Archive for the ‘music learning’ Tag

Teaching music for well-being

I’ve given five presentations over the last couple of months and many of these have discussed my ideas about teaching music for well-being, rather than simply for excellence. A striving for excellence is in fact part of well-being, so rather than being alternative approaches, a focus on well-being is simply a broader, more inclusive understanding of education.

The first presentation I gave, right before I left Melbourne for five weeks in Singapore, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brisbane, was as guest speaker for the Scotch College Music Auxiliary Annual Luncheon. Scotch College is one of Melbourne’s most privileged private boys school, with a superb track record of training young musicians, and with some of the best resources and infrastructure (eg. a state-of-the-art, purpose-built music school) for music in the country. I was asked to speak about my music work with refugee children and in post-conflict countries – environments that are typically very poorly resourced in comparison to the Scotch College facilities!

These are the notes from that talk, with some of the videos I played to illustrate my ideas. I note here the huge influence that music therapy researcher Even Rudd’s ideas on qualities of well-being supported by music participation have had on my thinking. They have allowed me to condense what for me have been quite broad, detailed, and endless ideas of music’s beneficial impact under four neat headings.

Scotch College presentation notes

We are all here because we believe music is important. The reasons why we think music is important might be very varied across this group –because beliefs about what music is and why it matters are usually culturally-constructed, informed by the environments we have grown up in and our life experiences thus far.

I believe music is important because of what it can to contribute to human well-being. I see music as an important part of human flourishing, and that everyone has the right to engage in musical participation and development, and to express themselves freely in music. Music is an essential and universal part of being human. It’s not just for the talented!

My work as a music leader, educator, and facilitator is about drawing people together to make music, and I do this is all sorts of contexts using improvisation, composition and other creative approaches – with symphony orchestras, with arts centres and community centres and music academies that want to engage with communities in creative and participatory ways and build flexible musicianship among their professional musicians.

What I want to talk about today is the experiences I have had in working to bring people together through music who have been through some of the most extreme human experiences. I’m talking about children and young people who have been through experiences of war and conflict, and how music participation can support them to increase their sense of wellbeing in body and in mind.

I believe that music participation contributes to wellbeing in four key ways, and each of these four ways are in great deficit in conflict-affected communities:

Bonding and belonging – music brings people together in order to play, and the act of sharing music together can create experiences of social connection that can be very enduring. Music participation can therefore increase experiences of social connectedness, and create social networks.

Vitality and pleasure – music makes people feel happy and relaxed, in their bodies and their emotions. Playing music allows people to ‘lose themselves’ in a state of flow, where time passes without them really noticing. People forget their worries. Dopamine fires up, oxytocin is released, and the body is flooded with feel-good hormones.

Agency – this is to do with a sense of oneself as valuable, as having the capacity to contribute and develop, having a voice and being able influence others even in small ways. The idea of mastery and excellence is contained within this quality of agency – the sense of achievement and therefore pride that can come through developing new skills and learning to do something difficult that takes time, patience and focus. It also includes a sense of recognition and visibility – important when many of life’s choices have been taken away from you.

Meaning and hope – this quality refers to the sense of identity, empowerment and transcendence that can come through participating in music. The meaning of the music experience has resonance and relevance beyond the musical act itself. Committing oneself to learning new skills, and the investment of time and focus that learning an instrument or being in an ensemble requires is a hopeful act. The act of hoping is a health-promoting process in itself. In “Musicking” (1998) Christopher Small talks about the act of making music as a kind of ritual in which we enact a version of the world as we want it to be.

There are three main places I’m going to talking about – post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I worked in 1998 as a musician in a large community music therapy and education centre; in Melbourne with newly-arrived refugee children; and in rural Timor-Leste.

When I worked in schools and kindergartens in post-war Bosnia, children were extremely traumatised. They had experienced many deprivations and traumatic events, had trouble sleeping, maintaining concentration, with temper, and anxiety.

Music in such a fragile situation is a very secure, friendly, self-regulating activity. People participate if they choose and at the level that is comfortable for them. We learned to recognise all kinds of levels of participation – from heads down, eyes shut, to extremely hyperactive participation. Shared group music-making could bring those extremes together into safer, healthier expressions, through emotional entrainment, and energetic or rhythmic entrainment. Music helped children to feel a little safer, more relaxed, and less on alert.

