Inside the secret garden of music teaching

@headguruteacher No idea. Beats me. Follow Ofsted’s lead and just STOP GRADING LESSONS!! (OK, shouty, sorry, but needs to be shouted!)

Headteacher Tom Sherrington (headguruteacher) is leading the way to a more sensible approach to school improvement. How lessons are observed is central to this. http://headguruteacher.com/2014/11/15/lesson-observations-unchained-a-new-dawn/

In previous blogs I have been thinking about how music lessons might be observed.

Why not try to discern the dispositions of the teacher, how the teacher is thinking, why is the lesson like this? What is going on here?

This is evaluative and non-judgmental. And in order to begin to understand what is going on I have made a case for writing thick descriptions of the teaching – interpreting and analysing what is going on.

I call for many more so that we can know what each other are talking about when we make statements about music teaching and promote this or that as dismal, exciting, orthodox, retro, culturally oppressive, liberating, progressive, traditional, skills focused, knowledge centred, innovative, transformational, world forlorn or world changing.

In response I have tried to show music teaching through a form of story telling that attends to rich detail. Not a filleted account, a video clip or an Ofsted vignette but an account that takes the reader inside the classroom and if they choose to identify with and learn from what is described. And this opens the door a little wider to the secret garden that is music teaching.

I have used these stories as the basis for proposing five dimensions of music teaching that can guide in the observation and evaluation of music teaching.

The five dimensions can give rise to innumerable questions. Here are a few.

Why do we hear so much about the teacher as facilitator and so little about the teacher as cultural mediator? And what is being mediated? And why this?

Why so little about the facilitation of pupil talk in the cause of critical thought?

Why so little about what is placed before classes as being disruptive or comforting?

Is the distinction between cultural mediation and facilitation helpful?

If classroom music is to be envigorated by the practices of informal music making, what are the limits to this? Are there any? And if so why?

And so on.

Lying behind the five dimensions is a leaning towards a dialogic pedagogy.

Below I have emboldened the dialogic tendency.

A ven diagram or some kind of model is needed to hold the scheme all together.

Five dimensions of music teaching

  1. Ethical commitment

The teacher’s disposition towards nurturing the pupil-teacher relationship that makes teaching possible. This includes the teacher’s concern for each pupil’s psychological safety, the ways in which the teacher expresses authority, how attention is given to what is of concern to each pupil as well as the group, and how the potential to create spontaneous dialogue and action is allowed for.

More generally it seeks to encapsulate the teacher and pupil’s desire to strengthen the climate of the classroom and music-making relationships.

  1. Cultural mediation

The teacher’s disposition towards expressing authority through the transmission of cultural knowledge in the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

  1. Embodiment

The teacher’s disposition towards recognising music-making as a form of embodied knowing – that to know music is to perceive through the body as mind.

  1. Facilitation

The teacher’s disposition towards enabling the expression of musical thought in the medium of music and through talk.

  1. Critical intention

The teacher’s disposition towards promoting enquiry, curiosity, thoughtfulness, discrimination, questioning – calling for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated – a recognition that music has ‘human interest’ – social, cultural and political.

And Jackie Schneider’s story to end, poetic music teaching with dimension 3 leading the way.

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 wind chimes 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.

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Critical intent

My recent blogs have been about teaching music.

By working through thick descriptions of music lessons I have so far proposed four dimensions of music teaching that might help in the observation, interpretation, analysis and valuing of music teaching.

Remember, my starting point was the ‘good enough’ music lesson avoiding the labels that have dominated the evaluation of music teaching in recent times.

Today I add a fifth dimension supported by descriptions of two lessons.

Each dimension is expressed as a disposition, a tendency towards a way of thinking and acting.

Five dimensions of music teaching

1. Ethical commitment

The teacher’s disposition towards nurturing the pupil-teacher relationship that makes teaching possible.

 2. Cultural mediation

The teacher’s disposition towards expressing authority through the transmission of cultural knowledge in the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

3. Thinking bodies

The teacher’s disposition towards recognising music-making as a form of embodied knowing in action.

4. Facilitation

The teacher’s disposition towards enabling the expression of musical thought in the medium of music.

