In which I worry about a quotation, and think about Mrs Curwen (again!)

I’m supposed to be writing a book chapter, but I got distracted by a quotation, sorry editors! The quotation in question is from Daniel Willingham, and it is this:

“Factual knowledge precedes skill”

Now I know I should provide a full reference, but I’ve moved away from my main computer, and I’m sitting in a comfy chair at my laptop at the moment, so if you want to look it up, please do! But my tangential thinking that stopped me writing a book chapter (where I would have had to reference it, sorry!) was “hold on, is that true in music education?”. And thus this blog…

So is it true in music education? Well, let me do some thinking out loud, as it were, in this blog, please.

When I taught KS3 music, I would often do something using keyboards (or guitars, same principle applies, only the chords are harder!), that we would learn, on the keyboard, chords, C, F, G, and Am (diff on guitar, obviously!); not all at once, but over time – we’d work up to all four of these chords. 

Now, these are clearly chords I IV V VI in C major, and the triads in root position (keyboards now) involve the same shape, although VI is obviously a minor chord, but the same ‘play a note, miss a note, play a note…’ hand shape works. I see this as a skill. We’d learn the names of the chords, C, F, G, and A minor, and we’d play all sorts of music with them, and the pupils would have a go at composing their own music with them. 

Now, where I am getting hung up is I don’t think ‘factual knowledge’ preceded that skill, unless the factual knowledge is ‘play a note, miss a note, play a note…’ etc to get the triad shapes. I certainly didn’t teach major scale theory, or the circle of 5ths, or notation other than guitar chord symbols to go with them, but all sorts of music was learned, and all sorts of music was composed. 

So is this bad? Should ‘theory’ have been taught first? Am I equating ‘factual knowledge’ with ‘theory’? I’ve chosen the chord example as I think it fits with what a lot of KS3 teaching involves still today. Had I chosen singing, I feel that even less factual knowledge would have preceded the skills, maybe?

Even having written this, I’m still thinking about it. As in so many things, I am reminded of Mrs Curwen’s piano teaching maxims of 1886, particularly “Teach the thing before the sign”.

Here’s another bit of a Mrs Curwen book, which is apposite here. (Those aren’t my underlinings by the way, I was sent this.) *

I do like “every musical fact should reach the mind though the ear”. Nice! And no, that doesn’t mean JUST TELL ‘EM, or whatever that shouty meme was a few years ago, it’s about music being musical.

However, as with so many things, I need to think some more about it. And I also need to get back to that book chapter…


(*Gender specificity in the original)

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Article in BJME

Another piece by me co-authored with Alison Daubney in the British Journal of Music Education entitled “U-turns in the fog: the unfolding story of the impact of COVID-19 on music education in England and the UK”.

Available free for a while from the BJME at

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Compulsory loving music

I am seeing a lot of posts at the moment about “getting children to love music”. Now, I have no objections whatsoever to this as a laudable aim. However, I don’t think it is that simple. Case in point: I had to do cross-country running every week when I was at school, I hated it then and have never volunteered to do it at any point since. I’m sure our X-country teacher probably had the aim of “making” us like it. I didn’t. What happens if our attempts to do this for music have the same effect? 

I have written about my dislike of Wagner’s music recently here. I can report that at O-level and A-level I had a music teacher who did love Wagner, and could crowbar in talking about Wagner’s music and playing us bits of Tristan at the drop of a hat. I’m sure that the music teacher thought he was doing the best for us, but I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t. Sorry to all the Wagnerians. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge, said teacher never played a semi-quaver of Poulenc to us, and yet I am more than happy to listen to that. 

So what? Well, I was reminded of this when digging out an old powerpoint today, and I know I have written and talked about this before. A few years ago I went with some Uni colleagues to Vietnam, on a non-music related mission. Whilst there, we were taken out for a posh dinner in what we were assured was the restaurant to go to, where they served a good example of the local delicacy. Never being one to turn down a culinary experience, I was looking forward to this. When we arrived, the restaurant looked not unlike places I had been in Birmingham and elsewhere.

But … the local delicacy turned out to be unhatched ducklings cooked in their shells, something like this:

Our hosts loved this, and scrunched away happily. Yes, literally scrunched, you could hear the little bones being chewed. 

