Curiosity and the playful music teacher

They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.

The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.

‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.

Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.

The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.

In the minds of the pupils live the drummer boy and his fate and the musical ideas and feelings that in some sense are now theirs as well as Mahler’s. The pupils remain curious, continually asking questions of their teacher and each other.

  1. Why do teachers ask questions?
  2. Why are children expected to compose music without first experiencing a felt provocation to do so?
  3. Do such provocations lead to composing music that has stronger character and thicker meanings?
  4. Why does much music education have so little human interest?
  5. Why do music teachers teach musical skills without rich content?
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Inside the silence

In last week’s blog I told about a music teacher’s playful dialogue with a year 7 class.

The teacher wrote:

‘They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.

I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

So, what’s going on here?

In the silence music is thought and felt. It’s that old friend foundational listening. Marion knows what we are talking about.

Dr Marion Long@Rhythm4Reading Sep 19

@Johnfinney8 @MMAmusicnews The power of the magic silence in a Year 7 classroom, achieved through listening together #musiceducation #trust

Minds-bodies are compelled to engage and did you notice that the teacher connects the idea of engagement with ‘being in flow’, a likely reference to Csicksentmihalyi’s flow theory? [1]

To be in flow involves losing a sense of self, distractions are excluded from consciousness, there is no worry of failure, time is distorted.

This is optimal experience.

Altogether a reasonable way of thinking about ‘musical engagement’.

Engagement is its own reward.

In this case the teacher leads the pupils inward, feeling and thinking inside the silence. An example of deep engagement in the moment we might say.

The song wasn’t selected in order to illustrate a key word or two, to advance theoretical knowledge or the pupil’s skill in notational audiation.

It was simply thought to be a beautiful song and there was a beautiful sound to be made.

And of course there was no stress to assess. No climbing some imaginary ladder of progression.

Perhaps a time in itself.

And pupils may have been learning to be a little more discriminating, discerning and curious about music?

Once upon a time assessment in music was near synonymous with learning to discriminate and discern what was valuable and worthwhile.

Perhaps it might be again or is the past really a foreign country?

Note:

[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper: New York.

See Custodero, L. (2005) ‘Observable indicators of flow experience: a developmental perspective on musical engagement in young children form infancy to school age’ Music Education Research, 7 (2), 185-209.

Also Ambrose, K. (2013) Performing Samba, Finding ‘Flow’: Fostering Engagement in the Classroom. In (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. Bloomsbury: London.

Also on the topic of ‘engagement’ see https://teachtalkmusic.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/many-years-from-now/#comments and a Jennie Francis reply.

Depth, provenance and critical engagement in music education

In a previous blog I thought it likely that year 7 pupils would be singing in their music lessons at this time of the term – an obvious point of continuity and progression with their primary school experience.

In this secondary school year 7 pupils are learning to sing O Waly Waly.

The teacher has selected O Waly, Waly ‘simply because it is a beautiful song’ and is intent on teaching the class to make a beautiful sound.

I’m interested to know whether the singing is accompanied or unaccompanied.

The teacher adds:

‘I play the piano, sometimes big, juicy, arpeggiated chords, and sometimes simple, still chords. Always with much dynamic contrast and rubato. They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.’

‘I select these three verses. The meanings of the whole song are complex, so just three verses.’

The water is wide, and I can’t get over

And neither have I wings to fly

Build me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row, My love and I

There is a ship, and she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep, as deep can be

But not so deep as the love I’m in

I know not if I sink or swim

Oh love is gentle, love is kind

As sweet as a flower, when first it’s new

But love grows old and waxes cold

And fades away, like morning dew.

But wait a minute. What’s this:

‘I prolong the silence before the penultimate line.’

The teacher explains:

‘I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

O Waly, Waly is a song of good provenance as they say. [1] Some claim it as a song from the sixteenth century, some that it has Irish origins, some say Scottish, some English.

An internet search shows a great many performance versions and arrangements, and even a discussion forum relating to its provenance.

A Pete Seeger version of the song is near the top of the internet library along with responses from listeners. One response told that the performance was intended to draw attention to the pollution of the Hudson River. Well, we know Pete Seeger was a political activist.

As you will have noted, the teacher’s choice of O Waly Waly is leading me to open up a conversation with the song and to examine its provenance. I am reminded of Chris Philpott writing:

‘Each piece of music (whether we are performing or creating it) comes with an ‘attitude’ of its own and along with our own values and beliefs (which Gadamer calls ‘prejudices’)  engages in a playful dialogue in order to construct meaning.’ [2]

The teacher above achieves this playful dialogue with the ‘silence’ before the penultinate line of each verse. I have taken the idea of playful dialogue to a second level in searching out the song’s provenance. And I have only just begun.

