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

Preamble

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’

and

‘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.

Notes:

[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’.

Five scenes from the music room

This week I was pleased to discover Jane Parker’s rich description of a scene from the early years. This is scene 1 below. In her blog Jane goes on to analyse what is thought to be going on here – the theory of instruction that lies behind the teacher’s actions. (See Jane’s Blog http://www.teachwire.net/news/ill-hum-it-you-play-it-music-education-in-early-years)

Thus I was prompted to celebrate five scenes from the music room, each showing a music teacher’s advanced music teaching skill. Each teacher has a well-developed theory of instruction.

Scene 1:

The practitioner sits on a chair facing her preschool children who are gathered on the carpet in front of her. She takes out a puppet called ‘Songstar’ and hums the first phrase of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ as she moves Songstar’s mouth. The children excitedly shout out, “Songstar wants to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle!’” She asks the children if they all have their ‘twinkly fingers’ ready. She then sings (on her starting note) “Ready, steady, let’s all sing.”

The children and adults begin singing together, while simultaneously opening and shutting their hands eight times as they quietly sing the words of the first phrase. The song continues, but then the practitioner stops just before the word ‘sky’. She smiles and listens as a few children very quietly sing “sky”.

She joins in again with the rest of the song, but this time stops leading the song at the very end, allowing the children to sing “are”. She then asks the children if they have magic lips like Songstar, and gets them to have a go at miming the first line of the song – only instead of singing, they’ll clap each word so that they’re essentially ‘Clapping the rhythm’. She sings, “Ready, steady, let’s all clap” and leads the children in clapping out the words of the first line, miming the words while at the same time moving the puppet’s hands in a clapping motion.

Scene 2:

We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.

Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.

Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?

We are getting to know each other.

Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.

Scene 3:

They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.

The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.

‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.

Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.

The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.

Scene 4:

Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmitting the musical material.

calmly persisting,
patiently repeating,
incrementally extending,
imperceptibly accumulating,
few words,
key words,
sometimes recoiling,
always advancing.

And as the rhythmic texture enlarges, and as we together master the rules of engagement, we seek our own solutions to the skills-challenge equation and find flow and fluency.

In the ongoing interplay between Katy and the group the locus of control is passed back and forth. Yes, there are times of impersonal learning where the acquisition of content and skills dominate but then times of personal learning as each gains control, self-regulates, gains agency, no longer shaped by the teacher, but shaping self.

The highlight of the Samba workshop comes when there are sectional breaks and when the side-drumming quartet fizz with virtuosity. I think we are by now all feeling a bit virtuous.

Scene 5:

Now it’s back to reggae which started last week and ‘Three Little Birds’. First, instrumental warm up time, then some rhythmic and pitch calling and copying, including that clave rhythm and of course lots of reggae rhythms and melodic twists. Into sectionals with pupils mostly directing each other in their making and playing, and sometimes teacher directed assisting movement into a self-sustainable groove. Lilian is having a whale of a time on keyboard. There is a powerful rhythmic reggae idiomatic feel to her playing and making, and she is vocalizing at the same time. Amarose on drum kit is quickly into the groove and like others, once in the groove, and as a consequence of repetition, new material is made. Tshian asks me how to play A on her trumpet and we have a short discussion about pitch and embouchure. Perhaps unsurprisingly the keyboard, bass guitar, drum section get well-grooved first and ready to welcome back the rest who with some ease join the music. We have ten minutes of whole class playing with the teacher leading the ensemble round a circuit of possible structural combinations without a break.

Luke and his pipe dreams

Soundcastle is a musical social enterprise sparking imaginations, expanding horizons in musical leadership and much more. [1]

I was pleased to accept Soundcastle’s invitation to The Centre, Merchants Street in East London to take part in the Friday after school session of Musical Beacons. [2]

I had previously observed Soundcastle’s work with Southwark’s Saturday morning Creative Orchestra. [3] There I saw the very model of a facilitating environment, something that Soundcastle’s practitioners have great expertise in creating and sustaining.

The Musical Beacon’s programme is family and community orientated serving those living within a radius of 0.3 miles of The Centre. It is the idea of ‘community connectedness’ that underpins the weekly family workshops.

Music is the connector.

3.30 comes and parents and children drift into the welcoming informal atmosphere of the generous space where we will be musical beacons. There are babies in arms and all ages up to eight.

