Back to the songface

This post is about returning to teaching music after having written a critical PhD about it. I last taught music nearly ten years ago, while working as a freelance musician in Glasgow. I mainly taught piano students at Strathclyde university as well as taking the odd private student. My freelance work involved predominantly playing rather than teaching, but in the small amount of teaching I was doing I had an uncomfortable sense that despite corners of experimentation, I was mainly teaching the same way that I had been taught. As I’d had a ‘straight’ classical music education (other than Suzuki to start with) this meant canonic repertoire, lots of correction and technical detail, and working one-to-one rather than in groups. Meanwhile, in the playing I was doing as a musician I was having to use a much broader range of skills than my training had prepared me for – improvisation or playing around the score, transposition, interacting with a wide range of groups of people, and lots of emotional and musical support and flexibility for the musicians and singers I was accompanying. These skills hadn’t filtered into my teaching yet; and I was painfully aware that I had had absolutely no teacher training in music.

Now, having written 100,000 words on the ways in which class and gender inequalities have subtly (and not so subtly) made their way into classical music’s practices and pedagogies, I find myself at the coalface (songface?) again. I’ve agreed to take over my seven year old niece’s violin lessons. When I say violin lessons, I really mean music lessons – so far we are just using the violin as one of the possible ways at our disposal to make music (the others being a digital piano and singing). This came about because I was voicing my disapproval at both my nieces being put forward for grade one ABRSM exams. At age seven and eight, I think they have no business doing music exams. For the moment, I’ll leave the exams discussion for another post. But the upshot of my interference was that my sister asked if I’d be willing to take over my niece Isabel’s music lessons for a while. Thinking of the 100,000 word discussion I’ve just written, and my huge admiration for teachers like Jackie Schneider and Jason Kubilius who do this full time, I decided to say yes. It would give me a chance to have something special to do together with my niece, and also I had been meaning to learn to play fiddle properly for years (I’m mainly a cellist and pianist).

If you are not interested in the practical details of what we did, you can skip the next two paragraphs 🙂

We had an experimental first session a few weeks ago. I asked Isabel if she wanted to play some music with me on the violin and she said she couldn’t play anything without the written score. She wanted to play on her own without anyone playing with her, as a performance – she really likes the adult attention she gets from performing. This was actually quite a big problem in this first lesson, in that both Hannah (my older niece) and Isabel wanted to play things on their own with me sitting and listening; this was the model of musicking that they were familiar with, and they knew that it earned them adult approval. I was also slightly horrified that even at grade one Isabel wouldn’t play without the written music in front of her. To remedy this, (after a lot of singing)we put together a simple tune in three parts, along with her eight year old sister Hannah on the clarinet and me on the piano. Isabel played an open string double stops rhythm on the violin that I showed her, Hannah played long harmony notes on the clarinet which she partly devised herself (usually so loudly that we couldn’t hear anything else) and I played a kind of reel on the piano that I made up. The girls loved it so much they wanted to play it over and over again and then to play it to both their parents. They could follow a simple ABCBA structure and stay sufficiently in time that we reached the end roughly together. But more to the point, they had fun and we all played together. Lesson one was a success.

This weekend we had another go. Hannah had spent the morning at ‘Jump Giants’, which (as she explained to me at great length) is a kids’ play space where there’s lots of things to jump on and was hyper but also exhausted, so I decided to play with Isabel on her own. We used a Youtube video from the Online Academy of Irish Music of a fiddle player called Niamh Dunne teaching a tune called Maggie in the Woods (I hadn’t done any prep whatsoever for this, just googled it along with Isabel – but this was a great resource). Isabel decided she wanted to play it on the piano, so I helped her work it out, and I added a harmony on the fiddle. This took quite a while, and as I describe below, I tried to leave it up to her to work it out. I then suggested she learn it on the violin – she was reluctant and I had to really cajole her to try it. Once we got started, she concentrated really well and picked it up quicker than she had on the piano. Afterwards, she said that the reason she hadn’t wanted to try it was because she thought it was too hard for her. She was surprised that she had been able to play it. Her dad commented later that this was an unusual lack of confidence for her and wondered why.

