How to build a musician

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. In these times of overbearing economic strictures being placed on education, the financial viability of music courses at KS4 and KS5 is a hot potato in schools. I’ve always been very lucky that, so far, my school has accepted that A-level music will always be a loss-leader, but every year reality threatens the future of this way of thinking.

Like many other schools, our uptake at GCSE is affected by an options system that works against us. Not intentionally, and I remain ever grateful that we never went down the ‘EBac or bust’ route. But we are the sort of school where lots of students want to do triple science, and this seriously cuts down what else they can choose. Many students say they’d love to do music, but can’t fit it in.

This aside, I still want to try to break down that feeling of ‘I’m not a musician’ that many students seem to have ingrained. Deliberately avoiding doing anything that gives anybody that impression, or reinforces that impression, is not enough. Many students have it by the time they arrive in Year 7.

At the start of the year, I asked all my students (by way of a questionnaire on Google Forms) how musical they think they are. This was very illuminating, and I very much hope that when I ask again at the end of the year, I will have been able to persuade them that they are more musical than they thought they were. I know it seems (and is) very un-scientific, but it’s self-identification as musicians that is the hub of what I’m getting at here.

So how am I planning on achieving this? For a start, we are doing much more workshopping in lessons this year – really trying to teach practical musical skills using a wider range of instruments, and giving them ‘more real’ musical experiences than we did before. Making music lessons more like our extra-curricular sessions, if you like.

I am also spending time talking to classes and individuals about the whole ‘you can’t do this YET, but if you practise you will’ idea. We are devoting our corridor display to resilience this year, with students and teachers alike giving details of how they’ve worked at their musical doings and thinkings. ‘It’s not magic – it’s practice!’ is something I’m saying a lot.

Alongside all of this is a feeling that harping on about key words is a waste of time and breath. Yes, I say ‘talk like a musician’ to my students, but I am adopting a more natural approach to language acquisition: if students have played a bass line, then they are likely to know what one is. OK, there is a problem with students forgetting things between lessons, so they do need reminding, but we can do this with more ‘doing music’ (or musicking) rather than talking/writing about it.

This is very much an ongoing process: I most certainly do not pretend to have all the answers here, and any further suggestions are most welcome. I will report back about how it all goes.



  1. Hi Jane

    An interesting post, which identifies an important issue, one that rarely gets talked about!

    Your writing about corridor displays got me thinking. This sounds like a great idea, and one that can perhaps be extended. Visual images send out powerful messages –especially when they are displayed in strategically prominent places such as corridors, the department walls and on the school website. Too often, we use photos of other people making music. Members of the LSO on a poster on orchestral instruments, famous pop stars for charts on genres – Bob Dylan for singer songwriters, Bob Marley for reggae and so on….

    Would it not be a better idea for us to take a picture whenever any student does something musically significant in a lesson, however small, and build it into a well produced display on some musical theme? So for instance, if we are producing a wallchart on improvisation we could have pics of Charlotte from y8 playing her guitar, or Jack and Ellie from y7 doing some call and response on keyboards.

    Now I know that a photo does not really capture an aspect of a student’s musical ability in the way that a sound recording or a video-clip can. But that is not the point here. [Even when a student listens back to a recording they have made, they are not necessarily convinced that they have done anything musically meaningful]. No, the point here is that we will have taken the time and trouble to produce a well designed display and put it in a space where it is constantly in public view. It then acts as a constant reinforcement and reminder that we value something that the students have done. And this in turn, can have a powerful effect on increasing their belief in themselves as musicians.

    Of course, this is only one of many building blocks – but it does put another brick in the wall….

    David Ashworth


  2. Great blog! I think our society has got us so well trained as passive consumers of culture that many of us feel uncomfortable with the label of musician. For me it has connotations of someone skilled enough to make a living at it. I wish there was a better word to describe people who love making/experiencing/thinking about music but don’t necessarily have the performance skills the word musician implies.


    1. Thank you Jane for a stimulating blog inspiring a thousand thoughts. The idea of ‘the musician’, ‘who is a musician’ and how is ‘self-identification as a musician’ nurtured? has finally lead me to think 1) without self-identification we wouldn’t exist 2) that self-identification is always a response to others 3) that for some-many ‘the musician’ will be ‘the other’.

      We know that some music teachers openly refer to ‘the musicians’. This can be very overt but is frequently a matter of tacit messaging. You are conscious of this and setting out to change this as are many others. We should all be grateful.

      Our society as a whole defines who a musician is. Probably someone who plays a musical instrument in a musical way.

      Our society expects the division of labour. Not everybody can be everything. We know of many adults who do very musical things but who don’t self-indeify as a musician. The musician is the other. This is a deep rooted ideology. Unlike the Venda tribe as shown by John Blacking in ‘How musical is man?’ But there was a society where individuality was in community. This is not how our society is. Individuality rules.

      However, we do have multiple identities and we can play tennis, the ukelele, snap, bingo etc. and be all these things. We can also continually invent ourself and reinvent ourselves as musician-non-musician.

      What if we started in the Early Years to establish new ways of thinking about who is a musician? Leslie Linton’s action research (see my blog) showed young children asking the question ‘who is a musician?’ Can through education society be changed. We like to think so. However, history shows education reproducing society. But we do think that music education could and can be transformative. So, perhaps all will come to self-identify as musicians.

      As you suggested in our twitter debate, Bandura’s ‘self-efficacy’ concept may be helpful. Some children come to secondary school with low singing self-efficacy and they may even sing well. So, an interesting idea to work with.

      While the goal of making all into self-identifying musicians is laudable and difficult to disagree with, Jackie’s goal of nurturing our pupils in the love of making music, seeking out musical experiences and in learning to think about music, may be a better and avoid impinging on the process of self-identification.

      Thank you for getting me to do some thinking.


  3. Thank you so much for leaving such excellent and thought-provoking replies, and for the debate on Twitter! I’m so pleased to have got so many people talking about this.


  4. Great article, thanks for it…And yes, I believe ‘musicking’ is the thing. Far easier for students to believe they are/can truly be musicians when they have opportunities to play, with all that brings.


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