Singing for continuity and progression in year 7


Most year 7 music classes comprise children from many different primary schools. One thing these children have in common is that their music education to date will have featured singing.

But not all children transferring to secondary school at age 11 enjoy singing and children considered vocally able by their primary school teachers may not be vocally self-efficacious. [1] Many children remain ambivalent, unsure, and particularly so as a new life stage is embarked upon in a new place surrounded by new people and in a classroom where ‘the rules of the game’ may be far from transparent.

But I suspect there will be much singing in year 7 classes at this time as teachers recognise this most obvious point of continuity and progression. And, no doubt,  there will be the aim that all pupils will come to feel positive about their singing voices, or as some say, ‘find their voice’.

An interesting case

It was just this that the music teacher in the case I will report on here had in mind. The teacher embarked upon a programme of action research to see if one year 7 class could gain mastery of their singing voice and come to view their voices in a positive way. It was thought that this might achieve a sense of musical achievement shared by all.

At first lessons activities were devised by the teacher and subsequently in response to the ongoing dialogue created between pupils and teacher. Data was collected through teacher diary, recordings of whole class and group vocal work, postcard communications, focus group discussions and written questionnaire.

The research was set in motion with whole class singing of ‘Believe’ by Lin Marsh and as part of the lesson the class were introduced to a series of warm up games and activities designed to help vocal development. The lesson marked the beginning of a series of pupil consultations about how the pupils thought about their voices and the way they were learning.

On a postcard each pupil was invited to respond to any or all of ‘tell me how you feel about your voice, did you like the song? What did you think of warming up your voice before starting to learn the song? What singing experiences have you had already?

Thus a pupil-teacher dialogue had been opened up. The private teacher-pupil line of communication was valued by pupils.

Lesson by lesson the teacher responded to the pupils’ thoughts and suggestions.  At first these related to the conditions of learning. for example, arrangements for sitting, standing and configuration of chairs. From here the dialogue moved to repertoire and ways of learning.

Each lesson began with the teacher telling the class how their ideas were being incorporated into the lesson serving to reinforce the validity of their comments and as a way of authenticating ‘the pupil voice’.

As the singing class progressed so a variety of formats was agreed and reflected upon: group work with pupil choice of material working with backing tracks and without; peer teaching; teacher coaching on vocal technique and all leading to pupils singing voluntarily and with ease, coming to know and accepting each other’s voices in a climate of trust and security.

The teacher writes:

‘As their vocal skills developed pupils exercised greater informed choice about the best approach to learning. They came to realise that working in smaller group settings allowed for more individualised selection of singing repertoire and greater scope for individual voices to claim a space of their own. Pupils who requested to work in ever smaller groups reasoned that this would allow them greater attention from the teacher and would also enable them to better self-assess their singing progress as it would be easier to distinguish their own voice from others.’ [2]

An important role for the teacher was to help pupils understand the ways in which their voices were changing, how these changes could be managed and how to gain greater control over them. The teacher helped pupils to better understand audiational processes, the ways in which they could manipulate sounds in mind, how they could extend auditory memory and comprehend a sequence of musical ideas. All of which we might say is the transmission of ‘powerful knowledge’.

Over a term pupils and teacher had reached a point where the curriculum could be negotiated and where pupils understood that while their ideas were important and respected, their teacher ‘knew good things’ and ‘good places to go’ – ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’, for example.

For now at least the teacher had ample evidence of positive attitudes and improved vocal self-efficacy.

For children moving to new situations, meeting new teachers there is often the mystery of ‘what count as success’? The ‘rules of the game’ are not always clear. In this case the pupils had negotiated and constructed ‘the rules of the game’. The pedagogy was visible to all.

The teacher concludes:

‘The challenge of creating a ‘negotiated curriculum’ demands the sharing of power between teacher and pupil, a mutual respect and understanding of objectives. Becoming a negotiator is at the heart of how I intend to develop and explore my teaching in the future.’ [3]

Action research is designed to bring about change through systematic evaluation and review of intervention strategies. It aims ‘to arrive at recommendations for good practice that will tackle a problem or enhance the performance of the organisation and individuals through changes to the rules and procedures within which they operate’. [4]

This teacher started out aiming to create positive attitudes to singing. In the event a new way of being a music teacher was discovered and how through genuine dialogue all kinds of things became possible.