5. Critical intention

The teacher’s disposition towards promoting enquiry, curiosity, thoughtfulness, discrimination, questioning – calling for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated – a recognition that music has ‘human interest’ – social, cultural and political.

Two lesson descriptions that show an emphasis on ‘critical intention’

No colour coding this week leaving the reader to make their own interpretation and analysis. Accepting that the fifth dimension is strong in these two cases, it might be interesting to think about how this dimension relates to the other dimensions.

1. Here the teacher’s scheme of work was underpinned by the question: what does music mean? In lesson two the class was set the task of composing a piece dedicated to the victims of the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake.

I did not observe this teaching but the teacher writes:

‘All students sat in a circle playing barred instruments. The first third of their piece used the Japanese semi-tone major 3rd scale on B (B-C-E-F-A). Against the backdrop of a pianissimo rolled E, an F was gradually faded in and out, exploring the initial tensions of the tsunami. The B-C was then added to emphasise the nervous mood. All the notes gradually underwent a crescendo and were sustained fortissimo for a few moments before a sudden silence. A similar process was repeated, this time using a second, more blues-like Japanese scale. The familiarity of the sound led one student to interpret this section as the reaction of the international community.’

(And the following I have constructed from the teacher’s reflections.)

And now another pupil has the idea of using the two scales at the same time. And so the lessons proceed in dialogic fashion, with the teacher skillfully leading the way provoking thoughtful questions that challenge assumptions about music and its meanings. And now the introduction of the composition task: to make a soundtrack for a montage of if images of the recent Egyptian revolution using the Japanese scales. Why Japanese scales, some pupils ask? More dialogic work follows, with more thinking nurtured by the teacher’s gently teasing responses.

2. Who wants to start the conversation?

This was the question asked by the teacher at the beginning of a year 8 music lesson today. Last music lesson of the term. Previous project completed and now an introduction to next term’s work. So what was the conversation to be about? The class had entered to Mars from Holst’s The Planet Suite and had settled quickly and attended to the music. White boards given out and pupils asked to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil, the teacher or their visitor (me) about the music.

And so now the question from the teacher:

Teacher: ‘Does anybody want to start the conversation?’

The first question is directed to the teacher:

Holly: ‘Why did you pick this piece of music?’

Teacher: ‘It is a piece to react to; a piece to feel and think about. It’s a piece to respond to’.

Second question from Holly to Samantha: ‘What is your favourite part of the music?’

Samantha: ‘I like all of it. And you want to know what is going to happen next’.

Next: ‘Have you ever heard music like this before?’

Now the Star Wars connection comes out and is in play as part of the conversation. Then an interesting turn.

Pupil: ‘Was this music composed by a boy or a girl?’

Pupil:  ‘Boy, its loud and dramatic.’

Pupil: ‘What was going through her mind when she composed it?’

Back to Star Wars: ‘Do you think this music is scary?’

[Toby is away with fairies and balancing his pencil on outstretched fingers.]

Teacher intervention: ‘Let’s listen again, how does it start?’

Pupils: ‘Really low notes’; ‘it folds in and folds out’; ‘tapping’.

Teacher links these responses to earlier pupil questions.

Now composing as a whole class. Each inventing a response.

The insistent rhythm is introduced through a neumonic on the board as one possibility.

Samantha wants to tell me that she has been playing her drum in unconventional ways in the last project. She beams when she says unconventional. I repeat the word with a reciprocal beam.

Whole class improvising very quietly to start with and sustain their musical ideas with Toby bringing the piece to an end on cymbal with music at its loudest. The class are pleased with what they have done. Quite a few faces lighting up.

One boy on keyboard has replicated Holst’s c g f# figure but held down the g and f sharp to create a dissonance. The teacher and class receive this with admiration. Now a short time to rehearse and refine their ideas. I teach Samantha the rhythmic figure. Then some silent time to imagine what they will be playing.

Off we go again. Class applaud themselves at the end. Listen to Holst again with attention.

The Creative Orchestra

In last week’s blog I highlighted three analytical categories that might assist in understanding the ‘good enough’ music lesson described.

