Luke and his pipe dreams

Soundcastle is a musical social enterprise sparking imaginations, expanding horizons in musical leadership and much more. [1]

I was pleased to accept Soundcastle’s invitation to The Centre, Merchants Street in East London to take part in the Friday after school session of Musical Beacons. [2]

I had previously observed Soundcastle’s work with Southwark’s Saturday morning Creative Orchestra. [3] There I saw the very model of a facilitating environment, something that Soundcastle’s practitioners have great expertise in creating and sustaining.

The Musical Beacon’s programme is family and community orientated serving those living within a radius of 0.3 miles of The Centre. It is the idea of ‘community connectedness’ that underpins the weekly family workshops.

Music is the connector.

3.30 comes and parents and children drift into the welcoming informal atmosphere of the generous space where we will be musical beacons. There are babies in arms and all ages up to eight.

It is only when we all feel ‘at home’ that the music making can begin.

We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.

Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo * who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.

Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?

We are getting to know each other.

Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.

Off now into three groups and I am in the group led by Lauren who provides a perpetual mobile balafon support for the musical inventions that follow. The adults respond immediately as a musical narrative is built through Lauren’s skilful process of elicitation with the children watching from the safety of their parent’s arms while being drawn closer to making their first musical imprints on the work in hand.

Luke is in a shall I – shant I state of being. Before him lies the Pipe Dreams [4], an instrument new to me, and there inviting Luke to play.

He watches other children as they venture forth picking up their beaters to make their musical mark on the ensemble. Then Luke picks up his beater but for the moment that is all as he retreats to mother. Then again and his first musical gesture, and little by little, more and more, until a flow of sounds come forth that find synchrony with Lauren’s music.

Oh what a mystery is the child’s mind that we can never know except by responding to their responses, being ever more attentive and becoming attuned to the cause of authenticating musical dialogue.

Then groups come together for each to show. Luke is in fine form.

Now we all move to a corner to sing under the leadership of Fernando and his guitar. There is deep enchantment as Fernando makes beautifully gentle sounds and tells about his magical instrument. Then a reggae song and a voice calls ‘I love reggae’. Its ‘Three Little Birds’ and we sing our way to the end of the session.

There are Musical Beacon’s Diaries to complete and for the older children there is time to work at their Arts Award.

Musical Beacons is a safe place to be, where music does the connecting, where the connecting makes the music and where Luke knows about pipe dreams.


* Children’s names are made up.



[1] See

[2] The Musical Beacons project is supported by Youth Music and using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts council England.

[3] See

[4] See

And what about this?

And for the origin of the term ‘pipe dream’ see

‘no, not what the kids are actually into’


Rugby station – a desolate place on a windy November morning. Thankfully the 11.13 from Euston is on time, and I duly meet up with secondary school music teacher Emily who I will be accompanying to the Music Mark Conference.

Earlier Emily had taught her first lesson of the day at School21 in Stratford, East London and now together we will be presenting Emily’s Project-based Learning approach (PBL) [1] to an over-subscribed conference session later in the day.

The time comes and some thirty delegates join us. We introduce ourselves – Emily in her second school and seventh year of teaching. Myself having taught in four secondary schools over a period of twenty-eight years and latterly teaching at university postgraduate level with my heart remaining at Key Stage 3,  and endlessly wondering how it should be as a central plank within a general music education.

I ask why the delegates have come. Was it the soft colours of the power point slides that attracted or more likely, as Kevin Rogers points out, the title of the session ‘Music Education: much more than learning to play a musical instrument’? It was this that seemed to capture interest. I regret not inviting Kevin to say more.

I asked the room whether a distinction needed to be made between musical participation (participatory music) and a musical education. Wasn’t a musical education something more than participation, more than being included, more than being engaged musically, more than gaining a musical identity, more than being a musician even, and certainly more than learning to play a musical instrument?

If music is a subject of the school curriculum then where will it sit amongst other subjects of the curriculum, and how will it relate to these other subjects, these other ways of coming to know and understand the world into which children and young people are growing? How will it be part of the whole, a subject, educationally significant?

Recent years have seen decisive shifts in educational policy in England. There has been a rapid growth in Academies, the introduction of Free Schools, Studio Schools, Co-operative Schools and University Teaching Colleges, and some of these are designated as Teaching Schools. Alongside this are shifts in curriculum orders and changes to accountability measures.

All this presents both problems and possibilities for the place of music in the secondary school.

As Professor Sue Hallam has pointed out: what was once a statutory requirement that all schools teach the National Curriculum ensuring a musical entitlement for all no longer holds in the new landscape of Academies and Free Schools. Their freedoms change all this. They are under no statutory requirement to provide a music education.

Yet, at the same time, there are emerging new commitments to music as a school subject, new ways of thinking about music’s role in supporting fresh educational visions. Whether championing traditional values or progressive futures or both of these and all things in between, some schools are clear about music as being essential to their purposes.

