More thoughts on my teaching methodology

As I started planning the next term at the Language School I began to make a list of  some of the key principles I keep in mind when working in this environment. It is starting to look a bit like a methodology description… nearly. Here goes:

Things I learned from my research project in 07:

  • Repetition builds confidence. It gives the students time to become familiar with a task, and then to build skills. Create a warm-up sequence for each group and repeat this at the start of each lesson for about 4 weeks.
  • Lots of the children can only copy. They simply don’t have the language skills yet to understand any explanations. Therefore everything we do in music class should be do-able simply by joining in what the other kids do. Music is ideal for this.
  • Syllable awareness is a challenge for many of the students (and a significant step towards literacy as well as oral fluency), therefore a challenge worth pursuing. It is also an ideal, self-evident compositional tool. It is good to work in both directions (the rhythm of words becoming music; setting music to the rhythm of words) – this is one of the ways I work with text from books, for example.
  • Establish with the group the important skills for music work – Good Looking, Good Listening, and Good Waiting. And Working Together. I use these phrases to reinforce the ideas to the students in every lesson. The language is simple and familiar. I can add the gesture of pointing to my eye/ear to further illustrate the meaning for the newest students.  I make a point of praising students who demonstrate these skills – this gives me a further chance to use the phrases and increase their familiarity.
  • Keep the mood light and happy. School is hard work for these students – they are navigating and negotiating a lot of unfamiliar territory, all in a new language. Music should be fun, a time for everyone to feel good. Use light-hearted questions to refocus attention (eg. “Who is the teacher?” and “It’s Eric’s turn. Who is Eric?” are some tactics I use).

Ideas from music therapy:

  • The role and use of a consistent ‘framing’ song (ie. a song or chant that always starts/finishes the lesson, and frames it in the children’s minds so that they come to recognise this space as a safe/creative/non-judging space).
  • Using the idea of entrainment – matching the ‘tempo’ of the group’s energy with a task, game or song, and then moving it one notch at a time towards the energy level you need them to be at for the main body of the lesson.

From Kodaly:

In 1992 I studied under the auspices of a Hungarian Government Scholarship at the Kodaly Pedagogical Institute of Music in Kecskemet, Hungary. This is essentially a school for music teachers to study the Kodaly method intensively. At the time I was a very serious clarinetist, and went there in order to study clarinet with a particular teacher and study intensive solfege, but in undertaking this I couldn’t help pick up bits of wisdom from Kodaly, passed on to me by the trainee teachers. This one is my favourite:

‘If a child gives you the wrong answer, then you have asked the wrong question.’

In other words, the way we phrase and deliver questions and information to students is paramount. I interpret this as meaning it is my job to be clear. If I want them to learn then I must present the information in as engaging a way as possible. I need to take the students to a point where, far from spoon-feeding them the ‘answer’, they cannot fail to get it right. It places a lot of responsibility on me as a teacher. And that is just fine.

From community-based work:

  • Set them up for success. Ensure engagement with the key principles and skills, be inventive, thorough, consistent, creative. Encourage hands-on exploration and discovery.

From workshops:

  • Flows of energy. matching energy with tasks, then moving it by degree. Working with the strengths and natural momentum of the group, rather than trying to force it elsewhere. Pay attention to yourself. Don’t be a control freak for the sake of having control. A natural (un-driven) momentum is more exciting, and costs you far less in terms of your own energy. It will carry you along too,when it is there.
  • Create a safe environment. Friendly, playful, non-judging, clear consistent boundaries that respect individuals but honour the group and process.

From chamber music, performance, and improvisation (music and theatre):

  • Be ready to be changed by what is offered to you (said, played, implied) by the group. ie. Don’t hold fast to your plan when offers have been placed on the table.
  • The class is both your audience and your fellow performers (with you as their conductor).  As your audience you must hold them, keep them in the magic of what you are doing. Be aware of the energy in the room and how it changes if your focus alters. Try to ‘hold’ them all the time, even in a period of time-out.
  • In the conductor scenario, remember that a kind of contract is entered into, in which your job is to be as clear as possible, and to take responsibility. You ask them to trust you with this. If something goes wrong, it will be your fault. That assumes that they keep their part of the contract, which is to be looking, participating, watching all the time, ready to respond.


Mine is a project-based approach in the classroom. All of my projects are composition projects, in that each classes composes their own music throughout the term and performs it at the end. The compositions may be instrumental pieces, songs, aleatoric, narrative, or dance-based; most are multi-sectioned and carefully structured, with the students fully involved and aware of the structure.  All the instruments come from what is available to us in the classroom – we never work with recorded accompaniments.

Each term I think of a project that I will do with each class. From week to week I add to the project, and I plan just one week at a time, responding to whatever has taken place in the classroom when deciding what to do next. All the children’s music skills, technique, theory, and compositional craft, will be learned in the context of the project.

There is much implicit learning. I don’t do a lot of naming or defining, in fact I try to keep my talking to the absolute minimum. I lead the students by doing, and asking them (with my hands and eyes, or with my musical expression) to join me. In this way, the newest students in the school (with the least English) can stand on equal footing with the students with two or three terms under their belt. Often it is the first lesson in which they have the chance to shine or lead.


Another photo – Geghard Monastery in Armenia – a cave monastery. Protected on all sides by cliffs. It reminds me of the Sufi House in Blagaj, near Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


4 comments so far

  1. garibald on

    It’s sufi house too?

  2. musicwork on

    No, this one (Geghard) is an Armenian monastery – Armenian Christian church.

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