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 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/459830/Key_Stage_3_the_wasted_years.pdf

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’.

Music Education through the lens of Levinas (iv)

Kathryn continues:

What might characterise ethical music education?

Firstly, how might the insights developed through my study contribute to thinking within music education?

How might practices of facing within a Levinasian looking into the face of the Other provide a robust ethical underpinning for thinking about and for reorienting practice in the music classroom?

This ontological basis generates a plurality of epistemological approaches which enable and explore different aspects of music-making, but which all spring from the initial ethical impulse of music-making as ‘putting a world in common’.

This recontextualises competing ideologies of aesthetic versus praxial, for instance.

Aesthetics regains its ethical moorings, where making music is primarily a response to seeking the face of the Other, seeking to put a world in common.

The development of musical practices, competencies and skills is conceptualised as ethical endeavour oriented towards drawing others into a world made common and into the infinity of music and of music-making

So what might the implications be for classroom practice if we look through the lens of Levinas at what we do? See Figure 8 on the handout

  • The teacher learns alongside the pupils
  • The teacher is responsive
  • Complexity is embraced
  • Early closure is avoided.

What might be the implications for educational structures in the light of Levinas?

  • The model of knowing prescribed by exam boards and policy-makers is an ethical issue
  • Room must be allowed for the messiness and costliness of ethical encounters in learning
  • There is a ‘Taking of responsibility’ rather than ‘managerial accountability’
  • Assessment will be non-totalising

And finally, What might be the implications for conceptions of music-making in the light of Levinas

  • The primary orientation of music education would be to bring pupils into an encounter with the Other, enabling ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’. ‘The Other’ indicates a spectrum from:
  • my immediate neighbour: the pupil next to another pupil in the classroom, the pupil in relationship with me as teacher, the neighbour who teaches Amez the drums


  • the more distant Other of the ‘world music’ lesson, whose musical expressions are brought into the classroom, and into an encounter with whom the teacher seeks to draw the class


  • the infinite Other that is music-making as a social activity, a discipline, an area of the curriculum and a ‘musical work’, which teachers seek to draw pupils further into, and into which teachers themselves seek to enter further, with no end to the processes of learning.
  • This ontological basis generates diverging epistemological approaches.
  1. Aesthetic models of music education emphasise the development of aesthetic sensitivity as pupils they look into the ‘face’ of the Other through music-making, or into a piece of music functioning as an Other, with form and expressivity, through which the voice of another may be heard. As aesthetic sensitivity develops pupils are more able to discern the face, or the ‘voice’ of the Other and to be responsive to the ethical ‘call’ they find there.
  2. Praxial models of music education emphasise the learning of skills within a tradition of music-making which enable pupils to ‘offer the world to the Other’, ‘putting in common a world’ hitherto their own. The pursuit of excellence in performing and composing allows pupils to come into encounter with the Other more fully as they become more proficient in drawing in their audience to the ‘world’ they share with them.
  • A radical openness allows pupils to encounter the music of other cultural settings without needing to colonise or dominate. The voice of the Other is allowed to speak within their own rich, cultural context and leaves a ‘trace’ which changes pupils, musically and ethically.
  • In this journey of encounter and responsivity pupils don’t ‘return to the same place’, as Levinas points out Ulysses did, but find themselves changed, in a different place as Abraham did, deeply challenged, able to experience a transcendence of their own situation and circumstances, finding new musical worlds, new strengths or sensitivities, deeper relationships and responsibilities.
  • The hospitality of which Lee Higgins writes is a response to the ethical call in the face of the Other. Shared cultural forms allow the Other to come to belong as well as to remain distinctive, different.
  • The outward-turning nature orientation grounds musical experience in terms of relationship with and responsibility towards the Other. It reorients the intention of self-expression towards a ‘putting a world in common with the Other’, giving a fresh rationale for developing technical skill and excellence.


For the full text of Kathryn’s thesis see  http://dx.doi.org/10.17863/CAM.80

Music Education through the lens of Levinas (iii)

In last week’s blog Kathryn gave two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which were observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.