In Emily’s school music is part of a commitment to ‘real world learning’, ‘beautiful work’, ‘enquiry learning’ and a ‘speaking curriculum’. This is not negotiable.

The messages are clear:

And as Emily showed us, in this world of progressive 21st century futures  music thrives. Music is part of a non-hierarchical curriculum and frequently a subject enhanced by cross-disciplinary learning.

There is the case of Music and Slavery

Music and Science

The Silent Disco

The planning needs to be thorough, the teaching firmly directed towards the final perfected musical work. Self-directed learning there may be. That’s not the point.

And ‘real world’, ‘relevance’ and ‘authentic’ are not equated with ‘what kids are actually into’. It’s much more subtle than this.

The Silent Disco, and its forms of sociality, is a cultural practice as strange to the pupils as is the cultural practice of the Blues presented as historically and culturally located. These are ‘real world’ because they are cultural practices. And one purpose of a music education I propose is to induct newcomers into the world of existing and emerging cultural practices.

All this is Key Stage 3, and on balance 120 minutes of music weekly. What then?

The school accepts the inevitability of a narrowed Key Stage 4 curriculum in the light of progress8. (See

while harbouring thoughts of a different 14-18 curriculum through which pupils would continue to build a profile of beautiful work.

Emily is not enamoured by the prospect of the new GCSE in music and points out its foibles, misconceptions and crass recontexualising of cultural practices (See Edexel rap and beatboxing criteria, for example.).

For Emily there is another and better 14-18 music curriculum to be imagined.

But time to drive to Rugby station and Emily’s 6.02 return to London.

But where were the many other Emilys, just like Emily, breaking the mould of a moribund Key Stage 3 and finding the solutions to the problems of music education inside their classrooms?



[1] PBL, sometimes named enquiry-based learning, comes in a great many varieties. For a distinctly progressive version see The Avalon School in New Zealand .

Whatever the emphasis the concept of ‘enquiry’ is key. The enquiry question(s) sustain the line of enquiry throughout inviting ongoing conversation and dialogue.

Of course, it is not difficult to imagine how PBL could be done very badly, how it could be misunderstood, marketised and misappropriated.

Note that Emily’s is a small school. Translating this to larger schools might be problematic although there is no reason why the approach couldn’t stand alone in Music. However, a whole range of norms are disrupted by PBL – for example, a focus on expressive outcomes rather than learning objectives and what assessment and progression mean in this context.

One essential may be that teachers have very good subject knowledge. This may be the key to depth, rigour and high standards of musical work.










Knowledge, academic rigour and music education

‘It is commonly agreed that the main aim of education is the attainment and development of knowledge and understanding.’ [1]

You can’t but have noticed the wave upon wave of calls for a return to a traditional education with knowledge at its core? The new traditionalism has gathered steady momentum over the past ten years, made official in a new national curriculum and on through official pronouncements and policy directives, and now argued for and fanfared by a myriad of bloggers and as promoted by some schools vying for the title of academic rigour champion.

And the recent visit to England by the North American academic E. D. Hirsch has served to excite the cause further. See

There is the key idea of a knowledge rich curriculum for cultural literacy creating a shared vocabulary of understanding providing all with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’. [2]

At the same time sociologist Michael Young has been working away on his thesis expressed as ‘bringing knowledge back’ and the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ to be found within all subject disciplines. [3]

I sometimes wonder whether music education is connected to these kinds of general educational debates or simply dreaming along in hope of better times, looking inwards and detaching itself from the wider politics of education.

Well, music education does connect when it comes to revising GCSE and A Level, and when ‘the best of the musical canon’ becomes an emblematic phrase in the national curriculum for music, when 100 pieces of classical music are promoted by Schools Minister Nick Gibb, when music is accorded low curriculum status, when choral singing is singled out as the most civilising way of using the voice.

Core essential knowledge. Knowledge not skills and certainly not ‘21st century skills’. This is the message.

The suggestion that there might be different kinds of knowledge, different ways of knowing comes to be seen as irrelevent and disruptive of the ideology of the best.

I find all this deeply worrying for education, the arts and in particular for music. Not because I am against knowledge (I love knowledge) but because I am against a ‘one size fits all form of knowledge’. Let me explain through a story.

As last Sunday approached I turned my thoughts to what music I should play before and after the morning service in the village church where I was to play. It was Armistice Sunday and there would be times of thoughtful remembrance in the service.

I felt sure that before the service I should play something solemn and fixed on Handel’s Largo as it used to be known. [4] However, I remained far from certain about what music I should play at the end of the service. Should it be bold, loud, triumphant, glorious? I wasn’t sure. By Sunday morning I still had no clear idea about what would be right. I did have the book in which Handel’s Largo featured amongst ‘100 of the world’s favourite pieces’ and my thoughts rested on several possibilities.

In the event, and as the service proceeded, I began to sense what would be right. There were the silences and I thought of my own fore bearers killed in both wars. There were poignant words read by a frail age-ed man and the final hymn was to be ‘I vow to thee, my country’.

