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Exploding Art Music Productions 

5.1: The Teacher as Builder of music learning contexts

Steven C. Dillon


The process of teaching and learning music involves a variety of activities and encounters. Students in schools may experience music in the classroom, the instrumental studio, and a variety of ensembles, as well as a part of family and youth sub-culture. These encounters are often facilitated by different teachers or initiated and organised by parents or students (Metcalf, 1990). Music experience can be intrinsically motivated or compulsorily imposed. Highly structured, or completely random. This paper is primarily a philosophical discussion that examines the aspects of these experiences that might become continuous and coherent as music education, arguing that the role of unifying music experience falls within the domain of the classroom teacher.

As a teenage music student, I recall that it was some years before my 'classical training' as a singer and my composing and playing bass guitar in a rock band were united in a knowledge of music., indeed they seemed to be different worlds. At school the classroom 'music appreciation' seemed even more unconnected. In classroom programmes today, there is a structured philosophy and a curriculum. The philosophy, pedagogy and method of the instrumental studio and the large and small ensemble is also highly developed, well ordered and considered. In schools these aspects of music learning are often considered co-curricular/extra curricular activities and seem to have little connection with the state and national guidelines (1994a &b, 1995) for music education. The world outside the classroom and the school are important cultural musical experiences for the student in structured and self motivated music making. What skills or knowledge do students have to make sense or draw meaning from these? Is the connection of these experiences still left to chance? How and where do we learn to make sense of these encounters? The purpose of this paper is to explore these questions through an examination of students, learning music in a school context, focusing upon how the teacher builds and shapes those experiences, and manipulates the context.

The experiential paradigm

Philosophy and theory of music education in the last fifty years has focused upon experience/making music and listening/reflecting upon music. These experiential theories are largely based upon the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey's experiential learning (1970, 1980) and psychologist, Jerome Bruner's 'discovery learning' (1960, 1966). In Arts education, Dewey's notion of art as experience (1970) and art education as aesthetic education has been developed by such eminent researchers as Elliot Eisner (1985, 1991) and Peter Abbs, (1987). In education, a consideration of context and teaching as design has been explored in constructivism/constructionism by Papert (19980, 1991) and Perkins (1986). In music education, the pragmatist response to the idea of reflection upon experience has been developed in Reimers's influential philosophy of music education with his focus upon active 'listening' (1970). In Britain, music educator Keith Swanwick's (1981) chose the term 'audition' as a less passive term for perception about music. Reflection, and the more immediate, perceptual processes of 'audition' and 'listening', are the factors that make sense of and reify experience. It is reflection, I would argue, that is the continuous line that has the capacity to unify music experience.

Recently, exploration of structured reflection in the arts has been most prominently explored in the Harvard University's Project zero, Arts-propel programme, (1992). This programme, based upon Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (1993) defines an interactive triangle of reflection perception and production (1993 a & b). Schon's notion of the reflective practitioner, has also greatly developed the concept of reflection as an active and interactive activity (1984,1987 & Taylor, 1994). In Australia, the Victorian State (1995) and national (1994) guidelines for the arts show the consciousness of both reflection and context in curriculums within the structure of curriculum sub-strands. Reflection and context in arts curriculums are represented in curriculums but where and how does the student learn to reflect critically upon experience.

The teacher as builder.

What I am seeking to expand upon here is the idea of knowledge by design (Perkins, 1986). In this model, the teacher builds and interprets the learning context so that music meaning and knowledge might be both 'taught and caught' (Swanwick, 1994). Teachers actively interpret a curriculum, create the psychological environment and structure and interpret the physical environment so that it is designed to facilitate learning. The teacher controls and facilitates the learning process. Swanwick (1994) argues that it is necessary for the teacher to balance the productive tension between 'analytic' and 'intuitive' knowledge and meaning. When he describes that meaning is both 'taught and caught', he is suggesting that the teacher educates as much through structuring context and how they act as makers themselves, as by formal pedagogy and syllabus. Indeed the intuitive aspects of musical knowledge and meaning are caught by 'rubbing against it' (Ibid) whilst formal pedagogy informs analytic meaning. The teacher embodies the intuitive and aesthetic aspects of curriculum whilst the analytic aspects exist in textual form in curriculum and resources. The teacher's task: is to attend to the needs of the domain of music for increased complexity of musical experience. They must attend to the needs of the student and provide a successful, relevant and intrinsically motivated experience and the requirements of the community for art to initiate students into the culture of the times and place. These demands upon the teacher are the parameters that inform the architecture and design of what a teacher does.

