Music education and its celebrity voices

In the months leading up to the 2010 British General Election the Conservative Party began taking a serious interest in music education. The then shadow minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, wrote in glowing terms of the work of a primary music teacher near to parliament in Pimlico. He also told of his own music education where at age 11 he had been introduced to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And there was talk of bringing back orchestras and choirs.

The Conservatives were a government in waiting and there was acute awareness that they would need to have something to say about the future of music education. There had been the music manifesto of 2000 and an ensuing flurry of agitated projection of what might now become of music education.

Beyond this politicians of all persuasions had learnt that music education had powerful voices in the wings that could be brought centre stage should the music education community need.

There had been interventions in the past by Sir Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez, for example, and now celebrity cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, a persistent irritant in calling for universal musical suffrage was at hand.

Enter Michael Gove and a National Plan for Music Education. Music education truly sponsored by the state.

Much has transpired since with new celebrity voices entering the drama and in the Times Education Supplement of last week no less than international superstar Lang Lang described as the world’s leading pianist.

Lang Lang notes that educational systems typically fail to adequately value music. ‘Music looks easy to cut’, and a story that is familiar in many countries where neo-liberal culturo-economic values hold sway unfolds.

Despite the overblown TES headline ‘How music can boost results, creativity and students’ self-esteem’ Lang Lang has an interesting rational for music education. It is not about learning to play an instrument or about distilling theory but rather understanding music as an art. This makes a refreshing addition to the more common rhetoric.

And so the celebrity sponsorship of music education continues unabated.

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is the sponsor of the music programme of Highbury Grove School in Islington where all pupils learn an orchestral instrument.

Nicky Benedetti is at the heart of the Sistema Scotland programme.

At the same time the vast majority of schools without celebrity sponsorship turn to the patronage of their Music Hub or is it their Academy Trust?

But watch this space, perhaps the ground is being prepared for the Uber of music education to sweep all before it legitimating the state’s withdraw from its century and a half sponsorship of music education. Perhaps this is the real plan.








Year 7 talking and thinking about music

I have previously blogged about the role of pupil talk in music learning and the use of talking points to stimulate pupil talk. I see the purpose of pupil talk as developing pupil’s thinking about music and closely allied to their thinking in sound. (See Blogs of 22/3/14; 30/3/14 and 24/10/14)

In using talking points the teacher moves away from asking questions to elicit responses to allowing pupils to respond openly and talk themselves into understanding.

There will be many opportunites for teachers to use talking points, none of which should detract from making music well, making it thoughtfully and finding fluency of expression. In fact quite the opposite.

In the example that follows music teacher Anna is embarking upon a project with year 7 and is using movements from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to stimulate thinking.

Anna writes:

Talking points comments – some snippets of conversations…

In reference to ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’

Conversation 1:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

L: So when I listen to it, it makes me think of a cat and mouse. (Does actions) The mouse is like running really fast, doing little steps. And the cat was coming along with lower notes.

B: You know when it goes higher gradually? I kind of picture them climbing up the stairs or something.

A: I think that it’s in a wood and there’s loads of rabbits and mice and things and you know there was like two long notes (sings notes), I think of that as kind of signalling that someone is coming and then it gets more frantic as they start running around trying to find hiding places.

B: Does it paint a picture in your mind?

E: Maybe like a cat and a mouse. And the cats like running but it can’t keep up with it.

Conversation 2:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

E: I think if it was a cat and mouse chase like we’re saying, there’s too many different sounds.

I: It could be a bumblebee.

E: As it got louder there could be more cats coming in. Like multiple cats.

Talking point 4: It could be more interesting if…

E: It could be more interesting if it was simpler but there were more better ways to describe what he was thinking of.

G: Yeah, if it wasn’t so high pitched cos it’s like really high pitched and it doesn’t make me think of a painting.

Conversation 3:

Talking point 5: I like this combination of instruments because…

M: They’re different but they’re not like massively different because they all fit together.

J: Yeah, they all fit.

B: I think it’s cos they are all playing short high sounds and none of them are like oddly different, like saxophones or trumpets. Maybe if some of them were playing long notes it wouldn’t work.

In reference to ‘Bydlo’

Conversation 4:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

B: It reminds me of something really sad, like a funeral.

L: It makes me think of a film, like panning across the forest.

L2: Yeah it’s like a funeral.

L: I think it’s like the funeral march.

Talking point 2: There’s not really a story at all here, it’s just music

B: I think there is like a really small story behind this music.

O: About something that’s sad or something.

