Interesting musical practices

A group of sixteen secondary school trainee music teachers had noted that Indian music featured in a current GCSE syllabus and decided to explore the musical practices of India and the Punjab together as a group. There was already some knowledge of this within the group. Some had attended classical Indian recitals and there was knowledge that had recently been researched in preparation for the session.

I joined the group for the first part of the morning and had in mind the question:

How could a GCSE Area of Study that included the music of the Indian sub-continent open the minds of pupils to fresh ways of thinking about music and the ways in which it is practised?

What would it mean to view it as a socio-cultural practice?

How could its otherness be recognised?

I had written earlier about the dangers of ‘sameing’ that lead to an avoidance of the complexities of difference. (See Was I making a fuss about nothing?

In Gary Spruce’s ‘Culture, society and musical learning’ chapter in the book ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ he 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]

In this view the musical features, techniques and processes of Indian Classical music can only be made sense of inside a much larger web of human worldly activity that is much more than a GCSE syllabus is likely to recognise. And much more than what is conveniently labelled as ‘context’.

‘Context’ would seem an inadequate way of describing what is being proposed. The idea of context allows this worldly-wise music to be reduced to an add-on-by-the-way category and with culture thought of as a way of life discounted.

Turning to the trainee teachers and their workshop, they were well into making Indian Classical music. I’ve long been fascinated by the alap with its tasting and testing of the rag and then the moment of change locking into the thing itself. I think I would want to explore this in some depth along with why this rag and how can it claim to possess a particular ethos.

How are such meanings socially-culturally constructed?

What political circumstances lie behind the need to fix musical meanings?

As I thought about possible talking points I was reminded of the industry that has grown up around GCSE Areas of Study, the bite size information packs and the vast store of information about the music of India that is out there. Alas, information is not knowledge of any variety.

One trainee wanted to know about how Indian classical music had changed over time. Were its practices time-bound?

Just how old is the classical Indian musical canon?

How do its religious roots relate to its developing structures?

What is the significance of cyclical patterns?

Then, of course there is Bhangra and Bollywood and more opportunity to

‘embrace complexity, resists early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [2]

To offer such a rich topic as just one segment of an Area of Study would seem to be parsimonious by an exam board.


[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






Worthwhile music making in ‘the wasted years’ [1]


It is difficult to imagine music existing other than in context, that is, in relationship to human interactions in specific places and at specific times. Well, we could think of music as residing in a library, in a score or on a recording existing in some purified realm free from danger. Helpfully we have moved away from such conceptions of music towards focusing on the act of music making, what people-groups of people do in the world. But when we make music in the classroom we will be taking part in a process of re-contextualising what is a living practice. In the classroom it can’t be as it was or is out there. It can’t replicate the relationships and meanings made elsewhere at specific times and under specific conditions. We have no alternative but to re-present it. How to re-present it is a challenge.

Equally challenging is the responsibility for selecting what is brought to the classroom in the first place. Some criteria, implicit or otherwise, for what material is thought to be worthwhile will be in play. And values and beliefs will be exposed through the choices made. Teacher and pupil orientations will soon be evident.

Teacher and pupil orientations

Figure 8 and figure 9 in Kathryn Jourdan’s ISME handout address the orientation of the teacher and pupil respectively. Download accompanying handout here

Amongst other things, Kathryn proposes that the teacher

‘introduces contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’

and furthermore that the teacher

‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’

For the pupils’ part there is the call for

‘learning to be responsible to each other as they play, compose listen, craft, discuss together, leading each other into deeper engagement, facility and sensitivity’


‘to learn to stay in the encounter, resisting the desire for easy answers with which to close down learning.’

In thinking about all this my recent conversation with secondary music teacher Jo gave me insights into how this might be. Together we developed ideas about how to present to other teachers the possibilities opened up by introducing ‘contextually rich, complex material’ while keeping in mind infinite possibilities and the avoidance of early closure. Jo has been working with Steve Reich’s Different Trains with year 8.

