Let’s have some serious fun

I discovered this wonderful video clip from a 1985 documentary following the vocal group ‘Fascinating Aida’.

It reminded me of the King Singers equally amusing video about the history of Music:

And then the even more amusing:

I don’t see it as a problem to make something amusing of something serious; the Kings’ Singers performance shows, in a very sophisticated way, some important stylistic trends (as perhaps the Pentatonic Evolution of Music attempts to do too) through making these characteristics humorous as they well may be to the uninitiated classical music listener. Being willing to poke fun at something perceived by the uninitiated as ‘serious music’ does a great deal to welcome them into a musical world/work/object that carries a great deal of elitism; this is ‘serious’ music and it requires ‘serious understanding’. It doesn’t really. Some of it is rather ridiculous.

I love working on graphic scores with Year 8, and will always use the above clip. They laugh. I like the fact they laugh as I am not trying to say this is ‘serious art’ (as much as the canon will make out) but that it asks questions about the nature of what music *is* and what it *can be*. They perceive that question and enjoy perceiving it as the performance makes them question their perception of ‘serious music’.

With Year 10 as they embark on composition I want them to feel free to create; not have the burden of ‘serious music’ on their shoulders stifling their creative energies. I show them plenty of music that we can discuss to yet again if the serious veil and encourage the questioning of what music is and what composing can be. Zubin Kanga’s performance of Molitor’s Tango (I was lucky enough to see this live and review it here) shows that composing is more than the control of sound but also the control of time and the choreography of that sound and time. They immediately understand the title and amidst some laughs too. These laughs quickly subside as the pupils revel in the idea that they are free to create whatever sounds they want and we can quickly get to discussing why some sounds work better than others, in certain contexts.

The third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, in my mind, is some serious fun. Berio masterfully combines a vast collage of ‘masterpieces’.

Teach Through Music – Artist collaboration (1)

I’m so grateful to TTM for giving all the Fellows an opportunity to work with an artist. My initial priority for such a collaboration was to investigate opera writing for children. Getting a new post during the TTM year meant my priorities changed; I would be the musical director for Into the Woods at my new school. I needed to get to know this fascinating musical – one way was to see a brilliant performance by the American Musical Theatre Academy students, and the other was to meet with Mary King and discuss the musico-dramatic preparation for each role and the bigger vocal issues I would be dealing with.

Session 1 with Mary was today. I’ve had lessons with Mary before and she is nothing but inspiring and direct, not shying away from being unrelenting about technical matters. I’ve discovered over the past couple of years since starting my vocal journey that singing teachers are by necessity very physical and teach holistically. You are your instrument and it needs immense sensitivity and a warm, encouraging approach to foster good working relationships between singer and teacher. Vocal health assessment was my first concern today and I sang some Handel (Rodelinda / Act 2 – Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena). As someone who doesn’t hear me sing too often she has that objectivity to check up on vocal health and technical things; it was good to be reminded of 360-degree breathing and highlighting any pharyngeal tension. So useful as always and good to spend time on ensuring the homogeneity of tone by removing consonants and focussing on how the jaw is involved in articulation. Useful things for me to consider and to listen for when I’ll be coaching the company this autumn at my new school.

Talking through Into the Woods was the primary concern (post vocal health assessment!) and what I really appreciated from Mary is that insight into the requirements of the roles, holistically; not only the vocal demands but the acting necessities and the attributes that will help to bring the character to life in a convincing way. We talked through each role picking out some of the vocal requirements – patter being essential for Cinderella and Red Riding Hood for example – and considering casting implications.

Looking forward to the next session and getting into more detail about the show as I begin to plan for the autumn.

Orchestral Disturbance

I stumbled upon this: ‘Modern Toss presents a comedy take on a Classical Music concert’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02ysg91

And that it does. It got me thinking that is kind of activity would be excellent to try with classes. Give them the video performance of a piece of music and let them recreate the sounds. They have to think about what might the sound of the instrument they see being played sound like? They also have to respond to an inherent musical discourse that the video shows. They might even judge through visual cues when musical ideas return and this might be something they mimic in their aural recreation. It could develop into an activity where groups film their performance and share this with another group, who then recreate the audio by only responding to what they see. They could then compare the versions. One video performance could lead to many different aural recreations that could encourage plenty of discussion and detailed analysis of the visual cues.

