The Perfect Paradox

Yesterday I was working hard. I was sitting on the couch for a lot of the day. I talked on the phone to a dear friend. At 10am I had a bath with rose petals, coconut and Epsom salts. I wrote in my journal, listened to sad music and fed myself sporadically. At one point I read a children’s book, out loud, to myself. Finally by sunset I had come to my senses enough to meditate formally. I sat on my cushion for twenty minutes before heading down the dusky inner city street to buy myself dinner.
Perhaps you’re wondering how I can call this work? My work was emotional processing. This is the work I am most committed to now. This is the work that our culture has ignored for too long, to our detriment. It is the work of the inner world. I feel particularly drawn to this work in winter. I used to push myself to achieve in the outer world, school and university semester dates meant that this was when I was required to push myself. I believe this disconnect from my inner self at the time when the season calls me to go inward was a major cause of my depression.
This week I was working with my deepest, most vulnerable and painful self. Access to this part of me, a part I haven’t seen close up for years, was gifted to me through a romantic breakup. This is the situation that I still struggle to love myself through. It becomes a mirror for other kinds of loss and grief in my life. Breakups have the power to ‘trigger’ me like nothing else and this was a big one. Even though the romance ended a couple of months ago it was re-activated last week by another kind of break up, ending my job as a teacher. Yesterday I was swept up in a wave of emotion that felt scary because I (whoever that is) was no longer in control.
I realized that my task for the day was to accept this lack of control. I accepted that that I couldn’t make myself feel happy or even balanced about this situation. I couldn’t make myself be the loving, compassionate person that I normally perceive myself to be. As I exchanged Facebook messages with my ex-boyfriend I wanted to access that part of me but couldn’t. Even though I could glimpse the bigger picture. Even though I knew that hurting him was not the answer.
Yesterday I seemed particularly unable to stop myself from falling into a black hole of pain. I think it began deep in my subconscious. I dreamed of tiny, vulnerable, neglected kittens. Waking up soon after 6am my thoughts continued along this vein and overwhelmed me before I was even out of bed.
I made it upstairs but was unable to sit down to the meditation practice that I normally do to begin my morning. Instead I sat on the couch and started to cry. By 7am the day’s work was well underway. I wrote down my dream and kept writing following a series of prompts to try to understand what was going on in my inner world. I could feel my child self clearly. I decided that I needed to nurture that part of myself.
So I found a children’s book and began by reading it aloud to myself. I had stumbled upon the pithy tale Tiny Spook’s Tumble by Swedish writers Inger and Lasse Sandberg.
In this story Tiny Spook is having a day rather like mine. She keeps tripping over and screaming. Then she blames whatever she tripped over and Little Spook, her exasperated brother removes it in order to keep the peace.
First it’s the grass, then the path, the steps, the castle, an umbrella and finally her father.

“And Tiny Spook was left all alone…. It wasn’t fun at all.
Tiny Spook cried and cried… But no one heard her. No one came.”

Finally she got tired of crying and began to reconstruct her world. When she has put back the path, the castle, the grass and the steps her family return.

