Music: Not What You Might Expect…

surprise 2As a composer, working to commission, it is interesting to learn what other people think of as ‘suspenseful’, uplifting’, atmospheric’, ‘dramatic’ and so on. There are so many possible ways to interpret such subjective, qualitative ideas that it can be quite refreshing to discover somebody else’s take on a given topic or stimulus. Similarly, presenting ready-made music for others to use and apply in their creative work often gives rise to unexpected and intriguing outcomes.

In my capacity as composer for dance education, my music is made available to movement specialists and other educators to use as they wish. As a firm believer that children are able and keen to respond to all forms of music, it is refreshing to find that my collaborators are at pains to avoid clichéd use of ‘obvious’ music in generating dance ideas. In fact, a recent discussion with key Dance Notes contributors Michelle Rochester and Kara Herbert threw up the idea that it is often better to purposefully present music that defies expectation.

An underlying principal of the Dance Notes method is that movement ideas should be generated by the pupils themselves. We have already discussed how this requires a certain ‘letting go’ on the part of the teacher: not only letting go of control of the outcomes but also of any preconceived notion of how this might look. Whereas music has an important role to play in providing stimulus – sometimes of a specific geographical or historical flavour – its real purpose is to promote certain qualities of movement, so the choice of music may sometimes come as a surprise to the uninitiated.

This is where the experience of the dance specialist comes in – and consequently alleviates the necessity for the classroom teacher to have that prior knowledge. They will know that to simply provide marching-style music for a section that requires children to represent soldiers going into combat will merely result in a room full of stomping, ‘acting’ children. What dance aims to achieve is an embodiment of the qualities of movement associated with that activity – not a literal representation.

Similarly, where music is required to motivate and enervate a class at the beginning of a lesson, this needs judicious selection in order to avoid a classroom of children effectively bouncing off the walls. Or whilst warming-down at the end of a class, care must be taken not to induce sleep in tired bodies.

One of the great benefits of dance in education is that it can open the mind to possibilities not otherwise considered. This applies to the educator as much as the educated and hopefully this element of surprise will ensure that the subject remains rewarding and enjoyable for all concerned. So please expect the unexpected when asking your pupils to explore a topic through movement; challenging them and yourself as well. It is often when we are wrong-footed that we are at our most creative.

And thank heavens for a subject in which there is no such thing as ‘wrong’!

One Word Is All It Takes

My own offspring continue to provide a really interesting window one wordonto the educational world I have been supplying for over 20 years now and allow me – so to speak – to take a look from the other end of the telescope. In this instance, my son – now at secondary school – was commended on the school’s web site for gaining what we used to call ‘merits’ for good work or outstanding achievement (in this instance football-related). His tutor had annotated this award with the single word ‘legend!’

When this was pointed out to our boy, he was naturally proud of the points achieved but more affected by his tutor’s praise than anything else. “What I like about him” he said “is that he talks to us like we talk to each other”. Anyone familiar with Transactional Analysis might recognise this as an ‘Adult to Adult transaction’: i.e. both parties behave as equals and there is no sense of ‘talking down’ or ‘looking up’ on either side. In my experience, this is the ideal exchange between any two people, be they adults, children or a combination thereof. This is not to say that our son’s tutor lacks authority or receives no respect from his pupils; quite the contrary. But the important thing is that he earns that respect and authority through listening to and understanding what those pupils actually need.

It so happens that the teacher in question is young enough and ‘cool’ enough that he can use an expression like ‘legend’ without coming across as disingenuous or awkward. Put that same word into the mouth of an older member of staff and it would undoubtedly sound fake. A simple word of praise can go a very long way, provided that it is sincerely given: in addition to speaking on the level, it is important to be genuine and remain true to our own codes and beliefs.

Which brings me to a second point that has arisen in the past week or so, concerning our willingness to say ‘no’ when we mean it. Whereas we are culturally predisposed to say what we think others wish to hear, the plain fact is that this is rarely a good way to conduct our dealings with one another. In the short term, disagreement may feel uncomfortable but to acquiesce when this is contrary to our true position or belief is to store-up disquiet for the longer term.