Thinking Different Trains

Richard Taruskin writes:

‘’… in Different Trains (1988) Mr. Reich went the full distance and earned his place among the great composers of the century. …  Mr. Reich based the melodic content of the piece on the contour and rhythm of ordinary human speech. But in his case the speech consisted of fragments of oral history, looped into Reichian ostinatos, then resolved into musical phrases conforming to normal tunings, scales and rhythms of ‘Western music’, imaginatively scored for string quartet. These speech melodies were set in counterpoint with the original speech samples, all of it measured against a Reichian chug.’’ [2]

What if we presented the above for year 8 pupils to read? What sense would be made of it? You might say, ‘not much, it’s packed with sophisticated concepts’. I counted twenty-five! A lot of abstractions there. Please, not a list of ‘key words’. No, no, please. Handle abstractions with care.

But what is a speech melody? I guess year 8 know what a melody is and they have sung and imagined a good many musical phrases. Fragments of oral history? Counterpoint? Reichian ostinatos? String quartet? Not so likely.

Perhaps these will be things we talk about, ideas that become a part of our classroom discourse over time.

What do these pupils read in their English lessons, History, RE lessons? What would their English teacher say about the appropriateness of the above passage?

Well, a suggestion from Jo – what if we rewrote the passage above for year 8 to read or whichever group we might have in mind? And before they come to the lesson?

Taruskin continues by telling about the significance of the Different Trains. Reich’s childhood train journeys from coast to coast and the train journeys of children to Auschwitz.

I note above that Richard Taruskin places Different Trains in the 20th century canon of art music and Reich becomes a ‘great composer’. What a ‘talking point’. Jo’s pupils are well schooled in purposeful talking with ground rules well internalised. [3]

And there are lots more talking points. Who is a great composer? Who decides? What is art music? What is a canon? What’s your canon? Why does it change? Does it?

So perhaps the Taruskin text rewritten by the teacher could be a central resource.

Assuming there will be lots of reasons for making music in response to Different Trains, why would pupils have a reason for writing about their encounter with the music?

What narratives, musical and literary, will they produce as they develop their processes of making and how could these be shared with others?

What range of musical techniques might be taught?

How will technologies serve the musical impulses that arise?

At what points will Steve Reich be invited (metaphorically) into the classroom as a guest?

What range of intervention (disruptions) might the teacher prepare to help deepen and sustain the work?

What will mark the culmination of the work?

How will it generate fresh thinking, further possibilities, ideas about other good places to go?

How will the project be evaluated? What will be worth assessing?

Well, that’s enough. We should be ready now to ask one or two questions that will frame the project. Here’s one possible question:

How do personal histories become music?

Final thoughts

In Figures 8 and 9 Kathryn presents the idea of teacher and pupil orientations. How are each disposed towards encountering music? This I think is a helpful way of approaching the question of what is ‘worthwhile’ and one way of responding to Ofsted’s concern about the wasted early years of secondary school.

What contextually rich, complex material do you have to bring to the classroom?

How will you embraces complexity, resist early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings?

I have presented the case of Different Trains. There are a thousand other possibilities waiting to be explored.

The continuity between projects will be the processes of making and thinking music and therein will lie progression.


[1] See

The report is based on observations in subjects other than music.

[2] Taruskin, R. (2010) The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays. University of California Press: London. p.101.

[3] I am hearing from music teachers about the value of teaching their pupils how to engage in productive talk. For example, Karen in her Norfolk school is impressed by the way classroom conversations now seem natural. See blogpost March 22, 2014 for ‘Talking to Think’.

Mashing the Song Book

In last week’s blog (scroll down to view) I reported more about the establishment of music in the curriculum of the Isaac Newton Academy (INA) in East London. I had first reported on progress with their Big Band centred curriculum at a time when the first cohort of students was beginning year 8. The good news then was that the two weekly music lessons (one Big Band, the other core music) would be sustained through to the end of year 9.