I read this book and knew I was doing exactly what Tiny Spook had done. But there was a further problem compounding it. I’m not tiny and ignorant. I knew exactly what I was doing and I did it anyway. I knew that really all I was doing was hurting myself but I couldn’t stop from doing it. My emotions were taking me on a wild ride against my better judgement.
Because of my meditation practice I have learned to observe my experiences in ever-greater detail. Despite the intensity of my emotions I managed to notice those few moment when a simple thing brought me back to the beauty of the present moment. A cat sitting by the fire, a screen saver of trees in the mist, the chill of the evening air as I set off to get my dinner. Noticing these moments reminded me that all is impermanent, even the mood that at other times in the day had me understanding why suicide can seem like a sensible option.
Above it all I knew from my previous work that this emotional intensity was a wonderful opportunity, a gift. It was the perfect opportunity for me to practice self-love. It was the ideal classroom for me to learn to respond to whatever arose with gentleness rather than harshness. I loved myself even though I knew I was doing the ‘wrong’ thing. I accepted all my feelings, even the nasty, negative ones. To do otherwise would have only perpetuated the cycle, adding judgement and blame in yet another layer of pain.
I wish I had been able to act differently. I knew that if I had been able to act with more openness, compassion and love it would have been better for everyone concerned, especially for me. But I decided to accept my limitations in the same way I would make allowances for a young child.
The next morning when I woke up I had a choice. As I rolled over in bed, slowly waking up and thinking of my dreams I remembered the circumstances that had caused me so much pain the day before. That path was still there; I could sense it’s heavy blackness looming over my head. But this time I had a moment of choice and I chose not to fall in that hole.
That day I had fewer moments of pain and more moments of openness. I noticed that I could consciously work with my thoughts for a certain amount of time. For example I could deliberately think of the ways that I felt grateful to my ex-boyfriend. I also noticed without blame that these periods of ‘positive thinking’ were inevitably followed by a return of my obsessive negative thought patterns. Like so much learning it was a case of two steps forward and one step back.
I made a consciousness decision that the only way forward was to love and respect the whole process.
I decided to love my opening and my closing.
I decided to love my love and my pain.
I decided to love my gratitude and my resentment.
I decided to love myself no matter what.
I believe that that’s the work I’m here to do.

Deep acceptance of the way things are is the source of all creative change. The perfect paradox.
Jeff Foster

Learning Music

            I first started teaching music in 2004. I was fired up with passion. Teaching music felt like my mission in life, my highest calling. I was inspired. I spent my weekends and holidays attending workshops, I bought books and read everything I could about music teaching, was constantly jotting down ideas for new songs and activities and spent hours drawing up lessons plans, term and yearly planners. But luckily this job did not exist only in my head – the crucible of the classroom tempered my fantasy of ideal learning. Part of this reality check was the limitations I faced due to timetabling – how much could I really ‘achieve’ for my students given that I saw them for an hour once a week? Family influence, private lessons and popular culture were all playing in the mix. My students had their own ideas about music and what it meant to them. Often this contrasted sharply with my perspective as a recent graduate of a four-year classical music degree.

            As a teacher I had control over what my students did for the hour a week they were in my classroom. Finally I figured out (it took years) that in order to be really effective as a teacher I had to connect with what was going on for them in the other 167 hours of their week. I started to see how the real learning happened in the times outside our formal music lessons. Sure, sometimes some kid would make a breakthrough in music class and I’d be lucky enough to witness it. However these moments happened so much more during informal learning – when kids would come to the music room and muck around during playtime, learn from a friend at a sleepover or play along with Dad on the guitar at home.

            As I continued to teach I embarked on my own journey in non-formal musicianship. Raised in the classical tradition, I could not remember a time when I couldn’t read music. I didn’t trust myself to figure out a simple tune by ear. Playing pop music was foreign to me – even listening to it was foreign, as I’d never been into commercial radio. So I really couldn’t relate to what the kids saw as ‘their music’ and that of course was what they wanted to put their time and energy into learning.

It took a few wake up calls but eventually I was ready to listen and learn. Over the last 6 years I have gradually changed the focus of my upper primary classes. Rather than a carefully planned and sequenced music program, controlled by me and derived from music written down in expensive music books the students now choose what music they want to pour their passion into. As this approach has permeated my classes the nature of my role changed and so did my skill set.

Rather than reading music from books I began listening to it online and looking up guitar chords. I learned to play the whistled riff at the start of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by ear during one class when I couldn’t lay hands on the book. I no longer have to put time and energy into convincing kids that what I have to teach is important enough for them to learn. I no longer have to learn all the songs in the curriculum before teaching it to the class – usually I learn alongside my students. Rather than creating a plan and then imparting this wisdom from above my students and I teach each other and work in groups. Once the group dynamics have been straightened out and groups have chosen a song to work on they work for the most part with a passion and focus that makes my job easy – even with a class of 32!

