Knowing how to make music well (v)

In this series of five blogs (scroll down for the full story) I set out to bring to the fore the question of purpose in a music education for all children as part of a general education.

I have argued that finding purpose for music education and the search for what might be thought of as good music education is in constant need of attention, lest what passes as advocacy becomes conflated with purpose, or that the discourse of ‘learnification’ and ‘effectiveness’ distract from it.

Each of the three purposes proposed are sourced from Gert Biesta’s framework for considering the purpose of education, or as he sometimes puts it: what education is for. [1] In appropriating Biesta’s framework I have been able to develop a way of approaching discussion about the purposes of a music education, or if you prefer: what is music education for? [2]

It is emphasised that the enquiry has addressed a music eduction for all children as part of a general education. This needs repeating because this limits the question to music education as practiced within an institutional framework, normally the school. So, not a specialist music education nor a music education for ‘all’, implying music education wherever, whenever and life long. Of course, the solutions proposed may well be applicable to ‘all’, and as made clear in the second blog, emphasis may be placed differently across the framework as circumstances call for. In this way I think there is scope to answer Kathryn’s questions.

MayorsMusic2016 music is a contested territory like everything else in schools What’s the goal? Who decides? Is there learner choice?

But now let me take one more step and place the purpose of music education within the broadest framework I know – education for human flourishing-music education for human flourishing.

In the broadest terms an education should enable the child to live well and fully flourish as a human being now and throughout their lives. To expand the source of this statement one commentator writes:

‘In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that eudaimonia means ‘doing and living well and being content’. For Aristotle this implies that eudaimonia involves activity and a striving for excellence. It is human nature to strive for self-development. Therefore the best form of eudemonia is gained by the proper development of one’s best powers and the most humane attitude. This identifies us as ‘rational animals’. It follows that eudemonia for a human being is the attainment of excellence (arête) through the use and application of reason.’ [1]

Eudaimonia represents a life-long goal. There is no point of arrival and ‘happiness’, merely being a state of mind, is not what Aristotle is thinking of. And ‘well-being’ misses the mark too.


The concept of human flourishing enables highlighting and attending to the structures that prevent this from being the case, to inequity and social injustice.

Our hope is that in every school, every classroom, every child will be coming to know how to make music well, working with and against existing musical cultures while being subjectively enriched.



[1] Biesta, G. (2013) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers. See pages 127-130.

[2] The question of purpose, of course, can’t be separated from many other questions – what is the nature of music, the nature of music-making, childhood, society, the kind of society we would wish for, the kind of musical society we might wish for and so on. While not starting from these kinds of questions they are always close to surface of what has been written in the five blogs.

[3] Apologies for not being able to acknowledge the source.





Knowing how to make music well (iv)

In the fourth of a sequence of five blogs addressing the purposes of music education Felicity Laurence continues reporting on her work with four year 6 classes from four schools. First a reminder of how far I had got with purposes:

1. To equip all children with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

2. To induct all children into existing cultures of making-music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice.

3.To enable all children to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music making well.

Felicity continues:

I am also always addressing the narrative of ordinary children’s real musical grasp, which we so often underrate; in this project, children joined Red Byrd in singing choruses from the medieval music, for example, the Alleluia from the Leonin, and the chorus of the Perotin Beate Viscera. In these, and in their far, far longer and for that matter, much higher pitched parts in the second contemporary piece (composed by John Surman), the children of course had their lines by heart – always the case, in my experience. The children in fact had all of the music memorised well enough to know when to move, sit, stand at certain musical points throughout the whole concert –just on the musical cues that we had collectively worked out over the preceding months.

John Surman’s specially–written piece, Under the Shadow, based upon Psalm 91, was less varied than Osborn’s in tonal language but very demanding in terms of its performance in which the children had a large role –lots of text, lots of melodic lines crossing each other. John was there to play in it, and to work with the children in the final stages.  Here they were able not only to experience a fabulous level of improvisation in John’s saxophone playing, but also to be part of that.  Working with this piece involved the children’s exploring their own vocal ability, and my helping them sing beautifully, as well as the compositional aspects. In my role, I also acted constantly upon ideas from the children – adding into this piece extra interludes, a drone at one point, an introductory section for them to sing alone; here, in making these interludes, I was taking into account what I had learned about what they could do really well and what they had conveyed that they found moving and expressive.