Conversation 5:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

A: It’s very dark and mysterious. Like the lion going through the grass and being all scary and stealthily.

L: Yeah, and the instruments kind of make that picture.

B: It sounds kind of like a march.

A: Even though there aren’t many instruments playing, it still sets a picture in your mind.

B: And it’s so simple, there’s just like a repeated idea that goes through it.

Talking point 3: This music is too complicated

A: Yeah so the music isn’t too complicated at all because there was so few instruments so you didn’t have to try and pick out certain bits, it was just there laid out for you. There aren’t many instruments to make it complicated really. And it’s simple because there aren’t many quick notes, except at the very end. There are just like slow, long, deep, repeated notes.

B: I wasn’t expecting the ending.

A: No, no one was really.

E: I thought there might be a big bang or something. It quite surprised me.

A: Well maybe there’s more to the piece. Maybe it carries on.

Talking point 2: There’s not really a story at all here, it’s just music.

A: As we said before, there is a story here cos there’s always a story in music. I think of music as a story, but a story of sound.

E: You can always imagine your own story to music.

A: Yeah, you can always think of a story to go with the music, if there isn’t one already.

Anna comments:

Main benefits of using talking points seems to be:

  • The way students talk about musical features of the music and how these relate to the picture in their mind. They seem to be getting at the very nature of musical analysis.
  • Students are also able to demonstrate sections with their voices and with actions.
  • Furthermore, students make links to other pieces of music and styles of music, perhaps suggesting they are beginning to join up their thinking and experiences of music.
  • They also begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the composition, such as the use of only high pitches making it seem less interesting.

The questions that they asked about the pieces also demonstrate that this is a really useful way to make students truly engage with the music. They are beginning to think analytically and focus on lots of musical features.

Some questions which arose from the pieces of music included:

  • How long did it take the composer to write this piece?
  • What inspired the composer?
  • When was it written?
  • How many instruments are playing?
  • How did he choose the instruments?
  • Why does it sound so depressing? (in reference to Bydlo)
  • What happens at the end of the piece?
  • Is it made for a movie or a dance?
  • Where was it performed?
  • How was the piece constructed?
  • Why did he/she write something so low? (in reference to Bydlo)
  • Which are the most important instruments?

 My comment:

Talking points have led to pupils asking questions which open up further lines of enquiry. As Anna points out, the pupils are thinking analytically. They have become evaluators, appraisers, musical critics.

The pupils will have much thought, a good number of questions and problems to solve as they compose in response to Mussorgsky.

And the classroom now has dialogic space. I wonder how this will change the climate of the classroom and the pupils’ future expectations.

And I am wondering whether a bridge is being built towards that elusive critical predagogy, so necessary in our age of musical participation.


Ground rules for writing talking points
(Finney and Earl 2013)

• Talking points must be inclusive so that everyone can understand them and find them interesting.
• Talking points need to be constructed so that there are simple answers and more complex ones. This keep groups engaged.
• Talking points need to be ‘enquiry’ based not focussed on developing specific skills.
• Talking points work when pupils don’t want to stop! Building them, in a spiral curriculum,’ to the KS3 curriculum should help pupils develop their own ‘thinking (rather than just ‘fixing’ strategies) by the time they get to KS4 and 5)
• You need to keep groups to time when they do talking points (no more than 5-7 minutes initially) and encourage them to explore as many as they want to/can. Otherwise they just get stuck on the first talking point and never explore any wider or deeper.
• Everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile.
• Talking points work best if you pilot them first (e.g. with other adults?) and see which ones in practice promote exploratory talk (Mercer) rather than cumulative or disputational talk. If they work for you they’ll work for your students, usually.
• Talking points need to be contextualised in the lesson at a point where it is ‘natural’ to expand talk for exploring a ‘line of enquiry.’ e.g. just before a group performs their own composition or just after they have sung, They aren’t ‘starters and plenaries.’
• Writing good talking points is a new skill for many of us and it takes time to learn which ones work. Be ruthless in eliminating TP’s which turn out to be about ‘pushing’ an angle of our own or which just ask pupils to ‘comprehend’ what a particular aspect of music is. The teacher needs to be clear what mix (or separation) of making, social practice and/or ‘big questions’ the talking points are directed at.
• Talking points which involve researching something outside the context (making ,social practice, big questions) usually don’t work.
• Talking points work on the principle that the teacher does know, basically, the range of possibilities of what might be discussed. So they are ‘mediating’ the inter-thinking, not just allowing ‘any old thing’ to emerge.
• However the potential for a wide range of ‘pupil owned’ ideas is enormous, so write the talking points in a way which ensures they can work from their own music practice ‘then and there’ rather than speculating about ‘music in general.’
• For use in the classroom (and once you are sure what works), produce high quality powerpoint slides or cards and laminate them/keep the images up to date for re-use It builds an expectation in pupils’ minds that the activity is worth doing.


