Depth, provenance and critical engagement in the year 7 classroom

In this secondary school year 7 pupils are learning to sing O Waly Waly.

The teacher has selected O Waly, Waly ‘simply because it is a beautiful song’ and is intent on teaching the class to make a beautiful sound.

I’m interested to know whether the singing is accompanied or unaccompanied.

The teacher adds:

‘I play the piano, sometimes big, juicy, arpeggiated chords, and sometimes simple, still chords. Always with much dynamic contrast and rubato. They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.’

‘I select these three verses. The meanings of the whole song are complex, so just three verses.’

The water is wide, and I can’t get over

And neither have I wings to fly

Build me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row, My love and I

There is a ship, and she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep, as deep can be

But not so deep as the love I’m in

I know not if I sink or swim

Oh love is gentle, love is kind

As sweet as a flower, when first it’s new

But love grows old and waxes cold

And fades away, like morning dew.

But wait a minute. What’s this:

‘I prolong the silence before the penultimate line.’

The teacher explains:

‘I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

O Waly, Waly is a song of good provenance as they say. [1] Some claim it as a song from the sixteenth century, some that it has Irish origins, some say Scottish, some English.

An internet search shows a great many performance versions and arrangements, and even a discussion forum relating to its provenance.

A Pete Seeger version of the song is near the top of the internet library along with responses from listeners. One response told that the performance was intended to draw attention to the pollution of the Hudson River. Well, we know Pete Seeger was a political activist.

As you will have noted, the teacher’s choice of O Waly Waly is leading me to open up a conversation with the song and to examine its provenance. I am reminded of Chris Philpott writing:

‘Each piece of music (whether we are performing or creating it) comes with an ‘attitude’ of its own and along with our own values and beliefs (which Gadamer calls ‘prejudices’)  engages in a playful dialogue in order to construct meaning.’ [2]

The teacher above achieves this playful dialogue with the ‘silence’ before the penultinate line of each verse. I have taken the idea of playful dialogue to a second level in searching out the song’s provenance. And I have only just begun.

O Waly Waly – the teacher has something of a treasure in her hands opening up ‘complex webs of meaning’ and placing interpretation at the heart of a music education. And this means critical engagement, and rather more than what is usually taken as appraising.

This seems to me to be worthwhile opening up the possibility of depth and rigour.


[1] Provenance seems to have two meanings, the first begets the second.  First ‘origin’, and then ‘history-lineage’; we find the term provenance much used in relation to antiques. What is its source, origin, its life history, its condition, how has it been looked after?

If ‘musical provenance’ is important, as Ofsted suggests, we should ask ourselves: is the content of what is brought to the classroom rich, thick with possibilities? Will it defy easy assimilation and mastery?  Will it call forth thinking? Will it defy methods of assessment that prohibit openness? Will activities defy being matched with tidily delineated outcomes?

It is interesting to note that after Mark Phillips HMI introduced the concept of ‘provenance’ and its addition to the criteria for making judgments about a music department’s quality of provision, nobody has taken a blind bit of notice. I think it a valuable idea that as I have tried to show can enhance an enfebbled notion of appraising.

[2] Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum, in (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

Teaching musical composition (a blog revisited)

‘The things that stimulate children to improvise and compose music are essentially those things that motivate all composers: personal experiences, things seen and heard (including other works of the imagination: literature, poetry, paintings and sculpture) or hear about: significant events past and present, things of joy and things of tragedy: sounds themselves: shapes and patterns. Eventually the piece, as it begins to grow through working on the ideas, takes over and dictates its own directions. In a sense then, starting points are not all that important. What is important is that they should stimulate musical ideas of distinctive character that can be worked upon and developed (i.e., made to ‘go on’ in time).’ [1]

Teaching musical composition is likely to continue to be something of a conundrum and certainly when it is framed by the requirements of a public examination; for example, the UK General Certificate of Secondary Education. A good number of teachers opt for what they consider to be a reliable formulaeic approach even if it means all students produce near identical waltzes. It gets the grade. That’s justification enough they say.

On the other hand there are those teachers who remain intrigued by how we learn to compose and even compose themselves to better understand the process which their students are being asked to engage with. I am one of those teachers. I have been composing quite a lot lately and thinking about the nature of musical ideas, where they come from, how they are ‘sculpted’ and made to mean, what happens to them and how they work to make a whole where there is some sense of completion and a musical work. This of course is a pretty traditional view of composing music. The goal is to find closure, completion and quite likely some sense of organic unity rather than making what is infinitely open and incomplete, another way of thinking about composing. I am sure there are many more.