(This video shows Professor Nigel Osborne and some of his team of musicians at work in Mostar in 1996)

When I returned to Australia, I began working as an artist-in-residence with English Language Schools in Melbourne, which have quite high intakes of refugees and humanitarian entrants. These are schools for new arrivals, and support them to learn English and prepare for classroom learning in mainstream schools.

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

Many of the children arriving in Australia from refugee backgrounds had had little or no access to schooling. They had finely honed survival skills but had very little experience in manage themselves in a classroom or group learning situation. Their experiences had taught them to be very self-focused, to be alert to opportunities, and to push others out of the way if necessary, in order to not miss out. Skills like taking turns, or making lines, or not fighting to solve problems, need to be learned, as do looking at the teacher, focusing attention for longer periods of time, and listening.

Music can help with all of these skills, as well as with establishing and reinforcing language and important vocabulary. The opportunity to play music created lots of excitement and happiness. No matter how little English a child knew, they could participate meaningfully in music, because it is not language-dependent. They can participate by looking and listening, and copying what they see others do. Children who struggled in academic subjects like developing literacy would often shine in music, often because they had been exposed to lots of music in their communities.

Playing music was the motivation for learning to work as a team. In music the children discovered the intense joy and satisfaction of making sounds in a simultaneous way. I would construct the composition work slowly over many weeks, using strategies that got children creating all their musical ideas and then weaving these into a larger structure. Hearing the music take shape in this structure was the motivation to take turns, or listen carefully. And without effort, they would find themselves concentrating for long periods of time.
Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 227
Most importantly, music made the children feel happy and relaxed. Class teachers often reported seeing a new student smile for the first time in the school when they were in a music session. Creative music workshops were also social experiences – I use lots of games and playful tasks to get the children to experiment and take creative risks, so there would be lots of laughing and interaction.

In 2010 and 2011 I had the opportunity to return to a post-conflict country to work as a musician – I was invited to spend four months as a visiting artist in a rural town in Timor-Leste. I developed a program of community music projects that evolved very organically, on the veranda of the house I was renting.

We made instruments out of local materials and according to traditional design, and over the weeks we learned how to play together and connect with each other through music.

This video shows one of the short projects that I led there, in the last week of my residency. These clips come from a series of consecutive days, and lead to a live performance on local radio. You can see the sense of agency, mastery, vitality, bonding, and personal meaning that is taking place here.

This year I’ve embarked on the next stage of my journey in exploring the relationships between children and music in conflict-affected society. I’ve started PhD research into post-conflict music interventions – schools like the one I worked with in Bosnia that were set up as part of post-conflict recovery. Next week I fly back to Bosnia to interview former participants of the music projects I worked on. They are young adults now. Next year I will similar research in Timor-Leste, and in Afghanistan, where an amazing institution of music has been inaugurated.

Finally, I urge everyone here to remember the importance of music to each of us – not just for a well-rounded education, or the mental discipline that may stand us in good stead for future challenges, but because it contributes so deeply to the wellbeing of all people, and can play a profound role in the journey back to wellness for people who’ve gone through major traumatic life experiences.

Joyful learning and creating

Today I want to share and celebrate some of the joyful musical learning that is a hallmark of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program. Our last  workshop for 2012 took place recently, and as always, the combination of playful exploration, creative invention, links to orchestral repertoire, and carefully-chosen musical challenges revealed just how exciting it can be to be a young beginning musician with a big imagination.

Before you read any further, click ‘play’ on this Soundcloud file, so that you have last week’s creation playing in the background as you read:

(If the embedded file is not working for you, you can start the recording in a new page/tab here).

Let’s look at some of the learning that goes on:

Before the third and final workshop period for 2012, the children had attended 3 different MSO concerts, exposing them to the visual and aural intensity of a large orchestral piece being performed live. For this last project, the focus was on Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and at the concert, I asked the children to pay particular attention to the second movement, a “lopsided waltz” in 5/4.