I noted last week that a good proportion of students are now following a GCSE course in music, and I referred to the preparation for a Gala performance at the Barbican involving forty pupils.

But Greg, head of music, was keen to tell me about something that happened last term and that he and the department are wanting to better understand.

Greg writes:

At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 minute jam broke out, led by the students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash together various songs that they had studied at Key stage three – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop. There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable (although a small number of students did not feel that they could easily include themselves in this musicking and so left.)

A similar thing happened when we took a group of thirty students from various years on a trip out. On this occasion the guest conductor was completely taken aback (even annoyed!) by such spontaneous music making and deemed it musical misbehaviour. As a department we have discussed this phenomenon. What are the conditions that have made this possible? Could we recreate these conditions with more regularity?’

One rhought I had was that what begins as spontaneous behaviour may well become a ritual. If that happens at INA then the ritual can be interpreted as a celebration of the INA Song Book and a merging of individual, group and school musical identity. The ritual would be as an emblem of identity. We await further developments.

Greg told me how the repertoire learnt throughout key stage three had come to be thought of as the INA Song Book. Year 7 students soon became aware that the music they were leaning was known throughout the school and older students were at hand to play alongside them.

This is how a musical community works. New comers’ participation is in a sense peripheral as they come to realise that there are ‘old timers’ and gate keepers of the community higher up the school. [2]

Six issues arise from my learning more about INA and its music.

  1. The music introduced to the students is East London vernacular. However, in working it into a Big Band frame we see a pedagogy of interruption. Meanings change, student’s perceptions are disrupted.
  2. The accumulated learning from both big band and core music lessons creates a school Song Book. A common unifying musical culture develops that hints at a community of practice.
  3. As students progress so spontaneous music behaviour emerges alongside increased levels of musical autonomy.
  4. Musical creativity is rooted in a performance tradition.
  5. The flourishing of music in the school is indebted to both philanthropy (generous supply of instruments) and a highly skilled, musically participating departmental staff.
  6. Many students at INA are members of the Islamic faith. This can create tensions between music in school and the faith community. The school and music department work to uphold an ethos of full musical participation. [3]


The landscape of secondary school music education is changing fast. While diversifying (some would say fragmenting) the system creates fresh models of practice, it produces inequalities and a music education that is arbitrary.



[1] In my recent visits to secondary schools I have noted that ‘mashing’ as well as meaning ‘an explosion of contrasting things, stuck together’, can mean a medley of songs.

[2]  The term ‘community of practice’ is a popular one and too easily used. It sounds such a good thing. See  for its theoretical basis. One of the conditions to claim the definition relates to the longevity of the practice.

What we can say about the INA case is that it shows a number of characteristics of a community of practice. There is a shared domain of interest and relationships are built in a way that learning from each other is enabled. There are oldtimers and new timers and there is peripheral participation.

We might ask what of future developments?  What will emerge as students make music post 16? Will there emerge a version of New Orleans Marching Bands within the wider community?

[3] Here is an issue of great complexity needing much more investigation.








The making of an East London Song Book

The last three years have seen decisive shifts in educational policy in England. Counterpointing a National Plan for Music Education and the creation of Music Hubs are changes in curriculum along with new measures of accountability likely to affect the place of music in the curriculum. At the same time has come a rapid growth in Academies, the introduction of Free Schools, Studio Schools, Co-operative Schools and University Teaching Colleges, and some of these are designated Teaching Schools. With all this comes a review of educational priorities and fresh ideas about the organisation of music in the school. Here I report on the establishment of music in the curriculum of the Isaac Newton Academy (INA), just one example of how music in the school is being re-imagined in order to recognise instrumental learning as integral to general music education.

