without ownership, denied agency. They are unable to see themselves in what they are doing. Keeping in mind the idea of flipping between learning styles we will consider a concrete example.

I am in London, half a mile from the Cambridge-Liverpool Street line and have been invited to be part of a year 8 lesson. The class are lined up with instruments in cases. There is a slight delay as the room is vacated by GCSE students recording ensemble work. Once in we listen to a recording of the class’s performance of the Beatle’s Twist and Shout. I smile when we reach that ‘dominant’ pile up section (the thought of theorising this!!! here, now!!!) Anyway, not at all bad I thought and the class seemed pleased with their progress as instrumental players and as a class ensemble of 22.

Now it’s back to reggae which started last week and ‘Three Little Birds’. First, instrumental warm up time, then some rhythmic and pitch calling and copying, including that clave rhythm and of course lots of reggae rhythms and melodic twists. Into sectionals with pupils mostly directing eachother (formal) in their making and playing (informal), and sometimes teacher directed (formal) assisting movement into a self-sustainable groove (informal). Lilian is having a whale of a time on keyboard. There is a powerful rhythmic reggae idomatic feel to her playing and making, and she is vocalising at the same time (informal orientation for most of the lesson). Amarose on drum kit is quickly into the groove and like others, once in the groove, and as a consequence of repetition, new material is made (informal)(3) (4). Tshian asks me how to play A on her trumpet and we have a short discussion about pitch and embouchure (formal). Perhaps unsurprisingly the keyboard, bass guitar, drum section get well-grooved first and ready to welcome back the rest who with some ease join the music. We have ten minutes of whole class playing with the teacher leading the ensemble round a circuit of possible structural combinations wthout a break (formal-informal).

Overall the work is musical, stylistic and yes, a kind of reggae. Not much sign of alienation even though some had told me that reggae is not their thing (mostly into hip-hop). Did they have ownership of this music? Have they been agents of their musical selves? The class left in a quiessent state and any constraints restricting their agency and ownership caused by formalities experienced in the lesson would, I thought, offer future freedoms, autonomy. A good enough music lesson. (5)

The teacher knows each pupil well and of course is continually making judgements about individual levels of musical fluencey, expressiveness, stylistic acumen-feel for reggae. All things worth assessing. And when it comes to offering up levels to the school’s system (6) this can be done without much fuss using the soulful data (7) which is there to see week on week as the class mature, play with increasing ease, feel the spaces between the notes and gather meaning from their ever widening musical experiences.

After the lesson I enjoyed reading what the pupils write about music in response to ‘talking points’ that are often used at the end of a project. And then I have a taste of GCSE compositions, a waltz working with a two note major seventh motif, a Steve Reich pastische, both knowing how to proportion imaginative musical ideas through time. (8)

Chris Philpott suggests that the ‘formal-informal moment’ idea calls for action research. I am now thinking about how to design such a piece of research. It would yield interesting knowledge I feel sure. It might even produce some fresh categories much needed for meaningful discussion of pedagogy.

(1) Folkestad, G. (2006) ‘Formal and Informal Learning Situations or Practices vs Formal and Informal Ways of Learning’, in British Journal of Music Education, 23 (2): 135-145.
(2) Philpott, C. (2012) ‘Assessment for Self-directed Learning in Music Education’, in C. Philpott and G. Spruce (eds) Debates in Music Teaching, London: Routledge.
(3) The point has often been made that music making is generative especially through the act of repetition. In this case Amarose was generating elaborations (fills) while Lilian was generating a variety of reggae vamping effects.
(4) I don’t seem to be capturing ‘moments’, more like mini and macro episodes.
(5) ‘Good-enough’ I say, but SLT/Ofsted may well say ‘outstanding’, who knows?
(6) In this school there is no yielding on Levels.
(7) A reference to Paul Hughes Teaching Music forum entry referring to ‘soulless’ data’. I don’t understand why there is a reluctance to assess the music, the product. The distinction between process and product is unhelpful. There is always a product before us moment by moment, there for us to make a judgement about.
(8) See last week’s blog for discussion of composing and time spans.

Teaching musical composition

Teaching musical composition is likely to continue to be something of a conundrum and certainly when it is framed by the requirements of a public examination; for example, the UK General Certificate of Secondary Education. A good number of teachers opt for what they consider to be a reliable formulaeic approach even if it means all students produce near identical waltzes. It gets the grade. That’s justification enough they say.

On the other hand there are those teachers who remain intrigued by how we learn to compose and even compose themselves to better understand the process which their students are being asked to engage with. I am one of those teachers. I have been composing quite a lot lately and thinking about the nature of musical ideas, where they come from, how they are ‘sculpted’ and made to mean, what happens to them and how they work to make a whole where there is some sense of completion and a musical work. This of course is a pretty traditional view of composing music. The goal is to find closure, completion and quite likely some sense of organic unity rather than making what is infinitely open and incomplete, another way of thinking about composing. I am sure there are many more.

