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 – 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’.’


[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)


12 thoughts on “Relationships, cultural mediation and musical bodies

  1. davidashworth

    Thanks for this further work, John. I can see how ‘tagging’ the report in this way helps to organize and ‘draw out’ some of the features of this lesson, which are worth highlighting.

    I’d be interested to hear how you think teachers might make use of this rich information. For instance:

    • Would the teacher consciously pick out any specific features and use them in their own teaching contexts?

    • Would the teacher ‘soak up’ the quality you describe and hope it would emerge in their work?

    • Would the teacher gather all the items in each category together [eg put all the RDs together] and use this as guide to good teaching?

    Or, to look at this from another angle, would you envisage yourself and possibly others, pooling and tagging collections of thick descriptions to produce some sort of handbook….

    I suppose I’m really just asking where you think this sort of work could or should lead. What are the next steps?

    1. I have never seen my role as providing templates for action, rather to communicate my evolving thoughts about music education in such a way that hopefully leads to thought, reflection and an improved level of discourse amongst music teachers.

      I am usually on a mission about something that I find unsatisfactory. Currently, and one of my recurring themes, this addresses the role of the teacher-the extent to which the teacher has a responsibility to transmit cultural knowledge, what knowledge and whose?

      Thus, teacher as cultural mediator as complementing teacher as facilitator is of interest, a distinction that I hope is worth thinking about. This week’s blog will take this further.

      1. One step I could take is to end a blog with questions or talking points for the reader.

        Good discussion is enabled by good questions. Twitter chats might be enhanced by sharper questions. Just a thought or even a talking point!

  2. I think if you took John Finney’s three terms (RD, TM and BME) out of the context of the lesson story they would lose their usefulness immediately. Presumably all edu-jargon was once the result of close attention to a lesson, of creative thinking. It’s once it gets separated from the parent context that it changes.

    I think we all instinctively know that things of real value happen in what seem to be the nooks and crannies of a lesson. I think the lesson story style foregrounds these and allows us to value them. Also that there is as much to learn from good enough lessons as the amazing lessons that we press-release.

    Remove the story and you just have hard words. Even writing “Relational Disposition” has taken me far away from the story into a very different (and frankly very dry) way of thinking. I’m playing on a different pitch once I start using those words.

    Start a teacher training course with the terms RD, TM and BME and it’s be just like “Learning Objective”, etc. Start using the term “thick” with students who aren’t anthropologists and only the presence of the story will save it.

    So whatever John does, I’m voting to keep the stories in.

  3. The point of the story is that others can find themselves in it or not. If they do find themselves in it, they can generalise to their own situation if they choose. That is enough.

    However, by drawing out categories which were living beneath the surface of my observation, the reader can know my bias. Beyond this there is scope for some kind of general discussion, some more refined thinking about pedagogy – is the distinction between teacher as mediator, teacher as facilitator helpful, for example?

    A reason for making use of lesson observations as stories is so that the world of edubable, learnification, pseudo theory, unexamined concepts banded around are given meaning and from the ground up.

    ‘Relational dispositions’ is a hopeless term and I hope never spoken of again. What matters more is the way I have defined it which I hope is intelligible. If there is a worthwhile idea/concept here then a word is needed. By writing ‘relational dispositions’ I have made a start. I will revise ‘relational disopositions’ in my next blog.

    From story to categories is an inductive process, which is in part LJ’s point, I think. So no concepts up front. No language tyranny. Respect the singularity and uniquenesses of the lived experience, the possibility of the universal in the particular.

    Teacher’s own lesson narratives could usefully inform their senior leadership teams.

    The story and its categories are freely given to be received by others as they choose.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful answers which have renewed my energy as I go into school today.

    “If there is a worthwhile idea/concept here then a word is needed.” Is it? At the risk of provoking mirth, you could use, say, different background colours behind the story (blended appropriately!). Then there would be less “jar” between story and description of story.

    1. Yes, could have different colours behind, or a coloured icon faithfully representing the idea/concept. So ‘relational disposition’ would be a warm colour with an image of teacher and pupils’ togetherness. Ah, we could have stickers.

      1. Or an image from the classroom. That would also be an icon, that is a faithful representation. (Good examples of iconic representations are graphic notation and tonic sol fa.)

        However, while iconic representations freeze and capture the thing, generalisations (Bruner’s symbolic mode-see his enactive/iconic/symbolic modes) enable comparisons across many, many cases with a unifying concept and this means higher order of thinking and understanding. Conventional notation is an example of such a generalisation. The cost is to lose fidelity to the thing itself.

        This is not to underestimate the gift of the story as a story and as revealing the particularity of lived experience while invoking some general idea of lived experience.

    2. I am now thinking that what I am doing is creating ‘dimensions of pedagogy’. This may serve as a refreshment from ‘learnification’ and ‘curriculum dimensions’. So, so far:

      1. Ethical commitment
      2. Cultural mediation
      3. Body-mind engrossment

      This week I will add ‘facilitation’.

      So I am making a scheme that may help in better understanding what music teachers do and why they do it.

      Each dimension will need lots of stories which of course can be enjoyed for themselves.

  5. Pingback: Expecting to Fly | david ashworth

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