AMI Blog


I came into formal music education through the back door. As a schoolgirl in the 70s, if you wanted a musical career, there was only one route – through the graded system of the external examination bodies. I was one of those kids who was fired for not practising by her piano teacher. So that was the end of my conventional musical career… aged 10.

But I could sing. It was something that I did at home, singing along with my parents’ LPs, and on long car trips (before the days of car stereos … even the radio reception was dodgy in rural Zimbabwe). So I sang in the school choir, and at church. In my teens I got a guitar and played the folk rock songs of the 70s. Eventually, while at Rhodes University completing a BA (with no music subjects), I started classical voice lessons. I was about 21. The late Professor Rupert Mayr walked into my lesson one day and said, ‘Would you like to do a BMus?’. It was a remarkable moment in my life that opened the door to completely new set of possibilities. I threw myself into catching up with music theory, started piano lessons, flute lessons, recorder lessons. I spent all my spare time in the music library working my way through the vast LP collection. In the first year of my BMus studies, I joined Andrew Tracey’s steel band. I had heard the band sometime before, at a 21st birthday party and was transfixed. Something about the sound of the pans grabbed me, and the vibey groove was irresistible. Playing in Andrew’s band meant I was exposed to traditional African styles and these seriously blew my mind. Trying to play some of them challenged me in completely different ways to the classical training in my BMus studies.

I am telling you this story because our musical biographies are all different and they are important.

The thing that makes teaching music different from (almost) every other school subject, is that our students have all got some kind of active relationship with music. They all have music they love, music they hate, music they listen to with friends, music they hear at home, and hopefully, music that they make. No matter what age group we teach, our students’ previous exposure to music implies musical learning experiences. Whether these are informal – music experienced in the course of everyday life, or as part of formal lessons, musical learning has taken place – the question is, what exactly was learned?  

Often there are significant people in our biographies – a family member who sang with us or inspired us to play an instrument, a friend with whom we’d listen to a favourite genre, or a supportive teacher who set us on our way. Contexts like church, or other community music making can provide rich experiences. Positive learning experiences result in positive attitudes, and are key to building musical confidence. But we can also have negative experiences – where for different reasons our confidence is shattered, or we begin to loathe certain music. A common result is that we come to the conclusion that we ‘can’t’ learn, or perhaps as a form of self protection, we just don’t want to learn.

Musical biographies are important for teachers, because if you are a musician who has chosen to teach, your own musical biography will influence your ideas about what music is, and what you think your job as a music teacher is. Whatever you learned in your formal education (e.g. your BMus, PGCE, or Diploma), you might be more influenced by your personal musical journey, because those convictions run very deep. Thinking about our own journeys can help us to understand, and perhaps to question what we just take for granted. What were your musical beginnings? What really got you going in music? Were there some significant changes of direction? What were they and what do they tell you? Did you change instruments somewhere along the line? Why? How were you inspired to learn and what experiences do you try to replicate for your students? Did you have negative experiences that you certainly do not want to replicate? What are the big dogmas of right and wrong that were drummed into you – are they worth holding on to, or do they need to be questioned?

I think that coming into music through the ‘back door’ gave me a set of beliefs that are foundational to my personal teaching philosophy. From the above, you might have guessed that this personal philosophy does not see some musical genres as more worthy-to-be-taught than others. That although I see the advantages of the graded exam system, I don’t think it is the only way to do music education. Along with asking ourselves what our own music education has taught us, we need to ask what it has NOT taught us, and how we can identify what we still need to learn. Knowing what it is that you don’t know might be a superpower.

It’s important to remind ourselves that although every kid has positive musical experiences outside of the classroom, many think school music lessons are the low point of the week. I want to suggest that our students’ musical biographies are key to their future learning. But our own convictions about musical learning also play their part. The kid has a set of beliefs about their potential to learn … and the teacher might have their own set of beliefs. These can completely miss each other. So it is important to bring your musical biography, and your student’s, together. It was a long time ago, and I was only a kid, but my subsequent experience suggests to me that my first piano teacher had the idea that there was only one way to learn: learn the stuff for the next grade, practice, pass the exam, go on to the next grade. Her way or the highway. It clearly did not work for me at the time, perhaps because my own experiences and understanding of music did not quite fit with Bach minuets and playing scales. There are kids for whom the graded exams work well – but if those kids become music teachers, they tend to have very little insight into why the exam system doesn’t work for everyone. … Understanding something about our student’s biography can help us understand what is going on with them, and what they need to take the next step. Of course, our biographies are always moving forward as we go through life – so even as teachers, we are learning new stuff all the time. Many a music teacher has changed their views on how best to teach through the challenges they encounter in their classrooms and studios.

Going back to my own biography, at Rhodes University, I was lectured music education by the wonderful Dr Ishbel Sholto Douglas. As a lecturer, Ishbel was sensible, pragmatic, passionate, and kind. I could keep going with a long list of superlatives to describe her. Ishbel loved music, and she loved her students in equal measure. She could figure out what her students most needed and she drew generously from her own rich musical biography in her teaching. Having Ishbel as my teacher was an enormous stroke of luck – She was the person who ignited my passion for music education, and I know many others for whom she did the same thing. While we all hope to inspire our students, doing so is never guaranteed! But understanding that our musical biographies are complex, and that they play a part in learning, gives us another tool in the music teacher’s tool box.