Some teachers, I am one, are interested in the student’s impulse to compose, what gets them started, what is it that draws them on, what is it that needs to be expressed? In all this it is the musical idea that holds most fascination, where it comes from, what’s it for? Without idea there is nothing. Without some concept of what the work is there is nothing. The impressive LIC report [2] thinks of this as being related to the idea of ‘intentionality’, one of the ten themes emerging from the research. [3]

So, it was with great interest that I entered a year 10 GCSE composing classroom to talk with a group of embryonic composers and to find out what kind of musical ideas they were having and what they were doing with them. They had worked on a composition using the stimulus of images from a graffiti exhibition. The choice was theirs. I knew nothing else about the teaching process they had been part of and I was reminded of the view that composition teaching only really begins when the pupil has created something, only then is the composer’s thinking made available.

What struck me about the work of these beginning composers was the originality of their ideas. I encountered no musical idea that wasn’t fresh, imaginative. No derivations, no plagarisms, nothing ordinary. Every musical idea had a character of its own, a sensuous particularity, and the more I listened to each the more I wanted to hear it again to better understand its particularity and to see in it what I had previously failed to see/hear. Sharing this process with its maker was how I was being a teacher of composition. These conversations can rightly be thought of as assessment, not assessment as measuring but as a dialogue where interpretation, judgement and discrimination are at work. [4] 

I should explain that the music had been made through the programme pro-tools and that may have assisted in creating musical ideas that were refined and seemingly well-intentioned. But, and it was a big but: why so many ideas? In each case, weren’t there more than enough ideas, enough ideas for quite a few compositions? And as I listened even more closely it wasn’t that the ideas were being thrown away without any kind of development. It was unusual for this to be the case. The question became one about time span and what kind of time span did the material need to do the material justice? Was all the material needed? 

What I felt to be most important as a teacher of composition was to affirm what was being presented to me [5] and to sharpen each composer’s perception of what they had made, and together review the innumerable compositional techniques at work, many unbeknown to the composer. Thus analysis conversed with intuition. [6] Indeed, I moved steadily towards an analytical orientation. I wanted to help the composers make visual schemes of their compositions in order to objectify what was there as a way of thinking about the work as pieces of architecture and to create talking points: whys, hows and what ifs? I wanted to draw in what other composers had done and think about why they had done this or that, and why not that. How did they manage material within their time spans? [7]

As a teacher I was being both facilitator and mediator, mediating knowledge and culture, a pretty basic call upon being a teacher through which the teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt at best find a poetic unity. 


[1] Paynter, J. (1995) Working on one’s inner world, in (ed) Edwin Webb Powers of Being: David Holbrook and his work, Associated University Presses, Inc.

[2] See Listen Imagine Compose (LIC) Report (2014) Martin Fautley,
[3] See Witkin (1974) ‘The intelligence of Feeling’ for depth attention to ‘intentionality’ within the creative process.
[4] See LIC theme 4.
[5] Judgement, discrimination, interpretation at the heart of musical-artistic-aesthetic hermeneutic understanding ie. assessment with an epistemological basis.
[6] The interplay between intuition and analyis- see Swanwick, K. (1994) Musical Knowledge: Intution, Analysis and Music Education, Routledge.
[7] LIC theme 7.Advertisements

Five dimensions of good enough music teaching

1. Ethical commitment

The teacher’s disposition towards nurturing the pupil-teacher relationship that makes teaching possible

 2. Cultural mediation

The teacher’s disposition towards expressing authority through the transmission and sharing of cultural knowledge in the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

3. Thinking bodies

The teacher’s disposition towards recognising music-making as a form of embodied knowing in action. 

4. Facilitation

The teacher’s disposition towards enabling the expression of musical thought in the medium of music.

5. Critical intention

The teacher’s disposition towards promoting enquiry, curiosity,thoughtfulness, discrimination, questioning – calling for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated – a recognition that music has ‘human interest’ – social, cultural and political. 

Two exemplars

1. Here the teacher’s scheme of work was underpinned by the question: what does music mean? In lesson two the class was set the task of composing a piece dedicated to the victims of the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake.

I did not observe this teaching but the teacher writes:

‘All students sat in a circle playing barred instruments. The first third of their piece used the Japanese semi-tone major 3rd scale on B (B-C-E-F-A). Against the backdrop of a pianissimo rolled E, an F was gradually faded in and out, exploring the initial tensions of the tsunami. The B-C was then added to emphasise the nervous mood. All the notes gradually underwent a crescendo and were sustained fortissimo for a few moments before a sudden silence. A similar process was repeated, this time using a second, more blues-like Japanese scale. The familiarity of the sound led one student to interpret this section as the reaction of the international community.’

(And the following I have constructed from the teacher’s reflections.)