Kathryn continues:

From pupils’ perspectives upon encountering the Other though music-making were drawn themes which were then developed using the lens of Levinas’ thinking, from which four strands emerged:

Music-making as a language

Music-making as complex and rich in context

The infinity of musical knowing

Music as an end in itself

The first of these took my study down an unexpected alley, and I present it briefly as an example of the to- and froing of the analytical process.

Two of the smaller group of pupil participants, Amy and Kirsty, had repeatedly alluded to music-making in terms of language – Amy talked of musical expressions around the world being ‘in a different language’, yet open to everyone to enjoy, if not to understand. Kirsty commented,

‘Everybody has music. Like languages. You have languages to speak to other people. But not everybody speaks a certain language but everybody kind of speaks the language of music because everybody has music’

Notions of music as a language have been fraught with difficulty over generations, and I was cautious of this particular path of enquiry. But the emerging theme from the two girls’ interview material couldn’t be ignored.

I placed their perspectives alongside Levinas’ writing on language, where the act of looking into the face of the Other is born of the same ethical impetus to reach out to the Other that motivates the act of speaking in every language. Levinas sees the use of language as an offering of the world to the Other, and writes of ‘speaking the world to the Other’ (1969:173-4). Before any meaning is communicated, language reaches out and puts the world in common. Using language is an ethical act which opens up a world between myself and the Other.

Dare we see music-making in these terms, I wondered? Levinas’ reorientations of notions of language powerfully expresses the vulnerability which music-making entails as we are ‘inserted into the world’ as we make music, with, he says, ‘all the hazards and risks of all action’, in a generous offering of the world, putting a world hitherto mine in common (1969:174).

This reorientation would have profound ramifications for an understanding of the ‘aesthetic’ which would regain its ethical moorings lost in post-Kantian thinking, as making music (and creating art) would be primarily a response to seeing the face of the Other, and would seek to put a world in common.

What, I began to wonder, would the music classroom be like if we regarded music-making in this way?

What might my own corner of the music profession look like if we embraced this ethical understanding of what we were doing as we made music?

So a series of ‘What if?’ questions led into my final research question and a presentation of the study’s conclusions

  • What would the consequences be of a conception of music-making as ‘speaking the world to the Other’, as first of all an ‘ethical gesture’ (Levinas, 1969: 173-174)?
  • What would it mean if in the music classroom we understood music-making as first of all an act of reaching out to ‘look into the face of the Other’, countenancing difference without totalising practices?
  • What would it mean for music to be embraced as complex and rich in context within the music classroom?
  • What would it mean for knowing in the music classroom to be open to the ‘infinity’ of the subject?
  • What if aesthetic encounter were understood as ethical endeavour?
  • What if the striving for technical perfection were seen as ethical endeavour?
  • What happens if we understand musical performance as drawing others into a face-to-face encounter with the Other?
  • What happens if we conceive of musical performance as akin to ‘teaching’ in its presenting of the Other?
  • What if we allow the music profession to be transformed by this reorientation?


Note: References will be provided at the conclusion of the Levinas blog sequence.

Music Education through the lens of Levinas (ii)

‘Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological: our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us. Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’. The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.’ (See Music through the lens of Levinas (i) below.)

In part (i) I introduced the work of Kathryn Jourdan who set out the basis for her research rooted in the thought of Emmanuel Levinas along with her two research questions:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                               

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

This week Kathryn introduces her fieldwork and provides two examples of ‘facing’.

In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

A critical realist framework meant that my ethnographic investigation could be situated within a stratified social ontology, following the thinking of Margaret Archer, where properties and powers are identified as they emerge from different levels of social structure, so that it is possible to present something of the interplay between the structural pressure pupils and staff are under, and the ways in which individuals either acquiesce to these pressures, or resist and subvert them, exercising their agency.

Firstly, in order to investigate the wider social and educational context of pupils’ experiences of music-making, multiple interviews with staff members yielded perspectives which underwent open coding, along with notes from participant observation, from which themes emerged. These themes were then re-examined through the conceptual lens of Levinas’ thinking.

