Musical practices and concepts for/of success

Our eight post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in John Finney’s chapter ‘The Place of Music in the Secondary School’. Two more and we complete out two weeks with John’s chapter before we move to the Gary Spruce chapter two.

To what extent did your music education emphasise one particular set of musical practices and criteria for success? How has this affected your musical development and the way you think about/relate to music today?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

I find the history of our individual music education journeys to be really fascinating. As with anything this personal and impactful, our beliefs in the benefits (or otherwise) run deep and are often expressed with great fervour. I’m blessed to have had a broad and diverse musical upbringing, which has manifested itself in my teaching. Before briefly sharing my story, I need to make clear that when it comes to the ‘traditional’ versus ‘popular’ debate, I sit comfortably on the fence. The metaphoric pillow on which I sit is stuffed full of personal experience and countless discussions with people who have said, “I really wish I’d learnt music by ear”, countered equally by those who say, “I really wish I could read music”. 

I grew up on a farm in rural Australia. My earliest memories of music are singing hymns in church, and the occasional 70s or 80s pop song that randomly appeared on the talkback radio station my parents would listen to over breakfast. Other than that, I have no memories until school. My journey through school was shaped by ensemble music-making. My primary school had a fife (flute-like instrument) band. We learned to play marches through a combination of notation, and rote. Thankfully, my parents wanted more for me, so invested in a saxophone. This led to both private and free group lessons at high school. My high school had a strong instrumental music traditional, led by teachers who shared a love of traditional, jazz, and contemporary music. It was here my eyes and ears were opened. While my bread and butter remained notation, I became fascinated and challenged by the improvisation that would occur in the many jazz / funk groups. Skip forward to my mid-twenties, and I found myself in a New Orleans style street funk band, where all music was memorised, and all music was collaboratively created. This challenged my notation reliant upbringing to the extreme. Snapshot complete.

How has this affected the way I think about / relate to music, and the teaching of it, today? It has shown me that both routes into music have validity, however when experienced in isolation, so much is lost. I may not have come to music had it not been for the notation-focussed beginning. Equally, the full and joyous understanding of it that I have now, wouldn’t be complete without all that the aural tradition has brought to the table. Conversely – to use my brother-in-law as an example – he’s a very successful bass guitarist who has performed at any festival you can name. He often bemoans that he can’t read music, and all that he misses out on as a result. I find the yearning that often comes from each tradition to have engaged, or be able to engage in the other, really fascinating.

So, as a teacher, I encourage both. I adopt the sound before symbol approach, however I’m very clear in my mind that for some, it will be sound alone that engages them in music, whereas for others, it will be the symbol that unlocks and organises all that music has to offer. Ultimately, I want them all to experience both in a way that works for them. I have no agenda, no bias, just a desire for them to come to know and love music in a way that best suits them. For me, it was through notation, for my brother-in-law, it was through the ear. I wish I’d had more ear, and he wishes he’d had more notation. That sums it up, for me.

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

My own musical background was one of formality and of privilege. By the age of 18 I had three practical grade 8 ABRSM exams and the theory ones to match. I sang in the local church choir, played in the county wind band and you can imagine the rest. My classroom education was narrow and based entirely on theoretical concepts and the knowledge of music history. My class was small and we were ‘the musical ones’ in the school, very much a sense of my peers either being musical or not.

When I started teaching this very academic background brought some challenges and nearly 20 years on I am rather shameful of my initial inability to improvise on any instrument, let alone comp on piano or provide quick musical responses. I do not feel I was not set up as a well rounded musician and as a teacher these are skills that I now champion even if I do not master them. My intake at my school is diverse and there are students that come in with wildly different musical backgrounds and some with none. My core skills base can be very different to the students starting their education in my classroom and I am passionate that they and I see that regardless or their identity as a musician we are all the same in our striving for excellence and true musicianship.

Having a background so formal in knowledge of Western Classical music is of value in many respects but as I have progressed in my career I do strongly agree with the concept stated that no type of music should sit within a vacuum and neither should it outrank another. A powerful music curriculum should, I believe, should cover an inclusive range of musical styles. It should evolve regularly, as music itself does. It should be relevant, yet not patronising to the learner. It should also be challenging and never dumbed down for the sake of engagement.

My greatest passion within my job is for students to all see themselves as musicians, no matter what that looks like. It is not just about amazing grade results or exam success, but the ability to respond to music in a meaningful way. I shudder when I hear teachers say a student ‘is not musical’. I believe all students are young musicians and can have great and real success in the subject beyond that of exam results and graded exams. It is our responsibility as music teachers to offer them meaningful and real inclusive musical experiences to facilitate this journey.

