In At The Deep End in Abu Dhabi

10th October 2021

We love to hear about how teachers both in the Uk and around the world introduce Musical Futures pedagogy into their teaching.

Read about how Sam Graden, who teaches at a school in Abu Dhabi, introduced Informal Learning at his school during the midst of a global pandemic with all learning taking place online!

It was late January and I was feeling frustrated.

We had had a tough few weeks with online Google Meet music lessons, attempting to play Samba rhythms on household items, banging on cardboard boxes and shaking jars of rice to my voice shouting ‘Play position! Play position!’ like a broken record stuck on the same 2 seconds.

The feedback I got from peers and colleagues didn’t help: lag issues in the Google Meet, muted microphones so the teacher couldn’t hear the students, GarageBand crashes and black screens, students deciding they really didn’t want to continue music lessons next year.
A few friends mentioned the Musical Futures program. We had done a brief training session as part of my PGCE placement and a couple of friends liked the ‘Just Play’ series so I thought ‘Why not?’
I went on their website and stumbled on the Informal Learning Project: In at the Deep End.
Well that’s how I’m feeling right now so let’s check it out…

Wait….
What?!
A student-led project driven by choice and groupwork?
A chance for the teacher to step back and observe while the students took the reins?
A learning model based on friendly collaboration and jamming music, the same way most pop musicians learned how to play?
A task that students seemed to REALLY ENJOY?

I had some hesitations:
This project is meant for in- school practice rooms. How will we be able to work in groups online?

There are latency issues with Google Meet. Will they be able to perform together?

The handbook says it could take up to 3 lessons for students to CHOOSE A SONG! That’s almost our ENTIRE HALF-TERM!

Despite these reservations, I was willing to try anything so we quickly wrapped up our Samba unit and the next lesson, we watched Ed Sheeran’s video ‘Afterglow’.
I asked the class ‘How do you think Ed learned to play music?
Did he play songs his teacher told him to play?
Did he practice an instrument he was forced to practice?
Did he read notation off a piece of paper?’

No, he didn’t learn to play through this traditional method! He learned by jamming with friends and family! Playing songs that he liked! On instruments that he wanted to play!
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this leads us to our Informal Learning Project:
students CHOOSE the song SONG they want to play and HOW they want to play it’

I asked the class all of the questions that I wondered myself:
Can we work in groups?
Can we perform together?’
Can we pick a song we all agree on?

And the students started discussing how to solve these problems!
‘If we organize into Breakout rooms, we can rehearse like in a practice room.’
‘If we break the song into parts, we can each take a part and there won’t be any delay or overlap with internet lag.’
‘If we don’t like a song, we can always change it, right?’
‘Right!’

It was time to let them get started! They told me who they wanted to work with and I setup the breakout rooms as quickly as my fingers could type! They flew off with their groups into the void!

The main call had gone dead quiet.

And I waited.
I waited because the handbook suggested to.
I waited because I wanted to give the students a chance to start on their own.
I waited because I didn’t want to jump in and take control.
I waited because I was nervous about what was actually going on in those breakout rooms…

After 5 minutes, I plunged into the first breakout room, fully expecting to see cameras off, mics muted, nothing happening…

But I heard 4 students singing together! Then they discussed who should sing which part!
And then they noticed that I was there.
‘oh… hello, mister…’
‘Please, carry on! I’m just seeing how you’re doing…’
‘We’re ok. We chose ‘Dance Monkey’ and we’re figuring out who’s doing which part.’
‘Ya, mister, we are color-coding the verses and choruses with our names.’
‘Fantastic! Well, I’ll just let you keep working then!’.

I joined another breakout room. This time one student sang and the other student played drums.
‘Hi, mister. We’re playing ‘Sweater Weather’ but we’re having trouble lining up our parts.’
‘Ok, can you think of anything that might help you?’
‘Well, mister, we think if we shared a backing track we could play along to it together.’
‘Great! It might not be perfect but you could hear the same recording, right?’
‘Ok, mister, we’ll search for a backing track online.’
‘Perfect! I’ll leave you to it then!

I couldn’t believe what was happening! The students were ACTIVELY PARTICIPATING! Was the secret to just let the students choose what they wanted? That given a choice between playing music and doing nothing THEY WOULD ACTUALLY CHOOSE TO PLAY MUSIC?!?!?!

Next breakout room.
This is the one I had waited for, the one I feared the most.
Cameras off, mics muted, nothing happening…

‘Hello? Are you there?’

‘Hello?’

I didn’t know what to do. I was supposed to mark them absent if there was no kind of response…

‘Hi, mister!’
‘Hello! How’s it going?”
‘Pretty good! I’m practicing my singing part and is figuring out how to play the piano part on GarageBand!’
‘Yes, sorry mister, we were a little busy.’
‘That’s ok! I’m glad that you’re busy!’
‘Mister, we have a question. How will we play together?’
‘Well, let’s think. Could we record our parts?’
‘Ya, I could record my piano part and send it to .’
‘Ya, and then I could sing over that.’
‘Sounds good to me! Any other questions?’
‘No, mister. We’re ok, thank you!’
‘Then, could I ask you two something? Could we share your performance at the end of the lesson? It would be really good if your classmates could hear.’
‘Ya, ok. That’s fine.’
‘Thank you!’

I knew there would be some lag, but I wanted the students to showcase their good work! Plus, it would be a chance for the coveted ‘peer feedback’, but how would they do?

Everyone came back to the Main Call.
I explained there would be some performances so listen respectfully and don’t interrupt.
We listened to the first group, applauded them and I asked:
‘What did you like about the performance?’

The hands flew up!
‘I liked the singing?’
‘Why?’
‘Because she had good rhythm and I could hear her clearly.’
‘I liked the piano parts because it added to the singing.’
‘I liked the song choice. It made me happy.’

‘Ok, what’s something they could improve?’

Again, the hands flew up!

‘The piano was a little quiet.’
‘I couldn’t tell who was doing what.’
‘They were all playing at the same time and they weren’t together.’
‘Ok, how could they fix that?’
‘Maybe they could take turns.’

I looked at the time. The lesson had finished 2 minutes ago!
‘I’m so sorry I kept you late! If you need to go, I understand. There’s still one more group performance, which I’m happy to stay and listen to.’
‘Mr, I need to go to the dentist, but I wish I could stay!’
‘That’s ok! Thank you!’

And then NOBODY left! I couldn’t believe it! The students had CHOSEN to stay behind in the lesson. We listened to the final performance, then the students gave feedback and talked about the next lesson. The energy in the Google Meet was so real it was like being back in a normal classroom.

The weeks went by. The successful outcomes I had with our first lesson happened in the next lesson and the next. Students COULDN’T WAIT to get into the breakout room to get started! We had extra ‘makeup days’ due to Final exams and they STILL wanted to work on their songs! Or choose a new song to work on!

Maybe they liked hanging out with their friends who they haven’t seen in months, maybe they liked having a break from English and Math revision, maybe they liked taking control of their learning, maybe they actually liked playing music!

I think all of them have a different reason and I’ll never know them all, but what I do know is that they had a positive experience making music. And that’s why I became a music teacher.

Excellent workshops ‑ extremely accessible for all abilities and levels."

Claire Armour, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

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