This is an essay I wrote about a Year 4 pupil learning music. It’s 2300 words.
‘…Hungarian musical education is not merely a method, rather a philosophy on the role of music in society, in the life of the child, youth and adult.’1
Serkan, aged 9 (d.o.b. 18.12.03), lives with his mother, his father and his younger brother who is in the year below him at school. They all speak Turkish at home.
He has attended the same primary school since the Nursery. As well as some small amount of singing in Nursery and Reception he was also part of a class that sang nearly every day with me in Year 1, often accompanied by my guitar playing. In Year 2 – September 2010 – he began weekly music lessons with me as his music teacher. These weekly sessions have been between 45 and 90 minutes long, depending on the timetable, and have continued up to the present. In total then he has had weekly whole-class music lessons for eight terms.
There are two reasons I have selected Serkan as a profile pupil. Firstly he represents a good example of somebody who has progressed from a very limited basic ability in his musicianship. In September 2010 he had no demonstrable feel for the pulse in a song or piece of music and he would talk through a song rather than sing it. Appendix III shows the gradual acquisition of several key skills including being able to show the pulse, being able to show the pitch in simple songs (with solfa names and handsigns) and developing the confidence to sing solo. It is this growth in confidence that leads me onto the second reason that Serkan makes an interesting study. Since moving from having apparently no sense of the pulse to being able to feel it and show it (around the Spring Term of 2012 – see Appendix III) his interest in and enthusiasm for music has increased to a remarkable extent. While he continues to struggle with many of the practical challenges in his music lessons (e.g. pitch-matching or clapping a rhythm) he is also one of the most vocal and engaged pupils in the class. He feels comfortable in the music lessons and regularly asks questions to clarify his own understanding as well as wanting to answer questions put to the class. He has not been put off by his lack of practical ability. His breakthrough with being able to show the pulse has been hard-won and I think that this is now motivating him.
As well as looking in more depth at Serkan’s ability and progress in music lessons this essay also provides a brief picture of his musical experiences beyond the formal learning of the classroom. Exploring the experience of participants in this way is known as a phenomenological approach 2. As Patrician Shehan-Campbell puts it:
“phenomenology allows the scrutiny of a single case … for the purpose of understanding the lived experiences of the individual…I saw each child with whom I conversed as incomparable and unclassifiable”3
Keeping this in mind is a way of remembering that Serkan is neither a blank canvas to be ‘coloured-in’ and written upon using various pedagogical techniques nor is he solely or even primarily a music student. This is an approach that “aims to clarify, describe and interpret (the subject’s) unique forms of ‘intentionality’” 4 (i.e. determination to act in a certain way). By making an effort to understand Serkan’s unique background and influences a fuller and clearer picture of him as a learner should emerge. Hence the inclusion of an interview with Serkan as part of this study (see Appendix I)
Starting Year 2 at six years old Serkan was unable to show the beat when the whole class sang together. To be able to show the beat in a song or while listening to a piece of music is not necessarily an innate skill. For many children it is something that is learned perhaps from parents, perhaps from peers or perhaps in music lessons. Serkan does not come from a musical family. His parents listen to Turkish songs but they do not sing or play instruments themselves (see interview Appendix I). Serkan did not have regular, carefully structured music lessons during the years when the beat would normally be established for all pupils (i.e. at 3- 5 years of age). The steady beat is present whenever a song is sung in the classroom. It is the foundation on which rhythmic understanding can be built:
“Children can only become consciously aware of rhythm when they are already able to produce a steady beat with complete confidence without the help of the teacher”5
Being able to show the steady beat might well be seen as the foundation of all further musical endeavours. Erzsebet Szonyi states simply that “…the shared experience of the even pulse is essential to further study.”6
During the next four terms Serkan took part in many different singing games and exercises that included the requirement to keep a steady beat. He was repeatedly exposed to songs with a steady beat and repeatedly required to clap, walk or otherwise show the steady beat. He always failed to show the beat accurately when nearly all of his peers could do it. John Sloboda, a cognitive psychologist, looks at what is involved in skill-learning in his book ‘The Musical Mind’. He draws attention to how habits are acquired through repetition but he makes it clear that this is not simply ‘stamping-in’ new learning; rather it is a way of signalling to the brain that this is going to be a useful action to know because, evidently, it is regularly – repetitively! – required. Or as he puts it:
“…the best evidence a system can have that a rule is going to be useful is that the situation that demands its application has occurred very often.”7
As well as repetition Sloboda also draws attention to the importance of feedback in the learning process, essential in order to avoid acquiring the wrong habits. Feedback is critical in reducing the gap between where the student is and where they are meant to be. However Sloboda points out that sometimes a failing needs to be passed over by the teacher because further comment will not improve it. Over many lessons this was how I approached the issue of Serkan’s lack of ability to show the beat: he would sing the songs and do his best to show the beat and sometimes I would directly intervene by clapping next to him. I never ever told him that he was failing to keep to the beat correctly. With a spelling test a student can be shown that a word has been misspelled. The correct spelling can be noted by the student and perhaps even memorised once and for all there and then. Keeping the beat is a physical skill of coordination and cannot simply be picked up after a quiet word from the teacher. During the Summer term of Year 2 there was one occasion when he tapped eight drawn heartbeats in time to the beat of a simple song (See-Saw). This, as it turned out, was the first glimpse of overcoming his lack of ability to do this.
