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’.


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