Bach Mass in B Minor: Vivace Chorus and the Brandenburg Sinfonia

Bach’s Mass in B minor is a work of immense symmetry, beauty and power and Jeremy Backhouse brought it alive with the Vivace Chorus’ performance on Saturday 15 November at Guildford Cathedral.

It can be a difficult acoustic but the chorus, orchestra (Brandenburg Sinfonia) and soloists were balanced with aplomb. The opening Kyrie was carefully shaped, and the central duet was sung with obvious delight by sopranos, Alice Privett and Alys Roberts. The trumpets cut across the ensemble beautifully in the Gloria. What was most noticeable was the clarity of the diction and the carefully graded dynamics. I particularly enjoyed the duet between Alice Privett and tenor, Richard Dowling; their voices blended well in the Domine Deus.

The second half started with a wonderfully firm account of Credo. The opening two choral movements were energetic with rhythmic vitality. The duet was equally rich with clear text, shaped diligently throughout by the soloists and Jeremy Backhouse. Et incarnatus est and the powerful Crucifixus that followed were controlled and paced with a sense of the tortured harmonies. The chorus excelled here. Et in Spiritum Sanctum was sung effortlessly by baritone Samuel Queen with the obbligato oboes d’amore parts adding a fitting plangent colour.

We were treated to such warmth in the Sanctus and the Osanna was triumphant, showing how well the Vivace Chorus can manage the demands of two-choir singing. The two solos (Benedictus, Agnus Dei) were two poignant and expressive moments following the intensity Backhouse achieved in the previous choral movements, with an impressive flute solo. The final Dona nobis pacem showed all that makes the Vivace Chorus such an enjoyable choir to hear; there was a sense of enjoyment on everyone’s face, committed singing and surprising us all with a strong firm sound until the very last note.

Bravo to the Chorus, soloists, orchestra and particularly to Jeremy Backhouse. It was clearly a labour of love for Bach to compile this complex work and that love was evident in Jeremy’s strong leadership to bring together an enjoyable evening of a great work of the choral repertoire.

15th November, Guildford Cathedral.

Preparing all for KS4 Music

My first Inspire Event for Teach Through Music focused on the transition to KS4 Music; well, more than that in fact. How do we ensure all pupils taking KS3 are prepared to continue into KS4? Is GCSE the only route after KS3? Typically 8% will carry on – quoted by Keith Evans in his provocative address during the evening of discussions and presentations. He is a staunch advocate for music lessons that are truly music lessons. No one disagreed! He sparked the debate whether there really should be a difference of approach between the different key stages. Plenty of useful discussions took place and Keith answered some pressing questions from the teachers who attended. The key message of music through music resounded.

Karen Brock curated and chaired the presentations by myself and other music teaching colleagues. Emily Boxer gave a passionate account of how her school manages the transition from KS3 to KS4. I gave a quick account of my experiences of listening and composing, followed by Julie Stanning showing how the wonderful work at KS3 can continue into outstanding lessons at KS4. Owen Bourne finished the set of presentations questioning whether GCSE Music was the right direction for students, make a strong plea for student voice in course design.

A real strength of the evening was the discussion with students. They were wonderfully articulate and gave a useful account of their school experience. Most striking is how they see a distinction between their school-based and out of school music making. A shame! Owen called for greater attention to student voice but later discussions reflected on the importance of imparting a certain degree of knowledge before students could make reasoned choices in their music-making. I think the debate will continue on how much content should be driven by student choice.

The new London Curriculum has a Music scheme well worth exploring, and it includes contributions by Karen Brock and Owen Bourne. A inspiring view of London seen from City Hall was the backdrop to the evening; a reminder that there is a great deal of opportunity for young people to make music in our capital.

Creativity and imagination in composition

It was great to meet a group of music teachers who attended my new course for Keynote, ‘Creativity and Imagination in GCSE Composition’. I was thrilled to be invited to write such a course; initially it felt rather daunting but it soon became apparent that I could draw on many previous experiences. Many teachers feel the pressure of exam success and careful study of examiner’s reports helped to guide my planning but a bigger influence for me were the experiences I had attending GSMD Connect short courses. These courses were practically based and looked at collective composition, an approach that guided all the activities I worked through with the teachers on my course.

