International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 4 Number 6

December 11, 2003

From Resentment to Enchantment:
What a Class of Thirteen Year Olds and Their Music Teacher Tell Us About a Musical Education

John Finney
University of Cambridge

Citation: Finney, J. (2003, December 11). From resentment to enchantment: What a class of thirteen year olds and their music teacher tell us about a musical education. International Journal of Education and the Arts, 4(6). Retrieved [Date] from

The study set out to uncover pupils’ experience of learning music and their teacher’s experience of teaching music in their weekly class music lesson in a secondary school for 11-19 year olds in the east of England. A class of twenty-four pupils, aged 12-13 years, in their second year of secondary schooling, and their music teacher, were observed and interviewed over a two-term period, creating an ethnography of their classroom musical lives. The unfolding story showed pupils giving meaning to their music lesson in terms of having a “teacher who understands things” and of a teacher “making connections” with them. The relationship between learner, what is to be learnt and teacher proved to be critical. The account will enable music teachers to reflect upon the ways in which they engage with their pupils as they seek to create a positive climate for learning. It may further assist in arriving at common understandings about the character and purpose of a musical education.

It is the people and the music that we are all about as music teachers – with the simple, practical objectives of giving every child, in every school, in every hamlet, village, town and city, in every state and country around the world, the opportunity to engage immediately with music, the right to be led by competent and (sometimes) inspired teachers, and the provision of resources necessary to accomplish this task. (Jorgensen, 2003, p. 211-212)

How well are we doing in England? Despite the establishment of a National Curriculum setting out to ensure an entitlement for every child between ages 5 and 14, there is still much evidence of inconsistency in provision and, at the secondary level, concern about pupil resentment and disaffection. "Music in the English secondary school seems ill at ease." (Swanwick and Lawson, 1999, p. 47)

Beyond questions about the efficacy of a National Curriculum, its regime of inspection and the official definition of standards, Ross (1995) maintains that the problem lies with music teachers who, unlike teachers of the other arts, fail to grasp music’s essence as a ‘way of having thoughts, feelings and ideas’. Pupils are not helped to speak their musical minds. ‘Music Education has a sad history.’ (p. 185) By comparison with the other arts, music in secondary schools scores poorly. Numbers choosing to continue with music beyond the age of 14 remain low at 7% of the cohort and those pupils who do enrol for music at age 14 report less enjoyment and value than their counterparts in Art, Drama and Dance. (Harland, Kinder, Lord, Stott, Shagen and Haynes, 2000). Academic commentary within the music education community responding to a ‘crises in confidence’ argues for the adoption of more culturally sensitive ways of engaging young people, taking into account their informal, out of school styles of learning that occupy much of their time and energy. The case is made for music to become unbound from the rigid structures of schooling, for it to draw on a wider range of resources and styles of delivery. (Swanwick, 1999; Green, 2001; Durrant, 2001; York, 2001) From this perspective, the statutory, once weekly secondary school general music lesson is in danger of being viewed as contrived and, in social-cultural terms, moribund compared to the situations and contexts where musical learning is achieved out of the classroom.

However, as debate becomes ever more rhetorical and distanced from the voices of young people and music teachers in school, Pitts (2001) points out that the challenge facing music education is how to arrive at a common understanding of what a music education might mean amongst the various players—the pupil, the teacher and the policy maker, so that music education can become effective for all. In particular, there appears to be little reliance on the ‘local intelligence’ of pupils and teachers in school in articulating their perceptions. We know very little about what pupils think of their music teachers, of the ways in which they are taught, the ways in which they think music might be taught in school and what meanings they give to their school music lessons. There is a dearth of investigation into the lived experiences of young people and their music teachers within music educational settings with a paucity of music educational theory generated by pupils and teachers in tandem. Researchers have been slow to collaborate with either of these key players.

Within a context of uncertainty and ill-ease about secondary music education, I set out to immerse myself in the cultural life of one music class of secondary pupils aged 12-13 years in their second year of secondary schooling. I wanted to learn about the pupils’ and their teacher’s attitudes, motivations, ways of knowing and perceptions of the learning and teaching of music—a search for the significance, for them—of their weekly joint encounter with music. This I believed might tell as much about the state of school music and musical education and perhaps be of more assistance to music teachers than official reports, national surveys and rhetorical debate. My invitation to the music teacher at an urban comprehensive school for 11-19 year olds in the east of England to participate was willingly accepted.

The Setting

The school was twenty-five miles from my home, a forty-minute drive across fen and under gross skies. I had a reasonable feel for the school’s ethos and the style of the music department through visits as a supervisor of trainee teachers. While I had not previously observed the music teacher teaching, I was aware of his committed and humane approach. Trainee teachers working under his mentorship had found him to be sympathetic, nurturing and an inspirational role model. After a little thought the teacher nominated a Year 8 class taught on Friday mornings as the instance to be investigated. The class were thought to be an “interesting mix”.

The school served an edge of city community and two villages beyond the city boundary. The 1,650 pupils were taught that “it is cool to achieve” and that “teachers have the right to teach and pupils the right to learn”, a message for all to see at the front of every classroom. Sitting in the staff room I heard talk about the success of pupils in lessons, of positive pupil attitudes as well as “tough challenges” and “lost causes”. The staff room banter was cheerful and the break time sausage rolls memorable!

