Dreaming about a Key Stage 3 Music Classroom

I dreamt that I was in a school where Key Stage 3 students were being assessed twice each half term. First came a progress check and the setting of a target, and finally at the end of the half term the students moved up a sub level if the target had been met. This policy applied across the school and was being implemented in the year 9 music classroom in which I was a guest.

It seemed to be a perfect example of assessment determining how teaching was likely to proceed and how the curriculum was likely to develop, and what kind of knowledge was likely to be valued, that is, assessed.

In this class the students knew what chords were and their starter quiz served as a great reinforcer in this respect and they were able to distinguish between major and minor chords. Their keyboard task that followed the quiz was supported by differentiated criteria for success.    Expectations were clear, technical rather than expressive. Is more better than less?

Knowledge about chords was strong.

But what was this knowledge for I wondered?

How did it bring about keyboard fluency and some sense of musical completeness, music made well?

This was a concern to me and I thought ‘no meaning without fluency’.

You see, fluency belongs to another kind of musical knowledge and here unwittingly subjugated to knowing what a chord is and how chords work together.

Fluency belongs not to knowing about things but to knowledge felt, knowledge embodied, knowledge experienced.

So today we had the cart before the horse, the cart without a horse, the cart without any wheels. Perhaps the knowledge gained about chords will come to serve musical experience in the future. But if music in the classroom is not a time in itself, meaning made here and now, music experienced, there is loss and lack.

But there are those who currently champion the primacy of knowing about things, knowing facts and there is I detect within music classrooms a trend in this direction, not new, but trending at this time.

Knowing about musical things, knowing this and that about music is indeed a wondrous thing, but it so easily leads the way to what are tokenistic musical activities. These are activities that typically illustrate knowledge about things, about chords, for example. They quickly become activities that are not so much about making music, creating something fresh, fluent and meaningful, but rather a flirtation with such a possibility, a promise of the really wondrous thing that is perpetually denied.

But, my goodness, they know what a chord is, so let’s test that and move up a sub-level.

Awaking from my dream I thought, thank goodness that was only a dream …………. or was it?

Back to sleep and my favourite recurring dream.






Brahms starting the conversation

In this school the Head of Music tells me that she has taught 16+ examination syllabuses from pre GCSE times through to the latest manifestation of GCSE. And it is the OCR Board that is being worked with this time round, a change which fits well with the way a music education is conceived of in this 11-16 school.

While there remain misgivings about aspects of the performance component of the exam and in particular its harsh discrimination against informal and self-taught musicians (i.e. the four-minute requirement) and those without the resources to fit the model GCSE performer, the opportunity to work with Rhythms of the World and the other Areas of Study makes good sense.

Today I am observing a year 10 GCSE class of 30 being taught by a beginning music teacher in the school. The Area of Study is The Concerto Through Time, 1650-1910. We have reached the Romantic Concerto and the class is presented with a YouTube performance of the slow movement of Brahms Violin Concerto.

All that follows in this two-hour lesson draws from the performance. It is what the class move out from and back into, a continual to-ing and fro-ing. It remains the source of conversation throughout.

Students appear keen to know more about what’s going on here and to widen and deepen their grasp of not just this example of the Romantic Concerto but of Romanticism as an artistic movement. Other than musical forms of romantic expression open up fresh thinking with links to the student’s historical, literary and wider artistic knowledge. It is easy to overlook that students come to music lessons with these perspectives.

Working sometimes as a whole class, at others in their carefully created triads, there is a lot of talking and thinking in response to poetry and artwork. A student reads some Byron and another refers to the ‘angstiness’ of a painting. But we are never far away from the Brahms as the class get to know the performance with ever-increasing attention to detail and without any loss of the whole as a musical experience in itself.

Gary Spruce in the chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’ chapter in the book ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ points out that recent music scholarship proposes that ‘ … music can be understood fully and by implication, taught effectively if only one takes into account the social, political, cultural and economic factors that impact on its production, dissemination and reception.’ [1]

Well, GCSE music hasn’t caught up with contemporary scholarship and this year 10 aren’t there yet either.

To have a GCSE component titled ‘listening and appraising’ rings feebly from this perspective. Perhaps ‘critical and contextual’ would move things forward.

However, here is a music department eschewing any kind of reductionism or teaching to the test. The class isn’t doing practice listening questions and there was a memorable whole class performance reconstruction of a concerto grosso earlier in the term. Their minds are expanding and there may well be a ‘dialogue of difference’ to enrich their critical acumen as they place Rhythms of the World alongside Concerto Through Time. [2]

Their Key Stage 3 curriculum has taught them well about difference. No monochrome curriculum dominated by culturally colourless musical performing skills, nor an incoherent tour of the world. Rather a curriculum of music making calling for thinking and feeling, and where fluency and expression are valued highly.

