AMI Blog


When you look in a mirror, you expect to see yourself. Using the analogy of a mirror that reflects the values of a school gives a slightly different perspective. When a learner looks in this metaphorical mirror – who, or what do they see? Do they see themselves? Do they see people like them? Do they see knowledge and cultural values that they recognise? There is an idea in education that learners need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum if they are to get the message that the curriculum is for them, and their community. They need to get the message that they are welcome, and that they can learn successfully.

The analogy is useful because whatever image of the ‘ideal’ student that is projected in the school (or the music department) is powerful, even if it is usually part of the hidden curriculum. That is, it is not explicitly articulated, but the message is usually clear. Thinking about what is in the mirror allows us to consider not just who is valued, but also the knowledge and skill that is valued. It also allows us to see the flipside – what is invisible, devalued, or negated in the process.

Students seeing themselves in the mirror implies that they are welcome: they have a place, they are free to learn, they are free to contribute personally and culturally. In our music classrooms there are lots of ways we can apply the mirror analogy. Let’s start with a fairly broad one: The glaring absence of female composers in the classical canon, or in contemporary pop bands….and consequently the scarcity of women’s contributions in our curricula. What does a list of male composers or performers say about who can be a musician – that is, a musician that is taken seriously? So, budding composers or pop stars (who are something other than male and white) need to see themselves in the mirror that projects who can participate. As teachers, we need to pay attention to the kinds of people who are held up as role models – the artists, thinkers, creators. Are they familiar enough for our diverse learners to identify with, and to send out the message that they can be successful too?

Messages can be subtle. The posters on the wall reinforce what counts in your classroom or school. Which instruments, ensembles, or players get pride of place? Is it OK for a South African music department to have nothing but classical musicians (all Caucasian) on the walls? What kinds of music is chosen for lessons? Which music is considered ‘fun’ and which is serious? These messages say clearly that some people and musics are more important than others and ultimately include or exclude students.

The analogy of the mirror is about affirming individuals in all their diversity, and it’s about inclusion. But when does the mirror stop being useful?

Education is about going into new territory. It’s about learning stuff you didn’t know, and being prepared for, as yet, unknown futures. It’s about having the potential to make choices, for change, for bringing what you know and your own experience and making something new. In this way, education must always be a door.

Opening a door and walking through it is about moving from where you are to another place. And music education should equip students to grow in many different ways. Socially, this implies more self confidence in what they know and can do, and more empathy for others. Starting from a place of welcome provides the psychological safety conducive to learning… learning that equips you to walk through the door to new territory. Intellectually students should be building technique and knowledge that they can apply to any new music they want to play or listen to.  

Marimba classes are great for meeting learners where they are. They are pretty inclusive instruments. The learning by ear method is widely used in South Africa, and this is a powerful way to learn. But there are ways that you can ensure that you are preparing students to be well equipped to go through the door to new places. Learning by ear develops auditory memory and sequencing – so important for learning in general. It develops physical coordination too. Even if learning by ear is the main way you teach marimba, there are several ways that you can build understanding of musical structures and concepts. This is the kind of knowledge that can be applied to new and different musical tasks. Speaking about concepts regularly, describing the parts you teach in terms of chords, scales, harmonies, and challenging learners to remember the patterns that lie beneath the notes will build their understanding. Knowledge of which notes go with which chords, which chords work well together, how rhythms can combine to make a groove, or how to change a bassline to make it more interesting, can be applied beyond the immediate context of a single song. A good way to develop learners’ knowledge and skill is to ask them to create their own arrangements. This requires them to engage with musical structure in an active way.

Marimbas can offer a door to the wide world of musical expression. Getting to know about musical styles by playing them and perhaps learning something about the cultural background of different music is a way to widen students’ understanding of the world around them. It’s a safe way to explore new cultural expressions, to venture away from the familiar, from the safety of your own image in the mirror, to explore the world’s musical traditions with curiosity. Recognising yourself and your community, and your cultural knowledge in the school’s mirror is fundamental to a sense of belonging and possibility in education. But learning should always include a door. And as your learners walk out the door of your studio or classroom at the end of a lesson, ask yourself what they are taking with them, and what they be empowered to be and to do?

Photo credit: Sasha Scholtz

Key ideas for this blog from:

Basil Bernstein’s analogy of the mirror that reflects the values of the school.

“A book is not supposed to be a mirror, it is supposed to be a door” Fran Lebowitz