The pupils at the 11-14 stage had a one-hour music lesson each week, classes were not based on ability, and music lessons followed the National Curriculum’s broad scheme and its programme of study. Pupils were taught about music and how to do it through an integrated approach bringing together performing, creating, appraising and listening. Curriculum topics were varied and pupils expected to make use of voice, keyboards, computer programmes and tuned and untuned percussion instruments. Parents had no great expectation of their children in music. They were pleased when their children developed an interest and commitment to music and at parents’ evenings commonly denied any source of talent emanating from themselves.

Extra music lessons were provided on guitar, drums and wind instruments and taken by a small percentage of pupils. There was a modest budget to support this and a waiting list for drum and guitar teaching. Outreach musical events include a Christmas Celebration involving the expressive arts as a whole and an annual school production. The music department sponsored a number of rock bands, including a girl band and there was an Asian Music Group in Year 11. The music teacher has two assistants and together their spare time is given to the needs of individuals and groups calling for support in developing interests and in completing course work for examination.

The music teacher is the leader of the school’s Expressive Arts Department, which comprises art, dance, drama and music, each discretely taught. Between the ages of 11 and 14 each subject is taught for one hour each week. Dance is taught as part of the PE curriculum at this stage. Beyond age 14 all students major in one of the expressive arts as part of their core curriculum. The department’s mission statement reads:

Given that our pupils already experience the arts within their own cultures and that we understand that the students do indeed provide most of our cultural development, we feel that it is important, as an Expressive Arts department, to address what is prevalent now in the imaginations of our youth.

This vision has grown from the music teacher’s conviction about the need to harness the cultural energy of young people embedded in the common routines of their everyday lives. In this the music teacher acknowledges the influence of Willis (1990) and his report on the cultural activities of young people, a text he engaged with during his initial teacher training.

Method and Design

The objectives of ethnography are to apprehend the way that people construct, operate in, experience, and make sense of their world; to do so in situ; and to do so in a way that affects people’s normative conduct as little as possible. (Szego, 2002; p. 707)

In order to understand the significance of the weekly music lesson, I would need to understand something of the teacher’s and the group’s experience of school in general, as well as their experience of music out of school and I would need to allow “events to unfold and relationships to evolve” in order to understand their understandings (Gerson and Horrovitz, 2002, p. 212). My aim was to establish co-operation between all participants in what Oakeshott (1991) characterises as “conversation”. “In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an enquiry or a debate; there is no truth to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.” (p. 489). Data would be collected through participant observation, interview and the study of materials provided by the participants: a matter of “experiencing”, “enquiry” and “examining” respectively. (Wolcott, 1994) It was the first ethnography I had undertaken since a 1987 Study of a Group of young rock musicians and I still had that experience in my bones to guide me. I became increasingly aware that a long-time concern for the lack of inclusiveness within music education brought bias to my work. I recalled my own concern for the education of 12-13 year-olds in the Basingstoke Secondary School where I had taught in the 1980s, an age group I seemed to have particular empathy with. I would need to balance the role of “insider” with “outsider” and reflect on the nature of my “attachment” and “detachment” (See Peacock, 2001).


The weekly music lesson was observed over a twenty-week period from new year through into the summer term. I joined the class each week as they assembled from morning break and when appropriate I involved myself discretely in their work as mentor and musician. I played music with them, joined in whole class singing, and improvised on a drum as we jammed with a recording of Punjabi MC, for example. There were opportunistic observations too. Meeting with the class as they assembled for Music provided a particularly useful insight into states of expectation for the hour ahead and the status of relationships within the group. Observations were made of the class working in science, art, mathematics, humanities and life skills lessons as well as their Form Tutor time. The informality of art lessons meant that I could sit and talk with pupils as they worked and talked with each other. In other lessons pupils came spontaneously and talked with me at opportune moments. Interviewing groups of between two and six students followed each music lesson observed. All members of the class completed a questionnaire determining the range of their musical experience, their musical aspirations and how they viewed their music lessons and their music teacher. This helped me to engage with each pupil and their perspective. Interviews lasted between forty and fifty minutes. All but two pupils from the class of twenty-four were interviewed and most were interviewed more than once. Second-time interviews provided the opportunity to check the validity of first time data and the shifting nature of perceptions. Two one-hour interviews were held with the music teacher. These were structured with questions designed to create a dialogue between the teacher’s musical life history, his teaching of the class and immanent professional concerns. These interviews were delayed until sufficient data had been collected from pupils and some understanding of the teacher’s perspective had been informed through informal conversation. Lesson observations, interview transcripts and field notes were read weekly by staff and this provided scope for reflection and ongoing discussion. Nearing endpoint, drafts of the report were read by colleagues outside the study both sympathetic and less sympathetic to the epistemological basis of the research method as a further means of gaining validity. I assured participants of anonymity and pupils enjoyed offering pseudonyms, all of which I was persuaded to adopt.

What the teachers say

The class are in Year 8, a year recognised as an uneventful year lacking in any particular challenge, lying between the novelty of discovering the “big school” in Year 7 and the “real world” of educational testing and achievement met with in Year 9. The class’s form tutor, a teacher of eight years standing, has known the class from the beginning of Year 7 when they transferred from Primary School and has a strong attachment to them. She is keen to be positive about the class, “it’s like your own children”, but notes “they were all over the place before Christmas” and highlights some of those who can be a special challenge:

Tyson, pleasant and polite, very sociable and liked but slow to take responsible for his own behaviour. Brian, vacant, in his own world, fiddle, fiddle, needs a lot of persuasion to get on—not really engaging. Tania, a Drama Queen but doesn’t know why. Has counseling for anger management. Feels that everybody fits in but she doesn’t. Shane, turbulent home life, very pleasant considering, certainly not a “lad”. Chester, strong Italian identity, sensitive about his weight, truanted last year, always chewing gum. The girls on the whole are a “mature bunch”. Morgan seems not to be bothered, no ambition, drifting.

