Why so few descriptions of music lessons?

Why so few – I mean so few thick descriptions rich enough for the reader to feel they are there, smelling the carpet, sensing the ebb and flow of relationships and interactions, getting the climate of this particular classroom? Is the only place to find these in fictional literature, in D.H. Lawrence, in James Joyce?

Well here’s one seen through my eyes, knowing what I know and interested in what interests me as well as others I hope. While there is an ever increasing amount of on-line video material showing classroom episodes, much of this comes without context, analytical comment or interpretation that might lead to meta-analysis and the discerning of principles. I hope the reader will be able to enter this classroom with me through my description and interpretation of what I see and hear. You will meet the phrase ‘a myriad of subtleties impossible to describe’.

Ok, video has a place. I leave it to the reader to discern my bias, my interests.

‘The music department is at the far end of the school, by the playing field where sea gulls come. Perhaps they are no longer sea gulls. We are quite a way from the sea and they were there last time I came. Some things don’t change but there is big change in the music room. The tables that had grouped pupils into ready-made ensembles have moved to the sides and now supporting paired keyboard work when deployed in what is a re-designed curriculum.

This is a 12.00 to 1.00 lesson for this year 8 class, their last year of musical entitlement in this school. Twenty eight smartly uniformed pupils enter to the recorded sound of Senegalese Drumming and quietly follow well-practised protocols of bags down, coats off, planners out, chairs round ready to music. Fourteen djembe sit waiting in the centre of the room. Somebody wants to know about the djembe with a slit standing by the piano. The teacher explains. Then a, ‘lads, come on’ to two boys not yet with chairs round. Djembe are gathered to be shared in pairs and then the three techniques learnt in the last lesson, ‘bass-tone-slap’, revised with the teacher leading from the front as virtuoso master drummer.

Pupils in their pairs are labelled ‘right’ and ‘left’ and it is ‘rights’ who play first with plenty for ‘lefts’ to be imaging and imagining as they look, listening and move inwardly and sometimes outwardly too. What follows is quick fire call and response work deploying mnemonics. There is a ‘you are very nice – thank you very much’ x 3 and so on building a structure that calls for and gets body-mind engrossment from the class. There is lots of repetition, recursion, hard-nosed rehearsing and a particular focus on the ‘bedap’ effect. ‘Again-again-look-listen-let’s try it … knees-side thighs … is it together … better… listen … is it together? Can you feel it in your back?’ Now the ‘bass’ technique is worked on. ‘Look, it’s a cricketer’s bowling action’ and the teacher shows how the whole thing is a dance of the body despite being seated, a swaying forward, a side movement and a myriad of subtleties impossible to describe.

And then the call to Daniel to remember to keep the mouth of the djembe open i.e. the djembe leans forward for it to speak. The teacher draws the class into a perpetually mobile discourse of music, imagery and metaphor. This is ‘rapid progress’, pacey stuff. Now it’s ‘lefts’ to play but not before ‘rights’ have written an assessment of their progress on their postcards given on entry to the classroom. At the completion of the ‘rights’ playing comes a gentle complaint about ‘lefts’ having more time than ‘rights’. The teacher-pupil friendly banter moves things on.

The ethic of care being engendered is palpable as the teacher exhorts in words and music how this music can be ‘immense’. Now step 2 of the lesson, making things harder by upping the tempo. The quality of movement is again emphasised as the teacher dances with the djembe. Jan comments that he had noticed how the register had been marked and how the teacher had moved rhythmically back and forth as a call and response – with ‘name-here’, ‘name-here’ …

The teacher shares with the class her bad school-wide reputation for failing to mark the register and how the email notifying failure is made public through the staff email. A short discussion follows about more efficient ways of registering pupils. Pupils are not short of ideas. A very short interlude and back to a concern for ensemble, for fluency and for the music to be felt. And now the structure is extended and the vocals learnt last week added.

