Friday 3 February 2017

How do we balance our priorities for Key Stage 3 Music?

A blog post originally written for

How do we balance our priorities for Key Stage 3? A reflection on Music Excellence London's ‘In Perfect Harmony’ CPD day for Cultural Organisations

Last week I was fortunate to be invited to represent the KS3 Music teaching community at Music Excellence London’s CPD event for Cultural Organisations, which aimed to consider how cultural organisations in London and beyond can support Music teaching at Key Stage 3, and support the ongoing professional development of KS3 teachers.
I’ll admit I felt flattered and slightly nervous at the task of representing all Music teachers across the capital for the day – far be it from me to know the ins and outs of every different school and teaching approach! But numerous discussions amongst the group and a presentation of the key findings from Music Excellence London’s precursor, Teach Through Music, gave a lot of food for thought. It was encouraging to hear that those who represented cultural organisations – which included among them Music hubs, an orchestra and a higher education institution – had a fairly accurate idea of the types of content covered in a Key Stage 3 curriculum. What was perhaps less well understood was the wide range of other priorities for, and issues experienced by, the average KS3 Music teacher. The musical considerations were perhaps more clear - students’ prior musical learning and the required differentiation, transitions between KS3 and KS4 programmes, the importance of practical music making – while others started to overwhelm : assessment frameworks, curriculum design, lesson objectives, homework requirements, literacy focus... the list goes on.
Hearing all of these ‘priorities’ for Key Stage 3 music teachers listed and explained to an audience of musicians and practitioners, I felt anew the tension between the duty of music teachers to teach engaging, practical, and above all musical lessons, and the requirements placed upon us by a whole variety of ‘higher powers’ (Ofsted, our own schools’ systems, etc). And, of course, we retraced the all-too-familiar debate of how to argue the case for Music in schools, and to what extent it should be treated as a ‘unique’ subject. But above all, the discussion made me begin to consider afresh what my own priorities were as a teacher of Key Stage 3 Music, and which of these frameworks and requirements I felt were beneficial to students’ musical learning.
Part of my role in the day was not only to explain my own experience of juggling all of these conflicting priorities, but also to respond from a teacher’s point of view to the questions asked and ideas suggested by those from cultural organisations with regard to how they might support the Key Stage 3 curriculum.  Which, given that I was beginning to question my own ideas and priorities in teaching, let alone to consider the differing priorities that others might have, was somewhat challenging! And no less so than when, in the afternoon, we were given the task of imagining projects which might be delivered in schools in partnership with cultural organisations. I found myself becoming tied up with boring logistical constraints and concerns about how leaving behind my ‘normal’ curriculum might affect my students’ learning and progress towards their next assessment... That is, until I took a moment to step back, and recognise the incredible opportunities that were being offered to my students through these potential projects: to work with professional musicians as equals; to learn, first-hand, what it is to make music in a ‘real-world’ situation; to compose new music for performance at world-class musical venues; to have musical career aspirations widened and eyes opened to new paths. Suddenly, my concerns about the minutiae of the curriculum and worries about the next half-termly assessment didn’t seem so important.
Of course, that is not to say that we cannot ignore these factors – especially when they are imposed on us by our schools, and expected of us on a regular basis. And thus for partnerships with cultural organisations to be successful, they have to be precisely that: a partnership, whereby all parties understand the others’ priorities, and work to support each other. But I would argue that the power of such partnerships to change the musical lives of students is such that we, as teachers, should make every effort to embrace them. Even if that does mean some inconvenience to our assessment schedule, or some difficult conversations with senior leaders in school. Because the opportunities that cultural organisations can offer could be what turns a good musical education into an outstanding one.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Starting the year with high expectations - and plenty of singing

I imagine that most music teachers are similar in finding the start of the academic year something of a whirlwind - meeting new classes, implementing new schemes of work (this year more than ever with the new specifications for GCSE and A Level) and on top of that, gathering new repertoire and galvanising the students for extra-curricular ensembles. And so, when I was asked to write this blog post reflecting on my priorities for September, it took me a moment to step back from all the chaos and work out what they actually were - apart from staying afloat! Having thought back over the lessons I’ve taught in the last few weeks, though, two key themes stand out.

Firstly, I have tried at all times to have high expectations for every student - in every year group - right from the outset. "Start as you mean to go on" may be a hackneyed phrase, but I think it's true in music lessons more than most. It's often too easy for students to believe that they "aren't very good" at music - or that the only good musicians in their class are those who play instruments and are in the school choir - but as teachers we know (or at least, we believe!) that all students are able to be great musicians, in their own way. Of course, succeeding as a musician is about more than just self-belief, but the link between what students often believe about their musical abilities and their resulting achievement is undeniable - I'm sure we've all experienced students who, with challenge and encouragement, have performed or composed something that they might, alone, not have considered themselves capable of.

So what does this mean in terms of my lessons so far this term? I'm can't pretend they've all been super well-planned or excessively resourced - the work involved in seeing in all the changes at the top end of the school means that a lot of lesson “recycling” is going on in Key Stage 3 - but what I have tried to ensure is that every student has felt challenged, straight away. Year 7s have been tested on their prior musical knowledge in whole-class ensemble work and singing, while year 8 have been faced with musical notation in remixing Pachelbel's Canon with an expectation that none of them have forgotten how to read it over the summer. Year 9 are exploring keys, chords and atonality as they analyse and compose music for horror films - with every student contributing to performance tasks. Ok, none of this is ground-breaking stuff - but the point is that every student is expected to think, and "I don't know" or "I can't" will never be acceptable answers.

