Top Ten Tips for using World Music in the Classroom


To celebrate Music Education Solutions® 10th Birthday, we’re posting our top ten tips for different aspects of music education each month during 2018! This month’s Top Ten gives advice on teaching World Music, and is written by guest blogger Mike Simpson of Inspire-Works.

  1. Do your research. There are many great resources available on the web showing the key characteristics of many world-music genres/styles. Try not to make any assumptions about what a world-music style should sound like. Decide what key characteristics are important to share with the class. For example: West African music is full of call & response, the music is lead by rhythmic ‘signals’ played by the Master Drummer on their drum (not a whistle); Indonesian gamelan music centres around the largest gong with it marking the end of each cycle and the structure of the music is often dictated by the dancers who the drummer is watching closely to play rhythmic cues to signal to the gamelan orchestra when to change tunes, dynamics or tempo.
  2. Keep it practical. Benjamin Franklin said “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Demonstrate the key characteristics of the genre/style by getting the class to play them!
  3. Teach it aurally. Most world-music genres are best learnt aurally – as they are in their culture – the use of conventional music notation is very much a western-classical tradition! In Bali, gamelan is taught by two different aural styles; meguru panggul and meguru uger-uger. For the first method (translated as ‘teach by following the stick/hammer’) the teacher sits either next to or on the reverse side of the instrument from the student and plays the melody/rhythm with the student copying. This teaching style is useful for modelling good technique and teaching big chunks of music quickly but each student only knows their part and may not understand how their part fits in with the wider structure and instrumentation. The Balinese say teaching by the second method, where the teacher is never addressing individuals but the whole group and each student therefore understands how their part fits with others, is a better aural teaching method.
  4. Use whatever instrumental resources you’ve already got. For example: Most hand-drums are good substitutes for West African djembes; The school drum kit can be pulled apart and used as the core of a samba band (toms and bass drum for surdos, snare for caixa); Create a classroom gamelan with glockenspiels/xylophones (using pentatonic notes A C D E G to replicate the slendro scale) and suspended cymbals played with soft sticks near the bell to replicate the gongs.
  5. Find out why the music is played in that culture. For example: West African music is often dubbed ‘music for purpose’ – every piece is played for a particular reason/occasion. In the Malinke tradition in West Africa (where the djembe originates), any piece titled “Soli” is played at a circumcision – knowing this may determine your repertoire selection! Samba drummers in Rio are always accompanying the samba enredo (song) that is given to their samba school as the theme for the competition at that year’s Rio Carnival. This will have determined the structure and feel of the music, choreography and also the design of the costumes.
  6. Understand that the culture has defined the music. For example: Respect for instruments and the teacher is paramount to Japanese taiko drumming which is evident in the martial-arts-like movements the drummers perform before and during each piece. Even when using classroom instruments to play gamelan, it’s important the students take their shoes off and understand why the Indonesians show respect to instruments by removing their shoes. West African music is passed down generations aurally by the Griot (the story-teller) who is also the voice of the community and passes on the history of the local area. The former West African slaves in Trinidad & Tobago carried forward this tradition with the Calypsonians voicing the feeling of the community through call & response songs which developed into calypso music.
  7. Try to immerse them in the culture to better understand the music. Use the web to put it all in context: Make sure the students see videos of the music in it’s cultural context. Show them pictures of the landscape and people. Show them videos of the music. Let them sample some of the food!
  8. Watch the videos before you show them to the class! Behaviours or clothing (or lack of it!) that are acceptable in one culture may not be appropriate to show to children in our culture. The Inspire-works YouTube channel has playlists of videos sourced from across the globe that are appropriate for classes to watch to back up your teaching.
  9. Have fun! Caribbean steel pans music is known as the sunniest music on earth, the Rio Carnival is the largest party in the world, dhol drums are played on mass at Punjabi weddings – try to pass on to your students some of the joy celebrated in the music’s home culture!

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