Which music innovations are reproducible/scalable?

We’re suffering budget challenges and I’ve lost some hours.  My head came to explain/apologise, so I seized that rare moment to ask why he wasn’t cutting my one-to-one sessions where I take children out of maths and English to do music. I charge peri-teacher rates so these sessions are, on the face of it, the most expensive part of my work and a more obvious choice to cut. His answer was “Because we can see the value”. This was comforting, but also made me wonder whether I’ve failed to recognise which of the innovations in our school have the potential to be scalable/reproducible.So – here’s how it works.

– I take a KS2 child out of morning classes

– I follow their musical lead in a session of flexible length, depending on how long they want to continue. Over time (up to four years) they get better, though not in a linear way and not in a predictable direction

– if possible, I forge links with their family.

– no information is given to me about the child by school (other than medical conditions, etc)

– often lots of information is given to me in the playground by the family.

– I’m not asked what I do

– I’m not asked to write anything down

– No use of school-language. The child addresses me by my first name.

– feedback from teachers limited to “s/he likes it”. No review. No appraisal. I tell them if there is something they need to know.

– I work to maximise the chance of the child taking part in the inclusive orchestra (which has also survived the cuts).

And that’s it.

I wonder whether this kind of intervention model might work in other schools. The main skills needed are curiosity, a decent ear and some relevant life experience. That’s most of us then!

The trouble is, I can’t tell you what the head sees as the value. It’s his job to talk about that with his team in school-argot so I don’t have to. I have no doubt that the literacy classroom may be a more peaceful place when “my” kids are away with me but clearly there’s something in it for the child too. Something to like about school? I’ve no desire to name it really – that’s why I could never peddle it as a “tool” or “intervention”…..


A few thoughts about hard to reach families, Singup and lived experience

Tonight’s excellent #mufuchat has left me a little emotional because we talked about the kids we most want to help and their families.

It’s stirred up the following thoughts:

– when I hear the Singup songs about teamwork, friendship &so on I go back to being a bewildered nine year old who knows from experience that that stuff isn’t true except at school.

– in the old Church of England hymns there was sometimes stuff about suffering. OK so the crucifixion stuff was a bit mad- but the music made a place for sadness.

-we don’t tolerate the day to day experiences of jealousy, fear, anger and confusion that play a big part in many children’s lives. I think that’s because those feelings are hard to deal with in schools.

-school music doesn’t tolerate it either. Imagine if children’s literature was filled with the relentless cheerfulness of Singup lyrics. No, second thoughts…please don’t.

– It is no surprise to me that the challenged families are not the ones in the parent choir. Their feelings are not ones we want to talk about, their experiences are inconvenient.

– If you want to “engage” a hard to reach mother, “god that sounds shit” is probably the single most effective thing you can say.  “Would you like to come to choir?” is probably not.

-for me, music is solace. Rock is clearly very important for many children because its sonic properties mimic feelings they are not allowed to express, in particular anger, frustration and the yearning for power.

– it’s cheering me up to think of what the bad lads at the back of the classes who don’t “engage” may be taking away with them just by virtue of the power of the music.

– Sorry, not much in the way of practical suggestions.

On not googling “Learning Walk”

Some jargon is so obviously useless to me that I see no need to google it. Like all jargon, it must have been useful to someone in a room somewhere but then escaped into the wild. And so, every few weeks, I see the phrase “Learning Walk” on the staff briefing but I ignore it because it fails  my “would I consider this acceptable English if used by my nine-year-old?” test.  It is obviously about the disguising of power relations. Perhaps this is why the head actually blushed with pleasure when I asked him to visit my ukulele class to see what we’ve achieved.It must have made a nice change for him.

But the language of power is getting better at hiding in plain view. It’s been good to unmask “hold to account” and “challenging conversation” on the teachtalk site. So innocent sounding… so clever at not identifying anything the person can do to make things better… so disempowering for employed teachers.

I would like to propose a new candidate to unmask and that is documents which deliberately conflate the activities to be carried out with the hoped-for results. These can be identified by sentences like this: “Children will experience X, Y, and Z”. They are pernicious.  If we really do need to consider what music education is, what it is for, and to try to reach a consensus view, we have to unmask this use of language – and grant-making bodies should perhaps help us here.

