In my old job I used to work for a music service travelling around a number of schools delivering primary music curriculum lessons. About two years into my employment we were told a large sum of money was coming into the service to be used for whole class instrumental tuition. Our music service had curriculum and instrumental teachers, so we created projects that involved us team teaching brass, strings, recorder, guitar, percussion and keyboard lessons. I was involved in the brass, strings and recorder and made some books and resources to go along with them. Much of the time we were having to make up everything because hardly any resources had been made for Wider Opportunities at the time and also we were trying to fuse together the curriculum and instrumental teaching. This sounds like it would be easy but it wasn’t as there were basically two completely different teaching philosophies that had to work together. The instrumental teachers were used to directly instructing an individual, pair or small group of children into performing and possibly improvising music. The curriculum teachers were more used to compositional work and singing in the classroom with large groups. Nonetheless, it was a really inspired move by the leadership team to pair us together and we learned an awful lot from each other. This was one of the best professional development decisions by a leadership team that I have experienced. The instrumental teachers learned about behaviour management of 30 novices at once which many had never done before and the curriculum teachers learned about the importance of high standards and technique. Amongst many other things.
Were the projects successful?
Like most new initiatives they were mixed. Much depended on the schools, parents and teachers and there was little that the music service could do if they did not liaise well. At its best it was probably the best thing that has been introduced into primary music ever. At its worst it was an experience of boredom for some students who had absolutely no interest in music whatsoever. We gave opportunities and experiences such as playing in big concert halls to hundreds of people and many of those students will remember those performances for the rest of their lives. The biggest difficulty was that children really could not hear themselves play as there were often 30 children playing simultaneously in a small hall or even a classroom. And it was almost impossible to give good feedback to individuals when everyone is playing together. When we got the children to play in groups or in rows it was a bit easier.
What could make the projects more successful?
In our service the progression was poor. The idea was that when the project finished, the children who were interested would move into small instrumental groups. This did happen and some were successful but there was quite a large drop out rate. One feeling I had that never went away was thinking that we were just giving a taster for children on playing an instrument and the worry was that we were reinforcing the idea that you do a bit of music and then you quit. This is particularly bad because one of the most powerful arguments for music on the curriculum is that you have to practice and stick at it to succeed. And most children did quit because the tuition for Wider Opportunities was free but in most cases, parents had to pay for small group tuition. Some schools did offer free tuition but they were the exceptions not the norm.
I also think we needed a clearer aim – some of the curriculum staff thought we were supposed to be teaching the curriculum and the instruments were just a resource to be used, whereas others thought the object was to teach them to play an instrument to a beginner’s standard just like the traditional group model. Some thought it should just be a taster or an opportunity for children to trial the idea of playing an instrument. There were some teachers who were completely against the project and did not participate. I talked to one of these teachers and the reason they had for dismissing the project out of hand was simply because they could not see a clear aim to the project and they thought this would undermine the instrumental work that was currently being done successfully. Having left the service for a number of years now, I think I can say retrospectively that when I was there the aim was not well communicated but by having a concert at the end of the project with repertoire on a CD, we knew what standard we were expected to get the children to. I think a more standardised repertoire would have been a very good idea but like I was saying at the beginning, we were setting up the projects from scratch so there was a large element of trial and error.
Should this method continue?
All successful music approaches should continue and anything that is stopping children from experiencing good quality music education should be rethought. That’s the whole point of this blog.