Their music teacher categorises pupils in the class as those who are “calm and quiet; not calm and quiet; exuberant; bit of a naughty; very able; one of the better boys; good boy; quietly average; quite capable.” She views some of the boys as “not calm”, for example: “Chester can be disruptive but has been taught that ‘it is cool to be calm’. Tania, very able, has a friends problem and this can lead to others becoming disorientated.” Overall their Music teacher characterises the class as being: “very lively, prone to disruption and disorientation across some curriculum areas within the school. They can be very creative, very productive, lots of ideas, have been successful in Art, very artistic.”

Their Science teacher, a young teacher of five years standing, reports that the class have been slow to settle into routines and meet expectations in term one of Year 8. Their Art teacher, a long-established member of staff and counting the years to retirement, views the class as “an interesting bunch. I never know how they are going to be. You have some sessions with them when you think shall I give up teaching? Am I professionally incompetent?”

What the pupils say

My initial conversations with members of the class revealed an obsession with the school code of conduct. Not surprisingly, pupils had minor complaints and stories of injustice. Being treated fairly by teachers was at the front of their minds. The class were keen to gain commendations and whole class commendations made them feel especially good. Times when the class could be themselves were valued highly and apart from break and lunch times, there were lesson times when this was how it is. The class’s Art lesson most clearly satisfied this criterion.

The class made links between sympathetic teachers, inclusive methodologies, subject matter that address their concerns and interests and learning. Teachers who “talk with us”, as opposed to “teachers who talk at us - they are really just talking to themselves”, are those who, in whatever way, make learning a collaboration between pupil and teacher. An important distinction is made between learning that is supported and individualised, scaffolded through ongoing dialogue with a teacher who knows them and the doing of set tasks that are achieved or not achieved with a teacher who doesn’t know them. In the latter mode there is stress and confidence is sometimes sapped. “Some teachers when you don’t understand blame it on you. We learn when we can talk about it, discuss it. We learn by doing things, not by writing things down.” (Tyson). “They just explain it once and if you don’t understand it they yell at you.”(Brian).

There is a class consensus that their behaviour is best in art, music, life skills, science and PE. The class consistently reports that expressive arts lessons provide for the building of confidence and the development of a sense of self, helping the pupils to understand and feel confident with who they are and who they are becoming.

Your body can show how you are thinking, what you are thinking, the way you are quite basically, the person you are. Your personality, who you are. If you can. Things like music can help express that. It’s just a way of getting it out of your body. Most lessons are sit. You’re just quietly sitting down answering questions out of a text book. And really kids of our age prefer to be doing something else. Practising something on the keyboard like we do in music or something different like in drama. Acting out. I suppose art’s different even though it’s still on paper. Because it’s still another expression. I suppose that’s why they’re called expressive arts. (Brian)

Musical Worlds

Primary School life is warmly relived by the class and primary musical experience is easily recalled revealing great variety and inconsistency. It is unusual for music to have been a regular event during the school week. Class members have memories of “percussion instruments”, “school plays”, “small room”, “singing Mr. William’s silly songs”, “being in the choir”, “in Bugsy Malone”. Tyson recalls creating music to themes such as “the journey of a river” and Payge remembers creating music for a train journey as part of the evacuees project. These are recalled as positive experiences. However, there is a significant number who speaks of “not doing much music” and a few of “never doing it”. However, all sang in daily assemblies and “Autumn Days”, “Streets of London” and “Light up the Fire” head a common repertoire. Half the class have an instrument at home. Six have guitars and five keyboards.

Involvement in music out of school comes mostly through movement-listening and a common experience is to have sung and danced working with the hoover in the style of the Mrs. Doubtfire film. Most have mini-disc players, some karaoke machines and a few make use of computer programmes. All sing, and this, like their listening, is coordinated with movement. Singing is “singing along”. Sing-dance-listen is the common out of school music curriculum. It is normal to listen to music for two hours or more each day and this is the most common activity engaged with when first arriving home at the end of the school day, a time of solitude, a time for Rachel to be “dancing and singing in the mirror”. None of the class currently receives formal instrumental or vocal training. All but one would like to have lessons. Most would like to learn the drums or guitar. Drumming is their greatest desire.

The class value their secondary school music lessons highly. Their weekly lesson has been a high spot for their time at the school and better in Year 8 than Year 7. They immediately recall Year 8 highlights: “hoola” - the time when they danced in their Caribbean project, and more recently learning about ragas and their free improvising to Punjabi MC. Their music teacher is seen as a “music man - knows what he is doing”, “cool and calm”, “knows how to deal with Tania”, “a Peter Pan with lots of intelligence”. Their music lessons are seen as “action-packed”, “a place to feel OK” and where “time goes quickly”.

