Let them make noise

Jonathan Savage encourages us to ‘find time, in what are our undoubtedly busy lives, to read and reflect on the broad literature of music education’. His new book The Guided Reader to Teaching and Learning Music (Routledge 2013) is a collection of what he considers key writers that have inspired his pedagogy, and he rightly points out that the ‘development of a skilful pedagogy is a blend of theory and practice which needs careful integration and constant attention’. Savage’s new book seems an ideal way to aid this integration, with each extract supported by questions and points to consider for the practising teacher.

‘We are musical: it is part of our basic human design’ writes Welch, in the first extract in Chapter One of Savage’s book. Welch goes on to write ‘we do not require formalised music education in order to engage purposefully with music and to exhibit musical behaviours’ and that ‘music is integral to our social and cultural environment’. Welch writes of the importance of pre-birth musical and sound experiences: children grow to know their mother’s voice and even her musical taste before birth. The ‘diversity of pre-school musical experience needs to be understood and addressed when children enter the education system if we are to ensure that each child’s basic musicality is developed to its full potential’. Welch writes that ‘music in school, therefore, is not just a basic human and educational entitlement; it should be sensitively designed to address the diversity of our musical backgrounds, to differentiate our musical needs and to faster individual musical development’. I agree with Welch that ‘school music education will be more successful if it embraces both the plurality of musical cultures within the wider community’ and most importantly that ‘ we are all musical: we just need the opportunity for our musicality to be celebrated and developed. Such is the prime purpose of music education’.

I find it difficult to remember my own early musical experiences. I can recall hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for the first time and how much it made me want to move to the music, particularly the first movement. I can recall my class music teacher giving my a copy of Poulenc’s Flute Sonata and explaining that the double-tonguing in the first movement – if one chooses to use such a technique – required me to ‘blow raspberries in the flute’. I don’t recall anything earlier with any clarity but have seen how much of an impact music has on younger children and babies. They move to music, and research has shown that it is the pace of music rather than particular styles that seems to be most attractive to very young children. Children are noisy, and much of their speech seems to blur with singing and they can move freely between speech and song, and seem to have a preference for higher pitch sounds. Before verbal communication babies makes signs, and noises. Such forms of communication are essential to music making.

It must be rather jarring  for a child to enter school having experience music making in a natural, free way and then be expected to not move or make noise in response to the music they hear. Attending a workshop led by William Westney when I was undertaking an EPTA Piano Pedagogy Course demonstrated the value of responding to music with movement. It really hit home how much our musical education slowly erodes such a natural and free response to musical sound when William expected the adult participants to move to music, and to make gestures connected to the music to other participants in the class, willing them to mimic the gesture. It must be a priority for music educators at the early stages to ensure they build on ‘the natural engagement in music and music education that Welch argues all children naturally engage in’ (Savage) and singing is particularly ideal to do this. Savage suggests considering ‘how can we avoid the mismatch between the emerging musical identities of pupils and the formal curriculum in the early years that may be a problem?’. Avoiding the mismatch between school and home needs music teaching that does not set up a hierarchy of styles – music is music. Placing certain styles above or below others will only result in conflict. Pupils need to feel their musical experiences are respected and acknowledged, then we can connect new experiences to these.

There can be no doubt of the importance of early music experiences. I have had pupils refuse to sing as their first music teacher told then they could not sing. There seems to be a growing divide between those that are ‘musicians’ and those that are not, and this surely comes from the ignorant music teacher that sees such an artificial divide. A real shame, as such comments from music teachers stay with pupils for much of their life. My early musical experiences did shape my current musical life. I was fortunate to have very encouraging teachers that did all they could to stretch my music making and tailor experiences to my abilities and beyond. I remember vividly in a year 9 lesson being encouraged to notate a song for voice and piano, and to explore different inversions of triads and extensions. At GCSE my teacher fed me a never ending supply of pieces to explore that led to a great deal of composing. My music teachers showed me that there are pathways for all to engage in music making – we just need to be inventive enough to find them.

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