Music Education dignified by thought

‘They mirror the whole repertoire of human expereince, and are worthy of study in their own right. It is difficult to imaging a world without arts.’

These words were written in 1998 in the introduction to ‘The Arts Inspected’, a book setting out examples of good teaching in Art, Dance, Drama and Music. No, not ‘outstanding’ teaching, just ‘good’ teaching. (1)

The book offers examples of good teaching in each of the arts across the 5-18 age range. One of these has stayed firmly in my mind. Every time I return to it I am intrigued and caused to think a bit more. It is in chapter 5, the chapter dedicated to Music and written by the then HMI for Music, Janet Mills. It is a story of transition from primary to secondary school. I wont quote the example in full but enough to make a point. Janet writes:

‘Called ”Moving On”, the materials are based around four songs about transport that the pupils learn in primary school, using lively backing tracks if their teachers wish, and also sing during an induction visit to Cosley School shortly before the end of year 6. There are also some optional composing activities and listening exercises, based on compositions by pupils in Key Stage 4, that can be completed in Year 6.

The teacher’s certainty that Year 7 pupils have four songs in common, and his experience that virtually all pupils enjoy the songs, frees him to plan a first Year 7 lesson that uses them as a springboard for challenging composing, performing, listening and appraising activities. The self-consciousness that arises when Year 7 pupils are asked to start singing at secondary school by leaning a new song in new surroundings and seated among pupils that they do not know is avoided.’ (2)

Much of this will feel familiar as having aspects of commonly used transition strategies – the reworking of familiar material, being at home with ‘musical old friends’ (the songs) and having something in common with new friends in my class. But Janet Mills goes on to provide a detailed description of a Year 7 lesson and I now quote just one part of this.

‘Next, the pupils worked on all the songs, responding to advice from the teacher about how to improve the quality of their singing. As this section of the lesson developed, the pupils also answered questions about the music and their singing that required them to develop their ability to replay and rewind music in their heads, increase the focus with which they listened to and evaluated their own singing, and think even harder.’ (3) (4)

In this clear description there is also sharp analysis which explains why this activity has value, is worth doing. The pupils are led to ‘think even harder’ by learning that they are able to ‘replay and rewind music in their heads’. The pupils are called to think, think music and think about it. It is this thinking dialectic that is so fascinating; thinking in sound-thinking through language: musical thought impregnated by language. I wonder how this works. Anyway, Janet Mills has captured the kernal of a music education dignified by thought, allbeit held in microcosm. We should be grateful.

It is fashionable now to share practice through video recording. But do we need a video record of the above musical encounter, or even an audio recording in the light of the description and analysis. This, I suggest, would be largely superflous? It might show enthusiastic singing or not, singing that we would want to improve or not and a great deal more, all of which might inspire action, of course. And yes, seeing is believing. However, and much more importantly, we have a concisely articulated rationale for this musical episode. It is the ‘why’ that is sadly missing from so much practice that we hear about and see presented. That pupils are engaged, singing in forty parts, for example, is hardly a rationale.

On Saturday, March 15th some of us are coming together for a day of ‘thinking and making music together’. Please join us if you want to think even harder. Details here: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/events/conferences/makingthinkingmusic/

Next week’s blog looks at an example of what advanced workshop-ing skill might be like.

(1) ‘The Arts Inspected: Good teaching in Art, Dance, Drama, Music’. Gordon Clay, John Hertrich, Peter Jones, Jant Mills and Jim Rose. Heinemann/Ofsted, 1998.
That the book is concerned with ‘good teaching’ rather than ‘outstanding teaching’ reminds us that values change over time and that the ethos of Ofsted in 1998 is very different from 2014. Different government, performativity regime tightened, more urgent tasks; Ofsted becomes reactive, unstable, ahistorical.
(2) Ibid, pp.68-69.
(3) Ibid, p.69.
(4) A student of Ofsted school reports will note that one of the current stick and paste phrases used in recognition of effective teaching is ‘… and think even harder.’ This is related to teacher questioning and believed to deepen understanding.

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