It is only when we all feel ‘at home’ that the music making can begin.

We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.

Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo * who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.

Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?

We are getting to know each other.

Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.

Off now into three groups and I am in the group led by Lauren who provides a perpetual mobile balafon support for the musical inventions that follow. The adults respond immediately as a musical narrative is built through Lauren’s skilful process of elicitation with the children watching from the safety of their parent’s arms while being drawn closer to making their first musical imprints on the work in hand.

Luke is in a shall I – shant I state of being. Before him lies the Pipe Dreams [4], an instrument new to me, and there inviting Luke to play.

He watches other children as they venture forth picking up their beaters to make their musical mark on the ensemble. Then Luke picks up his beater but for the moment that is all as he retreats to mother. Then again and his first musical gesture, and little by little, more and more, until a flow of sounds come forth that find synchrony with Lauren’s music.

Oh what a mystery is the child’s mind that we can never know except by responding to their responses, being ever more attentive and becoming attuned to the cause of authenticating musical dialogue.

Then groups come together for each to show. Luke is in fine form.

Now we all move to a corner to sing under the leadership of Fernando and his guitar. There is deep enchantment as Fernando makes beautifully gentle sounds and tells about his magical instrument. Then a reggae song and a voice calls ‘I love reggae’. Its ‘Three Little Birds’ and we sing our way to the end of the session.

There are Musical Beacon’s Diaries to complete and for the older children there is time to work at their Arts Award.

Musical Beacons is a safe place to be, where music does the connecting, where the connecting makes the music and where Luke knows about pipe dreams.

 

* Children’s names are made up.

 

Notes:

[1] See http://soundcastle.co.uk/about/

[2] The Musical Beacons project is supported by Youth Music and using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts council England.

[3] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1362&action=edit

[4] See http://www.chimes.com/p-284-soloist-pipedream-with-bonus-cd.aspx

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pipe-dream.html

And what about this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyCIpKAIFyo

And for the origin of the term ‘pipe dream’ see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pipe-dream.html

Curiosity and the playful music teacher

They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.

The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.

‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.

Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.

The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.

In the minds of the pupils live the drummer boy and his fate and the musical ideas and feelings that in some sense are now theirs as well as Mahler’s. The pupils remain curious, continually asking questions of their teacher and each other.

  1. Why do teachers ask questions?
  2. Why are children expected to compose music without first experiencing a felt provocation to do so?
  3. Do such provocations lead to composing music that has stronger character and thicker meanings?
  4. Why does much music education have so little human interest?
  5. Why do music teachers teach musical skills without rich content?

Critical intent

My recent blogs have been about teaching music.

By working through thick descriptions of music lessons I have so far proposed four dimensions of music teaching that might help in the observation, interpretation, analysis and valuing of music teaching.

Remember, my starting point was the ‘good enough’ music lesson avoiding the labels that have dominated the evaluation of music teaching in recent times.

Today I add a fifth dimension supported by descriptions of two lessons.

Each dimension is expressed as a disposition, a tendency towards a way of thinking and acting.

Five dimensions of music teaching

1. Ethical commitment

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

 2. Cultural mediation

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

3. Thinking bodies

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

4. Facilitation

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

5. Critical intention

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

Two lesson descriptions that show an emphasis on ‘critical intention’

No colour coding this week leaving the reader to make their own interpretation and analysis. Accepting that the fifth dimension is strong in these two cases, it might be interesting to think about how this dimension relates to the other dimensions.

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

I did not observe this teaching but the teacher writes:

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

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

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

2. Who wants to start the conversation?

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

And so now the question from the teacher:

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

The first question is directed to the teacher:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pupil:  ‘Boy, its loud and dramatic.’

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher links these responses to earlier pupil questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Creative Orchestra

In last week’s blog I highlighted three analytical categories that might assist in understanding the ‘good enough’ music lesson described.

These can be thought of as dimensions of pedagogy. This week I add a fourth, facilitation, through another thick description of a music lesson better described as a musical workshop.

The four dimensions:

  1. Ethical commitment (EC)

The ethical dispositions that nurture the pupil-teacher relationship and that make teaching possible.