As the work took shape over the allotted and ample time, one group found ways of playing with the musical impulses and elements in Osborn’s piece, with their own instrumental work in which they used these musical ideas to explore the ‘angels’ theme in other ways. Another group developed a breathtaking choreography –which in the end they decided to perform in utter silence between musical movements of medieval song; imagine these children with the graceful, mirrored slow motion dance, holding – each of them in their minds – the music that preceded and would follow each movement interlude, and with great clarity of intention, making their own expressive interpretation of the music, this interpretation now becoming  part of that very music.  Another group came up with words – we ended up with quite stunning poetic responses which we then displayed as an exhibition in the concert hall, and which they sang and spoke during the performance.  Another moment involved children dotted throughout the 120 group standing on stage holding torches and turning them on, again on musical cues they had by then absorbed, to provide a further expressive element adding to sense of serene mystery they had together created with their teachers and the professional musicians.

Here are some small snippets of the children’s and their teachers’ reflections as they carefully contemplated the entire musicking project after our final performance – this reflective phase another crucial aspect of educational work. These comments are rich in resonances with John’s own reflections about the purposes of music education, his idea of ‘inducting the child into existing cultures of making-music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice’. And with Freire’s notion of education as learning critically and creatively to deal with (here) musical reality; and John’s point about each child being given the best possible chance for musically enriching experience – and I would add, one that situates that child as agentic, able to make good decisions musically, able to learn to hear musical nuances better, to sing better, and to flourish as musicians for the duration of this work.

And we might also think about the question of where –if anywhere –and what on earth –if anything –we could – or should –be trying to ‘measure’ on any kind of metric basis; and to return to Christopher Small’s own gauntlet thrown down in 1977, about education relegating children to being consumers –of extant tradition–, or conversely, and principally, as he himself was arguing – nurturing them as artists.

Teachers’ comments

‘Anna’–  …it as not just the concert that made this experience so worthwhile –it was also the risk-taking on your part, the rehearsal effort on the part of the children […] my fears were totally groundless (Oh ye of little faith!!) –My apologies for seeming feeble in the early stages….

‘Laura’ –… for me who has never been musical, but always loved music…I never felt that I didn’t know what I was doing or that it was unmanageable –could easily have been daunting but it just wasn’t at all… The children now really believe in themselves –taking part in something so different so public has given them the belief that they can do anything they set their minds to … every single one of them has written about it.

‘Sara’ … Things were being changed and new ideas coming in all the time –may have freaked others out, but I really liked that…No negative response from the children or their parents at all.

Children’s comments

Children wrote that they found Under the Shadow  ‘powerful’, ‘energetic’, ‘very original [sic] , ‘unique’. (Sam, Mark, John, Richard)

We had to sing really high in Under the Shadow. Felicity helped up to do this by telling us to open our mouths, drop our chins and put our lips forwards. (Donna)

We enjoyed using strange instruments to make small sounds like stars and space. (Tracy)

I like Under the Shadow. It makes me feel clever to sing something so hard. (Chantel)

I liked doing the group work. Our movements had to be slow and controlled to fit in with the mood of the music. (Luke)

I liked learning to drone and sneak breaths without it being noticeable. (Natalie)

This is the first time I’ve done a BIG THING on stage…Felicity and the others have done a good job. (Josh)

I’ve had an exquisite time doing work on Singing with Angels asceaily [sic] Under the shadow… (Rachel)

I think it’s a great idea to get children into music (Charlotte)

It was interesting to find out what my voice can do. I’m really glad that we got to include our dance. (Alice)

I like the sing it help me de confden and make me sing detter and I like the idey its wicked! (Jake)

I think it’s quite weird and it was hard to keep up, but we managed to do it although we had to practise quite a lot. I think it could calm you (Nathan)

I enjoyed practising the angel wings. It was quite difficult because it strained my legs first thing in the morning where we had to do ten. It was fun when we got into groups of four and made one giant wing all moving together to make an angel feeling. (Robbie)

If I am doing Singing with Angels, I don’t have to do the lessons so that is one good thing about it. I got another thing about Singing with Angels which is that I really enjoyed the music. (Sarah)

I never had heard music like that before. It had been a brand new experience. (Josie)

I thought the singing was quite fun although I do not normally enjoy singing. ‘Under the Shadow’ is my favourite. (William)

We have to sing with men and it’s really difficult because women’s voices are much higher than men’s…..The men’s singing voices are brilliant…(Annie)

We had to practise angel wings…we got it wrong over and over again but then we started to pick it up and our teacher was very pleased with us. It really strained the muscles in our legs but it was worth it in the end. (Melissa)

Interesting especially when we did a bit of Arabic music and Latin singing. (David)

It’s interesting and really makes you think. (Rebecca).