As my interests have changed from purely musical to more interpersonal I find what I focus on in the lesson had changed. Rather than worrying about what musical concepts my students have ‘acquired’ in the course of the lesson I now observe and interact with whole people. As I step back and observe rather than trying to ‘fix’ problems I see how my students fears, desires, assumptions and habits drive their learning.

I know I’m able to see this so much clearer because I have embarked on a path where I am committed to working with my own fears, desires, assumptions and habits. I’m still learning to let go of my deep-seated fear of being wrong. I’m still learning that making mistakes IS without question the most effective way to learn. I’m still catching myself going into patterns of contraction, wanting to protect myself from pain. The difference is that now, I’m conscious of how fear shuts down growth. Growth is also known as learning.

I’ve been teaching music for ten years now and I’m ready for a change. I’m no longer fired up by the same passion I felt at the start of my teaching career. Perhaps it’s because I’m too comfortable in my role. That very comfort is causing me a deep sense of discomfort. Like many (all?) humans I came to this earth to learn. I know I still have much to learn about myself and about the world. Of course if I decided to keep teaching music I would find new things to learn in that path but I’m feeling a strong intuition that there is another vehicle out there, waiting for me. The engine is idling; the door is open and the indicator signalling that it’s time to pull out into the traffic. On June 25th I’ll lock the door of my music classroom for the last time and be ready to climb aboard. My time Patchmusicking is over and a new journey beckons.


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I’ve been teaching music at The Patch PS for almost exactly six years now, a full cycle. The students in grade six now were the preps when I started in April 2008. Other than the grade sixes who had the previous music teacher for their first term of Prep I have taught every child since they started at the school. The depth relationship that that opportunity has produced continues to astonish me. As an Aries I’m more of an initiator than a stayer but it has been so rewarding to stay and see these children grow up, as people and musicians. The other day the grade fives, always been an exceptionally musical cohort, were doing group work. Five separate groups had formed ‘bands’ with the instruments available and every single one of them was able to produce a cover version of “Riptide” – our current favourite song.

I was so excited I said to one group – “I feel like I planted this little tree back when you were preps and now I’m getting to eat the fruit!” They were a little more reserved than me (they are verging on becoming teenagers after all) but you could see that they were also proud of their musical journey.

As I’ve written before, the longer I teach, the less I do. That’s because I trust the music and the children more and more. So what does it look like now when I plan a lesson? I don’t write much down – for the younger grades I may make a list of songs, games and dances. In creating this list I’m looking for balance – a balance of movement and stillness, a mix of new material and old favourites. I’m also looking for patterns, for example the grade 1’s are learning a dance that adds a new movement at each repetition and are also singing an additive song. I’m experimenting at the moment with the idea of teaching by the moon, introducing new material with the new moon, building up over the month and revising as the moon wanes. It’s challenging because so many other rhythms (school camps, excursions and public holidays) don’t pay heed to nature’s rhythms. Despite these limitations I’m noticing, like a gardener, that the moon is a useful guide.

After so many years of teaching my term planner looks somewhat like this:

  1. Show up.
  2. Be present to the children, the music, and the moment.
  3. Appreciate at what unfolds and express this verbally to the children.

Steps one and two are essential for step three to happen and they look very different to spending hours carefully creating curriculum documents. For me to show up fully, body, mind and soul at work I have to be taking care of myself in the hours I’m not there. Adequate sleep, nourishing home-cooked food and chill out time all take priority over sitting at my computer. In order to be present to the children I actually have to let go of my planning and feel into the moment and the mood. When I do this I have the sense that I am steering the group like a boat, up and down the waves of arousal and relaxation.

In order to marvel at what unfolds, I need blank spaces in my planner, spaces for input from the children, the weather, the day, the kookaburras that sing outside my music room. In this state I am open, a comment, a story about a party on the weekend, saying hello in Japanese. These connections from the children serve as the trigger. If I am still and really present to their current reality a song, game or dance will naturally arise from my memory. Or sometimes we end up co-creating a completely new musical activity.

