Mashing the Song Book

In last week’s blog (scroll down to view) I reported more about the establishment of music in the curriculum of the Isaac Newton Academy (INA) in East London. I had first reported on progress with their Big Band centred curriculum at a time when the first cohort of students was beginning year 8. The good news then was that the two weekly music lessons (one Big Band, the other core music) would be sustained through to the end of year 9.

I noted last week that a good proportion of students are now following a GCSE course in music, and I referred to the preparation for a Gala performance at the Barbican involving forty pupils.

But Greg, head of music, was keen to tell me about something that happened last term and that he and the department are wanting to better understand.

Greg writes:

At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 minute jam broke out, led by the students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash together various songs that they had studied at Key stage three – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop. There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable (although a small number of students did not feel that they could easily include themselves in this musicking and so left.)

A similar thing happened when we took a group of thirty students from various years on a trip out. On this occasion the guest conductor was completely taken aback (even annoyed!) by such spontaneous music making and deemed it musical misbehaviour. As a department we have discussed this phenomenon. What are the conditions that have made this possible? Could we recreate these conditions with more regularity?’

One rhought I had was that what begins as spontaneous behaviour may well become a ritual. If that happens at INA then the ritual can be interpreted as a celebration of the INA Song Book and a merging of individual, group and school musical identity. The ritual would be as an emblem of identity. We await further developments.

Greg told me how the repertoire learnt throughout key stage three had come to be thought of as the INA Song Book. Year 7 students soon became aware that the music they were leaning was known throughout the school and older students were at hand to play alongside them.

This is how a musical community works. New comers’ participation is in a sense peripheral as they come to realise that there are ‘old timers’ and gate keepers of the community higher up the school. [2]

Six issues arise from my learning more about INA and its music.

  1. The music introduced to the students is East London vernacular. However, in working it into a Big Band frame we see a pedagogy of interruption. Meanings change, student’s perceptions are disrupted.
  2. The accumulated learning from both big band and core music lessons creates a school Song Book. A common unifying musical culture develops that hints at a community of practice.
  3. As students progress so spontaneous music behaviour emerges alongside increased levels of musical autonomy.
  4. Musical creativity is rooted in a performance tradition.
  5. The flourishing of music in the school is indebted to both philanthropy (generous supply of instruments) and a highly skilled, musically participating departmental staff.
  6. Many students at INA are members of the Islamic faith. This can create tensions between music in school and the faith community. The school and music department work to uphold an ethos of full musical participation. [3]


The landscape of secondary school music education is changing fast. While diversifying (some would say fragmenting) the system creates fresh models of practice, it produces inequalities and a music education that is arbitrary.



[1] In my recent visits to secondary schools I have noted that ‘mashing’ as well as meaning ‘an explosion of contrasting things, stuck together’, can mean a medley of songs.

[2]  The term ‘community of practice’ is a popular one and too easily used. It sounds such a good thing. See  for its theoretical basis. One of the conditions to claim the definition relates to the longevity of the practice.

What we can say about the INA case is that it shows a number of characteristics of a community of practice. There is a shared domain of interest and relationships are built in a way that learning from each other is enabled. There are oldtimers and new timers and there is peripheral participation.

We might ask what of future developments?  What will emerge as students make music post 16? Will there emerge a version of New Orleans Marching Bands within the wider community?

[3] Here is an issue of great complexity needing much more investigation.








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