Our next school visit was to to Trafalgar Primary which is around 120km from Melbourne. It’s a school well known to Musical Futures as it has led the way in bringing MF into primary school in Australia and some of the work they have shared has been amazing to watch from afar. We were excited to meet Ben Smith, the teacher there as we know him well from various Twitter conversations. As a taster, here’s how they start the week with a video of Monday morning assembly.
We watched two lessons, one with grade 6 (aged 11-12) and one grade 4-5 (aged 9-10). Both were doing the same thing, songwriting, with the first class having their first lesson of the project and the younger children their second. Immediately they were told to go, the students were engaged, they knew exactly what they wanted to do and knew how to get started. The teacher then worked around the room helping where needed and we were asked to help too. The class is set up with jam hubs and the students had access to ‘band instruments’ – guitars, bass guitars, drums, keyboards and vocal mics.
Some of what I saw blew me away
1) Their skills. These kids can play!
2) Their musical understanding. I was helping one girl with adding a bass part to her group and I did what I do with my classes. I modelled the notes she could try then handed it over to her. But it was only when I started using the chord and note names that she got it. These 10 year olds were able to play, write down and understand chords using the relevant tab or symbols. I had assumed that an approach like this would completely preclude this but I was very wrong! I asked the teacher how he had done this (given the wrangles we have in the UK over teaching notations) and he said that it was all used in context. Coloured charts correspond to coloured markings on the instruments so they have a visual start point. He talks to them as if they are in a band, using the language he would do himself in that context so they are all familiar with ‘playing keys’, ‘chord patterns’, ‘riffs’ and use the language in context with each other.
3) The musical quality of what I heard. There were no issues with timing or ensemble when the students were playing. I asked Ben why this was and he said they learn that from the very start. He begins with prep classes learning body percussion and simple drum patterns on classroom percussion then builds on this with skills sessions on the instruments and it just becomes part of what they do.
This recording is of the grade 4-5 song writers on week 2 of their latest project to give a flavour of what we heard in Ben’s classroom.
What I learned:
1) In my last blog I was wondering whether immersion in one genre could be the solution to some of the issues I’m facing at KS3. The lack of time in an hour a week to build solid instrumental skills and sound understanding. However one thing I knew after visiting Trafalgar-if these children came to me after primary with the level of skills and understanding they have, my current curriculum would work brilliantly. We must look back to primary if we are trying to solve the KS3 conundrum.
2) There should be no limits on expectations of what younger students can achieve in music. Ben has none. His experience lies in playing in bands, he’s brought this into school and passed on his musical knowledge and experience. Again we saw immersion in one genre, but again the resulting quality of outcomes and the level the students were playing to far exceeded anything I’ve seen in the UK, particularly in terms of individuals. Many primary schools in the UK follow a whole school instrumental programme for one year. But what if this were 3, 4 or 5 years long? Imagine what could be achieved if we really devoted time and quality to our musical activities in primary school by just picking one and doing it really well. That could be whole class instrumental work, singing, band work, workshopping, whatever lies in our musical comfort zone but the commitment would be to depth – building on it not offering a ‘taster’ and moving on.
3) I ran this past a colleague in the UK. Their response was pretty typical of what I would expect:
How does our formal qualification system fit into this? If we only teach one genre, and although we can teach many features of music through one genre, we aren’t opening them up to a wider variety of music. Because of this they will find it very difficult to access the 12 totally different styles of music expected of them at GCSE, and then the extremely wide amount of listening, performance and composition experience they should have had by the time of a level. Sadly, we have to take that into consideration into our key stage three, or they will not be opting for music with a well informed understand, and will struggle to transition.
My response to this is simple. Let’s acknowledge how many students that take GCSE music have actually ONLY experienced music in school with no additional experience outside the classroom. If that is a relatively low number, then lets look at what the students who HAVE had access to music outside school have done and what it is about them that makes them so appealing as candidates to fill our GCSE groups. Chances are they have had instrumental lessons and perhaps played or sung in an ensemble. Is this experience any less narrow than the one I’m suggesting? Is it just the fact that they view themselves as musical or that they may have studied theory and notation that sets these students aside from the others and is there any reason why we can’t follow Ben’s example at Trafalgar and teach them what they need from the very start of their time with us in school?