Month: February 2017


I have been very lucky recently to watch an experienced colleague take a string orchestra rehearsal on a weekly basis.  She gets very high standards out of the students and obtains this in a patient, reflective manner, yet with scope for innovation.  What marks her out from most other people I have watched take rehearsals, is that she does not have her head in the score and is not actually that interested in conducting.  What she is after is the right sound, the right balance and giving ample time for perfecting short passages of music. 

Firstly, she knows exactly what each part is playing.  Many orchestral scores for school-age students are too complex and too dense.  When you arrange music you really only need three or four lines of music; the melody, the bass and the harmony.  The harmony is either one or two lines.  Because she knows exactly what everyone is playing, she is very good at communicating, not just the notes but the manner in which they are to be played.  She is not a native English speaker but is actually one of the best at communicating how music should be played.  There is the attention to detail – if bows are not moving in the same direction she will model exactly how they should be moving.  She will rehearse a section of music extensively with particular attention to articulation and tempo.  She will then go back a section and rehearse from a little further back.  In this way she builds the piece and gives people a “running jump” at the part where the focus has been directed at.  

Many people with an acute attention to detail are obsessed with the musical score and can rigidly only play what is written, but my colleague is actually very good at giving space for innovation.  She will rehearse one section and ask the cello player to play it two different ways before deciding what she wants.  She has experimented with electric instruments and drums and is unafraid to try and play something familiar a little differently.  This unpredictability keeps things fresh; we may be rehearsing only a small amount of pieces but no rehearsal is the same and there is always a focus and a clear objective.  

And finally there is the limitless expectation of crazy high standards.  Sometime teachers are afraid of high standards, thinking it is oppressive and too pushy.  But most people want to be part of something good.  Very few people are happy playing in something they know is a bit rubbish – we all want to feel we are part of something successful.  The students know this and success breeds success.  Being part of the string orchestra is an honor – and to stay in it means dedication, hard work and practice, practice, practice.  She will not hesitate to chuck you out if she thinks you are not putting the work in and the students are very aware of this.  So why do they want to put in the work, time and effort?

Because when you hear what they can play, you understand why it is worth every second spent in rehearsal.  The results are simply stunning.

Some thoughts on Assessment

Music teaching has been very strong when it comes to assessment.  The instrumental graded examinations are well established and well respected.  In fact, in David Blunkett’s period in office as Education secretary, he said that we should move general school assessment away from year group cohorts to a system of when you are ready, whatever age you are you pass a graded test.  But as we know full well, this is still a dream close to twenty years later.  Instrumental exams are very good at giving quality assessment for children regardless of age.  We can quibble about the cost, the preparation, the performance anxiety and stressful external examiners watching over anxious children trying to play music despite nerves and expectations, but in the end, children get good written feedback and a certificate worth something to them.  It even counts for UCAS points.  And in my case, it has got me jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to get without them!

But assessment in classes is a totally different kettle of fish.  This is where assessment in Music goes wrong.  Sometimes we have group assessment.  In my opinion this is close to worthless.  I have heard countless students recollect their experiences of group work in Music lessons where one person does all the work, or you end up with a rubbish grade because some lazy bugger messed it all up for all of you.  There are things we can learn from group assessment but it is not a good way to assess children individually as the actual grade given is often more to do with behaviour and attitude than ability.  We can do paired assessment but again, in Music the nature of sound means that it can be very difficult to assess who is doing what, especially if they play or sing in unison.  So we go back to individual assessment and we end up with the difficulty of hearing thirty students play individually in a class assessment lesson.  These lessons are normally my most unsuccessful because quite frankly the children get bored listening to each other play and as a result switch off, fiddle, gaze out the window or get up to some mischievous behavior when I am distracted trying to listen intently to a pupils performance.

Interestingly, the most successful lessons are the lessons after the assessments where the children are desperate to do it again but do it right.  It’s not just a case of trying to change their grade, they want to improve from the feedback they have been given.  The problem is we assess near the end of a module; what we need to be doing is assessing the first or second week in and then continuously refining our performances.  But that way we also run into boredom as who wants to keep on playing the same thing over and over again, week in and week out?  There are no easy answers.

And the main correlation I have found with assessment is the more you assess, the less you can teach.  There is certainly some truth to the expression “you can keep weighing the pig but it won’t get any fatter if you don’t feed it”.  We do not have the time in our weekly hour or so lessons for 36 weeks a year to mess around with colour-coded, meaningless grades that are demanded from hungry school management IT systems.  So my penny’s worth is basically, if we are going to assess we need to do it early and then reassess.  It needs to be low stakes and needs to be meaningful.  Sadly, in most schools around the world, class Music assessment is the complete opposite.  

Recorder Karate

In our school we are trailing a new recorder scheme called Recorder Karate.  The idea is that as you progress on the instrument you pass a selection of belts from white to black.  It has been very successful but there are some interesting side effects to the scheme.

To start with, the system of belts has worked like a dream, with children desperate to pass their assessment belts.  These are not abstract belts, they look like this:

They are multicolored hair bobbles that you can buy very cheap.

The children in Year 3 love to collect them and applaud one another when they pass each assessment. Because of this, it is the best scheme I have used as far as assessment and differentiation is concerned.  But if you spend a lot of time on assessment there are consequences and the main ones are less teaching time and loss of motivation when children listen to each other play.  If you have a class of thirty and hear everyone play, even if you give each child only one minute of time that comes to thirty minutes of the other children sitting around.  We could get them to self assess each other but quite frankly that often ends up in bullying afterwards in the playground.  The children are not old enough to fully understand what it means to objectively peer assess without becoming personal.  The other alternative is you listen to the children play in a breaktime but music teachers often have choirs and other groups at breaktime and just like any other teacher we should have some time off teaching and assessing for our own sanity!  Nonetheless, the scheme has worked well and for the first time I can hand on heart say that I know exactly the ability and progress of every child in the class, what their strengths are and what they need to do to get better.
Other things we need to get right are the difficulty of the belts; just because you add additional notes does not make the piece harder and the lower register is much harder than the higher register.  And we had a very pationate conversation about notation in our team.  In fact I am going to suggest a new law in Music Teaching where every conversation about music given enough time will end up with an argument about notation!  Basically some people think that the harder belts ought to only be achieved by children who can read the notation without the letters put above the notes.  I can see some value in this but I also think that we are creating barriers to playing at quite an early age.  Are we assessing a musical skill or a reading skill?  Some musicians would say the two are linked but I am not so sure.  

I will later post the actual pieces we are using for the scheme but first I want to finish it before publishing the content.  I still think that the recorder is highly undervalued and should be a compulsory part of every primary school and Recorder Karate is certainly a good way of achieving that aim.