David House @House_dg

Almost exclusively educated via traditional notation and the written word – at school, undergraduate and postgraduate levels [mostly in days when even cassette tapes were considered modern technology, and illustrations in lectures of the middle section of a movement were gained by the lecturer pushing the stylus further across the record “there’s no banding”]. PGCE was different and involved some of the first times when I had to work from ‘scratch’ as it were – this was helped by a fantastic group of us on the course and the leadership of Gordon Cox [“oh really”]. This was Reading in the mid-80s, and I recall a fascinating session which was led by one, John Finney, then teaching in Basingstoke. The course not only opened me up to different ways of doing music, but also thinking about it and writers such as John Blacking and Christopher Small. I can trace my current interest in developments in music education back to those days. I would say that I instinctively fall back on more traditional ways of teaching but aspire to meeting all students where they will feel most comfortable – often learning from them in, what I hope, is a classroom full of real musical discourse.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicdept

As a young musician, the breadth of my music experience was more limited than I would like for my students today – I was predominantly a pianist and dabbled in other things on the side. This developed my love of harmony and much of my appreciation of music has been centred around this. If I look at my favourite tracks on Spotify, many of them have strong harmonic foundations with joyous dissonance and release and it is no surprise that pieces with vocal harmonies feature among my most appreciated tracks. Western Music of all kinds is really built upon this harmonic foundation – even the melodies the melodies of great composers are usually underpinned by strong harmonic sequences and so I have begun to wonder whether my appreciation of other genres of music outside the Western tradition has been limited because of their varied harmonic functionality. When I say wonder, I worry less for myself but more about whether I am limiting my students’ breadth of appreciation by not including things which I intentionally or unintentionally appreciate less. For example, I have taught topics about other genres where the focus is on melodic function and not harmonic but have had less success with these and so enjoyed them less so have removed these from my curriculum but is this the right thing to do? I think that my own experience does weigh heavily upon me and it is probably time that I start pushing my own boundaries.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that my own musical education especially at school was very traditional. Classroom music with a large emphasis on listening and composition, looking at the ‘classics’ of the repertoire that was all White, all male and mostly originating in Germany or Austro-Hungary. In the pre computer days (I remember the school getting Sibelius in my Lower 6th Year and being blown away that I could actually hear some of the more complex orchestral stuff I was trying to write) work was usually done on the piano and therefore most writing was for piano as trying to find fellow pupils to play your music was pretty hard. This was backed up by Instrumental lessons and group playing in County Youth Orchestra’s etc. University did broaden things out with some music technology (any one remember ADAT?) and ‘world music’ taught through the sense of Ethnomusicology but very little ‘popular’ music was studied. I made up for that myself by going to many gigs in my teens and early 20’s around North West England and Scotland. The royal Court and Lomax in Liverpool and various Edinburgh and Glasgow haunts including King Tut’s meant that my less formal education was allowed to thrive.

I think that when it came to my PGCE and teacher training that being able to do both the ‘classical’ and the ‘popular’ musics helped greatly. It meant that the many different Scheme’s of work that I was exposed to during my training were within my knowledge and I could also think of creative ways in which to deliver the curriculum to help all students progress and also enjoy music lessons. I think that today, making music lessons open ended so that students can use their own musical experiences and likes to help them develop their own musicianship through performing, composing and listening is helpful to all. By setting a range of success criteria, with higher marks warded when pupils use their own musical knowledge and skills to take genres and fuse with them other musics and techniques that they are familiar with. It also means that I have to continue listening to a wide variety of music, sometimes very much outside my own comfort zone, so that I can relate to the musics that they enjoy and help them develop their own pieces that have roots in these musical genres.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

I started the flute age 11 and the group lessons moved quickly to individual lessons. I remember lots of tone exercises and playing Poulenc Sonata and Mozart’s flute concerti but can’t remember any other music. It wasn’t until I had a flute teacher (who was a flautist) that I played a great deal more repertoire. I remember being obsessed with composing and not sure where this came from, but tried writing sonatas (like Poulenc, in three movements, and wrote one for flute and oboe) and endless piano preludes, and a concerto or two. I couldn’ t stop writing music when I was a teenager. As I age I write less and less. I took up the saxophone, violin, oboe and piano at school. I played in country ensembles including symphony orchestra, big band, concert band. I loved playing different music – jazz resonated me with a lot as a teenager. 

