Monthly Archives: January 2014

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