A few weeks ago, the marimba band of a nearby school came to visit the AMI factory. They treated us to some of their marimba numbers, and Christian showed them around the factory and explained how AMI marimbas are made. The band members were delightful – curious, polite, and excited by music. They come from a co-ed school, but …. They were all girls. Their teachers had tried to get boys into the marimba room, but at their school, the idea that music is not a ‘manly’ thing to do seems to prevent this.
We might think that this is a particularly South African problem, where there is something of a macho culture – you know…beer, braai, rugby and so on. But this boy/girl thing is a problem for music teachers internationally. It can be a really tough nut to crack, but here are some ideas to think around the problem of getting more boys involved in playing marimbas.
Many kids (and adults) are not sure that they’re musical and that fundamental lack of confidence is enough to stop anyone trying to sing or play. The idea that musicality is something you are born with or not is pervasive, but it is nonsense: Musical skill is something you are socialised into and it’s certainly not too late for school-aged learners to get going with music. Many kids think they are unmusical because they are unconfident singers. If they have not had the chance to ‘find’ their singing voices they may well be trying to pitch too low, in a part of the vocal range that prevents any real pitch control or flexibility. Adolescent boys have a particular challenge with their changing voices and this is another thing that knocks their confidence and leads to the idea that they are unmusical.
Research shows that not being able to sing different pitches accurately is usually not a case of not being able to aurally differentiate between pitches. Singing in tune is something we learn through practice. So step one, if you work in a primary school, is to get your pupils singing confidently, in a range that will allow their voices to grow. Starting them young is especially important because kids tend to have less and less musical confidence as they move toward and through adolescence. (Just think about how pre-schoolers belt out songs while teenagers clam up).
Despite the idea that boys don’t do music, it is likely that the majority of the boys you teach listen to music (a lot) and even sing along, either with headphones, or perhaps when they are alone. Do some research amongst your pupils, I bet the figure is over 80%. Teens especially use music all the time to moderate their mood, and to bond with their peers. Actually, they LOVE music. The truth is, they DO like music, but they don’t think of school music as ‘real’ music. So the trick is, we have to help them to make the leap between thinking that music is something other people do, to having the confidence to make music at school.
Confidence is absolutely key becausekids who have self-labelled themselves as unmusical will try anything to avoid looking bad in music sessions. Remember Maslow hierarchy of needs? You have to feel emotionally safe before you can learn anything. For beginners, manageable repertoire is the starting point. It’s not necessary to play a whole song. Instead, a basic groove based on a few notes can be enough. On marimbas this is pretty easy to achieve, and it sounds cool on their punchy percussive keys. The next golden rule is to use songs that the group is familiar with because they already know how the tune goes. This gives them an aural grasp (even if its really basic) that they won’t have if the song (or genre) is completely new to them. Songs that are liked and well known will most likely be pop songs and these are fine, because they are often based on minimal musical material. Useful musical material can also be found in adverts, ring tones and video games. Building a lesson on one of these can be fun for students and achievable in what is usually limited time.
We learn well when we are having fun. In fact, games can teach us more than studious work with piles of paper. During a game, students tend to forget themselves and focus on the game. For this reason, smart music teachers collect excellent ideas for games to play in class. Boys especially are won over by a bit of nonsense. Physical movement is useful (if risky in a music room) and adding a ball can be a complete game changer.
Games don’t need to be obviously ‘musical’ to be effective. They can bring focus to the class and also get students into a positive learning mindset (They also send out the message that you, the teacher, are not just going to give them stodgy music lessons all year). Sometimes, the more silly the idea the better but of course all of this is tempered by your goal of actually making some music. Lots of games are based on counting – something that is easy enough for the brain to do while the body is trying to do something else – which makes it unexpectedly challenging and fun. Here are two to get you started. One two three and Counting to ten.
Teens have a lot of identity work to do. They are trying to figure out who they are. Mostly, they want to be ‘cool’ and they want to fit in. We all tend to listen to music that says something about who we think we are so this is another reason to use music that your students enjoy. If it is at all possible, include a drum kit in your marimba ensemble to help create the grooves that your students are familiar with. If there’s a student who can play drums, so much the better. If a drumkit is beyond the budget, what about a cajon, or a few djembes? While peers are important and doing things in teams is motivating, students also like to feel like individuals, so finding ways to give different kids different musical tasks is worthwhile.
All of these activities work well in class music – a place where you have a captive audience. But if your goal is to change the attitudes in the school, the pressure is on for the class music programme to actually convert the boys to your way of thinking. If you need to change the culture at your school to get more boys involved in music, there is probably work to be done in every area of the school, as school culture takes years to establish and is sometimes built into the very walls themselves. For instance, do the cultural awards at your school match up to the sporting or academic awards in the kind of status they have? This is something to take up with school management and to get their support for the different interventions you might want to try. For example, you can invite an established boys’ group from another school to come and perform, and possibly to facilitate a workshop with some of your students. Or invite a dynamic facilitator to come and run a day (or week) of workshops for your classes.
Of course – girls also want to have fun, but they also bring their own challenges to music rooms. The things I have mentioned – confidence, fun, identity and winning hearts and minds – are just as relevant for girls too. Many music teachers find themselves in schools where the music culture is non-existent, or negative. Marimbas are an excellent tool to start to shift such a culture because they are adaptable and accessible. Sadly, on their own they’re not a magic formula, but in the hands of a committed and creative teacher they can be used to make sure that the boys and the girls have fun.