These can be thought of as dimensions of pedagogy. This week I add a fourth, facilitation, through another thick description of a music lesson better described as a musical workshop.

The four dimensions:

  1. Ethical commitment (EC)

The ethical dispositions that nurture the pupil-teacher relationship and that make teaching possible.

  1. Cultural mediation (CM)

The transmission of cultural knowledge through the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

  1. Body-mind engrossment (BME)

Music-making as a form of embodiment – that to know music is to perceive through the body as mind.

  1. Facilitation (F)

 Enabling the expression of musical thought.

In the description that follows the teacher as facilitator (F) comes to the fore while teacher as cultural mediator (CM) takes a step back.

So, is the distinction between F and CM useful?

Does it help to mediate in the content (what is taught) – approach debate?

How does it relate to the ‘why’ of music education, the ‘what for’ of music education?

(On the ‘what for’ see for example:

https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/what-is-music-education-for-in-the-age-of)

Next week a fifth dimension.

Meet the Creative Orchestra

‘Mid-day Saturday and 23 young people aged 8-13 have come to make music together in the large hall come gymnasium.

Chairs are being set out in a circle. It is the centre’s Creative Orchestra. There are violins, saxophones, clarinets, pianists, percussionists in equal numbers; harpist, bass guitarist, acoustic guitarist, cellist, trombonist and flautist. And a workshop leader (F) who I sense will be a quiet presence with a clear voice of authority and who knows a lot about attunement (F).

Still encumbered with bags and not all instruments are ready. A quiet word to move bags to their place and we are into a round the circle warm up, ‘remember to keep it flowing’: the leader sets the round in motion with a simple four beat rhythm clapped (F), class copy then the first solo from Peace, all copy and so on yielding 23 rhythmic ideas, ever more intricate and calling for ever more attentive listening (F).

And that’s how the session moves forward – everybody learning to listen, having ideas, making suggestions, having thoughts; everybody with a part to play in what is made together today with the leader ready to offer stimuli (F & CM), and who leads how I had imagined, gently attentive to fresh thinking (F), new possibilities. The stylistic generator is a group of Samba grooves (CM)

good_picture

And then there is a counterpointing pentatonic melodic framework set out in the centre of the circle; D E G A B represented by five spaced objects (CM).

E has a big box, for E is to be our tonal centre. The class are shown how by stepping between the tones the melody is made and how a repertoire of signals calling for variation in durations and dynamics can be used (CM & F). And before long the class are rehearsing how to make notes really short, notes that grow louder and then as players volunteer to lead, so more possibilites emerge to be thought about (F).

Any suggestions, thought, ideas’, asks the leader (F). Some suggestions come fully formed, some convoluted, some tongue-tied inviting others to articulate more clearly before reaching their final form in the music. What a long way words can be from music.

An important part of the process is the assembling of the material (F) into a work in progress that we can all be inside for a few minutes. Then more thoughts, ideas, suggestions (F).

The class are relaxed about all this. They are learning to be still, thoughtful, circumspect, wondering, some just being, barely becoming so it seems. The harpist seems happy enough to be there with her harp. Time is not rushing on. There is none of that ‘fast pacey please the inspector stuff’ here, rather staying with the moment, indwelling the music (F). Rapid progress is a stranger here, slow learning a virtue (F).

Ibrahim take a lead and tells us that we can think of the music as being like a journey (F). Ideas are flowing faster now with contributions from Peace, Oscar, Neoma, Jo and Jessie. More leaders in turn take centre stage and confirm this way of working (F), expand tonal and rhythmic possibilities calling for music made with intention as well as deliberation (F).

The rhythm section is strong, rarely lose their grove. Frederick takes time out to teach Joe how his cabassa part should go (CM) and this is in the middle of a six minute playing.

Now Oscar suggests combining four ideas to add to the advancing sophistication of what is not actually a piece of music, rather a series of sketches that might become a piece (F).

The leader, for the first time mindful of the time, for there is a time to end the session, says, ‘seven minutes to go’ and Oscar leads the final excursion.

‘It’s a journey to an unexpected island’, says Naomi.

