Informal music learning in a formal setting

I’ve been enjoying the workshops at my new Monday morning school, Darling Secondary College. This is the school where the teacher warned of the particular challenges of her class – “Don’t give them a choice, whatever you do!… You can’t do any ensemble work because they don’t know how to play any instruments yet!” and more.

Around the time that I started work on this project, I was starting my reading about the Musical Futures program, which has led me to Lucy Green’s book, Music, Informal Learning and the school: A new classroom pedagogy (Ashgate, 2008). I’ve found her articulation of the principles of informal learning to be really inspiring, and while I am not doing a ‘Music Futures’ program at Darling SC, I’m incorporating a lot of the knowledge from that approach into what I do there. Five weeks in, things are progressing well, and they are two of the most responsive classes I have in the week! They have been given a thorough and detailed grounding in beginners’ music theory – they can read rhythms, and are starting to work with pitch notation. So there is both knowledge and strong interest (and enthusiasm) for me to work with.

I am working with a year 7 class and a year 8 class, 2 periods each. With the Year 8s, I’ve been asked to incorporate pitch. In year 7, the focus is on rhythm. For both classes, the emphasis with me is on ensemble playing, and bringing their theoretical understanding into real-life practical experiences, with instruments in their hands, and by creating their own original work.

Year 8 project

We started by inventing a four-bar melody together, in the key of C and using the pitches C to G. We wrote it together using notation, then sang it with hand-signs, and they wrote it in their books. (I must say, an aspect I like in formal learning is the possibility of getting participants to write relevant things down! I think it creates a bit of processing space for them. Most of the rooms I work in don’t have tables and chairs for students, and the students don’t bring books with them).

Then, we took all the riff-building and inventing work we’d been doing on body percussion and transferred it to instruments. Here, I took inspiration from Musical Futures. We utilised every instrument in the neighbouring instrument – guitars, keyboards, bass guitar, drum kit – and I simply announced to the group that we’d figure out how to play them as we went along. I also brought in 2 treble recorders, a glockenspiel, and a chromaharp. The night before, I got my partner Tony to give me a quick overview of playing notes on the guitar (up until now, I’ve only known my chords. This project is excellent for my guitar-playing skills).

First, we practised playing the pulse just on C. Then, one by one, each person was asked to invent their own riff, only on C. They could use Cs in different octaves if they chose. We layered up the riffs, and alternated between riffs and pulse.

The first week, this was all very tentative and not very convincing. In fact, I was worried they were feeling disappointed and demotivated, so I opened up a discussion about how things had gone. It was wa-a-ay too early in our relationship for them to discuss anything with me though, so that yielded no new insights, other than tacit permission to keep going in the same direction!

The following week, I sent the guitarists to another room to work on their riffs in quiet, and suggested they develop two riffs all together, rather than one each. I suggested they could use G as well as C, and that they might like to include slaps or taps on the body of the guitar to give a percussive element to their riffs. They ended up doing all these things.

I got the Keyboards work on the 4-bar melody we’d composed earlier. One boy started to harmonise it spontaneously, but he backed away from this when I showed interest. Again, too early in the relationship!

I tried to get the keyboardists to explore some of the possible sounds on the instrument, but they all stuck to ordinary keyboard sounds. However, they did start to get a bit bolder with use of octaves, so that was good. Meanwhile, I had two volunteers figuring out a riff on the treble recorders one had played a descant recorder in primary school, so I asked her to help her friend get the sound and the tonguing organised. The boy on the glockenspiel was absolutely loving his instrument – he came up with a great riff, which he continued to modify and perfect throughout the lesson.

We all came together for the last 40 minutes and started to jam on these different ideas – the riffs, the pulses, and the Head. It was far more successful this second week – the riffs could be heard (they were now played more confidently). The Head came in on cue. The students got used to my use of the word ‘riff’, which they’d never heard before. The bass guitarist mucked around a bit, until one of his peers swapped instruments with him, and then showed him how it’s done.

They all looked so happy! Of course they did. They were completely engaged. They were figuring things out for themselves and taking charge of their learning. They felt cool playing these instruments.

There was heaps of peer teaching taking place, in all of the groups. Before we started, I asked the class teacher to try and stay in the background while the keyboardists figured out the Head. I wanted the students to realise that their solfa knowledge would help them transfer the melody to the keyboard, rather than have one person show them where all the notes were, one by one.

They were learning new concepts, and applying them. In the warm-up rhythm-clapping work, I asked them to pay attention to the ‘gaps’ in other people’s riffs, and aim, with their own riff, to fill in gaps, and to leave gaps for other people. Basically, getting them to start thinking about the whole musical texture, and working with complementary rhythms. We could hear the results of this in the riffs they invented on their instruments. They had more information to work with, than they’d had the previous week.

At the end of the morning, one of the Year 8 boys helped me carry my instruments back to the car. I asked him how he’d enjoyed the workshop. “Yeah, it was good,” he said thoughtfully. He added, “the sound number 102 on the keyboard is a good sound for the Head.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What kind of sound is it? Do you remember the name?”

“No, I just remember the number,” he said. “But it will sound really good for the Head, I think.”

So. Progress. It’s a good reminder to keep space in front of students, for them to step into in their own time. Offer the options of things like different sounds, or use of octaves – they’ll incorporate it when they’re ready.

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