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Reflecting on seven years of my teaching (and thirty years of my learning).

On Friday night, I went to see a concert put together by one of my former pupils, Cathy. She is now a Music Teacher at a school just up the road from me but has also managed to start her own choir made up of young professionals and, despite having only formed in September, they put on a fantastic debut concert. Obviously, I’m very proud of her achievements (in both music and education) but the concert was also a real opportunity for me to reflect on my development at the chalkface. Especially so when you consider that Cathy was one of my first sixth formers who I taught during my PGCE and NQT year.

I was a very different teacher back then. I’d like to say that I was young, reluctant to settle for the status quo and enthusiastic but I believe I’m probably still all three of those things (maybe a little less young). Truth be told, I felt that I had a lot to prove. All throughout my PGCE both my lecturers and school staff latched on to the half of my degree that was in Popular Music. In conversation with them, you’d never imagine that more than half my degree was in the ‘Western Classical Tradition’. The fact that my degree title reads as ‘Music and Popular Music’ was translated into ‘Hi people, this is John. He studied Popular Music at university so he should really be able to understand the pupils’. The extremely limited contact with A-Level that I was given in my training and NQT year (one lesson a fortnight shared with a more experienced teacher for the latter) reinforced this. To be frank, it confused me and I worked twice as hard to prove my level of competence outside of Popular Music but, even on my last day at that school, a member of leadership said to me “It’s been great to have someone here that can do all that pop stuff”. I know it was intended as a compliment but it felt very dismissive it certainly cemented in my mind that moving on was the right thing to do.

In short, it was a time where I had something of a chip on my shoulder and had every intention of proving myself as a competent teacher of classical music. After having given up many of my free lessons and breaks to work with sixth form pupils, I’d like to think that I earned my stripes on that count. In fact, when I first took up my current post, I was the member of staff with the strongest background in classical music. Having now experienced both sides of the coin within a department, I feel that I’m a very well rounded teacher and can respond to the needs of pupils on most issues in most styles and genres.

To get back to the point, however, while I was teaching Cathy, I was employing much more traditional teaching styles than I am now. Seeing her successes gave me pause to reflect and ask myself if what I’m doing now will allow pupils the same level of achievement and opportunity. In many respects, I would have to argue that there are very few of my current pupils that are likely to go on to start and run a choir singing songs in the classical tradition. What’s more, the teaching that we’ve been employing doesn’t necessarily make that seem like an ultimate goal of their music education. I could even argue with a tad of persuasiveness that pupils wanting to pursue such a path would create a lot of work for us as we would need to alter what we’re doing to meet such a need. We deliver a lot of popular music at my current school; our choirs mostly sing popular songs, our KS3 curriculum mostly teaches concepts in reference to popular songs, our KS4 courses are mostly geared towards popular songs, our KS5 course focuses on writing and recording popular songs and our concerts mostly feature popular songs. Although I would never describe me and my staff as preferring to teach popular music, I think it’s fair to say that our pupils prefer to learn it and I would be confident in claiming that this is the main point that any discussion on this topic should go down – our pupils are engaged by popular music.

At this point, I can see (in my mind at least) many people from the music education world jumping up and down about pandering to the pupils and ‘dumbing down’ the curriculum. I’ve been told by some practitioners that studying music that the pupils want to listen to is symptomatic of my ignoring a ‘responsibility’ to broaden their musical horizons. If I’m not playing Rachmaninov to them, who will? If I’m not getting them to sing Faure’s Requiem, who will? To be frank, however, I think that the answer “no one” applies whether or not I teach them this material. Just because I put on a CD of a piano concerto and get them to answer questions about it does not mean that they’ll actually listen to it. Just because I get them to sing a choral masterpiece does not mean that they’ll want to join a choir. If, however, a pupil asks me to teach them how to play a bit of Shostakovich, then I’ll jump up and down with joy and give them all the time I can to help them. That said, I’d react in exactly the same way if they asked me to help them with a Katy Perry song. I find it very hard to be apologetic about being delighted that my pupils come to me wanting to make music, regardless of the style. I’ve been using ‘style agnostic’ as a term to describe my listening habits for years and I’m proud to apply it to my teaching habits with equal enthusiasm.

So, do I think that I was doing things wrong when I was teaching Cathy? Was it wrong of me to use examples from the classical repertoire? Was it wrong of me to use listening examples from the Baroque period? Was it wrong of me to keep an eye on her attendance at choir, orchestra and string group? Absolutely not. I’d like to think that the teaching I offered her was appropriate to her needs/interests and the best I could do. That said, I think there are probably a fair few pupils at that school (possibly even a majority???) that I let down in my pursuit to chase my classical music credentials. There may have been pupils that thought I wasn’t interested in the music that interested them. If so, then I was certainly in the wrong. You see, I believe that it’s not the pushing of classical music that’s going to get people interested in it, it’s the sharing of a love of music. If my pupils know I’m interested in what they listen to, then why wouldn’t they be interested in what I listen to? If they were to scan through the playlists on my Spotify account, then they could discover such a vast range of music that they may just fall in love with something from a whole new style (classical or otherwise). If I can get their engagement through what they want to listen to, then I stand a chance of them wanting to listen to more. Nor does this have to be about just the musical side of things. If I can get their engagement through their passion for album covers, then I can get their engagement for programme music. If I can get their engagement through their engagement through NME, then I can get their engagement for other areas of music journalism. If I can get their engagement through DJing, then I can get their engagement for Stockhausen. I just want them to love music, who cares what type?

So, what did I learn about my teaching by going to Friday’s concert? Be interested, genuinely interested, in what my pupils are interested in. If it’s genuine enough, if it’s obvious enough, then they’ll be interested in my interest.