The music teacher comes to the class’s Friday morning music lesson invigorated by his Thursday evening band rehearsal. The band comprises five male musicians with a common love of rock and blues. Thursday evening is the band’s weekly experimental session leading to the polishing and refining of new material on Sunday afternoons in preparation for the occasional gig. The music teacher’s earliest musical memories are of learning Ukrainian folk songs from his father and Italian nursery rhymes form his aunts. He recalls his father insisting that he join in with the band, “just use your ears, go on have a go, you can do it”. Formal piano and violin lessons followed and, after a first career in the family farming and engineering business, he embarked on study for a music degree. Here a music therapy course became a fascination and work with severely disabled pupils led him to train as a secondary school music teacher.

“Music is Music not Writing” (Payge)

Music is a lesson on a “good day”: life skills; ICT; music; humanities; science, a day when a majority of their five teachers “make connections” with the class. I first met the class as they gathered for their first music lesson after the Christmas Holidays. I left the staff room before the end of morning break, walked past toilets, past a drama studio and into the corridor with two music rooms at its end. Messages about music clubs on the walls competed with stored table tennis tables and the dull, depressing carpet patterned with the black splodges of long ago chewed gum. I had arrived first, but soon boys were coming, polite and interested in who I was and then Cassie, happy to tell me about her karaoke machine at home. Tania arrived in a turbulent state, tortured by her break time search for a relationship. The class lined up for their music teacher, were reminded of their boy-girl seating arrangements and we entered the music room to the sound of the Music of North India. Keyboards and computers outlined the room and at the front stand a master keyboard, piano, double bass, guitar and an assortment of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. I spot an empty seat next to Chester with a good view across the class.

The class are calm and the teacher proceeds with an open forum on India. Ideas flow from the pupils and are written on the board by the teacher creating simple categories in the process. The teacher continually encourages responses and responds: “excellent! excellent! excellent!” The class bubble and are exuberant, leading the teacher to a call for “focus” with a calm and nurturing voice. The music is played again and responses are positive. The class is attentive, engaged, working as a unit as the teacher teases out understandings. In discussion of the instrumental colours idiosyncratic responses are cherished: “its like a didgeridoo”. (Brian) “Wow, that’s interesting”. (Teacher)

Words are not easy for the class. Moving from the music to the language of description is a mystery and there are spontaneous musical responses that enable the class to cope—the vocal imitation of the instruments heard and the bodily gesture that attempts to encapsulate the experience. The teacher acknowledges these non-verbal responses although they are not always easy to manage or lead to generalisations that are words. Responses to the music engender social excitement and there is the coded signal and tacit knowing between Chester and Chris across the class. The call to “focus” is well understood by the class. Whole class imitation of a rhythmic cycle modeled by the teacher is impulsive and without inner reflection.

There are “key ideas” for the class to become familiar with and the teacher proceeds to show their significance by example. Concepts and ideas continue to be modeled by the teacher and the pupils show they understand by showing and telling in front of the class. This sees the class in a high state of attention and Morgan, dreamily detached until now, models the task for the class. The teacher throughout encourages her and the class applauds her efforts. The teacher emphasises the feel of the music as he again plays the recorded extract and invites the class to move in response. Brian moves his hand in circular motion on the shinny desktop and the teacher invites all to try this. Kate’s response is to transform this idea into tips of fingers touching the desk. The class get the feel of the music.

A task is now presented to pupils working in pairs. They are to combine a drone with an improvised rhythm. The teacher emphasises that there are different ways of responding to the task. The pupils are slow to work in a co-ordinated way with their designated partner. They first take the opportunity to “play” with their instrument, experiment and explore what might be possible. The teacher moves around the class in support assisting in the challenge of playing with another. I observe Shane and Payge. Shane is finding it difficult to co-ordinate his rhythm with Payge’s drone and I work hard to help Shane to connect thought and action. In the plenary performance time that follows each pair performs in turn. All observe attentively as the first pair perform. As performances proceed, so they gain in fluency. Shane breaks out of his egocentric rhythm from rehearsal and ensembles with Payge and I wonder just how that came to pass. Each performance is cherished with “wow” from the teacher in admiration for the emerging creativity. The class is praised for their efforts. The class is told where their work is leading and leaves in an orderly fashion. The teacher tells me that he is sometimes moved to tears by the responses of the pupils. He has reconnected with the class and they with him.

My heart goes out to these children. They are just as complex as we are. I just feel a little bit duty bound I suppose to try and at least get them to experience some sort of self-respect for their music. Their music is sophisticated. The problem is that you don’t get time to hone it and to come back to it, you know, individually; and let’s have a look at that and see what you can do with it now. But, something appears out of the ordinary every lesson. Every time it’s a surprise. I just think they have so much to offer. When I first meet some of these children and you see them hit an A and then a C on a xylophone and they laugh embarrassedly for a while. And then they look down because they don’t know they’ve created the sound, but they are ashamed of it, because they are kind of perhaps raw, I don’t know why. Maybe because they don’t feel it’s kind of honed. But I work on the fact that that is a musical gesture, they can actually develop it. Every lesson something unexpected comes from them.

The music teacher’s search for the unexpected speaks of his open style of teaching in which he looks to be responsive to the feeling and mood of the class, of individuals within it and the way they appear to be perceiving and making sense of what is presented. It speaks of his concern to create a lesson that is to be an event where spontaneity and creativity break any predictable pattern. The music teacher contrasts his own secondary school music education with the one he aspires to offer. Where there was an exclusive approach he offers an inclusive one.

Listening and appreciation was still in place in the late 60s. I was the only one in a large secondary school to take music beyond age 14. Classroom music was absolutely awful. I was ashamed to be a musician in front of my peers. I kept my respect for the teacher private. I think all this has a direct influence on how I teach now.

