Performance and motivation

This post is inspired by some recent observations at Pelican Primary School. One of my first big realisations at Pelican was the limited ability to concentrate and focus among the students. I know that this is a common occurrence in primary schools, but it is perhaps particularly prevalent at schools with a similar demographic to Pelican. Therefore, my first big question to myself was, “How can I get them to increase their focus?”

Music is an incredibly disciplined undertaking. I always warn students that “there is lots of waiting in music” – they must wait to play at the right time, to stop and then wait again, to keep their attention on the music even when they are not playing, etc.

However, it seemed to me that the Pelicans didn’t really see the point in waiting. Their focus was so scattered that it was hard to deliver those kinds of lightbulb moments of understanding in the warm-up tasks (which is my usual strategy) – they just weren’t sticking at anything long enough for it to work its magic. Without this understanding of what we are aiming for, they have no particular motivation to stick with it. A vicious circle ensues.

Then, because those moments of success that yield understanding are so fleeting, there are few opportunities to demonstrate to them how well they are doing, and begin to build on their pride and confidence.

This is where class performances have begun to be a real solution and important part of the music curriculum. “The students need to see another class perform,” I decided. It needs to be a strong performance, so that it sets a standard and can act as a reference point for all the other classes.

I have one such class that has been functional enough, and focused enough, to work consistently towards a musical item for performance. I taught them two Canadian folk songs – Ho Ho Watenay, and My Paddle’s Clean and Bright.  We developed accompaniments on tuned percussion, drums and guiros, and together we decided on a structure for a performance piece. The students learned their parts as body percussion as well as on the instruments (mime and imitative vocal sounds for the guiros, and showing tonal intervals on the body for the xylophone parts), and we decided to incorporate the body percussion into the performance structure as well.

Students at Pelican don’t perform in front of each other very often – it seems like there is not a strong culture of performance in the school. Therefore, the class teacher and I spent some time preparing the students for the performance, getting them to talk about feeling ’embarassed’ or ‘shy’, and talking about what to do if you freak out and forget where you are up to, or feel unsure (“look at me and I will help you, if this happens”). We also enlisted the help of another teacher who is a good guitarist (unlike me, who can keep it together but is pretty boring in what I do on guitar). When we first put it all together, I think they could hear that it was sounding pretty good.

Then, we took the opportunity to have two runs at the performane. The first one was for parents, at a fundraising event on a Friday evening. Any students from the class who were available that night came along to play. It was very well received, they played really well, and they got a big buzz out of it. Other children who were there on the night listened really attentively, and applauded enthusiastically.

The second performance was today, at school assembly. The assembly starts at 9am, but we arranged with the principal that we would first gather in the music room for a rehearsal, and then join the assembly at 9.20am. This way we could talk and play through the performance piece before presenting it to the audience.

They were far more nervous for this. I imagine that it is quite stressful to perform in front of your peers, especially when such performances are not the usual fare. Again, they performed very well indeed. We filmed their performance, so for their next lesson, the class teacher and I plan to watch it with them several times, and get them to critique and discuss what took place. I hope that this will also help us build the foundations to a performance culture in the school.

What happened for the rest of today was really lovely. Firstly, the next class that came in to me wanted to sing the songs (Ho Ho Watenay, and My Paddle) that they had heard that morning. Some had been watching the instrumental patterns carefully, and wanted to show me how they  “already know how to do it!”

One little girl from Prep came up to me at playtime told me wistfully that “it’s a shame we couldn’t have a turn”. I assured her that her class would also perform at assembly one day. Other students from older classes, whose music is almost ready but who struggle as a class to have everyone focusing for long enough, all at the same time, to really be ready for performance, asked me why they weren’t performing, and were relieved to hear they would perform soon, and would probably be the next to do so.

The assembly performance has given all the students that I teach a template, or a reference point, for what it can sound like when all the parts come together. They all instinctively recognised the performance as impressive; they all want that for themselves.

Later today, I taught a class that really, really struggles with focus and cooperative behaviour. There are always disruptions happening. But today, following the performance, they had their best-ever lesson. We asked the following class if they would like to listen to the music, and so this tricky class also had an informal performance experience. I am hoping that, now that they have an example of what they are aiming for, their motivation to work well together in music will kick in.

I’m trying to be realistic here. Of course, it should be that the students know they must listen, focus, concentrate, cooperate… they are supposed to do that in every class. But I think that in a creative approach to music, where the (musical) end (or intention) isn’t always in sight when the 45 minute lesson finishes, the work may not always make sense to the students. Part of my job then, is to find ways to demonstrate what we are doing here, what we are aiming for, or to find ways to get their buy-in (as they say in the corporate world).

So, I’m happy today. The term has ended well. Things are starting to sink in for the students, and I too am figuring out my key strategies and consistencies. I’m looking forward to next term.

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