When I was new to music teaching I did spend many hours pouring over books and websites. I carried a notebook around with me at all times because I was always getting new lesson ideas, far more than I could ever carry out in the classroom. I know now to honour the way my mind works, and that when I plan it’s more likely to end up looking like this:

 than this :


The main thing I have learned about planning over the years is how to prune back my dreams to what is possible in an hour once a week. At the age of 37 after ten years of music teaching I’m prepared to defend my planning process to the hilt. Just taste the fruit!



The longer I teach the less I “do.” For me learning to teach has been a gradually process of letting go of my need to be the active agent in the room. Which is not to say that I’ve gotten lazy or even that I do less. Rather it’s been a process of increasing my ability to support students by observing their learning journey from an open space within myself.

The greatest obstacle to learning that I notice in my classroom and in myself is perfectionism. I’m struggling with it right now as I chastise myself for getting ‘out of the flow’ with writing and notice how my thoughts aren’t turning themselves into paragraphs with the ease they did back in June when I was sitting down to write regularly. The thought of walking away from the computer, doing something else, anything else, becomes very seductive. I don’t even need anyone in the room in order to create a competition in which I always perceive myself as the loser; comparing my current self to a remembered self is enough to activate my inner perfectionist. (Cue sepia tones and violin music.)

I was well aware of my perfectionistic tendencies but they have been taking a backseat for a while.  However, last weekend I signed myself up for four days of Buddhist training, Shambhala levels III and IV, four days ‘on the cushion,’ getting to know myself anew, finding out what was really going on in the unexamined parts of my psyche, with a slight suspicion that my subconscious had sneakily resumed it’s role as backseat driver of my life while I was busy with other things.

As I sat in the beautiful shrine room where the calming white painted walls and wooden floors are decked with colorful banners, flowers and sacred pictures my gaze rested on the point where the skirting boards meet the floor. The brick walls feature a protruding column, perhaps the site of a former fireplace, now a bump in the flow of the wall where the skirting board has been re-directed at a ninety degree angle for a foot or so. My attention came to focus on the end of the skirting board as it faced me. Surely, it was sticking out an inch or so into the room? How untidy I thought. I delved off into a whole fantasy where, armed with a saw and some white paint I could ‘fix’ the messiness and restore the room to ‘perfect.’ The longing to do so became almost unbearable.

            Suddenly I realized that this was familiar. This desire for ‘perfection,’ manifesting as a need to control the world was a symptom of an underlying anxiety, my profound fear of change. Intellectually I knew the truth of impermanence, I’d been reading Buddhist texts for long enough to assimilate that knowledge, but suddenly, on the cushion I found myself face to face with a desire to control, to perfect and basically to escape death by doing something, anything. I breathed out; I sat with the fear of that monumental truth and suddenly the skirting board faded back into the background. Sitting down again after lunch I realized that in fact it was not out of alignment after all.

            Coming back to teaching at the end of the four days I could see perfectionism flourishing, largely unchecked in the school system where the illusion of the ‘right answer’ rules the day. The children I especially noticed falling victim to its clutches and shutting down from opportunities to learn were those who I know have faced massive challenges in their short lives, loss of a parent for example. I find myself wondering how I can help those children bring awareness and acceptance to the fact that we cannot control life and death – and realizing that perhaps it is they who are teaching me. 

Rewarding Mistakes

The prep children are returning in a buzz to their classroom after their weekly music class. Little piping voices excitedly report to their teacher:

“I got stepped up!”

“Me too!”

“I got stepped up too!”

The teacher takes a moment to engage in conversation with one of the children:

“What were you stepped up for?” she asks kindly.

“For making three mistakes!” the small boy replies, beaming from ear to ear.

The teacher was understandably a little confused.


We have a school wide reward system where teachers can ‘step up’ children as a reward for good behavior and hard work. I usually forget about this system when I’m in the flow of teaching (I find practicing music tends to be intrinsically rewarding anyway) but on this particular day I wanted to reinforce an important concept to the prep class:


Mistakes are evidence of learning.


