(Re)learning how to teach music in the secondary school

Thanks to Twitter and a group of fellow music educators I have started a collaborative blogging effort to work through a selection of the tasks in the edited volume ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School‘. The venture was inspired by a tweet I saw from Christine Counsell.

‘Rigour from scholarship and from strong [music] teachers’ published curriculum theorising has to be the starting point’. I wondered how (and where) we might ‘theorise’ and decided to do a collaborative blog. Eight of us will respond to the activities from the book and then I would share all the responses in one post – so the discussion is a slow one but I hope through reading the combined post other teachers (and those who responded) might reflect and we can continue to build a meaningful conversation. Whilst the tasks in the book are aimed at the beginning classroom teacher and are seemingly provincial in their scope in places, they can have a far reach and are worthy of reflection for teachers (such as those in these blogging venture) who are more experienced. Those blogging have nearly 200 years of combined music education experience and yet we can all re-learn how to teach music in schools. I hope over the coming weeks the process will be purposeful and help bring much needed reflection as we look to the next steps for schools and young people in advance of reopening our schools.

The first task is a self-reflective one.

What makes a good teacher and what makes a ‘musical’ music lesson?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Reflecting on our first two questions, I’m drawn to the book – ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth. As a beginning teacher, I would have declared that it is passion that makes a good teacher. After all, without passion for teaching, or their subject, any teacher will struggle to inspire or get the best out of their pupils. While true, I have concluded that it is passion that first brings us to the classroom, and passion that keeps bringing us back. Whether we’re successful or not, once in the classroom, requires more than passion alone. For me, it is perseverance that makes a good teacher. Children today are bombarded by immediacy. In music, there isn’t an instant fix app. While anyone can make a sound, it takes time, effort, and dedication to draw real meaning and expression from it. This takes perseverance from teacher and pupil alike. Passion can be instantly drained by a pupil muttering, “I can’t do it”. Multiplied by thirty, this can be fatal. To persevere, differentiate, explain, pick-up, and encourage to start over and over again, that’s what makes a good teacher.

As for what makes a ‘musical’ music lesson – it all boils down to one word – sound. As Varese said – music, in its most basic form, is organised sound. Therefore, a ‘musical’ music lesson involves listening to, discussing, experimenting with, and creating sounds, all with a focus on discovering the tools needed for pupils to organise sound in a way that helps them express, communicate, and connect with themselves and others through music. This, also, takes perseverance. Every pupil comes with unique experiences and understandings. Each has likes and dislikes, confidences and fears. Ensuring the facilitation of learning that is meaningful, sequential, engaging, and ‘musical’ to all, cannot occur on passion alone. It requires perseverance.

David House @House_dg

Good teacher = someone who cares for their students: physical and mental wellbeing, curiosity, love of learning, independence, development of knowledge and skills, presenting all in an ordered environment.

‘Musical’ music lesson = clear focus on music: practical production, analysis and understanding of harmony, melody, structure and context appearance in both ensemble and solo contexts, dialogue between teacher and student is in musical terms [not always verbal].

Elizabeth Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

What makes a good teacher? Someone who can see a piece of learning, a challenge, a task , from the student’s perspective. Someone who can imagine receiving the task for the first time themselves, and think about what processes are going on in a student’s mind as they ‘parse’ what is being asked of them. Then it’s the ability to imagine tackling the task from all the different starting points that you have in a mixed ability class, all those stories, all those preconceptions, and then bring everyone with you on the journey. A good teacher is someone who can pique students’ interest, so that they want to know ‘how’, they want to know ‘what next’.

A good teacher knows how to balance the familiar with the unfamiliar in creating learning experiences, when to push students outside their comfort zone, and when the right conditions for learning are to be found inside their comfort zone. A good teacher has a sense of humour, they are generous and kind, but they are businesslike too. The classroom is part of the training for adult life. Students grow to appreciate this balance. A good teacher is someone who is consistent, and who students learn to trust, someone they know will do right by them. It’s also someone who will have established the very highest expectations, of their students and of themselves, so that students learn that being challenged and being asked to think deeply about things is a good thing. A good teacher is someone who creates a working environment where working hard is seen to be a good thing, an environment where failure is as commonplace as success, because you’ve got to break a few eggs and all that… (It goes without saying that a good teacher is knowledgeable and highly skilled at their own craft.)

