Making Music in the “new normal”.

By Head of Music, Iain Ross

Thanks to Kelly Sikkema for sharing their work on Unsplash.

This is the  time of year when you reflect on the successes in results day, and what was achieved in the last academic year. From that, you start planning how you might make even more music with the resources you have, and ensuring that music stays as high on the school’s agenda as possible.  It’s very different this year. Exams were cancelled, school shows cancelled, and music rooms silenced due to the school closure. I’ve missed teaching. I’ve missed the students. I’ve missed sharing my love and passion for a subject that’s inclusive, challenging and rewarding, and seeing students flourishing and breaking down personal barriers to succeed in the subject.  I can’t wait to see them again next week. 

These are extraordinary times.  The coronavirus pandemic has presented heads of music in secondary schools with challenges that we’d thought we would never have to face – how on earth can we make music in schools in a socially distant world?  As Head of Music at a large secondary school in Slough, this has caused some considerable anxiety. It’s a nightmare. How will it be possible to teach a subject that demands so much practical pedagogy be taught under such challenging conditions?  

Allow me to indulge in some of the challenges presented by the recent government guidance released on Friday 29th August: 

  • Singing is only permitted in well-ventilated rooms with no more than 15 students socially distant at two metres. This is not possible at our school so we will not be singing at all. 
  • Musical instruments cannot be shared between bubbles. This will mean adapting long term plans so that schemes of work requiring similar equipment are taught first. 
  • No extra curricular groups with mixed year groups. 

In addition to this, our school has adopted the zones and bubbles guidance whereby teachers will go to the students, rather than the contrary under normal circumstances.  This has effectively meant that the music department is evicted from its base and become mobile.  This means that music will be taught in Science Labs, Food Tech rooms etc. How tolerant will colleagues in neighbouring classroom be of any practical work? 

We must also consider the students. Colleagues won’t know how far ‘behind’ students are until they are sat in front of us in the first lesson. Every student has had a very different experience of lockdown, with some having supportive parents with outstanding homeschooling capabilities, what others will have become disengaged with their learning, with perhaps little or no access to IT resources. This is nothing new to music departments with some students studying musical theory and instruments outside of the classroom, but this will be a completely new challenge.  “We’re all in the same storm but not in the same boat” is a fantastic quote for planning for this.  

This is without doubt the biggest challenge of my 12 years in the teaching profession. Social distancing has meant that large parts of my teaching pedagogy arsenal are null and void for he foreseeable future, so adapting to this will be a daily challenge. The instruction from senior leaders to “front load your curriculum with theory” is all well and good, but it will require a huge planning effort and a total change to teaching pedagogies. Myself and many other colleagues throughout the country are thinking how they can make music with what resources they have, whether that be with a full suite of musical instruments, or with the contents of a student’s pencil case.   

We need Music now more than ever, and I’m ready for the challenge of the new term.  I will try to be as tolerant of SLT as I can be as I know that they don’t desire this as much as I don’t. I will try and make as much music as I possibly can, with whatever I can.  It’ll be sad to not have extra curricular music this year, which means curriculum music-making becomes more important than ever. I’ll also try to take each day as it comes. It’s certainly going to be different.  Most of all though, I’m looking forward to being at the front of the class and working with young people once again, inspiring them to be the musicians they want to be.  

Teachers are very good at adapting to an ever changing world, and to what our political masters desire of us. This will be no different.  I wish all my colleagues in music department across the country the best of luck. 

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