The topic of #mufuchat this week is interesting as I have a (nearly) 5, 7 and 11 year old of my own. But I plan to make them the subject of my next blog. This one is to log some thoughts about this question based on some experiences I have had in my classroom in the last few years. You see I’m worried there’s a danger in making too many assumptions about what a musical child looks like (or can/should be able to do) at certain ages. I realise this is not the aim at forthcoming discussions about this, but it is something that seems to happen an awful lot in our schools. In our current practice, do we make sure that every child has the opportunity to show themselves musically before too much ‘scaffolding’ is put in place? If not are we in danger of limiting the creativity by limiting tasks because we assume they ‘can’t’ and not that they ‘can’?
What became clear was that the established school music programme underestimated the pupils’ capabilities. This was chiefly the result of disregarding the pupils’ well-developed processes of musical enculturation.
In John Finney’s recent blog ‘In Praise of Systematic Enquiry’ he describes the outcome of research into ‘planned’ informal learning with younger children by Leslie Linton in Canada. The quote from the blog that really stood out for me describes something I have seen so many times in my classroom and when I have been working with younger children in our feeder primary schools, so I wanted to reflect on this before moving onto thinking about the answer to the question in the title of this post.
My first example is based on my experiences in my Community Music role at school. When I started out with our Community Music work, I was asked to go into local primary schools and ‘do some music’ with the children. Having had no experience at all in creating music with younger children, I went with what I knew from my secondary Musical Futures work and 4 6th form Music Leaders to help me out. Teachers had told me about the topics they were doing for that term and I used various workshopping methods to create a piece of music in the 45 minutes I had that had been inspired by the topic. On bonfire night with year 2, we used their names and voices to create music to imitate the sounds of fireworks. In Year 6 we thought about how we might feel if we were caught in an air raid in the 2nd World War and then created music from motifs they composed to represent these feelings. We added lyrics, organised riffs into verse and chorus and suddenly we had the basis for a bigger piece of music. This idea led to a project with Youth Sport Trust as part of London 2012 where students wrote songs inspired by the Olympics, performed and recorded them. Click HERE to have a listen and see the lesson resources HERE
The point is, I had no preconceived ideas of what these children had done before, I didn’t know what they might be able to do. Going with no preconceptions meant I didn’t under or over estimate the capabilities of the children, rather I had to respond to and work with what I found when I got there. Mostly I used my musicality and experience to mould and shape their ideas with them to create a unique piece of music using instruments we found lying around in the music cupboard. It was terrifying, but I learned so much.
The impact on our year 7 curriculum as a result of this experience was profound. I realised that we had made many dangerous assumptions about what our students had experienced before, falling foul of the usual ‘we are specialists we know best’ assumption prevalent in the secondary music department. But more importantly we had not taken into account the vast wealth of musical knowledge and understanding that the students brought with them from their own ‘enculturation’, that exploration of music that takes place outside formal education via their own personal listening choices, music around them in the home, YouTube and TV. We threw out our Musical Elements unit, Keyboard unit, sing a song with a backing track unit etc. in favour of a much more musical experience from the very start. Gone was the “year 7 don’t do practical” mentality that had crept in during my maternity leave. Instead what went were the desks, worksheets and exercise books.
Since then I have gradually reduced the amount of structure I have given students in creative tasks. It’s not been an easy decision, I’ve blogged about it before when I’ve felt that I’m perhaps letting them down by not ‘teaching’ them more. But gradually I’m trying to find a balance by looking more carefully at how I feedback to students during their practical work, how I can ensure a balance between musics from a range of genres and not just get stuck in their comfort zones and trying to integrate notation and theory in a way that supports the musical learning rather than interrupts it.
My second example is from a recent project with Y7. I have shared this before but I’m still not clear about the implications of it. In this example, 2 teachers approach the same task in a different way. One approach results in a better outcome: the performance is polished, the structure clear, the students play confidently. The second has a rougher final outcome, musical ideas are more haphazardly thrown together. So on the surface, it would seem that approach 1 was the more successful. Indeed the song I’ve used in the example won the overall competition. But a closer look at the musical learning journey of each raises some questions for me about creativity, challenge and musical learning itself.
The task: The class compose and perform a song in class which becomes their entry for the House Music Competition
Time scale: approx. 10×1 hour lessons
a) The teacher identifies the chord sequence to be used-in this case it’s the ‘4 chord’ progression I, V, VI, IV in C major. The most able students learn to play this on keyboard, bass, drums and guitar (many of these can already play these instruments having learned them outside the classroom).
b) The teacher gives the class 5 notes and asks them to compose a riff on keyboards. Students go off in groups and the class choose their favourite to form the basis of the song and add this to the backing.
c) One group goes off and makes up some lyrics. With help from the teacher, these are fitted into verse/chorus structure and added to the song.
Have a listen, pretty good for Y7? And they play with no conductor as one big ensemble!
a) The class workshopped some ideas. These started with rhythmic improvisation then a groove was built, one in a minor key, one in a major. The class choose the chords from a selection offered by the teacher (based on how simple they were to play on available instruments as they needed to be able to pick up an instrument ant jon the groove quickly!)
b) After preparing ideas at home, the class split into groups, using one of the grooves, they composed an ‘idea’. This could be a chord sequence, melody, lyrics or instrumental.
c) At home, students listened back and decided which they would like to form the intro/verse/chorus of the piece. In the lesson, those that composed the chosen sections taught them to a larger group
d) At home students wrote lyrics and had a go at adding them to the recorded tracks. With support from the teacher, the sections were put together and students thought about how best to link them together.
Everything was open source and a learning log was updated weekly so students were able to contribute ideas outside the lesson which the teacher then built into the piece or discussed as part of the lesson.
Because the music was complex, the students played as a large ensemble watching the teacher conduct. They rehearsed for many weeks deciding as a class what needed to be changed to make it better.
It’s not perfect. The sections are all quite different and the timing isn’t always spot on. Some students are playing on ipads rather than instruments. The teacher is conducting.
1. In which approach do they learn more musical ‘concepts’?
2. In each approach who as done the most composing? Teacher or Students?
3. Which song should have won the competition? Why?
As this year has gone on, I have let go more than ever before. I’ve adopted a ‘no limits’ policy and this includes during the setting up of the task as well as during the process. I give them a task but I don’t limit the chords/instruments/notes etc. I’ve accepted that outcomes may not reflect the quality of the journey and I’ve had to look long and hard at my own role and how I can ensure I tick all my own musical boxes (taking aside the box ticking inflicted on me by others).
How would it be if we adopted a ‘no limits’ approach to the question about what a musical child looks like at ages 5, 7, 11, 14? Would it change anything or do we NEED to be more prescriptive about the learning of musical concepts, devices, theory and notation etc? How would it be if as secondary teachers we could be confident that all students had had a consistent experience in primary school and that all had covered the same content in primary schools so we all knew where to start in Y 7 to build on them? Now that could change everything…..