Interviews with the participant class and in particular with each member of a smaller group of pupils, were similarly coded alongside observations, and emergent themes examined using thinking tools from Levinas. The stories of each participant of this smaller group were told, and themes explored to draw out and identify their ‘practices of facing’.

Just two strands which emerged are presented here, to give a flavour of these analytical and reflective processes, represented in Figures 3 and 4 of the handout.

One strand which became apparent through initial interviews with staff was the pressure to shape the music curriculum of the first two years of secondary school (equivalent to the first three years in England) in order to provide an efficient route into the specifications of the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s examination courses in the subsequent years.

One teacher commented that she simply had to ‘push out the unnecessary’ leaving in the curriculum ‘only what’s necessary to learn’ in order to pass the exams.

The effects of this pressure towards efficient curriculum delivery might be seen as part of the wider discourse of performativity within educational policy-making, where ever more efficient means need to be developed in order to produce defined outcomes.   This in the name of accountability, but a newer version of managerial, audit-based accountability rather than the older one formerly embedded in a professional ethic.

In the classroom, however, pupils did not necessarily accept the restrictions imposed by narratives of efficiency. In a lesson led by a student teacher the class were being introduced to sounds of the Javanese Gamelan, and watched a clip of video showing a group of people playing together in a public space. Here’s what I wrote after observing one pupil’s response:

Amez asks, ‘Is that not rude, Miss, that the older man playing the gong sometimes falls asleep. Is it not rude while everyone’s playing?’ ‘An older man could teach a younger one to do it’. He’s raising rich points for learning, here. These are fundamental questions of about how this music operates in this place as part of this tradition. It affects the way people relate to each other. Amez is sensitive to this.

The student teacher however was under pressure to deliver her predetermined learning outcomes for the lesson. Instead, she hurried the class on, not able to attend to Amez’s enquiry, although this might have led to a rich, if unplanned exploration which might have drawn pupils further into hearing the voice of another, and perceiving the call to ethical relationship. Instead, the class were required to turn their backs on each other, sit at individual keyboards, and this act of communal musical expression from a distant context, rich with social meaning, led into a practical task of reading pitch patterns from the board and reproducing them. The rhythmically compelling features of the music which the class has responded to instinctively earlier in the lesson by drumming fingers on desks, were now forgotten, as only the parameter of pitch was being valued here, a convenient element abstracted from another’s whole.

The commitment to inclusivity and ease of access to the music exams has shaped the written paper, where multiple choice questions and tick boxes have tended to proliferate, and complexity has been eschewed, allowing for ease of marking, in a drive for increased efficiency. This has in turn shaped the nature of the musical knowledge which the SQA values, as I found out one day early on in my year at the school:

The class is given a listening task as a lesson-opener. Using a CD of examples from the exam board, with extracts of music from contrasting genres and cultural expressions, their music teacher poses questions. An extract from the show ‘Riverdance’ is played.

Almost all the girls in the class, sitting apart from the boys, respond to the music by dancing in their seats. A frisson goes round the room as the castanets enter and two girls on the far table pretend to play them, hands held high in the air. Yet the task at hand is now to identify ‘which sort of music this is’, choosing from a selection of ‘concepts’ specified by the exam board’. ‘Folk’ most pupils suggest as they enjoy and identify with the ‘Celtic’ sounds underlying the music’s foreground. ‘It’s the rhythm they make in Latin America’ the teacher corrects, insisting on upholding the neat categorisation into which the exam board had squeezed this track. I empathise with the slightly dazed, deflated response to this outcome prevalent amongst the class. They have enjoyed the music. Some have responded physically and with pleasure, feeling that this was in some way ‘their music’, but they have reached the ‘wrong’ answer. Their responses must be corralled into one of the exam board’s own categorisations. The pupils’ openness to and encounter with the music has been shut down prematurely. The required answer is quite clear, it seems.

Here, the exam board’s categorisations of musical expressions from different places around the globe has brought about a totalising brand of knowledge, which allows no room for the pupils’ responses, visceral and joyful. Nor does it allow for complexity, for multiple influences, But the pupils manage to allow infinity to break into to closed circles of totality in these two examples, exercising their agency and subverting to some extent the totalising practice imposed upon them.

