A phrase (or concept) that comes up in various forms when talking to and about adult learners is that "life gets in the way". Looking at discourses around family in the data for my MA research highlighted a recurring theme around family and work responsibilities restricting how much learners could play, practise or participate in musical activities. Almost half of the teachers I surveyed also mentioned that adult learners' other commitments had an impact on their learning - whether it was time to practise, having to cancel/ reschedule lessons, or just having the 'head space' to concentrate on learning.
According to one study, the ideal teacher has “an understanding of the… responsibilities handled by adults, along with a steady insistence that students be challenged” (Roulston et al., 2015) This is definitely a challenge for teachers - judging how much to 'push' when there are other things going on in people's lives. It doesn't only apply to adult learners either. With children we're also balancing it up against other activities, school work, family circumstances, sometimes ongoing medical conditions. There's also working out how much of a priority music is for that individual person - the bigger a role it plays in their life, the more 'challenge' they're willing to take on to develop their skills.
But the level of challenge can be both under- and over-estimated, and another of our jobs as teachers is to help students be realistic about that. Existing research highlights adult learners’ high levels of intrinsic motivation (Lamont, 2011, Taylor, 2011) - learning because they want to - but also finds that many struggle with 'unrealistic expectations' and subsequent frustration with their progress. We need to find ways of showing that it is possible to make progress as an adult, but it's not always going to be easy. And there isn't a set 'path' - some people spend weeks trying to get a reasonably clear sound on a flute; others quickly find a nice tone, but take longer to find the right hand position for them to balance the instrument well. Some people easily settle into a pattern of practising every day (one of my adult students works from home and has quick 'flute breaks' throughout the day), whilst others find it harder to fit another activity into their lives. (This has got me wondering about how music learners - both adults and children - manage increasing practice time and what impact that has on their progress, but I think I'll leave that for a future post). So part of the challenge is finding time, and again, how much of a priority music is has an impact on that.
Now, I'm not being disparaging about those people for whom music isn't such a priority, or about different reasons for making it a priority - whether that's because they want to 'take it seriously', or because they really enjoy it, or because it's their 'me time' or their ten minutes of fun - I'm not going to judge the validity of anyone's reasons for playing music. My own journey of learning the clarinet - which has given me great insights into what it's like to be a beginner again - has brought up the issue of priorities for me too. I had set myself a challenge to do 100 sessions of clarinet practice in the last twenty weeks. It started well, I had a lovely chart where I coloured in boxes each time I practised, and for the first month or so I was on track. But then I got more students (always lovely - but slightly mystified by a sudden rush of enquiries in October!), I had some concerts to play in, I had the small matter of putting together a PhD proposal. The clarinet practice declined. And then I got a cold, and playing the clarinet with a cold is disgusting. I can cope with playing the flute with a cold, a cough, blocked ears - it's not fun but it's manageable (and I kind of have to sometimes, it's my job!). I don't have to play the clarinet though, so I didn't. I salute you reed players who manage to carry on when your head is all stuffed up. So I got out of the habit a bit. I've got back into it over the last few weeks, but there have been Christmas gigs and other festivities going on too. So I haven't done 100 practices - I can't actually tell you how many I have done as I have to admit I abandoned the chart (it was so colourful too!).
The thing is, when I picked it up again, I realised I do enjoy playing the clarinet. It's a different sound, feeling and range to the flute - ahh, lovely low notes - and it's a different challenge as I'm still learning the basics and building up stamina (which I lost rather a lot of and am having to gradually get back). I'm enjoying finding out about the similarities and the differences to flute playing. But it isn't top priority - musically, the flute will always be that for me. And when life gets busy, the things that aren't top priority will drop off for a while. I don't always do as much flute practice as I'd really like - there are only so many hours in the day after teaching, admin, research, writing etc - so I have to prioritise what needs to be done, such as pieces for upcoming concerts (and sometimes that's very concentrated practice on the 'tricky bits' in short bursts). So I understand where students are coming from if I get to their lesson and they tell me they've not done much practice this week - I really do. But I will suggest ways of making practice more effective, and remind them that really, five minutes a day IS better than nothing, and five minutes a day is also better than an hour once a week. Life does get in the way, sometimes completely, and that's - well, that's life! But if you enjoy playing your instrument (even if the idea of practising is sometimes... urgh), then it's absolutely fine, in fact it's very good for you, to prioritise those bits of time doing something you enjoy. I need to remind myself of that sometimes too!
Lamont, A. (2011). The beat goes on: music education, identity and lifelong learning. Music Education Research, 13(4), 369-388.
Roulston, K., Jutras, P., & Kim, S.J. (2015). Adult perspectives of learning musical instruments. International Journal of Music Education, 33(3), 325-335.
Taylor, A. (2011). Older amateur keyboard players learning for self-fulfilment. Psychology of Music, 39(3), 345-363.