We are now well into the afternoon on this dull Saturday in June, it’s time to go home. Chairs away. With repose and a simple satisfaction, so it seems, the children go their way.

I wonder what will happen when the choir join the orchestra next week?’

Relationships, cultural mediation and musical bodies

In last week’s blog I presented a thick description of a music lesson that I had observed. I asked why not more thick descriptions? David Ashworth provided some answers. Jackie Schneider responded with a magical account of a year two music lesson (see comment 8) [1], while Anna Gower promised to write a poetic account of music teaching (but oh so busy).

In contrast, and after a burst of poetic flair, John Kelleher published a blog setting out crystal clear principles for music teacher feedback to pupils http://www.teacherandmusician.com/ – so clear that there is little need for a thick description or is that what is now needed in order to elaborate and test John’s scheme? [2]

My lesson description was of course ‘partial’ in all senses of the word. It didn’t relate all that happened in the hour-long lesson and it didn’t report on the state of the carpet. And what was related came through the lens of what interested me and what I chose to focus attention on. [3]

Furthermore I told very little of the structural constraints under which the teacher was working. Nothing about what kind of lesson would be expected from the school’s senior leadership team, for example. And what about the teacher’s own thick description should they have been invited to write one?

Nevertheless, we do now have a lesson text so there are possibilities for further interpretation and analysis. I will do this by exposing three themes that emerge from my account. I have created these through reading and re-reading the text and assigning labels to the themes or let’s call them categories. I will briefly define each category.

  1. Relational dispositions (RD)

By this I mean the ethical commitments that nurture the pupil-teacher relationship and that make teaching possible. It includes the teacher’s concern for each pupil’s psychological safety, the ways in which the teacher expresses authority, how attention is given to what is of concern to each pupil as well as the group, and how the potential to create spontaneous dialogue and action is allowed for. More generally it seeks to encapsulate the teacher and pupil’s desire to strengthen the climate of the classroom and music-making relationships.

  1. Teacher mediation (TM)

Complementing the much vaunted role of ‘faciltator’ [4], the teacher expresses authority as a ‘mediator of culture’, that is, the transmission of cultural knowledge through the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

  1. Body-mind engrossment (BME)

This recognises music-making as a form of embodiment – that to know music is to perceive through the body as mind.

If these categories have validity they could be applied to other situations as analytical tools. It would be interesting, for example, to apply these categories to a musical workshop. (While the lesson observed has workshop elements it remains very much a ‘lesson’.) Now the lesson again with categories noted.

‘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 (TM) and quietly follow well-practised protocols of bags down, coats off, planners out, chairs round ready to music (RD).

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 (RD). Then a, ‘lads, come on’ to two boys not yet with chairs round (RD). 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 (TM).

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 (BME). 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 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 (TM)? Can you feel it in your back (BME)? Now the ‘bass’ technique is worked on (TM). ‘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 (BME). 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 (TM). T

he teacher draws the class into a perpetually mobile discourse of music, imagery and metaphor (RD). 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 being engendered is palpable as the teacher exhorts in words and music how this music can be ‘immense’ (RD).

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 (BME). 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 (RD). 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 (TM).

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 (RD).’

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 (TM) asking the class to move in time as they leave (BME). They do and they don’t. The teacher is alive and well and another ‘good-enough music lesson’.’

Notes:

[1] Jackie provides an example of a teacher’s retrospective account of a lesson taught and which would serve as an excellent counterfoil to an observer’s account creating much scope for the growth in common understanding.

[2] Could John’s scheme could be applied to this lesson script?

[3] Presumably the themes were lurking somewhere in mind as I observed the lesson.

[4] I have written ‘much vaunted’. I can’t remember ever writing the word ‘vaunted’ before so I looked it up and it was what I intended. ‘Facilitation’, a concept that may have been derived from Donald Winnicott’s ‘The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment’ (Hogarth Press, 1987 [a term used in the 1950s by Winnicott]) I think is too casually used. Setting ‘mediation’ alongside it I think is helpful. For a very fine discussion of ‘facilitation’ see Lee Higgin’s ‘Community Music in Theory and Practice’ (Oxford University Press, 2012, pages 147-153)