O Waly Waly – the teacher has something of a treasure in her hands opening up ‘complex webs of meaning’ and placing interpretation at the heart of a music education. And this means critical engagement, and rather more than what is usually taken as appraising.

This seems to me to be worthwhile opening up the possibility of depth and rigour.

Notes:

[1] Provenance seems to have two meanings, the first begets the second.  First ‘origin’, and then ‘history-lineage’; we find the term provenance much used in relation to antiques. What is its source, origin, its life history, its condition, how has it been looked after?

If ‘musical provenance’ is important, as Ofsted suggests, we should ask ourselves: is the content of what is brought to the classroom rich, thick with possibilities? Will it defy easy assimilation and mastery?  Will it call forth thinking? Will it defy methods of assessment that prohibit openness? Will activities defy being matched with tidily delineated outcomes?

It is interesting to note that after Mark Phillips HMI introduced the concept of ‘provenance’ and its addition to the criteria for making judgments about a music department’s quality of provision, nobody has taken a blind bit of notice. I think it a valuable idea that as I have tried to show can enhance an enfebbled notion of appraising.

[2] Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum, in (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

Progressive differentiation in the singing class and the community choir

In last week’s blog I reported on the way positive attitudes to singing were developed through a programme of action research. At the heart of this was a structured dialogue between pupils and teacher.

The postcard communication, for example, ensured that each pupil knew that they were known by the teacher and that the development of their voice was important.

The teacher noted that:

‘As their vocal skills developed pupils exercised greater informed choice about the best approach to learning. They came to realize that working in smaller group settings allowed for more individualized selection of singing repertoire and greater scope for individual voices to claim a space of their own. Pupils who requested to work in ever smaller groups reasoned that this would allow them greater attention from the teacher and would also enable them to better self-assess their singing progress as it would be easier to distinguish their own voice from others.’ [1]

In this we see an important principle at work. I call it ‘progressive differentiation’.

The singing class starts as a cohort but little by little space is created for individual voices to be recognised and nurtured.

In the shortly to be published ‘The Story of Music Education Now’ Fifty Blogs 2012-2013, chapter 5 (blogs 32-37) is devoted to Key Stage 3 singing:

  1. Year 9 boys singing
  2. Mary’s secret
  3. Faye reports from the secret garden
  4. Listening with the voice
  5. ‘You can’t make me sing’
  6. Singing and the protection of masculinity
  7. The voice in a broad and balanced music education

‘32. Mary’s secret’ provides a model of the differentiated singing class where each voice is known and nurtured.

But this is in the classroom, in the school and bounded by the formalities of the school. But what about beyond the school and in another place?

Alresford is a small country town in mid-Hampshire with its watercress beds, steam railway, and since 2013 a community choir now some 130 in number. The choir meets on Monday evenings in the parish church of St John under the direction of Keith Clarke. [2]

The choir is ambitious and this has been recognised by the Hampshire Music Education Hub by awarding the choir its Certificate of Appreciation.

How then does a choir of 130 ‘progressively differentiate’?

From the choir’s website:

‘All of us have the capacity to improve. Our Director is often telling members that they have everything that they need to become great singers. In the future, we want to be able to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to take up the challenge of developing individually, as well as within the choir. To that end, we are beginning to look at ways and means for supporting the training of members in small groups, or as individuals, to help them even better than they already are!’ [3]

The late Janet Mills HMI once wrote a short article for the Music Teacher Magazine titled ‘Differentiation and Integration’ (lost in the Music Teacher Magazine archives alas). Janet set out a simple yet immensely valuable principle of music education. [4]

Both in the case of Year 7’s singing pathway referred to above and the Alresford Community Choir the principle of differentiation and integration is being harnessed ensuring individual development while serving community.

Without progressive differentiation serving whole class community, singing at Key Stage 3 may well continue to be an ‘aspiration outstripping actuality’ as it was in 1989. [5]

Notes:

[1] Man, E. (2013) Developing Positive Attitudes towards Singing in Year 7 through Dialogue and Negotiation, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education. Bloomsbury, p. 124.

[2] See http://alresfordchoir.com/

[3] See http://alresfordchoir.com/home/voice-academy/

[4] Janet was a mathematician as well as a musician. Differentiation and integration is a mathematical concept.

[5] See Swanwick, K. (1989) Music in schools: a study of context and curriculum practice. British Journal of Music Education, 6, pp. 155-171, in which secondary school teachers claimed the centrality of singing in the curriculum yet in practice found little time for it.

Singing for continuity and progression in year 7

Intorduction

Most year 7 music classes comprise children from many different primary schools. One thing these children have in common is that their music education to date will have featured singing.