When I'm not doing musical things, one of the ways I like to spend my time is gardening. Don't ask me about flowers - I have a few favourites but I don't know much about them - what I really enjoy is growing food. From a few herbs and chilli plants on a flat windowsill, via a back garden vegetable patch, I now have an allotment - a source of much joy, frustration, hard work and satisfaction... a bit like music, but with added mountains of potatoes!
One of the topics of discussion at our recent workshops with Dr Jessica Quiñones was what your passions outside music are, and it turned out there were a lot of flute players who like to grow things. We're also quite a crafty bunch - knitting, sewing and baking - creative in all sorts of ways!
But let's backtrack for a moment - how did a load of flute players end up sitting in a room talking about gardening? Sometime last year, I came across Jessica online - I can't remember whether it was through Twitter first, or through her blog. I was intrigued by her passion for Tango music, and immediately taken with her fresh approach to flute playing. I read a lot about the technical side of playing, about practising, and about performing, but here was a lady who was talking about shaking up the way you think about making music, about finding your own way of doing things, breaking out of the 'box' of traditional expectations around flute playing, and really sharing your music from the heart. As I began to teach more and more adults, I realised that many of them felt 'stuck' in a pattern of feeling that they 'should' play a certain way, worried about having to 'get it right', and it was getting in the way of them making music the way they really wanted to. Lots of them wanted to try playing folk or jazz or latin, or all sorts of different styles, but they didn't know how to make that step into it, having only played classical music. Now, a big part of my teaching ethos is to encourage people to experiment - not to tell them there is one 'correct' way of doing things, but to help them explore different ways that might work for them. But I also believe that an important part of teaching is knowing your own limitations, being open about the fact you don't know and can't do everything(!), and helping your students to access other ways of learning and people who can give them fresh and different approaches to music. So when I started thinking about running some flute events in Sheffield, I absolutely knew that one of the people I wanted to invite was Jessica. I emailed her asking if she'd be interested, and to my delight (because it's always a bit scary emailing someone you've not actually met to ask them to do something) she was really keen on the idea. More than keen, she absolutely 'got' what I wanted to achieve by putting on this event.
One thing we were both clear on from the start was that we weren't putting on a 'traditional' masterclass. You know, one of those days where you stand up and play a piece in front of an 'expert' who then tells you how to improve it and gives you helpful suggestions on interpretation and technique. These have their place, but I feel they can often be intimidating, even downright scary. There can be a sense that you're trying to prove yourself and impress the expert and the other attendees, that it's a competition to see who can play best up there. Sometimes the advice is useful on the spot, but you don't really know what to do with it once you leave. Often it seems that people go along wanting a 'quick fix' to their problems - for someone to tell them "do this and your tone will forever be wonderful". Unfortunately, there are very few, if any, quick fixes in playing an instrument. The same goes for confidence, nobody can magically instil that in you in a day, or even a year of lessons - it's an ongoing process of gaining experience, feeling more secure with your playing, getting to know yourself, and learning what works for you. What I did want, and I knew Jessica could give us, was a day which opened people's eyes to exploring how and why they make music, helped them start to appreciate themselves as musicians (not in comparison to anyone else), and empowered them to feel like they could start to explore different genres and ways of playing, that they didn't need to wait for permission from anyone, or be an expert to give it a go.
And that is exactly what Jessica shared with us - in two amazing, inspiring, generous days. The workshops were specially designed around a combination of my vision for the day and what the participants had said (in an anonymous survey) they wanted to gain from it. The two days were slightly different - with different groups of players bringing their own backgrounds, experiences and ways of playing, and Jessica adapting wonderfully to each one. There was less playing than you might expect from a typical flute day, but the point was to explore those things behind our playing, which can make as much difference as all the technical exercises in the world. We experimented with movement whilst playing, drawing on the other favourite activities we'd talked about - walking, dancing, playing the flute whilst pretending to dig the garden! - breaking away from the idea that you must always stand upright and still. We worked through custom-made workbooks, which delved into what we wanted to grow in our playing, what inspires us, what we really love and believe about music. As so many of the players had said they wanted to feel confident, Jessica had designed an activity which dug into finding out what we actually mean when we talk about confidence - what will confidence look and feel (and even taste and smell!) like to each of us? A lot of this work was challenging, emotional, difficult - but assured by our agreement to Jessica's rule that "what happens in Vegas, er, the flute workshop, stays in the workshop", people opened up, let themselves be vulnerable, realised things about themselves and their relationship to music.
Before the workshop, Jessica had asked everyone to bring a few items - something which inspired their music-making, a piece of music they'd love to play, and something which represented their alter ego (this last one caused some head-scratching in the week running up to it, I can tell you!). After talking about our inspirational objects, we created an 'alter of inspiration' - a sort of 'sacred space' of those things that meant so much to us. We explored our pieces of music, using a set of prompts about how to approach a score - what can we find out from the printed music, and what can we not? What decisions of our own can we make about how to play it? What shapes, colours, ideas does it suggest to us? Jessica introduced us to some Brazilian Choro, and helped us use the same techniques to look at how to approach an unfamiliar genre (I think many of us may have then rushed home to listen to more Choro and buy some music - what a gorgeous sound!).