“Fridays good - Mondays bad” (Kate)

I definitely think music is a big influence. It can alter the way you think. Very quickly and easily. Just by simply listening to a piece of music. Change the way you think. (Brian)

The class assembles for another music lesson. The work is now about making a pop song. Previous lessons have teased out how a pop song works and the class have agreed with their music teacher that gaining understanding through listening and creating will help them to achieve the goal. There has been an emphasis on different kinds of riffs and the class has experimented individually using keyboards and has been helped to identify these in a range of recorded examples. There has been singing together of a song by the group Oasis. It is a clear, fresh, sunny day. Pupils look uncomfortable in their blazers and ties. For the boys, ties stay in place; for the girls, there are a range of gently dissenting variants. Their teacher arrives, calls for an orderly line, and reminds the class of seating arrangements and the class follows the teacher into the room. Payge, Morgan and Rachel linger wanting to be the last. As they enter the teacher is creating music for the class, using the master keyboard at the front of the class and some have danced to their places. He has selected a popular style and uses single finger chords to make a little magic. There is rapt attention, stillness, calm, a mood of enchantment even. The magician is at work again.

The teacher asks: “what do you think I am doing?” “Trying to calm us down”, comes the response. Now the teacher tells a story. “I once had a job as a pianist playing with a group in a stately home.” His story illustrates how different kinds of music can affect people in different ways. The class listens carefully. They like stories. The teacher returns to why he was playing in the way he did at the beginning of the lesson. The pupils offer more suggestions and all ideas receive confirmation. The teacher tells about the use of single fingered chords and how pupils will be working together later. Shane nudges Kate approvingly waggling fingers reminding her that he is her keyboard partner. Tyson asks whether the class will be able to see the video of their recent work. It can’t be found and the teacher moves into another mode of being as he announces that he must make a number of apologies to the class and asks for their understanding and forgiveness. There is no demur.

Now is time for demonstrating the way in which song lyrics can be accommodated within a chord structure. The teacher sings his song. The class watches and listens with approving smiles and hints of laughter. The teacher offers to perform again and says, “you might just laugh at me like you just did or you might be impressed”. Now the teacher invites in the pupils’ imagination and creativity. “Are you going to choose a different rhythm? Are you going to move? I do. How many notes? Most musicians are pretty lazy. They use just a few notes. Do we want it faster, more upbeat?” (Teacher)

The teacher accompanies the questions with improvised examples and responds musically to pupil responses in analogue with their thoughts and ideas. “You are the composers, it’s your music.” (Teacher).

Now there is modeling by members of the class. Here the teacher bets a “million” that members of the class will not be able to do it. The class responds with enthusiasm. The teacher selects Cassie, known to have good keyboard proficiency, to play the single finger chords and Tyson volunteers to sing the song. Shane is keen too and completes a trio. The teacher reveals the “million” from his wallet, an old million-peseta note worth thirty pence. With teacher support they perform. Cassie is impressive and the boy singers do well. Shane’s voice is “changing” and sitting alongside him earlier I had matched his pitch well in whole class singing. Tyson’s voice is “unchanged” but finds the notes too. Tyson says, “I didn’t know we got paid for learning”. “Morgan, turn round please ...Morgan, turn round please”, says the teacher firmly. The teacher is always insistent and persistent about unacceptable behaviour. The class sees their teacher as “strict” but “fun” and this is how they want all their teachers to be.

The teacher places the class into groups of three, one to be the keyboard player and the others to be the singers. As they move to keyboard stations Kieran goes into a “sub-cultural-body-speak private language” that the creative space provided allows for. I move across the room to observe Kate, Shane and Lee. They are fussing as roles are negotiated. The teacher intervenes and asks them to show what they have done. The boys spontaneously create a call and response way of singing and I am left wondering how it happened, where did it came from? Groups perform to the whole class and the second group selected to perform need special encouragement, but they get there. “Wow, you have climbed a mountain. Do you feel better now?” (Teacher)

Talking with Tyson after the lesson at lunchtime he tells of being pleased that he has taught himself the music from Mission Impossible during the lesson and taught Brian it too. The teacher intends to get Tyson to perform this to the class next week. The teacher values and makes space for “off-task” musical behaviour, but does point out that it was “off task” behaviour.

We would like to play instruments more in class, but the teacher wouldn’t - it’s hard for the teacher to bring us down from the excitement of playing instruments. This must be difficult to manage...It’s hard to know the difference between glockenspiel and xylophone. (Kate)

I think we should split up into different groups and have different instruments for each group because I don’t really want to learn the keyboard and I don’t really want to play the xylophone. I only want to learn the drums and guitar. (Sarah)

“When we say we have music, we say it with a happy voice.” (Brian)

A week later Sarah arrives first and begins playing “Star Wars” on the keyboard outside the classroom. Morgan arrives and rehearses Beethovens Fur Elise on another. Sarah tells me that her repertoire includes Chopsticks, Mission Impossible and East Enders. These have been learnt from her elder brother. Shane shows Lee how to play a four-note chord to the rhythm of Jingle Bells. Brian and Tyson sneak a view of the recording studio, the Garden of Eden where rock and pop musicians work in higher years. The class settles to music from Africa.

“Do you recognise the music?” (Teacher)

Matt notes that it was the music that accompanied their art lesson this week. They think about the central instrument playing.

“Isn’t it a beautiful sound?” (Teacher)

The teacher tells how he and their art teacher are really interested in each other’s music.