The teacher apologises for not knowing what the words mean but the important thing is that we know this is a welcome song. Final performance and much satisfaction. Seven minutes to 1.00 and djembe to centre of the room. Time for reflection and the class are asked to write a ‘Dear …’ postcard to the teacher telling what had been gained from the lesson today. ‘Not a ‘’I liked the lesson’’, at least three sentences, a proper postcard message please. I will read them all and keep them for ever. And this will help me to organise groups for next week when you will be making your own pieces.’ The teacher collects the postcards with a smile of approval for each pupil. 1.00 and lunch-time. The teacher goes into virtuoso drummer mode asking the class to move in time as they leave. They do and they don’t. The teacher is alive and well and another ‘good-enough music lesson’.’

Putting assessment back in its box

The Silent Disco project reported on in last week’s blog provides an example of what has been described as authentic learning connected to the real world. The school reaches out and meets cultural practice. [1]

There was the commitment that all year 9 pupils, yes all, would make ‘excellent work’ (well crafted, polished) and for this to be communally celebrated. [2]

While the process of making was heavily schooled and scaffolded, teacher-led and thoroughly formal in many respects, the commitment to communal achievement resonates with what is thought to be the informality of community music-making where the pedagogy serves the idea of forming a musical community.

The ethos of building a community of music-makers overrides interest in individual talent, differential achievement and the paraphernalia of assessment that marks out formal systems of schooling.

‘This would mean that instead of focusing on clearly defined goals, assessed with some measure of achievement, evaluation would be first and foremost interested in musical experience, valued in qualitative terms. If we accept that education is, at root, ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’ (Dewey [1897] 1996), it makes sense to pay attention to the richness of music-related meanings emerging from the active relationships of sonic events, music(k)ers and physical space.’ [3]

So instead of following a typically schooled pattern of assessment where each pupil is measured against norms derived from (in this case) Club Dance practice, the communal achievement of the year group would be evaluated in wider socio-musical terms.

For example, how well has our silent disco enabled us to live/experience/know music, think about what it means to live music together with others? Have we created a community of practice, explored new relationships, musically-socially? Where do we go from here?

But wait a minute, let’s rewind to the commonly understood alternative referred to above where, in the case of Club Dance, assessment would focus on the ways in which the sonic hallmarks of this particular musical practice have been worked with and mastered by these year 9 pupils. For example, how effectively has sonic material been phased, gradually layered, morphed?

In returning to assessment, and leaving aside evaluation, we are faced with the question of norms and standards.

Club Dance is a musical practice that has gatekeepers, that is, those who provide the exemplars and models of successful practice and standards to emulate.

I gave one example of year 9’s work anonymously to one such gatekeeper. It was thought the work represented a standard expected at Key Stage 3. And if all forty pieces had been examined then most likely we would have found some ‘working towards’ this standard and some ‘working beyond’.

Whether focusing on evaluation or assessment or both is there really a need for levels, numbers, grades?

Perhaps the place to start is to develop a music-making community that together produces ‘excellent work’ (music made well, polished). Only then should we consider letting assessment out of its box.


[1] I have been wondering whether a Silent Disco is a dynamic life enhancing form of contemporary sociality or as Roger Scruton might say a form of collective solitude. I have been talking to silent disco experts who are telling me about the new kinds of musical-social relations brought about by such an event.

[2] Is this the ultimate expression of ‘inclusion’?

[3] Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nickkannen, H. and Vakeva, L. (2014) ‘What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ for general music education.’ Music Education Research, (16) 2, 162-175.

Dewey, J. [1897] 1996. ‘’My Pedagogical Creed.’’ In The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Vol. 5, edited by L. Hickman, 84-95. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Silent Disco

In last week’s blog I reported on music in a school committed to Project Based Learning. The school claims two purposes – for students to ‘create beautiful work’ and for them to ‘make a difference to the world’. To find out more I attended the school’s Exhibition of Beautiful Work created by all pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9.

I was drawn to two events in particular.

First, Year 9 Humanities/Drama – Revolutions as Immersive Theatre which the programme described as: The Russian and French Revolution fused with the idea of immersive theatre, Year 9 present a unique and thrilling immersive revolution experience. Form the storm of the Bastille to Bloody Sunday, Marie Antoinette and Lenin, these students synthesise their knowledge of these epic historical events with their understanding of experimental theatre. Bringing you into their world, Year 9 attempt to express their vision of events. Viva la Revolution!

