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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s