And the alter egos?! We talked about what we'd brought with us - and indeed how hard it had been to choose something - and Jessica led us through an activity (inspired, if I remember rightly, by The Inner Game of Music) where we tried out 'putting on' those alter egos (and their associated clothing/ accessories - shoes featured quite prominently one day, and what amazing shoes they were!). This was quite remarkable - hearing the difference between people's playing when they played as their normal selves, trying to 'get it right', compared with when they pretended to be another version of themselves, was astounding. Even when the person themselves wasn't sure it had made a difference, those of us listening were amazed. I heard sounds coming out of some of my students and flute choir members that I'd never heard before, saw them lose themselves in the music in ways that actually made me shed a little tear. I was struck by the fact that everyone, no matter what their background and experience, felt that they weren't confident enough, that their playing wasn't 'good enough', that they weren't the sort of person who could do certain things, and that all of them to some extent had those perceptions challenged.
So, what a weekend... it was exhausting and emotional, but as often is the case, that was surely the sign of an experience worth having. I'm so grateful to Jessica for making sense of my rambling emails and phone calls and creating a workshop that did everything I had hoped for and more - made people think, put the power in their hands and truly appreciated and valued every single person who was there. And as Jessica said at the start of each day, huge kudos to the players, who committed a whole day of their weekend - time, money, mental effort and emotions - to their flute playing, their musical journey and themselves. and joined in even when it was nervewracking. If you don't already follow Jessica's blog, pop over to http://jqflute.com/ now for a dose of beautiful, honest writing about flute playing. And if you loved the workshops, or if you missed them this time, keep an eye on www.sheffieldflute.co.uk/events and come and join us next time!
In my last post I hinted at some of the similarities between learning an instrument and training for a sport, and since I've just come back from my induction at a new gym, it seems like a good time to explore that a bit more. In some ways music and sport seem worlds apart - maybe music is seen as more of an 'intellectual' activity against sport's physicality. I know when I was at school I was 'rubbish' at P.E. and was definitely put in the box of being good with my brain rather than my muscles. The funny thing was, outside of school I took dance classes for years, and whilst I wasn't brilliant at that, I got to a decent standard - I reached the point of dancing on pointe in ballet and won a few medals in Highland Dancing competitions. So why was I no good at basketball and hockey but alright at dancing? Partly I think that comes down to one of the similarities between music and sport - that mental attitude is a big part of doing well. I wanted to dance, so I worked at it. I've no doubt that the fact it was movement to music helped. I had teachers who were encouraging, who paid a lot of attention to each student's physical make-up and explained to them what particular aspects they would need to do more work on to succeed. There were exercises to work on at home between classes (although I fully admit to getting lazy with them in my teenage years!) which meant that there was more progress than if you just turned up once a week. In other words, very much like practising an instrument! In my MA research I discovered discourses of 'learning music as training' in terms of taking small steps, having goals and aims, tapering your practice before an exam. I also came across terms which flagged up discussions around mental preparation techniques often used in sports training, such as visualisation - where an athlete might visualise how they'll run that race, a musician could use the same technique for a performance. Learners described exams as hurdles and like a treadmill, suggesting a need to mentally push past barriers.
However, the similarities between sport and music aren't just in psychological approaches. Making music is a physical activity. Playing the flute doesn't (normally) involve any running or big jumps, but it does require the movement of many many muscles - in your face, your tongue, your fingers, for breathing and blowing. You need to hold something up with your arms for prolonged periods of time. It ideally needs good posture and a strong 'core' (I've found that Pilates is wonderful for that). But from thinking of myself as not a 'sporty' person, it took me a long time to realise just how physical playing an instrument is. In the text I analysed for my dissertation I found learners talking about building up strength and about the best thing to eat before performances or exams, and I was pleased to see this awareness of the physicality of it. It's certainly something I try to explain in my lessons - that learning to play is partly about building up strength and flexibility in new muscles. Students (especially adults) who've done a sport often find these comparisons helpful - if someone has trained for a marathon, they understand the idea that you need to build up from short runs. It takes time, but if something feels difficult now, it can be worked on, steadily and gradually and it will get easier. I suppose this may be one of the reasons why adult learners feel they can't make as much progress as younger students, that age is physically 'against them' - something I want to look into a bit more, to find out whether research shows that really is the case or whether it's more assumptions about what they 'can and can't do' that hold people back.
This need for 'work' ties in with one more similarity between sport and music - the idea of talent. I do think that some people find it 'naturally' easier to do particular activities - that might be because of their natural physical build or because of previous experiences that mean they have strength in particular muscles, or have developed particular parts of the brain. However, talent will only get you so far without willing and work. Someone who really wants to do something, and is prepared to put in the time and effort, is going to get far further than someone who has a physical 'advantage' but doesn't practise. This video from SportScotland (which I've posted before) makes this point really well.