Of course, there is a risk, with having high expectations, that some students might feel a little alienated - those that have less musical experience than their peers, perhaps, or those for whom performing doesn't quite come as naturally. So, what to do to counteract any feelings of uncertainty amongst all these new classes - many of whom are, of course, still getting to know each other as well as me? My solution: singing. And lots of it! Everyone can do it, it requires almost no resources (and certainly minimal mess) and it goes such a long way towards not only helping classes bond together through music, but teaching students how to internalise musical ideas - which later on becomes key to musical understanding and analysis. I make everyone sing in almost every lesson - and no exam students are exempt from joining the school’s senior choir! That’s not to say, again, that every lesson is a wonderful, fully-planned, festival of vocal music - but I try to find some small way to use voices to aid learning whenever possible. Going back to my previous examples - Year 7 have been creating vocal graphic score performances, as a whole class as well as in small groups, while Year 8 have sung the ground bass and simple melodies to Pachelbel’s canon more than enough times to know them off by heart (and to be able to pick them out on another instrument with ease!) Admittedly, I haven’t tried asking Year 9 to sing cluster chords and chromatic ostinatos as they’ve been learning how to use them - but singing major and minor triads in three-part harmony goes some way to aiding understanding of semitones and tonality.

With only one week left to go in September, it’s fair to say that term is well and truly under way. I’m not quite snowed under yet - but the concerts and school performances coming up in October will see to that before too long. And when they do, I’m sure I’ll have even less time to focus on my teaching - and especially on Key Stage 3 - but hopefully if I keep having high expectations, and keep singing, I can ensure that my students continue to make progress as musicians, and to enjoy their lessons - even when I’ve got lots of other things on my mind…

Monday 13 July 2015

Six week schemes of work - do they work?

Last Friday saw the final conference of the Teach Through Music programme – marking the culmination of a year of superb CPD and teacher-led case studies taking place in London schools, with the aim of making Key Stage 3 music teaching more musical.
I felt privileged to be invited to speak at the conference on the subject of Key Stage 3 to 4 progression, and to discuss how the curriculum that I and my colleagues have designed at my current school enables students to make progress through years 7-9 and to be fully prepared for Key Stage 4 by the end of it. In previous blog posts, I’ve already spent a lot of words expounding how I think that Key Stage 3 curricula should prepare students for Key Stage 4 – and how it might be possible to overcome the idea of Key Stage 4 music being ‘elite’ rather than inclusive. So I won’t go on about this again here, suffice to say that I presented our ‘cook’s tour’ KS3 curriculum of largely six-week units of work and discussed how progression is possible in this sort of curriculum, and how I’ve spent time over the past year mapping the different ‘key skills’ that students are developing (such as creative composition, performing technique and improvisation) against the different topics studied, to ensure that each topic really does build upon the last.
Having said all of this, and made what I felt was a fairly well-reasoned argument, I was quite amused when the very next speaker – Robert Wells, talking about ‘Raising musical standards for all at KS3’ – suggested the exact opposite, that 6-week projects do not allow students to engage with music, or create meaningful music, being by default too teacher-led. An interesting point. Of course, in a carefully planned 6-week scheme of work, it is quite likely that many of the elements of the music-making involved will have been planned by the teacher, and of course resources will have been created and pieces of music to listen to chosen well in advance. However, I disagree that this necessarily means that all of the learning will be teacher-led. A six-week project on songwriting, where the teacher acts as a facilitator, enabling students with the skills that they need and giving individuals the support they require to write the song that they have created, is quite a different thing from a six-week project on Gamelan music, in which all students learn to play a pre-selected piece on xylophones and glockenspiels. Admittedly the Key Stage 3 curriculum that I currently teach includes both of these – but I’m very happy to admit that the first of these is more likely to enable students to act as musicians and creative artists in the classroom than the second.
Which, I suppose, brings me back to the age-old (but always interesting) debate as to the role of the teacher in the music classroom: as facilitator, or as teacher, or as musician – or a mixture of all of these and more. Quite what the ‘right’ mixture is, I’m not yet sure – but I think that this debate is far more central to the success of a Key Stage 3 curriculum than a debate over exactly how long a scheme of work should last.
In a further seminar at Friday’s conference, Jason Kubilius, talking about ‘Making the case for music in schools’, discussed the issue of ‘democracy’ in the classroom, citing the importance of students acting as democratic partners with their teachers. Teaching, he argued, is ‘not a matter of following recipes’, and might best happen when teachers are not ‘structurally limited’ by ‘fixed outcomes’. An admirable point and one that I very much agree with – but when it is used as an argument against organised schemes of work (which, to some extent, it was), I wonder whether it is an entirely realistic vision. Of course, music education is at its best when it can be shaped by the students. Indeed, the keynote speaker for Friday’s conference, Francois Matarasso, said himself that ‘nothing worth having about artistic experiences can be delivered – it can only be enabled’. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, as teachers, we are required to work within a certain number of frameworks, limits and constraints, imposed by our schools and by the British education system as a whole – one of which being reporting and assessment timetables, which often tend to tie in with six-week schemes of work.
I’m not arguing that we should give up on the ideal of students having space and time to be creative musicians. Nor am I suggesting that music education should be constrained by the ideals of teachers and ignore the great potential of student-led work. But perhaps the best thing that teachers can do is to recognise the limits within which we work, and then consider the ideals of creative space and the democratic classroom within these.

