Sound Castle Book Club

Talking with Hannah Dunster recently, for the Sound Castle Book Club, I was prompted to explore anew some of the ideas that I wrote together with my dear colleague and friend Dr Laura Huhtinen-Hildén in our 2018 Routledge publication: Taking a Learner-Centred Approach to Music Education: Pedagogical pathways. 

In our conversation we explored chapter four of the book entitled “Pedagogy – A sensitive improvisatory practice”. It was really good to unpick with an artist-practitioner ideas about quality music education practice, about the visible and less tangible skills, knowledge and understanding that we bring to every learning situation and about reflection as an intrinsic aspect of all we do.

To join the conversation tune into a communal viewing with live responses from us both to questions in the chat on Monday 7thDecember, 2020, at 1pm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4zHgZzmg5w

Turning 60 – reflections on the last decade

At the start of a new decade for me, there is time to look back over the last 10 years. In 2009 I  wasn’t looking forward to being 50, it felt like an unwelcome milestone. Goodness me the last 10 years have been pretty awesome! I began, what has become, a thriving consultancy practice; in 2010, I started to study for PhD on a fully funded scholarship and then life took unexpected twists and turns – I lived part -time with Religious Sisters the Society of the Sacred Heart and learnt so much from them in so many ways, especially about making and living in community. Through studying, my mind felt like it was expanding every day with new ideas and concepts as I grappled with philosophical ideas and explored what my deep questions were about early childhood music education. Teaching undergraduates expanded my experiences as an associate lecturer whilst a doctoral student. Becoming a generalist in early childhood studies opened out my understanding about my own field. Lecturing and then becoming a tutor on the MA in EY music helped me to organise and deepen my thoughts and underlying values about my own field. It has been an absolute privilege to be inspired by thoughtful musicians with a thirst for enquiry, wonderful students. Thank you Susan Young for that amazing opportunity and for writing a wonderful module to work from.

In 2012, whilst chair of MERYC-UK a small group of us organised our first national  conference, with a similar event almost every year since then. So much learned on that particular journey, alongside absolutely wonderful colleagues: Alison Street and Linda Bance. In 2016, MERYC-UK became a constituted charity – MERYC-England – watch this space!

In 2015, Julian and I  walked the Camino de Santiago (791 km), an experience that was transformative in many ways, giving fresh and new personal insights about listening, choices, stamina, relationships and health.

With my colleague and dear friend , Laura Huhtinen-Hilden we began to work on our book, which was published in 2018. What a privilege to work with Laura, she guided and led me through the publishing process with vision and grace, thank you!

Consultancy work grew to include research projects and evaluations. Wow – – so much learning and synthesis of ideas, beliefs and values through working with wise and amazing colleagues. I feel so blessed. And finally, last year I started a new job as part-time Music Education Lecturer at The Royal College of Music. Not something I would have predicted as I looked to the future in 2009.

Dipping into Alasdair MacIntyre’s  ‘After Virtue’ again, I find his discussions of Aristotle’s arguments of Virtue particularly resonant:”What then does the good for man turn out to be? […] He gives it the name eudaimonia – as so often there is a difficulty in translation: blessedness, happiness, prosperity. It is the state of being well and doing well in being well […]” (2011, p.174).

So, I write this to encourage anyone facing an unwelcome milestone in their life. Do not be afraid – embrace the chapter as best you can, seize the opportunities however aspirational they may seem, give time to thinking.

Be open to possibilities – you may be astonished by what arrives!

I have decided therefore to dive into my 60s and see what possibilities there may be for eudaimonia – and to continue to seek after the state of being well and in doing well in being well.

With love to my family, friends and colleagues without whom nothing in life seems possible.

Practical Wisdom – music teachers as artists

 

My colleague (Laura Huhtinen-Hilden) and I are about to give birth to a book: ‘Taking a Learner-Centred Approach to Music Education:pedagogical pathways’  which addresses a less frequently discussed, yet we think, very important aspect to teaching music (or any subject for that matter) that of the pedagogue’s (or teacher’s) choices or actions taken in any given moment and the thoughts, reflections and ideas that drive these actions.

I was working yesterday with a group of experienced and reflective early childhood music educators who are studying for a Masters degree in early years music and we were thinking about the different elements involved in music teaching. I based the ‘provocation’ lecture on a chapter from Elliott & Silverman’s (2015, 2nd Edition)  of ‘Music Matters’ (pp.43-48).