I can really feel the difference in my playing when I'm physically fitter, one of the reasons that the start of this term sees me back at the gym. To read more from some inspiring musicians about their take on flutes and fitness, have a look at Music Strong and the Flying Flutistas!
Yesterday, I submitted my MA dissertation online. Today the hard copy is being bound and tomorrow I'll post that off to the department. So I've reached the end... sort of. Although I've no more work to do on the Masters, I will be waiting (slightly anxiously, as mentioned previously, I'm not good at waiting for results!) until October for the final mark. Then graduation is in December so after that it's definitely, really finished! The last few weeks of bringing it all together have been stressful, but also hugely enjoyable to see it take its final shape. Despite times when I thought it would never turn into anything resembling a dissertation, I've found the whole process incredibly fulfilling. I have to say a big thank you to my wonderful supervisor, Dr Julia Gillen, for her guidance, enthusiasm for the project, listening to me rambling on (when you're a distance learning students the odd occasions when you actually get to visit your University and talk about your research are terribly exciting!*) and for giving me the confidence that I could actually do this thing!
It does feel very strange to be at the end - I've done the course part-time over three years and the dissertation has been slowly growing from an embryo of an idea early last year, so it has occupied my brain for quite a long time! I don't, however, feel like I'm finished with the research yet. The final product only used about half of my original plan - who'd have thought that a 12,500 word limit actually isn't that much! So while I did look at how adult learners talk about being 'older' and how that affects their learning, and what they say about music exams, music teachers and their families' involvement/ impact on music learning, there are whole areas which I started looking at but couldn't cover in detail - how they talk about being 'musicians' or not, whether there are any patterns in how they use modality (e.g. will vs might), what other grammatical patterns there are and what these might imply. I've covered how emotions are portrayed around exams and teachers, but there is so much more to say about that, including looking at how emoticons are used in the online text to portray moods and emotional reactions. I'd like to look at text written by teachers about adult learners and see how that compares under the same sort of analyses - what discourses are evident in that and are they the same as the ones that came out of my corpus of text written by adult learners themselves? (I suspect they won't match up completely - I certainly found from my survey that teachers talked about 'skills' needed to teach adults, whereas in the corpus adults described the 'qualities' of their teachers). I'm interested to find out how different the concerns of adult learners are to younger learners. I wan't to know what it is that makes some adults more motivated, or more independent at learning - are there any connections with their previous musical experiences (learning as a child or not, etc), or the style of music they're learning? Are there different discourses of adult music learners in different cultures or countries?
Is this starting to sound like a lifetime's work to follow up all these loose ends? I suspect it is! For now though, while the research is all still very fresh in my mind, I'm looking at trying to take some of my research out there into the big wide world - as a poster or presentation at conferences, hopefully at some point as an article somewhere. I will be putting it online once it's marked, and discussing my findings a bit more on here too. I'd like it to reach the people it actually makes a difference to - adult learners themselves, teachers and the people who train teachers - so will be thinking about how to share it with them too.
And since I now have a little bit more spare time, I'll be setting myself a few new musical goals... watch this space!
(*I would also like to thank all the other people who have patiently listened to me rambling on about it over the last year, whether they were really interested or not. You know who you are!)
It's the start of the school summer holidays here, with lots of students and teachers taking a well-deserved break. I'm having a couple of weeks off from teaching but much of that time will be devoted to finishing my MA dissertation which is due in mid-August. I'm currently finishing writing up the section on how adult learners write about exams (well, I have been this morning - I'm currently having a short break, a cup of tea and a packet Hula Hoops, and writing this blog post!).
My research has revealed some striking metaphorical language used about the experience of preparing for and taking exams. Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a lot of negative terms with groups of words which suggest violence - executed, hanging, murdering, killing - and pain - excruciating, suffering. The process of entering, preparing for, and taking exams is compared to a military campaign with terms such as withdraw, forearmed, territory, officer, bullet, target, medal - and there are also hints of a treacherous naval expedition - uncharted, adrift, wreck. But thankfully we also see the horizon and there is talk of surviving. There are also discourses which suggest that exam preparation is like training for a sport - hurdle, treadmill and discussion of tapering, and even what to eat on the day (which explains the initially mystifying appearance of potato in the corpus)! There are lots of terms which relate to movement - exams approach, near and loom. There is pushing and pulling, but also swinging and waltzing, and quite a bit of wobbling like a jelly. Adult learners express concerns about facing 'scary' examiners, but tend to find in reality that they are kind, gentle, courteous, calm, supportive, encouraging. 'Support' is a common theme, surfacing in descriptions of how teachers help learners prepare for exams and boost their confidence - my teacher is an angel, my teacher is lovely and encouraging. They also mention how helpful it is to have a friendly accompanist, if you play an instrument which is supported by a piano part. Online communities also offer support, with adult learners offering sympathy and hugs during the build-up and the wait for results, and many congratulations (for successful results, but also for being brave enough to take the exam in the first place!).
