A music teacher’s professional development and why cognitive science might not be of much help

It was in the early 1990s that I made an application to my school’s deputy head to attend a weekend course at Dartington College. The course was on music and special needs education. But would my school fund my attendance? There was a period of deliberation and then two questions were presented to me: ‘how would the course enhance my teaching’ and ‘how would it contribute to the school’s priorities for development’?

I had taken the course to be self-evidently valuable to both my own and the school’s development. However, I made the case in writing and was duly funded. Whether the course had any long term impact I can’t say. It was certainly an enriching weekend.

It was at this time in the early ninties that the culture of education significantly changed. While teacher control of the curriculum had been taken away by the mid eighties there now came the terror of performativity. The new managerialism was beginning to bite and with it the teachers’ struggle for agency.

CPD was now a means of serving a culture of accountability, unremittingly generic in nature and  linked to accountability measures derived from whole school improvement agendas involving the silencing of what teachers might see as beneficial to both their professional and personal development. But in 2016 headteacher Tom Sherrington writes:

‘CPD should be teacher-centred (as opposed to school-centred); it needs to be designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers: their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes or skills need to change as a consequence in the long term. In the same spirit, appraisal or professional review systems should be geared towards supporting teachers in their career development – rather than serving accountability processes as the prime objective.  Teacher-centred appraisal can still be rigorous at the same time as being developmental and positive for all concerned.’ [1]

Tom was opening the door to fresh possibilities. CPD ‘designed and tailored so that it has a chance of making an impact on individual teachers.’

I was interested to hear from a music teacher whose school has exemplified just this principle. I have invited the teacher to tell her story of change and this is change for the long term.

On singing and changing a culture: reflections on a year as Head of Music

I teach Music in a large mixed comprehensive academy in Kent, with ten classes of about 26 pupils in each year 7, 8 and 9 cohort. This year is my tenth at the same school, which I joined as an NQT, and where I am now completing my first year as head of department.

Despite my (excellent) PGCE training course which included a strong and varied focus on the teaching of songs, in the early years of teaching I found singing in the classroom an uncomfortable challenge. I found pupils were embarrassed by the very idea of singing in front of each other, and looking back I was overwhelmingly anxious that they should enjoy Music lessons and be instantly engaged by them. Most of us have experienced as new teachers the cringingly awkward moment when a class proves very reluctant to sing, or refuses completely, and I either moved on from singing activities quickly with relief or, increasingly as terms went by, avoided them altogether. My schemes of work used to have a diligent little tick sheet at the front, with the old KS3 Programme of Study so that I could show to anyone who cared which parts of it would be covered. The first of its “Key Processes” used to read “Pupils should be able to sing in solo or group contexts, developing vocal techniques and musical expression”. This always seemed a ridiculous impossibility if I’m honest, and this tick box always remained blank, as I preferred to do without the embarrassment, hassle and (I assumed) poor results that would ensue. Nobody ever commented or even noticed.

I had a choir, which contained in those early years about fifteen girls from a range of year groups. Never any boys – what boy would go to that? – except for the occasional year 7 who’d perhaps sung in choir at primary school, came for a few weeks and soon lost interest. I suppose the sound my girls made was adequate, sometimes good, and we went on the department’s first Music Tour in 2010, also taking the Jazz Band and the newly formed and popular African Drumming group, but the choir was the smallest ensemble and I felt pretty powerless to do anything about it.

On returning from maternity leave in June 2012 I noticed that the upcoming year 10 class for the following September contained several boys who had sung quite willingly in pop bands that my maternity cover had organised. I decided to grab this opportunity and make the choir compulsory for all GCSE Music students from that point onwards. The events that followed this decision are another story entirely, with resistance (including some tears) from many and even some letters of complaint from parents, but we stuck by the decision as a department and by and large we had a choir which now included boys and girls.

Soon after my appointment as Head of Music last year I met with the leaders of our local Music hub (Bromley Youth Music Trust, an excellent Music Service which has always provided us with peripatetic instrumental teachers). I asked for a new singing teacher to be provided, as I had noticed dwindling numbers of singing pupils and wanted to be able to recommend a teacher to any potentially keen pupils, something I’d not felt confident to do with the existing teacher. Almost as an afterthought, I mentioned that I had never had any singing lessons myself, wondering vaguely if some instruction on vocal technique could be passed on to benefit my newly reformed choir. The deputy principal of the hub happens to also be the head of vocal teaching there, and he offered to help. My school agreed to pay for four lessons as CPD; I never intended to have any more than this as I was not particularly interested in singing for myself at that point.

I was completely unprepared for what happened in those four lessons. Completely amazed at how many things I had been doing (and teaching) wrong in my own singing in the classroom, and at the difference in both the sound and the physical sensation of singing with an improved technique. I had always assumed that you could really only sing well if you were gifted with a nice voice, which I was not, and I had absolutely no concept of technique. Looking back I’m embarrassed by my own naivety in going into those first lessons. I know there are different ‘schools’ of singing teaching and do think I was particularly lucky in my teacher, but from what I discovered I was able to do things immediately with my choir that helped improve the sound. I was hooked! At the end of four lessons I persuaded my school to pay for another ten – they were happy to, as ten lessons costs around the same as a single day’s inset normally would. I’ve had about 20 lessons now and, following the events described below, the inset coordinator at school offered of his own accord to fund another term of 10 at the end of this one. I’ve joined the Music hub’s adult choir, attending as and when I can fit it in around work, and also auditioned successfully for a local chamber choir, relishing the challenge of the required sight-singing that this has presented. I always thought I was an alto, but it turns out I’m actually a soprano and, although I’m still only very much at the beginning, I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey and the learning process.