We discussed the fourth dimension of Aristotle’s  conception of praxis: Phronesis, or practical wisdom,  which is at the heart of making choices and acting in the moment as a teacher. We can know all the research-based evidence needed to teach music, we can possess plenty of technical skill and knowledge, we can have an awareness of the structures in music that we plan to explore in the lesson…BUT, if we don’t employ all these aspects with our practical wisdom of ‘being a teacher’, the learning won’t be effective. Teaching, we concluded is close to being an artist – it requires creativity, attunement, inspiration and a commitment of ourself to the process, a giving of ourselves, being open to vulnerability and preparedness to jump into the unknown with a group of learners when this might be what is needed.

We talked about what is needed to use phronesis well in teaching, we decided that experience is very useful.  We talked about apprenticeships, learning alongside a more experienced teacher, as being invaluable. We talked about being tuned-in to our learners, not focusing on what we want to do, but rather on what the learners want and need, being flexible in the moment to adjust and change tack. We discussed the benefits of studying, increasing knowledge and having the time to reflect with peers as being important to the process of developing phronesis. ‘The system’ has to acknowledge what it takes to teach well, it was felt that currently the profession of teaching is not valued as a skilled profession.  Thank you to these students for the discussions and thoughts that have contributed to this outpouring!

Let’s celebrate the art of teaching, the great profession that it is.  Let’s build up our phronesis, our practical wisdom, our self-belief in knowing what our learners need to learn, because we are professionals and know this better than anyone else.

Nobody tells an artist what, or how to paint. Nobody should be telling teachers what or how to teach…it is an art form and we know our art!

 

 

Learning Communities

IMG_0086

We had our final session of the MA in early years music education @ CREC (Centre for Research in Early Childhood) yesterday for this academic year with time to reflect together on our learning journey. Building a learning community together has been very fulfilling as one of the leaders of the course.

I am increasingly convinced that peer-to-peer learning in the social-cultural environment of CREC which is in itself a ‘liminal’ space – away from everyday work practices and family roles – provides a rich and deep place for learning that cannot be achieved by the tutors alone. The student ‘community’ in that space (and perhaps elsewhere once the bonds have been made) is dynamic and provocative, not afraid to challenge one another and open to new experiences, ideas and ways of thinking about the world and themselves in it in a way that a lecture cannot in itself provide.

Teaching at every level from working with the youngest infant through to mature students relies on establishing strong relationships and understanding of one another.  The use of ‘Phronesis’ or practical wisdom by the pedagogue allows and permits individual flourishing and growth.

These stones in the image above could represent the variety of individuals that come together to learn – we all have something unique to bring to the community and using the metaphor hidden in the stone’s shape, colour and form to stand for how we are feeling at a certain point in the learning journey, we can assume the metaphorical characteristics of a different stone, at different times. Every shape, colour and form is valued and needed.

Learning and teaching are very active processes and can change us deeply from the inside out and vice versa.  Thank you to this wonderful group of students and to my superb most treasured colleague – Alison Street – a truly special person.

 

Attitudes towards and perceptions of the rationale for parent–child group music making with young children

I am delighted to share here a paper published in Music Education Research. In this paper I share research findings from phase one of a three-phase doctoral research project in which I explored parent and child music groups in Children’s Centres.  The music groups  are offered free of charge and may be delivered by early years practitioners who work as part of an inter-disciplinary team with families with children under five.  Why are music groups offered in Children’s Centres and what are the perceived benefits for children, parents and practitioners?

 

 

Source: Attitudes towards and perceptions of the rationale for parent–child group music making with young children

The liminal music space

Have you ever sat in an Airport lounge about to board a plane and realised that you could be anyone, going anywhere, to do anything in that moment?  This is an experience that got me thinking about being ‘in limbo’ and the terrific sense of possibilities that this limbo state allows or permits.

The following extract comes from a covert observation I conducted as an exercise for an assignment some years ago.  It allowed me to think about liminal spaces and childhood.

“I was sitting waiting to board my plane at an airport when I heard a rhythm pattern obviously being made by more than one ‘instrument’ coming towards me down the open walkway which was beside me. It prompted me to remember my observation assignment and I happened to have a notebook and pen to hand so decided on the spur of the moment to observe what seemed to me to be an unexpected and interesting occurrence.

