I spent eight years teaching undergraduates at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) in London, England, hopefully setting students on paths to careers in the music industry. My work there largely involved lecturing and supervising students on a mandatory final-year project – a 10,000-word critical essay. I enjoyed the process, but wondered about the value of this work in the lives of the aspiring professional musicians whom I was teaching. Many resented undertaking the project and saw it as a distraction from what they felt they should be doing – making music. I became increasingly uncertain of the role played by the school and by higher music education in general; did students really benefit from spending several years at college, honing skills for an uncertain foray into an ever more saturated music market in a dense and intensely isolating city such as London?
What does ‘teaching music’ mean, anyway?
Admittedly, this is (in part) a bit of a flippant question – in some ways we all know what is meant when someone says that they are ‘teaching music’ or that they work as a ‘music teacher’. However, this question has recently become more of a serious concern of mine and I have to confess to being increasingly unsure of how to answer it. Given that I spend the vast majority of my working life teaching music in some form, it might be expected that me asking the question ‘what does teaching music mean?’ is alarming. Actually, I can’t help but feel that this is a natural (and important) question to ask and I worry that any singular definition offered in answer to such a question may be problematic.
As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, one of the things that is of great interest to me is improvisation. I am interested in this subject practically and theoretically but I have a particular desire to understand more about the ways in which it is taught, learned and assessed in educational contexts. Over the last week I have been involved in a project in primary schools in which we have been introducing children between the ages of 8 and 11 years old to improvisation. It has been incredible fun and very rewarding so I would like to share some information about the sessions in this week’s post.
The workshops were part of a wonderful project, entitled ‘Music, Sound and Electronics’ which was developed and run by Lauren Sarah Hayes for West Lothian Council and supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative. This project consists of Lauren and guest musicians/composers/improvisers delivering sessions (each 1 hour long) in which the young people learn about music and sound whilst exploring electronics, designing and developing their own instruments and modifying/extending ‘traditional’ instruments , for example. The project runs over 10 weeks and, each week, classes will work on a different topic and explore music and sound in new and interesting ways. 16 classes across West Lothian participated in the project which meant that, over the course of a week, approximately 500 students are involved. I was asked by Lauren to write and deliver a workshop on improvisation (using electronic, home made and ‘traditional’ instruments) that would introduce the young people to improvisation. In some ways, I expected this to be challenging as I believed that it might be difficult to encourage some children to get involved with the exercises – as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the sessions – including me!
This post is written in Binary Form.
When thinking about the relationship between numbers and music, often what first springs to mind are the proportional differences between the physical objects that generate musical intervals on which harmony and melody is so often based. The famous story of the blacksmith’s workshop and Pythagoras is sometimes used to illustrate this. Pythagoras was said to have been walking past a workshop where the sound of anvils of different weights were being struck, with each weight producing a different tone. Sounding together the result was consonant or stable. Upon investigation Pythagoras, it is said, realised that the pleasing aural result was accompanied by the pleasing integer proportion between the weights of the hammers, 6, 8, 9 and 12.
When one considers music in its own isolated discipline bubble, it might seem that it has a unique place beside mathematics (historically, music forms a pillar of the quadrivium alongside geometry, astronomy and athematic). However, perhaps the real power lies in the hands of numbers, and their ability to describe nature and her patterns.
“Numbers are a universal medium for the embedding of patterns of any sort, and that for that reason, statements seemingly about numbers alone can in fact encode statements about other universes of discourse”
Douglas Hofstadter, in his forward to Gödel’s Proof (Revised Edition)
I almost arrived late for the first class of this MOOC! I hadn’t realised it was running until I saw mention of it on “Cafe Saxophone” (a brilliant online forum about anything saxophone). So I signed up for the Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC (from the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh) during its first week.
I’m not really sure what I was expecting. I had done 2 other music related MOOCs, with very disparate experiences, so I was prepared for almost anything. I have played the saxophone for 5 years, having taken it up ‘later in life’, following redundancy from a job as a Research Scientist in Radio Communication systems! So my background is definitely not in music.
Continue reading Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC: how was it for me?
Everyone who enjoys music knows it can make them feel good. They recognise the welcome of an old favourite, or the excitement of hearing for the first time something they know they’re going to love. Musicians and healthcare professionals have long been aware of the potential for music, played or heard, to affect our health; the earliest applications of music in clinical settings in the UK date back more than a century (1). More recently, research interest in these links has burgeoned across the life sciences, particularly here in Scotland. On June 23rd, the new Scottish Music and Health Network brought together more than a hundred researchers, musicians, clinicians and patient group representatives from around Scotland (with a few from further south) to discuss how to build the evidence for music as a means to improve wellbeing.
Viewing landscapes “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.” That quote is from pioneering American landscape architect Frederik Law Olmsted. But it could apply equally to music listening. It’s well known that music encourages a mood, can support a sense of well being, and associates with place. But many environmental specialists and health researchers claim similar benefits from natural environments.