And now another pupil has the idea of using the two scales at the same time. And so the lessons proceed in dialogic fashion, with the teacher skillfully leading the way provoking thoughtful questions that challenge assumptions about music and its meanings. And now the introduction of the composition task: to make a soundtrack for a montage of if images of the recent Egyptian revolution using the Japanese scales. Why Japanese scales, some pupils ask? More dialogic work follows, with more thinking nurtured by the teacher’s gently teasing responses.

2. Who wants to start the conversation?

This was the question asked by the teacher at the beginning of a year 8 music lesson today. Last music lesson of the term. Previous project completed and now an introduction to next term’s work. So what was the conversation to be about? The class had entered to Mars from Holst’s The Planet Suite and had settled quickly and attended to the music. White boards given out and pupils asked to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil, the teacher or their visitor (me) about the music.

And so now the question from the teacher:

Teacher: ‘Does anybody want to start the conversation?’

The first question is directed to the teacher:

Holly: ‘Why did you pick this piece of music?’

Teacher: ‘It is a piece to react to; a piece to feel and think about. It’s a piece to respond to’.

Second question from Holly to Samantha: ‘What is your favourite part of the music?’

Samantha: ‘I like all of it. And you want to know what is going to happen next’.

Next: ‘Have you ever heard music like this before?’

Now the Star Wars connection comes out and is in play as part of the conversation. Then an interesting turn.

Pupil: ‘Was this music composed by a boy or a girl?’

Pupil:  ‘Boy, its loud and dramatic.’

Pupil: ‘What was going through her mind when she composed it?’

Back to Star Wars: ‘Do you think this music is scary?’

[Toby is away with fairies and balancing his pencil on outstretched fingers.]

Teacher intervention: ‘Let’s listen again, how does it start?’

Pupils: ‘Really low notes’; ‘it folds in and folds out’; ‘tapping’.

Teacher links these responses to earlier pupil questions.

Now composing as a whole class. Each inventing a response.

The insistent rhythm is introduced through a neumonic on the board as one possibility.

Samantha wants to tell me that she has been playing her drum in unconventional ways in the last project. She beams when she says unconventional. I repeat the word with a reciprocal beam.

Whole class improvising very quietly to start with and sustain their musical ideas with Toby bringing the piece to an end on cymbal with music at its loudest. The class are pleased with what they have done. Quite a few faces lighting up.

One boy on keyboard has replicated Holst’s c g f# figure but held down the g and f sharp to create a dissonance. The teacher and class receive this with admiration. Now a short time to rehearse and refine their ideas. I teach Samantha the rhythmic figure. Then some silent time to imagine what they will be playing.

Off we go again. Class applaud themselves at the end. Listen to Holst again with attention.

Musical taste groups and the connoisseurship of infancy

An interesting pastime has been developing on social media during this period of social isolation.  Like so much use of social media this particular phenomena works to bring groups of people together. 

In this case I will call them taste groups – those sharing a common interest, commitment and knowledge, and often dependant upon a considerable degree of connoisseurship. 

Two examples come to mind.

For the connoisseurs of the Anglican musical tradition you can take part in a knock out event seeking to determine the most valued setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitus.  Of course, you will need to know your settings in order to take part.

Another example sees connoisseurs of the music of Bob Dylan taking part in on-line polling to reveal his best. 

But now a third example away from social media.

Then this week I watched Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry. [1] And there I saw an audience with intimate knowledge of the Country and Western oeuvre and of Dolly’s in particular – another group of connoisseurseurs.

Sandra E. Trehub and Franziska Dege write 

‘The term connoisseur is generally reserved for experts in matters of             taste, especially with reference to the expressive and culinary arts. In the             case of music, a connoisseur might be a discerning listener in a narrow or             literal sense-having keen perceptual skills-or in a broader, more             important sense-distinguishing musical compositions and performances             of high quality from those of lesser quality. The latter sense necessitates             extensive knowledge of the musical conventions of a particular culture,             such knowledge being beyond the reach of inexperienced listeners.’ [2]

This is the introduction to their chapter Reflections on Infants as musical connoisseurs.

What we discover is that the scientific research into infant’s musical behaviour shows them to qualify as connoisseurs in a different sense.

The writers report on how infant’s 

‘… precocious music listening skills, excellent memory for music, highly musical environment, and intense interest in expressive musical performances compensate for their obvious ignorance of musical conventions.’ [3]

We learn that infants can detect pitch differences of a semi-tone or less, for example.

The chapter is bursting with research evidence. Some hundred studies are cited. We can see how the foundations of musical behaviour are being laid. [4]

I wonder if we know just what it is that children bring to their school music lessons or can begin to grasp the richness of their musical enculturation.