I preached this concept to my students for years before having an insight during meditation that I was not applying it to my own life! I have been working consciously to honor the role of mistakes ever since. I’ve had opportunities to explore the value of making mistakes in my teaching, both in classroom music and one-on-one violin lessons.

In whole-class music lessons there are naturally occurring moments for trial and error learning, even if the learners have to sneak them in while the teacher’s back is turned. But in a one-on-one lesson the learner sits or stands, body straining with the co-ordination of playing an unfamiliar instrument, traditionally with eyes glued on a page of symbols they are simultaneously learning to decode, an expert in the field sitting beside them, watching their every move, ready to jump in and correct any mistakes that happen to sneak into the sacred precinct of correctness.

I suddenly became aware when I started teaching violin again after a break of years that I was using the word “perfect” a lot.  My goal was to have the students render what was before them on the page “perfectly,” unlike my class teaching where my primary goal was to foster creativity.

            I reflected on my own musical journey. Despite graduating from a four-year degree in classical violin I didn’t consider myself a natural, or even terribly competent musician. My musical training only ever involved playing from written music so when I discovered the folk music scene with where playing by ear is the norm I had to relearn how to learn music.

Over time I realized that when I learned a tune by ear I would play it perfectly at first but then begin to make errors. I felt like I had to try out each possible wrong note at least once before the tune settled and became part of my known repertoire. Becoming aware of this in my own learning I began to notice the same pattern in my students. My guess is that it has to do with the transfer of musical, aural and kinesthetic information from short to long-term memory. I’d certainly struggled with memorization for my university exams, maybe because I didn’t have a strong visual memory.

In prep music class that day we were playing drums, an opportunity guaranteed to generate excitement among prep students. The activity was more structured than my typical teaching style. Based on the Japanese poem Okino Taiko[1] the students had to isolate words from the poem and play them at the correct time and tempo on a big or small drum. To keep the noise manageable I had only four students playing at a time with the rest watching, reciting the poem and doing actions.

Put on the spot, mistakes began to occur in the student’s playing and I noticed that some children were aware of their errors. I was trying to correct those who weren’t aware, drawing the children’s attention to the challenges created by the poetic form. Suddenly I noticed that the gleeful energy with which prep children always attack drum playing was beginning to contract. They were being cautious, aware that it was possible to make mistakes and not wanting either my disapproval or the negative attention of their peers.

I realized I needed to bring in the same approach I’d been using in violin lessons, praising and normalizing mistakes as part of the learning process.

“Bradley, that’s great!” I called out.

He looked up, knowing that he’d hit the big drum loudly at completely the wrong moment.

            “You’re making mistakes! That shows that you’re learning.”
He gave a tentative grin and the other students looked at me confused.
            “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not really learning.” I added “I make mistakes all the time when I’m learning a piece of music. Even when I’m playing on assembly I make mistakes. I just keep going and nobody notices. They only notice if I stop playing.”

            The mood in the room begins to shift and they children tackle the task with renewed vigor.

            The emphasis on ‘one correct answer’ and testable results is resonating with children even in the early years of primary school. Here’s a link to a great article by a psychologist about the negative impact this is having on children’s creativity


I’d like to offer “rewarding mistakes” as a strategy to counter this trend, in the same vein as “praise effort not achievement.” We as adults can bring awareness to these issues and empower children to trust themselves rather than seeking outside guidance. Allowing them to make mistakes is the first step!

[1] Big Drum. The text is: Okino taiko, don don, chi sa no taiko ton ton ton, Okino  taiko, chi sa no taiko, don don, ton ton ton. (Big drum says Don Don, small drum says ton, ton, ton)

Teacher as Witness, Holding Space for Learning

Recently I’ve realized that my style of gardening is quite similar to my style of teaching.   It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really, I have a clear memory of being given a page with a number of pictorial metaphors for teaching while at teacher’s college and the one which appealed most to me was the one depicting the teacher as gardener.  I’ve learned a lot about myself through both teaching and gardening since then.