As another contributer on Friday – Leonora Davies – pointed out, there is a definite ‘tension’ between music in general, and music in schools – and there is undoubtedly also a tension between what we music teachers would ideally like to do, and what we can realistically achieve. So let’s recognise that tension, and find a middle way that allows us to keep our musical integrity as well as our sanity. Which for me, comes in six-week long packages…

Sunday 22 March 2015

What is Music education for?

This latest blog post has been something of a long time in coming - but it's involved rather a lot of thinking, reading, and thinking again! It takes the form of a talk which I presented at a symposium yesterday.

What is Music education for?
A talk given in symposium at Cambridge University, 21st March 2015
What is Music education for?
When it was suggested that this be the title for what I am going to speak about today, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a rather big question – and one that I certainly don’t expect to answer in what I am about to say. However, it is a rather important question, and one that we should probably all think about regularly.
Before I tell you why I am currently thinking about it, though, I’d like to reminisce about the first assignment that I completed on my PGCE course, which was titled ‘the place of Music in the secondary school.’ When I wrote my assignment, in 2009, one of the most recent documents that I looked at was the 2004 Music Manifesto, through which the then-Labour government committed to providing musical opportunities for all. I contrasted this with the low take-up of Music post-Key Stage 3, the reports from teachers and music education professionals of having to frequently justify the value of Music to sceptics and the argument that by promoting just one rather fixed view of Music, the government’s so-called support might actually be detrimental to the wider idea of Music education. I’m not sure much has changed!
A significant proportion of my assignment was to do with the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ justifications for music in the curriculum - terms coined by Chris Philpott in 2008[1] which hopefully ring some bells. The ‘soft’ justifications are those which rely on the notion of music being ‘good for us’ in some way, while the ‘hard’ justifications rely on an understanding of the diverse meanings and cultural significances that are inherent in music itself. Philpott argues that these are the more valid reasons for teaching Music – although he also suggested that teachers often fail to teach music in a way that really embraces this. I went on to look at Constantijn Koopman’s idea of ‘extrinstic’ and ‘intrinsic’ justifications of music – which is fairly similar, but perhaps a little less value-laden in its terminology than ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. Koopman’s 1996 article ‘Why Teach Music at School?’[2] discusses the effect of music on other forms of cognition – i.e. the Mozart effect and all that sort of thing – as well as the idea that artistic, and musical, education is necessary for personal development – particularly in terms of aesthetic appreciation and understanding. Had I been writing the assignment more recently, I imagine that I would have cited Susan Hallam’s very recent (2015) report on ‘the power of music’[3], which cites neuroscientific research as proof that musical training has a significant effect on language skills, memory, special reasoning, IQ test scores and even personality. The problem with all of these ‘extrinsic’ justifications, though, is that they are not exclusive to music – and there are many other ways to develop the same skills. Going back to Koopman, he goes on to suggest that music’s ‘intrinsic’ value – the enjoyment and appreciation of music itself – is perhaps a more useful justification – although again, this could be said of any number of activities (Kivy – 1991 – suggests computer games, gastronomy and baseball – which doesn’t sound like too bad a curriculum to me!) Koopman finally turns to the idea of a ‘self-justifiying’ music curriculum – whereby music education itself can enable students to comprehend the value of music – but obviously argument cannot really be fully demonstrated given that it is rather personal to the individual. In my PGCE assignment, I ended up concluding that it was impossible to justify Music in the curriculum largely because it was impossible to discuss any sort of education in a discursive way. Perhaps that was a slightly defeatist conclusion – but I was proud to note that I had managed to talk about Plato in my assignment, in relation to music’s status as one of the classical Seven Liberal Arts. However, I’m not sure that was necessarily my most compelling or relevant piece of evidence for a modern justification of Music in schools!
So, having reminded myself of all these ways of thinking about the purpose of music education, I’ve been back over a few of the more recent government documents about Music to see what sort of justifications they tend to be using these days. The National Plan for music sort of does a bit of ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’. The very first paragraph praises teachers who ‘instil in our young people a passion for music, the skills to perform and compose, and an understanding of the dedication and hard work necessary to achieve meaningful success in this subject’ – suggesting in some way that there is an inherent value to Music education. However, much of the rest of the document focuses far more clearly on the extrinsic benefits of music – page 9, for example, includes the statement that ‘the value of music as an academic subject lies in its contribution to enjoyment and enrichment, for its social benefits, for those who engage in music seriously as well as for fun.’
