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.



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