So, what am I doing differently this time round to what I would’ve done in the past? And how does this way of teaching and learning differ from the norms of classical music pedagogy? First, learning by ear. A good classical teacher will include this, but I’m making it absolutely central (we might do some note reading but mainly through singing, at least to start with). Secondly, I’m making ensemble playing central. Again, a good classical teacher will do this, but there is still an assumption that you learn your part first, from the written score, then put it together. By contrast, particularly with Hannah as she’s a little bit older, I’m encouraging her to try out harmonies while Isabel or I are playing a piece, to see what sounds good. She’s not really there yet, and the clarinet is really really loud, but the general experimental chaos feels like the right direction. (I was reminded of Sue Hallam and colleagues’ research on the Musical Futures programme in school music, in which they found that music teachers had to have a high level of tolerance for the noisy, chaotic self-directed ensemble work that creative experimentation allows.) In prioritising ensemble playing, I’m also trying to work against the individualism that is usually the norm in classical music education – the norm of cultivating the ability of the individual rather than the group or collective, which as I posted about last week, is both a tenet of middle-class ‘intensive parenting’ and risks feeding into a competitive individualism, as seen in Hannah and Isabel vying to have their turn to perform solo for me. Instead, this is about learning a particular way of being sociable together with others, with all the frustration and excitement that this offers.

Thirdly, I’m drawing on their vernacular musics, or whatever music is to hand, which includes making things up. So far this means a lot of Irish and Scottish folk music but I am definitely planning to include Frozen very soon – I want Isabel and Hannah to learn that they can take music they love from anywhere and adapt it to play it themselves. This is something that it took me an embarrassingly long time to learn; I remember even after having done a music performance degree being unable to play pop songs by ear. (Of course I learnt pretty quickly once I was actually working as a musician, as I had to do everything anyone would pay me for with a piano). Drawing on the folk tradition also allows for flexibility around ‘getting it right’ – rhythms and corners of phrases may well be played differently by different musicians, and that’s fine.

And this leads me to one of the biggest differences: I am making a conscious effort to keep correction to a minimum. Correction and ‘getting it right’ emerged as one of the themes of my PhD research, and I linked this musical correction back to classed norms of embodied control and restraint from the late nineteenth century – getting it right socially as well as musically. This ‘getting it right’ socially could still be seen among those of my participants in my PhD research who were not from established middle-class backgrounds. Learning classical music was a way of learning to fit into this social scene, or learning to be middle class. This forms a contrast with many studies of working-class people trying to fit into middle-class milieux such as universities or other spaces, for example as explored in Vik Loveday‘s or Bev Skeggs’ work – Bev writes that her working-class female participants when entering different social spaces, could ‘never have the certainty that they are doing it right which is one of the main signifiers of middle-class dispositions’; this ‘lack of certainty means they cannot make use of social space in the same way’ as those who don’t have to worry because they know they’ll probably get it right, and for whom there is less risk, professionally or personally, in making social mistakes (1997, 10).

In my research, I also made a contrast between the classical music pedagogy of correction, and what Byron Dueck described in his study of working-class indigenous musicians in Manitoba, Canada, as a pedagogy of ‘non-interference’. This is about letting the child or young person develop as a musician in their own direction, making their own decisions as to what sounds good or bad, without constant correction from an adult authority figure. It turns out, trying to do this in practice is pretty difficult. I had to make a constant effort to say less, and do less. This was made easier by the fact that it was Saturday afternoon and we had plenty of time, and I was feeling quite relaxed anyway so I allowed Isabel to take the lead. Of course if I was being paid by the hour I’d feel like I needed to cram as much learning as possible into the time available. But even under these congenial circumstances, the impulse to correct was very strong, and it’s going to be an interesting journey for me to notice it but not react by ‘correcting’ every ‘mistake’.

I was also aware that a lot of this correction, as well as my other suggestions, were very much about my aesthetic preferences, not about Isabel’s agenda. For example, I wanted her to play it in tune because it sounded better. And of course it’s a good idea at some point to learn to play in tune (but creative use of tuning can be expressive). I managed to refrain from correcting her tuning and I found that sometimes she would hear it herself and correct it, but in her own time, when she wasn’t trying to think about several other things at once. Again, I’m sure that a good classical teacher would be aware of this issue, but in my experience so much classical music pedagogy is about correction rather than about exploration.

My nieces’ got their grade one results later that day. Hannah, my elder niece who had done grade one clarinet, was relieved to hear she had passed – she said she had been nervous about it. When I asked why, she replied that during the exam, the examiner had been writing lots and lots of notes, ‘and I thought she was writing down all the things I had done wrong’. Ouch.


Dueck, Byron. 2013. Musical Intimacies and Indigenous Imaginaries: Aboriginal Music and Dance in Public Performance. New York: OUP USA.

Hallam, Susan, Andrea Creech, and Hilary McQueen. 2016. ‘What Impact Does Teaching Music Informally in the Classroom Have on Teachers, and Their Pedagogy?’ Music Education Research.

Loveday, Vik. 2015. ‘Embodying Deficiency Through “Affective Practice”: Shame, Relationality, and the Lived Experience of Social Class and Gender in Higher Education’. Sociology, June.

Skeggs, Beverley. 1997. Formations of Class & Gender: Becoming Respectable. SAGE.

Back to the songface

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