The new, 2013, National Curriculum meanwhile states that ‘a highly quality music education should engage and inspire pupils to develop a love of music and their talent as musicians, and so increase their self-confidence, creativity and sense of achievement’ – before going on to talk about the importance of critical engagement with music. There’s no doubt that these are ‘hard’ – or ‘intrinsic’ – justifications for music education – gone are the references from the previous National Curriculum to ‘personal expression, reflection and emotional development’. Which, to be honest, makes me very happy. And this brings me, at last, to the reason that I’m actually thinking about all of this at the moment.
Last term, I attended a brilliant seminar on assessment in Key Stage 3 music, led by Martin Fautley and Ali Daubney. The content of the seminar was incredibly useful – but it was the ‘starter’ activity which got me riled. We were asked to discuss, in small groups, what the outcomes might be of an ideal music education at Key Stage 3. My group immediately started to talk about all sorts of social and emotional benefits of learning music. They wanted their students to develop a sense of identity, to improve their social skills, to enjoy themselves. I said that I wanted my students to become excellent performers and composers. Which is when it happened – I was accused of being ‘a bit elitist’. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect that at all – and looked around at the rest of the group expecting someone to jump to my defence, but instead found that everyone else was in agreement. Expecting musical excellence from all of my students made me one of the bad guys.
Now I’ll admit that this doesn’t really worry me. I’m pretty sure I’m right to want all of my students to develop musical skills – and of my course my definition of ‘excellence’ is not confined to classical musicians or any sort of notion of exam grades or virtuosity – I believe it’s possible for a student to become excellent at performing the bass line to ‘Smoke on the Water’, or at composing a glockenspiel leitmotif to accompany a scene from Harry Potter. And I would have said as much to my fellow teachers at the seminar had I been given the opportunity. But, this somewhat frightening accusation did get me thinking about the perceptions that students and perhaps teachers have of Music education and what it’s for – particularly as they transition from Key Stage 3 to 4.
Post-14 Music, as I have previously mentioned, is not the most popular subject. In fact, the Cultural Learning Alliance report of 2013 noted that the take-up of Music GCSE had dropped by 10% in the previous 10 years (a change they attributed to the introduction of the EBacc), while the recent (2015) Warwick Commission report noted an 11% drop in the number of arts teachers in schools, as well as an 18% drop in the participation of 5-10 year olds in music between 2008 and 2014. Worryingly, the effects of these low take-ups are now becoming quite severe - the 2014 ASCL report ‘Education Stripped to the Bare Bones’ noted that A Level Music is suffering – and often completely disappearing – in schools due to huge cuts in funding making it unsustainable. A Level funding in 2014 was just 58% of what it had been in 1997, meaning that classes generally need a teacher-student ratio of 1:19 just to break even. Not a likely scenario.
But why is take-up so low? A Teach Through Music event that I – and some of you – attended back in the Autumn about Key Stage 3 to 4 transition brought to light the current dichotomy between what is required at Key Stage 4 and 5 – particularly in terms of both instrumental or vocal performance and understanding of Western classical theory – and what is often seen as the purpose of Key Stage 3 music in terms of being wide-ranging and inclusive. With GCSE syllabuses focused largely on Western Classical music and rigidly defined types of performing and composing as they are – and this particular point doesn’t seem likely to change in 2016 – it is widely accepted that students who take individual instrumental lessons and who have a grounding in music theory that goes above and beyond what is generally taught at Key stage 3 will do better at GCSE Music. There are two possible reasons that this is the case – either GCSE Music is too rigid and not focused enough on creativity, or Key Stage 3 music is too broad and creative, and not focused enough on classical theory. In fact, I’ve heard both of these views expounded very recently. The first by Keith Evans, programme manager for Teach Through Music, and, interestingly, the second by A Level and first-year Conservatoire Music students at yet another Teach Through Music event, who complained that they had not been taught enough specific theory in school music lessons, which they found to be a disadvantage later on.
Having become more and more intrigued by these issues, and more concerned about whether my philosophy of music education really could be called ‘elitist’, I decided it was time to do a bit of reading, and see if I couldn’t find anyone else grappling with the same thoughts. I found an article by Chris Philpott (again) on ‘Equality of opportunity and instrumental tuition’ (2001)[4]. Philpott discusses the wide range of issues surrounding access to instrumental tuition, the impact of students’ economic situations, and the resulting effect on ‘achievement’ in Music, where the old National Curriculum required students to have ‘control of instrument specific techniques’, and GCSE and A Level performances were marked according to difficulty levels which correspond to exam grades. Interestingly, the new National Curriculum now requires students to have ‘the opportunity to study a musical instrument’ – but obviously the situation has not changed regarding GCSE and A Level music, despite Edexcel saying back in 2000 that ‘the highest grades’ would be ‘accessible by those candidates who may not receive additional instrumental tuition’. All of this, Philpott argues, has created a perpetuation of music as ‘an elitist and to some extent exclusive subject’ with the economic issue surrounding individual lessons as a key factor.