In both cases there are many books written about planning and how important it is to have a plan and follow it. I’m not writing this to say that this is not a good approach or that it shouldn’t be held up as the ideal. However I have learned over the years that that is just not the way I work, either in the classroom or the garden. I spent many years especially when I first began teaching (and gardening) trying very hard to be like this and I did learn a lot from reading and working with other people’s plans. However for me one of the most powerful practices as a teacher has been something I’ve learned from meditation and conscious relating workshops, the art of witnessing.

To witness is to view another person in their wholeness, without judgment and with a sense of curiosity and openness. It is this attitude that a meditator cultivates toward the actions of their own mind and in many ways it is most difficult to practice on oneself. By contrast, working with children and music it has arisen mostly naturally although I still have to work to cultivate it sometimes. 

Today was a wonderful example, during an extra curricular group that meets on Tuesday afternoons.  This group of grade 5 and 6 students is full of creative free spirits and usually I let them explore the instruments in the music room with impunity. However today I decided to work a bit more on lyric writing and gave a little mini lesson to the group before sending them off.  Many of them did take the suggestions and begin writing lyrics but there was one group of boys I was sure would need a little more encouragement.

Sure enough they headed into the other room and began continuing with discovering sound effects on the old organ there (a continuation of what they’d been doing last week.)  I gently suggested a few times that they think about lyrics but they just weren’t in that space. Then one of the boys mentioned a song he’d learned to play on the piano ages ago but couldn’t remember it. He tried to find it on the keys with no success. “Could you sing it?” I asked. He could, in the key of G and I found the notes. Then, still wanting them to move on I quickly showed him how to play it, how it was structured and suggested that he make up his own riff. However he wasn’t about to let go that easily to this learning opportunity!

He practiced that riff for the next 10 minutes or so, until he had it secure. Meanwhile another girl on the keyboard across the room started playing it as well.

Writer Madeleine L’Engle in her book “Circle of Quiet
 warns us against making:
“…the bland assumption that growth is even and orderly and rational, instead of something that happens in great unexpected leaps and bounds.”

Like the children my garden is very definite about what it needs to grow and I am learning to stop and listen to it too. I had a wonderful visit from a gardening friend recently which made me realize I’d been punishing myself for my flowing style of gardening in the same way I used to berate myself for my teaching style. The longer I teach, the less I ‘do’ but the more the kids learn, the more I learn to let go and allow the learning to flow.


Tree Trail Rituals

                This year at The Patch PS, grade 5/6 music classes have been given over to participation in the Tree Trail Project. This innovative student-led project has integrated Grade 5/6 Visual Art and Environmental Studies subjects over the past five years and is inspired by the Scandinavian Forest Schools.  The primary objective is for the students to form connections with a particular natural spot in the school grounds and direct their own learning in one three hour block each week.  I began the year with no idea of how this would actually play out and how we would include music. One interesting thing was that it forced me to abandon the typical “amour” of teacher-preparedness, lists of tasks and achievements which I might have prepared had I been teaching a more traditional music program.

                One idea that resonated with me was the idea of rituals.   I had recently re-read Musicking by Christopher Small (this namesake of this blog) and had jotted down his observation that “our age is starved for ritual” and that ritual essentially is about “the unknowable mystery at the heart of nature,” what one might call “life force.”

Essentially ritual is about our relationship to the changing nature of the universe at its best giving us tools to aid us observe and process change. A powerful ritual gives inspiration, filling us with spirit, awareness, focus and intent.  In fact (a point Small makes well) modern musical or theatre performances are still ritualistic in nature, expressing the unspoken but agreed values of our culture. The exciting thing for me about the Tree Trail Project was that it offered a chance to move beyond the limitations of the consumerist nature of modern art.

                However when it came to explaining to the students what it was that I was asking them to create I came up against the usual difficultly of the inadequacy of words as a communication medium for describing a musical outcome. Particularly so in this case as I really had no idea what I was asking the students to create! As the weeks went on, I came up with various lists, for example, a ritual might be connecting, opening, attuning, clearing, decorating, destroying or celebrating,  many rituals referred to universal elements such as sun, moon, seasons, cardinal directions, earth, air, fire, water.

