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’.’

17 thoughts on “Why so few descriptions of music lessons?

  1. davidashworth

    Why do so few write in this way? I think there are probably three reasons why this does not happen:

    1. Not many have the ‘luxury’ of being able to sit in on music lessons. But some do. Lets consider each of them in turn.
    a. SLT do lesson observations, but their brief is to check that the lessons are being taught well and pupils are making sufficient ‘progress’. They may not have sufficient understanding of what constitutes a good music lesson in order to provide the ‘thick’ descriptions which John gives us.
    b. Ofsted – ditto – see above
    c. Student teachers. May well appreciate the quality of the lessons, but lack the skills, confidence or experience to write these rich descriptions.

    2. Few feel the need to report back in this way. Ofsted and SLT simply want to check how good they think the lessons are – snapshots which will allow them to tick some boxes before moving on to the next lesson. Student teachers are observing to take what they can from the lesson to help them improve their own teaching – learning from others, rather than being expected to share their experiences.
    3. Not many can write in this way. Many of us in the music education ‘sector’ enjoy reading Johns descriptions. They are wonderfully illuminating and we can indeed smell the carpet. But there are few of us who have the skills to write as well as this. John makes it look much easier than it actually is!

    So those are the reasons why. But these are really just excuses. We need more people writing like John, because this is the best way to understand what goes on in our best music lessons. As he rightly points out, simply pointing a shaky video camera at a lesson and posting it on the internet is not good enough. It is lazy and tells you nothing.

    So what can we do to get more people writing like John? I think the first thing to understand is that even if we cannot match John’s writing skills and styles, we can still do a good enough job is describing [and reflecting on] what is going on, in order to make our readers feel they were sitting in on the session being shared. I would love to see more of John’s peers in ITT helping share these types of story. In turn, PGCE providers should require their students to report back in this way. Students should be required to write up in this style whenever they are doing lesson observations. Having to think, reflect and write in this way can only help them get even more out of the experience.

    Ofsted could realign their methods to report more descriptively. Sure they have to ‘measure’ how well a school is doing, but they also are required to share good teaching when they see it. This is the best way to do it.

    The prose not have to be as elegant or as well crafted as John’s. It simply has to tell the story in sufficient detail to allow us to smell the carpets. John has provided the templates. Let’s see more of this happening. John’s wonderful stories go a long way towards helping music teachers feel less isolated and, by mediating these classroom scenes, he is contributing more richly to the notion of teachers sharing good teaching than any of us.

  2. Thanks David. One of my motivations is to countpoint and counter the too frequent ‘learning’ sound bites flung around, promoting theoretical ideas without telling what any of this looks likes on the ground. (I am a great lover of theory and abstractions but only so much without touching the ground.) And when they do give examples of practice they often tell about it without sufficient context which would include information about constraining or liberating structures. Indeed, my example is in much need of more contextual information. And analysis. The more there is the easier it is for others to generalise what they read to their own practice.
    At the same time as promoting thick description I am interested to know whether in fact such descriptions are helpful to others.

    1. davidashworth

      I shall look forward to reading this, Anna.

      Will you be writing up one of your own lessons or one you have observed? It would be great to hear from MUFU teachers – observing and writing up lessons they have seen others giving….

  3. John Kelleher

    As I clicked on the link and angled the screen out of the sunlight, I was sceptical that the world needed thicker descriptions of music lessons. My eyes settled on the various shades of blue that appeared in front of me and I glanced down to read what the mighty John Finney had written this week.

    “DH Lawrence and James Joyce?” I muttered out loud, scratching my head as I wondered what links John had in store for me.

    As the words moved up the screen, a little more jerkily than I would have liked since my virus scanner was running, all of my senses were encapsulated by the tale of a lesson past in a classroom that felt familiar.

    “He’s done it again.” No muttering this time. “Finney has done it again. He’s proved us all wrong on a point we didn’t even know we were making.”

  4. On Monday morning year 2 children looked nervously through the classroom doors at the blacked out music room, they squealed in delight as they saw bubbles appear from around the corner and the twinkle of the disco ball shimmered on the classroom floor. The aquarium from Carnival of the Animals played loudly. As their eyes got used to the darkness they spotted 30 silken scarves in bright lurid colours draped around the music room. They picked up a scarf and they made it swim/glide/soar around the room.

    Gradually the lights were brought up and glockenspiels and windchimes were brought out. Half the class glided their beaters up and down the instruments adding another layer to the music they could hear while a quarter blew bubbles and the remaining quarter swam their scarves. Some kids started to sing the melody.

    As we returned the scarves to the sea bed and the blinds were gradually pulled up we all agreed Saint Saens was right to make his music strange and eerie. Hundreds of powerful adjectives were shared and most of the kids learnt the word legato. Few kids wanted to leave when the classroom teacher arrived to collect them.

    No idea what level we were working at.

  5. Ally Daubney

    Just to pick up on something David mentioned…. ITT. Like many of my colleagues I still refer to what we do as education (ITE) not training.

    Our courses do encourage a great deal of contextual recognition and reflection, I hope this comes through in the quality of the ‘thinking’ teachers we educate. Indeed, many trainees write such accounts as lesson reflections but for themselves, not beaming on the World Wide Web. We cannot ask them to do any more in an official capacity but David’s points have certainly provided food for thought.

    1. davidashworth

      I’m happy to go along with ITE, but is training such dirty word? The dictionary tells me training is “developing in oneself or others, any skills and knowledge that relate to specific useful competencies” – which is surely important? And DfE still use the term ITT…..

      But good to hear that your ‘trainees’ [so if you’re calling them trainees, does’t that make you a trainer?] are writing rich accounts and, of course, I would not expect them to making them publicly available. But I would like to see more of you and your peers writing as John does, because it is powerful and effective. The only other writing I have seen like this is from Gary Spruce in “Debates in Music Teaching” – best bit of the book for me.

      Spread the word, Ally, and start writing!

      1. I don’t think training is a bad word but it needs to be distinguished from education. Training necessarily narrows in order to achieve very specific ends (potty training; military training; training in the use of wrodpress etc.) while education goes beyond training, reaches out, liberates, broadens, questions, critiques.
        And ITE is worth fighting for.

      2. davidashworth

        As John says, education goes beyond training. But, and and when appropriate, it should include training. The same goes for music lessons. Of course we want to educate, but there will be times when training is the most appropriate course of action – when we want to help our students achieve those very specific ends. Yes, education is the priority, but training has a place…

        [and I’ll try and remember to say ITE from now on!]

  6. I wish we could get more “thick” descriptions from the children, like those amazing descriptions of the toilet break and the coach ride that subvert (delightfully) pieces of work headed “Our Day at the Museum” or some such dreariness.

    However, enough exposure to songs about teamwork and questions with pre-agreed answers about “how did that make you feel?” Will tend to drive the richness out of even an eight year old’s writing.

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