So, Philpott goes on to suggest three possible solutions. Perhaps music should be considered as a ‘special case’, whereby it is acknowledged that students should be able to achieve the highest grades at GCSE without extra instrumental tuition – so those who do have extra tuition would be going above and beyond the requirements of the course. Of course, this would mean that a far higher proportion of students taking GCSE music would achieve the highest grades. Alternatively, Philpott suggested that opportunities to study instruments should be extended – and indeed this has happened to a large extent through the introduction of Wider Opps teaching and the focus on opportunity in the new National Curriculum. A final suggestion of Philpott’s is that music’s main problem at the moment is the sense of ‘linear’ achievement that exists in always considering performing skills in relation to ‘difficulty’ – somewhat like my arguments about ‘excellence’ earlier, high-quality musical engagement does not necessarily mean engagement with a ‘difficult’ piece of music. If we were to ‘rethink’ musical achievement in terms of quality rather than complexity, this may go a long way to solving our problems. So, at least Philpott agrees with me.
Perhaps not so for Woodford. In ‘Democracy and Music Education’[5], Woodford argues for a ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ music education which embraces all types of musical knowing – and he criticises teachers who ‘passively’ accept trends in music education. So far, so good. However, Woodford goes on to suggest that, by being concerned with ‘excellence’ in performance, teaching can become undemocratic and insular. Perhaps my use of the word ‘excellence’ was more problematic than I realised.
So, by this point in my reading I felt that the elitism that I had been accused of was, at least, not the elitism of Philpott and Woodford, even if using the word ‘excellence’ was perhaps not the best choice. But what of the point of view of those other teachers, who seemed to value the ‘soft’, social justifications of music education above ideas of musical intelligence or satisfaction? Is this ok? Does it cause problems?
At the end of a long day’s reading in the British Library, I came across the work of Lamont and Mason – and in particular, their article ‘Unpopular Music: beliefs and behaviours towards music in education’ (2010)[6]. Lamont and Mason, like Philpott and Woodford, consider the various attitudes of teachers and students towards GCSE Music, but they do so through the lens of Legitimation Code Theory. For those of you unfamiliar with this theory, it is a framework for the study of knowledge which builds on the theories of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as a variety of others, and looks at the practices and beliefs of ‘agents’ – in this case students and teachers - as embodying messages as to what should be the dominant basis of achievement in a certain area – in this case a school subject. Specialisation codes are used as a tool for considering the underlying principles of an area that form the basis for a claim to legitimacy – or achievement – in that area. Briefly the four codes are ‘knowledge’ – whereby the possession of specialised knowledge is key to achievement, ‘knower’, whereby the attributes of a person – such as having ‘talent’ or ‘taste’ – are key,  ‘elite’, where one must both have knowledge and be the right kind of knower in order to succeed, and ‘relativist’, where one needs neither specific knowledge nor to be a particular type of person.
Lamont and Mason apply Legitimation Code Theory to the various stages of music education, and find – as perhaps one might expect from everything that I’ve said so far – that the ‘official’ requirements of music education embody different specialisation codes at the different stages of the curriculum. In primary school, the focus is on musical expression rather than skills or knowledge – a ‘knower’ code. In Key Stage 3, skills and knowledge often become more important – a ‘knowledge’ code. However, at Key stage 4, students are required to both have skills and knowledge and to be creative and expressive – an ‘elite’ code. Perhaps, then, Lamont and Mason have got to the crux of this whole issue of GCSE uptake and music as an elite subject – is music GCSE elite because you have to be the right kind of knower? Perhaps it is, after all, instrumental learning and Western classical expertise are highly valued, and these are not often skills taught in a whole-class situation at Key Stage 3. Lamont and Mason asked students, who agreed, believing that ‘only people with “natural ability” can learn the special skills needed’ for GCSE and further study. So, we’re back to where we were before in terms of the GCSE syllabus causing the problem.
Except that now we have a new understanding of precisely what the problem is – this aspect of needing to be the ‘right kind of person’ to study GCSE music. If moving away from a classical and linear GCSE model is not likely to happen any time soon, perhaps the solution instead is in teaching students at Key Stage 3 in such a way that they come to see themselves as the ‘right kind of knower’. Students must learn that being ‘excellent’ at music (if I’m allowed to use that word) is not out of reach. Every student has the potential to be a ‘musician’. But wait. This can only be true if we as teachers truly believe it, and aspire for each of our students not just to gain social skills or to enjoy their music lessons but to develop high quality musical responses and understanding. If we don’t aspire for our students to be ‘excellent’, how will they know that it is even possible? If we teach in a way that suggests that excellence is out of reach for some of our students, are we not ourselves perpetuating the elitist code of musical achievement?
I could continue on my soap box, and believe me, I think I’m on to something. But, instead, I will end with a quote from Reimer’s ‘Philosophy of Music Education’ (2003)[7]. ‘Music education’ says Reimer ‘should help individuals achieve whatever potentials they have to be musically intelligent – able to more fully experience musical satisfactions – in whatever ways they choose’. I couldn’t agree more.