These are just two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which I observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.

Music education through the lens of Levinas (i)

Last week saw over 1,000 music educators gather at the 32nd World Conference of the International Society for Music Education in Glasgow. There were keynote speakers, symposia on a range of topics, concerts, poster sessions and the reading of research papers. There was an embarrassment of riches.

During August I will serialise one of the research papers- Kathryn Jourdan’s ”Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music classroom and beyond”.

In this Kathryn presents an ethically grounded perspective on music education. I hope you will find it challenging and thought-provoking. Following the fourth installment I will place the whole in the scholarly articles section of the blog site with full referencing.

ISME paper July 2016

Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music

classroom and beyond

Kathryn Jourdan

  • Introduction

This paper aims to give a brief overview of my recent PhD research.   The central focus of the paper concerns the field work I undertook in a Scottish high school.

At the heart of my presentation is an attempt to briefly unpack two strands of Levinas’ philosophy, strands which provide tools with which to explore my observations in school. Through this lens, I present what I have termed pupils’ practices of facing which I conceive of as agential. From these are drawn the paper’s conclusions, which propose an underpinning, ethical orientation to anchor a diversity of approaches within music education.

I aim to give glimpses of different stages of the research process through a small number of examples.

A series of questions emerged for me, as I went from playing in a symphony orchestra and working in inner city schools on creative projects, to teaching practice in the music classroom of an affluent rural secondary school:

‘How do young people encounter difference in the music classroom?’

‘What sort of responsibility does the music teacher have in these encounters?’

‘Is it even ethical to use another’s music in the classroom?’

Ten years after these formative experiences I went back to university to explore these questions.

For my Master’s fieldwork I visited a setting on the fringes of Britain where, for geographic and historical reasons, encountering difference has become a habit of daily life. At Shetland’s main High School in Lerwick, and in the wider community, I observed some inspiring practice, where music-making, rooted in a thriving local tradition, provides a mode of encounter, enabling a welcoming–in of the stranger, bringing fresh sounds and perspectives which open up the world and enrich local musical expressions.

As I moved into doctoral study, I began to trace the development in the research literature over the past few decades of conceptualisations of music-making as relationship, then as ethical relating, which gives agency to the participants.

Christopher Small’s influential work on ‘musicking’ suggests that it is from within the local, situated set of relationships, which come into being when people make music together, that musical meaning arises, where ‘ideal’ relationships as understood by the particular community who are making music together are ‘modelled’.

More recently, Lee Higgins has drawn upon the work of Derrida – someone close to Levinas – to build a conception of community music-making as an act of hospitality, welcoming others in to cross the threshold, inviting them to come to belong.

Using the language of ‘virtue ethics’ Wayne Bowman sees experiences in music-making as ‘ethical resources’:

‘as practices in and through which people wrestle with and seek to answer the vitally important educational question, ‘What kind of person is it good to be?’

And critically, Bowman challenges the division between intrinsic and extrinsic values, between the inherent and instrumental benefits of music education, which have been debated since Plato’s time. Something can only be of value if it is a contributory good to human thriving.

Drawing upon these building conceptualisations from the literature I sought to investigate how ethical encounters through music-making might work.   And in exploring notions of ‘the other’ I came across the writings of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and formed my first research question:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                                

  • Levinas

Levinas is known for his exhortation to us to ‘look into the face of the Other’.

A rather clumsy term, the ‘other’ has long been used in social science to denote those marginalised or ‘othered’ by social practices.

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as a constituent of selfconsciousness – the self needs the other in order to define itself.

So notions of the ‘Other’ have come to suggest ‘that which is not us’, whether it be the one we see face-to-face or the distant Other as radically different from our self, whose difference is crucial to the very formation of ourselves, our own subjectivity.

In Levinas’ philosophy the relation to the Other becomes the first concern before all else – pre-ontological, or ethics as first philosophy – except Levinas uses the term ‘ethics’ not in a traditional sense as a code of morality or moral decision-making, but rather as a relation of our unending responsibility to the Other, in whose face we perceive an ethical call.