                So they went to work and various ideas emerged, however it was not until they had access to the music room and instruments at the beginning of term 2 that things really began to take shape.  Group’s offerings ranged from the dramatic to the purely musical, from the planned and polished to the more spontaneous.  There were the inevitable challenges of group process, key people away during rehearsals and great ideas that didn’t quite work under the pressure of performance.  However I was as usual amazed by the sheer musicality and inventiveness of the children.  While some of the rituals did not differ significantly in intent or mood from group projects in any music class there did seem to me to be a depth of connection and improved quality of listening, especially those rituals which were enacted in situ.  

                The final ritual of the day took place in an area behind the music room is a space known as “Deep Creek Corner.” The ritual involved performers walking around some large fallen logs while playing instruments.  I suggested that all the rest of the participants sat in the middle of the space with their eyes closed. Tired of playing the role of ‘crowd control’ I did the same and abandoned myself to full participation without worrying about being the teacher.  Behind us on a high log one boy played a repeating pattern on a xylophone, others walked around with drum and rain stick. Then (this was not planned) another member of the group began to clap. The “audience” myself included joined in, sometime clapping on the beat, shifting to off, I felt a sense of play, of curiosity, spontaneity, joy that is so often lost in our goal-focused world. Something magic occurred in that moment, something which encompassed us all.

Praise Effort Not Achievement

Last year I asked a friend who is studying psychology “What is one thing I can do as a teacher to improve the mental health outcomes of my students, now and when they grow up?”
Her answer was “Praise effort not achievement,” to which I thought “Of course!”
However when I went back into the classroom (this conversation occurred on the holidays) and observed what actions I was responding to with praise it was inevitably achievement and speedy achievement at that! I went home and googled “praise effort not achievement” and came up with a few useful resources including video demonstrations by a kindergarten teacher. Observing where I direct praise has been in my field of awareness ever since.
Last week the Grade 3 students had their first recorder lesson – always an exciting time for them but a somewhat painful aural experience for others! Previously I have sent the students off into the garden to experiment with their new instruments, understanding that one of the best ways to learn to make a good sound is just to play around. I normally wouldn’t get students to play in front of the class that first lesson for fear of damaging their self-esteem. However this time I went around the circle getting each child to blow B, A and G. Sometimes I physically guided their fingers onto the holes, encouraged them to blow softer or louder or position the recorder differently. Like any new skill some got it straight away while others struggled. As I progressed around the circle I tried not to focus too much on those not getting the tone, usually giving some verbal advice and moving on. In the middle of the circle a thought popped into my mind, “you’re focusing on achiement, not effort” and I was inspired to change my approach. Instead of moving past the next struggler I stopped and gave him my full attention, trying each tactic, step by step, until he achieved the clear tone. I probably still spent less than two minutes focused on him, not much when you think of individual instrumental lessons but a lot in the context of a music class! When we solved the problem of the squeaky G note, I praised him for his persistence and the other children burst into spontaneous applause, also recognizing his efforts.

Songlines Project Launch

The Songlines Project is funded by an Education Grant (Creative Arts) 2011 from The CASS Foundation and is all about celebrating the amazing creative energy which blossoms here at The Patch Primary. Songwriting and related projects have been happening all year, with a range of students from across the school. This term has seen Sopia leading and art workshop and Megan sharing her creative dance expertise, using music created by students and guest facilitators Gillian and Jeremy.

Now we are ready to share our music, art and dance with the world, from November 14th it will be available for free listening and download from the website
The launch performance at Assembly (9-9:30am) will feature artworks, live performance and creative dance, all part of the Songlines Project. See you there!