But I’m not against jargon in itself, not by any means. A teacher tells me my latest one-to-one is “vulnerable” or “has anger issues” or “is very troubled” or, more charmingly, “had a wobble”. This is jargon being used by two professionals in a situation where it is against the child’s interest for me to know precise details (lest my expectations be lowered, my capacity to surprise the teachers lessened).  There’s a time and a place for jargon.

What are your real musical “Keywords”?

What words and phrases do you use in the classroom? Which ones really help your pupils make music?

Four years in to life as an in-school community musician and and a whole two terms (!) in to teaching years 3 and 4, I thought I’d reflect on the technical words and phrases that I feel a musical  need to use with my KS2 pupils and perhaps more significantly those I haven’t found a musical need to use yet.

most used:

1. “Eye-contact”. I say this, let the kids rearrange themselves and enjoy the improvement.

2. “Tighter”. Sadly not self-efficacious but it’s incredible how eight year-six boys will self-regulate on two drumkits if ACDC is on offer.

3. “Follow the drum” I used to have to say this a lot but even new year 3s know this now….

4. “Safe note”. The easy note on your instrument that will sound ok most of the time.

5. “Stagecraft” fed on a wholesome diet of Freddie at Live Aid and the “In the Mood” videos.

6. “Climb back on” because when you “fall off” a piece of music, it keeps moving, like a roundabout…

7. “Show me musically”…… when we get bogged down in words.

8. “Don’t slow down….” Or the music will fall asleep (related word for the drummer: stamina).

9. “Ready”… As in “if your instrument isn’t ready to play X, play Y instead.

10. “Riff”/bassline/chord/tune” for the different jobs we may be doing.

In contrast: Never knowingly used yet.

1. Tempo

2 dynamics. I can’t recall using loud/soft/quiet either, preferring gesture, occasionally with an appropriately voiced “fortissimo” or “pianissimo” (their mysterious Italian beauty seems to make more children attend to the gesture).

3. Pitch (though I do tell singers to “pitch-match”if I know them to be able to)

4. Ostinato.   A word that escaped from the Ofsted-report zoo some years ago and now threatens to overrun the native species….

5. Metre

6 crotchet, quaver, etc as stand-alone static entities (contrast the jobbing amateur’s deeply musical instruction to”think in quavers”)

7. Instruments of the Orchestra. ‘Nuff said.

8 “Does it make you feel Happy or Sad”/”how does it make you feel?” (Reductive. Not a real question).

9 Duration.

10 musician (as opposed to non- musician).

My suspicion is that the words I instinctively avoid should only be used after many years of genuine music-making has rendered them safe and useful.

Ukuleles, exercise books, changing for PE and mental maths in a justifiable music education

I am trying, with many stumbles, to provide years 3 and 4 with a music education. By music education, I mean broadly one that John Finney would recognise as such (see his blog).

Year 3 have 18 sessions with me over a year, and Year 4 have 19. It’s a half-term on, a half-term off. Sessions are 75m or 60m in length. My tools are me+my fiddle, a very experienced TA whose fear of music ed. I fight by teaching music she loves, a uke per child, a half-size drumkit (transported by official drumkit monitors) the internet, access to some orchestral instruments (ones we’ve been given, ones the children learn) and an established school-wide culture of using instruments as a means of busking along (about half of KS2 have tried out the informal orchestra at least once). The classes are very large – 35 year 3s in a room-but they have been well-taught in KS1 and have sophisticated skills in music and movement.

Music being gloriously unimportant in the OFSTED hierarchy, my first tasks in the longer 75m music lessons are getting the children changed for PE then settling them down for 5 minutes of “mental maths”. This is fun. It takes three rounds of Match of the Day or two rounds of Hall of the Mountain King (with our own words) on fiddle plus t-shirt-over-heads-humming***  to change for PE.  Sometimes I play slow hymn tunes during mental maths too. But the music education feels as good when I instead prowl round helping with the maths, calling like a rag and bone man for “mathematical musings, mysteries, manifestations”, drilling down to show how you play with the centimetres and metres until they become things that can relate to each other, dissolve into each other –  taking pleasure in the process.