High Culture, David Bowie and a Low Symphony

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c Apr 2

The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’

John finney@Johnfinney8 Apr 8 @Trivium21c I am wondering whether traditional musical cultures are high cultures?

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c Apr 8 @Johnfinney8 I would expect in whatever culture we are talking about it exists as an idea… Even if it is spiritual ratter than ‘art’

John finney@Johnfinney8 Apr 8 @Trivium21c Is Sheffield pub carolling High, Low, Common or Traditional culture

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c  @Johnfinney8 you tell me

Well, my response was ‘common culture’. I had in mind [2]

Martin’s ‘High Culture’ serves the distinction between high culture and popular culture. There is high culture and there is the other. Is the other lesser, lower? I am not sure what is intended. What is the ‘high’ in high culture? Is it something to do with elevation, being elevated? Is it that only high culture can transcend earthly existence? Does high culture possess some particular moral authority perhaps?

But what if we started in a different place with the distinction between culture as:

  1. The anthropological – ‘a whole way of life’; the totality of activities and artifacts. (Derived from Tylor 1871)
  2. The product of intellectual and artistic activity – ‘the best that has been thought and said’. (Derived from Arnold 1869)

I think Martin is working from 2.

  1. is a narrowing of meaning and restrictive, sometimes becoming even narrower to include only art works, sometimes narrower still to include only the literary arts. By restricting the idea of culture it can be evaluative. There can be benchmarks of goodness. There can be connoisseurship where inter-subjectivities determine what is true. The emphasis is on products or works removed from the conditions of their practice. The concept of the work is crucial. On the other hand 1. places emphasis on activities inseparable from the material conditions of life, from culture lived and practised. Not works but practices lead the way.


Making music is a form of cultural practice where its goodness resides in the ends to which it is put. See

In this view the category of high culture is redundant or at most not very helpful.

Cultural practices may have great provenance and be part of longstanding traditions. They are there to be inherited, worked with and against, invented, revived, transformed, rejected.

The teacher has a responsibility to introduce pupils to a range of cultural practices with good ends in mind.

Here is one I propose.

The cultural practice of critiquing the false dichotomy of high and low culture.

So let’s listen to David Bowie’s ‘Low’

And now Philip Glass’s Low Symphony

Glass in dialogue with Bowie. High culture, low culture, common culture?

Perhaps culture is ordinary.












Music in the bones and not easily forgotten

I recently visited a local secondary school for a catch up with the music teacher who took me to the staff room where I was introduced to the Head and who was in discussion with a member of staff about learning objectives/intentions and success criteria. I briefly joined in saying that I had never understood the difference between objectives and outcomes. I have found this statement encourages the technically minded to go round in circles with outcomes merely ending up as sub-sets of objectives or easily interchangeable with objectives.

Anyway, now with cups of coffee, my music teacher host found a quiet space for a chat about the new regime in the school and the insistence that teachers show that pupils had properly learnt stuff by checking that they hadn’t forgotten it – a cue for testing whether low-level or high stake.

Music and the other arts in the school were struggling with this, not because they objected to the link between learning and long-term memory, or for that matter assuring that learning and progress were properly monitored. The problem was the assumption that what was being learnt and remembered was knowledge of this and that, facts, disembodied knowledge.

O dear, here we go again!

In the case of music, if you focus on ‘knowing how’ to do this or that; to sing, play, make, invent, improvise, compose, create, listen for detail, sight-sing, ensemble, talk about music etc. and its associated embodied repertoire of music, then remembering is of a different character to what the headteacher has in mind. And progress looks different too. Remembering how to make music well is actually a strange idea, because the know how comes to be in the bones and not easily forgotten.

From another school the music teacher wrote to me telling how:

‘At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 music jam broke out, led by students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash-up various songs that they had studied in big band lessons – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop etc.. [1] There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable.’

If the latest zeitgeist rippling around our schools is the connecting of long-term memory with learning then there we are – a 45 minute recapitulation.

There are of course other kinds of things that will be learnt that do chime with the headteacher’s thinking but it’s getting the order of things right that matters and it is this that music teachers continue to struggle with in this age of measurement.


[1] In this school pupils receive two one hour music lessons each week, one whole class band, the other ‘general’.