Is it really me? I’m attending ISME

Up until a couple of years ago, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to attend ISME – the big summer conference of the International Society for Music Education.  However, the music librarian-turned-musicologist is currently brushing up her pedagogical skills with a PGCert in Teaching and Learning in Higher Arts Education.  Attendance at ISME (which happens to be in Glasgow this year) is thus nothing if not timely!

Today, I attended presentations concerning the education of the professional musician – that’s what we spend a lot of time doing at RCS, after all.  The first session was under the aegis of CEPROM (Commission of Education of the PROfessional Musician), about leadership in the education of professional musicians.  There had been a CEPROM pre-conference seminar, and five people gave us summaries of different aspects of that.

  •  Judith Brown (Australia) spoke of developing leadership skills in musicians, of community projects in this context, workplace placements, and autonomy in student learning. In my practice, only the latter is really applicable, but it does tie in with my concern to engage students in their own learning, rather than standing and lecturing them, wherever possible.
  • Pamela Pike (USA) spoke of transformative pedagogy: student-centred, flexible and explorative.  She reminded us that leadership could be facilitative, directive or integrative, depending on the cohort’s place in their learning journey; and that leadership is actually an attitude.  Above all, she said, we must “foster students’ ownership of their own learning.”  (A theme was beginning to come through loud and clear! )  To do this, we should “shift curricular paradigms; engage students in the reflective process; [help them to] begin their professional narrative; and the process should not be separated from the product.”
  • Annie Mitchell (Australia) spoke of leadership in large ensembles and community music.
  • Pamela Burnard (Cambridge, UK) talked about institutional change, and of a positive welcoming of change – the “we’ll find a way” approach, and of facilitating leadership.
  • Glen Carruthers (Canada) talked about the “responsive university”, and how, with declining applications to music courses in Ontario, his university started a degree in community music, in response to students’ need.

There were comments from the floor about mature students, recreational music-making, and an acknowledgement that portfolio careers are now a reality in”the real world”.

Making our way to the International Concert Hall for the main keynote of the day, we first heard Nick Elliott of ABRSM tell us how they try to support independent learning, provide resources, and seek to reconnect the performance and understanding of music.  There are new forms of assessment, accreditation and resources planned.

As with the Teaching Artist and PGCert courses, the ABRSM makes a blended offer of analogue and digital platforms, and Nick alluded to the recent “Classical 100” primary digital resource.

Next, we heard a stunning presentation from Evelyn Glennie, who told us about the philosophy of her own old school, “Every child has a story to tell”, and her first percussion teacher’s openness to creativity.  Delegates were urged to keep creativity and imagination alive in their pupils and themselves, at any stage in life.

As a downpour overwhelmed Glasgow, I went to the Piping Centre for a lunchtime concert which turned out to have been cancelled, then instead went to a five-piano concert, spending some time after that networking over lunch before the afternoon sessions.

Frank Abrahams spoke engagingly about musical literacy and sight-reading, pointing out that the use of folksongs for sight-reading over the years was now becoming outdated as being an idiom far-removed from students’ everyday experience.  He talked about an experiment he’d run with two teachers getting students to pick repertoire for sight-reading, from pop music and hiphop, which the teachers would then grade and transcribe for them. In terms of engagement, meeting students “where they are” definitely has its benefits – though I am left wondering how I could best do this, when I introduce historic Scottish tunebooks to first/second-year students, or demonstrate databases etc.  The “parachute lecturer” (dropping in to deliver single seminars) doesn’t have the opportunity to allow students to collaborate in deciding what they’d like to learn over a period of weeks.

Frank said that getting students to collaborate empowers them. Have them feel the rhythm by moving their feet and counting, and get them to brainstorm what the possible difficulties of different songs might be.  There were challenges in choosing music that wasn’t too difficult rhythmically, and in teachers being willing to shift the power and responsibility to the students.  It means being willing to let go, to an extent.

I attended a talk by Brit Aagot Broeske Danielson about students being involved in a collaborative student project, but unfortunately, moving between sessions meant I missed the beginning of her paper, and struggled to understand what the powerpoint slides were actually about, though the project itself sounded as though it had been highly beneficial for the students.

Karen Burland (Leeds) spoke about research projects she had done and was about to continue, regarding career information for students, what different levels of student found helpful, and how engaged they were in different kinds of training provided.  It seemed as though it was just about as hard to get students to attend careers seminars as it is to get them to attend any library training that is perceived as voluntary or extra.  It has to be timetabled, particularly to get first years to attend, when they are still not really thinking about future careers.  The other strong message was that students welcomed the chance to speak to someone who knew them and their strengths, or alternatively was just a few years further along the same path so that they could see what was possible and achievable (“Idols in touching distance”).  Alumni links are actually vital.

Karen reminded us that not all students became performers or music teachers, so students need other “employability activities”, but perhaps they don’t realise when they’re acquiring some of these – eg networking skills.  Portfolio careers require entrepreneurial skills, too, but students need to be taught them or given opportunities to develop them.

The final session I attended was about programme music, specifically, Rachmaninov’s “Faust” sonata.  This was probably the session I gained least from.  I had expected a presentation about the benefits of understanding the ‘programme’ behind particular pieces of music.  Instead, it was a blow-by-blow account of the programme behind one specific sonata.  There was nothing relating to pedagogical skills or student development, and the presenter would have had an easier time had there been a colleague either running the powerpoint, and/or reading prepared excerpts from Goethe’s Faust so that he could concentrate on talking and playing musical examples.  Additionally, at times I struggled with the assertion that particular musical passages were directly related to specific passages in Goethe’s text.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in the library, but I’ll attend more sessions of ISME later this week.

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