[1] See Baskaran, R. (2013) Children’s Enjoyment of Singing in a Primary School, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education, Bloomsbury.

[2] Man, E. (2013) Developing Positive Attitudes towards Singing in Year 7 through Dialogue and Negotiation, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education. Bloomsbury, p. 122.

[3] Ibid, p.124.

[4] Denscombe, M. (2002) Ground Rules for Social Research: A Ten Point Guide for Social Researchers. Open University Press.

Music teachers becoming research savvy

Have you heard? Music teachers need to become research savvy. This will help in spotting those snake oil salesmen with their seductive lures: learning styles, brain gym, how music cures toothache, the transforming properties of this and that and other compelling ideas. And are you being inducted into growth mind-set theory? Has it reached your school yet? Teachers beware!

This is the message coming thick and fast as part of a movement seeking to empower teachers. For example, see

There is a growing conviction that teaching should be informed by robust evidence (research-informed) rather than whims, trends and quick fixes. At the same time there is talk of in-school research cultures and of ‘research rich schools’.

Thus, the teacher is encouraged to become both a consumer and a producer of research, that is, become research savvy. [1]

In the blog I gave an example of a music teacher doing this.

Whether we call this research or critical enquiry a systematic approach is required.

Here is one view of what this might mean. [2]

Step 1: A particular problem is identified.

Step 2: The problem is made explicit by placing it in a wider context drawing on existing knowledge.

Step 3: The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

Step 4: Both methodology and methods are made clear.

Step 5: Findings are presented and discussed with self-critique.

Step 6: New knowledge (theory) has been created and can be shared with others.

With this in mind here is a taste of another music teacher researching. No, not action research, but case study seeking to understand rather than seeking to change or improve. [3]

Emily teaches a year 7 class for both Music and Dance. Samba Band features as a project in years 7, 8 and 9. By year 9 Samba has become an eclectic mix of stylistic groves. But how to make a good start in year 7?

I start from step 3. The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

1 To what extent does dancing to Samba music support the internalization of Samba rhythms, leading to improved Samba performance? [4]

2 Are students able to find flow as a result of improved Samba playing? [5]

Step 4: A case study methodology is established along with methods of data collection. Data is collected throughout the term’s work from a variety of sources.

Audio/video recording

Semi-structured interview

Quick questionnaire

Periodic focus group

Teacher diary

Extended questionnaire

Here is an extract from Emily’s report as she discusses findings in response to question 1.

‘Lesson 4 was the first chance to evaluate whether the dance lesson produced any outworking during the week, and whether the process of internalization had begun. This was the music lesson after their first dance lesson. I asked the students the following questions at the beginning of the lesson:

  1. Who has been chanting samba rhythms at any point during the past week? (27/30)
  2. Who has tapped out samba rhythms at any point during the past week? (28/30)
  3. Who has moved their body to an imaginary samba beat? (25/5)
  4. Who has stood up to dance an imaginary samba beat? (13/17)’

Just one example of data forming part of a much larger set.

Emily concludes her report with a proposition.

‘The dance or movement develops a freedom of body consciousness, which supports the process of internalization, which develops the knowing body and moving mind, which, taking into account the improved accuracy that internalization has given rise to, leads to flow experience’.

This is a reasonable proposition, not only because Emily has been systematic about her research but also because her research questions were derived from examining existing knowledge which provided a framework for the study. [6]

Emily’s proposition or, if you prefer, her theory, or, if you like, her hypothesis, is waiting to be tested, disputed, argued about.

Is it reasonable to say that Emily’s teaching is informed by evidence?

By the way, what’s your theory?


[1] The TES has recently included a column for teachers to report their research.

Perhaps a useful piece of scepticism would be to question ‘what am I being asked to sign up to?’

[2] This is based on the model provided by Keith Swanwick. See Swanwick, K. (1984) Some observations on research in music education. BJME, 1 (3), 195-204. It would be interesting to hear about alternative ways of defining research.

[3] This may seem strange when the discourse of ‘improvement’ has never been stronger. Change and improvement may well be further down the line in respect to case study research.

