The other day, I was asked if I could take over an exam drama class for a few weeks whilst their class teacher is off. Excited to be asked, and keen to see exam students performing, the class were working on the opening scenes from Teechers by John Godber. Such a great play, that has earned it’s right to be a staple of GCSE and A Level drama courses – I totally love it!
After the first session, it was apparent that the students hadn’t yet grasped the complexity of the play, the need to effortlessly multi-role, and the style of performance needed.
No worries I thought to myself – off I would go and find a wonderful clip on the internet by some professional theatre folk to inspire and energise the class in performing this exciting play with a bit more gusto.
So the next lesson, on a very wet and miserable morning, I showed the class the opening 10 minutes, stopping it to point out all the wonderful drama elements on display that they could consider including in their own version. I was excited for them and proud of myself until I asked the class what they thought. “Well in all honest, Miss, I don’t like to watch anyone else perform the plays I am doing as I am already such a great actress and don’t want to have my ideas altered. So no, it wasn’t helpful”.
Well I was truly put in my place!
But in truth, here is a perfect example of why it’s so important that we continue to show students great artists and works in the classroom. There is no doubt that this student is a keen drama student, but like all of us, has so much to still learn about the arts and would benefit enormously from opening her mind and listening and learning from more experienced performers.
In the classroom there is still such emphasis placed on performing and presenting. I know so many music teachers, particularly in elementary schools, who spend most of the autumn term working on the whole school Christmas production and the whole of the summer term working on the graduation days. The lessons are totally immersed in performing and practising, with little time for developing other skills such as composing, listening and appraising.
Now don’t get me wrong, the elementary teachers are not doing anything wrong. In fact, they often have very little say on that first term because there is so much expectation being placed on them to deliver another award-winning performance for the admin to market the school from. In truth, this is often the case too in secondary schools – that big Christmas concert, Carol services, pantomimes or even a full musical. I know from experience that the only way to get there is to sacrifice some of the limited time with your classes (often no more than 50 minutes a week at middle school) to work on performance skills and the other elements of the curriculum like listening gets missed out.
We try to brush it off and say ‘kids listen to music all the time anyway‘. Although they do, in truth, our students are watching music videos and having music on as background noise. The act of focused listening skills needs to be taught. How will a student ever want to learn the cello if they never hear one? How will anyone learn the bassoon or join an orchestra if they never see one?
Yet, with all the technology that is at the finger tips of students, we think it is easier than ever to listen to music and discover great albums, artists and content. Well, when I go on Youtube, unless I really know what I am looking for in the search engine, I in truth wouldn’t have a clue where to start to find a new artist. Yet, back in the day, when I used to go to HMV and other retailers, I could easily browse the CDs and genres of music to find new artists. It’s exactly how I discovered my favourite artists of all time.
So with all of this in mind, how can we help our students in the classroom?
- Listen to music in the classroom regularly and include in the curriculum planning.
- Don’t steer away from classical music, because students really do love to hear it.
- Train students to not talk over music and be active listeners. They can even close their eyes whilst listening to not be distracted by others.
- Talk about the music that they hear in class. Any musical element will give you a great starting point (tempo, dynamics, instrumentation, tonality, etc). It’s a great way of preparing students for terms that appear in the GCSE and A Level music listening exam.
- Try to include music into the curriculum that is different from their own cultures. Again, students do love seeing music from around the world and understanding it.
- Challenge your instrumentalists to listen to the music they are playing and also to listen to great players of their instrument. You would be surprised at how few students can name a famous player of their instrument, let alone 5.
- Try to take students to live concerts and encourage parents to do the same.
- Have a band or choir challenge focused on listening. Each section must find an artist that plays their instrument and then students present the work / artist / piece. I did this challenge many years ago with one of my beginner bands. They totally loved it and it improved their musicianship no end. The percussion section were the winners that year!
- If you have to set weekly homework, then consider setting a listening log exercise each week to encourage students to widen their musical tastes. With the growth in technology, this could easily be set up on google.
- Include as much music that is diverse into the curriculum. Music is such an important part of every individual person’s identity. This is a positive way of supporting all students in the classroom.