Presence, futures and the music teacher

No not ‘self-directed learning’ but ‘self-organised learning’ and ‘child-driven education’. This is the brainchild of Sugata Mitra. See [1]

Mitra fundamentally reconfigures education, what it is for and changes who the teacher is, if not making such a person redundant.

Those readers who are future-minded will be interested to find out more while those critical of 21st century this and that education may well be outraged.

In response I write about the great pleasure evident in being a music teacher and what might be a case of ‘teacher-organised learning’.

Tuesday morning year 9 lesson three and I learn that ‘The Shining’ is a Stanley Kubrick horror film that makes use the third movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, an example of Bartok’s ‘Night music’ genre. [2]

Drawing from the Bartok the class know about how glissandi, silence, trills, atonal melody, lack of pulse and throw in that tantalising tri-tone can become signifiers.

The class are mid-way through their Film Music course, which forms their timetabled music education in year 9. Lessons are eighty minutes and run for half the year.

Film music is one of three options alongside Popular Music and Musical Performance.

Half a year and eighty minute lessons, so plenty of scope for a thoughtful unfolding of the practical knowledge that serves making and thinking about music for film. [3]

The film Shining, as the teacher takes care to emphasise, is entirely inappropriate viewing for year 9, yet the extract that has been isolated for study does provide an appropriate stimulus for pupils to make their own tracks and understand more about film music.

In this school it’s all Ipads with links to Garage Band and there’s something about Irig that I don’t understand.

This particular work comes about half way through the course which will conclude with the synchronous making of a film and its music.

The teacher is of the conversational kind taking care to confirm the presence of each pupil, showing that each is known as a musical person.

Beyond the appraisal of the musical ideas created, the most common conversation concerns the organisation of these ideas within the time span of the extract.

The teacher is enjoying being a teacher, exercising responsibility and making fine-grained moment-by-moment judgements that nurture powers of discrimination in her pupils. Conversations are at their best when pupils’ and the teacher’s ways of thinking are interrupted only to find resolution when the pupil says: ‘that works’ – ‘that feels right’.

The teacher is enjoying being a teacher most of all because she has created a classroom climate in which there is an easy exchange of ideas.

But in the light of ideas such as self-organised learning, child-driven education and other 21st century ambitions, will the model of the teacher as knowledgeable conversationalist endure?

George Steiner writing about being a teacher is hopeful that it will:

‘There is no craft more privileged. To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future: this is the threefold adventure like no other.’ [4]

When music teachers say they are passionate about their teaching, is this what they mean?


[1] See also the – over two million viewings!

[2] Have you noticed how the term ‘genre’ is being de-graded? Are classical and pop really genres? Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

[3] Yes, practical knowledge not skills.

[4] Steiner, G. (2003) Lessons of the Masters. Harvard University.

7 thoughts on “Presence, futures and the music teacher

  1. davidashworth

    Thanks for sharing these insights into yet more interesting music lessons.

    A couple of questions:

    1. Has the teacher had to negotiate the freedom to spend the half year on one topic? [ BTW – I’m not suggesting that this is a bad idea!]
    2. You say the class ” know about how glissandi, silence, trills, atonal melody, lack of pulse…tritones…” Do they use this vocabulary as well as understanding how they work as signifiers?

    I said a couple of questions, which inevitably leads to others. Here’s one for the moment. I’d be interested to know if the music they make in GarageBand sounds anything like the Bartok source?

  2. 1. The half year topics/projects offering choice are what collectively the staff decided to do.
    2. I was present for just one lesson so difficult to assess the degree of language acquisition and usage. Certainly there was stong grasp of the musical features. I will pursue this.
    How is language acquired? How do pupils of their own volition come to speak it. Perhaps ‘talking points’ are needed.
    3. Some resemblence in sounds to Bartok’s.

  3. davidashworth

    Thanks, John,
    I’m thinking that perhaps conscious use of the vocabulary will ‘nail it’, and help the student recognise when they come across a musical feature again – in another context, at any point in the future.

    So, for instance, once I had learnt that the little fluffy red bird was a “robin” I was able to identify it on all subsequent occasions [I still can!] Same with glissandi and isosceles triangles….

  4. Yes, but my goodness, don’t we need to research this issue.
    So the hypothesis is that if we place the language into the ongoing conversation e.g. Teacher: ‘ah, I see your long, slow glissando against the pulseless throb of the bass creates a novel effect.’ etc. – a continuous flow of rich discourse (plus talking points to support for pupils to talk themselves into understanding) then launguage is acquired.
    You could see the little fluffy red bird. You can’t see the glissando in the same way although physical gesture, graphic notation etc. can help.
    I must blog about Jerome Bruner’s enactive, iconic, symbolic modes next week. They explain so much.

  5. I found this article very, very interesting as it resonated with a lot of my own thinking.
    I believe our education system is rooted in the Victorian era, perpetuated by the sort of ideology that us expressed through comments like, “I did it like that, so that is the right way to do it”. The artificiality of schooling (everyone with people of the same age, sitting in ranks, only one primary source of information etc.) grates against the life experience of young people out of school, resulting in poor behaviour, disinterest, failure to achieve potential or even outright rebellion.
    We have the resources at our disposal to fundamentally change this, with the addition of new technologies and new teaching methods amongst other things, and steps are being made toward a twenty-first century education. There is so much that we can do in Music education to lead the way. For example, in a good music lesson there has always been differentiation and assessment for learning as students work at their own level of, say, performing ability and assess their own progress by the fluency and accuracy of their work; no levels, but a fundemental knowledge about whether it “sounds right”, especially if the piece has been demonstrated or a recording is available.
    Yes, in the future we could shrink and shrink the role and input of a teacher until it is no longer necessary. But the best way to explore new territory is to have the services of a guide: someone who has been there before and knows what is unexplored to you. It makes exploring much more efficient and purposeful, but the expedition leader (the student) is the one who can choose whether to follow the guide or forge ahead themselves, using the guide as an advisor. As teachers, planning for learning means we decide the territory to be explored, but it is the student who makes the journey. Surely something along these lines will be the future of our profession?

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