[4] In respect to dance and movement Emily defers to Anthony Kemp citing: ‘Through dance children are given the means to internalize and conceptualise in terms of pulse, tempo, accent, rhythm, dynamics, texture, form and phrasing. Through kinaesthetic processes children become perceptually aware of these aspects through feelingful neuro-musicular sensations, which become the basis for future conceptual thought and imagination.’ Kemp, A. (1986) Current developments in Music Curriculum Thinking in the United Kingdom. Paper presented at the 4th Baghdad International Music Conference, Bagdad.

[5] See for the ‘flow’ concept.

[6] For a full account of Emily’s work see her article in the Music Mark Magazine Issue 4, Spring 2014 ‘The dance becomes the music.’

No, this is not scientific – just trying to improve my teaching

‘A composing conundrum’ was the title of Liz Glead’s blog last week. [1] It rang a familiar bell and connected with Ellie’s research (see last week’s blog below). And now Kate ‘On Developing Compositional Capabilities’. [2] Yes, another example of a music teacher researching their own practice. One of Kate’s intentions was ‘to resolve, in some measure, the persistent problems that blight GCSE composition in the context of a year 10 class.’

Kate set out to test ‘the capability approach’ through three cycles of action research. [3]

While we often speak of musical abilities, aptitudes, achievements, attainments and potentials, rarely do we speak of musical capabilities. Put in its plainest form, capabilities are the opportunities open to a person. [4] So, what composing opportunities do year 10 students identify? Starting from here opens up a fresh way for stduents to see their development as composers. It has a positive trajectory.

In Kate’s case students raised fifty-two capabilities e.g ‘have a long period to compose in’; ‘share work with others’; ‘feel good about composing’; ‘be individual or unique when composing’; ‘have freedom to just play around with ideas’; ‘continue composing after completing GCSE’… These fifty-two capabilities formed the basis of Kate’s composition teaching through year 10 and this involved continual re-evaluation of capabilities as the students’ composing progressed. [5]

Kate’s study met the six principles I previously set out as qualifying teacher enquiry to be thought of as research. Was it scientific? No.

While much educational research aspires to meet the conditions of science in order to achieve knowledge that is thought to be objective, reliable and verifiable, much doesn’t work like this. It works from a different set of assumptions. In the case of Ellie and Kate’s research the assumption is that in researching their own practice, their own classroom, there is no attempt to find some general truth about teaching, in this case composing at GCSE, as if this could done.

Instead there is an attempt to understand better their own teaching and to improve it, in this case improved teaching of composing for the benefit of their students. The teacher’s subjectivity is recognised and steps are taken to reduce this and to find some objective distance through the way data/evidence is collected and analysed.

While Ellie and Kate are unable to generalise their findings, they are able to offer theoretical ideas that support approaches to teaching composing for others to consider. They are able to make recommendations to their respective departments and schools as well as others more widely. In these cases teacher professionalism has been strengthened. Ellie and Kate are better equipped to evaluate the research findings of others and especially those presented to them within their schools. All this is part of their continual development as teacher-researchers and their increased standing as professionals.


[1] See
[2] Masters thesis 2014.
[3] The first cycle was evaluative, the second and third based on continual reflection and adaption.
[4] See Biggeri, M., Ballet, J. & Comin, F. (eds.) (2011). Children and the Capability Approach. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Capability theory is ultimately concerned with human flourishing and well-being. Composition capability=compositional well-being.
[5] This approach exemplifies a systematic application of student voice.

Might we go beyond the comfort of chat?

In last week’s blog I worked with the case of music teacher Ellie to illustrate how teacher research starts from the teacher identifying a problem they encounter on a daily basis. I showed how through a systematic approach (six principles) Ellie’s enquiry claims the status of research. Ellie goes beyond simply describing novel practice or reporting strategies which work. Ellie’s is a critical enquiry drawing upon research knowledge and producing new knowledge of professional significance.

In concluding her research report Ellie writes:

‘The starting point of this research project – Rachel’s ‘’Miss, I hate composition’’ – is still a factor in composition lessons … I am starting to notice, however, a subtle change. In addition to compositions showing greater diversity and the changed nature of our conversations about composing, I am coming to realize that self-efficacy [1] and enjoyment are not as closely linked as I might have assumed. Improved self-efficacy may be the first step towards enjoyment.’ [2]

Here Ellie raises a fresh question and challenges a popular assumption and, engaged in educational discourse, becomes ever more articulate.

