How to move away from Music Express #NewVoices2018

This weekend (13.10.18) saw the inaugural New Voices conference at the CLPE in Waterloo, London. The opportunity was the brainchild of Jane Manzone (@HeyMissSmith on Twitter), a conference where every speaker had never spoken at an educational conference before. I applied for a slot and was lucky enough to me given 20 minutes to share my stories and ideas. This is (sort of) what I said…

Music Express is a go-to book for many primary classroom teachers. However, it was written a while back now and the content hasn’t necessarily aged as well as some might like. Sure, they’ve revamped the look and modernised the pages, but the content is still the same. The twee songs on the CDs that make even the younger pupils’ toes curl are still the same, and the borderline patronising singers do more to make the children laugh than they do teach them to sing.

As a teacher with a music specialism, I set about trying to make a change. This is why:

I know, I know, blanket statements are really bad in education, but you get the point. There are many reasons why music (and other subjects) is declining in schools; budget and timetable constraints are just two examples. So I set about trying to rectify this in some way.

Being a teacher in Wales, I am bound to the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) and now the Digital Competency Framework (DCF). For educators outside of Wales, this means that every lesson we teach, apart from the curriculum for that subject, must include elements of literacy and/or numeracy. The thinking behind this (I believe) was to put the development of literacy and numeracy into the hands of ALL teachers, not just primary, English, and Maths teachers.

So, back in 2012 when the LNF was first rolled out, I started gathering together, and writing, activities in music which specifically had links to literacy and numeracy. I also changed my way of developing curriculum content from specific genre based ideas (“This term we’re learning about jazz music”) to skills based – teaching the keyboard, the guitar, drums and percussion. This allowed me to be totally free To choose what music I actually played the students in my classes, rather than be bound by the genre we were covering at the specific moment.

Having taught WJEC GCSE Music, I could have predicted with 90% accuracy what style questions would show up each year. I’m actually convinced they just changed the date on the front of each document and rolled them out year on year… But, I used this idea to develop generic activities, particularly for listening and appraising music. This meant I could use the same style activity to help pupils analyse every piece of music they listened to.

As time has gone on, I have been a little more lenient with regards to the specific literacy and numeracy link. If an activity is really good, it goes in to the curriculum resource.

As with anything to do with curriculum, it is important to question and challenge my ideas – they may not be as perfect as could be, and maybe you feel that they wouldn’t work in your setting and that is fine! This, as is anything in education, a starting point.

So, my current school is pretty small in comparison to many, being single form entry with some slightly fluctuating numbers. Our budget, like many unfortunately, is declining year on year, and this means there isn’t really any additional (disposable?) funding left to develop subject areas with grand designs. For anyone who has ever tried buying sets of musical instruments, they will know they’re expensive. Very expensive. Producing something that works with pretty much zero funding to back it was needed here. (As an additional note, I had a conversation with somebody at the conference who suggested that being tight on cash often forces you to be more creative in your approach, which rings true with what I’m currently working on.)

I did a survey with staff, and they overall feeling of teaching music wasn’t one filled with confidence. Many members of staff had never had any training in music since their own ITT, meaning 20 years of teaching with no updated skills or knowledge with regards to approach. Some had little knowledge of the curriculum itself, which is only two pages long and takes less than 5 minutes to read…

And, with all of the millions of things teachers are now expected to be doing on a day to day basis, it is only natural that the timetable is massively limited with regards to time available to delivering certain subjects.

You can see here that mornings are eaten up with literacy and numeracy and, adding in two hours of STEM, ICT & PE, as well as an hour of Welsh, there’s not a lot of time left for everything else. But it can be done – it’s all about the cross-curricular approach.

Before ploughing ahead with extensive and wide ranging music lessons every day (not really, but wouldn’t it be nice?) the first job was to raise the profile of music in the school. This was done in three ways:

1) Regular, interesting music assemblies. I’m lucky in that I can play the piano, meaning I can accompany the whole school in singing whatever I want them to sing. It’s great because it means the old “Stick on Out of the Ark and sing a song” meaningless nonsense is replaced with fun, meaningful singing and learning. And, if I’m not there, the staff use YouTube karaoke or sing along to get the kids singing.

2) Staff training and team teaching. Nothing major, just recalling what the curriculum requires, pointing people in the right direction and supporting through them teaching or observed lessons to share skills and ideas.