I now became clearer about what would be right. I would play ‘I vow to thee, my country’. The congregation would make good sense of this repetition I thought.

As the time approached to play my final part in the service I again felt the mood of the place as I imagined the people’s feelings and sensibilities. And now with a sense of what was right here and I drew the Lieblich Gedact stop [5] and played the first line of ‘I vow to thee, my country’ slowly and as a single line melody, the second line harmonised and so on with some variation and ending with a lone voice in the lowest of registers.

Later I reflected on what kind of knowledge I had been engaged in.

It wasn’t a matter of knowing that this is the case, these are the facts, here is theoretical knowledge to be applied, but a practical form of knowing bound to particular circumstances drawing upon feeling and intuition to discern what was right. Thought was bound to feeling. It was knowledge that was experienced, felt, saturated with value and independent of concepts and categories and not translatable to any other kind of knowledge.

All this has great relevance for the music classroom and just what it is that is being valued (assessed) and for the ways of knowing that are being prized.

In response to the demand for a knowledge curriculum, for facts to lead the way, for knolwedge to be reduced to statements of truth, for 100 pieces of classical music to be recognised and named, it is helpful to be reminded of a practical form of knowledge that I have tried to communicate above. This will be about learning and living out dispositions towards making music well, finding out what feels right so that concepts, categories and all other manifestations of knowledge can be imbued with significance and placed with care in the order of things. [5]


[1] These words open L. A. Reid’s ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’ (1986) Heinemann Education Books.

[2] This phrase from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy’ has come to be the emblem of new traditionalism.

For a response to ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ see

[3] See leaving music education with much to consider.

[4] ‘Ombra mai fu’ from the opera Serse.

[5] See

[6] See also ‘Finding a place for music’ in

After the Music Learning Revolution and that difficult question

Can you only teach music if you are a trained music educator?

This question framed one of the four debates scheduled as part of the recent Music Learning Revolution. #MLRev

Prior to the event I thought:

‘Well, no, of course not’.

I thought of parents making up songs with their children; parents in the Suzuki triangle of teacher, child, parent; that year 8 group of disaffected pupils teaching a year 7 class [1]; my own childhood piano teacher and so on.

In the event Matt Griffiths made clear that the question had in mind the teaching of music in school.

Now I thought:

What is meant by a trained music educator?

Are we thinking of a teacher who teaches five lessons a day; who is musical and musically well-educated; who knows how children’s musical thinking develops; who knows about children’s vocal development; who wears music infectiously on their sleeve; who knows how the school’s curriculum is constructed, for what purpose and how music contributes to this; who knows how to plan for progression in learning over time; who understands the dynamics of the interaction between teacher-pupil and what is being learnt; who possesses powerful pedagogical knowledge; who is able to evaluate innovative practices; whose task it is to ensure that pupils become less ignorant, minds broadened and extended?

Then this would be a well-trained music educator, indeed an exceptionally well-trained music educator who more than deserves to be recognised as a qualified music teacher upholding and furthering the values of the music teaching profession. [2]

Or am I on the wrong track altogether? Is a trained music educator simply someone who has undergone a period of specific higher education or CPD that is accredited?

Or is ‘a trained music educator’ a pejorative term hinting at a music education that would be better served if fully open, deregulated and, dare I say, de-schooled? [3]

Can you only teach music in school if you are a trained music educator?

One of my trusty advisors notes that:

‘Whereas the question looks simple, it is deceptively complex (and, in the original context, this is probably unintentional):

What is meant by ‘teach’ music? (including teach badly, teach well.)

What is meant by ‘trained’?

What is music education? (As compared, say, with, musical experience…)

Some sort of ‘exposure’ to some of the issues involved in teaching music is surely desirable, if only to preempt the need to reinvent the wheel.’

And now I think with the primary school generalist teacher in mind:

‘But answering ‘yes need to be trained’ should not be used as an excuse by those who are not trained when justifying that they do not teach music, just as answering ‘no’ should not be used as an excuse (by government) not to provide such training.’

Can you only teach music in school if you are a trained music educator?

Now I’m wondering whether the question calls for different responses depending on whether we have primary or secondary music education in mind?

Well, no solutions! Just trying to clear the ground and a bit confused.

Or is it that I can’t get out of my comfort zone?

Any further advice or clarifications welcome.


[1] See Finney, J., Hickman, R., Morrison, M., Nicholl, B. and Rudduck, J. (2005) Rebuilding Engagement in the Arts. Pearson.

[2] See Kaschub, M. and Smith, J. (eds) (2014) Promising Practices in 21st Century Music Teacher Education. Oxford University Press for fresh perspectives on Music Teacher Education in North America.

[3] One of Christopher Small’s last pieces of writing concludes that removing music from the school curriculum would do more good than harm to pupils’ experience. He has in mind the setting up of centres where musicking would take place open to all irrespective of age and based on need. See Small, C. (2010) ‘Afterword’ in (ed) Ruth Wright, Sociology and Music Education. Ashgate.