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Musical Futures: Can an informal approach to learning breathe new life into our schools?

16 April 2012
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The moment that the members of Ms. Shelby's grade eight homeroom filed into music class on the first day of school this past September they knew something was different. Instead of the pictures of the musical masters--Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert--that had adorned the walls of the music room for as long as they could remember, they were greeted with posters of recording artists that they actually knew and loved. Instead of a front blackboard covered with musical symbols and images of orchestral instruments, there were photos of recording equipment, sound boards, microphones and modern day band instruments. And instead of chairs organized in an orderly fashion facing a perfectly centered conductor's stand, stools were gathered in smaller circles around the room, each one complete with its own combo kit: an electric guitar, a set of electronic drumpads, a bass guitar, and a keyboard.


Ms. Shelby waited while the scene was absorbed by the arriving students and then she announced, "This year, we're going to take a different approach to our music classes."


There are two basic assumptions that most of us make when we think about learning to play music. The first is that an effective music program must be based on explicit, scaffolded instruction. The second is that an effective music program needs to be led by a highly trained, professional music teacher.


Both of these assumptions are currently being challenged by a new and dynamic approach to music education that turns the pedagogical underpinnings of traditional approaches and flips them right on their ear! Musical Futures was born in the UK nearly a decade ago, and is rooted in the understanding that, despite growing disengagement among adolescents in many aspects of their lives (including school), music represents a universally powerful and natural form of engagement and connection. Students between the ages of 11-18 demonstrate both an affinity and passion for the music of their lives and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, based on research by Professor Lucy Green, set out to try to understand and leverage that!


Musical Futures is based on the belief that the most accessible way for young people to learn music is by being involved in actually making music. Instead of spending hours of talking about theory and history, or instead of learning an instrument in a formal, rather lock-step fashion, Musical Futures puts modern musical instruments into the hands of students and gives them the opportunity to immediately begin playing, creating and re-creating the music of their lives. A powerful experience!


Instead of beginning with the "classics" and moving towards more modern forms of expression, Musical Futures begins where the students live and breathe--in their own musical world--and gives them the opportunity to learn how to play that music in a collaborative, informal, yet supported, environment.


Musical Futures begins by putting the actual instruments used to create the music to which they listen into the hands of all students and sets them to work. Beginning with music that they select themselves, small groups of students learn to listen carefully to its component parts and then attempt to replicate it using the materials provided. Other than an introduction to the equipment being used, students receive no formal training on how to play their instruments or read music. In fact, just like any language, students begin by listening, and imitating, not by reading!


For a variety of reasons, many of our students have been left on the sidelines when it comes to quality music experiences in their schooling. In some cases, program cost has been seen as a barrier; in other instances, a lack of music specialists have prevented music cultures from taking root in many schools. At a more personal level, a significant number of students grow up believing that actually learning to play music is beyond their capabilities.


Again, the Musical Futures approach seeks to challenge these beliefs and dispositions by taking a different path. And, given the fact that 1/3 of high schools in the U.K. are implementing an MF approach, there's reason to believe that the challenge is working!


Furthermore, it looks like Canada could be the next country to attempt to shift thinking around what music education could look like for our young people. For the past year, Dr. Ruth Wright, Chair of Music Education at Ontario's Western University has been working with a dedicated team of colleagues and local educators to bring the MF way of thinking to schools in the London region. Dr. Wright is hoping to set up several more pilot sites throughout Ontario for September 2012.


Musical Futures not only challenges the way that we think alternative ways of engaging young people in the learning of music. The pedagogical shift necessary to successfully implement the MF philosophy has potential beyond the world of music education. What other aspects of our approach to practice might be disturbed by allowing the power of informal learning to breathe some life into the rather formal halls of this place we call school?


Next: What exactly do we mean by informal learning?