AMI Blog


It’s some years since the Harry Potter books came out, but it seems they will find an avid audience for several generations to come. Part of the fascination of the books is not just the magic, but the mystique of Hogwarts: The sense of belonging that the school gives the characters and the strong sense of identity provided by the school. Being a member of Gryffindor imbues Harry and his friends with a set of qualities that make them different to the boys and girls from other houses. 

In South Africa, we have plenty of schools whose pupils would recognise the high value that Hogwarts places on tradition. These traditions, as played out in the books, are not always positive. While most schools hope to engender ‘school spirit’, or pride in the school, in South Africa, many have had to have a long, hard, look at their traditions in the light of inclusion and decolonisation.

The kind of identity a school would like to stamp on their pupils is often the product of years of history, past teachers, prowess at academics, sport, or with luck, even the arts! Bringing change to the established status quo is really difficult, because quite often, traditions are unquestioned. Individual students may shirk under the weight of what the school expects – the ‘Hogwarts boy’ or ‘girl’ may just not be something they can relate to. These kids, in my opinion, need our support.

As a single teacher, you probably can’t turn the ship around, but you can do something in your classrooms for the kids in front of you. As music teachers, we are dealing with something extremely powerful – music. Why this is important is that teenagers use music as a way to establish their identity. We all know that there is major identity work going on in these years as children start to gain independence from their parents and start to figure out who they are. Their identities are in flux. They experiment with different identities, like trying on clothes, they try something out for a while, then try something else. Some teens do more exploring than others, depending on all sorts of things, the kind of family they come from, parental control, their own confidence, or what sort of friends they make. Some will stick to the identity chosen for them by the parents (or the school), others will rebel against this in quite an extreme way. While this can be exasperating for adults, teens are merely trying to figure out who they are, or who they want to be. Mostly, they just want to fit in.

Another important part of teen’s identity work is that they form friendship groups that affirm their identities. I know I don’t need to tell you that friendship groups amongst teenagers are central to their lives. And at school, you have ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. Part of having a positive self-image is belonging to the right group. Music is central to teenage group identity. They spend time listening to music together, watching videos, sharing music, talking about music. They also use music to make an impression on others. To show others that they are ‘cool’. Kids might like the music that their parents enjoy but wouldn’t dare admit this in the school context, in case their peers disapprove. Musical taste matters: Kids dislike those whose taste they dislike; they like those whose taste is ‘cool’. People of all ages like to think their tastes are better than others, but for teens, liking the right kind of music helps them to belong.

Strongly identifying with some, but not other music, explains why teens can be so resistant to school music lessons. If they’re presented with music they consider ‘rubbish’ – perhaps they think it is ‘old fashioned’, or ‘screechy’, or ‘serious’, or ‘boring’ (I’ve heard lots of these kinds of adjectives applied to music in lessons), there is little chance they will be open to learning whatever the teacher has in mind. This is because their response to music is visceral – it’s got to do with identity and who they think they are. They don’t like 60s pop, or Jazz, or opera, or country (for example) because being open to these genres could suggest they are a particular kind of person – one they don’t want to be. Their sense of identity is too fragile to cope with the conflict.

One way to manage this is to make sure that you design your teaching programme around the music the students are listening to in their own time. It’s all music after all. Much of the content of our lessons could be taught using any music at all. In my experience, any piece of music, when given sufficient attention, has something to teach us. In that sense, it is ‘good’. And the better teens are able to listen critically, and knowledgeably to music, the more open they are to new musical experiences. One great advantage of using pop music in lessons, or in ensemble arrangements is that structurally, it is usually simple (it’s in the production that things get complex). Also, if you choose music your students are listening to outside the classroom, they already have an aural understanding of it. If you are trying, for example, to explain conceptual stuff using music that is unfamiliar, or worse, alienating to the students, they will find it really difficult to grasp the more complex concepts because their ears have not really got around the sounds yet.

I have written a blogpost about encouraging boys to take part in music. That post was inspired by a co-ed school that can’t seem to attract boys to play marimbas. Whilst in general, marimbas have quite a wide appeal amongst school kids, when students are reticent about getting involved (like boys not joining the band), it’s quite likely there are identity issues at play. Understanding this can help to address the problem, which, let’s be honest, can be a hard nut to crack. With any exposure to marimbas, it makes sense to provide really positive experiences which include music that those unwilling players enjoy, and role models that they admire. Being mindful of identity will create an accepting space for your students in music classes where they are free to be themselves and to perhaps explore and extend their identities. As students become more knowledgeable about music, they will be able to start thinking objectively about their own musical tastes, and their own sense of who they are. It will help them to question their own choices and opinions. For those who struggle to fit in with the school culture, your classes could provide a safe place for them to challenge and perhaps disrupt the norms.