[1] PHILPOTT, C., 2008. The justification for music in the curriculum: music can be bad for you [online]. Available from: [Accessed 29 September 2008].
[2] KOOPMAN, C., 1996. Why Teach Music at School?. Oxford Review of Education, 22 (4), 483-493.
[3] HALLAM, S., 2015. The Power Of Music – a research synthesis of the impact of actively  making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people.  London: Music Education Council.
[4] PHILPOTT, C., 2001. Equality of opportunity and instrumental tuition. In: C. PHILPOTT AND C. PLUMMERIDGE, eds. Issues in Music Teaching. London: Routledge.
[5] WOODFORD, P., 2004. Democracy and Music Education. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
[6] LAMONT, A. AND MASON, K., 2010. Unpopular Music: Beliefs and Behaviours towards Music in Education. In: WRIGHT, R., ed. Sociology and Music Education. Basingstoke: Ashgate.
[7] REIMER, B., 2003. A Philosophy of Music Education: Advancing the vision. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Saturday 6 December 2014

On teaching

A response I wrote a while ago to an article on whether teaching is a fulfilling job. In all the madness of Christmas concerts and carol services and end of term exhaustion, I enjoyed re-reading it...

A family friend, herself am experienced primary headteacher, asked me the other day whether I enjoy being a teacher. She'd had the same conversation with her daughter, a secondary science teacher, a few days earlier. I think that most teachers would recognize the feelings of confusion, and doubt, that precede any answer to this question, and finally, my answer: teaching is both the best job in the world, and one of the worst.

There are days when you end the day feeling fantastic. Your year 9s enthused about a new project, and threw themselves in whole-heartedly; year 13 engaged in a really interesting academic debate that took them well beyond the realms of their A Level syllabus; a struggling year 11 finally reached the next grade boundary in their most recent assessment, and the enthusiasm of your period 5 year 7 class was infectious. On these days, teaching is the best job in the world.

Then there are the days when 30 year 10s really don't want to learn about a topic which, let's face it, is truly dull, and you find yourself counting the minutes as you are overwhelmed by apathy. One of your year 8 students kicks off and you spend the entire lesson fire-fighting to avoid full-scale anarchy, and end the lesson feeling exhausted and overcome by guilt that you barely spoke to the 'good' students at all. You don't have time for a lunch break - or even to make a cup of tea and go to the loo, as you're dealing with the fallout from the latest hormonally-charged argument in your form, and spending every free minute chasing those year 8s who need to be in detention. When the end of the day finally draws around, you're faced with a 2-hour meeting, and then another 3 hours of marking at home, before you go to bed to get up before the crack of dawn to do it all again tomorrow. On those days, teaching is one of the worst jobs in the world.

Of course, what we - teachers and students alike - hope for is that there will be enough of those great days to keep you going through the worst, and so every day, and every week, and every term we put every ounce of our energy into making them happen, and when there's no energy left we keep on going, dragging ourselves through the days with an exhausted smile until the end of term arrives, and we can collapse, sleep for three days and get a cold.

So, excuse me if I don't have much patience for those who bemoan a teacher's holidays, and those who can't understand why it isn't an easy job. It's a tough one. But it can be the best one in the world, and there's no doubt that it's one of the most important.

So do I like being a teacher? Yes, and no. Do I regret being a teacher? Never.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Classroom or extra-curricular - is it possible to be amazing at both?

This week, I've been mostly thinking about the links and conflicts between classroom music and extra-curricular music. Working in a 1.5-person music department (where I'm the 1), the extra-curricular workload is heavy. Fitting in rehearsals for bands, choirs and ensembles, organising concerts and visits is a tall order when there are only a couple of you in the department - and this size of department is by no means unusual.

This week, our music department ran a workshop with a visiting professional musician followed by a visit to a concert the next day, supported the school's musical theatre festival, and hosted a joint choir rehearsal with another local school in preparation for a performance at a local music festival - from which I've just returned (on a Sunday afternoon). And of course, our other 7 ensembles all had rehearsals for the Christmas concert and carol services that are not too far away. All in all, it was a great week for musicians! But definitely a less than outstanding week for the students in my lessons, which unsurprisingly were not top of the priority list.

Of course, on this particular occasion I felt that a few slightly back-of-an-envelope lessons was a small price to pay for a week of excellent musical opportunities. But then, when I'm the one running the majority of these opportunities (as the only full-time member of the department), this sort of week is not all too unusual. And there will be a lot more hastily planned lessons and even cover lessons coming up as the run-up to Christmas takes hold.

Don't get me wrong, I still spent time planning all of my lessons this week, created the necessary resources and completed the requisite marking (no time for a social life, of course, but that's another story) - and I'm fairly sure that all of the lessons that I taught would have been 'good' enough for Ofsted. But definitely not as good as they would be if I wasn't so busy with everything else. And, bearing in mind that these lessons are the mainstay of music in the school - and certainly the way that the majority of students access music - it leaves me wondering to what extent it is ok to spend less time on the many to benefit the few. Admittedly, when I look at the actual numbers, it's not quite so dire as that sentence suggests - 280 students that I taught (or set cover lessons for) this week, versus 100 or so involved in extra-curricular music. And of course, there is a huge amount of overlap in that. But still, my point stands.

Sadly, I don't think there's really a solution that doesn't involve money.There aren't enough hours in the week for me to simply spend longer on my lessons when there is so much extra-curricular work going on. And I don't feel that lightening the extra-curricular load - i.e. running fewer ensembles, taking part in fewer concerts etc. is an option - at least, not if we want to continue to be a successful Music department.

The only other options, then, involve more funding - and essentially more staff. Either more staff to assist with running the extra-curricular events (although this is something that my school already does - we have three peripatetic teachers running ensembles, and extra staff members are paid to accompany music trips when they're needed), or for the existing music teachers to be given lighter timetables (and therefore more staff hours in total) in lieu of extra-curricular activities. In an ideal world, this would be a perfect solution - 3.5 more hours of PPA per week to make up for the same amount of time currently spent running extra-curricular ensembles (not taking into account the additional hours that go into concerts and events, of course - this week totalling around 6 in department-run activities). However, for the vast majority of schools, budgets just won't run to this.

