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!).
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.
Why am I researching adult learners? Perhaps the best place to start is to look at what an adult music learner is. The ‘adult’ bit is self-explanatory, except that when we talk about adult music learners we don’t usually include music students in higher education, even if they are over 18. But we might include students who are at university studying a different subject, but taking music lessons as a ‘hobby’. Adult learners include those who are learning an instrument (or singing) from scratch in adulthood. They might play or have played another instrument, or maybe not. It also includes those who have continued to play from childhood, not made a career of music, but continue to learn and develop their playing. A lot of adult learners are ‘re-starters’, having played at school then stopped for some time (anything from a few years to a couple of decades). Some adult learners get lessons from tutors, and some are self-taught. Some are even musicians or music teachers, learning a new instrument – I’ve had attempts at the violin, clarinet and saxophone myself, with varying levels of success!
For the purposes of my research, an adult learner is anyone who defines themselves as such, as that seems to be the easiest way to define such a varied group! But these variations got me thinking – do all adult learners feel the same about learning music? Do they have different approaches to it? Do they share common concerns? What are their aims and priorities? How do they relate to their teachers? How do they feel about exams and performances? Does it make a difference whether they’re a beginner or a re-starter? Do they consider themselves to be ‘musicians’? I don't expect to be able to answer all of these questions in one dissertation, but essentially, I want to find out how adult learners describe their experiences and express their identities. In future posts I’ll explain how I plan to do this!
Why do I want to do this? I teach the flute to a mixture of children and adults (roughly half and half at the moment). Parents enquiring about lessons for a child rarely have any doubt that the child will be able to start learning an instrument. Adults are often uncertain – they have concerns about being ‘too old’, not sure if they can learn something new, worries about going back to something they ‘used to be able to do’. Children are used to learning, to not being able to do something; adults are often less so, and more easily frustrated by the process.
I’ve found that a lot of teaching guidance and materials are aimed at teaching children. Reading around the subject and asking other teachers* I’ve found there’s a range of attitudes to teaching adults from “they are notoriously difficult to teach” to “I much prefer teaching adults”. There has been some research into adults learning music, but much of this focuses on older adults (retirement age and above, when people are traditionally seen as having free leisure time to take up new pursuits). I’ve found there’s often a focus on teacher’s experiences of teaching adults, which is an invaluable resource, but I feel that more could be done looking into the subject from the learners’ point of view. I think that really getting to know what adult music learners think and feel could help to inform how teachers approach teaching them, and how organisations (amateur music groups, professional groups running courses, universities training future teachers, and exam boards) can meet their needs.
*If you’re a teacher and would like to add your thoughts to the discussion, I’ve got a brief online survey open at http://www.sheffieldflute.co.uk/ma-survey.html - please do join in!
Rather like your first music lesson, writing your first blog post can be both exciting and a little nerve-wracking! I’m blogging because I’ve got lots of ideas I want to write about, but this first post is a quick one to say hello, a bit about me and what I’ll be blogging about.
So, hello! I’m a flute and music theory teacher, and I also work teaching baby and toddler music classes. Between those, I currently teach music in various forms to people aged between about six weeks and sixty years! I play in local ensembles around Sheffield and Yorkshire, and run a group for adult flute players. I’m also a part-time distance learning student, in the final year of a Masters in English Language with Lancaster University. When I left school, my English teacher wrote in my school yearbook that she hoped I’d enjoyed her classes “almost as much as music”, and the truth is that I have a lifelong fascination with both! I think there are lots of connections and similarities between how we learn and use language and music, the roles they play in our lives. I’m interested in ‘sociolinguistic’ approaches, which examine how language is used to express identity, social relationships and attitudes, and I’m particularly intrigued by how language is used by musicians, musical organisations, music teachers and even in musical tutor books.
I’m currently working on my MA dissertation which is about adult music learners. Using linguistic analysis techniques (more about those in later posts), I’m analysing a large data set (or ‘corpus’) which consists of text where adult learners talk/ write about themselves. The aim is to find out the main ‘discourses’ of adult learners. What are their priorities, their challenges, their feelings about learning music? How do they describe themselves and their experiences of learning music? I’ll be blogging about my research and related topics over the coming months.
You can also expect posts about flutes, performing, teaching and music in general. Comments are very welcome (but do need to be approved to avoid spam and nonsense, so won’t appear immediately) – I’d love to hear your views!
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