Singing, musical, beautiful and unbelievable. Under the Shadow my favourite quiet and soft. I used to hate singing but now I love it. (Charles)

Next week I will draw together thoughts about the challenge of finding purpose for a music education for all pupils – why it should be addressed and why it needs working at.

music is a contested territory like everything else in schools What’s the goal? Who decides? Is there learner choice?

And I had better answer Katherine’s questions.


Knowing how to make music well (iii)

In my two previous blogs I worked out three purposes for music education and, by implication, made progress towards answering the question ‘what is good music education’. So, not concerned with what is an effective or efficient music education or with music education’s epiphenomena (by products).

I was setting out, with a few amendments, our recent talk given at the Royal College of Music.

At this point Felicity Laurence provided a vivid account of what good music education might be like.


Here is a tiny sketch of a music educational project –Singing with Angels – consisting of vocal and compositional work – which had no view of ‘effectiveness’ or ‘efficiency’ in the terms John has highlighted –and no view of music as a conduit to another educational end; this project rested on an underpinning theory of musicality as innate, and a commitment to its nurturing in all children. 4 year 6 classes from each of four primary schools, over 4 months; our musical work was to lead to a shared performance with professional musicians –the 4- member singing group Red Byrd and the saxophonist John Surman.

My task was to guide the children’s explorations into the musical repertoire through a process of deconstruction and analysis of the musical pieces, the children’s own re-creation of further musical tropes, and any other aesthetic elements they might collectively –with their teachers – develop and create.

This was wide open work, within a defined framework which nevertheless had nothing recognisably to do with any ‘levels’, or with any stated ‘outcome’ beyond helping the children learn more about singing well and about the compositional processes any musician might be addressing.

This work takes children as already-aesthetic agents, and pedagogically is based upon a dialogic approach where in fact from the first minute I am asking questions, sometimes open ones, and sometimes Socratic where I am trying to take them down a path I think may be interesting to them –but always in dialectic tension so that at any point, anyone’s idea might take us all in an unpredictable direction (which of course happened many times).

The repertoire was a long way from nearly all of the children’s familiar musical ground … but this wasn’t about inculcating them into a particular hegemonic music –western art music-, but rather, about taking the theme of Angels (which had arisen in a broader context), and working with this in diverse ways –drawing upon the music itself but just as much upon the children’s inspiration- so, the idea of taking them on a guided exploration into strange and potentially lovely new worlds… of medieval music by Leonin and Perotin and two large contemporary works.

One of these was the piece Angel Nebulae, written earlier by Nigel Osborn on commission for Red Byrd. It’s a longish piece with several movements, varying in musical language –sometimes tuneful and harmonic –so directly accessible to the children, other times though –quite strange to the unaccustomed ear, with extremely complex rhythms, and microtones, and overtones… I had a recording of the piece that I could play to the children, and point them to various compositional devices, the way Osborn was setting words, the kinds of variations in his musical vocabulary; I showed them how to make the overtones and then they were able to pinpoint them very acutely in the music and now had a sharp interest in doing so and understanding how they were being used compositionally.

With this deconstructional approach –always based around Christopher Small’s axiom ‘what’s really going on here?’, we can bypass pretty well immediately any discourse about –whether we like this kind of music or not, or what genre it belongs to. I think we can get into the territory established ages ago in art education – of thinking about the uses and functions and ways of varying colour, design, shape, relationships between these -so in music, of tonal quality, melody, harmony, rhythmic patterns and so on…in a way that lets children delve into the musical world of whatever music they are working with (not just listening to but actively working with) –and lets their curiosity and responses steer the musicking, rather than any kind of imposed view of the music in question.

Here are some of the children talking later and very thoughtfully and competently about the Osborn pieceby this stage deeply informed by their intense experiences inside this music;

The music is light and weightless. It feels like floating, the sound is strange.
I think the Nebulae piece is very imaginative and creative and the idea of angels and space really comes through in it. The score seems
to be amazingly complicated and it must have taken ages of practicing [sic].
I like the strangeness of it. (Jonny)
[..] this wonderfully exotic piece of music. I loved it how we had to do angel move iments and the weird feeling of moving around indarkness. When I saw the score of the music I marvelled at how hard it was.

An interesting experience. I’ve never heard this type of singing before. The link with space matches our class topic. This eirie sound completes its angelic topic. (Abigail)
I think the songs are to make you think of how deep and dark and gloomy it is in space…) [The men singers] even manage to make it creepy
with Angels in it!) (Nathan)


Next week we read Part 2 of Felicity’s story.


Knowing how to make music well (ii)

In last week’s blog I began to test Gert Biesta’s framewok for discerning purposes in education by applying this to music education. In doing this I made clear that I was considering the purposes of music education for all children in the context of a general education.

