Keep being taught to learn

“Musical Futures is a global movement that transforms, engages and inspires people through making music that is meaningful to them; the festival builds on its aims to create exciting, innovative, tried-and-tested learning methods and approaches which are based on the way self-taught musicians learn. Dedicated to providing hands-on training and resources, the Music Learning Revolution will help teachers and those working with young people or adults deliver inclusive and inspirational music learning activities.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Guildhall School of Music and Drama Creative Music Leadership weeks in 2005 and 2008; we explored pedagogical approaches through doing and it has remained an important tool in my approaches as a teacher ever since. But it can only be one of many approaches. I’ve quoted the abstract from the forthcoming Musical Futures conference above. I see the Music teachers’ job to be the same thing but with a different emphasis – it is my job to transform, engage and inspire pupils through making *any* music [I feel will develop them as a musician] *meaningful* to them. I make whatever music I need to explore with them meaningful. It can’t always be student voice. I’m not sure when student voice become such an imperative in Music education. When did the experience, knowledge and outlook of Music educators become so invalid? I appreciate some teachers have had battles in their classrooms – attempting to present curriculums that they perhaps have little belief in (or passion for) and of course the outcome would be poor progress as collectively between teacher and pupil there is little interest in, for example, Western Art Music. I understand that. It is difficult to present on something you feel little intrigue for, but when music is in our bodies – a musical rhetoric we’ve used, performed, written about and written in – we have a very different experience to share as teachers that few can avoid from being inspired by.

Education is more than learning. It needs to be more than fun. It needs to be driven by those with a bigger picture and the necessary tools to facilitate that success for everyone. Reading a report that “67% of pupils learnt from the experience” doesn’t fill me with excitement for a pedagogical approach. It worries me that such a percentage is being used to suggest success. Is it successful when 33% of a class feel something made no difference to their understanding of a musical concept? Is it not our duty to ensure 100% of pupils leave the class that day transformed *to some degree*. In a class of 30, 33% would be 10. 10 pupils not seeing the point in something. Is that success? Teaching and Learning need to be companions rather than one being subservient, or a consequence of the other.

With a move towards to so many approaches reliant on technology I do wonder what happens when all the power goes off; the network is down; the internet stops working. What then? At a conference earlier this year nearly every speaker at issues with their IT. What happened to teaching without plug sockets? A delegate left the conference complaining quite audibly to one of the organisers: “how ironic that all these speakers are extolling the importance of ICT yet none of their gear worked”.

I had a go at the Steve Reich Clapping Music App. Interesting. I felt a little sad that all those lessons I did with Year 8 learning Clapping Music – that determination that we would get to the end, keeping up with each other and the group that was the clapper who moved sequentially out of sync would be precise and accurate – replaced by individuals tapping an iPhone screen. I hope such apps do not encourage teachers to avoid live musical experiences of such repertoire.

As much as Western Art Music is pushed to the peripheries there is still a vast body of young people engaged in Youth Orchestras, chamber music, choirs that celebrate and have a genuine love for this music. I feel it is far from the peripheries and I hope it remains something more than a fringe interest. I do worry about the weakness that must be there in instrumental teaching. The more lessons I’ve had the more I realise not enough credit is given to the expertise required to be an exceptional instrumental teacher. It is more than a grade 8 exam. It is significant study of one’s own skills, technique and practice that prepare us for teaching. A singing colleague mentioned how it was only by going through her vocal problems – a long and challenging process – that she learned how to be an effective teacher. I’m pleased to see the CME and I think there needs to be more sustained involvement in professional development in instrumental teaching (in schools) where the demands placed on class teachers to deliver for every pupil are placed on instrumental teachers. There needs to be a sense that any child can pursue an instrument and it is the duty of the teacher to motivate and ensure progress and success – what they might look like with be different for every child – but there needs to be a teaching commitment to pursue that progress and success for all.

I remain nostalgic of my school music teachers. Pushing me to try new musical things, question what I heard, and being given opportunities to make music with other people that gave me that euphoria everyone deserves to get with music-making. I was fortunate I didn’t have to pay for music lessons and all my instrumental lessons took place at school. All of them. I still went on to pursue Music at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level and have not stopped having instrumental lessons until only recently. There seemed no end to it all, and grade 8 was but a fleeting moment. My flute lessons stopped when I was 26, piano when I was 30. The singing lessons continue.  I think rather than looking for CPD on how to pass exams, how to assess, and how to engage – Music teachers should be given funding to have instrumental lessons again. Remember the joy of learning repertoire; the thrill of surpassing a difficulty and the lows of being stuck on something. Above all having someone who gives you undivided attention and cares about your success. It doesn’t matter what the musical providence is; it matters that there is that personal connection with making music. For yourself. Is this not the best CPD for Music teachers?

On one of my composition CPD courses last year I made the group devise compositions, amidst surprise from the participants that they were to ‘do something’ more than be passive observers. It is that engagement with a process as a musician that makes us better pedagogues and practitioners. At the end of the day a comment on one of the evaluation forms was “now I know how my pupils feel when I set them a practical task!”. That same fear and uncertainty. They are essential for developing musical skills. As teachers we need to know what those feel like so we can ensure our classes get to know those feelings early on – then they will be more willing to go with on when it comes to something less familiar and less relevant to their musical lives outside of school.

Last week I walked out on a stage in a church in Ealing to perform Mozart’s Magic Flute. I was Tamino. For the first time in a very long time I was genuinely scared. I could feel myself shaking – not only because of the papier-mache dragon-thing in front of me but because I was doing something for the first time as a musician. That moment when you walk out in front of an audience wondering “will this work”, “will I remember it”, amidst part of you saying “you can do this”. It is this experience that I’ll take into my classes, my ensembles, my choirs. I know how they could react and I can reassure them in a knowing way. Not a generalised way by saying “you’ll be fine” to my choir before they sing in a concert. Music teachers need to be keep being musicians. That makes us perfectly placed to ensure all pupils in our schools continue being musicians too.

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