The above was written in 2013 and you can read more of that account John Finney – Music Mark Magazine – Winter 2013-2014

Or here:

John Finney - Music Mark Magazine - Winter 2013-2014_Page_1

2John Finney - Music Mark Magazine - Winter 2013-2014_Page_2


Now I have returned and find that large numbers of students have embraked upon their GCSE course and that preparations are underway for a Barbican Gala event.

It is the latter that I report on here.

Remarkably all 540 year 7-9 students auditioned for the 40 places. Repertoire had been placed on the school’s youtube site along with tutorials.

Tonight after school is the first rehearsal of the Gala Band.

12 saxophonists; 8 trumpets; 6 trombones; 6 percussionists; 2 keyboardists; 2 guitarists; 1 Eb bassist and 1 sousaphone player; 2 absent.

The rehearsal is fast paced, material chunked, call-copy, repetition, refinement; some kind of heterophonic mashing.

Talking to Greg afterwards he refers to the INA Song Book, the repertoire of songs introduced through years 7-9.

I usually pick music that the students will know.  Music that they have come across in their own musical listening (Problem, Shake it Off) or by discovering it through Core Music lessons (Umoja, Waka Waka, Big Band Bhangra, Time to Tango).

When picking pop songs I like to find instrumental examples by New Orleans style Hip Hop Brass Bands.  These performances tend to have an energy to them that can be inspirational to watch and the comparative conversations between the original song and the Hip Hop Brass Band versions can often be really interesting.  (We now have two Hip Hop Brass Band enrichments with over 100 students who sign up to them.  These groups are now branching away from instrumental covers of pop songs and individuals within them are finding, loving and learning original HHBB songs like Brooklyn and Overtime)
The arrangements are very often riff based with two, sometimes three, contrasting sections. There is usually a bass riff, homophonic backing rhythms and a melody (Dance wiv me). There is often an anthemic simplicity to the melodies that makes them sound successful even when played by multiple instruments (Crazy Love).
Sometimes we choose songs which are well suited to students arrangement either by mashing two songs up (Seven Nation Army & Sweet Dreams) or by mixing together two sections of a song or simply by messing around with the structure and texture. [2]
‘Get Lucky’ is a good example. It was an anthemic smash hit pop song that all the students knew by Daft Punk. There is a version of the song by Soul Rebels Brass Band which is really enagaging and has similar instrumentation to our classroom set up (minus the electornic instrumets). The song has three sections but has the same 4 chords throughout so three sections can be played at the same time and so students can create their own versions of the song. It has a bass riff, rhythmic backings and melody texture that works well.’
I leave with a lot of questions coming to mind.
More next week.
[1]I am grateful to Music Mark for allowing the reprinting of the article Music at the Isaac Newton Academy published in the Music Mark Magazine Winter 2013-14.
[2] In my visits to secondary schools this week I noted that ‘mashing’ as well as meaning ‘an explosion of contrasting things, stuck together’, can mean a medley of songs.


Worldly-wise music education

The 3rd edition of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School [1] is fresh off the press and in my hands. It feels good, and there are lots to read and think about.

The first chapter, which I authored and titled The Place of Music in the Secondary School, has two new sections. The first addresses Chris Philpott’s Hard and Soft Justifications argument [2] and the second, Music Education Now, brings the story up to date.

Chris’s Hard-Soft dichotomy is important because it gets us to think about on what basis we value music, how we think about what is it? Is music simply a good fairy that exists to shower us with blessings or something more complex in the way it exists within a maelstrom of human action and meaning making?

Chris points out that music can be tribal, exclusive and enshrine prejudice; manipulative of behaviour; gendered; reflective of social structures; propagandist; and can enshrine ideology.

I write:

‘In this way of thinking, music is already in the world, living within complex webs of meanings and continually being understood and reunderstood, interpreted and reinterpreted.’ [3] (Hence the you tube clips: Bach recontextualised in the ancient city of Palmyra for propoganda purposes; Puccini in the King Power Stadium, Leicester for celebratory purposes.)