This week I tweeted to draw the attention of music teachers to the blog of English teacher Andy Tharby. [3] I was struck not only by the elegance of Andy’s writing but also by the way pedagogical knowledge was being articulated. Here is a teacher-researcher able to analyze and describe classroom interactions in fine detail.

It struck me that here was perhaps something for music teachers to aspire to. Might we go beyond the comfort of ‘chat’, the habit of describing, both of course important?


[1] Ellie draws on Bandura’s 1994 definition of self-efficacy as ‘people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives…the conviction that one can successfully execute the behaviour required to produce the outcome’.

[2] ‘Creating composers: An exploration of the teachers’ role in GCSE composition.’ University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, page 82. (2013)

[3] See

‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition …’

‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition – I’m rubbish at it. Why do we even have to do it?’’ said Rachel, during a year 10 composition lesson. Unfortunately, Rachel was not expressing an exceptional or unusual opinion. [1]

Teacher research starts with the teacher identifying a problem.

In this case Ellie was intrigued by the fact that although her GCSE class showed negative self-perceptions in respect to their composing capability, they were actually good composers.

PRINCIPLE 1: A particular problem is identified.

I will use the example of Ellie’s research to illustrate what might count as valid teacher research bearing in mind that teachers are in any case likely to be continually reflecting on their practice and changing it in the light of experience. But what counts as teacher research?

Ellie had identified a problem of professional significance to her practice affecting her students and herself in her situation together with them. Ellie writes:

‘The fundamental aim of this research project is to develop a better understanding of how I can cater to the needs of a GCSE Music class that is made up of different types of musician when teaching them to compose.’ [2]

This involved Ellie examining the notions of formal and informal music learning and the categories of formal and informal musician. This was important as in Ellie’s GCSE class, and from her relative inexperience as a teacher, there existed a clear distinction between these types each with a very distinct attitude towards composing.

Further to this, Ellie needed to stand back and review the place of composing in the curriculum. Why was it there? What was it for? How is it taught, how is it learnt? And why is it that experienced musician-teachers find it a challenging area to manage?

PRINCIPLE 2: The problem is made explicit by placing it in a wider context drawing on existing knowledge.

This enabled Ellie to pose three research questions:

1. To what extent am I able to facilitate my pupils’ access to composition tasks using skills that they already possess?
2. How can I enable my pupils to recognise the validity of their music ideas and to feel capable of composing?
3. To what extent can I help my pupils to develop and improve their compositional ideas without restricting their creativity?

PRINCIPLE 3: The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

Ellie now makes clear that these questions can be answered best through an action research approach and makes a research plan. This involves planning a series of lessons comprising the first cycle of research. These lessons marked a departure from Ellie’s usual practice while the second cycle that followed resembled her normal way of working.

For each of the research questions Ellie identified sources of data which included questionnaires, group interviews, teacher observations and the assessment of pupils’ work. Thought was given to how the data would be analysed.

PRINCIPLE 4: Both methodology and methods are made clear.

In due course Ellie presents her findings by addressing each research question in turn and sets out the themes or issues that have emerged. These now inform her future practice but not before some reflection.

PRINCIPLE 5: Findings are presented and discussed with self-critique.

Teacher and pupils experience change. The teacher has developed professionally and the problem identified has been to some extent resolved.

Ellie is able to make a model showing how informal and formal musicians progress differently through a composition task before making recommendations that other teachers might consider, that is, if they see in this research similarities to their own situation. Others generalise and test relevance in their situations.

PRINCIPLE 6: New knowledge (theory) has been created and can be shared with others.

This knowledge is reasonably grounded.

Ellie now better understands her role in creating composers and better equipped to spot those snake-oil salesmen.


[1] ‘Creating composers: An exploration of the teacher’s role in GCSE composition.’ Univerity of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, 2013, page 1.
[2] Ibid. page 5.

Time to see off the snake-oil salesmen

There is currently much interest in the need for educational research to inform teacher’s practice. School reform minister Nick Gibb says that teachers would be ‘liberated’ from the ‘shackles they have laboured under for too long’ once they had access to evidence-based research. [1]

Teachers are being encouraged to challenge the snake-oil salesmen handing down what is pseudoscience – brain gym, stuff about learning styles, for example.