What makes a musical music lesson? A lesson where the vast majority of the time responses are given in sound. Show me you understand this by making it in sound. It’s also about making sure that the sound response is a ‘musical’ response. Simply making a noise that happens to fulfil the brief isn’t good enough – each response, no matter how simple, needs to be a musical one. To create the right conditions for this you need targeted and effective modelling in sound, from you, from students, from whoever pops their head round the door, so that it is the norm –  to answer ‘musically’ in sound.

A musical music lesson is also one where everyone feel like a musician and is treated like a musician. There are no exceptions and everyone in the room regardless of their starting point, responds as a musician. It’s a lesson where students are musically challenged, this could be in taking a creative musical risk, in hearing something dissonant, difficult, or unfamiliar, or being asked to think on the spot, and make amendments in a response which is  ‘live’ in the moment . It’s about playing through and singing through the mistakes, and keep moving… I’m back to those eggs…

Yes, students will amass musical knowledge, and know what the thing is called and how to make it, in any decent music lesson, but the ‘show me in sound’ approach is a good way of keeping all music lessons ‘musical’.

Jimmy Rotherham @MusicEdu4All

Good music teachers are a diverse bunch in terms of approaches, settings, working conditions, and the type of pupils they have. It’s difficult to define a good music teacher, as different personality types can successfully drive different approaches. When I started out teaching, I was told I needed to be stricter. I was working with a very shouty teacher, so I adopted his approach. It was a disaster for me, but worked great for him. I turned into a self conscious Basil Fawlty. Exposure to more approaches and more teachers enabled me to adapt and adopt best practise to discover and develop what worked for me. However, there are some universals in good education.

Education must start with the children – what is best for the children right in front of you, right now? Other pressures – methodology, OFSTED, parents, line managers, curriculum expectations, exam requirements – should be secondary, but if your first point of thought is the children, everything else will fall into place.

A good music teacher has musicality – they don’t have to be virtuoso, but they must have a secure grasp of the materials they are teaching. Many people would disagree that passion and enthusiasm for the subject are paramount, but if this inspires children it is a powerful thing.  Communication is paramount, both when teaching but also when dealing with colleagues who may not immediately see the importance of music education, and therefore we need to be well-informed champions of and advocates for the subject.  Empathy is perhaps an underused word in teaching, but is vital in everything from presentation to assessment and feedback. Clearly, patience is an essential virtue.

One common mindset in  successful music teachers is to have the highest expectations of children, is the ability (and professional freedom/autonomy)  to build a programme which develops all children over the long term, tweaked to the specific needs of children, rather than simply strong lessons or well-taught topics.   I once observed Judith Brindle leading a staff training session for nursery teachers. Everyone was listening intently (as she had inculcated in everyone from the start) and were therefore surprised when she pointed to someone and said “You’re not listening!”  The teacher who she seemed to be pointing at became defensive and confused,  and replied “yes, I was!”.

“Not you,”  said Judith, “Hedgehog!”. The member of staff then realised that the hedgehog puppet in her hand was not looking at Judith. Even puppets, especially puppets, need t o model good listening behaviour. High expectations!

I would also include the ability to improvise and adapt – both instrumentally (skills such transposing easily to suit a singers key, able to improvise effectively and confidently) and in terms of lesson content. For example, you may have planned a lesson where the focus is melodic, but then you realise that the rhythm work you did the previous week is not secure, or a child comes up with a brilliant idea. You have to know when to go “off-piste” and when to stick firmly to the path.

Ideally, music teachers will be well trained in a range of approaches. However, ultimately, if you are passionate about giving your best to the children you teach, you will be constantly looking to improve and develop your practice and refine yourphilosophy. And if the children are the main driving force, I don’t think you can help but become a good music teacher

A good music lesson: Again, this might look very different according to different approaches, resources, philosophies, teachers and settings.

My philosophy is to adopt a holistic, “goldilocks” approach to teaching. Where is the sweet spot, that’s the” just right” porridge,  between the extremes of direct, formal instruction and child led, learning through discovery? Between teacher talk and student voice?  Between work and play? Between rest and activity? Between the extremes of strictly sequenced learning and adaptive improvisation? Between the static approach of traditional choral singing and the expansive movement of Dalcroze? Between the improvisatory approach of Orff and the carefully prepared tonesets of Kodály.Between the supposedly “high” art of Mozart and the “low” culture of Stormzy? Between what children find easy and what stretches them? Between multiculturalism and Cultural Imperialism?

However, few would disagree that the most effective learning takes place using a “sound before symbol” approach, where the repertoire is carefully chosen for the abilities of the children, and where every child is involved, confident, learning and developing.