But not all children transferring to secondary school at age 11 enjoy singing and children considered vocally able by their primary school teachers may not be vocally self-efficacious. [1] Many children remain ambivalent, unsure, and particularly so as a new life stage is embarked upon in a new place surrounded by new people and in a classroom where ‘the rules of the game’ may be far from transparent.

But I suspect there will be much singing in year 7 classes at this time as teachers recognise this most obvious point of continuity and progression. And, no doubt,  there will be the aim that all pupils will come to feel positive about their singing voices, or as some say, ‘find their voice’.

An interesting case

It was just this that the music teacher in the case I will report on here had in mind. The teacher embarked upon a programme of action research to see if one year 7 class could gain mastery of their singing voice and come to view their voices in a positive way. It was thought that this might achieve a sense of musical achievement shared by all.

At first lessons activities were devised by the teacher and subsequently in response to the ongoing dialogue created between pupils and teacher. Data was collected through teacher diary, recordings of whole class and group vocal work, postcard communications, focus group discussions and written questionnaire.

The research was set in motion with whole class singing of ‘Believe’ by Lin Marsh and as part of the lesson the class were introduced to a series of warm up games and activities designed to help vocal development. The lesson marked the beginning of a series of pupil consultations about how the pupils thought about their voices and the way they were learning.

On a postcard each pupil was invited to respond to any or all of ‘tell me how you feel about your voice, did you like the song? What did you think of warming up your voice before starting to learn the song? What singing experiences have you had already?

Thus a pupil-teacher dialogue had been opened up. The private teacher-pupil line of communication was valued by pupils.

Lesson by lesson the teacher responded to the pupils’ thoughts and suggestions.  At first these related to the conditions of learning. for example, arrangements for sitting, standing and configuration of chairs. From here the dialogue moved to repertoire and ways of learning.

Each lesson began with the teacher telling the class how their ideas were being incorporated into the lesson serving to reinforce the validity of their comments and as a way of authenticating ‘the pupil voice’.

As the singing class progressed so a variety of formats was agreed and reflected upon: group work with pupil choice of material working with backing tracks and without; peer teaching; teacher coaching on vocal technique and all leading to pupils singing voluntarily and with ease, coming to know and accepting each other’s voices in a climate of trust and security.

The teacher writes:

‘As their vocal skills developed pupils exercised greater informed choice about the best approach to learning. They came to realise that working in smaller group settings allowed for more individualised selection of singing repertoire and greater scope for individual voices to claim a space of their own. Pupils who requested to work in ever smaller groups reasoned that this would allow them greater attention from the teacher and would also enable them to better self-assess their singing progress as it would be easier to distinguish their own voice from others.’ [2]

An important role for the teacher was to help pupils understand the ways in which their voices were changing, how these changes could be managed and how to gain greater control over them. The teacher helped pupils to better understand audiational processes, the ways in which they could manipulate sounds in mind, how they could extend auditory memory and comprehend a sequence of musical ideas. All of which we might say is the transmission of ‘powerful knowledge’.

Over a term pupils and teacher had reached a point where the curriculum could be negotiated and where pupils understood that while their ideas were important and respected, their teacher ‘knew good things’ and ‘good places to go’ – ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’, for example.

For now at least the teacher had ample evidence of positive attitudes and improved vocal self-efficacy.

For children moving to new situations, meeting new teachers there is often the mystery of ‘what count as success’? The ‘rules of the game’ are not always clear. In this case the pupils had negotiated and constructed ‘the rules of the game’. The pedagogy was visible to all.

The teacher concludes:

‘The challenge of creating a ‘negotiated curriculum’ demands the sharing of power between teacher and pupil, a mutual respect and understanding of objectives. Becoming a negotiator is at the heart of how I intend to develop and explore my teaching in the future.’ [3]

Action research is designed to bring about change through systematic evaluation and review of intervention strategies. It aims ‘to arrive at recommendations for good practice that will tackle a problem or enhance the performance of the organisation and individuals through changes to the rules and procedures within which they operate’. [4]

This teacher started out aiming to create positive attitudes to singing. In the event a new way of being a music teacher was discovered and how through genuine dialogue all kinds of things became possible.

Notes:

[1] See Baskaran, R. (2013) Children’s Enjoyment of Singing in a Primary School, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education, Bloomsbury.

[2] Man, E. (2013) Developing Positive Attitudes towards Singing in Year 7 through Dialogue and Negotiation, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education. Bloomsbury, p. 122.

[3] Ibid, p.124.

[4] Denscombe, M. (2002) Ground Rules for Social Research: A Ten Point Guide for Social Researchers. Open University Press.