In addressing the first of Biesta’s three functions – ‘Qualification’, I proposed that:

All children be equipped with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

I made the point that the qualification function is often seen as a sufficient aim. However, the second, socialisation, as I will show, looms large.

Socialisation – the process of inserting newcomers into a social order involving the transmission of the social norms required to maintain common ways of living, shared beliefs and values that are thought to bind us together. While socialisation functions as a continual process beyond the confines of the school, in school we quickly learn that we don’t hug our primary school teacher, that there are times to move to music and times to be still, that it is good to be kind to other people both near and far away through the songs sung, that singing is a normal thing to do, that music is something that can be learnt about and so on.

Legislators from Plato to Morgan have paid great attention to the socialisation function of education.

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, singing was seen as the vehicle by which children would be inducted into a social order that is of course also a moral order.

In 1836 civil servant Kay proposed that singing is: ‘an important means of forming an industrious, brave, loyal and religious people’ [1], the kind of sentiment that led to an ongoing comittment to forge and preserve a common song repertoire.

In another place we see the socialisation function expressed as the induction of the young into

‘… an unbroken tradition of cultural possessions that will fill the lives of children with joy and happiness and that should help, by means of its ability to build up the people and community, in bringing up children to become men aware of their German heritage, so that they may feel the kinship with their home and people.’ [2]

This is Germany 1939.

And now in our own time, and with the cause of preserving a common heritage of song abandoned, there is the political ambition to create a common conversation around an agreed canon of musical works. (We have a hundred pieces of classical music for Primary Schools.) At the same time Ofsted will be monitoring the inculcation of British Values.

But all this brings into play a counter position that wishes to contest the existing social order by offering visions of a society transformed. So not maintainers and sustainers but rather disrupters and transformers.

Paulo Freire puts the matter in stark format:

‘Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.’ [3]

And Christopher Small writing in 1977 is arguing for creative activity to be placed at the centre of music education so that it becomes:

‘… possible to control our own musical destiny, provide our own music rather than leave it to someone else to provide, then perhaps some of the other outside expertise that controls our lives can be brought under control also.’ [4]

The tension between the maintainance (and indeed restoration) of ways of life (culture) and their transformation is great.

To relieve the tensison I will say simply that: we inherit cutures of music making that are global as well as national and local in origin with scope for their regeneration and transformation.

Thus, if pupils are to become qualfied in making music well they will need to be:

Inducted into existing cultures of making music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice.

Our first and second purposes interact. Making music well requires knowledge, skills and understandings of musical cultures.

In making problematic the taken for granted insertion of the child into the existing social order we reach into our third category.

3. Subjectification (an ugly word) – the process of becoming a subject; becoming independent from the social order, an autonomous subjective self with the possibility of living creatively and critically. This involves the growth of self-awareness, consciousness of the process of induction into the social order, of constraints and potentials, of the possibility for personal agency.

Thus our third purpose.

The child becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music making.

So, in summary, the three purposes overlapping and interacting:

1. To equip all children with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

2. To induct all children into existing cultures of making-music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice.

3.To enable all children to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music making well.

Emphasis can be place differently at different stages, times and as circumstances call for.

And now a talking point.

In a liberal democracy should there be a settled agreement about the purposes of music education?

Next week Felicity Laurence reports on a sequence of music teaching through which we can reflect on the purposes of music education and consider how they might be reflected in the music making of ten year old children.


[1] Kay, J. (1836) Quoted in ‘Composers and the Nature of Music Education’. Ian Laurence

[2] Source lost!

[3] Freire, P.  (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin. Page 30.

[4] Small, C. (1977) Music, society, Education. Calder. Page 214.






Knowing how to make music well (i)

Anna G@tallgirlwgc @Johnfinney8 I like “knowing how to make music well” – it removes complexities around musical/musician

Anna’s tweet was in response to the final point made in my blog of last week.

I proposed that instead of the overambitious music educational aim of making all pupils musicians, a more sensible goal would be to equip all pupils ‘to make music well’.

However, I need to place this proposal in a much wider context if it is to have value lest it becomes no more than a sweet sounding slogan.

The context is the talk I gave with Felicity Laurence at the Royal College of Music on Thursday, February 25th.

What are the purposes of Music Education for all children?

OR ‘What is a good music education for all children?

Come with me:

I am in a year 8 class room in a rural Essex Comprehensive School and the lesson begins with the teacher playing a recording of Mars, The Bringer of War. The teacher asks the pupils to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil in the class about the music. The teacher asks: who would like to start the conversation? The first question is addressed to the teacher. ‘Miss, why did you choose this piece of music?’