Some teachers, I am one, are interested in the student’s impulse to compose, what gets them started, what is it that draws them on, what is it that needs to be expressed? In all this it is the musical idea that holds most fascination, where it comes from, what’s it for? Without idea there is nothing. Without some concept of what the work is there is nothing. The impressive LIC report (1) thinks of this as being related to the idea of ‘intentionality’, one of the ten themes emerging from the research.(2)

So, it was with great interest that I entered a year 10 GCSE composing classroom to talk with a group of embryonic composers and to find out what kind of musical ideas they were having and what they were doing with them. They had worked on a composition using the stimulus of images from a graffiti exhibition. The choice was theirs. I knew nothing else about the teaching process they had been part of and I was reminded of the view that composition teaching only begins when the pupil has created something, only then is the composer’s thinking made available.

What struck me about the work of these beginning composers was the originality of their ideas. I encountered no musical idea that wasn’t fresh, imaginative. No derivations, no plagarisms, nothing ordinary. Every musical idea had a character of its own, a sensuous particularity, and the more I listened to each the more I wanted to hear it again to better understand its particularity and to see in it what I had previously failed to see/hear.(3) Sharing this process with its maker was how I was being a teacher of composition. These conversations can rightly be thought of as assessment, not assessment as measuring but as dialogue where interpretation, judgement and discrimination are at work. (4)

I should explain that the music had been made through the programme pro-tools and that may have assisted in creating musical ideas that were refined and seemingly well-intentioned. But, and it was a big but: why so many ideas? In each case, weren’t there more than enough ideas, enough ideas for quite a few compositions? And as I listened even more closely it wasn’t that the ideas were being thrown away without any kind of development. It was unusual for this to be the case. The question became one about time span and what kind of time span did the material need to do the material justice? Was all the material needed?

What I felt to be most important as a teacher of composition was to affirm what was being presented to me (5) and to sharpen each composer’s perception of what they had made, and together review the innumerable compositional techniques at work, many unbeknown to the composer. Thus analysis conversed with intuition.(6) Indeed, I moved steadily towards an analytical orientation. I wanted to help the composers make visual schemes of their compositions in order to objectify what was there as a way of thinking about the work as pieces of architecture and to create talking points: whys, hows and what ifs? I wanted to draw in what other composers had done and think about why they had done this or that, and why not that. How did they manage material within their time spans?(7)

As a teacher I was being both facilitator and mediator, mediating knowledge and culture, a pretty basic call upon being a teacher through which the teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt at best find a poetic unity.

(1) See Listen Imagine Compose (LIC) Report (2014) Martin Fautley,
(2) See Witkin (1974) ‘The intelligence of Feeling’ for depth attention to ‘intentionality’ within the creative process.
(3) You may recall from a previous blog (May 5th, 2014, Teaching Music website) I dealt with the concept of ‘identity violence’ which reduces the scope of perception and experience. In this instance I am working to counter it.
(4) See LIC theme 4.
(5) Judgement, discrimination, interpretation at the heart of musical-artistic-aesthetic hermeneutic understanding ie. assessment with an epistemological basis.
(6) The interplay between intuition and analyis- see Swanwick, K. (1994) Musical Knowledge: Intution, Analysis and Music Education, Routledge.
(7) LIC theme 7.

Never mind learning what about educating!

In the previous blog I examined a commonplace whole class activity, one with a long history and good provenance. I tried to show that as with all such activities being clear about its educational value (rationale) can help to make it more than a matter of routine, and to see in it endless opportunities to extend pupils’ musical thinking and understanding.

And now I need to extend my own thinking about this.

If ‘tutti-solo’ were to be a regular feature then it would be educative to open up the ‘tutti-solo’ process by offering it as a talking point for the class at some stage. Well focused talking is thinking.

Schools place great emphasis on the development of oracy as a component of literacy. But what is worth talking about? When might it be helpful? How does it connect to reading and writing about music? Can it overcome the tyranny of ‘key words’, ‘two stars and a wish’, ‘feeble self-indulgent evaluations’? Can talk, thought of as thinking about music, form an aspect of our subject’s hard-edged intellectually demanding character?

Ok, teachers do too much talking (1), but pupils not enough mind-raising talk, too much inconsequential talking. What might we talk about?

There is talk about the processes of ‘making music’ (eg. the process of tutti-solo). Secondly, talk about music as a social-cultural practice and thirdly, about the nature of music at a philosophical level. But what kinds of talk are there?

Karen Littlejohn and Neil Mercer propose three kinds: explorative, cumulative and disputational. (2) All this can be explained to pupils, rehearsed and subequently owned by them.

The challenge for the teacher will be when and how to take a little time out from the centrality of music-making to induct pupils into being meta-thinkers. It seems to me that here is one way of helping music education to be educative, claim rigour, and loosen the remorseless reference to ‘learning’ as if this reference by itself justified whatever was going on. Never mind learning, what about educating?

In the Winter 2013-14 issue of the Music Mark magazine Wayne Bowman writes:

‘The values afforded by music-making depend on the kind of music at hand, the ways we engage in it, and the uses to which that experience is subsequently put.’ (3)

In other words, without a clearly thought-through rationale our most cherrished warm up routine may have little merit. The step from meta-thinking to critical thinking may be but a small one.

(1) Teacher narrative talk is one exception.
(2) ‘Interthinking: putting talk to work’, Routledge, Karen Littlejohn and Neil Mercer.
(3) ‘The ethical significance of music-making’, Music Mark Magazine, Winter 2013/14 pp. 3-6, Wayne Bowman.