In fact, Music departments around the country are currently seeing a move in the opposite direction, as schools seek to make savings in light of funding cuts. Music teacher groups on social media websites suggest that A Level Music, in particular, is under threat across the country, as schools move to save on sixth form teaching by cutting subjects with smaller class sizes - and therefore reducing their staffing costs. A worrying prospect when one considers the knock-on effect this might have on the rest of the work of the department - and particularly on extra-curricular music.

So, I suppose the conclusion that I've reached this week is that there is no right answer as to whether extra-curricular music or classroom music should take priority. Both, I think, are incredibly important in introducing students to music and getting them more involved in it - and both will need to be the priority at different times of the year.

But, if the 'powers that be' - whether that be Ofsted, the local authority, the government or even just the school governors - want to see music departments that are truly outstanding in both their classroom work and their extra-curricular teaching, then schools need a lot more funding - or to move their funding in the direction of the music department - to make this happen. And in the mean time, all we can do is try our best. And hopefully find time for a social life sometimes too.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Preparing all students for Key Stage 4

"Preparing all students for Key Stage 4" was the title of a Teach Through Music 'Inspire event' that I attended on Wednesday this week. The event, which was really a seminar and forum for discussion, looked at the various different options for students post-KS3 (GCSEs, BTECs, NCFEs, etc...), and considered both how these work - or should work - for different students, and how Key Stage 3 teaching should prepare students to continue to study Music. Of course, all while considering the historically - and continually - low uptake of GCSE Music (hovering around 8% nationally).

Of course, there were no real answers. Other than, I suppose, to recognise that different students come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and interests, and want different things out of their Music education. In fact, this very fact could well be what makes our job, as Music teachers, so difficult. In one year 9 class of 30 at my current school, I have a grade 6 classical violinist with no interest in taking part in 'school music', an accomplished guitarist singer-songwriter with ambitions for a career in the pop music industry, a host of grade 2-4 pianists, violinists and flautists looking to take Music at GCSE, three students who love nothing better than to stay behind after the lesson and discuss rock music from the 1960s to the present day, four Carnatic (Southern Indian) musicians who spend a huge amount of their time outside of school immersed in their own musical tradition - and of course a whole range of students whose musical experience is more limited to their lessons in school and their own music listening, some of whom will want to continue to study Music next year, and others won't. How, in one hour-long lesson per week, I can ensure that each of these students is challenged, encouraged and supported in their Music learning at a level appropriate to their ability and their interests, is a question that requires a lot of thought, and possibly has no satisfactory answer. But it was not this particular question that got me thinking this week.

The issue that really intrigued me this week (of the many that were raised at Wednesday's seminar) was how we can teach Music in a continuous, joined-up, way, from Key Stage to Key Stage. Certainly one conclusion from the discussions on Wednesday - which included a panel interview with four very articulate and interesting year 11 students from two London schools - was that there should be a real sense of continuity throughout secondary Music (and indeed from primary to secondary - though this is a slightly different issue) in order to encourage more students in Year 9 to choose to study Music in years 10-11. One of the most commonly cited reasons for students choosing not to continue their musical education is the sense of elitism that surrounds Key Stage 4 (and particularly GCSE) Music - the idea that students need to be highly accomplished on an instrument, or singing, in a way that cannot be attained in classroom lessons alone, in order to succeed. This idea is not without foundation, with GCSE performance units requiring students to perform to a minimum of approximately grade 3 standard in order to be able to obtain the highest grades. Indeed, we teachers (myself included) tend to rely on students' extra-curricular music lessons - even if these only start in year 10 - to support them through the performance side of the course.

However, several speakers at Wednesday's seminar suggested that this should not be the case. Keith Evans - programme leader of Teach Through Music and fellow and director of the Music PGCE at the University of Greenwich - argued that Music should be taught more like Art, where students are given the skills and encouragement to think of themselves as artists from the very beginning, such that every student is considered capable of continuing to study the subject to GCSE level.

So, how do we ensure that every student is prepared, and able, to study Music GCSE at the end of year 9? The main concern of teachers - or at least those with whom I spoke on Wednesday - seems to be that of teaching notation, and instrumental/vocal performance. How do we ensure that students learn enough about notation, and music theory, at Key Stage 3, within the atmosphere of creativity and inclusivity that encourages engagement - and that is praised by Ofsted, who rightly discourage the teaching of theory separately from engagement with music itself? How can we give all students, of such differing abilities, instrumental performance skills, within just one lesson per week?

One possible solution seems to lie in Whole Class Ensemble Teaching (formerly 'Wider Opportunities'), whereby students are taught instruments en masse. This is an increasingly popular approach at primary schools (which many secondary schools seem to be yet to recognise), and one which some secondary schools are starting to take up. In my North London school, we're currently delivering a WCET brass project to year 8 - every student is learning the trumpet or trombone. 9 weeks in, and the first cohort have (mostly!) mastered the notes C to A, and are reading music in 4 and 3 time, including (as of this week) dotted rhythms. Obviously within the cohort, progress is wide-ranging - as is the amount of individual practice that the students are putting in - but there is no doubt that each student is gaining a good understanding of how music works, and how it feels to be a 'real' musician. However, this project will finish in February - indeed, we're already half way through - and a new cohort will begin, while the current cohort swap back to a more 'normal' year 8 programme of work, including song-writing, samba drumming and an introduction to Music  Technology. It was my choice to run the programme like this, of course, and I believe that the skills that the students will learn in the second half of the year are just as valuable as those that they are learning now. But it's difficult to choose to cut short such a beneficial programme.