Above all I think it encourages imaginative thinking and anything that pokes fun at something pupils might consider to be ‘serious’ is worth trying. If only to break the ice.

Response to ‘How do we get music teachers the CPD that they want?’

My response to John Kelleher’s http://www.teacherandmusician.com/2015/08/how-do-we-get-music-teachers-the-cpd-that-they-want.html/#more-692

I think Music teachers need to see a wider variety of activities as CPD – not just formally organised events (that often cost a lot of money… how much is the average INSET course per day?). Joining a choir and being rehearsed by excellent practitioners (such as Simon Halsey and the London Symphony Chorus), attending a workshop as part of the SOAS World Music Summer School, going to the vast array of Classical music events to learn about repertoire, programming ideas? Music lessons are brilliant CPD – with the right teacher. Performing in amateur concerts and events? Reading is also valuable continual professional development. British Music Education Journal, Royal Musical Association Journals? Plenty on offer in print to keep our interest not only in Music but in Music education. We shouldn’t feel bad for not getting out too much – it is the pupils that miss out on lessons if we end up being a Music teacher that does CPD more than teaching. The volume of courses on offer is considerable and I can see why it must be difficult to choose. I think we need to embrace the rich musical offering available to us and not be chasing expensive and bespoke training that might have minimal (and short term) impact. We can be inquisitive learners without spending too much money and without missing too many lessons.

I do think perhaps Music teachers are given too little credit. They don’t need to be ‘taught’ how to teach. They need rich, engaging musical experiences that they can translate into their unique educational establishments. The process of adapting and developing resources is what makes teaching such a great profession when you have a deep love of your subject and a need to share that passion with young people. Sell them Music by being a musician, and not a participant in an INSET course where actual music is low on the agenda.

Conversely, I love working with Music teachers on courses – discussing and sharing ideas has always been a regular comment on the feedback from the attendees. One remarked that he ‘knew how his Year 9s felt’ after I made his group of teachers work on a practical task. It reminds us that for many Music is an intimidating subject; many feel not ‘good enough’ at it, and as such as teachers we perhaps might lose some confidence in our musical abilities and we might not want to be made to experience that anxiety: Just how pupils must feel. The more opportunities we grab to experience those musical anxieties the more we can empathise with students and be more persuasive in getting them involved. So great to see a Teachers’ Choir going. I hope more such things appear; teachers’ orchestra, big band, musical theatre group, a capella, opera… Music teachers need to be practitioners that are willing to make mistakes and above all willing to make music.

GCSE Music 2016: ensembles?

I spent the morning going through the four main specifications with a group of teaching colleagues from other schools. It was good to spend the time (nearly 4 hours) discussing and spotting some intriguing similarities and differences between the boards. 

The set work and unfamiliar balance is one I’m particularly concerned with: Edexcel gives 85% of the listening paper to set works questions while AQA gives the same weighting to unfamiliar music. The final question in Edexcel wants the candidates to compare a set work to an unfamiliar and related work. Intriguing and potentially a challenging prospect. 

Composition briefs are certainly varied giving attention to ‘audience and occasion’; Edexcel sample briefs stuck out for me being imaginative in their design and engendering a creativity. The other boards had sample briefs that were rather limiting (OCR appeared very remedial and conversely wouldn’t encourage as much creativity in my mind as it aims to do). The mark schemes were varied – OCR having  succinct attempt to cater for a broad range of composing while Edexcel had a very detailed three category approach. The use of the word ‘complex’ bothers me (with regards to texture). 

A final question I was left with after this morning: what is an ensemble? It seemed that one could avoid an ensemble with the wording in the AQA specification: 

Music performed by the student in conjunction with at least one other musician (one of which must be the student being assessed), in which each player or singer has a unique and significant part (ie that is not doubled).

Does that mean a student could count an accompanied solo as an ensemble? If one was to sing a Handel aria the accompaniment is unique and significant? So a singer could perform an accompanied aria for their solo AND ensemble? WJEC makes it clearer that “Lieder accompaniment (or similar skill) is an acceptable ensemble, when the learner is the accompanist but not when the learner is the soloist”. 