Learning 1 – Focused, thoughtful listening to unfamiliar music

At the start of the workshop, the children reported on the 5/4 time signature (I’d asked them to work out what meter they thought it was in). They also noticed the structure (“in the middle it was a different melody, and then the first melody came back again”) – ternary form.

We then used these observations in our composing, for example, asking each group to work in 5/4 or to make a “feature of 5” (interpreting that instruction however they wanted, not necessarily in the time signature), and to use ternary form. One young cellist noticed in the concert that Tchaikovsky gave the cellos the melody first, so his small group also opted to give the cellos the melody first, before re-stating it in other instruments.

Composing music makes children stronger and more focused listeners. Their experience in making musical choices gives them insights into what those choices are, and makes them listen out for decisions the composer has made. It becomes a reflexive loop – the more they listen to new music in this way, the more ideas they get for their next composition experience, which feeds into the way they listen, which feeds into the way they compose… and so on.

Learning 2: Taking responsibility for the notes

Each child works out their own part in the composing process. I remind the MSO musicians to not “problem-solve” for the children, rather, to give them parameters from which to make their own choices. The music is memorised rather than written down (yes, the music you are listening was performed by the Ensemble from memory), which means that each children needs to remember their own part – their MSO musician won’t necessarily remember what everyone in the group was playing.

This might seem a risky way of doing it but the fact that the children are actively involved in making their own choices about what to play means that the memorisation process starts immediately the choice is made. If they forget their part, they can always create a new one, I remind them. So it is no great pressure, but it is their responsibility. It means too, that the music is theirs. It is not imposed, or someone else’s idea. They become invested in the music and take ownership of it, and this is reflected in the way that they play it.

Learning 3: Acute ensemble awareness

Freed from reading their part from a score or page, the children’s eyes and ears are wide open. The musical structure progresses through various cues – musical cues and conductor cues – all of which are worked out and learned together. This is the focus of the second workshop day – while the first day of a 2-day project is spent in small groups, composing and inventing, the second day is spent as a whole ensemble, working through each of the small group creations and  drawing them together into one large composition.

The second day is intense and hard work. We go through each piece in detail, finding sections of music that would benefit from having more players join (eg. in order to enhance a dramatic crescendo), and then teach the children in the other groups the part (or get them to create their own according to given parameters). More memorisation, more choices! And lots of sitting quietly and listening.

The benefit is that the children are involved in deciding the inner workings of the music, and play an active role throughout the piece. They observe me and the MSO musicians, and individuals among the children, problem-solve as we figure out the best way to deliver the different cues that we need.

The result is an incredibly focused, tuned-in, alert group of performers who remain inside the music for the whole piece. The intensity of their focus is a characteristic of the Ensemble that is always commented on by audience members. It means that they are sensitive to all sorts of aural and visual cues – including those that take place when something doesn’t quite go according to plan. They learn to trust the cues and the leaders, and to hear from the music where things are up to. It’s a very intuitive ensemble skill.

Learning 4: Personal challenges

The Ensemble attracts a wide range of playing abilities, because we accept members on their personalities and imaginations ahead of their playing ability. Some are therefore almost total beginners, while others are incredibly accomplished. Each Ensemble member establishes their own learning goals – we don’t ask them what these are, but the way they participate in the workshops and respond to set tasks gives some clues. In their end of year feedback, two of the young musicians shared these personal challenges:

“Looking at the audience when I played my solos felt very hard for me.  I didn’t quite overcome this but I got better at it.”

“I learned about listening to others ideas and seeing how these became music.”

“I have learnt many things – to be brave enough to put forward ideas, to trust each other, to have inner creativity, and above all to COUNT BEATS CAREFULLY.”

Learning 5: The importance of fun

This is perhaps more of a significant learning for the adults. The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops happen during school holidays and everyone who takes part does so because they want to be there. I build in as much fun and lightness as I can. Yes, we are involved in a fairly intense and fast-paced process, but it’s vitally important that everyone feels happy at the end of it, satisfied and not too tired! The social relationships that the children build over the year are incredibly important (we know from previous years that these friendships last a long time and that the children often cross paths in other musical projects later in life). ArtPlay is next door to a wonderful modern children’s playground, and many children nominate the time they spend playing outside as another highlight of the project.