It was wonderful to see that teachers were willing to take risks, and make music! They could see that by doing the process they learned how they could teach and adapt it. Teach Through Music is an initiative that equally preferences music-making by teachers as a means to improving the musical experiences for the pupils those teachers teach.

It will always seem a complex matter in how to help many music teachers who are less confident composers with strategies to guide their students through composition coursework. For me, it will always need a willingness from teachers to engage with the process themselves.

TTM Video

Do share this video with other music teachers in London https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sDJDf8ThQQ8 -

“Heard about Teach Through Music? We’re recruiting our final places for KS3 music teachers who want to get involved in this unique CPD opportunity for the year 2014-15. Funded by the Department for Education and the Mayor of London, Teach Through Music is a completely subsidised programme of professional development for KS3 music teachers not to be missed.”

CPD through Music

I took up singing lessons a year ago. I’m always on the hunt for a new endeavour and something that can feed my musical self as well as provide me with new ideas and repertoire for my own teaching. There’s something quite unique about being taught an instrument or voice as you form a very important working relationship with your teacher. Singing is something particularly different to other instruments in that you are your instrument; your teacher looks at you, not you holding or using an instrument, but you. That was rather intimidating at first but as the lessons progressed so did my confidence. My initial aim was to gain the confidence to use my voice in class and feel at ease leading singing and choral rehearsals. Little did I know I would catch the bug and have since taken some exams and sang in a local opera group and attended a summer school. Why am I hooked? The teaching is inspiring. There seems to be limitless opportunities to get involved and sing with others and there is plenty of repertoire waiting in the wings to be discovered. Practising is a joy; who knows if my neighbours think the same thing.

Enthusiasm is contagious though I won’t be rushing to sing opera arias at my classes but I’m brimming with my recent discoveries to share with my classes. I want to add a Musical Theatre project to one year group and to consider how we might do an outreach project with local schools being part of an opera. All because I’ve found a new resource in singing that comes from my own direct involvement in singing. I’ve not read a book, I’ve not chatted to other singers (well I’ve done both of those things too…) but I’ve been singing.

‘Too much music teaching continued to be dominated by the spoken or written word, rather than by musical sounds. Lessons were planned diligently, but not always prepared for musically’ (OFSTED 2012). I love discussing this quote on my courses for teachers as it raises an important issue for me. Rarely is it identified to mean how ‘musically’ prepared the teacher is for the lesson and often the teachers come up with several ideas on what this quote means. When do music teachers stop being musicians? It’s so different to other subjects in that we need to maintain our own musical skills so we do our job well. How often do we reflect on our own musical preparedness for our classes? How regularly do we maintain our musical skills by being involved in musical activities for our own development? INSET courses are great but are they keeping us active as musicians?

We want our music lessons to be taught through music; shouldn’t we be developing as music teachers through music too? I wanted to help develop singing in my school so taking up singing as a serious pursuit was logical for me. What opportunities are there for you as a music teacher to take up something new, or take time to work on an aspect of your own musicianship to help meet the needs of your department’s development? It surely is the cheapest and most enjoyable form of CPD to practise…?

Originally published as the September Guest Editorial on Teachingmusic.org here

Teach Through Music

I’m very pleased to a Fellow for Teach Through Music – a year of fully subsidised professional development, support and inspiration for KS3 Music in London. 

Official enrolment for Teach Through Music is now open, and with 75% of the quota already filled, you will need to register quickly to secure a place. Visit www.teachthroughmusic.org.uk or follow @TTMLondon for more information.

Teach Through Music embodies the ethos of teachers and pupils behaving as musicians and being empowered through creative ownership, and is designed to fit around the busy lives of music teachers. It is flexible, allowing each teacher to engage at the right level for them. We want to support teachers to invest in their leadership skills and subject knowledge, empowering them to discover new answers and approaches that are appropriate to their school. Our programme focuses on making music the dominant language of the classroom and teachers reconnecting with their own musicianship.