In his first major work, Totality and Infinity Levinas draws out two contrasting orientations to the Other:

  1. In the first, Totality, we seek to make the Other the ‘Same’, categorising in order to control, and to dominate.   It was in response to the dehumanising processes of the Holocaust that Levinas, sensing a ‘crisis of humanism’, was motivated to find a path towards a ‘new humanism’, seeing that the ‘totalising’ orientation of our Western philosophical tradition has led again and again to colonisation, oppression and destruction (Katz, 2012a; 2012b).
  2. Levinas exhorts us to take on a fresh orientation, where we perceive Infinity in the face of the Other. The Other is profoundly different from us, but for whom we are unendingly, ethically responsible, and who ‘teaches’ us, always bringing us ‘more than we contain’. Levinas talks of the ‘face’ to suggest a whole which overflows perceptions of features and which cannot be categorised or fully grasped. In the face of the Other we glimpse an infinity, he says.

Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological: our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us. Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’. The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.

The notion that radical otherness, diversity, is essential for us to be able to come to know is one that we would do well to dwell on in our current political times.

Levinas writes that language is born out of this relation; ‘The beginning of language is in the face’ (Levinas, 1988: 169-170).

To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces (Levinas, 1961: 76).

Language is understood by Levinas as a reaching out to the Other, a primordially ethical act before it is a communication of any specific meaning.

  • Levinas and education

So what might this mean for education?

Levinas published his first major philosophical work after many years as a teacher, and saw teaching as transformative – ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’ (Levinas, 1969: 171).

Philosopher of education Paul Standish’s view, following Levinas, is that the content of the curriculum may be seen as a form of relation to the Other. He writes that

Subjects are language to the extent that they are ways of thinking and reasoning about the world that have passed down through the generations, where this thinking and reasoning essentially is language (Standish, 2008: 65).

The role of the teacher, according to Levinas, is not that of the Socratic midwife attending at the birth of knowledge in the learner. The teacher’s role is rather to point beyond, drawing pupils further into the infinity of the subject and the questions it raises.

Standish writes, ‘To cast the teacher as the conduit to the Other in this way, through the language to which she gives the learner access, is to see herself oriented by her own relation to the Other’.

  • And music education…

So what does this mean for our understanding of music education and of music-making if we are to ground our practice in a profound responsibility for the Other, listening out for, and hearing the voice of the Other

And if we seek to eschew totalising practices in order to remain radically open to infinity?

What might such ‘practices of facing’ look or sound like in the music classroom?

  • In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

First Access and musical composition

In last week’s blog I attempted to place First Access in the context of a general music education for all children. I proposed that the year-long engagement of all yr3 pupils in their string playing had provided a worthy musical foundation and a set of ‘serving competencies’ on which they could now build. It would provide a valuable basis for their development as composers of music, for example. And it was the matter of composing music that I was involved in last Friday.

The Listen, Imagine, Compose project [1] was holding an away day sparked into life by Pam Burnard’s creative metaphors and through the presentations of three secondary school teachers who had embarked on programmes of action research and who were now reporting on it.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah were addressing important questions: why compose; how to nurture the confidence to compose; sustain pupil’s journeys as composers; achieve more meaningful composition work; understand the significance of collaborative composition. These were some of the matters enquired into and that the teachers were exceptionally articulate about.

It’s not easy here to do justice to the ways in which the teachers were involved in intense levels of reflective practice. (Their powerpoints will no doubt be available later.) But it was clear that these teachers were changing, learning – and their pupils were too. Both teachers and their pupils were coming to understand what it meant to compose music, and it seemed to me that the climate of their classrooms was changing too. Conversations were becoming richer. Dialogic practices were emerging.

Of course, I may be over interpreting to soothe my own predilections. However, together the teachers illustrated well the power of carefully conceived action research to bring about change and to secure ongoing reflective action.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah provided the meat on which we could chew for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon and before small group discussion of key themes, Kirsty Devaney tuned us up for debate by leading us in a whole-group interthinking exercise by presenting us with ‘talking points’ (or at least that’s what I call them).