A couple of months ago, I posted about my own plans to sit two Grade 1 exams, learning the clarinet more or less from scratch, and taking my piano playing right back to basics. I took both of these exams a couple of weeks ago. It was an incredibly useful experience as a teacher to be back in uncharted territory - although I've taken many flute exams, I'd never sat one on another instrument, so it did feel rather like being a beginner, not quite knowing what to expect or exactly how well I needed to play at this level. Nerves definitely kicked in, and I had no idea how my playing of each instrument would respond under pressure (whereas with the flute, I have a pretty good idea what happens and how to deal with it). It turns out that the fact my mouth dries up with nerves is even more 'bleurgh' with a reed in my mouth, but it is manageable! My experience of the examiners definitely agrees with those that the learners in my study talk about - both were friendly and welcoming. The one for my clarinet exam had no idea I had any musical background, so I felt I was being treated as she would any adult beginner, and it was a very positive experience, topped off by a lovely comment on my mark form declaring the exam "an excellent start" on my clarinet journey. What a boost that would be to any beginner!
The piano exam was a slightly different experience, as I was sitting another exam (Flute Performance DipLCM) on the same day, with the same examiner! So she was aware that I had experience of music and exams behind me, and indeed joked that the supporting tests at Grade 1 should be fairly easy for me! ;) All the same, I still felt that I was judged on my performance as a Grade 1 piano student, rather than there being any 'extra' expectations of me (and I know that adult learners often feel they are expected to do 'better' to pass exams than children, simply because they are older). This was really helpful for me, as part of the whole point of sitting this one was to help build my confidence on the piano, to learn it properly rather than feel like I 'should' be at a certain standard with it due to the rest of my musical background. Still, I have to admit that getting full marks on the musical knowledge, aural and sightreading certainly did help with my overall score! It also underlined to me as a teacher how much impact these skills can have on how you get on in an exam (as well as being incredibly useful skills when making music, which is why they are tested in exams). For both instruments, I definitely agree with the learners in my study, when they say that having supportive teachers is a huge bonus in the exam process, helping you feel like you are on the right track and you can do this scary thing! I also agree with their thoughts about accompanists - it is incredibly comforting to work with someone you know is 'on your side' (something I found a bit daunting about the piano exam, as you're on your own there!).
And yes, I did sit two exams on the same day. As well as the Grade 1s, I had entered myself for a flute performance diploma. I'm pleased to say I passed that too, and even more pleased to say it was an enjoyable experience. More about that in a future post, soon... but I must get back to the dissertation!
Last weekend I put on a workshop and concert for my flute students, joined by members of the flute group I run for adults, Sheffield Flute Choir. We worked together on some aspects of technique (mainly breathing, which involved a rather messy and competitive bubble-blowing session!) and playing as an ensemble - 17 flutes together! The concert included performances from students playing solos and duets, plus a couple of pieces from the flute choir, and finished off with the whole group playing the pieces we'd worked on in the morning. You can see some lovely photos, comments from audience and participants, and a bit of video over on my workshops page. I'm immensely proud of everyone who played, and grateful to those family and friends who came along and were such a supportive audience.
Before the event, I was knee-deep in preparations, lists, spreadsheets and brain-whirling. Afterwards, once the tiredness has subsided, there's always a bit of analysis. When I started teaching, it seemed natural to me to organise these events, because several of my own previous teachers did just that, giving students a chance to get together and play a few times a year. Having individual lessons can be quite isolated - you might only ever play by yourself, in front of your teacher, and maybe to some family members. Some of my younger students are members of groups at school or through the local music hub, and some of the adults are members of local groups (including the flute choir), wind bands, orchestras, and folk groups. But some don't have many opportunities to share their music with others.
The traditional thing to say about events like this is that they're good 'practice' or 'experience' of performing, and yes, I certainly hope and think that they are - that the experience of these workshops and concerts will give people skills which they can take forward to other musical activities. Learning how to work in a group rehearsal, and getting experience of performing 'on stage' is really helpful for joining ensembles and performing in other concerts and exams. The audience for these events is always made up of family and friends, so perhaps not as 'scary' as a 'proper' public concert (although some people say it's easier to play in front of strangers!). But I hope that as well as providing 'useful experience' for other performances, they have their own value. For a lot of students, having is event provided a useful focus - having something to work towards. For some it was their first performance, some had only started learning earlier this year, and I think it's important to have opportunities to do that - whatever level you're at, you're making music and you have something to offer; you don't have to wait until you're a particular standard before being able or 'allowed' to perform. Meeting up with others who are sharing the same experiences is a BIG part of the whole event - I think the chatting over tea break and lunch is just as important as the playing (see previous comment about feeling isolated)! Playing with others is such a special part of playing an instrument. Performing in front of your family and friends (who may only normally hear bits and pieces being practised in another room) is just as much a part of making music as playing in front of an anonymous 'public'. And of course, most other people's family and friends are strangers to a lot of other students.