Second, Music – Silent Disco described as: Year 9 have been writing Club Dance pieces using industry standard software. They have incorporated a variety of minimalist techniques including phasing, repetition, gradual layering and metamorphosis into their compositions and have developed their skills as composers and producers. Tonight we invite you to dance along to our Silent Disco event where all forty compositions will be played. The wearing of rave paint and glow bracelets is actively encouraged. Enjoy!

Invited to provoke thought at a recent Teach Through Music event, Gary Spruce said:

My argument is that if one cannot make the case for music as mirroring society then fundamentally one cannot make the case for music education. For it is in the uses to which people put music that it gains its meaning. … Music is one of the key means by which individuals, groups and societies create and project their sense of identity. http://www.sound-connections.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Gary-Spruce-provocation.pdf

I have never been to a silent disco. Neither have I worn rave paint or a glow bracelet. With headphones on and surrounded by the makers of the music dancing and waving glow sticks in celebration, it all made sense. Music put to use and meaning being made through which we projected our sense of identity.

I was struck by the spaciously rich quality of the sound and especially the thickness and depth of the bass. Much of this is lost as we listen to the music here

Some pupils had worked individually, some in pairs and together making a near seamless compilation of the forty pieces. (The sample above comprises three pieces.)

You the listener, now separated from the event, may well be drawn to the music’s sonic properties and their organisation, considering what it is that the three pieces have in common and where the uniqueness of each lies.

The question for the pupils was ‘how to create music to dance to?’

In valuing (assessing) what has been produced and the heavily scaffolded process of production there may need to be a dialogue between the sonic and the social.

In the school the work will be uploaded to Google Drive which is the way the work of all students is shared. Pupils can download their music from there. Meanwhile many have asked for the mp3s directly by email to be shared at home. Some have made ringtones of their music.

Music in this new school is a new experience for these Year 9 pupils and they are producing ‘excellent work’. And they have been successfully inducted into a musical practice.

Other events to catch the eye that evening:

Year 8: Science/Art – Public Sculpture Project: How can Art capture the beauty of science?

Year 8: Spanish – How can we use the works of Salvador Dali and surrealism to inspire language?

Year 8: Maths/Art – Can geometric shapes be used to represent the world around us?

I have been highlighting Drama, Art and Music and at first I wanted to write ‘the arts at the centre of the curriculum’. But that would miss the point, for here I think is one equal curriculum, where the purpose is to ‘create beautiful work’ and for pupils to ‘make a difference to the world.’

In this a strong case is being made for a music education.

Music education with human interest and critical intent

In last week’s blog I accepted Robin Hammerton HMI’s invitation to teach without learning objectives. I saw this as a cue for looking again at the idea of the project as offering scope for finding ‘depth’ and ‘rigour’, that is, finding one way of claiming these weasel words? While I have set out some general thoughts about project work in previous blogs [https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/is-this-what-we-mean-by-depth/] the idea has been given a particular trajectory with the spread of Project Based Learning (PBL) and its bed-fellow Enquiry Based Learning. [1]

Always intrigued by what is happening on the ground and what promises to break with orthodoxy, I am on my second visit to a school in East London. It is a small 4-18 age school with 75 pupils in each year and is committed to PBL. [2]

Club Dance Minimalist MP3, Sound Cloud Page, Live Event, Silent Disco, Live Gig, Concert, Internet, Podcast, Exhibition-Performance at the Docklands Museum. These are some of the presentational products so far yielded by PBL at Key Stage 3 in Music in the school. [3]

Each project is given structure through an Essential or Enquiry Question(s), a kind of lens through which everything that is experienced is viewed. Projects often involve several subject disciplines working together for the duration of a school term. The ‘essential question’ is the project’s structuring device and provides a ‘line of enquiry’, an all-pervading reason for learning. It is this that chases away the tyranny of learning objectives and petty pre-determined outcomes. However, there is one important principle in place.

