At a school in north west Melbourne, 24 10 year-olds, wearing their yellow and green uniforms, sit on the carpet of a classroom filled with music technology. It feels like an April day in the UK: renewed warmth from the sun, blossom on the trees and an optimistic breeze.
Today, the class are choosing a song for their next project. Their teacher has apologised to me: this is going to be a boring lesson to watch. He’s wrong – it’s fascinating.
“OK, I’m going to play you some songs.” he says.
“In our last project, you chose lots of recent songs, so this time, I’ve got some older things which I hope will broaden your repertoire…”
“Like from the 70s?!” asks one boy
“My mum was born in the FIFTIES…”
Cue classic carpet talk tangent, surely found in primary classrooms globally.
Once discussion of parents’ birth decades is brought to a fairly swift close, the teacher takes the class through samples of around 15 songs. The breadth of rock and pop from the 1960s to 2010 is paraded before their ears: Van Morrison, Journey, Cyndi Lauper, Smash Mouth, Outkast, Coldplay, Beyonce.
As they hear the samples, with the teacher skipping through to find the best or most recognisable bits, there are collective groans or cheers, or sometimes – for example, when the Cup Song comes on – the class is divided.
He advises them:
“You might think you can sing this one, but it’s really hard!”
“This one has a great drum part.”
“The keyboard in this one is really important.”
On comes a song by Pink: the reaction ranges from disinterest to disapproval.
What’s most interesting is the teacher’s response to songs receiving this reaction:
“I’m going give you the Justin Bieber speech.”
“Huh?” exclaim the kids.
“Whenever a JB song comes on and people say they hate JB, I say, ‘but this one’s fun to play’.”
For children and adolescents, at a crucial stage in formation of their identities, it’s tricky to differentiate between enjoying listening to a song, internalising an artist or band as part of one’s musical identity and enjoying playing a song. Helping young people to understand that it’s possible to enjoy playing and create ownership over music which happens to have been performed originally by Justin Bieber whilst retaining a dislike of JB himself is a pretty crucial skill to learn for meaningful music education.
A democratic process
Once all the songs have been played, an elimination runoff vote takes place. The teacher runs through each song again, gauging interest, whittling down to around eight top choices. He then tells the class they have three votes each for the next round. When it’s down to three songs he asks them to close their eyes (avoiding the influence of peers) to vote again. It’s down to two and eventually a majority is declared: Paradise by Coldplay triumphs (with ‘Pizza Slice’ rolled around as an alternative lyric).
The class participate in the process noisily but impressively: every child is engaged and takes the vote seriously. During the first round of voting, the teacher warns them he’s watching for anyone trying to vote more than three times – but no one does. When Paradise is declared the winner, no one complains.
I don’t know the class, or much about their history or context within or beyond their music lessons. However, their behaviour suggests a group who feel like their opinions and choices are taken seriously and who, in return, take their music lesson seriously.
Organic musical analysis
“So, now you’ve chosen your song, we should listen to it properly!” says the teacher.
They listen to the whole song, but as they do, he pauses it to ask questions:
“What happens to the piano here?”
“What’s the guitar’s role?”
“How is that bass sound created?”
The answers are impressive – particularly in their awareness of the use of music technology, suggesting the embedded nature of their experience in this area: in response to the latter question, one boy suggests,
“Is it to do with the keyboard?”
“Great answer! Yes, it’s a synthesiser doubling the bass guitar melody” scaffolds the teacher.
Equipping children with the language to support musical analysis is one of the bits of teaching music I find hardest; particularly when it comes to helping them to articulate textural or expressive nuance which they may well be able to hear but not describe.
I like that the teacher has taken time to engage the class in deep musical analysis, before they have even played a note, by first establishing them as owners of the song, and helping them to recall and draw upon practically-acquired musical knowledge.