[1]The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly American country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee, founded on November 28, 1925, by George D. Hay as a one-hour radio “barn dance” on WSM

[2] Trehub, S. E. and Dege, F. (2016) Reflections on infants as musical connoisseurs, in (ed) Gary E. McPherson, The Child as Musician: A handbook of musical development, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

[3] Ibid.

[4] It is fascinating to read about the methods used by researchers into this fine-tuning of infant ears.

Mabel’s model music curriculum

Mabel is aged 14 months and until recently I have been in her company most days. I have observed her taking and making of music. These observations haven’t been systematic. 

But observation is never without theories in mind albeit often vague, ill-formed and unarticulated ones. I am not up to date with what is known about young children’s musical development, although I am reading ‘The Psychology of Musical Development’ by David Hargreaves and Alex Lamont [1] and there is ‘The Child as Musician’ edited by Gary McPherson [2] with illuminating chapters on prenatal development, infants as musical connoissers and musical play.

Mabel, like all coming into the world now has been exposed to music throughout her life and her coming to life. The mobile phone has served to pacify her with carefully selected tracks and car journeys have been accompanied by medleys of children’s favourites. Then, until recently, there has been regular attendance at baby and mother music sessions in the local library. And it is in these sessions that bodily gestures have been learnt in response to the singing and moving. Notably there is the sideways upper body shuffle and then there is hand clapping. There is the waving of hands above the head, a rocking back and forth when sitting and a bobbing up and down when standing. There is lip trilling, blowing raspberries, the imitating of the coffee machine’s whirring and the sound of an aeroplane over-head. Mabel bangs and drums on a variety of objects and there is banging and tapping of her feet to accompany meal times in her high chair. A favourite object is a hand held jingle. And before the lockdown Mable had sat on my lap at the keyboard imitating my actions. Mabel’s first clatterings on the keys were a ‘gross’ success. 

For a while now Mabel has known that in these ways her taking and making of music, her proto musical performances, pleases her carers. She is being musically socialised and a nascent form of creativity is being nurtured. Mabel’s music curriculum is being established – indeed, perhaps a model one.

Mabel’s musical utterances take the form of bodily gestures. They have a strong knowing element, yes cognitive – or rather – shall we say – a matter of cognitive-feeling. We might even speculate that mind-body musical schemas are being created … differentiating-integrating-differentiating-integrating… There’s the kinaesthetic-aural dual coding, well-regulated cognitive loading and an emerging working musical memory as well as a long term one. 

I may not see Mabel for a while. I wonder how she will have musically developed by the time we meet again. 

Why is it so in vogue to speak of musical progression? What about musical development?


[1] Hargreaves, D. and Lamont, A. (2017) The Psychology of Musical Development. Cambridge University Press.

[2] McPherson, Gary E. (2015) The Child as Musician: A Handbook of Musical Development. Oxford University Press.

In praise of sub-vocalization, lip-syncing and playing the kazoo

One of the core beliefs of those making a case for singing in the school curriculum is its complementarity to the playing of instruments. According to Kemp, being musical through use of the voice, relying as it does on action within, and unseen, is less cognitive and more subjective than knowing through instruments. [1] Some kind of subjective-objective balance is proposed.

The voice within, the instrument without.

Well, there’s a compact rationale for you.

Many vocal advocates highly prize the power of silent singing (sub-vocalizing), the thinking and feeling of music in mind – (body), and thought of as a foundational form of listening.

But what about the art of Lip sync?

‘Lip synclip-synclip-synch (short for lip synchronization) is a technical term for matching lip movements with sung or spoken vocals. The term can refer to any of a number of different techniques and processes, in the context of live performances and recordings.’ [2]

Here the voice is disembodied, the lip syncer is wearing a mask.

We could think of this as sub-vocalizing with lips moving, a sort of musical ventriloquism. Much listening required in this, much attentive listening. [3]

But now let’s introduce that much neglected instrument, the kazoo patented in 1883. This is an instrument through which humming and other vocalise is transformed into instrumental timbres. Is there a kazoo-ukelele orchestra out there? [4]

Sub-vocalization, lip-synchronization and kazoo playing offer in their different ways forms of intensive listening experience and, of course, the experience of thinking in sound. Thinking in sound – is this what is meant by music as the target language? ‘The target language’ – what an unfortunate expression that is.


[1] Kemp, A. E. (1990) Kinaesthesia and development in music micro-technology, British Journal of Music Education, 7, 223-229.

[2] See

[3] Lip syncing is a cultural practice and I’m not sure about reducing it to psychological behaviour. What do you think?

[4] See