Going to any concert can be inspiring – watching a professional play can spur you on to practise and improve. But it’s also useful to hear people who are closer to your own level – to hear pieces that you could achievably play in a few months’ or years’ time, to see the things that other people do the same way or differently to you, and to learn from those. Some of the younger students find it surprising that adults can be beginners too, and I think it's good for them to see that you can carry on learning throughout your life. Perhaps even some of the audience might be inspired to take up learning music too!
And for me... I learn something new every time I run one of these. I learn how different students react and respond in a performance situation. I learn what works and what doesn’t, how much time things take, and how many packets of biscuits I need to buy (lots). I always perform myself too, in duets with students, playing piano accompaniments, and preparing a more challenging duet piece with a willing victim, er, friend! I learn more about how to work with groups of players, and that I could do with learning more about how to conduct...
I love going out travelling to students for their lessons, but it's also wonderful to see all these people who I visit together in one place, to meet relatives who I might have heard about but never met before, to see this whole little 'community' enjoying each other's company and sharing in the music-making of their families, friends, and fellow flute players.
This week is NIACE's Adult Learners' Week - obviously highly relevant to my MA research and my interests. The Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) estimates that over 17m UK adults play an instrument, with 2.5m of those attending music lessons. A recent survey of adults discovered that playing a musical instrument is second (only to cooking) in the list of skills people would like to learn. I've been asked what the point of my research is (has any researcher NOT been asked that?!) and that is part of the point - with so many people playing, learning or wanting to learn an instrument, how do we best cater for their needs? Finding out what they say and think about learning music is, I think, vital to shaping music education that works for adults.
One common theme in existing studies on adult music learners is the influence of teachers - how a 'bad' experience with a teacher can put off someone from learning an instrument. Often this happens at a young age, and part of the job of teachers working with adult 'returners' can be to help them renegotiate their relationship with music - change the way they think of themselves in relation to playing an instrument and indeed 'being a musician'. On the other hand, existing research also shows the wonderfully positive influence of good teachers, at all ages, in fostering lifelong love of music and confidence in taking part in musical activities.
A major part of my dissertation looks at how adult learners describe their teachers and their relationships with them. My teacher survey revealed that teachers recognise there is a difference between teaching adults and children, and talk about a different set of 'skills' that are needed - an ability to adapt to different learning styles and challenges, different ways of communicating, and mentions of confidence-building, empathy and understanding. The results of my corpus analysis, searching for how learners talk/ write about teachers, suggest that learners don't describe these things as 'skills', but are tend to describe teachers' characters and how they make them feel. As a brief snapshot, some of the collocates (words appearing in juxtaposition with teacher(s)) I've been writing about this morning include horrified, dreaded, nags and traumatised on the negative side, and thrilled, magnificent, inspires and encouragement on the positive. Some fascinating metaphorical language appears including rotting, shreds, whip, ogre, flogging and murdering (I'm pleased to say that doesn't all refer to one particular teacher or lesson)! Overall, it's suggesting that music teaching very much needs to pay attention to that customer service adage about "how you make people feel".
This coming weekend, I'm running a workshop for my students along with Sheffield Flute Choir (a group I run for adult players), followed by an informal concert in front of their family and friends. Participants range in age from eight up to approaching retirement. For some of them, including several adults who took up the flute just this year, it will be their first time playing in front of anyone other than me and whoever shares their home. I'm hoping it's an experience that leaves them feeling inspired and encouraged.
In my last 'MA Research' post, I explained that my research is based on a corpus (basically a database) of text written by adult learners. Today's post is about where I got that text from, the ethical implications of that, and the decisions that led me to make about how to use the text.
Existing studies of adults learning music tend to use techniques such as interviews or surveys to find out what these adults think about their experiences. Stephanie Pitt's fascinating recent book, Chances and Choices, which looks at the impact of music education on lifelong musical involvement, is based on research which asked participants to write a musical 'life story' - an autobiography of their musical experiences, and this includes the experiences of adult learners. These studies give us valuable and detailed insight into the thoughts of adult learners - but only a small group of them, who have chosen to take part in a research project.
To try to access a bigger group of adult learners, I turned to one of the biggest sources of text around - the internet. People write online - in forums, blogs, discussion groups, etc - about learning music as an adult. They compare their experiences, ask each other questions, discuss their problems and successes. The internet gives us access to a huge amount of text, and the corpus approach is perfectly suited to analysing it. It can be downloaded from web pages, turned into plain text, 'tidied up' (the time-consuming bit, removing extraneous text such as sidebars or forum headings), then fed into the corpus analysis software, ready to explore. My data consists of a 500,000-word corpus of such text.