Therefore, joy, laughter, playful ways into composing and ensemble music, an emphasis on abilities and what is already known with some new challenges thrown in (as are relevant to the context of the project), are crucial characteristics and components, alongside the children’s musical development. We know that the more enjoyment they experience, the greater their engagement. The greater their engagement, they more they will learn. The more they learn, the more satisfaction they feel. The more satisfaction, the greater the motivation to be part of the next creative project. Which leads to lively, dynamic creative musicians, music-makers and music-lovers. Which is good for all of us in society!

About the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble:

In this annual program, 27 children aged 9-12 work alongside Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians to create and perform their own music. I created the program in 2006 for the MSO and ArtPlay and have directed it ever since – this year’s was my 7th Ensemble! The program’s focus is on children composing, and developing their ideas by hearing the MSO perform in concert. Each workshop period lasts for an intensive 2 days. That means that the music you are listening to was created, rehearsed and performed over just nine hours.

Read here to learn more about how children are selected to be part of the program each year. Workshops for the 2013 Ensemble will take place at ArtPlay on 2-3 February 2013.

Read  here for a description of the Ensemble’s Pines of Rome project, July 2012.

Do you know a young musician aged 9-13 who would like to be part of this program? Forward them this blog post and get them to join my mailing list for workshop updates!

Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.

Taking ownership

Ownership is a key theme in composition workshops for me. When participants feel a sense of ownership over the music they are playing, they commit to it in a whole-hearted and quite serious way, and that commitment shows in the sound, the focus, and the body language of the player.

I’ve recently returned from a 3-day composition project in Carnarvon, Western Australia. The project was the education component of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Reef Project, which brings together musicians, surfers and film-makers for an extraordinary collaboration, in partnership with Tura New Music. The composition project involved a team of ACO musicians, guest artists, and 32 young musicians from Carnarvon and Geraldton – small towns halfway up the coastline of Western Australia. Working as a large ensemble and in small groups, we composed a series of original works inspired by the spectacular coastline in that part of the world, in particular Gnaraloo Reef.

It was the first time that any of these young players had been part of a process like this. They were open and curious, and as the project took its course, their confidence in what they were creating increased.

However, it was on the third day that we saw the most transformational change. I’d invited a further group of 30 younger beginner musicians to join the project on the last day. They were to spend the last hour of our rehearsal with us, learning parts to play in that afternoon’s public performance of the newly-created work. I sent the new players (who were generally a few years younger than the ‘main band’ we’d been working with the previous 2 days) to stand behind one of the more experienced players playing the same instrument, and asked the ‘main band’ players to teach the newcomers what to play in the sections of music they would be joining us on.

Instantly, the room was buzzing with activity. The older ‘main band’ players took their teaching responsibilities very seriously. They shared notes and rhythms, and some of the quarter-tone fingerings we’d been experimenting with on the wind instruments. Some couldn’t wait to turn around and start sharing these techniques and musical information which only 2 days before, they’d invented through experiments and improvisation. As one of the ACO musicians commented later, “You could just see their stature growing!”

Perhaps this was the most powerful moment in the workshop for some of them. Perhaps it was only at this point that they realised what they’d achieved. They already felt a strong sense of ownership of their music, but they had no real-world context for it at that point. Teaching it to someone else was a powerful and authentic validation. In that moment, they transformed from well-meaning kids who try, to composers and makers of their own music. The energy shifted and the performance moved to another level from that point on.

Making pitch visible

In the previous post I’ve described some of different ways I’ve tried to make the pitch concept visual and physical for students at the English Language School. Here is some footage from one of these projects:

The music was from a Somali pop song that one of the students brought in on his mobile phone. We learned a number of different riffs and put them together into a performance piece. Watching it now, it seems an incredibly complex piece for 9-11 year old English Language Learners. The body percussion and hand-gesture work was designed to support their understanding of the pitch relationships between the notes, but it also supported their memorisation of the music. They really engaged with the idea of finding ways of practising their parts away from the instruments.