Some schools, of course, are able to manage this in other ways. The much-acclaimed Isaac Newton Academy in Ilford gives students two Music lessons per week - one 'Big Band' lesson (WCET) and one curriculum-based Music lesson. Others - such as St Gabriel's College in Lambeth - are able to offer large numbers of students heavily subsidised, or free, small group instrumental lessons as part of the Music department's standard offer. It is of note, of course, that both of these schools 'specialise' in Music, and have a large amount of ring-fenced funding to enable these programmes to exist - not something that is available to every school.

Another suggestion from Wednesday's seminar was that we should start to teach our Key Stage 3 Musicians more like we teach our GCSE classes. The reverse has been long-suggested as a way to ensure that Key Stage 4 lessons are engaging and practical - but what does it really mean to consider this the other way around? As I currently deliver Edexcel GCSE Music, a major part of what I teach at Key Stage 4 is the study of 'set works' - pieces of music that we get to know in depth, not only through listening and discussion, but through performing them and composing in response to them. Admittedly, I have my reservations about how this translates into the listening exam (which seems to be much more of a recollection exam than testing any real aural skills), but nonetheless, students gain a rigorous understanding of music through their study of these. So what if I tried this at Key Stage 3? I spent an hour yesterday arranging the instrumental parts of Handel's 'And The Glory of the Lord' to be performed by my year 10 class - but what about my year 9s? Could I not create a version which gave a challenging solo to my grade 6 violinist, accompanied by a guitar chord pattern for my singer-songwriter, a Carnatic-notated counter-melody and a range of grade 2-3 parts, as well as more simple vocal and keyboard or xylophone parts for those students without an instrumental specialism? Of course I could! And perhaps it is this sort of activity - reading from differentiated notation, performing together as a whole-class ensemble - which might allow all students to start to feel like musicians who could continue to study the subject at GCSE - and who could continue to develop their performance skills - even if they are 'just' on the xylophone - to a higher level suitable for GCSE performance.

Of course, there's no way I would have time to prepare something like this for every lesson, or every scheme of work at Key Stage 3. But even if there were one whole-class ensemble project - based on some sort of 'set work' - per year, I do think this could make a real difference to how students perceive their ability as musicians. And, of course, to how confident students feel about reading notation. As with all things, if we expect a certain level, students will tend to rise to it, learning by osmosis and with support from their peers - something that is made much more feasible in a whole-class ensemble.

But wait - do I do this already? A conversation with a non-music teacher at my school this week about the end of year Music exams that he has invigilated suggested that perhaps, to some extent, I do. In talking about the end of year Music exams which our Key Stage 3 students take (which are written in the style of a GSCE listening exam, with questions based on styles of music studied over the course of that year), he mentioned that he is often impressed by the students' abilities to answer complex questions about Music, including notation and theoretical understanding, by the end of year 9. Do I spend a lot of time teaching them theory, he asked? I responded no - not at all - but that the gaining of theoretical musical knowledge was an implicit expectation in each topic that we study. And thus I realised that, perhaps, I am already doing much of what is required to prepare every student for Key Stage 4.

An example. Year 9 are currently studying Music of Africa and the Caribbean. Although I want them to be exposed to music from other cultures in this topic, what I'm really hoping is that they will all develop their understanding of rhythmic notation (in various forms) and improve their ensemble performance skills. In the first two lessons, we've performed Harry Belafonte's 'Jamaican Farewell' together as a class - adding clapped rhythms which we read from box-dot notation. The students have then worked in groups to create their own arrangements of this song, using ukuleles, guitars, keyboards and a range of percussion to add chords, bass lines, addition rhythms and in some cases, vocal harmonies, with every student taking part in the performance as a singer or instrumentalist. All of which was supported by simple 'task sheets' containing all they needed to know about the key, chords and metre of the piece. Perhaps this isn't so different from a GCSE lesson after all. And all of this, in just two lessons? These students are clearly already musicians - maybe I just need to remind them of this more often.

So I suppose my conclusions from all of this is are twofold:

1. That I do want to do more whole-class ensemble work with my Key Stage 3 students - whether this is through continuing a WCET project or, more likely (and less costly), through embedding it in some of my schemes of work, and spending some time arranging pieces to enable this to happen.

But also, 2. That a lot of what I - and doubtless many other Music teachers - already do at Key Stage 3 does prepare students adequately for Key Stage 4. What is needed, perhaps, is a break away from any sort of discussion of Music as an elite subject, and a move towards a style of teaching which makes it explicitly clear to students in years 7-9 that they are learning to be a 'real' musician already. And that each and every one of them has the ability to continue to study the subject further, and to perform at a higher level. As long as they put in the practice, of course - but that's an issue for another day, and another blog post...