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!).
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!