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.


3 thoughts on “Formal and informal musical moments in a year 8 class

  1. When this class reach year 9 they will learn to play Terry Riley’s In C. In year 7 they created a pastishe version of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. I am encouraged that the class are coming to know music through musical works from inside a range of musical practices. And with no end of formal and informal moments, and no end of formal and informal episodes.

  2. Pingback: After the Music Learning Revolution | Music Education Now

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