Learning informally

Post twenty-two in our (re)learning to teach music series. This is the second week responding to the tasks in Chris Philpotts’s chapter – the third in Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. This is week FIVE of the collaborative blogging. 

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

I would reflect that a lot of my learning in the school environment up to degree level was predominantly instructional and formal. My love for the subject and what I feel shaped my musical learning most early on was the social and informal learning I was lucky enough to experience as a child and that happened away from the classroom. So from early on singing in choirs and playing in bands were where a lot of my more enthusiastic music making and progression happened. I loved going to practice rooms at lunchtime or in the morning break time of Saturday music centre with my friends and playing duets on the piano and singing together. We worked on expression and balance as well as staying in time and making the performances the best we could. I’d spend hours sitting at a piano at home alone trying to work out the piano parts to music I had heard and trying to recreate them myself. I’ll admit it was a bizarre and VERY uncool mix of Beverley Craven and Les Mis songs but I loved piecing it all together and working out chords and cadences, even if I didn’t actually grasp the theoretical concepts for some years after that.

I love listening to music and analysing it and University study really encouraged that. The open access to so many concerts and events, plus meeting and playing with friends of so many different musical backgrounds was so powerful in building up a knowledge of music and spiking my interest in reading and exploring music as a hobby for life. I cannot deny that being a teacher and interacting with other people musically all day long has also developed my musical learning hugely, I believe I am a much more versatile musician for doing this role.

I think the aspects that have developed most as part of this informal learning are my ability to improvise and compose, my aural skills and ability to analyse something aurally in detail. Also my ability to perform with expression and respond to an audience as well as ensemble skills and the ability to work with others to create and craft a larger scale performance piece. I think when I conduct I also draw on a huge amount of this informal learning. On reflection possibly more than I gave credit for upon starting this response!

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

The formative years of my music learning were grounded in the ‘formal’ context. When I started Secondary school, however, I had a teacher who – on reflection – was very encouraging of Green’s five principles for self-directed learning. These moments of ‘informal’ learning always occurred in a practice room, at lunchtime, with friends. I vividly remember the feelings of nervous rebellion we all felt by getting together and making our ‘own music’. For the record, we learned to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana in the exact model of Musical Futures, before Musical Futures even existed. Here we all were, woodwind and brass players, picking up guitars and drums and working ‘things’ out together. It challenged us and inspired us in equal measure. This was distinctly different to the classroom lessons that occurred either side of these lunchtime musical escapades.

When I reflect on my time in classroom music, the notion of ‘flipping’ discussed by Folkestad rings true. While this was well over twenty years ago, I can’t help but feel, as Folkestad says, the ‘formal’ moments were often prioritised over the ‘informal’ and were presented in the dichotomy relationship discussed. When I look back, the relationship between the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’, and whether it’s presented as a dichotomy or a continuum, is very much in the hands of the teacher. My personal teaching style is one of the continuum. More on that anon. When I went to boarding school for the final two years of my schooling, I again engaged in more self-directed learning, and, just as in the early stages, this was done in my own time. Many a night, while doing my ‘homework’, I would find myself in the practice rooms, improvising at the piano and creating my own music. This was something that I struggled to do in the classroom, yet in this pressure free, personally led environment, I found my musical voice.

It’s in the areas of composition, confidence, and general aural awareness that I’ve seen the greatest personal development as a result of ‘informal’ learning. I always felt that my teachers did much of the listening for me. I also struggled to develop a real knowledge ‘of’ music through the aural components of formalised exams. These pedagogical methods just never gelled with what I needed. As such, these areas didn’t develop at the same rate as my other music learning. Through involvement in community-based music ensembles post-school, these aspects have been challenged and developed further still through involvement with musicians who have lived a journey of more ‘informal’ learning than me. Again, these have been of immeasurable benefit to my musical development, and I can only wonder what my relationship with music might be now had the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning employed by my teachers seen a greater emphasis on a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

As a teacher, I’m very conscious in trying to achieve a relationship between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ that’s a constantly flipping continuum. As I’ve mentioned in many of my previous blogs, I believe a blend is best. In this case, a blend of ‘formal’, ‘informal’ and ‘non-formal’ learning contexts. When these different contexts are in – as Folkestad calls – various degrees of present and interacting, then I believe the best of each can be blended together to achieve what is best for each individual pupil. I’d like to think that ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ music learning can co-exist for the betterment and benefit of all our pupils. However, as is always the case, it’s getting the right mix which is key. I’ll never stop searching for the right mix.

