An Uncommon Approach? Standardising the bespoke art of instrumental teaching

Around a year ago now, Music Mark released a new, digital version of ‘A Common Approach,’ twenty years after the shiny green binders of the original first popped up in music services across the UK. As someone who started their career as a vocal teacher at roughly the same time as the original ACA was published, I remember finding it frustrating to use, and distinctly recall using the word ‘patronising’ in my feedback to our deputy head of service about it; to the point where I at least quickly set it aside to do my own thing. (I’ve since been informed that the original scheme for voice was written by instrumental specialists because they ‘couldn’t find any singers interested’ in writing a vocal scheme – but I don’t know how accurate that is!)

Since the roll-out of the new ACA, I’ve been working with a variety of music hubs and services looking at how they can engage with it. As someone who writes a lot of curricula myself, I was interested to look at the pedagogy behind the curriculum, and how it might support teachers – particularly those at the start of their careers – to establish an holistic approach to instrumental teaching that moves beyond hothousing pupils for graded exams.

To me, ACA seems broadly pedagogically sound. It seeks to move instrumental and vocal tuition beyond the confines of the exam syllabus, encouraging the development of wider musical skills such as ensemble playing and composing and improvising. There will always be some old-school instrumental teachers who feel that the latter is ‘not their job’ and that the limited amount of lesson time should be used for developing instrumental skills only, but many will see the benefits of this holistic approach, especially if they teach in groups.

There are some moments of pedagogical confusion, but these seem to be mainly in the explanatory text and diagrams rather than in the curriculum content itself. There is an awkward description of ‘depth’ of progress being shown through ‘playing more challenging music,’ a descriptor more fit to describe a linear progression pathway. Later in the same section ‘quality of outcome’ is referred to, and this of course is what we would more usually describe as depth of progress in music. The spiral diagram provided as a visual representation of the curriculum bothers me slightly too, as it makes ACA look like one continuous programme of 6 different independent strands – which it isn’t. Some vertical separator lines labelling each programme of study as ‘chunks’ of the spiral on the diagram itself would have helped with this, to make it clear that a spiral curriculum is one where concepts and topics are returned to repeatedly.

ACA is designed to be relevant to all instrumental teaching situations, but often reads like a curriculum where small group learning is the default. I personally contest the idea that it is suitable for whole class learning, because I believe strongly that whole class instrumental has more in common with curriculum music than it does with instrumental tuition, and that whole class curricula should therefore be driven by the national curriculum first and foremost.

For the music service colleagues I worked with, the practicality of delivering this curriculum was their main concern. Generally all the groups I worked with were pretty happy with most of the curriculum. There was some discussion around the place of composing and improvising in instrumental lessons; which boiled down in most cases to ‘improvising – yes, composing – no’, at least until the definition of ‘composing’ was explored in more detail and found not to mean ‘writing a whole piece of music and refining it over a period of time’. Some 1-2-1 teachers pointed out the challenges around developing ensemble skills within this context, but acknowledged that other strategies could be employed to address this, such as using themselves as another player, overlapping lessons so pupils could play duets, and encouraging ensemble membership. A number of teachers noted that in the early programmes of study (1-3), some of the examples and targets would be too challenging, or not challenging enough, depending on whether the child started learning as a primary or secondary student, and that flexibility would be needed in interpreting some of the guidelines as a result depending on the age of the child. And several teachers of what we might call ‘contemporary’ instruments found the terminology used throughout their programmes of study as too classical, and not in keeping with, or reinforcing of the vocabulary used in contemporary music exams.

The real issues came to light when looking at Strand B ‘Making and Controlling Musical Sounds’. With every group I worked with, representing almost every instrument in the curriculum, the resounding comment was ‘this obviously hasn’t been written by an instrumental specialist!’ The instrumental teachers compiled detailed lists of skills and activities that were too hard / too easy / in the wrong order / not specific enough / inconsistent, to name but a few of the complaints! Now, I of course knew that there had been instrumental specialist groups working on this curriculum, and said so (which unintentionally made a lot of the teachers feel guilty about criticising it!) but this raised for me an interesting point.

The whole idea of ‘A Common Approach’ is just that – a common (standardised) approach. But the violence of the reaction against the information in the technical strand of this curriculum made me wonder if there is in fact such a thing as a common approach to instrumental technique development? There have been differing ‘schools’ of instrumental and vocal teaching since time immemorial, and many of us have ourselves ‘shopped around’ between teachers to find someone whose method suited and benefitted us the most at various different stages of our learning journey. Should we be trying to standardise everyone’s approach to teaching instrumental technique, or should we instead be embracing each teacher’s unique approach to this? For those of us teaching 1-2-1 the idea of a ‘curriculum’ as such might be irrelevant, since we have a situation where we are able to create learning opportunities that are entirely bespoke to the individual learner’s needs. And for the rest of us, sitting outside the statutory curriculum, in the area of ‘extra-curricular’ music, do we really need to impose limitations on the way we do things, by way of a framework or common curriculum? Isn’t the beauty of being ‘extra’ curricular that we have the flexibility to design our own learning pathways without having to worry about or conform to a set of standards that we may or may not agree with?

I think A Common Approach could be a really useful tool for some instrumental teachers, particularly in the area of encouraging them to think more holistically about their approach. However, now that Music Mark is funded by Arts Council England, I hope that teachers, particularly those employed directly by music hubs, aren’t going to feel pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) to use this framework if they don’t want to. We already have so much regulation and scrutiny in education that it would be a shame to impose parameters on ourselves in an attempt to standardise when it’s not required, or necessary. I hope that instrumental teachers will feel free to take what they need from ACA, from exam syllabuses, the national curriculum and national plans (where appropriate), from the full range of tutor books and teaching resources that are available for their instrument, and from their own experience, to create a bespoke approach to instrumental learning which works for them and their pupils.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, April 2023. Copyright © 2023 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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