Changing the curriculum: Performing

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reaction to my first blog.  There has been contact from a number of people showing me what is going on in their LA or school.  Perhaps I was a little bleak in my widespread condemnation.  It’s clear that in some areas there is some good stuff going on…but these do seem rather isolated pockets.  It isn’t for want of trying – more for want of funding.  Other programmes have perhaps grown too large and are not getting best value for money.  Clearly we need to look at step two.

Step Two: Change Everything

Now, as a Tory (please don’t close the page yet) I’m not generally a fan of wholesale change but in this case I think drastic action is probably required.

Step two is going to take a few posts.  I remember a Deputy Head who used to begin his weekly briefing announcement by saying, “I have two items.  The second has four parts.”  He was a maths teacher.  I bet you didn’t guess that.  Inspired by that memory I will begin with step two, part 1.

Changing the Curriculum (KS1-3 or ages 5-14)

We’ve come a long way from the days when the music teacher whacked on a record of the Pastoral, while classes copied out of Enjoying Music.  Practical music is in every lesson these days, which is a good thing.  There is a holy triumvirate of Performing, Composing and Listening required in lessons.  I will look more at Composing and its intrinsic value, and the problems of Listening in future blogs but for now let’s examine Performing.  Music is a performance art and performing should be at the centre of what we do.

Performing

Performing in classrooms takes place either with singing, or on Orff instruments (xylophones and metallophones), unturned percussion, African djembes, keyboards, ukuleles (give me strength) or more likely a mixture of all.  The main problem is the lack of expression possible on all these instruments.  You can pick them up quickly and for the most part play in ensemble but the experience is rather synthetic.  If music is a means of self-expression then this encounter with it is only ever going to be satisfying in the short term.  I don’t know that music teachers ever give thought to this – it always seems to be a shock to those with whom I discuss it.  Perhaps compulsory music lessons are rather like taster sessions to see if you like it and want to take it further.  If that’s true it’s sad because so many do not.

Children get something like 350 hours of compulsory music education (say, 1 hour a week for 9 school years) and I wonder what really is accomplished.  Primary teacher trainees say that music is the subject they are least confident to teach (http://dro.dur.ac.uk/1974/1/1974.pdf, p. 29).  Having seen for nigh on 20 years what comes into secondary (at a variety of schools) I can say I don’t have much confidence in their ability to teach music either.  Secondary teachers then make the mistake of assuming children know nothing and go back to square one, wasting more of everyone’s time.

And all of this misses the point: that all children don’t get to practise and develop mastery of an instrument capable of expression and ensemble performance to make all the other activities worthwhile.  All they get is a series of disconnected activities, which are more or less enjoyable.

Perhaps the real problem is music’s f-word: fun.  Now I’m a big fan of fun but as Robert Coe writes (http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf, p. xii), it’s a poor proxy for learning.  Music should be fun but where that is viewed as the end rather than the beginning of the process children become culturally impoverished.

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3 thoughts on “Changing the curriculum: Performing

  1. Hi Tim, I’ve really enjoyed your first posts. I’d be interested to know your views on Musical Futures. I find myself defending the pedagogy from time to time, especially from accusations that: 1. It is dumbing down music, or that: 2. It is has a performance bias.

    In respect of point 1, well, yes the idea is to start from the students their existing musical interests/notions/identities and introduce them to less familiar music/s from there. MF is (rightly so) “open source”, but as a consequence many schools say they are dong Musical Futures because the kids are in the practice rooms or they are doing Jessie J, without ever having attended any of the free training sessions. Actually the Classroom Workshop approach which is a major part of the pedagogy is based on the Guildhall Connect program. It is my favourite way to teach, and enables me to teach any genre, style or tradition to any range of instrumentalists. There is a Grammar School I have worked with (should read: from whom I have stolen many ideas) in Yorkshire, who are also an MF Champion School. They also use the approach with excellent outcomes.

    As for point 2. I agree that not enough children get the chance to learn to play an instrument which is capable of expressive communication. We do start some students on ukes, or cheap metallophones, but like you suggest with the typical curriculum model as a whole, this is merely as a means of introduction to the discipline of ensembles and performing. I think that the performance bias is necessary in the outset. Students need to know how to create and control sound (or match the sound in their head) with their voice or instrument, so that as you say it makes all the other activities worthwhile, but also, and I would risk, more importantly, so that students view themselves as musical.

    • I think you’ve covered most of it, Martin. My concern with MF is the way it’s done in most schools – shut them in a room and let them get on with it…or not. If you rely solely on what children bring to your classroom they will leave it only knowing what they did when they arrived. I have been to a session or two (and Lucy Green delivered part of my PGCE) but I can’t really make it work. As you say, it is all about pupil self-perception – if I had a pound for every time one said, “I’m not good at music” I’d be able to fund El Sistema. Or a house in Barbados.

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