I had a feeling another board would allow no solos; and what is a “solo” any more? Have the boundaries been blurred as a guitarist being ‘accompanied’ by kit and bass is an ensemble yet it may be submitted as a solo? Should candidates merely submit two performances where they have significant parts in each so it will allow those performers that do not play instruments that have a large body of solo repertoire, or those musical idioms that rely on certain combinations of timbres to be submitted in an authentic way rather than be compromised to fit with a specification? Or perhaps I’m reading into this too much… 

Are Art and Music so different? (Guest Editorial)

Editorial for TeachTalkMusic can be found here:

https://teachtalkmusic.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/are-art-and-music-so-different/?utm_content=buffer648c0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Thanks to David Ashworth for the invitation. Text of the Editorial is printed below.

Are Art and Music so different?

Art happens unexpectedly. No one expected the British artists of Emin’s generation to become famous like they did – least of all, I suspect, their art teachers. As a school subject, art is a tricky one. Is it a serious attempt to nurture artists, or a soft subject? Everyone has memories of sticking straws together at primary school.

Jonathan Jones  (2013:Guardian): http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/jan/22/tracey-emin-art-schools-riot

I don’t remember straws at school. The Art Department at my secondary school was always the “other”; a remote and special room by the time you were in the sixth form and a sanctuary from the rest of school life. Prior to sixth form the art rooms (two large rooms with a storage room inbetween them) were my artistic home and they were notoriously messy and full of activity. The Art teachers were wonderfully passionate and dynamic and gave plenty of time between lessons to introduce interesting art objects as well as give additional assistance. I thrived on painting and cultivated the sketchbook practice of collecting anything that might be inspiration. It was apparent early on in Art that works took time to produce and the research phase was a lengthy one, and an individualized one; I would explore my own interests and any technical matters (such as to do with medium) would be discussed as we went. I don’t recall any didactic teaching of the whole class. I recall a community of individuals – particularly in the sixth form – that were able to pursue interests and create art we felt ownership of.

I found a report (https://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/publications/VAL01/VAL01.pdf ) about Art in the secondary schools from 2004. It ‘presents the findings from a year long study designed to ascertain the content of the art curriculum at key stage 3 and 4, with particular reference to the inclusion of contemporary art practice’. ‘In total, 54 art teaching staff were interviewed. They were questioned about curriculum design and content, and their perceptions of the factors affecting curriculum choice. Their perceptions of the outcomes of the art curriculum in their schools were also elicited’. Interestingly it was identified in this report that Art teachers in schools that identified as using contemporary art practices (CAP) had staff who ‘were more likely to have worked as professional artists before entering teaching, and thus may be able to share a more thorough understanding of the art production process with their pupils’. They also noted there was a scarcity in courses for Art teachers on art or teaching, but CPD on assessment was a common occurrence. Interestingly ‘in describing their curriculum approach, heads of department in CAP identified schools were more likely to focus on pupil experience, the importance of ideas, current events and external stimuli (such as gallery exhibitions)’. This report is now ten years old but it was republished as an online document in 2012.

The report was interested in the content of the Art curriculum: ‘There was a general consensus that, within the [“school art”] literature, time limitations were causing the arts to be taught through knowledge and skills-based approaches, with the distinct possibility that more conceptual approaches and notions of creativity were being neglected. Something that stuck in my mind from the section on the interviews with the head of department: ‘the interviewees were asked whether or not they viewed themselves as practising artists at the time of interview. There was a general consensus that, despite a desire to continue working as an artist, the pressures of teaching left the interviewees with little time to explore this, particularly for full-time members of staff and those with young children. A number of interviewees commented that the majority of their energy and artistic creativity went into helping their pupils achieve’. It goes on to mention that ‘despite these time constraints it was recognised that maintaining an interest in producing art, outside of school, was beneficial for teachers wishing to continually develop their areas of expertise and interest and was also beneficial for the pupils’. How many music teachers keep up with their own musical interests or have these been marginalized due to school workloads? Do Music teachers perceive themselves as ‘musicians’?

Interesting how Year 9 is perceived as an important year for encouraging students to select the subject for GCSE and to aid this the teachers interviewed in the report mentioned trying to make Year 9 similar to the method of working at GCSE. ‘Year 9 stood out within this overall curriculum approach; as the year before GCSE it was often seen as an opportunity to ‘sell’ the GCSE course to those pupils who had yet to choose their options. Pupils in year 9 were also encouraged to begin working in a GCSE format through the introduction of sketch books, design sheets and project-based work as preparation for those individuals intending to study art. Thus, in the majority of schools the emphasis of the art curriculum began to shift away from being primarily skills-based to the introduction of more exploratory art work in year 9’. There was plenty of discussion about the links between KS3 and KS4 during the Teach Through Music professional development year [http://www.sound-connections.org.uk/teach-through-music/inspire-events]. If we want more to take GCSE Music (or an alternative course of study) should we be introducing the working habits expected of KS4 Music students in the final year of KS3 Music? Is KS3 the end of the journey of compulsory Music or do we still see it as a chance to make that one last sell for students to carry on to KS4?