I had the great privilege of attending a talk by Margaret Heffernan in December. She is a masterful communicator who deals in plain truths and, though much of her time is spent advising captains of industry and the like, she refuses to fall back on lazy ‘business-speak‘ or tired jargon. Her quest for truthful communication and better creative collaboration has led her to speak on the power of disagreement. I would thoroughly recommend Margaret’s TED talk ‘Dare To Disagree’ which you can view here

Maybe we can all learn from these two examples: a single word – be it of encouragement or refusal – can carry a lot of weight, provided it is the truth.

Mediocrity – It’s Underrated

mediocrityI ran into a musician friend at the weekend and, not having seen one another for a while, we had a quick catch-up on our respective activities. We’ll call him ‘Mark’, since that’s his name. He is a highly respected saxophone teacher, with a successful school, several books and even a musical to his name. But Mark told me he has recently taken up the guitar, saying that he is really only ‘mediocre’ on that instrument.

Much as I don’t doubt the sincerity of Mark’s comments (and my response was ‘well I’m mediocre at everything I do’), this got me to thinking about the way in which we quickly denigrate our achievements and perhaps undervalue the things at which we don’t see ourselves as expert.

It’s good to encourage excellence, I suppose, and we are all familiar with the tag ‘gifted & talented’ when applied to the young people we teach. But surely the most important thing is participation: getting stuck in and having a go; enjoying the learning; experiencing the ‘journey’. We can’t all be concert pianists or prima ballerinas but that shouldn’t stop any of us enjoying those things if we so wish.

In my own experience as a musician and composer, I have often seen how those with a ‘higher’ standard of learning in their craft can be easily put off completely if they are not rewarded with the position, accolades or applause they feel they have earned, whereas those of us who know our limitations are happy to risk to fail – and for me that is at the heart of creativity of all persuasions. Not being seen as the best can be an absolute advantage, as it removes the pressures of expectation and fear of not living up to a perceived ‘standard’.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Amanda Palmer’s book ‘The Art of Asking’. Amanda is a songwriter and performer who is perversely almost as well known for her crowd-funding success as she is for her music. In her book, she talks of the tendency we all have to feel that we are ‘getting away with something’ in our chosen fields of endeavour. Few of us feels completely secure in our abilities, no matter how well trained or practiced. And, as Amanda points out, those who are seen as experts often carry the greatest sense of guilt that they are not really qualified.

So I believe it is incumbent on those of us who have been around somewhat longer to impart in our younger charges the notion that participation is everything. You’re allowed to have fun and get your hands dirty. You’re allowed to be ‘not very good’ at things. I know this runs contrary to a lot of what teaching purports to be about but I also feel it is an important principle we should strive not to overlook.

Is This Just Happening Within Dance Education?

penniesA rather worrying trend has emerged in recent times, which I think should be addressed and – where necessary – challenged. As a provider of resources to primary teachers via an online payment system, I am able to see who is buying what from me and when. And the evidence suggests that teachers are paying for resources increasingly out of their own pockets.

Now I understand that many schools – or rather their funding authorities – have rather arcane accounting systems that necessitate the delivery by carrier-pigeon of a piece of paper bearing an official order. I’m sure this is as frustrating for the teacher who wants to order resources quickly as it is for me, the provider, who would like to get paid within the same financial year for said resources. So to circumnavigate this, many teachers will simply place an order themselves (particularly where the cost is relatively small), then reclaim the money from their school.

However, I recently had contact with one teacher, who – I discovered – was paying for a licence to use my resources but then sharing these with her school. I pointed out that she was in breach of the licence agreement and that the school should be paying for a separate licence for such usage. She explained that the PE budget was spent, at which point I asked about the recent extra allocation of funding. ‘All gone’ she replied. ‘So are you paying for this out of your own pocket?’ I asked. ‘Yes’ was the answer.

This situation is wrong on many levels and begs the question: how many other teachers are effectively subsidising their schools out of their own pockets? For a freelance teacher, this would be a perfectly normally scenario and they would claim for any such expenditure against tax. But for the majority of staff within the education system, no such opportunity exists. If schools get used to relying on their staff to take up the slack where funding is insufficient (or poorly allocated), then there will be an ongoing expectation for this to happen.

As a provider of resources to dance education, I only have a very small window on the spending behaviour of schools and their staff. Could it be that, in spite of all the good initiatives (highlighted in previous articles) to promote PE within schools, Dance is still often seen as a ‘niche’ or ‘soft’ subject? Is the teacher who understands and champions the value of dance within his or her school marginalised and forced to dig into their own pocket for resources? Or is this a sign of a wider, growing trend amongst schools in general?