The following Autumn term – Year 3 – he was still unable to show the pulse independently. However in the Spring term of this year he had a major breakthrough. This may have been influenced by the fact that, at this point in my own planning, I had decided to make more consistent use of ‘Music Partners’. I included portions of each lesson that were to be worked at in mixed ability pairs. Serkan was paired with a very able girl. This immediacy of experience, comparing his own actions with those of his partner and being actively encouraged to copy his partner, may have been especially helpful for him. He has now been able to show the beat for about a year. Most of his peers are more confident than he is in switching between pulse and rhythm or adding a simple rhythmic ostinato to a song. However this does not detract from two important and related points. Firstly Serkan has learned to do something he could not do before. Secondly the skill has not been demonstrated in isolation but truly and independently acquired. “Children must be allowed to perform skills alone if musical independence is to be achieved.” 8 In the UK the Department for Education (DfE) describes eight levels of musical attainment. The second level includes the following: “They…perform simple patterns and accompaniments keeping to a steady pulse.” 9 So we can say that Serkan is now working within a nationally accepted ‘Level 2’.
Serkan’s other major area in need of much improvement from the start was his singing. Before his regular music lessons began in Year 2 he had been a very quiet pupil in Year 1, hardly talking at all and not joining in with any singing. During Year 2 he used his talking/droning voice when asked to sing. However he showed some ability to alter this voice by raising or lowering the pitch when required to do so. In the Spring term of Year 3 he began to be able to echo a sung melody accurately but at a lower pitch.
“The child who has never been able to distinguish between higher and lower pitches and who suddenly begins singing three-note tunes with relative correctness (albeit a fourth lower than the rest of the class) …has made great musical progress.” 10
Again with reference to DfE guidelines we find that Serkan is working within ‘Level 2’ (“They sing with a sense of the shape of the melody” 11) and not yet at ‘Level 3’ (“They sing in tune”). During the Autumn term of Year 4 he began to be willing to sing solo in front of the class. He also demonstrated that he could hear pitch accurately – within the limited tone set of ‘la-so-mi’ – by consistently using handsigns correctly for known songs and unknown melodic lines sung by me. He also consolidated his move away from a talking/droning voice to a singing voice. There were some very valuable one-to-one sessions with me at this time (see Appendix III) in which he demonstrated his ability to make minor adjustments to his own singing, even though he still could not pitch-match. His pitch-matching ability can only improve with more practise and exposure to songs and singing. In the same way his ability to show the beat also took time to develop.
With his increased confidence in Year 4 – showing the beat confidently, being willing to sing solo – he has become a more engaged pupil in the lessons. He volunteers comments or answers questions with good use of vocabulary referring to ‘rests’, a ‘canon’, the ‘repeat symbol’ or the similarity between one song and another in a way that he would not have done a year ago (see Appendix III) . So his awareness is more acute than many in the class. At the same time he has demonstrated that he knows the limits of his own ability by choosing to clap a very simple ‘ta ta ta ta’ rhythm when called upon to improvise a rhythm of his own. Musical ability is not the same thing as musical awareness. But being aware of one’s own musical ability is a good quality for any musician to have. Serkan’s reading level of ‘2a’ is described by his teacher as ‘low’ (see Appendix IV) because by the time he is halfway through Year 4 this level is expected to be at ‘Level 3’. In the same way his music attainment, a ‘Level 2’ according to the descriptors referred to above, is also below what would be expected at this age. This corresponds to my impression of his musical abilities when compared to his peers, nearly all of whom could demonstrate a steady beat long before he could.
Despite his general enthusiasm it remains true that “Students do not remain in a constant state of being motivated!” 12 One lesson during the Spring term of Year 4, for example, saw Serkan choosing not to sing at all and he even sat out of several activities altogether. I asked him what was bothering him but he was unwilling or unable to tell me. There is no way I can tell what made him feel like this during that particular lesson. Perhaps something happened amongst his peers before school or perhaps something had happened at home. There are many other possibilities. These are aspects of a lesson that the teacher cannot possibly have any control over. In the same way I cannot control the influences on his musical life outside the music lessons themselves. The songs he listens to with his brother and with his peers on his phone are utterly removed from the simple children’s songs he sings in the classroom. At any time he might well decide that his school songs are ‘for babies’ when compared with the swearing and adult content of his favourite songs (see Appendix II). Although I find the songs he has mentioned unpleasant and inappropriate for a nine-year-old it is important that they are recorded as an aspect of his growing musical awareness.
His music lessons have now finished as a result of administrative decisions within the school. It will be difficult for Serkan to continue to develop his basic musicianship without regular, structured lessons. It is impossible to say with any accuracy what impact his music lessons may have had on him as a musician and more generally as a growing child. In the same way it is impossible to predict what role music will play in his future life.
1 Szonyi, Erzsebet (1973) Kodaly’s Principles in Practice p.8
2 McLeod, S. A. (2008) Qualitative Quantitative from www.simplypsychology.org
3 Shehan Campbell, Patricia (1998) Songs in Their Heads p.73
4 Danahar, T. and Briod, M. (2005) ‘Phenomenological Approaches to research with children’ p.218 in Researching Children’s Experience (eds. Greene S. and Hogan D)
5 Forrai, Katalin (1998) Music in Preschool (second revised and expanded edition) p.49
6 Szonyi, Erzsebet (1975) ‘Solfa Teaching in Music Education’ in Music Education in Hungary (ed. Sandor F.) p.80
7 Sloboda, J. A. (1985) The Musical Mind p.225
8 Choksy, Lois (1981) The Kodaly Context p.30
9 Department for Education Music Attainment Target Level Descriptions (updated 25.11.11) Available: www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/secondary/b00199601/music/attainment
10 Choksy, Lois (1981) The Kodaly Context p.22
11 Department for Education Music Attainment Target Level Descriptions (updated 25.11.11) Available: www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/secondary/b00199601/music/attainment
12 Hattie, John (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers p.107