Aspects of literacy in the music lesson

In last week’s blog I proposed that Richard Trauskin’s writing about Steve Reich’s Different Trains (mediated by the teacher) might serve as a central resource in introducing Year 8 to

contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’ and that ‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [1]

In seeking to find principled reasons for pupils to read about music I am venturing into the realm of ‘literacy’ and the use of language.

By language I mean words as the source of meaning and by literacy I mean meaning made through talking, writing and reading. I am using the term language fairly precisely and the term literacy narrowly. [2]

Since the mid-eighties all teachers have been exhorted to be teachers of English. Of the many possible contenders to assist in creating curriculum coherence, literacy has long been a champion.

I write after a period when the music education twittersphere has bubbled with a surfeit of proclamations determined to ensure that music lessons are musical – ‘is music the target language’, ‘how musical is your lesson’, ‘is your assessment musical’, ‘but was it really musical’, ‘were they musically active’, ‘what was the musical learning?’ And so on.

Let it be said that to live and spend time within the medium of music, to in-dwell musical experience is, we think, the essential core aspect of a music education. Other things, including the use of language, crucially support, yet at the same time can present dangers – too much talking about music when music can do the talking, too much valuable time taken away from the thing itself. And then the problem with the school’s learning walkers on patrol expecting that in music lessons pupils write down what they have learnt. And then there is the tyranny of the ‘key words’ movement. [3]

I am assuming that it might it be principled to read about music in a music lesson, before or after a music lesson and thus contribute to the pupil’s wider literacy development as well as enhanced musical understanding? And I am assuming that reading could act as the catalyst for talking and writing that in turn might further enhance and inform the making of music.

Inspired by my discovery of the relevance of Taruskin’s writing last week I offer ten more examples of source readings each of which could, like the Taruskin from last week’s blog, serve as a central resource in a music education interested in embracing complexity. And of course, why not talk to your English colleagues about all this. [4]

1. As Orpheus grew older, his music became more and more wonderful. When he went to the old place to play, all the animals and birds in the fields and in the forest gathered around him. Lions, bears, wolves, foxes, eagles, hawkes, owls, squirrels, little field mice, and many other kinds of animals were in the audience. … (From Orpheus and Eurydice in Favourite Greek Myths by Lillian Stoughton Hyde, 1930)

2. Music composed in an undisciplined style is always infinitely improved by the imposition of form, even if that makes it less immediately attractive. But music doesn’t have to be disciplined to be pleasant. Take someone who has right from childhood till the age of maturity and discretion grown familiar with a controlled and restrained style of music. Play him some of the other sort, and how he’ll loathe it! … (From The Regulation of Music, The Laws, Plato)

3. And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illuminated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight. Suddenly you can’t get a drink … (From Billy Holliday Strange Fruit in 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey, 2010)

4. Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?

Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;

Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm

Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.     (From the Erl King, Goethe-Schubert)

5. Before sitting down to write, I often fast for a couple of days. This gets me into a clean, spiritual frame of mind, and opens me up to inspiration. I bring along a whole suitcase of titles and half written songs, and I take all my different instruments. … mainly I write with the guitar. … (From Me & the muse, Dolly Parton, The Observer Music Magazine 4.09.16)

6. Their performance space was Palmyra, the city of ruins left by Roman and other ancient civilizations and ruined further by the depredations of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The orchestra played pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and two Russian composers, Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin, in a second-century Roman amphitheater, the set for a 2015 film produced by the Islamic State that featured the execution of 25 people. The contrast was intended to underscore what Russia sees as its underappreciated role in helping Syrian forces liberate Palmyra from zealots and fighting on the side of civilization against barbarism. … (New York Times online)

7. The theory which I am putting forward posits a dialectical relationship between the two types of musical meaning identified. Musical experience in this model, cannot occur at all unless both aspects of meaning are in operation to some extent or other. … (From Meaning, autonomy and authenticity in the music classroom, Professorial Lecture, Lucy Green, 2005)

8.  Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

9. O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), … (From Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament)

10. Jim Morrison’s contribution to the music he made with the band he helped form, the Doors, was, by contrast to Zappa’s, almost entirely lyric: he was the classic, musically illiterate rock & roll singer who had to rely on his band mates … (From ‘The Modernisation of Rock & Roll 1965-75 in The Pleasures of Modernist Music. Ed. Arved Ashby, 2004)

Notes:

[1] See last week’s blog for Kathryn Jourdan’s teacher and pupil orientations.

[2] I am assuming that there is a strong relationship between language and thought and that talking, reading and writing play an important part in developing thinking – thinking about music.

On thinking see  https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/what-if-music-education-involved-thinking/

On talking see https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/talking-to-think/

I am not, let be emphasised, thinking of music itself as a language, a para-language, a pre-language, a meta-language or any other kind of language. I am not writing about musical literacy or multi-modal literacy. I am not writing about language acquisition. I am not writing about the ways in which music affects phonological processing or the way interventions enhance this. I am not writing about the reading and writing of music.

For a comprehensive account of Language and Learning Music see Chapter 4 of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School by Chris Philpott, 3rd Edition edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Routledge.

[3] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/keywords/

[4] In talking to my English colleague I am learning about the history of choral speaking, orchestral speaking and much more.

The reader will think of many more readings and not least those that live in the huge store of song lyrics. And then all those stories that come with music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Aspects of literacy in the music lesson

  1. Pingback: Choral reading – Music Education Now

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