The observation lasted forty five minutes until my flight was called for boarding. I wrote freely as I watched and noted interactions or events of interest. I did not add my own comments or thoughts at this time – it was purely descriptive. Spradley (1980) suggests that descriptive observations are ineffective yet I found it was what occurred naturally. Mulhall (2003) argues that however hard we try to be objective an unconscious analysis of events is still taking place. Two days later I reflected on my field-notes. These reflections led to more abstract thinking about the location in particular and the effect it might have on behaviour.

What initiated the observation at that particular moment was the sound of the rattling sweetie tins and the rhythm that was being co-created by the 3 sisters who came into view by which time I had my notebook and pen ready to write: “3 girls (sisters) 5, 9,12-ish are shaking sweetie tins and making a rhythm as they walk together.”

Once I saw it was children making the rhythm pattern I decided to observe children in the walkway and this led me to my initial thought; do children use the walkway differently to adults?

In the 45 minute observation I saw nine ‘events’ involving children. In five of these ‘events’ the children were acting in a ‘different’ way to adults.

Describing actions as being ‘different’ is a social-construction, it carries with it notions of what society deems appropriate adult behaviour and likewise appropriate child behaviour.

Children/Adults

“A small boy comes off the plane (at my gate) he stands in front of me with his back to me and looks as though he’s pulling up both sides of his underpants through his trousers!”

“Girl (about 9 years) as she enters the gangway does a small ‘breakdance’ and sings a little tune as she crosses to the shop.”

“2 boys (about 7 – 9 years) walking with their parents – pushing against each other using the space, filling the walkway.” Taken from field notes 12.6.11

All these activities were acceptable to us because they were carried out by children. There were many cultures assembled in this space and several languages being spoken. However the acceptance of child-like behaviour seemed universal to all of us. It was a northern European airport so that may have determined, to some extent, the demographics of the population. It seems that certain behaviours are acceptable when performed by children in a public setting but would be unacceptable if performed by adults.

Who has decided this? How has it come to be this way? At what stage do we stop being children?

Staff/Passengers

The observation also included ‘events’ of staff activity. In a three-minute period there were seven separate ‘events’ involving staff.

“Stock trolleys are rolled up and unloaded, staff use shopping trolleys to transport stock.”

“Man goes past on a pedal scooter-thing, (to get from one end of the shopping mall to the other speedily)…another woman walks past pushing a trolley of dishwasher crates.” Taken from fieldnotes 12.6.11

All staff had a demeanour which showed that the space was known and comfortable to them. It was not ‘special’- it was a workplace. Their body language was relaxed, comfortable and efficient.

Reflexive Thoughts: Taken from Reflection Notes 15.6.11

Questions arising from these data:

  • Do different groups use this space differently?
  • Is there something about the space being in an airport that affects the way people use it?

My reflections focused on staff and passengers; “we were two groups in the airport mall. Staff – not going anywhere and Travellers – coming or going somewhere.”

…This was an opportunity to watch people in an ‘in-between space’ for some – and a work space, firmly rooted for others” In the margin I wrote “Liminality? Use of the spaces on the edge.”

I also spent time thinking about my role as the researcher; “I was a travelling participant observer – Firmly in the liminal camp…aware of the feelings I had about leaving a place and returning to another one. I had a sense of being ‘between’ a slight sense of disconnection to my normal life. I could be anyone, going anywhere. No one knew me. The feeling I have is one of freedom and liberation knowing that this time is limited and passing.

Arnold Van Gennep describes a time when countries were surrounded by strips of neutral ground. These zones gathered a ‘sacredness’ about them and when passing through a neutral zone from one country to another a traveller finds him/herself “physically and magico-religiously in a special place…this symbolic and spatial area of transition…” Van Gennep (1960, p. 18)

Turner (2009) describes three phases to rites de passage or transition; Separation, margin (limen: or threshold) and aggregation. The separation phase includes symbolic behavior of detachment from a fixed point in the social structure with its set of cultural conditions. During the next intervening ‘liminal’ period the characteristics of the ‘liminal’ subject are ambiguous. In the final phase the passage is completed. The individual returns to a stable state again with rights and obligations as before. These rights and obligations have clearly defined customary norms and ethical standards of social position.