This being a rookie year, lessons then partially succeed or fail. Recorders, recorder book and standard notation? Glad I only tried that with one class. Starting off the year by getting them in groups to say their names in rhythm? Let’s cast a veil over that. The drumkit art? Well, ok-ish.

I’ve become a true convert to the ukulele because it makes us sing, and sing in so many different ways, but reject the notion that learning a variety of songs using C, F and G7 should be my goal for the first 20 lessons with children this young. There are more important things to do. The children like to make up their own chords, and there is more to be got from progressions than isolated plink sounds. My favourite progression is (in C) the “Raindrops Keep…/”Still Rock’n’Roll”/”Something”/”Life on Mars” openings. Splendidly, Cmaj7 likes to go by different names, and generally I love how this progression opens up a world of clash and uncertainty whilst simultaneously working your finger isolation. If I had to put things in order, I’d start with the disguised technical repetition of C7 through versifying on “I don’t know but I’ve been told….”. Then the children like at least two lessons on the “We Wlll Rock You chord” of A minor with its forbidden fruit of “You big disgrace” and youtube footage of Freddie being Freddie. Try rolling from C7 to that We Will Rock You chord and you’ll learn F, entering the I-V7 sound-world. But there’s an awful lot to do there…

We’ve performed one I-V7 song but I’d like to stop now and work on independence. If you’ve been taught Paw-Paw Patch (with cello on bass and strumming the upbeats so that you’d feel ok if David Ashworth walked in), what does it take to figure out Yellow Submarine’s chorus? Well, it seems there are about eight steps *, ones which teenagers would figure out for themselves in a typical Musical Futures approach. But I can’t send 8-year-olds off to practice rooms in groups so for now I’m explicitly teaching the steps instead (a pity, as not only did my trial group of three children figure out “Submarine” with classic MUFU informal learning whilst I facilitated but one also “got” what it is that makes “Submarine” something we still sing in 2015).  When you know both Paw-Paw and Yellow Submarine, can you figure out the brain-tricks of Alouette? Will you need more or less guidance? I hope to find out by the end of term.

I am teaching notation. I am deadly serious about it. I am so serious because I know that if I do not succeed in teaching notation, then the kids from our council estate will learn, when they go up to year 7, if they haven’t done already from well-meaning misguided comments aimed at the instrument-learning kids, that they are not “musicians”. That is not acceptable to me so I will teach them notation. **

To teach standard notation, I have started with a drawing of a uke. Then I have moved to chord charts. That has taken a long time because, in my inexperience, I had not predicted the complexities of getting 7-year-olds to accept that they ought not to draw the edge of the freboard. Perhaps I should rebrand that and say I have allowed them to play with different styles of chord-chart and to find out for themselves that drawing the edge of the fretboard will leave them likely to put their fingers on the wrong string. Yes, that sounds better….

After the first half-term, it became apparent to me that, since we do not have a music room, we needed exercise books for our chord charts and our lyrics. And so we have spent a long time working out our chord charts, creating and naming charts for new chords, and seeing what happens to the hand and the ear when you play what you’ve drawn. We’ve learnt that if you draw charts sloppily you won’t be able to refer back to them usefully in your next music lesson – which may be after a gap of 40-50 days.  And so, unfashionably in progressive music  ed. circles, I have become a big fan of the exercise book.

Now my year 4s are transitioning from chord-chart to song-sheet: “CHORDS YOU WILL NEED” at the top, then lyrics with the chord names written in. We will need to stay at that point for a long time. But it is my hope that in their second year of learning with me, my pupils will start to think about the relationship between the bass-drum beat and where you put the words. I think we will use poetry to help us. We will then add bar-lines to their song-sheets. Then slashes for each beat with the top line of the time signature. I can see that far ahead, and I know it will take me twice as long as I think to figure it out.  My ambition is to be blogging again a year from now on how to add standard rhythm notation as a substitute for slashes – but only for the right songs, at the right times….. this is about a justifiable music education, after all.

* Step 1: hear Paw-Paw in your head. Step 2: sing Paw Paw. Step 3: remind yourself of the two Paw-Paw chords. Step 4: practise the move between the two chords. Step 5: sing Yellow Submarine in your head Step 6: Sing Yellow Submarine Step 7: Sing Yellow Submarine with your hands in the prayer position – move them out when the chord changes, move them back when it changes back. Step 8: Choose one of the two chords as “home” then have a go at Yellow Submarine…..