Music was very different for me. I had a wonderfully inspiring Music teacher at KS3 and first year of GCSE. I will never forget being given Poulenc’s Flute Sonata when I was in Year 9 and he remarked “you’ll need to blow raspberries down the flute at one point” (referring to the double-tonguing…). I was always treated like an individual. Again, I don’t recall much didactic teaching. My interest in composition was encouraged from Year 9 and I remember being given songs to model my own work on. I always felt the challenge and the marvel of once learning how to modulate in a composition I was working on. The difference for me was we spent less time on the process in Music than in Art. I would spend considerable amounts of time on the musical processes at home and just show the tip of iceberg to my teacher. In Art, the process was always on show and the teacher-meddling was always interrogative and specific. I never remember being given a number at school in Music or Art. Only feedback, and precise feedback at that. Above all my Music and Art teachers were musicians and artists; I was in awe of their skills as practitioners and often oblivious to their pedagogical processes (unlike those pupils that spot when a pedagogical gimick is being adopted by an entire school and lesson after lesson they are bombarded by the same pedagogical approach…). The arts teaching I experienced helped me be the teacher I am today; constantly developing my practice through research, concerts, performing, learning, masterclasses, choirs etc. I’m just like them. A learner.

I like the questions that come near the end of the report I mentioned previously on Art curriculum ‘School Art: What’s in it?’. I’ve re-written them to be about Music – all I’ve done is replace the word art/artist with music/musician… I wonder if these questions have now been addressed in Art education. Have they been addressed in music? In this respect art and music share a similar issue: how do they navigate between the past and the present, between skills and content, and to what extent do they involve issues. Most importantly what is the pupil experience and how much of a priority is the experience for them in curriculum planning? Do we plan for the pupils we want or for the pupils we have?

  • How would a change to a more even balance between the teaching of skills and addressing issues and meaning in music, lead to a different selection of references and media?
  • Is there evidence that enabling teachers to develop as practising musicians result in a broader or more effective music education for school pupils?
  • Should personal [teacher] preference be a criterion for the selection of music to include in the school music curriculum?
  • To what extent can contemporary music be intellectually accessible to pupils?
  • Would the greater prioritisation of issues and meaning in music, often claimed to be enabled by the inclusion of contemporary music practice, deter pupils from choosing music as an option at GCSE?

Keep being taught to learn

“Musical Futures is a global movement that transforms, engages and inspires people through making music that is meaningful to them; the festival builds on its aims to create exciting, innovative, tried-and-tested learning methods and approaches which are based on the way self-taught musicians learn. Dedicated to providing hands-on training and resources, the Music Learning Revolution will help teachers and those working with young people or adults deliver inclusive and inspirational music learning activities.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Guildhall School of Music and Drama Creative Music Leadership weeks in 2005 and 2008; we explored pedagogical approaches through doing and it has remained an important tool in my approaches as a teacher ever since. But it can only be one of many approaches. I’ve quoted the abstract from the forthcoming Musical Futures conference above. I see the Music teachers’ job to be the same thing but with a different emphasis – it is my job to transform, engage and inspire pupils through making *any* music [I feel will develop them as a musician] *meaningful* to them. I make whatever music I need to explore with them meaningful. It can’t always be student voice. I’m not sure when student voice become such an imperative in Music education. When did the experience, knowledge and outlook of Music educators become so invalid? I appreciate some teachers have had battles in their classrooms – attempting to present curriculums that they perhaps have little belief in (or passion for) and of course the outcome would be poor progress as collectively between teacher and pupil there is little interest in, for example, Western Art Music. I understand that. It is difficult to present on something you feel little intrigue for, but when music is in our bodies – a musical rhetoric we’ve used, performed, written about and written in – we have a very different experience to share as teachers that few can avoid from being inspired by.