Motivation

Tuesday, day 76

Getting stonewalled so resolutely by my local cultural contact last Monday had quite an impact on me. Initially, I felt so irritated by his about-face that I immediately felt determined to find another way to achieve what it was I wanted to achieve. P, Tony and I discussed possible plans and approaches. I reviewed the lists of contacts I had been given for Lospalos and tried to come up with some alternatives.

But as the week continued, I had to admit my enthusiasm to be busy was waning somewhat. True, we had started up some very successful music-making jams and events on our verandah every afternoon. But this still left many hours in the day free.

What did I want to do with this time? There were things I had imagined I would be doing regularly as part of my residency in Timor. I imagined myself building soundscapes made up of locally-recorded sounds, using my Zoom recorder and either Cubase or Garageband. I had film footage from the songwriting project with the women’s group in Baucau that showed the genesis of that song, and the way they nutted out the words together, eventually performing it through in at first halting, and then more confident voices. I could edit this footage to make a short descriptive film of the project and its process (for as long as the battery power in my computer lasted during the day, that is).

And I could play. I had ideas for music on the clarinet, ideas for music to create with the flute, lots of interesting creative tasks and drills to play on the sax or drums… I had plenty to occupy myself with. Yet I felt lethargic and reluctant, and my slowness to get going got me thinking a lot about motivation, my own, and other people’s.

What keeps us motivated in our lives? How much is the motivation that gets us out and doing things extrinsic, and how much of it is intrinsic? The most obvious extrinsic motivation for working is the pay packet you will get at the end of your work… but as I’ve seen here with Mana Er, that in itself is not necessarily a motivation to do a thorough or excellent job.

What I really began to see, however, was the way that motivation – extrinsic or intrinsic, or a bit of both – was somewhat subject to your environment. In Melbourne I have to work. I don’t have an independent means of income, so work is the way that I get the money I need to pay my rent, eat, etc. I am also a bit bloody-minded about how I spend my time – I figure that I will spend more hours per day doing work that I will doing anything else, so I should aim to spend that doing something that stimulates and entertains me. Therefore I work in an area that I feel very emotionally invested in.

I love what I do, and the skills and ideas that I can bring into a new environment. Why wasn’t I just offering workshop after workshop here in Lospalos?

One reason is because of energy. I found myself starting to feel quite protective of my energy. By now, I knew how much of my energy was going into just figuring out and managing how to make the project happen, whenever I tried to do something creative here. Specifically, into managing people. While I was happy to help other people develop skills or to guide them through new experiences, it wasn’t the main reason I was here. So lots of project ideas started to seem too hard.

Another reason was because I felt confused about what I was dong here, and what other people thought I was doing here. So many malae come here to help the Timorese. Whereas I knew that I had come here primarily to learn and to be exposed to new things. Obviously the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but how could I set things up so that it was more of an exchange?

I also wasn’t feeling particularly musical or creative. This may be because I felt like I was using up most of my energy constantly trying to navigate my way through unexpected roadblocks – these navigations were using up all my creative brain-space, in tandem with the everyday creative brainspace required for me to communicate in Tetun.

I’ve always thought of myself as a very intrinsically-motivated person. There is not much money, and there is an awful lot of work, in the kind of work I do. In fact though, lots of the work I do evolves through the working environment I have cultivated over time for myself. It is through the networks that I develop, and part of the motivation to do a good job is about building a reputation that will see more offers for work come my way. In other words, there is an extrinsic motivation at play too.

Here, almost no-one in any position within an organisation seems to be showing much interest in working with me. Lots of kids do! Other foreigners (like Kalim from Indonesia, and the ADM sisters) do. But only one adult person from Lospalos has suggested he’d like to do some music work with me. Others have expressed reserved interest, but their real motivation seems to be about extracting money from me, rather than about providing new or different opportunities for their constituents. My environment here is thus not nearly as enthusiastic for what it is that I do as it is in Australia, and so my intrinsic motivation to develop work regardless is severely reduced.

I know too, that I can just stop worrying about it, and do my own musical thing, here in the comfort of my own home. But that isn’t what I came to Timor for! I want whatever outcomes that develop for me here to be in response to the fact that I am in this new environment, rather than be because I’ve suddenly got more spare time on my hands to play music (albeit by myself or with Tony) than I ever have in Australia.