I go on to report on Chris’s central claim that music be conceived of as a language. And here I try to clarify because this is tricky.

‘…this is not to see in music the properties of speech, such as speaking tempo, vocal pitch and intonational contours, which can be used to communicate attitudes or other shades of meaning; nor is it to see in music grammar, syntax or dialect characteristic of a musical style; but more fundamentally to see music as a language in itself, as characterised by a openess to acquired and multiple interpretations where meaning and value are determined by usage in particular contexts.’ [4]

What is important is that we are reminded that music is educative because it is first in society, in the world, embedded in culture.

We like to say music is all around us, music is everywhere. Yet the way music education is organised frequently treats music as a thing apart, abducted from the world of messy human discourse and cleansed from its social and political reality.

In chapter 2 of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School titled Culture, Society and Music Learning Gary Spruce takes this further exploring the relationship between music, society and culture and some of the assumptions we make about the nature of music that have influenced the development of the music curriculum and the way in which it has been taught. [5]

Gary shows how contemporary thought and scholarship reorientates the basis of music education. Here is a fresh ideology to critique.


[1] Cooke, C., Evans, K., Philpott, C., and Spruce, G. (2016) Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience 3rd Edition. Routledge: London.

[2] See Philpott, C. (2012) The justification for music in the curriculum (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching, Routledge: London.

[3] Cooke, C., Evans, K., Philpott, C., and Spruce, G. (2016) Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience 3rd Edition. Routledge: London. (Page 13)

[4] Ibid, 13-14.

[5] Later chapters provide support in making a curriculum.





High Culture, David Bowie and a Low Symphony

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c Apr 2

The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’

John finney@Johnfinney8 Apr 8 @Trivium21c I am wondering whether traditional musical cultures are high cultures?

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c Apr 8 @Johnfinney8 I would expect in whatever culture we are talking about it exists as an idea… Even if it is spiritual ratter than ‘art’

John finney@Johnfinney8 Apr 8 @Trivium21c Is Sheffield pub carolling High, Low, Common or Traditional culture

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c  @Johnfinney8 you tell me

Well, my response was ‘common culture’. I had in mind [2]

Martin’s ‘High Culture’ serves the distinction between high culture and popular culture. There is high culture and there is the other. Is the other lesser, lower? I am not sure what is intended. What is the ‘high’ in high culture? Is it something to do with elevation, being elevated? Is it that only high culture can transcend earthly existence? Does high culture possess some particular moral authority perhaps?

But what if we started in a different place with the distinction between culture as:

  1. The anthropological – ‘a whole way of life’; the totality of activities and artifacts. (Derived from Tylor 1871)
  2. The product of intellectual and artistic activity – ‘the best that has been thought and said’. (Derived from Arnold 1869)

I think Martin is working from 2.

  1. is a narrowing of meaning and restrictive, sometimes becoming even narrower to include only art works, sometimes narrower still to include only the literary arts. By restricting the idea of culture it can be evaluative. There can be benchmarks of goodness. There can be connoisseurship where inter-subjectivities determine what is true. The emphasis is on products or works removed from the conditions of their practice. The concept of the work is crucial. On the other hand 1. places emphasis on activities inseparable from the material conditions of life, from culture lived and practised. Not works but practices lead the way.


Making music is a form of cultural practice where its goodness resides in the ends to which it is put. See

In this view the category of high culture is redundant or at most not very helpful.

Cultural practices may have great provenance and be part of longstanding traditions. They are there to be inherited, worked with and against, invented, revived, transformed, rejected.

The teacher has a responsibility to introduce pupils to a range of cultural practices with good ends in mind.

Here is one I propose.

The cultural practice of critiquing the false dichotomy of high and low culture.

So let’s listen to David Bowie’s ‘Low’

And now Philip Glass’s Low Symphony

Glass in dialogue with Bowie. High culture, low culture, common culture?

Perhaps culture is ordinary.