Talking points are not easy to create and I thought the question ‘Is bird song music?’ an especially good one.

Kirsty asked us to literally show where we stood on this. Those responding ‘yes’ stood at one end of the room and the ‘noes’ at the other.

I quickly decided ‘no, bird song is not music’. I had in mind that music was humanly organised sound. That was that.

However, in recent days I have thought about the question again and recall reading a book called ‘The Music between Us: is music a universal language?’ [2] in which there is discussion of animal musicality. On further reflection I think the issue might revolve around whether we believe there to be a boundary between the human and the animal. I like a music education that involves thinking about music, whether about how it is made, practised, what it’s for or what it might mean.

One of the small-group discussion points that followed addressed ‘listening and the development of aural imagination’.

To imagine music is to think (bring to mind) what is not present, what is absent but that could be present. This was my starting point.

My suggestion that asking a pupil to imagine the trumpet that was being listened to be heard as a clarinet was a bit too much for other members of my group.

I had thought of this example after hearing from Hertfordshire music teacher Lizzie and about how she gets her pupils to use (perhaps its training) the aural imagination. There they are hovering over a xylophone and yes they can be asked not only to imagine what the sound they are about to make will be like but also asked to think about the sound they are about to make as something quite different to what they know the xylophone is capable of. In playing the xylophone can they, for example, imagining the sound of a flute. All very fanciful you will say.

By the way, can you catch your earworm and manipulate it?

I wondered whether pupils even know that they can imagine music. Could they be taught/trained to imagine music on the way to music lessons?

I was clearly in the wrong group as I later learnt that another group had been talking about audiation and coming much closer to my starting point. It was only a starting point for thinking about aural imagination and I recognise the danger of reducing such a vast and dynamic idea.

It’s good that days like this don’t seek to find answers or even agreement. Just get us thinking, that’s enough.

And remember First Access has a place within a much bigger scheme that is a general music education and where composing music might even have a central place.


[1] See http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/listen-imagine-compose

[2] Higgins, K. (2012) The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? The University of Chicago Press.










Music in the bones and not easily forgotten

I recently visited a local secondary school for a catch up with the music teacher who took me to the staff room where I was introduced to the Head and who was in discussion with a member of staff about learning objectives/intentions and success criteria. I briefly joined in saying that I had never understood the difference between objectives and outcomes. I have found this statement encourages the technically minded to go round in circles with outcomes merely ending up as sub-sets of objectives or easily interchangeable with objectives.

Anyway, now with cups of coffee, my music teacher host found a quiet space for a chat about the new regime in the school and the insistence that teachers show that pupils had properly learnt stuff by checking that they hadn’t forgotten it – a cue for testing whether low-level or high stake.

Music and the other arts in the school were struggling with this, not because they objected to the link between learning and long-term memory, or for that matter assuring that learning and progress were properly monitored. The problem was the assumption that what was being learnt and remembered was knowledge of this and that, facts, disembodied knowledge.

O dear, here we go again!

In the case of music, if you focus on ‘knowing how’ to do this or that; to sing, play, make, invent, improvise, compose, create, listen for detail, sight-sing, ensemble, talk about music etc. and its associated embodied repertoire of music, then remembering is of a different character to what the headteacher has in mind. And progress looks different too. Remembering how to make music well is actually a strange idea, because the know how comes to be in the bones and not easily forgotten.

From another school the music teacher wrote to me telling how:

‘At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 music jam broke out, led by students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash-up various songs that they had studied in big band lessons – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop etc.. [1] There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable.’

If the latest zeitgeist rippling around our schools is the connecting of long-term memory with learning then there we are – a 45 minute recapitulation.

There are of course other kinds of things that will be learnt that do chime with the headteacher’s thinking but it’s getting the order of things right that matters and it is this that music teachers continue to struggle with in this age of measurement.


[1] In this school pupils receive two one hour music lessons each week, one whole class band, the other ‘general’.