It occurred to me that elements of Van Gennep’s and Turner’s description of transitions were present in my state of consciousness at that time and may have been for other passengers. Does this inner state affect how we act in the social world?”  end of extract

I’d like to suggest that Music plays a part in creating a liminal environment…Structured sounds can help separate us from the everyday.  To cross into a group music-making space can perhaps feel like crossing over a strip of neutral ground into another ‘country’ or ‘world’ with different cultural practices and traditions. I have noticed both parents and young children behave differently in a group music-making session to other parent-child group activities (Pitt, 2014). There is a sense of liberation and freedom that music, perhaps through its structured ordering of time, permits and enables. In the group music-making ‘world’ it is possible to move away from what is expected of  a ‘parent’ or ‘child’ into a space where these roles become more ambiguous: playfulness is for all and ritual and symbolism can give rise to creative explosions and expressions that the ‘normal world’ wouldn’t allow.

There can be a sense of separation from everyday routines and expectations as you cross over into the music group that is liberating and free-ing.  A little like being ‘in limbo’, as I experienced at the airport: I could be anyone, going anywhere, about to do anything…and this seems to be true for the music group:  You can take on a different persona, inhabit a social world that is different from your everyday and therefore do differently.  When the group finishes you can safely return to your expected role of parent, of child, of family support worker of early years practitioner.  This altered ambiguous space is held or contained by the music, which orders and organises the time spent together in the group so that the group experiences a sense of ‘flow’ together as the music excites, or calms or provokes.  You journey along and reach the end of the session having experienced something in place and time that cements the group as a whole. You can be changed through the group process of ‘flow’ – the musical experience can enhance the sense of belonging.

For me it is a truly liminal space which seems to represent some of the qualities that Van Gennep (1960, p.18) describes as “… a special place… [a] symbolic and spatial area of transition…”

References

Mulhall, A. (2003). In the field:notes on observation in qualitative research. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 41(3), 306-313.

Pitt, J. (2014) An exploratory study of the role of music with participants in children’s centres. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Roehampton

Spradley, J. (1980) Participant observation.” Wadsworth, Belmont, USA.

Turner, V. (2009). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick, USA: Aldine Transaction.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

inspire-music working group (early years)

Being awake (and ‘present’) as the sun rises is a special experience. Night-time is still around you and yet on the horizon the colours begin to hint at what is to come.  The skies develop the most astonishing range of diverse colours which blend beautifully together as the sun pushes it way upwards and infuses the rose, red, orange and yellow with pure gold and white light until it makes its presence felt:large and glowing in the sky to herald the dawn of a new day.

I have been feeling lately that we are at the dawn of something special in music education in the early years.  Over the last twenty years we have been growing a professional identity in early years music.  We are beginning to know who we are and what music education practice in the early years is all about.  And, like the colours of dawn we comprise a very rich and diverse range of approaches, methods and backgrounds.  The purposes of our work are also diverse, closely identifiable as music teaching in some cases and in others less clearly learning about music but perhaps more concerned with issues of wellbeing, parenting, creative expression or addressing a particular perceived need of participants.

Other encouraging signs are that early years music is becoming recognised as part of a lifelong learning journey and integral to the National Plan for Music Education. Some of us have been invited to be part of working groups to consider music education as a sector and this is also very exciting.  For the first time the 0-5 year age range has a voice on a larger platform.

So as a member of the inspire-music working group I offer these responses to some questions about effective practice in music education.

What are the hallmarks of good quality and effective practice?

Using the word ‘good’ in terms of quality makes me immediately think ‘good – according to whom, according to what criteria’?  What may be good quality practice in one situation may not be good quality practice in another.  So ‘good’ quality practice must surely be ‘appropriate’ to the context.  The context in the early years can range from a Reception classroom; a nursery school setting; a children’s centre stay and play group; to a village hall with mums and babies. Most of us may work in all of these contexts, and more, in a working week. The ‘approriateness’ of practice in context points perhaps better towards the word ‘effective’ rather than ‘good quality’ as a useful descriptor.

Here is MY list of hallmarks of effective practice (this is a personal view, of course and many other viewpoints are equally valid!!):

Hallmark 1: Sensitive practitioner – Effective practice requires a sensitive and attuned practitioner who is skilled in attentively following the needs of the group and the individuals within that group to offer musical possibilities that are appropriate and challenging enough to enable the scaffolding of individual learning journeys in and through music.

