Musical Futures Teacher Tour-some reflections

In October we were lucky to welcome a group of visiting teachers from Musical Futures Australia to visit some schools and take part in The Music Learning Revolution. As we travelled by bus across the UK and got to know each other better, there were some really in depth discussions taking place about music in schools, teaching music, learning music and the common goals music educators share no matter where in the world they are from. 

In this post, Australian teacher Michael Newton from St. George’s Anglican Grammar School shares an email he sent to staff at his school with his reflections on the trip.

Our first day was spent in the music department of a school in Manchester. The Head Teacher set a pretty grim educational context in the UK. Government policy is forcing school subject offerings that marginalise music and the arts; students are forced into a lack of choice in subject selections. In many cases, music has ceased to be a subject offering. This particular school was a Music Academy until the government changed direction and withdrew funding for Academies. Since then the school has fought to retain its identity as a specialist music school. Why? The Head Teacher said music has had a massive impact across the whole school.

From Manchester we made our way down to London visiting two schools a day, primary and secondary in both higher and lower socio-economic areas. Every school welcomed us into their departments and we were free to wander around, in and out of classes, to look, observe, question, talk to the students, to take part. We saw interesting assessment ideas, timetabling solutions, amazing singing (like nothing I’ve seen in an Australian school), intriguing cross-curricular ideas (in particular one drama/music collab), useful music tech applications (software and tech implementation), practical activities/warm-ups/projects, ensemble ideas, alternative ways of teaching melodies/riffs to traditional notation… so much to ponder and assimilate. What worked best in the schools we visited were lessons that the students could relate to; they were practical, they involved music that was relevant to the students, they weren’t focused on theoretical exercises, and they allowed students to explore musically.

Once or twice we also saw what doesn’t work so well. This can be as enlightening as observing outstanding practice. One lesson in particular was a triumph of style over substance. It was a lesson the Ofsted inspectors would have loved. Key words were written up on the board and drilled. Numeracy buttons were pushed. Expectations and the ‘criteria’ for success were explicitly defined, outlined, and drilled (more on this later). The students were told (repeatedly) it was “their piece”. It was (repeatedly) explained exactly how to complete ‘their’ piece. The task was very narrowly defined, and the class was herded in the desired direction. No room for creativity or thought here beyond the very strict limits set by the teacher; a task with no perceivable context or point to the students beyond doing it for the sake of doing it. When the class was wrapped up they were quiet, compliant, and studiously observed the ceiling, their fingernails, the floor, or the outside world. Yes, the class was well run. Yes, the desired outcome was achieved. Yes, literacy and numeracy are important and those boxes were ticked. But, is music a function to be taught in a utilitarian way?

Lets leap forward to the conference. Lord David Puttnum in his keynote speech spoke of the need for students to be encouraged to be fearless. He spoke of happy accidents that lead to high quality creative outcomes. He talked about the need for young people to understand juxtaposition and things evolving. Rewind. Juxtapose that thought to the narrowly defined, highly structured lesson mentioned above. Lord Puttnam described creativity as a muscle; its key attributes being resilience and tenacity. He also talked about the importance of environment in nurturing creativity, using the extraordinary creative output from certain places at certain times as examples – think the Beatles and other acts to come out of Liverpool at that point in time – what was it about that environment?

At the conference we did a workshop with legendary beatboxer Shlomo, his whole take on music education was to get young people playing straight away; beatboxing is a way in. It’s immediate, everyone can do it, and it’s relevant. The point of the workshop was to give us some basics to get our students going. Like he said, our students will quickly overhaul our skills once they get going, but isn’t that what we all want as teachers anyway?

We also did a workshop on vocal layering, taking riffs from different songs and laying them on top of each other. Really powerful stuff with some unconventional harmonies you wouldn’t normally consider writing; happy accidents. Another way straight into playing music. We heard interesting discussion on assessing music musically, I caught the end of a presentation about playing in an ensemble without being able to see each other. I watched a video of 122 students in an orchestra start a piece together, on time, with no lead from the conductor, relying purely on tuning into each other and listening. Interesting that in a school visit earlier in the week we saw a lesson that had a strong emphasis on playing and listening to each other (more on this later). There were music tech demonstrations, workshops on iPads in the classroom, songwriting, classroom workshop ideas, poetry and music, funding music departments, open and accessible music departments, vocal technique, animation and music, a series of debates, performances…

At the mid-point of the tour we had a ‘party night’. We took over the back room of a classic old English pub, set up a stage, played some tunes. I didn’t. In truth I was wondering how I’d stack up. It’s been a long time since I did any performing. Most of my music playing now is on the decks. If there was a pair of turntables there I probably would have dived in. I was thinking about this at 2am this morning when jet lag got me up. Most of my friends don’t play a traditional instrument, but the mates I catch up with most often enjoy DJing. My wife DJs. When we all get together we’ll often go 3 for 3 tracks for a laugh. Some of us are better than others, but it doesn’t matter; music is something you do, and you do it with other people because it’s enjoyable, communal, it brings people together, it makes life brighter. Digressing… David Puttnam said we need to encourage our young people to be fearless. To do that, we need to take some risks and be fearless. Next time, I’m in.

Along the way a tour member remarked he was feeling old; the enormity of the task, so many things to think about, so much to do. The older you get, the less time to do it in… I’ve been thinking about that. The job will never be done (and if it is we’ve stopped developing and evolving and should give up anyway). Getting the job done is not the point. Getting going is. Sadly, music education is still not done well in a lot of places. Within two days of getting home I had a conversation with another music teacher that made me wince. So, if we don’t start, who will? If we don’t erect some signposts on the way pointing in the right direction for those who’ll follow us, who will? Bugger it, let’s be fearless, let’s take the happy accidents that led us to this point, risk a blind jump, and get going. That’s the point.

What does this mean for St. George’s Music? It’s no secret we’re pursing something different to the traditional and conventional music education. I’m convinced we’re on the right track. We’ll keep playing music, and keep looking for different ways, means and styles to play. We’ll keep trying to make sure it’s relevant to our students. Expect more informal and non-formal activities in class. We should explore (with our instrumental tutors) how informal and non-formal learning can be applied in instrumental lessons. We need to make better use of the creative possibilities music technology has to offer. We’ll keep nurturing an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes, to explore, to experiment, to create, to take risks and be fearless. Expect more singing. Expect more ensembles and music groups, practical class work, the physical and mental space for students to create their own groups and experiment with their own music, some DJ decks for the electro-minded (and the not so electro-minded – because it’s fun!). My guitar skills are pretty ordinary and need improving. Starting this week with my Yr 9 class, I’m working on that playing along with them; we’re in this music and learning thing together. Expect more of that too.

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Excellent workshops – extremely accessible for all abilities and levels.

Claire Armour, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Great sessions which catered for a diverse team of staff. Really good feedback and positive outcomes.

Lindsay Thomas, One Education Music

Yesterday’ss RSL course was absolutely outstanding. The school was awe inspiring and just walking round the corridors gave me some excellent ideas to implement at my own school. With regards to the RSL aspect of the course, I now have a strong understanding on how to run it and know how my assignment briefs should look etc. etc.

Jack Cotton – Broadgreen International School, Liverpool