3) “Artist of the week”. This one has been MASSIVE. Each week,in music assembly, a pupil from each class chooses, at random, a musical artist, performer, composer, whatever. Theta week then, their teacher can play them music by that person. It can be done regularly, or when there’s a spare 5 minutes; in the morning when they’re coming in i they like. What this has done is started a regular dialogue between staff and pupils, discussing music in downtime, without making it onerous. I did some work in year 6 and noticed their artist was Justin Timberlake, so offered to put it on whilst they worked. One of the boys said “can we listen to Mozart while we work? It’s calmer and easier to work to.” Enough. Said.

Once a positive approach to music had been established, I introduced some key working documents and ideas to the staff. The first was the one above. It can appear quite prescriptive, but it gives a really simple breakdown of what could be expected of the children in terms of outcomes at any particular level or year group. All a teacher has to do is choose their year group, choose an area of learning, then select an activity which will cover that level of attainment. This works for us, as it gives the staff direction. Others may want to change some aspects to meet what they want to achieve from music teaching.

I then introduced the “cycle” of music education. Every part of the cycle lead into the next, feeding the pupils development in music. What’s great is you don’t have to start with listening; you might want to jump in with composing something from a stimulus, which naturally leads to a performance, which leads to listening to and appraising said performance. However, you could start by listening to pieces of music about space, or mountains, or wars, or cowboys, which would then lead you to composing your own music based on these themes.

The final document I presented was this one. It is the current collection of activities I have put together, which is an ever growing entity which staff can dip into when they need to choose an activity which suits their needs. (I will share the document on this blog soon, but I’m currently writing this on the bus from London to Wales!) The collection is in no particular order, but each activity shows how it links with the LNF, and explains really simply what the teacher should do. There is no round the houses explanations, just “Do this with the class and it’ll be fine” sort of approach, with some additional developments if needed.

Listening has become an active task, rather than a passive one. Pupils work together to discuss and analyse songs, comparing originals with cover versions, experiencing new sounds and working with them. This has led to some excellent cross-curricular writing, which is killing two birds with one stone and saving workload. What’s also had a huge impact is giving staff the freedom to listen whatever they want to. Of course, they should be using topic related music where appropriate. But if a member of staff has a massive love of Take That, or rocks out to Thin Lizzie, then I encourage them to use that music in their lessons, because their passion for what they love will rub off on the pupils. Everyone has a genre they love to listen to. Mine is film and video game music, and I’m not afraid or embarrassed to geek out to it in class!

Composing Music had many misconceptions. Staff assumed they needed to teach the pupils to read and write using musical notes. We worked on using pictures and graphic score and just being free to do what you want. As long as it makes sense to the performer, it goes in! As the pupils move through the school, they progress from soundscapes (creating sounds to represent something, a beach, a motorway, a forest) to using more concrete structure with marked different sections which are discernible from each other.

We also have a strong digital way of working. I introduced Chrome Music Lab to my school and everybody LOVES it. It covers a load of different aspects which I’ll write about in a separate blog post later. But it progresses really nicely to the Beatwave app on iOS, which gives the basis for using GarageBand. If you try and get year 2 children to use GarageBand effectively, without giving them a simpler entry point first, they’re really going to struggle. Using Chrome Music Lab as a starting point has worked brilliantly for our pupils.

Most children, when put in a group with other children (class, whole school) will usually sing along with something in some form or another. However, getting them to play a different rhythm, on an instrument when somebody else is playing another rhythm, is a different ballgame! So it is imperative that in inherent sense of pulse is developed. This can be done by simply clapping or tapping along with whatever you’re listening to, or through more targeted means like playing games. “The Forbidden Rhythm” is a great one, as is passing a beat around a circles in time to a song. If the feeling of pulse isn’t there, then playing with other people becomes a very difficult task. And it’s not just music it affects; dance and drama require understanding of timing to be performed effectively, too.

And so I come to my final thoughts. Most of them are already written on the slide, but the biggest point is do. Not underestimate the experiences of your children. They will be exposed to all manner of different types of music at home, so please don’t assume they’ll enjoy singing twee versions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Old Macdonald had a Glock!

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. I will, as mentioned, share all of the documents as they stand so far for you to use (or not!) as you see fit. I thoroughly expect people to take the ideas and twist them and change them to meet their needs and the needs of their children – and that’s what education is all about.



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