Children want to know why. Don’t we all want to know why? Why music? Why this music, and now why music education, what is its purpose?

On November 30th 2015 the Education Select Committee called for written evidence in response to three questions:

What the purpose of education for all children of all ages should be;

What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose;

How well the current education system performs against these measures.

So why the select committee’s call? Why this out of the blue interest in the purpose of education? Did it represent some disquiet about the narrowing of the school curriculum? Was there some unease about the proposed English Baccalaureate which excludes amongst other things the arts? I doubt it, for the questions asked are ultimately directed towards the efficiency of the education system.

Questions of purpose subordordinated to the discourse of effectiveness, efficiency and learnification.

In his book ‘Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy’ the philosopher of education Gert Biesta points out that asking the question ‘what is the purpose of education’ has become increasingly difficult, because our education system has become almost entirely focused on the measurement of educational outcomes. At the same time he points to the ever expanding rhetoric of ‘learning’ – learning gains, life-long learning, flipped-learning, learning partners, learning walks, slow learning, deep learning, SAM learning, e-learning, on-line learning, learning futures, assessment for learning, we are a learning school.

Instead of asking what is education for, or what is good education, attention is paid to ‘the effectiveness of learning’, is this approach effective, what is the most effective way to teach for the best outcomes, outcomes expressed as data, and all of this without considering effective for what.

Questions concerning purpose, instead of being continually at the forefront of thought as a part of ongoing debate, are quickly settled. Despite a seductive rhetoric to the contrary education is now so thoroughly instrumentalised that the very concept of education is in danger of being reduced to issues of efficiency and effectiveness.

And then the problem with music education advocacy

In addition to the problem of the focus on effectiveness there is the discourse of music education under siege giving rise to an incessant advocacy, and in particular the promotion of music as a source of, and servant to all good things, its supposed inherent goodness and power to transform and redeem, and as both Beethoven and Michael Jackson mistakenly thought, its power to heal the world.

Advocacy yields a thousand blooms and ten thousand witnesses. In this way the question of ‘what is music education actually for’ raises constantly a plethora of muddled responses and above all, the persistent narrative, wherein music’s value is given in terms of how music education might facilitate the learning of other (more important…) subjects, and indeed the development of individual personal qualities and virtue.

While there is an important role for advocacy, it too easily becomes a surrogate for, and distraction from considering purpose. But how are we to go about the question of purpose keeping in mind that out task is to consider the purpose of music education within a general education for all pupils?

Creating a framework for addressing the question of purpose

I am grateful to Gert Biesta for offering a framework for addressing the ‘what for’ question. Biesta proposes that there exist three different yet interrelated functions that education performs. And by considering these as a composite framework it becomes possible to discuss and dispute what the purposes of education are and for our purposes here to consider what the purposes of music education might be.

The first is Qualification.

Qualification – the process that provides for the knowledge, skills, and understandings [1] that allow us to do something. What has our education allowed us to do? What has it enabled us to know and understand, think about, make judgements about? How has it enabled us to find a place in the world, the world of work, the world of leisure, community life, family life?

How has it enabled us to enter into discourse about the world, to be politically literate, for example?

Understandably, the qualification function is given great significance in any system of education. And some would argue that it is not only a necessary but a sufficient purpose.

In the case of music we might ask in the most general of terms, and remember we are thinking about a general music education for all children: in what ways does a music education qualify the child to do musical things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and understandings TO MAKE MUSIC WELL? 

‘Well’ – what does this imply? I have in mind making music in a way that is ethically sound, that engenders good relationships and in which all who take part flourish. [2]

This then is the first of three purposes.

All pupils should be equipped with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

But this needs to be made sense of alongside my second and third purposes.

Next week the second purpose arising from education’s socialisation function.


[1] The nature of musical knowledge, skills and understanding is of course a point of debate and much confusion. See, for example, Embodied Musical Knowledge ; Practical Wisdom

In finding purpose a common starting point is what is the nature of music? And then questions such as: what is education? What is music education? What is the nature of childhood? What kind of citizens do we want? What kind of society etc.?

The approach adopted, following Biesta, starts elsewhere while reaching into these questions.

[2] I recently read the accounts of two integrative music projects bringing together pupils from special schools for children with moderate and severe learning difficulties with children in mainstream schools. In one case music was made well. In the other it was not.

Making music well invokes an ethical framework for music making. See Ethical Significance of Music Making and ‘Through the Lens of Levinas: An Ethnographically-informed Case Study of Pupils’ Practices of Facing in Music-making’, Kathryn Jourdan, PhD University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education. (May not yet be available on-line.)