I am wondering whether the student’s grasp of 19th century musical techniques will impact on their composing?


[1] Spruce, G. (2016) Culture, society and musical learning. In (eds) Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Learning to Teach in the Secondary School. Routledge.

[2] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/gcse-music-and-the-dialogue-of-difference/






Year 9 music doing ok

This school is a 13-18 school. Not so common but where such upper schools exist they create a quite different feel to the way music education is approached. While to some extent dependant upon their feeder middle schools, they are often very good at creating new experiences for their students that hardly rely on what has gone before. With an 13-18 perspective and with a large cohort post 16 there is no question that music will feature strongly post 16 and assist in creating a mature musical culture that impacts throughout.

Today I am observing a year 9 class. Their topic is Film Music. The work has been schemed out carefully and, perhaps typically, a number of lessons have been spent in the analysis of film music as a musical practice, that is, how composers of film music go about their work (why think of film music as a genre when it can be thought of as a practice?). As a topic the practice of composing film music has much to recommend it and is frequently found at examination level and in higher education. What better way to understand how musical meanings are mediated and to engage critically with the process of composition.

This teacher had indeed studied the practice at degree level and has planned for thorough appreciation of it. Today ‘Kamaji’s Boiler Room’ is the film clip, lasting 9 minutes, serving as the stimulus for class discussion. This relies upon students applying what they had previously learnt and there is a good range of student responses. The teacher’s classroom presence has authority and this authority is expressed with ease as particular students are called upon to share their grasp of the techniques at work in the clip.

Now attention to the matter of character leit motives and composition work, next week to be linked with underscoring and so on building step by step, technique after technique to inform what is composed. Students are using the Seesaw app as a compositional notebook.

It’s a method that is usually successful. It’s what art teachers do as well.

Orthodoxy at Key Stage 3

The calling for members of the class to comment on each other’s keyboard performances at Key Stage 3 (not compositions or improvisations) i.e. what was good, what could be improved deserves some thinking about.

There is not a lot pupils can say, or is there?

Responses tend to be predictable and general. It usually boils down to something about accuracy. There may be a danger that responses become formulaic, limited and over time weatherworn.

You might try other strategies.

For example, self-assessment with performers explaining what they are finding difficult, what they are pleased that they have mastered and by demonstrating this to the class.

Or, focus on fingering with pupils justifying their approach to the rest of the class.

Or, you the teacher publicly calling for a pupil to rehearse a phrase with feed back/feed forward coming from you and highlighting improvement. ‘Do it again’ … ‘now again, and this time …’

Or … [late edit]

Year 8 and a musical experience

While discussion about the role of Key Stage 3 music goes on over at https://teachtalkmusic.wordpress.com , I am in the process of observing six Key Stage 3 music lessons over the next six weeks. Each I hope will be different and reveal a particular perspective and commitment.

This week I observed a year 8 lesson. It was part of a series of lessons designed around the topic Protest Songs.

The first thing to say is that the teacher and the pupils were enjoying being together in the classroom. Relationships were warm and mutually affirming.

In coming to understand and appreciate the character of protest songs across time and place the pupils were being introduced to a good variety of songs, all with challenging lyrics. It would be the words that attracted attention and in which meaning would be found.

The class had previously listened to the song Cutty wren reputedly created at the time of the 14th century Peasant’s Revolt and just the kind of song, following the folk revival of the mid 20th century, to be taken up by folk groups and folk singers.

Today there are three songs to become acquainted with and all three are related to that 20th century folk revival – Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Ralph McTell.

What interested me most was the quality of the pupil’s listening in the central fifteen minutes of the lesson when the songs were played.

What do I mean, ‘the quality of pupil’s listening’? How do I know what their experience was like? Of course, I don’t. All I can say is that there was a stillness that allowed for some barely perceptible bodily movement. There was inwardness, an air of reflection, a searching for meaning in the words of the songs. Stop this! I am in danger of projecting all manner of things.

I can reasonably say that here was a musical experience that seemed to be entered into by all.

The lesson included singing of one of the songs. There was thinking and talking about the songs too. Shortly the pupils will be song writing themselves.

Protest Songs seek to bring about social change. Will the pupil’s songs be doing likewise and what does this mean for 12-13 year-olds I wonder?

One role of music education at Key Stage 3 is to introduce pupils a range of musical practices. I hope that is not contentious.