In praise of common culture

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 facetious, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions, such as 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 in the Sportsman Inn 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]

Ah! ‘the best of the musical canon’, where have I heard that?

Here are 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 by the cultural edicts of Michael Gove, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn 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] 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’ 21/11/2014.

[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.

[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.

Music Education after the rhetoric

After the rhetoric of the Westminster Forum,

free from the hub-bub of music education’s status anxiety,

away from the rhetoric of its cloying advocacy

and its injunction to puppetier each child: ‘I am a musician’

I thought I would quietly ask:

Why is it that we have so little sense of how the subject named music is grounded, the nature of its disciplinary framework, its ontos?

How it might be educational and not simply participatory?

How might it stand up to, resist and see off a swirrling marketplace of ideas, snakeoil salesmen, innovation voyers, packages of what to do. And the debilitating discourse of technical rationality reducing the richness of classroom relationships to edubable and the chant-rant ‘watch my lips-there are no sub-levels’?

A start might be to ask the kind of questions not heard at those forums purporting to further the cause of music education. They are straightforward questions that might give what we do in the name of music education an ethical trajectory in which the music teacher in tandem with the pupil has great responsibility – responsibility for the way music is made and thought about – responsibility for the meanings that are made through music-making together.

Some questions:

1. How do I decide what to teach?

2. What questions will this raise for my pupils?

4. What questions will it raise for me the teacher?

5. How will it tell more about how music is made?

6. How will it make sense of music as a social-cultural practice?

7. How will it help us better understand what music is?

8. How will we together evaluate the worth of what we have experienced and come to know?

9. How can we progress from here?

Responsibility, not accountability.





Music education, high-quality progression and the question of standards

@Johnfinney8 @TTMLondon @EnglishCadence I am happy to report without commonly agreed standards KS1 to 3. That’s what I’m saying.
05:53 PM – 28 Nov 14

In last week’s blog I considered the question of standards in light of a new National Curriculum for Music in England and its revised assessment arrangements; and in particular, in view of the demise of statutory levels of attainment. For the past fifteen years levels of attainment have been the official measure of standards and the markers of progression in music.

The issue becomes more focused with David Ashworth’s question:

‘Can we really say what a given child should be able to do musically at a given age?’ [ #musiced]

At the same time it is pointed out that children at the primary stage may be much more musically capable than is currently realised, and this in the context of Musical Futures proposing a primary Musical Futures to assist in fulfiling statutory requirements.

All this is of interest to secondary school music teachers. Jane Werry writes:

‘What would I like my Year 7s to have experienced/learned before they come to secondary school? I would like them to have acquired a sense of pulse and have an understanding of how this is divided up into metre. I want them to have experienced singing in different parts, and have thought about breathing and tone production. I want them to have used their head voices! I would like them to know a little bit about different instruments and have had some experience of playing something (anything). I want them to know what pitch, tempo, dynamics etc. are and what chords, melodies and bass lines are. I want them to be open-minded about different styles and be prepared to risk getting things wrong.’  []

This week I received news of music-making in a Hertfordshire primary school where Jane’s expectations are indeed being met. In particular, I received a christmas carol composed by a group of year 6 pupils to feature in their Christmas concert.

It’s Christmas Time – melody

It’s Christmas Time

The pupils’ work resulted from membership of the school’s after-school composing club, a voluntary extra to the once weekly curriculum music. I wondered about what had been achieved and asked the teacher whether in her view, and it was a long and wise view, most end of Key Stage 2 pupils had the potential to compose a song like this. The answer was:

Yes, IF-

  1. a) The children have been (widely) exposed to this sort of idiom, ie have experienced and have assimilated. Our song is very like a lot of the Christmas songs that are around in (some) schools at this time of year, every year, so Y6 children are very familiar with this sort of song (words and music), eg regular metre, rhyming patterns, tonal melody, certain rhythmic variations. As far as the words were concerned, I only helped a little bit with the scansion; and, for the tune, suggested trying out different last notes for a couple of the lines so they led on better to the following lines. The starting point was one girl’s spontaneous singing and playing of the first line of the chorus. She completed the chorus, with input from the others, and then two of the others (from group of 5) used the white board to play around with words for the verses – grouping phrases that rhymed. The other three added ideas, but mainly explored ideas for accompanying the chorus. Week 2 (each session is an hour) we pulled the words together and made up a tune – 4 of the 5 created a line each, trying out on tuned perc.
  2. b) There is time to compose – both words and music. See above for the process. How would/could this have worked within a whole class setting in half hour sessions? I’ve done similar when in the hall, because enough space for groups to spread out, but couldn’t do in my current music room.
  3. c) There is a culture of composing – ie experience of the act of composing as well as of the genre of music – it is a normal activity. We do it in class (small-scale improvising to class performance of created ‘work’), and also this group are now on their 2nd batch of 5 weeks in composing club, albeit not necessarily with same children, except for one girl who didn’t come before.

Although I don’t think the song is one of the best I’ve seen from top juniors if one is going for that elusive aspect of creativity/imagination/originality, it’s ok, and they are pleased with it, as also are the head, their class teacher and their peers. It is, one might say, a good reflection of (some of) their musical experiences to date, in response to the set task of composing a song for the Christmas concert.’

So, do we have a standard here? Can we say what all children should be able to do at a given age?

Well, in the case above, the teacher is most interested in how these children are thinking musically, that they are thinking ‘idiomatically’, a marker of musical development, and as evidenced through understanding of regular metre, rhyming patterns, tonal melody, certain rhythmic variations.

The teacher is highlighting the role of composing in the primary school as the place where understanding as well as knowledge and skill is in evidence.

The teacher has expectations for a level of musical attainment reached at the end of Key Stage 2 and the quality of musical thinking essential to this. These expectations are an important marker of musical progress. Might such expectations, or shall we call them standards, be commonly agreed? After all the teacher’s expectations are supported by a disitnguished research study.

@Johnfinney8 @TTMLondon @EnglishCadence I am happy to report without commonly agreed standards KS1 to 3. That’s what I’m saying.
05:53 PM – 28 Nov 14