Making secondary music lessons more engaging and relevant to students

Teaching secondary music is an experience I’ve found very rewarding because students at this age have the ability to engage, talk back, and have conversations that are affected by — and affect — how they’re shaping their own identities as young adults. Three strategies I’ve found very useful in engaging secondary students during music lessons are: 1) starting with something familiar, 2) emphasising enjoyment, and 3) maintaining the importance of intellectual rigour.

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Teaching a critical approach to music

Many of us grow up understanding music — and the arts in general — as something nice to have. Music provides entertainment, it brings joy, it adds emotional dimension to events from dinner parties and weddings to major international sporting events. And when we think of music as a profession, we often think of performance or composition. We do know, as well, that music occupies a significant place in cultural and religious practices. I find that it is of utmost importance to draw out the idea that music is not simply ‘something nice to have’, and neither is it a simply a ‘cultural’ practice that we may only encounter in a religious setting or at an occasion. Music shapes, and is shaped by, individual and social identity — and getting students to understand the mechanism behind these complex processes is the essence of a critical and intellectual approach to music, and one which I firmly believe cannot be ignored in the classroom.

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The ‘relevance’ question, and how to address it in the classroom

As an ethnomusicologist who both lectures at the university level, and teaches primary and secondary students, I take great interest in seeing the different perspectives students bring to a topic. This is compounded with my own research interests, which lead me to read a great deal of material which often seems abstract and impenetrable. I often ask myself what value a complex article in a journal can have to a student studying music at an IB level, or to an undergraduate whose dissertation I’m supervising. Within academia, it is not difficult to feel like life happens in — to borrow a phrase often used in the media these days — an ivory tower.

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