** Yes, I am engaged with our secondary’s superb new head of music but this is a deeply ingrained cultural bias. She cannot wave a magic wand.

*** T-shirt over head humming is the new kazoo.

In praise of good managers

I’d like to share some thoughts about good managers. Our precious time should be spent thinking about good managers, not bad ones.

I meet lots of “leaders”, “CEOs” and other folk invested with authority in the course of my two jobs. I’m going to outline some things that Drew (who runs a school) and Gordon (who runs a travel company) have in common.

1 They don’t talk to employees about leadership, vision, management, themselves, or much else. They get on with the job.

2. They cover for low-status tasks when the relevant member of staff is away. It is clear that they quite enjoy mopping the floor and answering the phones.

3. I never have to say “what does that mean?” Because they instinctively avoid jargon save in those very specific circumstances where it is a good way of saving time (so “P&L” whilst looking at accounts).

4. They delegate. They delegate and then they do nothing. They wait. Others realise that the delegation is real, not illusory, step in and fill the void. After a while, the other staff stop bothering Gordon  and Drew with suggestions. The staff agree solutions and implement them. It is, after all, pretty unlikely that something the staff agree on between themselves will be wrong.

5. They give the occasional steer.

6. They know that they too are staff, and identify with staff without having favourites.

That’s all. There’s less to leadership than you’d think.

Copyright, Commercial Resources and unnecessary limits on what we present in the classroom

I recently attended a Charanga training course where the speaker rightly drew our attention to the enduring popularity of “Livin’ on a Prayer”, one of the songs featured in the Charanga package offered to schools.

Our speaker commendably pointed out that Charanga is unable to supply certain materials and images which would make the lesson richer.  Charanga cannot, for instance, supply images of Bon Jovi as they looked in the ’80s and as they look now. Nor can they supply footage of Bon Jovi in concert. I take this to be because  the various additional copyright permissions required for this visual, video and performance-related content would come at a price that was simply not cost-effective for Charanga as a business and would, even if granted, result in inconsistencies in the “look and feel” of its content.

I silently applauded this invitation to think beyond the provided resource and wished other publishers would follow this example. Thanks to the aggressive advocacy of the various industries concerned, it’s still not widely known that teachers in a classroom can legally use a far wider range of materials in a far wider range of circumstances than commercial companies can. Regulations amending copyright law, which came into force last June 1st,contain updated exceptions claimed to “help teachers to deliver modern multi-media teaching without risk of copyright infringement”. And help they have -somewhat, anyway – not least because there is now a reasonable layperson’s summary to be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/375951/Education_and_Teaching.pdf (teachers interested in this topic please note that all guidance not referencing the 2014 changes to legislation is now historic and must not be relied on).

The 2014 Regulations provide many talking points regarding copyright exceptions, but but also touch on a more profound problem.  On 8th March 2015, John Finney posed me this question via Twitter: “Do “music ed resources” determine practice more than clarification of the general purpose of music ed?”.  John was writing in the context of an invitation to consider carefully Wayne Bowman’s paper: “The Ethical Significance of Music-Making” (Music Mark Magazine, Winter 2014). I believe the answer to John’s question to be “yes”.  I took John’s tweet to imply that many lessons are impoverished because they are limited to the content of commercial “Resources”.

There are many reasons why reliance on commercial “resources” will always be second-best.  My contribution here is just to add one more reason to the list: the commercial resource is limited to whatever copyright materials it was cost-effective for the commercial company to negotiate access to. So, by relying on it, the teacher is not using the freedoms designed to allow her to choose materials freely, and is instead putting herself unwittingly in the same position as the commercial company, to the detriment of her ability to educate the children.

We all know that the bars of a prison feel very comfortable after a while. When it comes to copyright, teachers are bewildered and thus compliant – the bars seem all but invisible. There is a long and sorry history here of practices that the new legislation can only partly reform. Does this help at all to explain why the materials presented to children in some primary music lessons are full of what a rather rebellious colleague of mine – in a whispered aside – described wearily as “that teacher music”?