We all know the myth about teachers having an easy life: working short hours and getting endless holiday allocation. I can tell you that the vast majority of orders received via my web site are placed late in the evening or at weekends. Those are the only times available for teachers to research and acquire much-needed classroom resources. So, it would seem, not only are teachers working in their own time for no extra pay but they are then expected to foot the bill for what they need to do their jobs properly.

Is this an equitable situation? Is it reasonable for teachers to effectively subsidise their schools’ budgets? Is there not a danger that the cumulative effect of this is to create the impression of sufficient funding where it is inadequate? And could the normalisation of such behaviour lead to a culture of – if not bullying – then subtle manipulation of staff by their employers? I may be reading too much into this but I do find the signs disconcerting.

Good News for Dance in Schools

It’s always nice to be able to share some good news. Today the BBC Good News for Dance in Schoolshas reported that funds allocated to schools for PE are said to have had an overwhelmingly positive impact. The statistic that stands out for me is that over 90% of schools report improvements in both general health & fitness and also in behaviour. It’s good, too, to note that schools with a high ratio of pupils receiving free meals have reported the greatest increase in sports participation.

My main collaborator at Dance Notes, Michelle Rochester, has done a lot of work with pupils who have learning difficulties or behavioural issues and the results have been universally both immediate and long-lasting. So it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to expect that PE in general – and dance in particular – can help to improve levels of concentration, confidence and behaviour among the school population as a whole.

Whereas dance has been a compulsory element of the PE curriculum for a number of years now, the extra funding means that schools can invest in materials and specialist help in order to make this a more valued and valuable part of the school timetable. As a provider of specialist dance resources myself, I have noticed a large increase in enquiries and orders, with teachers clearly now seeing dance as an essential learning tool alongside their regular classroom activities.

Dance sits in a unique position in its ability to combine physical exercise with topic-based learning. At primary level, this is an excellent vehicle for engaging pupils in activity that promotes learning essentially through having fun. With the current funding injection ring-fenced until 2020, the future looks bright for dance in schools and that has to be a good thing for all concerned.

Invisible Dancers

Having recently returned home after taking part at ‘Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts’, my wife noted how the BBC coverage had neglected to show anything other than music acts. My initial reaction to this was two-fold. On the one hand, it seems a shame that a festival that offers such a diverse range of creative entertainment should be represented purely by big-name main stage acts. On the other, I think it would be hard to really convey the spectacle, awe and wonder of encountering some of the more esoteric street theatre, sculpture, circus and – yes – dance to be found at the festival, through the medium of television.

To put it in a nutshell – and without wishing to sound smug – you do really have to be there. Late one evening, I stumbled across a piece of physical theatre that centred on a mobile food-stall and included, among other things, a dismembered puppet, food fights, comic grotesque-slapstick and simulated strangulation. This would certainly not come across well on the telly but somehow managed to engage and enthral a growing crowd of onlookers. It is doubtful that a TV audience would have engaged with this and many of the other bizarre and wonderful contributions that make the festival what it is.

Having said that, a growing number of punters now attend the festival precisely because it is championed by the BBC. And this could be seen as a rare occurrence of the ‘trickle-down’ effect actually working. Mainstream headliners undoubtedly draw crowds and make for good television, whilst creating awareness of an event that is known to have ‘something extra’. That something extra is provided by armies of little-known creative people expressing themselves through a range of artistic media.

It’s a rare symbiosis in which the kudos afforded the headline acts is enhanced by the presence of left-field and edgy performances. It’s good for the ‘street cred’ of those big name performers to be seen to be part of something artistically valid and slightly ‘risky’. In return those that provide the risk element get exposure and attention they would otherwise find hard to achieve. And, hopefully, punters who would not otherwise give such alternative arts the time of day may even be moved to get out and find more of the same in their everyday lives.

So the BBC may appear to be doing a disservice to fringe arts but I would contend that, in this instance, they are actually raising awareness, albeit unwittingly.

Legitimizing Dance in Education

I was lucky enough to spend the recent half-term break with my family and some friends on the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales, which I can heartily recommend for its stunning landscapes, friendly welcome and abundant wildlife.