New takes on teaching recorder

All of these ideas about reconnecting with oral traditions of music pedagogy are playing out at the moment at Pelican Primary School, where for the last term and a half I have been teaching the two Year 3/4 classes to play the recorder. It’s been interesting to see how, despite my preference for informal learning environments, self-discovery, creativity and experiences of success through connecting with innate musical understanding, I still leaned quite heavily in those first weeks towards the more formal approach for learning recorder – introducing students to the notes, introducing first rhythmic notation then pitch-notation, and working with a tutor book. The tutor book was fun and irreverent, and they play along with an accompanying CD which they love, but it was still quite a big step away from the way I’d approach a music project with this class using percussion instruments.

There are a couple of reasons why I started by going down this path.The main one was the sense I had that they wanted to learn the associated skills like reading music. They are intrigued by this. I think that a lot of the students at this school automatically assume they probably won’t be as successful in tasks like learning to read music as students in other (more ‘mainstream’) schools might be. I wanted to be able to say to them, “You can do this. And I can teach you.”

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Schools without music

I have started some preparatory work on a new community outreach program for one of the training institutions here for young musicians. One part of the program will be the development of partnerships between the academy and local primary schools, so the program coordinator and I set off this week to visit a couple of the schools and fill them in on the program as it is shaping up.

It is well-known here in Australia that many primary schools do not have music specialist teachers. In fact, there are lots of specialist teachers that they don’t have – ‘specialists’ can include visual arts, library, PE, drama… and people rarely mention dance, but that too, could and should be taught by specialists. It is well-known… but as a music teacher, I tend to work in schools that DO have a specialist – they have me!

When I think of this well-known fact, I think there is a part of my brain that equates “no music specialist” to “disadvantaged school with limited resources, who are stretched in every capacity, and who have to prioritise things like additional Teacher Aides ahead of specialist teachers to support their students’ additional needs”. So it was quite a shock ad an eye-opener to visit two fairly well-off schools (if their parent population is any indication) and to hear that there was virtually no arts learning taking place with specialist teachers at all.

“Our parent group is very … professional“, one principal told us, meaning that, they tend to have high-powered, corporate jobs, are highly-educated, and apparently very quick to give the school feedback if they feel something is amis in their child’s education. Music as a specialist subject option rated highly on a recent parent survey (though got pipped at the post by Physical Education). Yet the principal thought he could “count on one hand” the number of children who might learn an instrument outside of school.I found myself shocked that such a parent group would not more actively seek out music experiences and learning opportunities for their children.

At another school, we were told that in the past, students had had the opportunity to learn an instrument during the school day, coming out of classroom work to have a 30 minute private or small-group lesson once a week. However, this system was now considered “inappropriate”, as it meant children were missing too much school work (I am tempted to insert the word “real” here… but I’m not sure the principal actual said “real school work”, even if it seemed implied). The school population was scoring low in  numeracy tests, and something had to be done about this.

What seems amazing is that numeracy targets not be met, and music or the arts be seen as the culprit! “The test results are bad – we must have spent too much time on music!” I have read about these attitudes, but perhaps it is the first time I’ve heard someone in a senior position speak openly about it. (Clearly I have led a sheltered life).

Another teacher said they didn’t see it as their role to help students develop actual skills in any of the arts. The simply aimed to give them some exposure and hope that a spark of passion or interest might be lit, that would lead the child to explore the area further outside of school. I found this alarming too. These subjects are mandated parts of the curriculum.

How much of this is about teachers’ own comfort levels, I wonder? Many of my older teaching colleagues tell me about how, when they were are teachers’ college, they all had to learn the guitar, and the recorder, to be a generalist classroom teacher! One principal admitted that this discomfort on the part of teachers was a big part of the problem – the three areas that the majority of teachers feel weakest in, he said, are music, art, and science.

It would not have been appropriate for us to challenge or question any of the decisions these schools had taken – that wasn’t the purpose of our meetings, and the teachers we met with were honest and direct with us about what they felt they would like to gain from a partnership with our program. Changing attitudes is a slow process, but hopefully, by building valuable and enriching partnerships, we will be able to demonstrate the way that powerful, demanding arts experience with integrity can bring about a diverse range of positive student outcomes.