The enquiry will yield a presentational product. The teachers involved in each project form a team and focus on the project’s product as a key part of the planning process and together create what it might look/sound like. This involves sharing the ways in which each subject approaches the project’s question, how each establishes its integrity while creating mutual enrichment. [4]

No more music teachers thoughtlessly meddling in the disciplinary knowledge of other subjects but now with an enhanced focus on music-making, meaning-making and always with an ‘authentic real-world’ product in view. [5]

The process of fashioning the product is flexible. There will be problems to solve, the stimulus of those with ideas to contribute from beyond the school gates, multiple drafting of work, continual refinement of work and an absolute commitment to a ‘beautiful’ product. The products are generated by the students together with their teachers constituting an ‘adult’ community of makers. But there is more still. The school places great emphasis on ‘oracy’.

Students learn how to think through talk and are good at it. Hence projects are lively debated affairs with a subtle role for the teacher as both facilitator and mediator. [6]

All this invites, even establishes, a dialogic pedagogy. Next term’s year 8 project brings together History, Music, Drama and Oracy. The project is Slavery with 350 minutes each week dedicated to the project. [‘Slavery’. A very big idea I am thinking. The philosopher Hegel has generated 200 years of thought through his master-slave dialectic, for example.]

Making the essential/enquiry question needs careful thought. The question could be posed not in words but through an image, a video clip, a musical work. Perhaps what is important is that imagination is fired and symbolic thought invoked ensuring on-going curiosity and meaning-making. [7]

Here is a first shot at a question. Why and in what ways was music important for African/American people who endured slavery? There is promise here of coming to appreciate how music functions, to what extent musical practices are socially conditioned and what kind of thing music is while at the same time justifying music-making here and now in response. [8]

Just imagine the pupils coming to their music lessons from Drama and History thick with knowledge, context, questions, musical impulses ready to be stirred. Just imagine the pupils going to their Drama and History lessons with songs in their heads, songs in the making, riffs rotating, bodies buzzing.

In music there will be work songs to perform and compose, spirituals to sing, blues to make, bands to form, professional recording to master… I will have more to tell about all this later next term. [9]

But does this sound like a music education with depth and rigour? Well, at the least there is the promise of a music education with human-interest and critical intent. And it is rather more than learning to play an instrument.


[1] An internet search will reveal a global movement, a plethora of resources and a vast array of solutions to the education of today’s children and young people. In some cases these are allied to the idea of 21st century skills, learning futures and other futurologies. PBL could also be viewed as a synthesis of 21st century skills and attention to disciplinary subject knowledge. A heretical idea to some!

[2] The school is newly formed and this provides opportunity to create a unifying vision, purpose and approach to curriculum planning and pedagogy. In this school it is the thinking of American Ron Berger that is the main source of inspiration for PBL.

[3] The Key Stage 3 music curriculum is built through a series of termly projects, which ensure musical development through recurring threads of music-making and thinking processes. So not a Cook’s Tour , not a ‘bitty’ approach and not genre driven.

[4] A music education needs to reach outwards as well as inwards and find meaning through what pupils experience in other curriculum areas as well as their lives. Too many attempts to draw in other parts of the curriculum in time designated for music fail miserably in secondary schools. It may even be the case that music teachers unintentionally undermine the development of other than musical aspects of the curriculum.

[5] For more on inter-disciplinary work in music education see Chapter 3 in Teaching Secondary Music, Cross-curricular approaches in music education, Jonathan Savage, in Teaching Secondary Music ed. Jayne Price and Jonathan Savage. Sage: London.

[6] The role of mediator places responsibility on the teacher to bring significant knowledge to the classroom. There is culture to mediate, fresh thinking to generate for these newcomers to the world. This involves placing something of significance before students. See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/placing-something-of-significance-before-your-students/

[7] Many contend that making meaning goes to the heart of music educational purpose. It deserves a separate blog.

[8] Music Ofsted has introduced the concept of ‘musical provenance’ into our discourse. You will see it as part of subject specialist criteria for inspection. Here is perhaps an example of ‘rich musical provenence’.

[9] The school’s music teacher sees scope at GCSE level for a project approach. Centering on a musical work works well for this.