Perfect? Not completely. Just as existing studies are only analysing responses from those who've chosen part in their research, this approach only analyses texts from people who post online. So it's not exhaustive, and maybe there is potential to combine the two approaches in future (one of the aims of my project is to see whether my results complement or differ from existing studies which have used different methods).
The other, bigger, issue is an ethical one. In 'traditional' research, participants are normally informed about what they're doing, give consent, and are aware that what they're writing is being used for research purposes. Internet research is still a fairly new field, and the ethical guidelines there aren't quite so clear-cut. One the one hand, there's the position that participants should be informed and give consent in the traditional way. On the other, two arguments. Firstly that (unless password-protected) this information is already in the public domain, so is available to 'use', much like analysing an article or a letter in a newspaper - but some disagree, saying that people 'feel' that internet communities are private even if they technically aren't, and this should be taken into account. Secondly, and stemming from this idea of 'community', is the idea that announcing you're doing some research on some online text can disrupt that community. People may no longer feel 'safe' to post whatever they've been posting before, or feel that they have to edit their text in some way because of the 'presence' of a researcher (as they might do in a traditional interview/ survey), and so don't use the online 'spaces' in the same way as they did before, to express their thoughts and feelings around a subject, or as a support system. My decision-making on what approach to take was informed by reading about what social media users think about online research (for example, this report from NatCen Social Research). The overwhelming answer from this research and other online research guidelines is... it depends (on the type of research, the type of website or social media, the topic of the research). But the main guidance is to make sure you've considered the issues and come up with an approach that takes these into account.
Corpus linguistics helps us out again here (and thank you to researchers at the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences for advice on this, via my supervisor). Because I'm looking at patterns in the text, for example the terms which are most frequently associated with the word teacher, rather than examining individual participant's responses, I'm able to anonymise the data. I don't mention the sites I've downloaded the data from; I don't include any real names, user names, or identifying details in my analysis, and I'm being particularly careful about the traceability of any quotes. It's not a perfect solution to all the issues, but in research - much like in music - perfection is elusive, perhaps impossible, and not actually necessary. I'm taking an approach that I've thought through and feel comfortable enough with to use (and I've got ethical approval from my department, which is always reassuring!).
You might have heard of a Grade-One-athon before, or maybe not! Normally it involves an - often sponsored for charity - attempt to pick up an instrument you've never played before, enter and pass a Grade One exam within a term. I've known quite a few music teachers and other people who already play an instrument give it a go - sometimes it's been a quick challenge, and sometimes it's led to a love of an additional instrument that they've kept on playing long past Grade One. I'm not exactly doing that, as my challenges don't involve instruments that are 'brand new' to me. But this term I'm sitting two Grade Ones, and here's why...
Piano - I don't remember exactly when and how I learned which notes were which on the piano. As a child interested in music I picked it up here and there I think, learned a bit from friends who had lessons. I had a keyboard from a really early age - at first one of those tiny Casio ones which the endlessly annoying 'demo' tune! When I started to take music more 'seriously' I had piano lessons, eventually auditioning on it as a second instrument for University. Although I did play a bit at Uni, for some reason that I can't remember either, we didn't get second instrument lessons in the end, so it fell by the wayside. That is, until my flute teaching started to increase, and I realised that I could play some of the simpler accompaniments to my student's pieces. And more than that, I actually really enjoyed playing them. I like being able to introduce students to playing with another instrument, and for those who do exams, it's lovely to be able to go along and accompany them for those first few early grades, to be a familiar face in an unfamiliar situation. The more I played the piano, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I wanted to improve, which led me to the idea of getting some lessons and maybe doing some exams. I had no real idea of what standard my piano playing was, but I really wanted to go back to basics, and gain more confidence with it. So this July, I'll be sitting Grade One piano. It's been fantastic to concentrate on some relatively simple pieces and get to grips with the detail of them, to start understanding different piano techniques and gradually start to feel like I can play music on it, rather than just learning notes. And to have help from a piano-teaching friend to guide me through all this, to point out the things I don't notice when I'm busy concentrating on everything else!
Clarinet - I played a clarinet once at school, when a good friend let me try hers. It was difficult to blow and I didn't like it anything like as much as playing the flute! I hadn't tried to play one again until a couple of years ago, when I picked one up cheap and tried to have a go at it. I made some sounds, but they weren't particularly pretty and I found it hard to remember which fingers to use (clarinet fingering is similar to the flute in places, and different in others). I felt like my face was filled up with air and my head was going to explode. So it sat in its case for a while. This year though, I decided to try again. I really thought about and analysed what was happening with my breathing, and how it was different from the flute which uses a lot more air. I had been doing a bit of recorder-playing and that helped with the fingering (eventually I moved from thinking "bottom octave = treble recorder" to it almost coming automatically). Again, I had some informal lessons with a friend who teaches clarinet, which was invaluable for details of technique that I wouldn't have picked up or known about myself, and spotting things like my stray little finger sticking out - something I never do on the flute, but put my fingers at a different angle and funny things happen! And I thought, why not, do an exam, see if you can properly learn some pieces and perform them in front of someone? So, yes, Grade One clarinet will also be happening this July.