David House @House_dg

How much of your own learning has been self-directed and ‘informal’? For the first half of my life the majority of my learning, both musical and otherwise, was formal. Through the school system to university, and at postgraduate level learning has been led in a formal way. Schemes of work, specifications [syllabus as it was – where has that term gone?], crossing the ‘threshold’, and teacher standards. However in the area of professional development my learning has been less formal – the opportunities to explore, read, engage and build up a portfolio has been excellent, in particular over the past seven or eight years. Contributing to this blog has been greatly beneficial and ‘informal’ in a way. For me, then, the ‘informal’ learning has taken place once I was able to understand the ways to explore for myself and have confidence, not only in reading and researching but also in asking questions.

Can you identify which aspects of your musical learning have developed as a result of this? With specific relationship to music I would say that the same pattern has emerged, structured learning which has taken me to a place of musical confidence which has then enabled me to branch out and explore. The timescale, however, is rather different. I recall reaching Grade 5 Piano and then not taking another graded exam for four years – I continued to have lessons and my teacher explored repertoire with me, including wonderful piano duets before embarking on the higher grades. In my mid-teenage years I then became confident in exploring music for myself, this has continued ever since – Mr. Jewell, I am for ever in your debt. Through the need to teach different musical styles I have then developed ways of encountering and learning about different music, particular aspects which have developed in this way are: listening for different features, and to appreciate cultural sound worlds, working to understand compositional complexities, encountering varied performance practices [including improvising and working from different notations] and using technology. Sometimes this has led me to attend workshops and courses, all of which have deepened my musical understanding.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I would say that a lot of my teenage musical learning was self directed and informal. Teaching my self to play guitar and drums at school and being in a band etc was all informally done before the age of Youtube. Bought a book, practised, learnt to play guitar and drums. It taught me musical perseverance and practice mean that most things musical can be learnt if you do it enough times. If I had had Youtube, I would have probably got better quicker as I think the informal learning that the videos that various platforms offer, do help musicians gain more of the technical aspects of playing that reading a book cannot really tell.

Nowadays, informal learning occurs for me when I cam either transcribing music for pupils to play in lessons from recent chart hits etc to listening to music recommended by colleagues at school or pupils that they think I might like. Listening to new music is easy now in the streaming world in which we now exist; I ask for reconditions from others because it is too easy to get stuck in a familiar rut of listening to things you like. Being challenged by new music of all genres, keeps music fresh for me as does going to see pub bands and some of the local classical musical ensembles such as the excellent BCMG and BEAST at the University of Birmingham. It allows me to reflect on how I might help pupils I teach to develop their own musical performing and composing talents so that they can become part of the local of national musical landscape.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

A great deal of my musical life until university was ‘informal’ learning. My class music teacher didn’t teach in the conventional sense I did quite a bit of research (not that I knew what that was); lots of trips to the library, buying CDs. For some reason I heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony when I was 11 and fell in love with music. It was a CD on the cover of a children’s series exploring classical music and I would buy some. I loved picking up music and working it out myself; I didn’t start the piano until 16 and from sheer obsession I kept trying to get my hands doing different things, so by the time lessons started with a lovely local piano teacher (£6 an hour) I was already storming ahead, to her dismay. She liked exams but every few weeks she’d change her mind about the grade. My first piano exam was grade 6, then did Grade 8 and a diploma by 19. I think it was because I kept playing the piano and improvising/extemporising composing. I loved exploring at the piano. All my informal learning helped me immensely with the formal bit; I knew the instrument so well from a great deal of time with it ‘informally’. 

My creativity came from the informal music-making, and it continues to this day. Every day I play the piano (the flute seems to been confined to the wardrobe) and endlessly inspired by investigating how to play things; all my learning is informal now as I didn’t have another teacher after my last teacher passed away a few years ago. His strictness was in huge contrast to my extemporisation. He called me ‘busking Berryman’ for my ingenuity at changing agreed fingering with every playing of a piece and he blamed my ‘composing’ for this behaviour. There was always a feeling that the freedom from my informal activities could be a hindrance to the formal ‘training’. My best teachers embraced my composerly brain by giving me intriguing/contemporary pieces, or my setting me challenges to compose in response. I’m appreciate their teaching the most in my life, and I think it has helped me to find the symphony of the formal and informal in my own playing music more. I hope it has enabled me to encourage this in pupils too. 


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