A systemic view

In this paper, I will explore these ideas in a philosophical discussion and include empirical evidence drawn from my doctoral research. Understanding of the whole process of learning music in a variety of encounters requires a systemic examination of all of the factors that make up the student's music learning experiences. Csikszentmihalyi (1996) in his study of creativity suggests that only by examining all of the factors that comprise the system where the phenomenon takes place can a true understanding of it be formed.

The evidence presented in this discussion is drawn from qualitative data from my doctoral research. This thesis examines the meaning of music to young people in an independent, pre-preparatory to year-twelve school, using participant observation case study methods. The processes that lead to meaning and result in the 'education of character' (Buber, 1965) are the primary foci of the thesis. The data presented here is drawn from this larger scale research. The research instruments include interviews with eleven teachers, nineteen students, as well as twelve weeks of participant observations of practice. The study examines the participant's perspective on teaching and learning music through individual music biographies.

Musical biographies

Interview participants were asked to 'tell their music stories, describing the contexts and people that influenced their development. It should be noted that participant's recollections represent the importance that they attach to these ideas at the time of interview, rather than accurate and objective information. Indeed objectivity is not the goal of such questioning but rich 'thick description' of the phenomenon as described by those who encounter it. From the recollections of participants as described in their individual music biographies themes emerged that were examined further in observations. In the interest of gaining a 'multiple-lens' on the phenomenon, this data was triangulated against observations and literature. In particular the study seeks to observe how theory 'behaves' in practice and helps put 'meat on the bones' of theory.

This discussion will focus upon the context of classroom music, examining its role and responsibilities through the narratives of students and teachers. The dimensions of this paper do not permit reprinting large bodies of narrative and observation transcripts but where relevant I have included quotations to give the reader a sense of the participant's voices. To begin this discussion I will examine the role of the classroom music and the qualities of the teacher.

The role of the classroom teacher

When I first began to analyse student responses and observations about classroom music, I was disappointed and perplexed. Music in the classroom was perceived as a second class citizen to the excitement of ensembles and the intensity of relationship of the instrumental student. One student commented that it was 'a little light on'. A closer look at the data revealed some more interesting results. Certainly, the general nature of classroom music was by necessity not as deep an experience as those of the studio or ensemble. It needs to be an accessible gateway to other experiences such as these and many students commented about how their first experiences with an instrument or ensemble had occurred in the classroom. The classroom teacher introduced them to the experience and directed them to specialist teachers or ensembles. Two other aspects of 'introduction' were described by students as influential in their musical development. Firstly, the work with creative music making and secondly their experiences with music from other times and places. These aspects of experience led many of them to be active composers and to listen broadly to music beyond the limitations of instrument and youth culture.

Jason, a sixteen-year-old trumpet player- guitarist and songwriter reflects upon his classroom music experiences:

It just opened-up doors to different pathways, like we just tried different styles of music. We weren't too great at the instruments at the time but still. And they [classroom teachers] just showed us some concert band pieces that we attempted to play and, yeah, studied theory and stuff a bit.


Jason is commenting upon the variety of encounters he was exposed to in classroom music. He is describing the classroom music experience as a gateway to other experiences in music making, providing his first tastes of concert band ensembles, music from other cultures, theory and instrumental music. A classroom -teacher noticed his attraction to trumpet and guitar and encouraged him to join bands and take up studio lessons. In many cases, students reported beginning instruments through the classroom programmes exposure to instruments. Students, who already played an instrument, often took up another instrument. The teacher acts as an 'animatuer' directing and facilitating deeper musical experience.

Creative activities were also important in the student's memory of classroom music

I loved the creative activities I always got excited when we were given a task to do that was creative. I remember once we were to make an answering machine jingle. That was one of my first experiences, of making music for a purpose and that was really good fun. I love making my own music. I was glad that was part of the music

syllabus. (Edward seventeen-year- old guitarist and clarinet player)


Even more surprising was the comment that it was in the classroom that they had learnt to listen perceptively and reflect upon all of their music practice. Edward comments about what reflection in the classroom has taught himand how it ahs drwan together his musical experiences:

It's just good to have the ear to pick up on that kind of stuff and to be able to talk about it and know what's happening and that's definitely what the discussions have brought along. It's really interesting to see how all these do fit into what I do today.

