My Kodály Journey – Part II (three years on)

I wrote this article for the British Kodaly Academy’s newsletter (Spring 2014)

1100 words

“…if it is possible to change the world we have not created, that of nature, why not change the world of our own creation, that of culture…?” 1
Paulo Freire

Since writing in the Spring 2011 newsletter about my recent introduction to Kodály music teaching I have completed the BKA’s HE1 and HE3 Methodology courses and worked my way through the Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Musicianship courses with the Kodály Centre of London (David and Yuko Vinden).

During this time I have been the full time music teacher at two very different state schools. After watching the children’s steady progress over three years in the first of these schools the music teacher post was suddenly abolished so I had to move on. I am now in a happy school that is committed to a creative curriculum. Initiatives like ‘Philosophy for Children’ and an outdoor ‘Forest School’ classroom are examples of the child-centred thinking that guides this open-minded school.
But isn’t child-centred learning too vague and too permissive? Have we not experimented with these trendy notions and dismissed them? Do we really want a child-centred approach, in these times of international league tables and deadly serious talk of a ‘global race’, when the stakes are so high? Yes, of course we do! What was Katalin Forrai thinking of when she wrote ‘In musical education the artistic side is the most important – joy, happiness, playfulness, humour are more essential than the meeting of some educational objectives’? 2 Here we have the insight of a great teacher. The Kodály approach is a holistic approach. ‘We must first get to know the group’ writes Katalin Forrai ‘and only after that is it possible to make an effective curriculum for them’ 3. This is really nothing more than basic good practice but it is not how I was encouraged to work as an English primary school teacher.
Imagine my joy on seeing the horrified expression of one of my Hungarian tutors when I told her that, as a Year 1 teacher (5 and 6 year olds), I was expected to announce, at the start of each lesson, what the children would learn in that lesson; I had to announce the Learning Intention (or Learning Objective if you prefer) and then as a class we were expected to break this down into Success Criteria. And then, finally, we could get on with the lesson. This is a mechanistic, unthinking approach. The opposite is true of an approach that says let’s have fun and, without even knowing it, the children will learn: it’s easier, somewhere down the line, to teach the children what they already know! With this simple pedagogical insight the freedom and fun suddenly pours back into the classroom. The behaviourist ‘teaching is merely telling’ approach is revealed as not just dull but also shallow and unhelpful. The Learning Intentions and the rigid definitions of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ lessons are revealed for what they are: bureaucratic tools of surveillance, not valuable pedagogical instruments. They are responsible for many ills: degrading the very idea of what teaching is; reducing diversity, surely a source of strength in any collective endeavour; and allowing mediocre, compliant teachers to flourish.
Now, three and a half years in, with some sense of how a really good Kodály practitioner might operate I am keen to promote this way of teaching music as the best approach for ordinary state primary schools. In some ways this is an easy task: there is no systematic approach to primary music-teaching in the UK; most people have never thought of the voice as the first instrument, nor considered the advantages of this point of view; most people expect a music lesson to have a single focus (e.g. pitch) – this because of the restrictive ‘Learning Intention’ approach mentioned above – as opposed to having numerous aspects of musicianship covered in a thirty minute lesson; the very word ‘musicianship’ is a new one for many music teachers; there are good reasons why learning music in a group is best; the songs that make up the building blocks of basic musicianship are easy to learn; the singing games are fun!
Here are some examples of my own efforts to promote the Kodály philosophy:

1. Supporting local music teachers: I have begun to build up a Primary Music Educators network in my area around East London; it is my intention for this collection of fulltime primary music teachers to meet once a term; we will share ideas and resources. There is a need for this because most PGCE courses devote only two or three hours to music. There is, generally, little understanding of music-teaching as something that can be broken down into the tiny steps that typically characterise the work of a Kodaly practitioner; there is even less sense of a coherent philosophy that might underpin such an approach.
2. Educating future music teachers: Contacting various music colleges in London, to ask about students who might be interested in playing to the pupils at my school, I had an unexpected outcome: a representative from the London Centre of Contemporary Music came to see me and observed a Year 3 lesson; we talked and I shared my ‘Pupil Profile’ essay with him (from the BKA’s HE3 course); on the strength of this he asked me to lead an undergraduate music-teaching module starting next academic year.
3. Engaging directly with nationally influential people: In February I attended the Music Education Expo at the Barbican in London. I asked Ed Vaizey, the UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, if he’d ever been to Hungary? I explained that in Hungary there is a successful, systematic, sequential model of music-teaching that we can learn from. I followed this up with an email. He forwarded this email to Michelle James, the CEO of Sing Up, who is now going to come and observe me teach and talk with me about Kodály music-teaching

The very positive feedback I have received from the college mentioned above and from some of the primary music teachers I have already shared resources and ideas with helps to keep me confident in what I am doing. I enthusiastically promote this kind of teaching because I know that it is directly linked to proper, effective, pedagogical thought. As such it is inspiring for me: a well thought through pedagogy combined with a humane philosophy and a deep understanding of music results in good, musical teaching.
1. Paulo Freire 1994 ‘Pedagogy of Hope’ p.81
2. Katalin Forrai 1998 ‘Music in Preschool’ (Second Revised and Expanded Edition) p.97
3. Ibid p.79