A time for teachers to be the focus

24th September 2004 at 01:00
The music teachers' annual conference was less of a two-day talking shop than an ensemble of fun, practical sessions, reports Kenny Mathieson.

The annual gathering of music teachers at the University of Stirling moved to a two-day event this year for the first time. With 180 delegates on the first day and 250 on the next, it was clearly a good move.

If the word conference evokes a staid picture of ranked delegates listening to a succession of speeches, think again. The Scottish Association for Music Education made this a distinctly participatory affair.

That was vividly illustrated in an afternoon session in which the great Gaelic singer Arthur Cormack explained the work of F isean nan G...idheal, the national association of Gaelic festivals, in both formal and informal education.

As soon as he finished his talk, the Scottish Conference on Music Education delegates demanded a song from Cormack, and quickly joined in with their own voices and instruments.

The conference offered a wide selection of sessions, tailored to the requirements of the equally wide range of teachers attending, from nursery and special needs through to secondary. They included sessions based on jazz and traditional music, composition, singing, music therapy, multi-media and digital aids in the classroom, and various instrumental classes at different levels.

As part of the event, the music educators' association received funding from the Scottish Arts Council to commission Lin Marsh and Wendy Cook to write a song that teachers could use in their school work or concerts.

Marsh and Cook taught the song, "We've Borrowed a Planet to Live On", complete with movements the teachers could adopt or adapt, to the full conference, initially in the morning introduction and again in a plenary session ahead of the afternoon events.

In addition, the pair offered a fascinating session entitled "Staging a Song", using the stage in the main auditorium at the MacRobert Centre.

Marsh sang and played piano for the session, teaching a large group their self-composed song "Picnics and Parks" line by line. She argues that this aural method is a better way of learning than reading music from sheets, and also freed them - and by extension their pupils - to concentrate on posture and the physical demands of music theatre.

Cook worked on the movement aspect of the piece, devising appropriate actions and stage movements as the song unfolded. The teachers entered into this with gusto (and much hilarity when their carefully choreographed ensemble did not go quite to plan). They devised a passable show in the hour-long session and, though it was not quite ready for a public audience, it provided what one called "an inspirational experience" and useful fodder to take back to their schools.

The composer and educator Stephen Deazley worked with a group of 20 delegates on creating a piece of music inspired by a Native American myth about the creation of the sun. He played them sections of Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending" and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring to seed ideas and discussion, and then divided them into groups to produce a piece of music using the kind of percussion instruments readily available in schools.

Once again, this was a thoroughly practical, hands-on exercise, with a clear theoretical and pedagogical dimension, and was readily available for translation in the classroom.

An informal poll at the end of the day showed enthusiastic approval from the teachers. All felt that they had been given very useful material to take back to their schools and use in the classroom. Equally, they emphasised the value of a rare opportunity to get together with colleagues from across Scotland and to peruse the wide range of stalls where instruments, music and tuition aids were available for inspection.

Graeme Wilson, the secretary of the association, said: "We decided to go for a two-day event this year, which we felt would make it easier for schools to allow teachers to attend, rather than have the whole music department needing the same day off."

He is confident that the two-day structure of the conference will be maintained. Even with the same programme offered each day this year, those attending both had more than enough choice for an entirely different selection on the second day.

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