Networking, debating, sharing and developing best practice with other music teachers is a key feature of Teach Through Music. Our aim is to overcome isolation of music teachers and invest in a community of practice where schools, hubs and music education partners collaborate effectively to support a centre of excellence for KS3 Music in London.

Those who enrol will have access to:

  • New exclusive Online Portal – hosting forums, resources and useful information
  • 3 hours of personalised support and guidance from a Teach Through Music Fellow – a KS3 teacher and trained mentor
  • Payment towards one day of teaching cover to school, to support their teachers to attend
  • Launch events – immersive musical experiences with world class musicians and venues,  introducing the ethos of the programme
  • Short courses – providing a forum for in depth learning, with a focus on facilitating high standards of practical music making by pupils
  • Inspire events – networking and sharing of effective practice
  • Special cultural offers – excusive ticket offers and access, creative workshops, concerts and opportunities to collaborate with leading London music organisations

Website: www.teachthroughmusic.org.uk

Twitter: @TTMLondon

Blog: www.teachthroughmusic.webs.com

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCio0i1IVXZyGm4HQ-sae5xw

We’re still musicians

I am always thrilled to meet a new group of music teachers when leading an INSET course; it reminds me how valuable it is for us to get together and share our thoughts, worries and most importantly our successes. More than most subjects we can be rather isolated as a teacher of Music, having a diverse role that includes a great deal of activity beyond the classroom, yet unlike our Science or English colleagues we don’t always have a peer to vent to at the end of a busy week. It is great to see, in London, that the Peer-to-Peer and Teach Through Music programmes will help to connect teachers across the capital with the shared goal of making music teaching musical. OFSTEDs criticism of Music teaching (particularly at Key Stage 3) fuelled the need for such programmes and I believe they will deliver some visible results that will undoubtedly improve the outcomes for pupils.

What makes the Teach Through Music programme so compelling for me is that it places equal importance on the development of musical skills of the teacher as well as the pupil. We spend so much time worrying about assessment, curriculum planning, resources; we forget that we are musicians too. Do you remember why you came to music in the first place? I recall hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as a child and was entranced. So much so I danced to the first movement! I was hooked. Sadly I didn’t have much teaching at A-level in Music and was left to lead my own learning and as such took much direction from my instrumental teachers. Throughout my school years, university and postgraduate studies I continued by lessons and got involved with as many different musical activities as I could. When I moved to my first teaching post in Dorset I took the time to get to know my fellow musicians in the neighbourhood and ended up learning Gamelan (and borrowing a gamelan), Japanese Taiko, African drumming as well as taking part in an improvised/contemporary music group. So many colleagues would see these endeavours as selfish. Aren’t we supposed to be focusing on what the pupils are doing? I found the results to be on the contrary and far from selfish. Pupils recognised my passion, obsession and fascination with a wide range of musics and were intrigued by me sharing authentic musical experiences with them. We became equals as musicians and I helped to cultivate an atmosphere of ‘we’re in this together’ in the Music Department. It’s the same atmosphere I continue to develop in all my teaching.

I firmly believe the best teaching in Music comes from an authentic engagement with what we’re trying to teach; London particularly has a significant cultural offering and I’ve worked hard to forge links with a diverse range of opportunities. Have you explored what is happening in your area? Is there a musician whom you could invite to introduce a musical style, genre? Above all I keep involved in my own music-making. It’s why I came to music and it shouldn’t stop. It’s my passion as well as my career. Networking and connecting with fellow music teachers is great, but don’t forget to connect with fellow musicians. Perhaps have lessons again? I took up singing last year to help develop confidence with using the voice in lessons and it has lead me to be involved with a local opera company as well as taking part in an opera course.

When was the last time you did something musical for you? When was the last time you rushed into a lesson buzzing with chatter about a piece you heard at a concert the night before, or a musician you met? When was the last time you performed, or wrote music? If we want our pupils to think and act like musicians, then we need to be a role-model for such behaviour and this behaviour should be something we adopt in and out of the classroom. We teach Music, yes. It doesn’t mean we have to stop being musicians.