How and why I do what I do…

My focus this week is on my own methodology as a music educator, and considering where my work sits within contemporary thinking about multi-literacies. It’s an interesting thing for me to navel-gaze in this way, because I have not studied a particular music education pedagogy, in fact I have not studied ‘education’ at all. My tertiary studies have been in the area of performance and communication skills, and it was within the latter that I gained my early experience in how to facilitate others’ involvement in authentic and high-quality music experiences.

So here are my early thoughts on the question of Just What It Is That I Do in planning and leading projects and tasks in a music classroom or music project.

  1. I aim for students to have experience of being part of a piece of music. Playing together, understanding themselves as part of a greater whole.
  2. I guide them to build awareness and understanding of the basic ‘building blocks’ in music – such as pulse, rhythmic and melodic layers, harmony, structure – that can give a piece of music coherence.
  3. I want them to understand and have confidence that there is not just ‘1 tune’ or ‘1 rhythm’, (taught to them perhaps by a teacher or other ‘expert’) but countless possibilities.
  4. We build practical skills in how to set about inventing material and putting a piece of music together. In this way, the music comes from them, not from me or the teacher.
  5. I don’t tell them what to do. I empower them to build the musical content of the piece. I will guide them, and offer frameworks or suggestions, or musical content where it seems appropriate. I don’t take myself out of the creative space entirely – mine is still one of the musical voices present – but nor do I hog it!
  6. To appreciate the importance of, and aim for, the discipline of music-making (alongside the pleasure) – to use their ears as a primary tool and trust what they hear to make decisions and choices and critique their own and others’ work.
  7. To introduce/explore the idea of symbols (incl. letters) to help remember melodies and rhythms.
  8. To incorporate discovery and use of different musical elements (eg. dynamics, tone colour) throughout the composition process, as the piece of music emerges. To use these elements to bring detail and rigour to the process.
  9. Students should feel ownership of the piece, and of all its detail.
  10. I draw connections between what the students do in class and what professional musicians do in orchestras and other ensembles. I want the students to see themselves as part of a continuum of musical activity and expression.
  11. I build projects that will have resonance in other areas of students’ lives – in school and outside of school.

I don’t make assumptions about what the students can or can’t do. I make an assessment on the spot, according to how I am ‘reading’ them on that day, or what I can ask for, insist upon, suggest gently, or offer simply by demonstration. In practical terms, this includes performance and expressive aspects (eg. starting and finishing well, singing in tune, detail of articulation, using appropriate colour and expression) – I take the view that despite their youth, the students I work with have incredible capabilities. The momentum and energy of a project can inspire and motivate impressive attention to detail, and there is great strength in numbers. (I sometimes compare it to the difference of meditating as part of a group, as opposed to on your own). And, the bottom line is, if you don’t ask for it, you won’t know if they can do it or not! So I ‘read’ them carefully, adjust as necessary, and aim for the highest achievable musical principals every time.

I try avoid an environment in which there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes, particular at the start of a project where anything is possible. The music we create is ours, and unique to the group, and in that sense it might remain in a dynamic state right up until the first performance. That is not to say it doesn’t settle, or get to a state of completion that allows us to rehearse in detail and rely on certain details to stay put, but it does mean that it can respond to offers being made by the group at any time.

Here is an example – on day 1, Sara creates a little melody, by chance and through improvisation. She remembers it on the day, we all love it, and we create other elements of the piece around it. Day 2 comes, and we find Sara has remembered it differently. She has changed a note (or series of notes), or the rhythm. She is now playing this new version extremely reliably, and when gentle reminders are offered of how it sounded the day before, they do not stick.

At such times I ask myself, can the piece still work (in terms of all the other parts and detail already created) with this new version of the melody? If so, then Sara plays her new part, and the problem is solved. I will focus on trying to ensure the whole group gets a musical sense of the whole piece in their ears and heads within that session, so that the following day, should any other elements change they will sound different, and the student will probably be able to correct them through their aural memory of how the piece sounded before.

Here is a .pdf of the Victorian Institute of Teaching’s iTeach newsletter, in which I was interviewed about my approach to teaching at the Language School.

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