Knowing how to make music well (ii)

In last week’s blog I began to test Gert Biesta’s framewok for discerning purposes in education by applying this to music education. In doing this I made clear that I was considering the purposes of music education for all children in the context of a general education.

In addressing the first of Biesta’s three functions – ‘Qualification’, I proposed that:

All children be equipped with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

I made the point that the qualification function is often seen as a sufficient aim. However, the second, socialisation, as I will show, looms large.

Socialisation – the process of inserting newcomers into a social order involving the transmission of the social norms required to maintain common ways of living, shared beliefs and values that are thought to bind us together. While socialisation functions as a continual process beyond the confines of the school, in school we quickly learn that we don’t hug our primary school teacher, that there are times to move to music and times to be still, that it is good to be kind to other people both near and far away through the songs sung, that singing is a normal thing to do, that music is something that can be learnt about and so on.

Legislators from Plato to Morgan have paid great attention to the socialisation function of education.

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, singing was seen as the vehicle by which children would be inducted into a social order that is of course also a moral order.

In 1836 civil servant Kay proposed that singing is: ‘an important means of forming an industrious, brave, loyal and religious people’ [1], the kind of sentiment that led to an ongoing comittment to forge and preserve a common song repertoire.

In another place we see the socialisation function expressed as the induction of the young into

‘… an unbroken tradition of cultural possessions that will fill the lives of children with joy and happiness and that should help, by means of its ability to build up the people and community, in bringing up children to become men aware of their German heritage, so that they may feel the kinship with their home and people.’ [2]

This is Germany 1939.

And now in our own time, and with the cause of preserving a common heritage of song abandoned, there is the political ambition to create a common conversation around an agreed canon of musical works. (We have a hundred pieces of classical music for Primary Schools.) At the same time Ofsted will be monitoring the inculcation of British Values.

But all this brings into play a counter position that wishes to contest the existing social order by offering visions of a society transformed. So not maintainers and sustainers but rather disrupters and transformers.

Paulo Freire puts the matter in stark format:

‘Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.’ [3]

And Christopher Small writing in 1977 is arguing for creative activity to be placed at the centre of music education so that it becomes:

‘… possible to control our own musical destiny, provide our own music rather than leave it to someone else to provide, then perhaps some of the other outside expertise that controls our lives can be brought under control also.’ [4]

The tension between the maintainance (and indeed restoration) of ways of life (culture) and their transformation is great.

To relieve the tensison I will say simply that: we inherit cutures of music making that are global as well as national and local in origin with scope for their regeneration and transformation.

Thus, if pupils are to become qualfied in making music well they will need to be:

Inducted into existing cultures of making music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice.

Our first and second purposes interact. Making music well requires knowledge, skills and understandings of musical cultures.

In making problematic the taken for granted insertion of the child into the existing social order we reach into our third category.

3. Subjectification (an ugly word) – the process of becoming a subject; becoming independent from the social order, an autonomous subjective self with the possibility of living creatively and critically. This involves the growth of self-awareness, consciousness of the process of induction into the social order, of constraints and potentials, of the possibility for personal agency.

Thus our third purpose.

The child becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music making.

So, in summary, the three purposes overlapping and interacting:

1. To equip all children with the knowledge, skills and understandings to make music well.

2. To induct all children into existing cultures of making-music with the potential for the regeneration and creative transformation of practice.

3.To enable all children to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music making well.

Emphasis can be place differently at different stages, times and as circumstances call for.

And now a talking point.

In a liberal democracy should there be a settled agreement about the purposes of music education?

Next week Felicity Laurence reports on a sequence of music teaching through which we can reflect on the purposes of music education and consider how they might be reflected in the music making of ten year old children.


[1] Kay, J. (1836) Quoted in ‘Composers and the Nature of Music Education’. Ian Laurence

[2] Source lost!

[3] Freire, P.  (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin. Page 30.

[4] Small, C. (1977) Music, society, Education. Calder. Page 214.