Brain gym seems to have been particularly popular in primary schools. Good fun no doubt, energizing, no harm done, except in thinking that there was a basis for the claims it was making.

A vast army of educational consultants has grown up around the desire from schools to become in some sense more theorized, more professionally creditable. This in turn calls for senior leaders to take on the mantle of expert as purveyors of quasi-theoretical knowledge that can be handed down and then surveyed, managed and inspected as key to whole school improvement.

Thus, the frequent disenchantment of music teachers with in-school professional development and the joy in finding their own on-line communities. Then what?

What about music teachers becoming researchers?

But what does this involve and what criteria need to be met in order to count as research?

More next week with some examples.


[1] ‘Pseudoscience has nested in schools’, TES 12.09.14 (p. 10-11)

In praise of systematic enquiry

This week I had the privilege of reading the doctoral submission of Leslie Linton of the University of Western Ontario. The title: Interpretive Reproduction and informal Learning in the Grade One Classroom. [1] Perhaps it will be available as a book in due course. Leslie has provided a summary version in the Winter issue of the Music Mark Magazine. [2]

Leslie worked for six months mostly as a non-participant observer alongside a class music teacher developing an informal pedagogy, which brought together the research findings of Lucy Green [3] and Kathy Marsh [4]. Leslie’s was a planned informal learning. (‘In at the Deep End’ just didn’t work!)

Leslie designed three units of work, each having its own set of informal learning principles.

Unit 1 Listening and copying vocally
Unit 2 Playing familiar melodies by ear
Unit 3 Listening and copying vocally and harmonically

The research was carried out in the context of Canada’s adherence to Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze concepts, methods and principles, chiefly Kodaly. These ways of working are well established in North America and fit well with the curriculum goals set out by the province, in this case Ontario. [5]

Leslie’s approach disrupted the teacher-led, sequentially prescribed curriculum and adherence to a Kodaly approach. [6]

Underpinning the planned informal learning approach was the recognition that the childrens’ musical experience beyond the school (their musical enculturation) was vast and it was through YouTube clips, for example, that the children learnt to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy so well in tune. This was a revelation to their class teacher.

What became clear was that the established school music programme underestimated the pupils’ capabilities. This was chiefly the result of disregarding the pupils’ well-developed processes of musical enculturation.

The step-by-step approach (simple to complex) offered by ‘Kodaly’ showed no appreciation of the pupils’ capacity to work with what were complex rhythmic and melodic musical materials in their own musical lives, their immediate social heritage. In this respect the formal curriculum was regressive and oppressive.

In becoming agents of their own musical education with the teacher as partner in this, these pupils were developing understanding of what learning music and becoming a musician involved. The data arising in response to Leslie’s third research question: How do Grade One students describe their experiences with informal learning? showed the emergence of what Lucy Green refers to as ‘critical musicality’ or what others more generally identify with critical pedagogy.

In all this there is a way of thinking about childhood, not as a state of immaturity where the child is moved step-by-step up a ladder but as abounding with agency and social maturity.

In recent weeks I have written blogs on learning to think critically about music as it works in tandem with learning to think in sound. There is no doubt that these children were doing both in abundance and out-striping curriculum expectations.

Leslie’s research, of which only a taste has been given here, raises important questions about our conceptions of childhood and how we think children learn and develop, and for what purpose. More research like that reported here is urgently needed if we are to better understand and develop planned informal pedagogies in music. At the moment practice is running ahead theory. While this is exciting it may be counterproductive.


[1] Grade 1 equates with Year 2 in England i.e. 6-7 year olds.
[2] Linton, L. (2014) Informal music learning in the Year 2 classroom. Music Mark Magazine, Issue 3, pp. 22-28. Included in this publication are video reflections from the class teacher.
[3] Green, L. (2008) Music, informal learning and the school: A new classroom pedagogy. London: Ashgate.
[4] Marsh, K. (2008) The musical playground. London: Oxford University Press.
[5] North American music educators appear to be less eclectic in forming pedagogy than is the case in England.
[6] Both Leslie and the class teacher were trained in the Kodaly concept.