James Manwaring @twbsmusic

A good music teacher will bring together all of the inter-related dimensions of music and deliver them with relevancy, inspiration and musical examples. A good music teacher will demonstrate & model what they are teaching using a range of resources and personal musical skills. A good music teacher will facilitate learning both in and out of the classroom and will see all music making opportunities as a chance to learn something about music. A good music teacher will have their own interests in music but will also be interested in the opinions, tastes and preferences of their students.

A musical music lesson is one where the language of the lesson is music. This may be on the page or screen. It might be heard in the room on either speakers or an instrument. A musical music lesson is therefore not possible if music is not heard and more possible where elements of listening, composing & performing are combined. No analysis is complete without heard examples. No composition is complete without performance. No performance is complete without musical critique. A lesson confined to a page of writing, even if the writing is about music, is not musical. It is a merely an English lesson where the students are writing about music.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

Thinking back to my own schooling I remember the absence of a music teacher for the most part, particularly at A-level; GCSE was about lots of dictation (the teacher reciting information about the musical periods and we had to write it down verbatim – my books were immaculately presented); KS3 was about lots of composing. Before KS3 I remember listening to music but I don’t remember much about any responses we created (I remember chalk flying across the room when the teacher was annoyed). I remember playing in the orchestra and playing ‘When I’m sixty four’ seemingly forever. When those experiences collide and I remember the music teacher that really mattered to me it was my first flute teacher, Michelle Pickering. Miss Pickering and the class music teacher I had when I joined Middle School (and my second flute teacher, and piano teacher after that) were examples of good teachers. They were experts – I admired and was inspired by their musical behaviour. I felt cared for and challenged – they were always looking to help me progress and seemed to be always looking for the next challenge. Mr Stephen Burnage was the Head of Music I remember the most (he joked once that he always seemed to work in schools that went into ‘special measures’ when he joined) but when he gave me a copy of Poulenc’s Flute Sonata in Year 9 and said “you need to blow raspberries’ in the first movement” I was hooked on music and knew I would pursue it for the rest of my life. Good teachers are inspirational because they don’t hold you back but help you move forward; they make the subject seem like a garden of endless joy and cultivate a curiosity to explore, create and play. Without their good teaching I would not have started composing in Year 9; Mr Burnage was always giving me my own challenges and works to model on. I owe them all a great deal. Thank you to my wonderful music teachers.

‘Can I ask a question?’, said a pupil at the end of an interview lesson I was observing (and they had been a pupil in): “was that an art lesson?”. I had just observed a teacher, who was being considered for a class music teaching post, teach a lesson on impressionism; No music was played but plenty of paintings were shown on the screen. The Ofsted professional development materials for music say ‘there should be no doubt this is a music lesson’ (anecdotally remembering this rather than a verbatim quote). A musical music lesson – though I prefer to write music(al) lesson – should be one where not only is sound taking centre-stage but the way both teacher and student interact, think and behave is through and in music. I don’t think a music(al) lesson should avoid talking, and it should be much more than ‘making’. But whomever walks into the room should have no doubt they have witnessed a music(al) lesson, and the pupils (and teacher) should feel they are behaving as musicians.

Kate Wheeler @Katemariewheel2

15 years into teaching music and I am becoming more and more reflective on my practise ensuring that as a music teacher I can adapt to the ever-growing changes in technology whilst still including the core rudiments of music theory through my practise. Trying to create a curriculum that is inspirational, engaging and knowledge led that suits the differing needs of the pupils you teach can be challenging and, in my opinion, must be modified consistently depending on the group of pupils you have in front of you.

Growing up my peripatetic lessons had the most impact on my journey as a musician and then later at university whilst visiting schools I realised that the classroom was the place for me. A good teacher should be approachable, kind, inspirational, dedicated and enthusiastic. Valuing your subject and showing that you love what you are professing can only have a positive effect on the young people you are educating. As music teachers we have to display our abilities to be performers and composers, modelling with ease in order to inspire our pupils to do the same. A good music lesson should include varying elements of practical activities in order to stimulate engagement backed up with specific subject knowledge so pupils are able to demonstrate an understanding of the topic being covered.