James as an instrumental teacher also sees the classroom as the place for general aesthetic experiences and responses to music:

I think the classroom aims to develop an aesthetic sense of music. Like, basically be able to respond to music, to have some sort of response. That appears to be the aim and just expose students to music as an experiential thing rather than something that they're passive that they just listen to. So I like the way they are introduced to certain elements of music making and encouraged to try those elements out for themselves.

In the classroom unlike instrumental and ensemble experiences, reflection and perceptive activity were a formal and developmental activity as well as an informal part of music problem solving. Not only does the teacher enact reflective practice, but also in the classroom it became a conscious activity of evaluation, discussion, criticism and aesthetics. This alerted me to the possibility that the combination of exposing students to a broad range of general activity in music making and structured reflection potentially armed students with critical tools they could use in other areas of music making. I felt that this was the connecting factor amongst the musical experiences. The classroom was where there was time to reflect and a context that could be altered by the teacher to include broad general experiences at a level all could access successfully. The 'lightness' made the experiences achievable and accessible, whilst the breadth and range of experience increased the opportunity for experience and reflection to facilitate knowledge and gaining meaning. Most important in all of this is the relationship with the teacher.

The first teacher and the love of music

Sloboda and Howe (1992) in a quantitative study of music learning found that the 'first teacher' had a significant effect upon the involvement with music making and continued learning. This study suggested that the teacher did not have to be of a 'high' performance standard but likeable to the student. My questioning of students and teachers found a difference in the teachers and student's perspective of this relationship. I found students responses in particular to show surprising maturity and insight. Students perceived good teachers as being a 'friend' but more importantly valued their own progress. A good teacher, was one who was able to acknowledge the student as a person and what they brought to the lesson in terms of their musical taste and experience. Most importantly, the teacher needed to immerse the students in their own enthusiasm and love of music making. Peter, a classroom music teacher, in recollecting his first music teacher, encapsulates this relationship with this comment.

'His love of music just spilled on to me... He inspired me to learn to enjoy and appreciate jazz music.'

The teacher in this case is sharing or involving the students, in their own 'love of music'. Student's emphasis upon achievement as well as the friendliness of the teacher shows an intrinsic interest in making music. Teachers perceived the relationship as more professional not as a friendship but one that was relaxed by the need to provide an encouraging environment for learning. Teachers too, were motivated by the progress of the student.


Valuing what the child brings.

Students spoke of the importance of the teacher recognising and valuing their own music. They placed value upon the teacher's openness to a broad range of listening and performance music. Teachers were aware of the affect their 'attitudes and values' had upon their students. James a keyboard teacher describes the idea of openness:

The 'music is music' approach seems to affect adolescents even with quite strong one band or style approaches. They can see that it is OK to like music that might not fit their peer groups ideas, but through playing a variety of stuff and that open attitude they tend to develop a broader listening base.

The 'music is music' approach values all styles, periods and locations, for what they contribute to the knowledge of musical elements and human culture. It creates an environment of openness that allows students to move safely beyond the confines of youth culture to experience music in a much broader context. This is not to say that the music that youth culture holds is not musically valuable. Within this approach to music, the teacher needs also to acknowledge the child's intrinsic interest in this music, be open to diversity of musical style and build an open of the environment. Jessica, a drama teacher describes this approach:

Even if they don't value the music but value the child's interest in that music that's what it's all about. As long as you are open, and say that, that's not something that I'm particularly interested in, but if you are interested in this then why don't you. And still do the facilitating and advising that you normally would do.


It is easy to recognise, Buber's notion of the inclusive relationship (Buber, 1965) within these narratives, where the student is taken into the life of the music maker/teacher. In this way, by both pedagogy and example, music meaning can be both caught and taught. The analytical meaning is gained through the extrinsic motivation of the increasing challenge of formal music pedagogy. The intuitive and aesthetic challenges are gained through immersion in the life and constructed context of the teacher. The analytic has a curriculum, pedagogical steps and method whilst the intuitive aspects are caught through being immersed in experience with and through the teacher. The important issue for teachers is the modelling or embodiment of a curriculum and the notion of perception on and in action and reflection. Problem solving is a large part of learning music. Initially the teacher solves the student's problems with performance but increasingly the student should be encouraged to be perceptive about their own performance and share in solutions. Self-evaluation and criticism was highly valued by students and teachers interviewed. This suggests that teachers need to consistently model behaviour and encourage students to talk, demonstrate and be perceptive about their music making. This is an important factor in musical development and contributes to the gaining of understanding and personal meaning.