Hearing a composition by me played my students didn’t happen until my first year at university (a piece for two pianos which I’ve sadly lost). I cried during it (which made me rush out from shame) and I realise it was the euphoria of hearing music that had existed in my head out loud. It’s quite something, and the game for me was always to get the score to be as indicative as possible of what I wanted to hear. I struggled to compose after that as there was a pressure to write in a certain way (based on the models were analysed) and this slackened off as I progressed in my studies (MMus was another dip into the ‘contemporary’). I did keep writing, and by the end of my PhD I felt I was just about finding how to write again

At university I kept up composing, contemporary music group, early music alongside musicology. After my MMus I was obsessed by non-western musics and lived with a gamelan for six months and then spent some time learning taiko – all the while keeping up with flute lessons and piano. A summer on the Advanced Composition Course at Dartington, just at the start of my composition PhD, was eye-opening – and David Matthews was a composer I enjoyed working with for two weeks to write a quartet. Dartington was the ultimate immersion in musics that defied any labels. It was a special summer for me, and planted lots of seeds for the years ahead. Some workshop leadership courses at Guildhall in 2005 set me up as a teacher (I never pursued a PGCE) and have inspired all of my teaching since. 

I could never relinquish things. As a MMus student I would go to as many modules as I could, and as an undergraduate I pursued composing, performance and musicology with equal fervour without specialising. I chose my MMus course at Royal Holloway because I didn’t want to specialise. I think all of these practices I have encountered have taught me similar things: be open to lots of things beyond music, be ready to practice as it doesn’t happen in minutes and keep doing it as it can always be better. The journey isn’t finished. 

I’m still a huge fan of Poulenc and Berio; They instil a sense of compositional craft that I am grateful all of my composition teachers tried to give me. I was always a fairly rapid composer (I think after spending much of my childhood writing it was weird at university to have such long deadlines for a work) but as I age and want to spend much more time on less. 

The most joy I get in any work I do is through collaboration and this all started after the workshop leading courses I attended, and studying gamelan/taiko; these collective practices led me to work on incidental music for theatre (had so much fun writing for gamelan, and playing it, for a one-man show at OvalHouse back in 2012) and have led me to create projects that have thrived on co-creation. My sense of success doesn’t come from a particular practice, but from the satisfaction of bringing together elements to create something. 

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

My own music education displays great strengths but also weaknesses. At home, there was always music being played on record players and I was always involved in the listening process. This was sometimes to quite dramatic effect. Apparently, when I was three years old and was travelling with my mother and 18-month old sister on an Edinburgh bus, a man known to the family, who was also on the bus, asked me very seriously: “What is your favourite piece of music?” My immediate answer was “The Bach Magnificat”.  The man who asked the question was the theoretical physicist Robin Schlapp, who was a very fine double bassist. He was gratified by the reply!

I was very much influenced by my father’s taste in music. I do not remember a time when classical music was not being played – especially the violin recordings of Fritz Kreisler, who remains a hero of mine. If it was not Bach or Kreisler then it was the Beatles. It feels now like I was born in the wrong decade. I would have loved to have been a Beatle!

At school I remember best the lessons that involved story telling and character. Peter and the Wolf was a great favourite, but perhaps my most vivid memory of class music was being taken through Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter as a 9 year old. I was captivated by the character and how the orchestra told the story so evocatively.

The rest of my education was focussed on violin playing. I was schooled brilliantly in technique and musicality mainly through the Russian school methods. This meant I was always focussed on great sound quality as well as developing as much virtuosity as possible. This has all led to me being passionate about musical communication and passion and guts. It did, however leave large holes in my musical education. I was so taken with the violin and with the drive and inspiration of my teacher that I neglected to learn the piano properly (I am still awful at it). I remember thinking, if I had time to practise the piano then I had more time for the violin.

I was also largely unaware of any genres in which I did not play. Jazz and improvisation were foreign concepts, and still largely are, because I have come to them as a late learner. I am now a devotee of church music because I became a decent tenor at Cambridge and then paid my way through post-graduate study by being a Lay Clerk.

The result of all of this is that I am (sometimes painfully) aware of the gaps that remain in my music education and that my normal tactic for improving them is not by learning or reading about them, but by doing them. Music requires to be made as well as learned and any musician or music teacher should always be trying to expand and improve in order to continue to inspire themselves as well as inspire others.

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