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The development of video resources to complement Musical Futures teacher development workshops marked a new departure for the organisation when they were first introduced as part of Just Play. Although it isn't the first time that Musical Futures has provided resources to support our approaches, (see Musical Futures UK 'transition project' and Find Your Voice), the video play alongs were originally inspired by the work of Little Kids Rock. Our visit to take part in their workshops and to visit schools showed us how these were a great tool to support teachers and students with first access for popular music education. They help to get students playing together, provide a safety net for students and teachers to experiment with whole class music making and allow students to self-differentiate, ie everyone can take part, regardless of prior musical experience. If you haven't seen the play along videos, this video provides a useful overview of what's involved and how these resources work.
The inclusion of play along videos as part of Just Play had the following aims:
Feedback from teachers has been incredibly positive with regard to the resources and how they help to get all their students playing, skilling them up through playing and learning as they play.
But once they can play what next? Wait for Musical Futures to make and share the next play along? Make your own? Or explore how play alongs are just the start when it comes to getting a little deeper into the real-world approaches that Musical Futures is built on, whilst balancing the need to deliver the depth and breadth of content, knowledge and skills that is surely essential to a 'music education'?
Just Play, Non-Formal Teaching and Informal Learning
At The Big Gig teacher conference, my session looked at moving on from play alongs and into informal learning and non-formal teaching, the approaches to learning and teaching music that are the heart and soul of Musical Futures.
We started by playing a song together along with a video play along. The song I chose simply repeated 4 chords throughout and the video consisted of a simple bass line, a suggested comping rhythm that fitted with the original track and as experienced musicians and teachers, delegates could play it easily. Too easily. Some people started to look bored, the performance lacked energy and didn't do justice to the quality of the musicianship in the room. Whilst some players embellished their lines slightly, most just played what was instructed in the visual cues in the video.
We then reflected on the experience starting by looking at the 3 core strands of Musical Futures, (recently revamped with help from Emily Wilson, PHD student from MGSE). The focus was on understanding the pedagogy that underpins each strand, the role of the teacher in each of these approaches and to put Just Play, the play alongs and what we had just done as a group into the wider context of Musical Futures.
Playing along, musical knowledge and the 5 principles of informal learning
Next we explored the balance between musical skills and knowledge in the context of the diagram above.
There are many papers and chapters that explore what musical knowledge is and how it manifests in various approaches to music education in different contexts. For the purposes of this session, I borrowed a slide from the recent webinar led by Gary Spruce for the MF international teacher community where Gary shared the descriptions below of different musical knowledge types.
This is a great starting point to reflect on what students are actually learning when they engage with a play along. If Just Play is to build foundational musical skills and engage students with music through playing, how can other aspects of Musical Futures (and other approaches) help to move students towards a deeper understanding of what/why/how they are playing and engaging with music and where this could lead?
The next reflection point was how Lucy Green's 5 principles of informal learning fit with music taught through a play along. Thinking about our performance as a group, we worked through each principle and dug a little deeper by reflecting on what we had just done.
On first glance, our whole group performance looked to tick off quite a few of these.
Learning with friends? Well we are all friends in Musical Futures! Learning by listening and copying? Well there was a track playing so therefore that must be how we learned. Students chose the music? Well that's just not possible when it comes to whole class music making, plus you have to choose songs with chords that can be played on the instruments available. Integration of listening, performing, composing and improvising? Well kind of......Maybe a bit.....
However, when we discussed what we had just done as musicians as we played as a band with a play along video, we realised that actually the actions of following the visual cues in the video had probably been more significant than picking out the main elements of the song by ear.
Our conclusions were that although on the surface Just Play 'sort of fits' there may be other ways to explore the same song that get us a little closer to informal learning in a whole class situation than using a play along.
Could we answer questions about the piece we had just played?
Finally I asked the group 3 key questions:
1) Can you sing the bass line from the song (which was a riff rather than just based on the root notes of each chord)
2) Can you clap the key rhythmic patterns on which the groove was based?
3) Can you sing or play any of the 12 melodic riffs that appear in different forms within the song?
This activity revealed that despite us playing the song and claiming to have listened as we played, most groups were unable to answer the 3 questions very well. Exploring the song through a play-along meant we could play it, but we had really only scratched the surface in terms of understanding it.
Classroom workshopping and the place of notation in Musical Futures
Using the same song as a start point we then put together a whole class workshop. With the track playing we worked through the following activities (and others as they happened) before setting up a groove based on the original chord sequence and subsequent musical ideas that had developed from within the group.
Finally we played the original song again with the play along video. The performance had so much more in it with people singing, improvising, adding harmonies, far more of the original riffs and even the groove itself had far more energy!
Beyond the play along...
As we revisited each of the discussion points again, knowledge types, the informal learning principles and my 3 questions about the piece, the following emerged:
If you would like to give this workshop a go as a participant (and find out which song I used as the basis for the session), I will be delivering it as part of our Musical Futures workshops in Asia in November and January.
Anna Gower worked for over 18 years as a classroom music teacher, Advanced Skills Teacher, Head of Department and Head of Community Music. A freelance music education consultant in the UK and founder core team member of Musical Futures and now Head of Training and Development for Musical Futures International, Anna has supported the work of many organisations including Music Mark, Trinity College London, Little Kids Rock and The BBC as well as working with Music Education Hubs across the UK and delivering workshops across Asia, America, Australia and New Zealand.
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