  1. Cultural mediation (CM)

The transmission of cultural knowledge through the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

  1. Body-mind engrossment (BME)

Music-making as a form of embodiment – that to know music is to perceive through the body as mind.

  1. Facilitation (F)

 Enabling the expression of musical thought.

In the description that follows the teacher as facilitator (F) comes to the fore while teacher as cultural mediator (CM) takes a step back.

So, is the distinction between F and CM useful?

Does it help to mediate in the content (what is taught) – approach debate?

How does it relate to the ‘why’ of music education, the ‘what for’ of music education?

(On the ‘what for’ see for example:

https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/what-is-music-education-for-in-the-age-of)

Next week a fifth dimension.

Meet the Creative Orchestra

‘Mid-day Saturday and 23 young people aged 8-13 have come to make music together in the large hall come gymnasium.

Chairs are being set out in a circle. It is the centre’s Creative Orchestra. There are violins, saxophones, clarinets, pianists, percussionists in equal numbers; harpist, bass guitarist, acoustic guitarist, cellist, trombonist and flautist. And a workshop leader (F) who I sense will be a quiet presence with a clear voice of authority and who knows a lot about attunement (F).

Still encumbered with bags and not all instruments are ready. A quiet word to move bags to their place and we are into a round the circle warm up, ‘remember to keep it flowing’: the leader sets the round in motion with a simple four beat rhythm clapped (F), class copy then the first solo from Peace, all copy and so on yielding 23 rhythmic ideas, ever more intricate and calling for ever more attentive listening (F).

And that’s how the session moves forward – everybody learning to listen, having ideas, making suggestions, having thoughts; everybody with a part to play in what is made together today with the leader ready to offer stimuli (F & CM), and who leads how I had imagined, gently attentive to fresh thinking (F), new possibilities. The stylistic generator is a group of Samba grooves (CM)

good_picture

And then there is a counterpointing pentatonic melodic framework set out in the centre of the circle; D E G A B represented by five spaced objects (CM).

E has a big box, for E is to be our tonal centre. The class are shown how by stepping between the tones the melody is made and how a repertoire of signals calling for variation in durations and dynamics can be used (CM & F). And before long the class are rehearsing how to make notes really short, notes that grow louder and then as players volunteer to lead, so more possibilites emerge to be thought about (F).

Any suggestions, thought, ideas’, asks the leader (F). Some suggestions come fully formed, some convoluted, some tongue-tied inviting others to articulate more clearly before reaching their final form in the music. What a long way words can be from music.

An important part of the process is the assembling of the material (F) into a work in progress that we can all be inside for a few minutes. Then more thoughts, ideas, suggestions (F).

The class are relaxed about all this. They are learning to be still, thoughtful, circumspect, wondering, some just being, barely becoming so it seems. The harpist seems happy enough to be there with her harp. Time is not rushing on. There is none of that ‘fast pacey please the inspector stuff’ here, rather staying with the moment, indwelling the music (F). Rapid progress is a stranger here, slow learning a virtue (F).

Ibrahim take a lead and tells us that we can think of the music as being like a journey (F). Ideas are flowing faster now with contributions from Peace, Oscar, Neoma, Jo and Jessie. More leaders in turn take centre stage and confirm this way of working (F), expand tonal and rhythmic possibilities calling for music made with intention as well as deliberation (F).

The rhythm section is strong, rarely lose their grove. Frederick takes time out to teach Joe how his cabassa part should go (CM) and this is in the middle of a six minute playing.

Now Oscar suggests combining four ideas to add to the advancing sophistication of what is not actually a piece of music, rather a series of sketches that might become a piece (F).

The leader, for the first time mindful of the time, for there is a time to end the session, says, ‘seven minutes to go’ and Oscar leads the final excursion.

‘It’s a journey to an unexpected island’, says Naomi.

We are now well into the afternoon on this dull Saturday in June, it’s time to go home. Chairs away. With repose and a simple satisfaction, so it seems, the children go their way.

I wonder what will happen when the choir join the orchestra next week?’

Why so few descriptions of music lessons?

Why so few – I mean so few thick descriptions rich enough for the reader to feel they are there, smelling the carpet, sensing the ebb and flow of relationships and interactions, getting the climate of this particular classroom? Is the only place to find these in fictional literature, in D.H. Lawrence, in James Joyce?