Now, despite my not being averse to a bowl of jellied eels, or all sorts of other things friends and family despair at, I couldn’t bring myself to eat this, much less ‘love’ it. 

I know what you are going to say, if I’d started young enough, yadda yadda yadda. But some of our hosts didn’t like (or love) this dish, and were thoroughly understanding of why I didn’t . So are they lacking? Am I?

Anyway, the point of all this culinary ambling is that making people ‘love’ music, any more than unhatched ducklings, or cross-country, may not be quite as simple as some people seem to think.


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Cultural capital – yet another link to elsewhere

Yet another piece of writing on another site, this one in Primary Music Magazine, to be found here.

In which I have a bit of a rant about people other than music teachers having a go at us!

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Yet another blog elsewhere

Gosh, isn’t life hectic at the moment! Another blog by me, but published elsewhere is this one by the nice people at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG). It can be found here.

Hope it creates some useful thinking?

Stay well, everyone.

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Another blog elsewhere

My latest thought on schools in England going back post-covid are on the #CanDoMusic website here. Lots to be concerned about!

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Writing (riting) music

As part of my work with Sound and Music and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), we’ve been running as series of on-line events during lockdown on the pedagogies of composing, details of which are here. Doing these, one of the things that I have been thinking about a lot is the way in which people use the word ‘writing’ to mean composing. This has troubled me for a while, so in this blog I am bringing some of my troubling into the open, as it were.

I appreciate I may be being oversensitive, but in the wake of black lives matter, I think it behoves us all to think about what we may be doing that could be, albeit inadvertently, racist. Nate Holder’s blog  has some powerful materials on it that give pause for thought. With regard to ‘writing’ music, this usage has long troubled me, as I think what it is doing is making ‘writing music’ important. And what written music looks like is a staff with a clef, a key and time signature, and so on. Never mind that most of the world’s music doesn’t do this, music, to be worthwhile, has to be done in ‘writing’.

Now this use of ‘writing’ reminds me of an article by Ian Stronach, “This space is not yet blank”, which is about as hardcore a postmodern piece of academic writing as it’s possible to get, and certainly not for the fainthearted, or those with an allergy to PoMo articles! Anyway, bear with me…in his complex, but also very playful piece, Stronach says this:

Catching words with words is the name of the game, and we are on their trail hoping to catch them out, or in. So think the ritual of writing, riting’s passage, as a writual of riting as I will have gingerly picked my way, tensely, across this page, step-by-step, leaving word-prints here and there.

Eh? I hear you say! What? Has Fautley finally lost the plot, has lockdown got to him? No! What I take from Stronach that is relevant to my long term worries about writing=composing, is that ‘writual of riting’ wherein ‘we’ (and as I keep saying, whoever ‘we’ are?) use ‘writing’ without thinking (or thoughtlessly, if you like), to mean composing. Which immediately rules out vast swathes of musics as being not written, but ritual, and therefore not worthy of a western classical gaze. To use writing as composing is to conjure up images of a solitary genius, starving in a Paris garret in about 1880, and struggling alone. Or maybe of a modern tech-savvy composer, in their shed in the back garden, or whatever. The writing is riting and the ritual is writual. And ‘we’ who talk about writing when we mean composing are complicit in this. The use of ‘writing’ conveys where we place value.

Sure, when a 14-year-old singer-songwriter says “I’ve written a song” what they often mean is that they have written some words, lyrics, the writing is an aide-memoire. The music is often unwritten, or at least un-crotcheted, it may be a few chord symbols, or some tab, that’s fine. Is a song valid only as sheet music? Why don’t CDs, from hip-hop to Mendelssohn, come with a score as well as the text if it’s that important?

When our colleagues in the art department have a student who has produced a good painting, do we say “I don’t want to see the picture, show me the essay they’ve written about it”?

Why am I banging on about this? Because, for me, it’s a short step from writing = composing, to writing = knowledge of ‘theory of music’, and this takes us to western classical music’s nice cosy comfort zone. Beware of sitting comfortably!