Hallmark 2: Flexible approaches: – A sensitive practitioner will adopt a pedagogy that is flexible and sensitive to the needs of the group that she/he is working with. A formal lesson plan may work well in some contexts, in fact may be essential, but in others would be entirely inappropriate. Following the particular interests, energies and dynamics of a group on a particular day can reap benefits in terms of engagement, focus,  development and empowerment.  This means that a learner-centred approach can be most effective in many group contexts.  This approach relies on beliefs that everyone is musical and a competent agent in their own learning.

Hallmark 3: Positive relationships – By working together with parents, early years practitioners, teachers, other arts professionals, therapists and all those working together for children, music practitioners can strengthen their understanding of early childhood development, thinking and learning of young children, diverse perspectives about children and families and thereby become part of a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991 and 1998) that shares a common purpose, a similar ‘language’ and characteristics of practice when working with children in the early years.

Hallmark 4: Culturally appropriate – By developing positive relationships with parents and the home environment it becomes more possible for the musical culture of home to be shared and enjoyed in the group situation. This affirms the musical life of home and brings it into the wider community learning space where it can be celebrated, extended and possibly enhanced.

All these hallmarks of practice require certain musical and pedagogical skills.

  • improvisational approaches,
  • ‘sound’ rich and ‘talk’ poor (i.e. keep talking to a minimum),
  • extensive repertoire knowledge that can be adapted on the spot to suit the creative moment,
  • singing that is intentional, animated and accurate,
  • based on observation,
  • reflective,
  • rooted where possible in collaboration.

(This section above is the fruit of  discussions of the inspire-music early years group: Julia Partington, Charlotte Arculus and me (Jessica Pitt).  It has been great collaborating so far, thank you both).

So how do we share effective practice in early years music?

I believe this is something that our sector is really good at.  There are many ways that practitioners can access training and education that promotes and encourages many of the musical and teaching skills listed above.

  • CREC MA in early years music: – Early years music MA.  The course focuses on the theoretical foundations of early childhood music.
  • LEYMN -: London Early Years Music Network  has an apprenticeship scheme and regular seminars and conferences that share expert practice and encourage discussion.
  • MERYC-UK-: Music Educators and Researchers of Young Children-UK hold biennial conferences where theory and practice papers, posters and workshops are presented. Lively debates encouraged!
  • There is a supportive, active and dynamic facebook group with over 1000 members where training days, workshops and practical issues and dilemmas are shared, discussed and reflected upon. To request to join please send a private message to admin.https://www.facebook.com/shirley.mcdermott You must be active in early years music teaching, training or research to join.

 

What are some of the key issues facing you and your organisation?

I am chair of MERYC-UK and we are on the brink of becoming a charitable organisation.  This is welcome as we will then be able to develop the vision we have for the role of MERYC-UK in advocating for and the promotion of early years music education practice and research and the intersections between these two. A key issue is securing funding – and the time to devote to this – as at the moment we all work for the organisation in our spare time.

  • 2017 MERYC-UK and Cambridge University will be hosting the MERYC conference a 4-day event with presentations of early years music research and practice from across Europe.  An early years music ‘festival’ or celebration of practice is planned with residencies in local schools and settings.  This is embryonic at the moment and dependent on funding.
  • Raising awareness about early years music as a specialism and a recognised professional role is an ongoing mission both within music education and early years education sectors.
  • Trying to establish a qualification to work in early years music as the sector is wide-open in terms of who can set-up to practice.  This needs addressing if we are to raise the overall quality of practice within the sector.

And finally, How do you overcome challenges?

MERYC-UK depends on the relationships and collaborations between the network of members, all of whom must have attended a 4-day academic MERYC conference in order to join.  The support and inspiration that this network offers me as the chair is what keeps me motivated to keep going forward, even when there seem to be insurmountable challenges at times.

(The organisation was the brainchild of Dr Susan Young without whom many of the positive developments over the last 20 years that I’ve listed above would not have come about.  She and Dr Alison Street have pioneered the field of enquiry and research into EY music practice and I am deeply indebted to both of them).

I see challenges as bridges to cross that provide opportunities for growth: both personal, professional and for our sector. Just like the beauty of sunrise which grows out of darkness, working in early years music sometimes feels like working in the semi-darkness, as there is still a lack of understanding that our field is a specialism with necessary skills and knowledge required to be effective. However as we share more together in partnership with colleagues across the music education and the early years education sectors I feel drawn to the horizon and I catch sight of the glow of sunrise and this is heartwarming and exciting.

(Header photo copyright M. Brookson. Sunrise photo copyright J. Pitt)