Category Archives: Music education


Be brave enough to try

I  attended the European Association of Music in Schools conference in Vilnius, Lithuania in March 2016 which had a host of academic presentations from across Europe on the themes of innovation and creativity in music education.

As always for me though it was the young people that provoked my thoughts. I attended a pre-conference visit to a school in the Old Town of Vilnius. It was a beautiful building, a converted monastery, where we were given a formal presentation by the music teacher about the importance of singing in their school. We watched a video of students performing to the most incredible standard in the finals of a national singing competition. We heard how students are drilled in theory, history, notation before moving onto sol-fa and then classical repertoire from Balkan and Western choral traditions. We gathered that there is no classroom music, and that a decreasing number of students elect to be in the extra-curricular choirs that the teacher is so keen to maintain. The teacher lamented the fact that the majority of students aren’t interested in their rich choral tradition anymore. Some of the choir filed in, went through a gruelling warm-up, and then started rehearsing their piece.

Afterwards we could ask questions. I asked them what music they were interested in outside of school. ‘Hard rock’ was the unanimous answer. Their teacher looked horrified. They all laughed, started miming playing guitars and jumping around. They momentarily came alive. However these students can have both – access rock music outside of school, and then sing beautifully in the choir within it. But there were less than 15 students here, and 730 in the school. If I had dared to ask another question (the glare of the music teacher prevented my hand from going up a second time) I would have asked what about them? If singing is so critical to the school, how about finding ways that engage every student with it, as they then might actually  take more of an interest in the current extra-curricular offer.

In contrast, as part of the conference programme, a group of students from another local high school performed. This wasn’t a ‘performance group’, it was a sharing of what happens as a result of their weekly classroom music lessons. The enthusiastic, lively, relaxed, confident students told us: ‘We all love music. We’re not afraid to make mistakes, because we always want to improve. We are brave enough to try’.

They performed a medley of their own creations that involved clapping, singing, moving, boomwhackers, ukuleles, drum kits, bass guitars and beatboxing.

To finish they vocalised a composition that one of the girls had written. They gathered around the piano and performed her unique composition with commitment, dedication, musicality and utter respect and dignity. The composer told us: ‘who better to sing your composition than your classmates. I trust them’.

This was classroom music at its finest. Providing students with a space for them to create, be themselves, work together, develop deep trust, and the outcome was musical, inspiring and imaginative. Every teacher should be brave enough to try. If I too find some courage, I will tell this to the teacher from the first school.

Musical Futures Find Your Voice is a classroom approach that enables all students to vocalise using their own musical content

Blog post edited 5th December 201


Twinkling: how not to support gifted and talented students in school music lessons

I had the privilege of observing a summer-holiday songwriting workshop in 2013. Young people came together for a morning of music making, got together into groups, and collaboratively wrote a song that they performed and recorded.

I was particularly struck by the musicality and maturity of one student – an initially quiet and unassuming 14 year old, who turned up on her own with her guitar strapped to her back. From the outset it became clear that she was an outstanding musician. While the group collaboratively decided on a chord sequence, a structure, and a theme, she subtly and cleverly pushed the song onto a completely new level by immediately singing a really quite inventive melody over the simple chord sequence, by putting in more complex chords, by singing harmonies on the spot that she felt the others in the group would be able to sing (even though they initially protested when the music leader had suggested this, they responded straightaway to her and sang), by being careful not to dampen the very enthusiastic drummer’s often quite crazy suggestions, and by working with him to create beats that really supported the song, and generally by fusing the group without any of them realising she was doing it. She performed the song to the other groups with confidence, flair, and it was all in all a very moving and musical performance.

Following the session I had a chat with this girl about where she makes music, and the answer was fairly predictable: outside of school she writes her own music, enters competitions, performs in local gigs, puts videos on YouTube, has taught herself guitar, has piano lessons, and generally spends the majority of her time making music informally. I then asked her about her experience of music in school, and it was not so positive. I know of the school (which will remain nameless!) and know that it is classed as a very ‘musical’ school. But this particular girl didn’t (or couldn’t) access any of the various ‘traditional’ ensembles, orchestras on offer as they didn’t appeal to her. I then asked about her school music lessons, and particularly what she had been doing in Year 9. The last experience she had was of all students being asked to create a variation of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on the keyboard. I asked her how she found this, and she was very polite and kind and tried to find something positive to tell me, but she just couldn’t. She said that she had tried to do something ‘wacky and creative’ with it, but that the teacher hadn’t liked that very much. She decided against taking music at GCSE, as she sees music making as being something she does outside, not inside, school.

Musical Futures has come under fire for ‘dumbing-down’ classical music, and for not seemingly providing enough challenge for gifted and talented students. But it feels like there is something very wrong here! How is a music lesson such as the one described above serving young people with the sort of incredible talent as this young musician? Maybe on paper some boxes can be ticked, and maybe that is what is important for some schools. I would just urge teachers not to reject Musical Futures on this basis, because it is blatantly obvious that this girl would absolutely shine in a Musical Futures programme – she would be able to show her creativity, inspire and work with others, take on new challenges, and above all her in- and out-of-school music experiences would start to connect and join up for her.

Musical Futures as an approach to teaching and learning is designed (and proven) to meet the needs of all students – it is not just there for those difficult Year 9 students, or as a quick fix for the end of term. Set-up correctly by an inspiring music teacher, it can provide challenging, enjoyable lessons for the most gifted and talented students in an environment where they can feel comfortable with sharing their creativity with their peers.

