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’.’