“Just listen to this. Mrs. Mitchell has loaned me this.” (Teacher)

The class listen to the saxophonist Jan Nabarak and the renaissance choral group Officium.

“I think it’s absolutely stunning. Shall we listen to some more? I’m in love with this music. What’s so unusual about it? The combination of “monk music”, that music of a time even before we had schools.” (Teacher)

A whole class commendation is announced for their Indian Raga music.

“Excellent work in being musically creative.” (Teacher)

The class watches on video their final preparation and performance of their Indian Music while Tania is given the task of marking the register. The teacher talks over the whole class music noise on the video asking, “Is this sound music—a cacophony of sound?” (Teacher) The class thinks. They are not sure. “But, couldn’t we sample this sound and scratch to it”. (Teacher) The teacher moves as he tells.

Now to each group’s performance on video. The class stare as standing colts and there is whole class admiration for Shane’s drumming improvisation. Now, “hands up, no talking to each other” (Teacher), and a preemptive strike goes out to Kieran.

“Did you all achieve understanding? What did you like about it?” (Teacher)

“Michael’s drumming was good. Everybody was concentrating.” (Class)

“Were you being musicians? ...Yes, you were, you know. You have developed massively. Everyone of you are brilliant musicians. Is anybody displeased? Now to carry on with the task from last week. Quickly into groups.” (Teacher)

And now there is a social classroom not unlike their art lesson. There is a lot of interpersonal fuss in which roles are negotiated. The transition from whole class learning to small group learning is difficult for the class. Shane uses the space to get out his 007 James Bond recording pen and wants to show both his teacher and myself and anybody else he can. I make a test recording for him. I am impressed. The teacher gathers the class and as they settle he improvises a dramatic piece, slow, grave and syncronising with the changing mood of the class as they come from social stress to a unified cohort. The teacher’s music comes to closure as the class is stilled. He shapes a cadence as he says,” and now we have harmony”. The task is clarified and a short time given to complete it before work is recorded. The teacher calls for the first performance.

“Boldness my friend. Respect each other by clapping.” (Teacher)

He congratulates the class on being “willing to bear their souls”. Tyson asks, “Shall we bow at the end of our performances?” “Yes, acknowledge your audience.” (Teacher)

At the end of the day in Science Matt asks me if I had enjoyed the music lesson earlier. “It was good wasn’t it?” (Matt) Matt plays guitar and drum machine out of school and is one of the boys in the class who claim to have a more sophisticated musical taste going beyond the pop scene of Avril Lavigne and Justin Timberlake that preoccupy many. Matt plays guitar immediately after school every day at home and altogether works on his music for about ten hours each week. Sometimes Chester comes round and sings. New songs are learnt with the help of the Internet. He teaches his younger sister the guitar but that can prove difficult. Art, music, life skills and sometimes science make most sense to Matt in school. He laments that much of the week fails to capture his imagination but is resigned to the reality that you just have to make the best of school. “It should be better when you have options”.

Music lessons are good because you learn different things. Music wasn’t really good in Primary School. I think it is important to learn about different music in music lessons...important to learn about other cultures and they should learn about ours...would bring peace...but should be more modern music. Music lessons wouldn’t work if it was just listening to different modern music styles...would like to explore more instruments. (Matt)

Matt is disappointed when members of the class use their musical preferences to cause disagreement and factionalism and this can come to the surface in Art lessons. Chris’s obsession with the music of the group Nirvana seems strange to Matt.

From Resentment to Enchantment

“My difficult Year 8 was really good this week. Is it the reports in two weeks time? Could be the beginning of term?” (Drama Teacher)

The class returns to their first music lesson after the Easter holiday. Kate and Lee have coloured their hair and they are still in love. The teacher plays the music of Puccini while the class finds their places. The teacher calls for correct places and firmly insists on a number of moves. A minute of insisting with his intentions follows. Some pupils tacitly disagree with the teacher’s judgments about their places and a mood of resentment grows.

“Don’t pull faces...Abi to the front. A few Easter eggs have made us forget. I don’t want to do a life-skills lesson. I want to do a music lesson. What kind of music is it? My mother-in-law is an opera singer and when she comes to stay ...” (Teacher)

The story takes five minutes and includes the teacher singing Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses in operatic style. The class like stories and are happy with the teacher’s open and often rhetorical “I wonder” style.

“Do you like this music?” (Teacher)

“Opera is for old people.” (Pupil 1)

“Ah! But Chester likes it.” (Teacher)

“Boring; can’t hear the words; all the same; la, la, la; we don’t understand it.” (Pupil 2)

“I know what you mean - different language; Italian, German.” (Teacher)

“Jamaican.” (Pupil 3)

“Listen to a bit more. What’s the most striking thing?” (Teacher)

“Starts low gets high.” (Pupil 4)

“Yes, it uses a lot more notes that my pop song (demonstrates). Listen to the different moods.” (Teacher)

(Motorcycle magazine is taken from Tyson.)

“Why am I teaching you opera? We are going to sing and play an opera. Fair deal? Have I convinced you about opera yet? No. We need to hear more. No. Listen. Remind me not to be a salesman.” (Teacher)

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, not technically an opera, but grist to the music teacher’s mill, is played as the teacher leaves the room closing the door behind him. In a moment he reappears with upper body pressed in a grotesque form against the window of the classroom door. Will, an extremely passive pupil, becomes a little animated. The teacher enters the room as a hideous creature crawling the floor only to rise in terror in the faces of selected pupils.