Does this all matter, why do I worry about a word? Because words have baggage, and these days that’s an issue. If ‘we’ (warning as above) use words without thinking about the hidden meanings we can show what we think, and what we value. I value kids making music. I value the doing, the cooperative, the active. I want more children and young people to experience the frisson of live performance, the gratification of hearing something that you brought into being that no-one else has ever done before, is that such a bad thing? If we then say “nice song, but the 7th doesn’t resolve properly, and the voice-leading is rubbish” are we encouraging? English and French may share the same alphabet, but the grammar is different, should we judge Baudelaire by the textual rules of Wordsworth? Stormzy by Mozart? Where is the writual?

So I am worrying about writing to mean composing, and it does make me uncomfortable. And I’ve just ‘written’ a blog about it. Maybe a writ needs enforcing to prevent me?

Sorry, I’ll go back to my beer now…..

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Link to BJME post

Another ‘not a blog post’ posting! the very kind people at Cambridge University Press have made freely available for a few weeks only the editorial research article for the British Journal of Music Education by me and Dr Alison Daubney. It’s entitled ‘Music education in a time of pandemic’, and it’s available here:


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Grading and standards in troubled times

These are troubled times, what with us being confined to our homes, and the associated fears. But everything else goes on, and whilst it is not normality, a semblance thereof has to appertain. Against this backdrop, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which examination grading in the UK for GCSE and A-levels will be taking place this year, particularly with reference to music.

It is well known that I have long been critical of the status quo in England, and feel that many kids miss out on the higher grades because of issues with the process itself. I won’t rehearse those arguments again here, though. But reading through Ofqual’s statement today  alongside this piece in schools week I was struck by how actually what people are saying – and will say – could be interpreted the other way round. Let me explain.

Test validity is a complex and contested area, but one of the areas which is investigated is this: “How well test performance matches expectations based on evidence available from other relevant sources” (NFER, no date). What this means is that we could be saying instead of how well teacher assessments match the test outcome, that a judgement of testing is how well it matches other evidence, including teacher assessments. Important to note that this is not a swipe at exam boards, they work incredibly hard to try and ensure validity and reliability (another complex and contested construct!), but instead to try and restore faith in teacher judgements.

Now I know that  many people are telling us this is not the time to make cheap political points, but I will anyway! Ever since Michael Gove dismantled the education and examination systems in England, trust in teacher judgement has been steadily and deliberately drip-by-slow-and-steady-drip eroded. His infamous statement that “the country has had enough of experts” being but one example of this. What I feel (and this is only a personal opinion, so please take with a pinch of salt!) is that this has steadily transferred to the teaching profession, and many more recent entrants to the profession have known nothing else, and so are not used to thinking that their assessment judgements can possibly be even vaguely correct without some form of external validation. Consequently there is little to no trust built into the system as currently configured and, importantly, this is the results of a series of ideological decisions!

What this means is that this year we get to find out what will happen with an entirely differently configured way of grading attainment for our young people. I am reasonably sure, knowing how the system works, that much of this will translate into more work and much stress for our music teachers, though! But it will interesting to see what will happen, and what will come out of this system change that has been so violently thrust upon us. The system (and Gove again plays a part in this) has been ramping up accountability to the point at which it seems that, as many music teachers tell me, the only thing that matters is grades. SLT: “Oh the choir were on the radio were they? That’s all well and good, but I need your KS3 spreadsheets now, they are what really count in this school”. This translates as education = grades, but as we get further up the school the grades that really matter are those produced by others.

Anyway, I think that’s enough of a rant for the moment. It will be interesting to see what happens this year, and how composing, performing, and listening can be graded.

I wish our young people and their teachers well, and hope that we can all be allowed out again soon. Music is a sociable enterprise, after all.

Take care everyone.


NFER, no date:

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Another ‘instead of a Blog’ post…(but be quick, this one’s time-limited!)

So instead of a Blog on this site for December, please see the one by me on the Cambridge University Press website linked to below.

Many thanks to the British Journal of Music Education for for making access to latest issue – a WCET special – free for a short while.

Blog by me with access details at
Will hopefully be of interest to all those involved in Whole Class Ensemble Tuition in England and beyond.

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