Coming to know music richly

A while ago I was pleased to discover Jane Parker’s rich description of a scene from the early years. This is scene 1 below. In her blog Jane goes on to analyse what is thought to be going on here – the theory of instruction that lies behind the teacher’s actions. (See Jane’s Blog

Thus I was prompted to celebrate five scenes from the music room, each showing a music teacher’s advanced music teaching skill. Each teacher with a well-developed theory of instruction. And inside this there lies something difficult to capture in words – the manner of the transactions, the temper of the exchanges, their playfulness, the feel of the moment by moment narrative, the anticipations engendered and the satisfactions and frustrations experienced and, above all else, the coming to know music, a way of knowing that reaches far beyond knowing that and knowing how.

Scene 1:

The practitioner sits on a chair facing her preschool children who are gathered on the carpet in front of her. She takes out a puppet called ‘Songstar’ and hums the first phrase of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ as she moves Songstar’s mouth. The children excitedly shout out, “Songstar wants to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle!’” She asks the children if they all have their ‘twinkly fingers’ ready. She then sings (on her starting note) “Ready, steady, let’s all sing.”

The children and adults begin singing together, while simultaneously opening and shutting their hands eight times as they quietly sing the words of the first phrase. The song continues, but then the practitioner stops just before the word ‘sky’. She smiles and listens as a few children very quietly sing “sky”.

She joins in again with the rest of the song, but this time stops leading the song at the very end, allowing the children to sing “are”. She then asks the children if they have magic lips like Songstar, and gets them to have a go at miming the first line of the song – only instead of singing, they’ll clap each word so that they’re essentially ‘Clapping the rhythm’. She sings, “Ready, steady, let’s all clap” and leads the children in clapping out the words of the first line, miming the words while at the same time moving the puppet’s hands in a clapping motion.

Scene 2:

We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.

Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.

Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?

We are getting to know each other.

Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.

Scene 3:

They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.

The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.

‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.

Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.

The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.

Scene 4:

Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmitting the musical material.

calmly persisting,
patiently repeating,
incrementally extending,
imperceptibly accumulating,
few words,
sometimes recoiling,
always advancing.

And as the rhythmic texture enlarges, and as we together master the rules of engagement, we seek our own solutions to the skills-challenge equation and find flow and fluency.

In the ongoing interplay between Katy and the group the locus of control is passed back and forth. Yes, there are times of impersonal learning where the acquisition of content and skills dominate but then times of personal learning as each gains control, self-regulates, gains agency, no longer shaped by the teacher, but shaping self.

The highlight of the Samba workshop comes when there are sectional breaks and when the side-drumming quartet fizz with virtuosity. I think we are by now all feeling a bit virtuous.

Scene 5:

Now it’s back to reggae which started last week and ‘Three Little Birds’. First, instrumental warm up time, then some rhythmic and pitch calling and copying, including that clave rhythm and of course lots of reggae rhythms and melodic twists. Into sectionals with pupils mostly directing each other in their making and playing, and sometimes teacher directed assisting movement into a self-sustainable groove. Lilian is having a whale of a time on keyboard. There is a powerful rhythmic reggae idiomatic feel to her playing and making, and she is vocalizing at the same time. Amarose on drum kit is quickly into the groove and like others, once in the groove, and as a consequence of repetition, new material is made. Tshian asks me how to play A on her trumpet and we have a short discussion about pitch and embouchure. Perhaps unsurprisingly the keyboard, bass guitar, drum section get well-grooved first and ready to welcome back the rest who with some ease join the music. We have ten minutes of whole class playing with the teacher leading the ensemble round a circuit of possible structural combinations without a break.Advertisements

Interdisciplinarity in Year 6 and I do get to the Blues.

I was part of a Year 6 classroom this past week and noted how the teacher was working in an interdisciplinary manner. On the day of my visit the children were engaging in extended writing, drawing upon imagery and symbolism from their current topic. Their work was bounded by the rigours of English, a subject of the school curriculum. Their focus was on writing, the expression of thought and feeling through writing using the conventions of writing. 

Learning through their topic, WW2, was embracing an interdisciplinary approach. In History there was study of the period 1936-1944 in England, and in Literature the reading of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and Anne Frank’s Diary, and in Art images from the Blitz had been transfigured through the children’s artistic imaginations. So, you see how their learning was ‘involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines.’ [1]

The teacher was making a clear distinction between extended writing in English and extended writing in History. Historical writing called specifically upon historical knowledge and skill. The children’s study of English, Art and History had depth.

But what was of particular interest was that this learning involving two or more disciplines was yielding an unplanned conversation.  The children were asking questions, wanting to understand more, relating what they were learning to their present circumstances. Class discussions were becoming ever more important to the children.

Interdisciplinarity is a gift to the primary school teacher. Unlike the secondary school teacher, the children are with their primary teacher a good part of the time. The whole curriculum is their oyster. In this case it would seem that there is rich-learning in progress, that there is powerful knowledge being engaged with.

Ah! wait a moment because the term powerful knowledge lies within the fiefdom of particular parties and is to be understood in a particular way. I was using it casually.

There is in the promotions of powerful knowledge an insistence upon the integrity of subjects and their rootedness in what is referred to as disciplinary knowledge. And that this integrity demands depth through a lengthty induction into the subject’s character, its conceptual structure and body of knowledge. It is only when a worthy level of mastery of this is reached that interdisciplinarity is countenanced.


John White challenges the powerful knowledge thesis and makes reference to the question of interdisciplinarity. Do focus on this if you can.

In general, attempts to achieve interdiscipinarity in our schooling have not been good. Superfical relationships between subjects are made, a scraping of the surface to find connections and then the terrible case of the Blues in year 8 where the hapless music teacher serves up a reductive version of history leading to the History teacher raising their eyebrows.

But look here

an example of music in interdisciplinary relationships and no raised eyebrows.

It is this kind of interdiscipilnarity that leads to a conversation where minds are opened, questions raised and, for a child, their becoming a part of a wider conversation. It is a time when

‘…teaching and learning allow us to forget for a while to be preoccupied with ulterior goals and purposes that [schools] fulfil the peculiarly human desire for self-understanding which give rise to them.’ [2]


[1] Webster Merriam Dictionary[2] Timothy Fuller (1989) in the

[2] Introduction to The Voice of Liberal Learning, (1989) Michael Oakshott. Liberty Fund.  Page xix.