We have to start admitting that there are some BAD music lessons out there, that simply aren’t engaging students (and there are bad Musical Futures lessons included in this as well), no matter how outwardly ‘strong’ a music department can appear.

Blog post updated 5th December 2016

I’ll sing yer a song: Uncle Eric and the culture of participation

“I have an announcement to make,” said 80 year-old Uncle Eric, standing on a chair to make himself a little taller than his 5’2” height. “I’ll be bringing out me third album this year, and I’d like to sing yer a song from it now.” And so he did. The next hour was filled with Uncle Eric sharing songs that he knew and liked to a roomful of family and extended family at the annual Christmas bash at my sister’s house.

My Dad is a folk musician so I am completely familiar with this scenario – I spent a significant amount of my childhood in sessions in pubs and folk clubs, and our house was often full of weird and wonderful musicians making equally weird and wonderful music. As a passionate advocate of informal music making in all of its various forms, I know that socially sharing music in this way is the craft of millions of musicians from many different cultures and is how so much music is learnt.

However this was slightly different. Few people in the room would have classed themselves as ‘musical’ and would necessarily participate in any ‘organised’ music activity. Uncle Eric, despite his confidence and incredible memory for lyrics and songs, could be melodically and rhythmically challenged at times.

But none of this mattered. What mattered was that every single person in the room, ranging in age from 2 to 80, listened to him, hummed along, joined in with lyrics when they could, supported him and showed that they were all behind him. We laughed, cried, the children danced, glasses were full and everyone was happy. There is something very powerful about a roomful of people participating in music, where the actual music is the least important thing. Participation was everything, and Uncle Eric got everyone involved and engaged in music without even realising he was doing so.

I’ve been interested in Channel 4’s ‘Gogglebox’. I was mocked by my husband for watching a TV programme about people watching TV but it is pretty compelling viewing. For me, what it clearly shows is how much we like sharing experiences together as a group. It’s just that in this case the ‘participation’ aspect is commenting on TV programmes Royle Family style, rather than joining in with something directly.

Musical Futures is concerned with participation of young people in music within schools, and the work of many other superb organisations in the UK directly supports participation among young people in a wealth of relevant, engaging activities in a range of settings. But how widespread is there a culture of participation in our broader society, especially among families, beyond TV screen commentary?

I would choose the Uncle Eric experience over Gogglebox any day, and I want my children to grow up believing that getting up and singing songs, brilliantly or badly, is just a natural part of the fabric of our lives.

By the way, there is no third album. But I’m already looking forward to the next get together.

We communicate through music, not notation

This summer I was fortunate (or mad) enough to spend 8 weeks travelling around Italy with my husband and two toddlers. To prepare for this we enlisted an Italian tutor to teach us some Italian in the months leading up to the trip. I must confess, I was an appalling student. Always late (even though she came to our house), never did my homework, switched off five minutes into the lesson, didn’t listen, wouldn’t try and basically didn’t learn anything and was totally not engaged. Why? Because our tutor wanted to drum the grammar and understanding into us before we could speak the language and I simply was not motivated by that approach.

When we got to Italy of course it was a different matter. You can’t just read or recite words in Italian and expect to be understood (and my dulcet Brummie tones didn’t help). You have to get right inside the language and all of its cultural intricacies and beautiful vocal inflections and speak with passion and energy – you have to communicate in a variety of different ways, and being able to read and write the words simply didn’t play a part in this.

For me, music is exactly the same. If you start with what is written down it tells the learner very little about what it means to be an active participant in that music, whatever it may be. It also can lead to huge levels of student disengagement, especially in a classroom setting. As a music student who dutifully worked my way through the classical system to university level, anything to do with music notation was an absolute chore, I just wanted to play. Start with participation however, get students communicating through music, understanding the power and value of playing good quality music with others, and it then becomes a natural part of the process to bring theory and notation in as a means of furthering understanding.

If you heard a loud clunk this morning it was the sound of my head hitting my desk when I read the recent Ofsted report. As usual there is lots in there to debate, mull, pat backs over and get defensive about, especially regarding the place of Music Hubs in supporting music in schools. The head-clunking bit was around the points on theory and notation  – not because of what was said but of how I fear people may interpret this and start to become nervous of good quality practical music making in classroom music lessons. We’ve been here before with the theory/notation debate, lots and lots of times, and it can be very damaging.

Musical Futures has fought for ten years now against the chalk and talk, no keyboards until Christmas, approach to music teaching. MF is by no means perfect, it is only one approach to music learning in classrooms, but if it does one thing it shows young people how music is a language of communication that is accessible to them, not just in the classroom but as something they can take with them into their adult lives. I want young adults to have strong memories of music in school, rather than for it to be a blur of desks and tests and formality. I want them to smile about the piece of music they performed in assembly, reminisce about the song they wrote and performed to the rest of the class, remember how much they laughed when trying to master a whole-class rhythmic warm-up. They won’t sit around with a beer when they’re in their 20s saying ‘hey remember when we all learnt how to recite the circle of 5ths’.

Notation is a tool for recording and writing down music. It is not The Music. I am not shunning the importance of theory and notation, but it is only one aspect of what music learning is all about. I just want a bit of perspective. We are all in the business of music education, not notation education.