Here is a summary of the song-writing process, written by Thomas Gilbert in Grade 4.
“Songlines is a great professional song-making project when someone comes in and helps us put a really great song together. It starts out with us getting a sheet and we have to write sections or parts of songs that you put together to make music. Secondly you get in a group of about 3-8 kids that are chosen for the lead singing and them Nicole and Jeremy (the facilitator) help arrange the words into a song and get it recorded for the tune and everyone to know the basic idea. Then another set of people who play small instruments come in and start putting together the melody, then they record it and add it to the singing. Next a few guitars get thrown in and some drums and it repeats, add it to the recording. Then a few big instruments like marimba. Now you edit the song, add a few special effects and BANG! You’re done. And then the tricky part, there’s always a tricky part. You play it all together in front of a live audience. You know what they say, “If you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing.*”
*A saying from Zimbabwe which is posted on our music room door (NA)

Musical Futures

Musical Futures is a new approach to teaching music that has been developed in the UK, a country which has had a strong emphasis on music in the primary curriculum but difficulties attracting students to the subject beyond the compulsory years. In September 2010 I attended a professional development day showcasing the Musical Futures approach and have been excited by the possibilities it offers not only for high school teaching as generally applied in the UK but also in upper primary school (Grades 4-6).

Over the last couple of months I’ve read the two books that started it all, by researcher Lucy Green. The first is titled How Popular Musicians Learn and the second Music, Informal learning and The School: A New Classroom Pedagogy. I’ve learned a lot and the careful, thorough research with an emphasis on interviews and field notes confirms a lot of observations I’ve made myself over years of music teaching. Green summarizes:
The most important aspects of the approach are…that it is based on the real-life learning practices of musicians drawn from the world outside school, it is fundamentally developed by learners through learning; it is therefore accessible, it affords autonomy to the learner; it involves group work and it is holistic. (Green, p 177)

The key to Musical Futures’ success is the central role of informal learning practices, a strange concept to most of us as our own schooling was inevitably in the formal vein. And those of us who became teachers were probably the students who experienced at least moderate success within the formal approach, especially if we went on to study classical music at university. However I’m sure everyone knows someone who has taught themselves to play an instrument and perhaps played with many bands without any formal training. I know several of my friends who are extremely competent adult musicians have confessed that they ‘just mucked around’ in music at primary school. I’m convinced that informal learning practices give more students a chance to connect with making music and therefore to learn in deeper, more personal and more meaningful and ultimately more musical way.

What is informal learning? What are the practices described in the book?
Here is a summary with my reflections on each point:
1. Informal learning always starts with music which the learners choose for themselves – I admit I find this challenging with the younger students but have seen it work well with grade 5/6.
2. The main method of skill-acquisition is copying recordings by ear – something I’m learning to do myself, in a way ‘overcoming’ my years of classical indoctrination!
3. Informal learning can take place alone or alongside friends through self-directed learning, peer-directed learning and group learning. This is something that has arisen quite organically at The Patch, with students learning marimba tunes from siblings and peers. Gillian Howell reflected on this after her visits to The Patch this year. For a description see:
4. Skills and knowledge tend to be assimilated in haphazard, idiosyncratic and holistic ways starting with ‘whole’, ‘real-world’ pieces of music – this requires a real ‘letting-go’ and trust as a teacher – something I’ve been working on anyway through meditation!
5. Informal approaches usually involve a deep integration of listening, performing, improvising and composing though out the learning process with an emphasis on personal creativity – in a nutshell this is why I feel this approach is ideally suited to The Patch PS as place which has allowed my personal creativity to flower.

The most important aspects of the approach are…that it is based on the real-life learning practices of musicians drawn from the world outside school, it is fundamentally developed by learners through learning; it is therefore accessible, it affords autonomy to the learner; it involves group work and it is holistic. (Green, p 177)

I’m hoping to implement the “Musical Futures” approach more fully in 2012 in grade 5/6 classes with grade 4 being a transitional year moving gradually from an “Orff” model towards informal learning. Reading the book has given me a lot of inspiration and strengthened my belief that learning, at least in a discipline like music which is intrinsically motivating is best done with as little outside pressure as possible. It’s a huge challenge to the teacher mindset to stand back and observe, allow chaos and ‘mistakes’ as part of the process and hand over the responsibility for learning over to students. However experience suggests that they will rise to the challenge.