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) , 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? 
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. 
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.
- 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.
- Teacher mediation (TM)
Complementing the much vaunted role of ‘faciltator’ , 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.
- 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’.’
 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.
 Could John’s scheme could be applied to this lesson script?
 Presumably the themes were lurking somewhere in mind as I observed the lesson.
 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)