Questioning the young

Our twelfth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in Gary Spruce’s chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’. This is week three of the collaborative blogging of the tasks in Learning to teach music in the secondary school. 

What questions would you ask young people about their musical tastes and preferences? 

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

For me this is all about inclusion and making sure that as teachers we are modelling and reinforcing the mind set that every child is a musician. When you position yourself as a music teacher you have to be so careful to not present yourself as ‘the right answer’ in terms of musicianship. Students have to see the subject as relevant to them, yet still be provided with challenge, creativity and a space to progress. Linking to current musical styles is vital and it can be enormously powerful for students to see representation of themselves. We also have a responsibility to provide a rich, varied and deep music curriculum without bias. It is a minefield!

I was teaching a year 9 student in class recently, they were studying dance music. A student asked me what I thought of Drill music. It was met with a challenging smile. I took the bait and explained that I was not prepared to engage with the lyrics or subtext of the music (have I just completely contradicted my last post?!) and challenged him to find me an example of an instrumental track. Listening to this together led to discussions of sonority, pitch and pace and how he could recreate these in his own composition. As the conversation continued he explained to me that he loved the music and listened to nothing else in his own time. He said it made him feel at peace and uplifted if he was ever stressed. While I would not connect that emotion to that music, he was so emphatic about it I was struck by how much this music meant to him on a deep level.

Asking young people about their tastes and preferences is important, not as a patronising or tokenistic one off or to win popularity but meaningfully. So I would ask the following:

What type of music do you listen to at home? What is your favourite song? Where do you listen to music? Can you name a piece of music that is special to you? How does listening to different styles of music make you feel? Do you think your taste in music will change as you get older? Send me a link to a piece of music that you love.

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Throughout my career, I’ve discovered that the answer to any question about the likes and dislikes of a young person is usually the universal ‘grunt’ response. Of course, this isn’t always the case. There are many young people who, if given the opportunity, would pin you to a wall and profess their love of a certain song, artist, or style for an entire lunchtime or two. However, from a whole class perspective, I’ve found the most effective way to a meaningful understanding of the musical tastes and preferences of my pupils to be through the following Franklin quote – “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”. More than simply asking them what music they like; I get them to involve me in their love.

I achieve this by forgoing some of my own time, so I can invest it in their musical loves. This usually involves the creation of a ‘listening lunch’, whereby my classroom is open to anyone who wants to come, suggest a song to listen to, and eat their lunch. We listen, judgement free, and simply enjoy the music of others. Of course, there are times when judgemental thoughts find their way out into the open, however this provides an opportunity for me to facilitate a conversation about the why. These ‘listening lunches’ are usually inundated by pupils wanting to share their favourite music and listen to the favourite music of others. The bonding, connections, conversations, and learning that takes place in this informal setting is invaluable. It’s also a wonderful information gathering exercise for me. Young people love a much broader range of music than we often give them credit for. Through these ‘listening lunches’, I’ve gained a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the musical tastes and preferences of my pupils than through any other means employed. I also adopt this approach in the classroom, where the last ten minutes of every second lesson or so is devoted to pupils sharing their own music. As with any classroom sharing, this can start off quite tentative, however as one person shares and sees the benefit, then the flood gates open.

The benefit of this ‘involvement’ approach is that when the pupils see that you are genuinely interested in the music that they love, they become more willing to engage and value the music that you love, or are encouraged to love, through the curriculum. To go back to my vegetable analogy from a previous blog – “Music is like vegetables. Some you like. Some you don’t like. But they’re all good for you”. I want my children to understand the importance and value of eating vegetables, and through this education, hope they will come to love / appreciate as many vegetables as possible. Having said that, as with any balanced diet, there is more to life than just vegetables, and there is more to a healthy music diet than the music we teach our pupils. The greatest success my wife and I have had in getting our children to eat a balanced meal is through incorporating their loves into our loves / values. The same can be said with the teaching of music. When we take the time to understand the tastes and preferences of our pupils through involvement, then we all learn from each other, and our musical diets grow in health side by side. To summarise, I don’t ask them what they like, I get them to involve me. I have always found this to be the clearest path to understanding. 

Amy Burrows @Amy_Burrows

There are many occasions throughout the year when engaging students to choose a performance piece for a KS4 assessment or making conversations with students at KS3 when I ask ‘what’s your favourite artist?’ or ‘what music do you listen to?’. I regularly get a response that sounds like they don’t listen to music at all as they can’t seem to define a particular style or artist that they like, let alone why they like them. This leads me to a different approach to this question to consider how I ask leading questions throughout my curriculum lessons to help students understand how much music they hear that they overlook as something that defines their culture and society and in turn their taste and preference.

