15 boisterous eight-10 year-olds wielding violins, violas and ‘cellos descend on a school hall in north Melbourne. They play rhythm and pitch games, compose a blues song and together practise a simple tune on their instruments. Later that week, they learn to perform a rhythm and improvise effectively using upturned plastic buckets.
25 Year 5s mooch into their music classroom. They split into groups of five and gather around jam hubs. Headphones on, they take up their instruments: one each on electric guitar and bass, a couple on keyboard, and another on an electric drumkit. To the un-headphoned they appear to receive no aural reward for energetic and rhythmic bashing, strumming, plucking and plonking of their instruments; but in fact, each group is rehearsing a self-selected pop or rock song.
I arrived in Melbourne last Sunday and am here until the end of my trip in two weeks’ time. The nights are not as chilly (or at least, I’m sleeping in a better-insulated building aka my good friends Glenda and Richard’s house…) but the days are not as sunny!
I’m focussing on two overarching approaches to primary music education while I’m here:
The Pizzicato Effect programme
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Pizzicato Effect programme, and its associates, is a programme inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema model in which intensive classical music training is viewed as a vehicle for social change. The programme is based in a community in north Melbourne where “many of the of the children…experience significant challenges due to generational poverty, current or first-generation immigrant or refugee status.” (Osborne et al, 2015).
The programme runs every Monday and Wednesday afternoon and is open to all children in the area. All participants learn the violin, viola or ‘cello with sessions including group tuition, ensemble rehearsals and musicianship training. The staff have three aims for the programme:
- Social development of young people and their communities through musical accomplishments
- Access to musical instruction, without cost as a barrier to participation
- Provision of a safe, positive, inspiring, fun and high-aspiring learning environment that promotes engagement with school and community life
The Musical Futures programme
This programme champions a student-led, peer-taught, technology-focussed approach to school music lessons. It was originally developed and has become popular in the UK in secondary schools. Although it’s now being piloted in the UK at primary level, in some Victoria primaries, it’s already well-established. I’m visiting a few of these schools to see how they work.
For Musical Futures Australia, the approach:
- Brings students’ passion for music into the classroom, driving their own learning and sharing their experiences and skills with others
- Incorporates the learning of technique, notation and other forms of written instruction as part of the process practical music making
- Creates authentic musical experiences for students as they make music in groups with friends
- Non-formal teaching and informal learning approaches allow teachers to develop new roles as mentors, coaches and guides. Teachers become another musician in the classroom
- Supports schools existing teachers, increasing their skills and confidence and enabling them to deliver high quality music learning
-Musical Futures Australia, 2016
Superficially, the two approaches contrast (at least in their natural musical genres); however, watching them in action this week, I’ve seen lots of parallels.
Music education in Australia: same but different
While Australia is experiencing similar challenges to its state education system to the UK, the context has many subtle differences, particularly linked to its historic roots. Here they are:
- No music hubs: where England (and, in slightly different guises, the rest of the UK) has a politically scorched yet functioning localised music hub system, (in theory) providing music education opportunities to all young people and professional development to teachers in each area, not much like this exists in Australia. Ian, from Musical Futures told me that the closest relation would be regional conservatoires in NSW. As a result, organisations like MSO and MF have perhaps greater gaps to fill than the UK in terms of supporting ensemble music-making, instrumental learning and teacher development.
- Education is run at state level: actually, this is quite similar to how the UK’s ended up thanks to NI, Scotland and Wales deciding that if they’ve got the power to run education in a more sensible way than England, they’ll ruddy well take it! Systems of curriculum, assessment and school organisation practice are different in each state. In Victoria, there are three competing school systems: the state sector, private and separately funded catholic schools.
- Curriculum is light-touch: unlike England (and, again, to greater or lesser extents, the rest of the UK), schools are not under the same statutory obligation to teach music. The Victoria curriculum has guidelines for the validity of music as one of several arts subjects, but there’s little prescription in terms of the depth or breadth to which the subject should be taught.
- Pedagogical autonomy and less emphasis on data: Based on conversations I’ve had with teachers this week and at Moorambilla, it sounds as if, unfortunately, Australia is only a few steps behind the UK’s current obsession with teacher and data scrutiny. However, for the moment, they’re living life pretty freely by UK standards – no performance management-hingeing observations, no obsession with MAKING PROGRESS in line with a made-up national average; oh, and, what was that other one? Oh, yes: NO OFSTED. Although schools / workplaces always have politics, the freedom from these was tangible in the atmosphere of the school I visited this week.
- Funding: I’m still getting my head around this one, but from what I’ve seen, school leaders have more freedom to decide how they spend their budget. Result: the most ridiculously amazing primary music classroom I’ve ever seen:
- Class sizes: they’re smaller. Maybe only 5-8 fewer children, but it makes a huge difference to atmosphere and teacher-student one-to-one time.
- Singing: according to Ian, and Emily, an experienced classroom music teacher who’s currently completing a PhD on learning practices in the Musical Futures programme, singing culture is much less ingrained in schools in Australia than in the UK. I thought it was interesting that this was their perception of UK schools, thinking of my own experience trying to drag a few confident notes out of a hall of 200 children…! However, I understand what they mean: singing is a historic practice in the UK education system that is being revitalised through programmes like Sing Up; its resurgence aided by research proving its inherent value and as an essential tool for all musical learning. In Australian state schools, this culture has simply never existed. One important aspect of MFs’ work is helping to develop both student and teacher confidence in singing.
I’m looking forward to spending more time with both these programmes during the next week to see how musical learning plays out for the young people involved and their teachers.
P.S. I’m also aiming to get permission to post pictures of actual smiling children playing instruments this week!