“Sir, could you do that again?” (Morgan)

“I didn’t see anybody miserable when I did it.” (Teacher)

“That was OK that one.” (Pupil 5)

“Why?” (Teacher)

“People like scary stuff. It was the shock effect.” (Pupil 6)

“Focus.” (Teacher)

“All the instruments at once. It’s like its building up tension; evil chant; like Lord of the Rings; it’s in a primitive language.” (head movements from boys.) (Various)

“OK, how do you move to it? What will happen when the music changes?” (Class responds with upper body movement.)

“Have I turned you on to opera yet? One more piece.” (Teacher)

Puccini’s Nessun Dorma is played. Ah! Pizza advert and Chester tells of the 1990 World Cup in Italy when this music was used. Chester prides himself on this kind of knowledge and is an expert on the flags of the world’s nations. During this sequence of teaching there are a number of discrete vocal experimentations underway from pupils and the teacher acknowledges these without stopping the flow of his teaching. Now the climax of the lesson arrives.

“We will listen to the music again and who can sing the last line when I stop the music?” (Teacher).

Three hands go up. Chester is selected. The music is played and Chester stands and sings from the heart. Tears come to my eyes and I recognise this as one of those moments as an observer of music classes that I have come to understand as potentially transformational for the learner and for me too. I have come to understand it as something of a transcendental moment, a moment of truth when all appears good and whole. I recall the teacher speaking of tears coming to his eyes in lessons too. The class is impressed by Chester. He is famous. Nessun Dorma is Chester’s song and he likes this. In Year 7 Chester was teased about his size and truanted.

For the teacher this lesson was a game he loves to play, “a game of don’t like it - do like it. A game of enticement”. Following the lesson at lunchtime Shane explains:

We like teachers who play with us. I hear a lot of opera at home. My gran has it on all the time. Sometimes there is an opera singer in the Centre on Saturdays. I sit on the bench and listen, pretend to be having a rest. Chester is a good opera singer. I never knew he could do it. I am looking forward to doing this opera.

As Nessun Dorma sounds on entry to the class the following week Shane remarks, “Oh no. I’m going home”. In the lesson the class are prepared for their paired composition task, the creation of “operatic-like” melodies. George makes a public statement half way through the lesson.

“I like this work more than the pop song work. Funny really, I don’t like opera. But why are Operas so long?”


Perceptions of Schooling

“You don’t want to be in Year 8, you get injections.” (Tania)

School for the class is an uneven and sometimes stressful experience. Many struggle to make sense of much of their week. Levels of engagement are variable and there is little experienced that is truly memorable. What is it all for? Are they learning to tally because they are going to be bank clerks? Are they trying to get good at science because they are going to be chemists? They are very unclear about the purpose of their education. They are easily frustrated in their quest to learn by the teachers who don’t make connections with them, teachers who as Abi puts it, “don’t understand things”. Their model of a good teacher is demanding. The good teacher not only presents the subject matter well, but also understands what meaning it might have for the pupils. Learning, they maintain, needs to be social, talkative, supported and celebratory. They want learning to be active and physical so that they can show who they are, how they feel and what they know rather than simply a facsimile of their teacher and her curriculum. They want to work at a pace they feel comfortable with, becoming engaged in their own way and deciding for themselves that something is worth doing, making decisions, being creative and knowing more about themselves. They want to place the imprint of their personality upon the curriculum. They are capable of spending sustained periods of time in the pursuit of learning out of school: their majorettes, their dancing, their singing and listening, their cooking, their rearing of guinea pigs, candle making, drum practice in the garage, football practice, model making, the creation of volcanic timelines and the taking of things to pieces to see how they work. They become engaged in learning in school when experience is heavy with value, and this means when it engages with their life of feeling, when it touches core concerns so that knowing and understanding are personalised: learning empathy for children without homes, the wonder of human reproduction, dancing to their Caribbean music, the creation of mythological creatures in Art, the Human Rights poem in Humanities and the telling of stories about other people in History. In some subjects these things are peripheral, palliatives or absent, while in others they are recurrent and central.

Perceptions of Musical Schooling

On Friday at 11:15 a.m. each week the class’s storm tossed ship finds a safe harbour. They will be learning more about music and more about how to do it. Their teacher is one who “understands things”, “a Peter Pan with intelligence”. Their one-hour lesson begins and ends with music. They will be calm at the beginning of the lesson and attend to music. They will attend to their music teacher and to each other, showing how music is to be created and before the end of the lesson they will be performing something they have created themselves that has never before existed and they will be valuing each other’s endeavours. They will know what it is to improvise and compose music, to become informed musical critics and to reflect upon their musical tastes and preferences. Their teacher will connect with them and touch their core concerns and convince them that whatever they are asked to do can be done. “Yes, you can do it, you really can. You will surprise yourself. Go on Michael, you can do it, go on. Just have a go and use your ears.” There will be new and interesting things to learn, stories to enchant as well as much music to order consciousness and relieve the tension between the here and now and the future. They will be given creative spaces, opportunities to negotiate and re-negotiate meanings, so that the intentional and incidental knowledge of schooling may invite in and interact with the intentional and incidental knowledge of non-schooling and there will be surprises, discoveries and disappointments. Girls will work with boys they don’t like and cope with the expressions of male dominance and the boys will be learning something of this exercise of power too. The class will experience a dialogical style of teaching and learning where their world views exert influence on proceedings and they will go to lunch content in the knowledge that learning can be self-realisation.

