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Adapting popular musicians' practices for the classroom

How this has lead to a fast-spreading, radical new pedagogy significantly increasing student motivation, skill-development and the take-up of music as a subject.

Young woman singing

21 June 2017

 By Lucy Green

At a glance...

  • Informally, popular musicians develop skills and knowledge by working on music they like; copying and embellishing it by ear using audio and video recordings; directing their learning alone and in friendship groups; working largely or entirely without the aid of a teacher or other expert; working on whole 'real-world' songs rather than simplified pieces or progressively ordered exercises; and integrating playing, singing, listening, improvising and composing throughout the process.
  • These learning practices were adapted and adopted initially for classroom use and later for specialist instrumental teaching.
  • This has lead to what has been described as a revolution in formal music education pedagogy, influencing practices across the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Cyprus, and in parts of the USA, Brazil and many other places. 
  • The pedagogy is able to increase motivation, inclusion, cooperation and skill-development amongst students; the average take-up of music at GCSE nationally is 8-9%; in schools habitually using these methods and others derived from or relating to them, the figure is 30-40%.

It has become a maxim in many musicological spheres, that in order to understand any particular style of music it is necessary to consider how the music is passed on from person to person, and generation to generation. The classical music world today enjoys a long tradition of different pedagogical methods, not all of which agree with each other necessarily, but most of which share some fundamental principles - such as placing importance on regular practice, planned progression, technical exercises and teacher-guidance. Yet there have been many children and young people who fail and drop out of formal music education; and most importantly, it has often been the case that, far from being either uninterested or unmusical, such youngsters are highly motivated and devote themselves to alternative, informal methods of music learning in the popular music sphere. 

...far from being either uninterested or unmusical, such youngsters are highly motivated and devote themselves to alternative, informal methods of music learning in the popular music sphere

Popular musicians' informal approaches to acquiring musical skills and knowledge are associated with high levels of enjoyment, and can lead to advanced musicianship emphasising aural, improvisatory and creative aspects, many of which tend to be absent from the training of classical musicians. The young musicians work on music they know and like, copying and embellishing it by ear. They tend to learn not only alone but in friendship groups, largely or entirely without the aid of a teacher or other expert. They tackle whole 'real-world' songs rather than simplified pieces or progressively ordered exercises, and they integrate playing, singing, listening, improvising and composing throughout the process.

For over four decades now, popular music itself has formed a major part of curriculum content in the UK as well as many other countries. However, it is only relatively recently that the informal learning practices of the musicians who create it have been recognised and adopted as teaching and learning strategies in classrooms and instrumental tuition contexts. The linked projects described here are internationally recognised as seminal in developing and evaluating pedagogy based on popular musicians' informal learning practices, and in understanding the various kinds of learning and teaching that are entailed. Specifically, the aims of the projects were to adopt and adapt the informal learning practices used by young popular musicians, and bring them into the secondary school classroom and instrumental lesson. 

Hands on keyboardIn the classroom, the central characteristics of these informal learning practices were replicated very simply by allowing students to bring in their own music, work in friendship groups, choose instruments from what was available, and teach themselves to play and/or sing their chosen music by ear, directing their own pathways through the learning. The role of the teacher in the first two or three lessons is to allow students to make their own decisions about what music to play, who to work with, what instruments to select and how to go about the learning task. After around 3 lessons the teacher 'phases in' and begins to offer increasing levels of guidance through modelling, demonstrating instrumental technique, helping students to find pitches, offering general musical advice, and a range of other activities.

Further phases of the project involve specially-prepared recordings, where tracks are individually broken down to aid the listening ear; and expansion into a greater range of music from various eras and around the world, including Western classical music. In the specialist instrumental lesson similar techniques are used. Students are given broken down tracks first, using popular, then classical music, before graduating towards choosing their own music. 

The projects investigated to what extent the adapted informal learning practices could, or could not, increase pupils' musical skills; raise their levels of motivation and enjoyment; and extend their appreciation of a range of music going beyond the popular sphere. They also considered the responses of teachers, and various kinds of pedagogical approach that could support the project aims. 

Qualitative data were gathered through participant observation, audio recordings, small group student interviews, individual teacher interviews, student and teacher questionnaires, and teacher meetings. Quantitative data included anonymous teacher and student questionnaires, and in the instrumental phase, a case-control experiment involving a panel of expert judges. 

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://youtu.be/4r8zoHT4ExY

Findings were that students' musical skills developed well, most particularly in relation to listening, but also playing and/or singing and ensemble skills. Students' understanding and appreciation of how music is put together, and their ability to listen to inner parts, were positively affected, with many students saying they had never realised that music was made of 'layers' before or that it had 'underneath bits'. In the case-control research, the experimental group scored higher than the control group for all criteria in a formal aural playing-back task. Overall, enjoyment and motivation levels were considered to increase significantly, with students remaining exceptionally well on task. Unanticipated outcomes were that students themselves, as well as teachers, considered group cooperation skills had improved.

Most particularly, many students who had previously been regarded as disaffected and/or lacking in musical ability, rose to turn around their teachers' judgements and showed themselves to be capable and willing group leaders, and musically able learners.

Teachers' responses and motivation also tended to be significantly affected. At first, teachers often find the idea of allowing students to choose their own music and direct their own aural learning in friendship groups, worrying. They are concerned that students will take advantage, waste time and misbehave. However teachers' expectations are very quickly turned around, as they observe students being highly motivated, on-task and involved in developing a range of musical skills.  

Since the original studies many follow-ups, adaptations and evaluations have been carried out by a range of scholars and practitioners in different countries, with similar results. Work is still ongoing under the auspices of Musical Futures, which also develops a range of other classroom work-shopping activities based on related principles.

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