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

A good teacher is a good communicator to all, no matter the age or stage of the learner. They must engender an atmosphere in the classroom where pupils are free to express themselves and not to be wary of admitting when they are struggling. The teacher must listen to these perceptions of difficulties and guide the pupil towards a solution. A good teacher shows passion and excitement about their subject in addition to a bank of knowledge. This passion should be infectious, encouraging the pupil to develop the same excitement as their own bank of knowledge expands. A good teacher will also know that they themselves are always learning more and new elements to their subject. The teaching itself will encourage a teacher to think and reflect on their own topic, and how better they might communicate to the learners. This in turn leads, perhaps, to the most important aspect of being a good teacher. The best teachers will encourage their pupils to teach themselves and each other as they explore the topic, and to take ownership of their own progress and understanding.

A musical music lesson, should ideally involve one or more of the following: listening, performing and understanding; and then creating and inspiring further any or all of those things. Even when exploring some of the more dry elements of academic music it should be possible to be engaging. I remember some incredibly dry classes at University on the dos and don’ts of Baroque ornamentation. If I were to tackle this subject now, I would encourage pupils to listen first to performances with parsimonious use of ornaments. After taking in that effect they would then be introduced to performances with over-elaborate, or even ridiculously over the top ornamentation. The important thing would be to discuss the effect and emotion that the ornamentation has on the music and not merely the suitability of it. Then I would ask pupils to perform over-elaborately and (without embarrassment or any feeling of stress about it) encourage really over the top use of ornaments. Composition work stemming from these experiments could follow, allowing pupils to explore for themselves (with some historical context) how they might wish to use ornamentation in the here and now.

4 Comments

  1. Well done, Steven for getting this underway. Whether you are visiting or re-visiting some of the tasks and thinking points in LTT Music in the Secondary School hopefully it is a valuable introspective activity for any teacher of music however experienced. Of course, the book is conceived as a way to encourage beginner teachers to reflect on experience (past, current, and possibly future) with the ultimate aim of getting them to define their own philosophy of music education and to understand there are multiple ways of approaching music teaching and that teachers therefore have to make choices. And yet these choices need to have a sound basis, a purpose within a clearly defined vision of music education. If there is one thing that has frustrated me more than anything else with initial teacher education in the past 10 years (since the Gove reforms of the 2010 government) it is the faith in the apprentice model of teacher training – that all you need to do is sit alongside a ‘master craftsman’ and copy their practice. That would be fine if there were only one way of teaching our subject, but history and successful practice across the full gamut of contexts demonstrates this is certainly not the case and, for this reason above any other, I maintain the importance of teachers establishing and being able to articulate a rational basis to underpin their practice.
    I do however have to admit that there could possibly be some value in the ‘master-apprentice’ model if the master has a sound basis for his/her practice and is a really good craftsman but, even then, how disempowering is this for the apprentice teacher? But far worse still is the teacher whose curriculum is a series ‘good activities’ picked up from the internet, from colleagues at another school, or taken at random from published resources. And, believe me, I have seem quite a few of those. In such cases, there is no underlying purpose to the music curriculum other than to keep the students busy / entertained for the duration of the timetabled lessons. It is a curriculum built on sand which is likely to be going nowhere.

    Well done to all contributors on this first task. I wonder how you would have responded to the same prompts as a beginner teacher? Slightly differently, I would guess. I have asked many would-be teachers these same two questions at PGCE interviews in the past and quickly got the idealistic answer to the first one but less certainty when followed up with “…. and what makes a good music teacher?” Most interviewees responding to the second question would readily tell me that students need to be ‘making music’ in their lessons but then go on to tell me that theory needed to be taught separately and that regular tests were important in order to assess understanding. So what about

    “…our musical knowledge is in our actions; our musical thinking and knowing are in our musical doing and making. (Elliott 1995: 57)?

    It is interesting that some respondents (as here) exemplify good teachers and good music lessons with reference to their instrumental teachers. I wonder what this tells us? Perhaps it is because their experience of curriculum music was so dire? Thank goodness they chose a career as a music teacher in school, presumably to ensure no one in future should have to suffer the same experience as they did??!!!