Working in groups

The primary location of meaning and achievement in the instrumental studio is personal, in the ensemble and classroom, it is the social, which influences the access to meaning (Dillon, 1998). During the field study, I observed a teacher working with a large group of student musicians.

She divided the class into sections, led by advanced and senior students. What took place when I wandered these smaller units rehearsing, was that each of the sections ran their rehearsals in the same manner [as the teacher]. Using metaphor, clapping, singing through parts, solving technical problems through reference to their understanding of fixing the problem. Fundamentally, all groups observed were imitating the reflective problem finding and problem solving behaviour of the teacher.

The students were 'imitating' and adopting the approach to self-criticism, problem solving and analysis used by their teacher. They used the same 'multi- media' approach to communication, one that involves singing, clapping, demonstrating and verbal analogy. This kind of transfer (Perkins, 1988) of 'reflective practice' from teacher to student was quite universally observed within classrooms and ensemble rehearsals. In this case, the focus was upon making a good sound as a group. The experience becomes educative when the teacher involves the students in being perceptive about their music making and sharing her own perceptions with the students. The student learns by both doing and experiencing through the teacher's construction of experience. The teacher in this case has built a psychological environment that values open discussion, reflection and perceptive listening, as well as modelling behaviour that is self critical. The student's imitation of her behaviour was demonstrative of learning by immersion.

The teacher as builder and interpreter of music-learning contexts.

The teacher works within a framework of demands and needs of the domain, the student and the context. The table below outlines those demands/needs.




Student needs

  • Pedagogical development of musical form and instrument.
  • Vessel for historical preservation.
  • Creative expansion
  • Aesthetic growth
  • Pragmatic usefulness
  • Passing on of skills to new makers and participants in the culture
  • Initiation into the discourse
  • Psychological
  • Cultural
  • Physical environment
  • Educational and curricular
  • Philosophical
  • Historical and traditional
  • Ceremonial
  • Aesthetic
  • Achievement & progress
  • Challenge and motivation
  • Self esteem
  • Cultural initiation
  • Social interaction
  • Intrinsic activity
  • Affirmation by peers and community

These factors influence how a teacher presents their subject. The teacher both interprets and structures the environment to do this. As the interviews suggest, teachers need to create a psychological environment that is open and welcoming and accepting of what the student brings to the lesson. A teacher can interpret existing culture or simulate other cultures and times to give students an experience with music making and reflection so that the student encounters and gains an understanding of that encounter. The teacher can alter or interpret the physical environment and the resources available in it so that the focus is upon the task and facilitates understanding of it. The teacher interprets curriculum and pedagogy and uses it as a framework for how the ideas and concepts are reflected upon, evaluated and presented. The teacher can interpret a historical or traditional idea and utilise them to show the role of music within the functional aspects of music making. So too, with ceremonial music making. The teacher draws aesthetics and philosophy from curriculum and their own values. Students participate in discussions about music making and product and experience making in an environment constructed by the teacher. Herein lies the key to understanding the role of teacher as builder and interpreter of contexts. The context is malleable, and able to be manipulated and interpreted in such a way that the student who enters it is motivated intrinsically to participate in the activity and challenged by the aspects of analytical knowledge. Music meaning and knowledge can be both caught and taught in such an environment. This idea is important for teacher education. We need to educate music teachers to deliver the analytic pedagogy, embody the intuitive, and design, build and interpret contexts so that they facilitate learning and give access to a range of meaningful encounters.


. What I am advocating here, is that we need to recognise the role of the teacher as builder and interpreter of contexts. The classroom music teacher acts as animatuer or gateway to deeper musical experiences in the instrumental studio and ensemble. The other primary roles of the classroom music teacher is to provide broad general access to musical experiences in composing and exposure to different cultural and historical contexts. Of primary importance for the classroom teacher is the use of structured reflective activity that educates the aesthetic sensibility of the students. The teacher role is to interpret the context in such a way that they can shape an environment in which students have access to intrinsic and satisfying music experience and reflection that results in meaningful learning. In the same way that we are creative in our organisation and manipulation of the elements of music and music materials to make music, so must the process of music education unfold. Art sequested into a museum culture becomes history, art that interacts with community and context has the means of its own growth. As the teacher/conductor Jane remarked: 'It's that feeling, and you can't create that, you can only create the situation that makes it possible.' This is the essence of the teacher as builder and interpreter of context. It suggests that it is possible to ensure that the environment can facilitate meaning that can be both 'caught' and 'taught' (Swanwick, 1994) by preparing an environment in which the student is intrinsically immersed.


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