Music is all around our students and because they are exposed to it so much some of them aren’t aware of the impact it has within our society. On a typical day a student could experience the short musical motif of their alarm clock, the radio playing in the car on their way to school, the music in their local shop, the soundtrack to a TV programme, advert or video game and the piece they’re singing or playing in curriculum or instrumental lessons. This regular exposure helps to form their understanding of music consciously and subconsciously as the tonal and generally repetitive nature of this music seems to have some sort of impact upon musical taste.

In Spruces’ chapter he highlights that music’s ‘existence and value derive from the contexts in which it takes place and the purposes to which it is put.’ Broad questions such as ‘what is your favourite music?’ don’t really tell us anything more than the short answer young people may or may not be able to give.

However, asking them ‘what is the vocal chant of the football club you support?’ or ‘can you name a soundtrack of a video game you like?’ or even asking them to listen to a number of leitmotifs from famous films and identify them gives students a chance to have a more conscious understanding of music in their everyday life. It is also a chance for us to extend on this, linking their prior knowledge and experience of this music to something we are teaching them e.g. the repetitiveness and structure of the football chant and how this relates to our understanding of hooks and riffs in other songs or pieces.

Therefore, when thinking about questions to ask young people about their musical interests and tastes we first need to identify whether or not they are aware of the impact music has in society and their exposure to this before they are really able to identify what their musical interest or taste is. By asking children how we engage with music this is one way of them beginning their understanding of musical taste and interest.

Lewis Edney @LewisEdney

Considering this has made me remember an article I read in the Huff Post in 2017, Why Teens Need Their Music. It was not the greatest of articles but a quote from a social worker stayed with me: “Music appeals to many teens who discover that the words in popular songs often express their own feelings and experiences” So as much as thinking about what questions to ask young people, maybe we should be rationalising why we want to ask these questions in the first place. I’ve worked in boarding schools for nearly 10 years and asking a pupil about their choice in music has always been a way to begin a conversation, to break barriers and build relationships. For them they will often be keen to share their choices and experiences with music, whilst for me it is a chance to get a sense of their tastes and more often than not, to discover new music (for good, or for bad!)

So a few questions:

– How did you first come across this music?

– What do you like about it?

– Do you listen to this music with others, by yourself, or both?

I believe I have always asked questions along these lines when in conversation about musical preferences. Now looking at them in print, it strikes me that this goes significantly beyond what their musical tastes are. We all know that music teachers often become considerably more than just a ‘classroom teacher’ for many of our pupils, because of that special bond that is built through music and these questions might provide some further insight to why this happens. Music is so incredibly important to a huge diverse, range of people and for so many different reasons but it offers an opportunity for all to share an experience, emotion, agreement, disagreement, likes and dislikes.

When I first read this question I thought I would be considering how these might have helped shape my curriculum, and I believe they still do, but possibly this direction has proved more beneficial to me in the current climate.

David House @House_dg

Questions to ask students: What’s on your playlist at the moment? Do you get listening ideas from friends, relatives, music teachers? Do you listen to particular music when in particular moods or at different times of day? What about playing and singing – how do you choose what to do? Have you encountered music that grew on you?

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that just asking pupils about their own musical interests in a very straightforward way such as “what music do you like listening to?” Is always a good conversation starter with most pupils when they come into your classroom for the first time. I think that asking the “Why do you like it?” Question can be a bit of a none starter, especially for younger students who might not have the musical vocabulary to expand not heir answer. The usual reply to that sort of question is ‘because it has a good beat etc’ which is not particularly helpful. If find that asking them what the last thing they heard, listened to and was it an active choice (did they pick it or was it just on the radio, Spotify playlist etc). I also like to ask them how they heard about the music/musical artist that they enjoy listening to. Was it through word of mouth or from someone else’s phone etc. In my own past, this was the way it I discovered lots of music, via mixtapes or listening to Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley in the evenings in my teenage years. When I know pupils have been to see or performed live music, I always ask them the week after what they most enjoyed about it and when they have performed, what things could have gone better.

Talking to pupils about music is one of the things that I most enjoy in lessons as it allows them to show their own personal choices and preferences about what they enjoy and as their own musical vocabulary ad critical vocabulary increase, they can make excellent judgements about what features they like and dislike about a range of musics and performances.

The last and most powerful question you can always ask a pupil is ‘have you tried listening to this?’. These are the moments where you can try have an influence in their musical education by pointing them in the direction of pieces of music that they may never stumble across themselves. This is how I discovered such gems as “Jesus’ Blood never saved me’ by Gavin Byers and ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, through teachers who I respected pointing me towards musical wonders.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

I mentioned in a previous post about how I like to uncover the musical tastes and experiences of pupils quite early on. The obvious information (instruments they’ve played/play etc.) but through asking them to bring in music to use as a class activity (creating questions about the music they share) I gain quite a lot of insight into their musical lives. I like to know how often they listen to music, I like to know how they use music in their lives and what it means for them to listen to certain things during certain activities. I like knowing them as listeners as well as makers of music. I like to know if they write their own music (and encourage them to share their efforts). 

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