Well here’s one seen through my eyes, knowing what I know and interested in what interests me as well as others I hope. While there is an ever increasing amount of on-line video material showing classroom episodes, much of this comes without context, analytical comment or interpretation that might lead to meta-analysis and the discerning of principles. I hope the reader will be able to enter this classroom with me through my description and interpretation of what I see and hear. You will meet the phrase ‘a myriad of subtleties impossible to describe’.

Ok, video has a place. I leave it to the reader to discern my bias, my interests.

‘The music department is at the far end of the school, by the playing field where sea gulls come. Perhaps they are no longer sea gulls. We are quite a way from the sea and they were there last time I came. Some things don’t change but there is big change in the music room. The tables that had grouped pupils into ready-made ensembles have moved to the sides and now supporting paired keyboard work when deployed in what is a re-designed curriculum.

This is a 12.00 to 1.00 lesson for this year 8 class, their last year of musical entitlement in this school. Twenty eight smartly uniformed pupils enter to the recorded sound of Senegalese Drumming and quietly follow well-practised protocols of bags down, coats off, planners out, chairs round ready to music. Fourteen djembe sit waiting in the centre of the room. Somebody wants to know about the djembe with a slit standing by the piano. The teacher explains. Then a, ‘lads, come on’ to two boys not yet with chairs round. Djembe are gathered to be shared in pairs and then the three techniques learnt in the last lesson, ‘bass-tone-slap’, revised with the teacher leading from the front as virtuoso master drummer.

Pupils in their pairs are labelled ‘right’ and ‘left’ and it is ‘rights’ who play first with plenty for ‘lefts’ to be imaging and imagining as they look, listening and move inwardly and sometimes outwardly too. What follows is quick fire call and response work deploying mnemonics. There is a ‘you are very nice – thank you very much’ x 3 and so on building a structure that calls for and gets body-mind engrossment from the class. There is lots of repetition, recursion, hard-nosed rehearsing and a particular focus on the ‘bedap’ effect. ‘Again-again-look-listen-let’s try it … knees-side thighs … is it together … better… listen … is it together? Can you feel it in your back?’ Now the ‘bass’ technique is worked on. ‘Look, it’s a cricketer’s bowling action’ and the teacher shows how the whole thing is a dance of the body despite being seated, a swaying forward, a side movement and a myriad of subtleties impossible to describe.

And then the call to Daniel to remember to keep the mouth of the djembe open i.e. the djembe leans forward for it to speak. The teacher draws the class into a perpetually mobile discourse of music, imagery and metaphor. This is ‘rapid progress’, pacey stuff. Now it’s ‘lefts’ to play but not before ‘rights’ have written an assessment of their progress on their postcards given on entry to the classroom. At the completion of the ‘rights’ playing comes a gentle complaint about ‘lefts’ having more time than ‘rights’. The teacher-pupil friendly banter moves things on.

The ethic of care being engendered is palpable as the teacher exhorts in words and music how this music can be ‘immense’. Now step 2 of the lesson, making things harder by upping the tempo. The quality of movement is again emphasised as the teacher dances with the djembe. Jan comments that he had noticed how the register had been marked and how the teacher had moved rhythmically back and forth as a call and response – with ‘name-here’, ‘name-here’ …

The teacher shares with the class her bad school-wide reputation for failing to mark the register and how the email notifying failure is made public through the staff email. A short discussion follows about more efficient ways of registering pupils. Pupils are not short of ideas. A very short interlude and back to a concern for ensemble, for fluency and for the music to be felt. And now the structure is extended and the vocals learnt last week added.

The teacher apologises for not knowing what the words mean but the important thing is that we know this is a welcome song. Final performance and much satisfaction. Seven minutes to 1.00 and djembe to centre of the room. Time for reflection and the class are asked to write a ‘Dear …’ postcard to the teacher telling what had been gained from the lesson today. ‘Not a ‘’I liked the lesson’’, at least three sentences, a proper postcard message please. I will read them all and keep them for ever. And this will help me to organise groups for next week when you will be making your own pieces.’ The teacher collects the postcards with a smile of approval for each pupil. 1.00 and lunch-time. The teacher goes into virtuoso drummer mode asking the class to move in time as they leave. They do and they don’t. The teacher is alive and well and another ‘good-enough music lesson’.’