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Interview: Helen Tierney

Interview with Helen Tierney - Teacher and MusicianI first met Helen Tierney at a Rhinegold Publishing consultation day.  During the lunch break, she invited me to speak to her PGCE students at Middlesex University (you can read more about that here and here) and this gave me the opportunity to speak to her in a little more detail about the latest happenings in the world of music education.  Helen clearly has her finger on the pulse for our profession, so I invited her to answer a few questions for Teacher and Musician.

How would you describe the current landscape of music education? Should we sing for joy or weep with despair?

I actually feel very positive in many ways about what I see happening in classrooms and, this year, I have seen much great practice in the schools where I have placed trainees, and such enthusiasm and constant reflection on the issues facing music teachers from both the PGCE students and the mentors and HoDs in schools. Certainly, working in ITT, I feel the default position should be “sing for joy” as otherwise what is the point?  But I do think there are dark storm clouds approaching and things are going to get tricky. Not least the dramatic falls in KS4 and KS5 students taking up music in many schools and the related impact on staffing music departments.

It has been a privilege for me in this year at Middlesex to be able to give trainees opportunities to experience great practice ranging from that of Musical Futures to outreach enrichment possibilities such as Handel House, BBC Music, hubs in action and the work of the Roundhouse. Music teachers may be getting more isolated numbers-wise in school, but the work of TeachMeets, hubs and not least the fantastic online support network with great bloggers (not least you John!) , MufuChat, etc… goes a long way to pushing boundaries in the classroom.

I do sense though a real crisis in staffing in a few years time. It is already an issue in many areas and good music teachers at whatever stage of their careers are in short supply. So yes sing out as loud and proud as you can but keep an eye on the weather report…

When you’re working with new teachers, what are the most common fears that you hear and what advice do you give to help them overcome these fears?

When I trained in ’85 my big concern was “Will the little bastards behave?” and, in September 2014, when I met the Middlesex trainees, they seemed to have that as their primary concern still. Interesting though, how behaviour in schools in London and the South East has improved beyond recognition, and it did not take long for the trainees to work out that it’s usually no longer the most challenging part of their PGCE course. A lot of trainees do worry about particular areas of knowledge and skills. I still find rock and jazz musicians get the most anxious about lack of confidence in more classical and unfamiliar territory. I tried to get them to overcome this with a description of my weekend many years ago mugging up on grime and meeting another music teacher in HMV Oxford Street (That dates me) stocking up on the same CDs. How we laughed….

What do you think of the increasing move to have research-literate teachers and how should this movement be adapted to suit the needs of music teachers?

Yes we need to have a research literate and thinking body of music teachers. It is an incredibly complex job to be a music teacher (do we say musician?) in a school and it is endlessly fascinating to ponder on negotiating that role amidst all the other demands of working in a school. Reading and discussion is important to give weight to arguments we have to present to non-specialist senior managers and, let’s face it, no one is really agreed about what we want in UK music education, or at least the form it takes, so thinking and reading and blogging and commenting on research and of course, most importantly, undertaking our own research however small-scale.

Music education has seen a great deal of upheaval recently. How have these changes impacted on trainee teachers?

I think the technology possibilities are incredibly exciting for new teachers, who now often have it at their fingertips since birth, unlike some of us. To be honest, I think for many secondary teachers the jury is still out on hubs.  I know that may not go down well with some people but I have had trainees with very positive experiences of hub influence.

It was interesting to look through the draft specifications for GCSE in particular with the trainees and see their concerns about the nature and limitations of what most schools can offer at Key Stage 4 in future years. One very positive aspect of changes in education is how varied from school to school the music class teaching role can be and how musicians from such a variety of different backgrounds can find a place within the classroom and bring their own specialisms to enrich provision.

As an ITE provider, what would be the one tip you give to those embarking on a career in music education?

I would say look to the future and also to the past when considering your own place in music education. Most music teachers at some point have to make enormous decisions about the nature of musical experiences, content, skills they offer to students in their lessons. To get really confident and, on top of this, yes – look at innovations as much as possible, but also look to the past. I don’t subscribe to the view that music education only got going with recent technology. There is an incredibly rich history of music education in the UK. I did an embarrassingly tokenistic whistle stop tour of Dalcroze, Orff, Kodaly in one seminar to set up context and was met with a surprising number of requests to spend more time on this area.  Alas, ATS (Assessment of Trainees) forms took over.

I also know from my work in music and dementia , how vivid the early musical experiences of 80 and 90 years olds can be when they come to the fore in singing sessions – quite clearly songs they learnt at school. So do look to the past as well as the present for your own musical journey in the classroom. John Finney’s book Music Education in England, 1950–2010 is a great read and celebrates a richness of music education in the past that is too easily forgotten today so tied up are we with present concerns.

So that’s my advice… Oh yes, and don’t forget to check behind pianos in practice rooms from time to time. It’s like Sutton Hoo