The language we use

‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. …  Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purpose.’ [1]

Orwell is writing about political discourse and the ways in which language is able to deceive and manipulate reality. We are reminded that it is we, in the language we choose to use, who create ways of thinking about things.  The way we speak and write about music education is no different.

When I write my blogs I am fully conscious that I am contributing to the discourse of music education albeit in a modest way. I consciously choose to write about ‘music making’ rather that ‘music’, for example, and whenever I come close to anything related to assessment I make sure I use the word ‘valuing’ rather than ‘measuring’. Yes, in a sense I am a propagandist for particular ways of thinking about music education.

It would seem that the term ‘music making’ has come into common use and I think this is a good thing. It connotes the idea of active participation and suggests, in an inclusive way, a wide range of musical activities. It is process orientated. We could also speak of ‘music made’ but I am yet to see this.

Perhaps in some future manifestation of the National Curriculum for Music ‘music making’ will have prominence and in the GCSE specifications music making will replace the performing-composing dichotomy.

In last week’s blog I highlighted an expression new to me – ‘creative instruction’ and I proposed that this was worth looking into and perhaps determining what could be understood by it.

In general our music education discourse is impoverished. Do we really know what each other are talking about? There is the potential for a richer discourse and consideration about when we should move from connotation to denotation.

Notes:

[1] Orwell, G. (1962) Politics and the English Language. Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Penguin Books. Page 143.

Advertisements

Knowledge of musical experience

In last week’s blog (scroll down) I set out the eloquent testimony of one music teacher communicating her mission and vision for music in her school community. I will here highlight five themes.

1. Music is integral to the life and learning of the school.

‘And when by concentration and practice a performance hits its groove, music can activate a joy or elation in expression that can go on to inform and permeate achievement across the disciplines. This is why music can be – and I believe should be – at the centre of a learning community.’

Once music has a lively presence in the school the climate of the school is changed.

The idea of performance ‘hitting its groove’ suggests that it is this that is a key condition of successful and meaningful ongoing musical participation. The idea of being in the groove is a powerful one and a place where fluency of expression is found and where the learner comes to know that they are shaping themselves musically. This provides what Emily Crowhurst refers as particular form of knowledge or knowing – knowledge of musical experience. And this relies upon

2. Inclusive practice

There are established ensembles and their own ensembles.

‘I hope all our students can, in their own ways and at their own levels, access that aliveness that comes from performing a piece of music with enthusiasm and commitment.’

And upon

3. Creative instruction

I haven’t come across the term ‘creative instruction’ but I imagine a to-ing and fro-ing dialogue between teacher and student as a whole class pedagogy.

I suspect the idea of creative instruction is full of subtleties and nuances that may be difficult to codify. But we should try.

  1. Whole class singing

While the music programme thrives on diversity, differential access and a plurality of musical practices there is the core activity of whole class singing which all students of all ages participate in.

  1. The relational ethos

‘… listening to one another, trusting one another, and having fun with one another. All this happens when we bring music to one another – that is, when music brings us together.’

The school is small and all age. This is a very particular case and it remains for others to generalise as they wish from it.

One music teacher’s mission and vision

Here a music teacher was asked to write a few paragraphs about her ideas for music in the school for those attending the school’s Spring Concert.

“For me, music is about working together, and about participation. In the making of music, pupils work with the song or the piece, they work with each other, and they work with their audience. They learn to work with themselves. And when by concentration and practice a performance hits its groove, music can activate a joy or elation in expression that can go on to inform and permeate achievement across the disciplines. This is why music can be – and I believe should be – at the centre of a learning community. But the ideal of participation and collaboration means little if music remains the preserve of a select few. From the moment I arrived at the school this year, I have made it my mission to involve all the children of the junior and senior school in making and performing music. Because we have many children of different ages and abilities, children with different interests and backgrounds, this has meant broadening the kinds of music that we learn, sing, and play, and it has meant developing creative instruction and programming to enable every child to find her rhythm, or his line. By expanding our instrumental exposure – to ukuleles, djembes, and keyboards – and above all by whole-class singing, at the school we are helping students to create transformative experiences and performances that every child can share in, equally and with joy.

The Spring Concert this year has afforded a platform for our established groups and ensembles. But it has also given whole classes an opportunity to perform together, in their own ‘ensembles’. This could be considered a risk! But I am excited for this to be the school where every child is a musician; where every child can approach music with seriousness – faithfully practising, carefully learning, courageously performing and aiming for musical excellence in whatever capacity she or he is capable of. Some children can only play one chord on the ukulele, whilst others can play everything and sing at the same time – this is ok! Perfection is not the goal; instead, I hope all our students can, in their own ways and at their own levels, access that aliveness that comes from performing a piece of music with enthusiasm and commitment.

It has been a huge pleasure for me to see the whole school contributing to our musical life throughout the year – not only in concerts like this one, but in assemblies, lessons, in auditions – and in the hallways! Our pupils are capable of breathtaking musicianship, but they are also capable of something greater, which is listening to one another, trusting one another, and having fun with one another. All of this happens when we bring music to one another – that is, when music brings us together.”

Next week I will draw out some themes from this articulate testimony, consider context and discuss issues arising.

 

An epiphany in the music room

I have noted over many years that beginning music teachers like other beginning teachers, understandably have a concern for how they express authority, gain respect from their classes, maintain order and teach without disruption. Experienced teachers sometimes report an anxiety as a new term comes around asking: will I be in control, will I still be able to do it?

None of this gets talked about very much.

The process of gaining confidence about how to be in the classroom appears to be a complex one.

I recall as a young teacher learning to manage classes by sheer force of personality before learning that giving pupils more agency over their learning could change this. But that only went so far. There remained another revelation to be had.

It was possible to hand over control to the pupils themselves.

I had found myself teaching PSHE and it was impressed upon me that this would require time for pupils to discuss issues as a whole class as a basis for clarifying their own values. By using well-tried techniques I discovered that there would come a moment in lessons when pupils stopped deferring to me, that is, expecting my comment, my interpretation, my approval or disapproval of what was being expressed. While the classroom was still based on my presence as the more knowledgeable other, together we were able to create a climate of openness and dialogue. This experience changed my understanding of who I was as a teacher.

So I was interested to hear from a music teacher telling me of a recent significant experience. The teacher writes:

‘The other week a whole year 8 lesson consisted of all students walking into the room, picking up a djembe drum each, and then proceeding to drum without direction or interference from me for a whole 45 minutes. They led their own music-making, and I simply watched, and occasionally followed one of their rhythms. When the lesson time was up, I did a 1-2-3-4 stop, and then told them their lesson was over. They thought that what they had done was the coolest thing ever. I felt like a significant thing had happened in my teaching career!’

Of course, the class had been directly taught drumming techniques and material from Senegalese drumming culture prior to this lesson.

And I expect the class had generated new material in the lesson described.

Music making is generative.

The teacher writes:

‘I felt like a significant thing had happened in my teaching career!’

Presumably such experiences serve to change the teacher-pupil relationship. The climate of the classroom changes opening up fresh possibilities, the possibility of nurturing dialogic space, for example.

Experiencing such epiphanies are likely to be critical in the developing self-understanding of the teacher.

I think it would be good if they came sooner rather than later.