  2. Well done, Steven for getting this underway. Whether you are visiting or re-visiting some of the tasks and thinking points in LTT Music in the Secondary School hopefully it is a valuable introspective activity for any teacher of music however experienced. Of course, the book is conceived as a way to encourage beginner teachers to reflect on experience (past, current, and possibly future) with the ultimate aim of getting them to define their own philosophy of music education and to understand there are multiple ways of approaching music teaching and that teachers therefore have to make choices. And yet these choices need to have a sound basis, a purpose within a clearly defined vision of music education. If there is one thing that has frustrated me more than anything else with initial teacher education in the past 10 years (since the Gove reforms of the 2010 government) it is the faith in the apprentice model of teacher training – that all you need to do is sit alongside a ‘master craftsman’ and copy their practice. That would be fine if there were only one way of teaching our subject, but history and successful practice across the full gamut of contexts demonstrates this is certainly not the case and, for this reason above any other, I maintain the importance of teachers establishing and being able to articulate a rational basis to underpin their practice.
    I do however have to admit that there could possibly be some value in the ‘master-apprentice’ model if the master has a sound basis for his/her practice and is a really good craftsman but, even then, how disempowering is this for the apprentice teacher? But far worse still is the teacher whose curriculum is a series ‘good activities’ picked up from the internet, from colleagues at another school, or taken at random from published resources. And, believe me, I have seem quite a few of those. In such cases, there is no underlying purpose to the music curriculum other than to keep the students busy / entertained for the duration of the timetabled lessons. It is a curriculum built on sand which is likely to be going nowhere.

    Well done to all contributors on this first task. I wonder how you would have responded to the same prompts as a beginner teacher? Slightly differently, I would guess. I have asked many would-be teachers these same two questions at PGCE interviews in the past and quickly got the idealistic answer to the first one but less certainty when followed up with “…. and what makes a good music teacher?” Most interviewees responding to the second question would readily tell me that students need to be ‘making music’ in their lessons but then go on to tell me that theory needed to be taught separately and that regular tests were important in order to assess understanding. So what about

    “…our musical knowledge is in our actions; our musical thinking and knowing are in our musical doing and making. (Elliott 1995: 57)?

    It is interesting that some respondents (as here) exemplify good teachers and good music lessons with reference to their instrumental teachers. I wonder what this tells us? Perhaps it is because their experience of curriculum music was so dire? Thank goodness they chose a career as a music teacher in school, presumably to ensure no one in future should have to suffer the same experience as they did??!!!

  3. Well done, Steven for getting this underway. Whether you are visiting or re-visiting some of the tasks and thinking points in LTT Music in the Secondary School hopefully it is a valuable introspective activity for any teacher of music however experienced. Of course, the book is conceived as a way to encourage beginner teachers to reflect on experience (past, current, and possibly future) with the ultimate aim of getting them to define their own philosophy of music education and to understand there are multiple ways of approaching music teaching and that teachers therefore have to make choices. And yet these choices need to have a sound basis, a purpose within a clearly defined vision of music education. If there is one thing that has frustrated me more than anything else with initial teacher education in the past 10 years (since the Gove reforms of the 2010 government) it is the faith in the apprentice model of teacher training – that all you need to do is sit alongside a ‘master craftsman’ and copy their practice. That would be fine if there were only one way of teaching our subject, but history and successful practice across the full gamut of contexts demonstrates this is certainly not the case and, for this reason above any other, I maintain the importance of teachers establishing and being able to articulate a rational basis to underpin their practice.

    Well done too to all contributors on this first task. I wonder how you would have responded to the same questions as a beginner teacher? Slightly differently, I would guess. I have asked many would-be teachers these same two questions at PGCE interviews in the past and quickly got the idealistic answer to the first one but less certainty when followed up with “…. and what makes a good music teacher?” Most interviewees responding to the second question would readily tell me that students need to be ‘making music’ in their lessons but then go on to tell me that theory needed to be taught separately and that regular tests were important in order to assess understanding. So what do you think about this quotation then?

    “…our musical knowledge is in our actions; our musical thinking and knowing are in our musical doing and making. (Elliott 1995: 57)

    It is interesting that some respondents (as here) exemplify good teachers and good music lessons with reference to their instrumental teachers. I wonder what this tells us? Perhaps it is because their experience of curriculum music was so dire? Thank goodness they chose a career as a music teacher in school, presumably to ensure no one in future should have to suffer the same experience as they did??!!!

    1. Thanks, Keith, for the comment. I would have said ‘making music’ as a beginner teacher was the component of a musical lesson (and much of my early teaching was giving them musical launchpads and letting them create in groups…). I agree with Elliot but I’d like the actions to include talking and writing too. My experience of curriculum music was (a) the teacher saying “go and practice”, (b) playing the piano to himself whilst the class chatted and (c) chalk flying across the room. Attending Guildhall Connect courses (Fraser Trainer et al) were key to my teaching approach – and the workshop leadership approach was the only experience I had in early days of teaching of class pedagogy.

      I worry a bit about retrieval practice being seen as composer names/dates type quizzes and it would be good if music teachers (if they are going to adopt some of these Rosenshine recipes) would be brave to make them musical. Somehow.

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