Some of the things that have been on my mind

In contrast to my normal 1000 word blog entries, today’s is one of my “quick – make a list of all things I want to blog about” pieces.

Last week (for the first time) I joined in a twitter conversation held every Tuesday at 11am Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time called #musedchat. It’s an hour of thought-exchange between music educators, most of whom are working in classroom contexts, most of those it seems working with high school aged students. Last week’s topic looked at ways of assessing musical understanding, and I loved each of the 60 minutes spent involved in that conversation. Most music assessment looks at a student’s ability to do something, usually performing a technical feat, or recognising a musical occurrence, being able to label something appropriately, and so forth – many things which are not necessarily measuring a student’s understanding.

Which raises the question, how much music education is directed to increasing or deepening understanding? I spent three years in the 90s working in various Sydney high schools, and certainly it was true of all my experience in the public high schools I observed or worked in that music education was seen in large part by the staff as a legislated hours of baby sitting. Kids being given guitars without all the strings to strum on for periods on end; students being shown Disney musicals on video as part of their ‘education’; hours of singing, with no time for any further exploration of the music or musical ideas being sung; students being sat in front of keyboards and told to ‘compose’. Sure, the activities are primarily musical, but there’s not the slightest component of education happening there, let alone the chance for students to develop their musical understanding. I feel as if there are many 1000 word blog pieces to be written emerging from this single topic.

This week’s #musedchat had a completely different topic: what innovations has music education seen in the past ten years? And, unsurprisingly, the innovations discussed were technological. Some teachers even suggested that it’s only been in the past 10 years that they have used recording devices in their teaching (!), but most teachers seemed to agree that the major innovations are web-based and chat-oriented. But even so, these are innovations of style, not of substance, and I was surprised that there were no new developments in terms of educational strategies, outcomes or objectives since the year 2000. One development that the new technologies should certainly be allowing is for students to be genuine musicologists at a much younger age. With YouTube delivering performances from around the world without the need for a ticket, transport to a venue or an adult to take you, students should be able to experience a wider range of music than ever before – and that changes music education at its very foundations. There is no beginning point, no accepted path to knowledge, no universally expected destination: kids are turning up at primary school having been exposed to music from every part of the world, having seen people play instruments that aren’t taught at school and knowing what those instruments sound like, having heard multiple versions of the same song, having far more than Play School and The Wiggles informing their pre-kindergarten musical world. Music education needs to be extraordinarily innovative in these circumstances, and if the best that teachers can do is to discuss improved notation programs for composition activities, or to exchange notes on better recording devices, then woe is music education.

Yep, there’s a few 1000 word pieces to be written on that topic too.

Meantime, I’m speaking at the NSW Music Teachers Association Conference this Saturday morning (9am, yikes) about some of the ideas I’ve been exploring of late in this blog: how do we determine how hard a piece of music is (and so forth). And I’m putting together thoughts for the tour I’ll be doing around Australia in January with Alfred Publishing, and for the presentation I’m doing for AMEB VIC at the Victorian Music Teachers Association Conference on teaching P Plate Piano.

All in all I’m struck with the dilemma of putting together a presentation which is equally valuable for every teacher attending these events. Should I be addressing myself to the teachers who are still teaching the way they were taught (in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s)? Are piano teachers still so homogenous a group? I know there are plenty of teachers out there doing some fabulous things, reflecting the insights and discoveries that have been made regarding music education over the past 15+ years, but maybe it’s more important to talk to those who want to be doing fabulous things and are not sure how to change the habits of a lifetime (no matter how short that lifetime may have been to date). I expect very few of the teachers attending these seminars will be readers of this blog. How do I keep it fresh for everyone?Well, that’s not really a topic for a blog, but it’s definitely what’s been on my mind.

But connected to this dilemma of mine is the wider industry reality that piano teaching is a completely unregulated part of the education sector. Literally anyone is able to give piano lessons (providing they have a police check, in states where this regulation applies). You don’t need authorisation from anyone. No degree. No certificate. No endorsement. Parents have no way, other than word of mouth, of establishing if what one teacher is doing has any more value than what another teacher does. Yep, there’s a blog or two to be written on that topic.

And there I find myself approaching my habitual 1000-word measure, as this blog-of-consciousness entry reaches its end. Maybe I’m just programmed to think in arc of one thousand words.

And I’m sure I could find a blog or two to write about that as well.

2 thoughts on “Some of the things that have been on my mind

  1. Maybe this is old news to you, but I think you may enjoy reading what Christopher Small says in his book “MUSIC, SOCIETY, EDUCATION” –
    This book transformed my relationship with both music and teaching 20 years ago when I first read it, and is still a source of wisdom and inspiration (and information!).

    • Christopher Small is one of my all-time favourite writers. So much so I’ve even sent him fan mail. I’m not kidding. He is FABULOUS. WIth a capital FAB.

      His book MUSICKING is the one that did it for me. I have never verbalised so much agreement with any book as I did with that one (or nodded my head so vigourously with no one to see!). Superlatives do not do Christopher Small justice.

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