Placing something of significance before your students

Arnold Bentley viewed much of the innovation in music education in the 1960s and 70s as superficial. His was a commitment to what might be called a traditional music education.

Sing in tune with pleasant tone
Know songs learnt by rote
Sight sing
Write in staff notation
Play instruments from staff notation
Know some music from listening only

As part of this Bentley identified improvisation as the creative element that would play an important part throughout. [1]

This was the primary school curriculum on which a secondary one could build.

Bentley was suspicious of fads in music education, those things that come and go, bright lights that distract. There had been plenty of these in the past. For Bentley, in place of fads there were enduring principles. [2]

John Paynter began his teaching career in the 1950s. On the day I spent with him near the end of his life, he related how he started by teaching in a ‘traditional’ way, much like that set out above. [3] However, it wasn’t long before he embarked upon experimenting with small group improvising and composing using classroom instruments and voices. [4] The rest is history as they say.

But John made an interesting point as our conversation flowed into memories of his own education during the 2nd World War. He told me about his form master reading the stories of P. G. Woodhouse to the class. John made the point, with some insistence, that teachers had a duty to place something of significance before their pupils.

I was reminded of this responsibility on hearing from a Suffolk classroom and the work of Year 9 pupils. Beginning music teacher Anna took into the classroom as a matter of significance Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

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.’’ [5] [6]

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

Anna tells me how the music provoked strong responses, interesting talking points and the basis for the students’ own music-making using extracts of human speech and pro tools.

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’.

There is an ongoing debate around ‘relevance’ in education, and not least in music education. But relevant to what, for what and why? Is it sufficient to say, if it has human interest it will be relevant because I identify with the human condition of others?

Reich’s realisation that his train journeys across the USA between his estranged parents were concurrent with the trains taking children to Auschwitz cause me to think and feel. I identify with this. I can relate to it. This music, like mine causes me to interpret the world and to go on re-interpreting it. I am called to think. I am being educated. I am less ignorant now. Mmmm. [7]


[1] Bentley, A. (1975) Music in Education: A Point of View. NFER Publishing Company Ltd. (Nine copies available from Amazon. Each priced 1p.)
[2] ‘Enduring principles in music education’? This idea seems ill-tuned to our liquid modern world.
[3] This week in a twitter conversation I asserted that the 1950s were a high point in English Music Education. SouthGlosMusicHub disagreed. Of course, I didn’t have much evidence for my assertion. Somebody once made this assertion to me. I was brought up short, as they say. Perhaps I should have tweeted ‘the 1950s before Rock Around the Clock.’
[4] Paynter had Orff instruments to work with, instruments intended for improvisation.
[5] Taruskin, R. (2010) The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays. University of California Press: London. p.101.
[6] See
[7] And I am now thinking how a critical pedagogy might require a step further. Mmmm.


3 thoughts on “Placing something of significance before your students

  1. Anna is going to try these talking points to be used while pupils compose.

    Our music is emotive because…
    Our story relates to our lives/other people’s lives because…
    Our story relates to Steve Reich’s story because…
    There’s not really a story here at all. It’s just music.
    Reich’s music has a ‘chug’. Ours has …

    1. I am reminded of the work of Vicki Waller (Blog March 22, 2014 below) observing paired computer composition noting the limited amount of exploratory talk caused by fixing strategies. Will the talking points above lead to more exploratory talk and greater creativity?

  2. Pingback: Music education with human interest and critical intent | Music Education Now

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