One of the friends with us was Katrina Bates, my original collaborator on the Dance Notes lesson schemes and we naturally spent some time talking about dance education. We are both of the view that Dance being made a part of the PE curriculum probably saved it from – at best – marginalisation and – at worst – removal from the curriculum altogether. That move is now some time in the past but we can all be thankful that Dance is here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least, within our primary and secondary schools.

But where does dance really fit in? Is it primarily physical exercise or part of the expressive arts? Does it matter? Personally I think the fact that dance is hard to define is part of what gives it its innate value. Within our wider society, we may go and see a ballet show and consider this to be ‘high art’. We may go to a pop concert and see dancers on stage who are simply part of the spectacle (not even stopping to consider that they are highly trained individuals with years of hard graft and experience behind them). We may go to an aerobics or Zumba class as part of a health regime. Or we may encounter a flash mob and feel both entertained and – perhaps – challenged by the experience.

And in education there is a whole extra layer of value that comes from dance activity: being able to physicalise ideas that are explored in the classroom. When children get to play with their own physical impulses in response to a topic, they engage more fully with the subject and long-after remember the experience. For those that find the written or spoken word hard to follow, engaging their own imagination can help them to internalise information that otherwise might pass them by.

And it’s fun. Let’s not forget that, above all, children always want – and should be encouraged – to have fun. So when a child comes home from school and says ‘it was fun today, we were being Egyptian slaves’, they won’t even stop to consider that they have thought about what it meant to be a slave in ancient Egypt. It won’t occur to them that they had to put themselves into the mind of somebody who lived thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away. Finding Egypt on the map was just part of the ‘game’. Warming up before creating dance movements was a natural part of the whole process and also took the form of a game. Collaborating, leading, following – ditto: all part of the fun.

But, of course, we grown-ups need to know that children are not ‘just’ having fun. So we find it convenient to focus on the health benefits of moving about. Fair enough if that’s what it takes. And everyone’s happy: children are allowed to be children and adults get to feel good about themselves as providers. Long live dance in PE!

Let the Children Play

I had an interesting and illuminating conversation with my children the other day, whilst walking along the Kennet & Avon Canal near to our home in Somerset.

It concerned ‘the best teacher ever’ and came about after they gave an impromptu rendition of a song they had written under the supervision of the teacher in question. In fact ‘under supervision’ may be putting it too strongly: the point being that he allowed them to create the song themselves, something many teachers apparently would be afraid to do.

It all comes down to the notion of ‘ownership'; not a word my children would use themselves but one I feel is apt in this case. They were clearly proud of what they had achieved and could recall every word some two years after the song’s creation. Their pride came largely from the fact that this had been their own work (again, ‘work’ not being a word my children would use to describe this process) and they valued their teacher’s trust and indulgence in them.

Interestingly, the teacher was a recent graduate, who was working alongside the main class teacher. When she was presented with the song, she was less impressed – perhaps due to the subject matter being rather dark and gruesome. However, the younger teacher could see the humour behind the words and also the value of allowing the children to explore their own ideas.

In the process of doing this, I would suggest they had explored the following:

  • Teamwork
  • Collaboration
  • Rhyme
  • Meter
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Composition
  • Narrative
  • Creative thinking

And I’m sure you could think of many more points to add to this list.

In the same conversation, my son related how his art teacher never allows the class to draw or paint what they wish, rather stipulating in some detail what they should produce in their sessions. Whereas providing examples of different styles and methods and looking at key historical artists are valuable learning tools, these could all then provide a springboard for the children’s’ own creativity. As soon as the notion of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ outcomes is introduced, then creativity will naturally be inhibited and motivation decreased.

Occasionally, when a teacher downloads a lesson scheme from the Dance Notes web site, I receive a call or email saying that they are disappointed with the lack of detailed information in the teaching notes. This is because there is an expectation of being provided with a set of instructions. However, my collaborators – and the vast majority of teachers with whom I have spoken over the years – value the notion of providing a framework in which children may explore their own movement ideas. The job of the teacher then is to guide the class through a systematic sequence of repetition, enhancement, self-evaluation and development, all of which are within the day-to-day vocabulary of any good teacher.

So what at first may look like an ‘exclusive’ creative pursuit (be it music, art, dance or any number of other subjects) in fact turns out to be well within the reach of all of us. We just need to trust that children will take to the tasks given and they certainly will, provided we allow it to be ‘their’ work and resist the urge to lead them too strongly.

No doubt you will have thoughts, opinions or experience in this matter, so please feel free to add a comment of your own.