As well as expanding my playing skills onto different instruments, these little musical journeys have given me really valuable insights into being a beginner again. As a teacher, how I teach is influenced by how I was taught, by my experience as I teach different people, and by the reading I do and the training courses I go on. I also do a lot of thinking! But the experiences of picking up a (practically) new instrument and of re-starting an old one have helped me to remember what it's like to do something that feels really alien. To try to remember four different new physical skills at once. To try to translate the marks on the page to what your fingers etc are supposed to be doing - how that goes from being a process of 'working out' to one that's more 'automatic'. It's made me understand better what my adult students are feeling when they already have skills in other areas, even in other instruments, but they're trying to learn something new from scratch. But also to remember how good it feels to make progress with something that felt almost impossible to begin with. To confirm to myself, that indeed, you aren't too old to learn. And how exciting it is to be at the beginning of a journey, not knowing exactly where it will lead!
(I also want to say thank you to the two people who've helped me out with lessons and advice, patiently listened to my squeaks and my randomly loud left-hand piano notes, answered my silly questions and entered me for the exams - thank you!)
Aside from that being a question I ask myself regularly...! I'm doing an Masters in English Language and I'm researching music learners - how does that all come together? What am I actually doing to try to answer all the questions I'm asking?
My MA course (at Lancaster University, but studied mainly by distance learning) has covered a wide range of topics, from the History of English (where I compared a Victorian cookbook to Jamie Oliver's writing) to Spoken English (a tremendously enjoyable analysis of some West Highland dialect) to Stylistics (which looks at how literary texts achieve their effects - I analysed an extract of an opera, and briefly looked at how the textual effects work in combination with the musical ones). The two modules which have most influence on my dissertation, however, were Discourse Analysis and Corpus Linguistics. To quote the course website, discourse is "language in use" and how it relates to society. Different analysis techniques help us examine how people and organisations write about themselves and are written about. My cohort took this module around the time of the supermarket 'horsemeat scandal', which presented me with a wonderful opportunity to investigate the ways in which different supermarkets portrayed themselves in text in their explanations and apologies. To do this I used 'transitivity analysis' as defined by Halliday*, which examines the roles assigned to people, objects or organisations in a text and the types of process they are shown as undertaking, as indicated by verb clauses - processes can be categorised as material (doing), mental (thinking), verbal (saying), relational (being - identity and attributes), behavioural (self-explanatory!) and existential (existing and happening). In case you're interested, I found that the 'ethical' supermarkets - Waitrose and the Co-op - were portrayed as 'thinking and feeling'; Tesco and Iceland both emphasised 'doing' over 'saying'; Aldi underlined their willingness to communicate with lots of verbal processes. Asda was somewhere in the middle.
Obviously I won't be writing about supermarkets this time, but I will be using some of the same analysis techniques - looking at the verbs used by adult music learners when describing their experiences. Do they do a lot of thinking about what they do? Is there a lot of 'feeling', emotional content? What do relational clauses tell us about how they identify themselves? I'm also looking at passivisation - do they portray themselves as doing or as things 'happening to them'? More generally, I'm investigating the main 'discourses' of adult learners - what are the main themes or topics that they talk/ write about and how do they relate to these? The themes and topics I'm investigating are influenced by my own experiences with adult learners, by existing literature on the subject, and by the results of my teacher survey. These include relationships with teachers, family support, expectations and limitations, motivation, exams, and learners' identity as 'musicians' (or not). Whether all of these make the final dissertation is yet to be seen!
In the meantime, going back to that other module - Corpus Linguistics. Basically a corpus is a database of text which can be analysed using assorted types of software. It's particularly useful for large sets of data, where 'manual' analysis would take an incredibly long time. For example, the British National Corpus (BNC) contains 100 million words of spoken and written English. If I search for the word 'music' in there, I get a list of 14924 results which pop up in about two seconds. If I was to look through all 100 million words myself to find them all... you get the idea! Corpus Linguistics used to be seen by some linguists as almost a 'niche' area - all about numbers and statistics - but it's increasingly being used in more areas of linguistics, including Discourse Analysis, and indeed within other disciplines. The ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences (CASS) has some fabulous examples of how corpus analysis has been used to investigate topics such as online abuse, seventeenth-century poverty, and metaphors around cancer patients.
So, I've been building a corpus. It consists of texts written by adult learners of music, and in combination with the analysis software AntConc will allow me to investigate how they are writing about themselves. I can look at how they describe themselves, the verbs they use, look for instances of passivisation and search for how they talk about teachers and exams. In my next MA Research post I'll discuss how I put the corpus together, the ethical issues that raised, and how I've dealt with those.
*Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen, C. (2004). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Hodder Education.
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