It might sound a bit trite, but I’ve found singing to be of huge benefit to me personally as well. I suffered from post-natal depression following the birth of my second child in 2013, and am still prone to bouts of anxiety and feeling very low. Singing, though, really does help. I don’t understand why, but I am happier and more relaxed when I’ve been singing – just teaching it in the classroom sometimes now as well – and my family have commented on the change. I’ve even been inspired to practise the piano again after years of not really touching it. Small children have inevitably been the main reason for this of late, but somehow I now feel like a musician – and a learning musician – again, instead of an often exhausted mother and teacher with little time, energy or enthusiasm for new ideas.

The principal of the Music hub suggested in our initial meeting that I put on a concert in the autumn term involving the whole of year 7. I remember smiling politely, privately remembering my past attempts to involve whole classes in concerts, which were exhausting to pull off and had short-lived (albeit satisfying) results, and resolving not to attempt anything so ambitious in my first term as head of department. However, later following my first singing lessons, I decided to try it. I had read some material on project-based learning and was inspired by the idea of giving pupils a real performance to work towards, so with the agreement of my second in department I designed a scheme of work and we started in the first weeks of September.

Year 7 responded positively on the whole, with the inevitable few reluctant participants, but an explanatory letter home signed by myself, the head of year and the headteacher proved helpful in quashing most parental objections, and in fact we found the vast majority of parents to be very supportive. Each class was taught a separate song to perform, which were to be judged as a competition, in addition to a massed medley of “Swing low, sweet chariot” and Debbie Wiseman’s “No wars will stop us singing” – this one was added only in the final weeks before the concert, which happened to fall on Remembrance Day. I taught seven of the ten year 7 classes myself this year, and found teaching so much singing very tiring, but also exhilarating; my own singing lessons were continuing roughly once a fortnight, and my teacher was an invaluable help in showing me how not to over-use my voice, and suggesting ways of making particular phrases or parts of the songs easier. He also agreed to be the competition judge. I gave the concert the name “Everyone Sings” because I found myself saying this constantly to pupils (or anyone for that matter!) who said “I can’t sing”. The final event was something of a logistical challenge, which we simply could not have managed without the support of the head of year and the ten form tutors, but the Hall was packed and the sound of 260 pupils singing en masse was an extraordinarily arresting finale. Medals were awarded and pupil reports later written, allowing us a fascinating insight into their perception of the event, and showing how memorable it had been for them.

Back to the compulsory GCSE choir for a moment. I am now in the second year of insisting on this, and also made a point last year of explaining to year 9 pupils considering GCSE Music that this would be required. The current year 10 class of 17 pupils (6 boys, 11 girls) contains several confident singers and many reluctant ones, but I have tried to be relentless in getting them to sing not only in the weekly choir rehearsal but in lessons too. When we studied Handel’s “And the glory of the Lord” we spent several lessons just singing it, working through each part in turn and singing along to the recording in whatever register was comfortable. They sang a gospel version of “Joy to the world” in the Christmas assembly for a week (although some bribery in the form of chocolate was needed for this) and I have a stash of quick rounds and simple part songs that I pull out for moments when they are doing something menial – putting resources away in their folders or waiting for computers to load, for example. They will now sing anything and at any time – on several occasions I’ve returned from a last-minute dash to the photocopier at the start of a lesson to find them singing, sometimes in several parts, whatever happens to be on someone’s mind at the time.

Year 11 complained, by the way, at the start of the year that “choir had got too big” because of the influx of year 10s, as well as the growing number of lower school pupils who come along (I don’t think I mentioned that everyone who comes on the Music Tour now has to sing in the choir) It’s actually now called “Big Choir”. I was really surprised, but suggested half-heartedly that we start another smaller group for them. Chamber Choir was born and now comprises 6 girls and 6 boys, mostly in years 10 and 11, who are able to access harder songs with a greater focus on reading music.

Although we left singing with year 7 for a while in the term that followed “Everyone Sings”, to focus necessarily on other skills (including whole-class keyboard lessons) I wanted if possible to rekindle some of the enthusiasm the concert had generated, before the summer and the start of year 8. So this term we have embarked on an Africa project, which will culminate in an afternoon concert given by each half of the year group, to an invited audience of years 4 and 5 from the Junior school down the road. Each class will perform a piece of West African drumming and sing an African song, and then join in a massed performance of “Shosholoza” in (hopefully) three parts. I have drafted in my year 10 class to boost the part singing and demonstrate that boys and girls higher up the school are also singing (and because I tried out teaching the African songs to them ahead of starting the project, to see what would work, and they were intrigued!). So far, year 7 have accepted it without complaint – watch this space!


[1] See https://headguruteacher.com/

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