Education is more than learning. It needs to be more than fun. It needs to be driven by those with a bigger picture and the necessary tools to facilitate that success for everyone. Reading a report that “67% of pupils learnt from the experience” doesn’t fill me with excitement for a pedagogical approach. It worries me that such a percentage is being used to suggest success. Is it successful when 33% of a class feel something made no difference to their understanding of a musical concept? Is it not our duty to ensure 100% of pupils leave the class that day transformed *to some degree*. In a class of 30, 33% would be 10. 10 pupils not seeing the point in something. Is that success? Teaching and Learning need to be companions rather than one being subservient, or a consequence of the other.

With a move towards to so many approaches reliant on technology I do wonder what happens when all the power goes off; the network is down; the internet stops working. What then? At a conference earlier this year nearly every speaker at issues with their IT. What happened to teaching without plug sockets? A delegate left the conference complaining quite audibly to one of the organisers: “how ironic that all these speakers are extolling the importance of ICT yet none of their gear worked”.

I had a go at the Steve Reich Clapping Music App. Interesting. I felt a little sad that all those lessons I did with Year 8 learning Clapping Music – that determination that we would get to the end, keeping up with each other and the group that was the clapper who moved sequentially out of sync would be precise and accurate – replaced by individuals tapping an iPhone screen. I hope such apps do not encourage teachers to avoid live musical experiences of such repertoire.

As much as Western Art Music is pushed to the peripheries there is still a vast body of young people engaged in Youth Orchestras, chamber music, choirs that celebrate and have a genuine love for this music. I feel it is far from the peripheries and I hope it remains something more than a fringe interest. I do worry about the weakness that must be there in instrumental teaching. The more lessons I’ve had the more I realise not enough credit is given to the expertise required to be an exceptional instrumental teacher. It is more than a grade 8 exam. It is significant study of one’s own skills, technique and practice that prepare us for teaching. A singing colleague mentioned how it was only by going through her vocal problems – a long and challenging process – that she learned how to be an effective teacher. I’m pleased to see the CME and I think there needs to be more sustained involvement in professional development in instrumental teaching (in schools) where the demands placed on class teachers to deliver for every pupil are placed on instrumental teachers. There needs to be a sense that any child can pursue an instrument and it is the duty of the teacher to motivate and ensure progress and success – what they might look like with be different for every child – but there needs to be a teaching commitment to pursue that progress and success for all.

I remain nostalgic of my school music teachers. Pushing me to try new musical things, question what I heard, and being given opportunities to make music with other people that gave me that euphoria everyone deserves to get with music-making. I was fortunate I didn’t have to pay for music lessons and all my instrumental lessons took place at school. All of them. I still went on to pursue Music at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level and have not stopped having instrumental lessons until only recently. There seemed no end to it all, and grade 8 was but a fleeting moment. My flute lessons stopped when I was 26, piano when I was 30. The singing lessons continue.  I think rather than looking for CPD on how to pass exams, how to assess, and how to engage – Music teachers should be given funding to have instrumental lessons again. Remember the joy of learning repertoire; the thrill of surpassing a difficulty and the lows of being stuck on something. Above all having someone who gives you undivided attention and cares about your success. It doesn’t matter what the musical providence is; it matters that there is that personal connection with making music. For yourself. Is this not the best CPD for Music teachers?

On one of my composition CPD courses last year I made the group devise compositions, amidst surprise from the participants that they were to ‘do something’ more than be passive observers. It is that engagement with a process as a musician that makes us better pedagogues and practitioners. At the end of the day a comment on one of the evaluation forms was “now I know how my pupils feel when I set them a practical task!”. That same fear and uncertainty. They are essential for developing musical skills. As teachers we need to know what those feel like so we can ensure our classes get to know those feelings early on – then they will be more willing to go with on when it comes to something less familiar and less relevant to their musical lives outside of school.

Last week I walked out on a stage in a church in Ealing to perform Mozart’s Magic Flute. I was Tamino. For the first time in a very long time I was genuinely scared. I could feel myself shaking – not only because of the papier-mache dragon-thing in front of me but because I was doing something for the first time as a musician. That moment when you walk out in front of an audience wondering “will this work”, “will I remember it”, amidst part of you saying “you can do this”. It is this experience that I’ll take into my classes, my ensembles, my choirs. I know how they could react and I can reassure them in a knowing way. Not a generalised way by saying “you’ll be fine” to my choir before they sing in a concert. Music teachers need to be keep being musicians. That makes us perfectly placed to ensure all pupils in our schools continue being musicians too.