The music teacher muses on the possibility of having the class for four lessons a week as they do in Humanities. “Just think what could be done” and he has a wish list of resources that would make such an enterprise meaningful: a library of drums and the potential for DJ-ing come to mind. Many of the class’s musical aspirations can’t easily be satisfied by the music teacher and the school. The resource implications are formidable and the school is not a “leading school” within the city. It is a Specialist Sports School and not a Specialist Arts School and this effects funding. However, a goodly proportion of the class will major in music beyond the compulsory music curriculum as part of an expressive arts programme. The music teacher’s vision expects his pupils to be makers of culture and in this to rub up against and resist his own, to sort and sift values for themselves, to share in the joys and sorrows of his musical life as he presents a range of possible ways in which they can be musical and become musicians. He works hard to acknowledge and celebrate what it is that the pupils bring with them to the classroom, their musical worlds, their functional and dysfunctional school week, their desire to be known and to know music, to know each other better and to make a classroom musical culture that can be adapted and harmonise with their musical learning beyond the school gates.


Much recent discussion surrounding the tensions between school music and out-of-school music has focused on formal verses informal learning, the tutored versus the spontaneous and the decontextualised verses the contextualised. However, as Szeko (2002) pointed out, these are euro-centric notions embedded in Western European constructions of schooling. Szego suggested that attention to the interplay between what is intentional and what is incidental may be of more help. (Szego, 2002) A study of learning and the nature of musical development from this perspective might yield interesting results. Undue attention to what music is taught or even to how it is taught may be a misdirected enterprise, shrouding the complexity of how a climate of mutuality and reciprocity is achieved between teacher and learner, and where both the intentional and incidental flourish within the class room.

Kushner (2003) pointed out that since the advent of a National Curriculum in 1988, schooling in England has foregrounded official knowledge—knowledge that is not negotiable—while the real curriculum is sent to the background, residing there as a timorous ostinato. This is the curriculum that embraces existential concerns, frequently chaotic and insisting on personalising knowledge. It may be a music teacher’s capacity to bring this background to the fore in her own life in and out of the classroom, helping pupils to do likewise, that can make a musical education meaningful, relevant and inclusive. Bonnett (1994) argued that “what is to be learnt, what it is to be a learner, what it is to be a teacher are not separately pre-specifiable, but emerge from a particular situation created by a set of reciprocal relationships” (p. 179). Of primary importance is the relationship between teacher and learner, and learner and what is to be learnt. This means that outcomes can rarely be pre-specified and that preset standards and goals are likely to contaminate real learning. This is likely to place teachers on the horn of a dilemma as they seek to maintain both personal integrity and public credibility.

At the commencement of my fieldwork in the chill of January, I found the music teacher preoccupied with a serious threat to the status of expressive arts subjects within the school. The government paper “14-19: Opportunity and excellence” (Department for Education and Skills, 2003), called for greater emphasis to be placed on vocational pathways and this had led to a review of the school’s curriculum for 14-19 year olds. The music teacher was required to defend the place of the expressive arts in the core. This he found disconcerting and unsettling and it brought forth a resentment towards those staff who expressed doubts about the efficacy of the arts within school and who provided for their children’s arts education privately. In mounting a defense of music and expressive arts as an entitlement for all pupils post 14, the music teacher made three points to the school’s senior management team: “Music and the expressive arts provide for satisfaction and contentment and a better-ordered school. They provide a focus for celebration and achievement. They are able to exemplify the development of multiple intelligences and contribute to a balanced curriculum and this is a leading school initiative”, he tactfully reminds. As I left the field in the heat of July, core provision post 14 had been sustained and 25% of the 13-14 year-old cohort had chosen to major in music, a similar proportion to those choosing art, dance or drama.

Surveys, school inspection evidence and academic debate will continue to have a place in searching out a consistent, enchanting and well-tempered musical education for all. However, in light of the wisdom and insight provided by the pupils and teacher in this study, the case for encouraging more descriptions and interpretations of musical interactions between pupils and teachers and between pupil and pupil is strong. Uncovering this secret garden will be rewarding.


I am deeply indebted to the Head teacher and Staff of the school for allowing my work to be undertaken with such ease and happy co-operation, and especially for the close collaboration and generosity of spirit of the music teacher, for Sal’s confirming presence in the music department and for the interest of all staff observed and consulted. Much gratitude goes to members of the class and their straightforward way of seeing things as they nearly really are and to Mary my wife who daily tells me stories from her own participant observations as a learning support assistant. I am grateful to colleague Dr. Pam Burnard for ongoing discussion and advice and to Dr. Gordon Cox, Professor Jean Rudduck and two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions.


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About the Author

John Finney is a lecturer in music education in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. He teaches on undergraduate and higher degree programmes with special responsibility for preparing music graduates to teach music in secondary schools. Recent publications include: ‘Singing in the Classes – Music for the Masses’, Music Teacher, August 2001; Assessing for Musical Engagement in Music, National Association of Music Educators, 2002; Music Education as Aesthetic Education, British Journal of Music Education, July 2002; Secondary Strategy, Music Teacher, June 2003 and Musical Enchantment in the Early Years, Journal of Teacher Development, September 2003. His current research examines pupils’ perspectives on musical learning in the secondary school, their potential for designing curricula and for taking leadership roles within the music classroom.

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