Music Education's Role and the Remote Learning Effect - an Interview With Gary Cunningham
Gary Cunningham is a musician & music educator. He is an expeGaryrienced music specialist who has experience in various year groups ranging from primary education right through to post-16 education. He has been a performer for over 10 years and has been fortunate enough to perform at the Skegness Northern Soul Survivors Weekender and The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2018.
Gary has agreed to share his personal experience as an educator in times of COVID-19.
How do you feel music education is perceived?
They have a math teacher teaching music at a school because she happens to be grade 8 piano. It’s a one-person department, essentially the music department over there. music education is severely underbudgeted, undervalued, and is basically pushed to the wayside in favor of English, math, and science. We call it English, maths and science, the core subjects over here so, therefore, they’re seen as the most important, obviously, is important. Obviously, it's important to be able to speak English and do basic math and know a little bit about science. However, and I'm a massive advocate for this, it is also extremely important that a child, especially going through the developmental stages 13-16 is given the opportunity to discover themselves. Discover what they are good at and what makes them tick as an individual and the way music education has gone over nowadays, they're not really given that chance anymore.
Well, in addition, much research has shown that music education can aid success in STEM subjects in the future and then University. So, it should be in a direct line to their agenda of promoting English, math, and science.
That's the problem. They don't see the inter curricular links between both. You see, there's actually scientific evidence that someone who learns music outside of school is able to focus more in other subjects within the school and is able to retain more information in exams.
For example, I'm rubbish at maths, absolutely awful, but when it comes to doing fractions, if you tell me to think of a fraction as a time signature, I understand it, and I can do it.
Math is a subject that I really struggled with, but no-one never understood the fact that Gary needs to do music, to have a sense of freedom to succeed in other subjects. Otherwise, he's not going to be interested and he's not going to get to where he needs to get to. Thankfully, at the time I was in school, I had a great head of department absolutely phenomenal man, who essentially took me under his wing and said, right, if you focus on math and do well, you can be in the jazz band. You can be in the choir, you can put on shows for the school. So there was a sense of if I do something I don't like, I can go and achieve something that I'm really good at. As a consequence, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I think a lot of people a lot, a lot of people don't see the link between music and other subjects. So it's completely devalued and forgotten about because music these days isn't seen as an academic subject when actually, it really is if you think about music theory, and how complex it can be. And then you forget, reading music, music theory, gives links to math and numbers, we use numbers. So how fast to play, how long to play a note for.
How do you think we can create a new reality where music is a bigger part of the educational system agenda?
In many countries, the schools offer extra-curricular activities in music, such as marching bands, orchestras, choir, etc.
Also, when teachers take an extra-curricular activity, they are not always paid for their time here in the UK.
A lot of people argue that, well, if you're that passionate about your subjects, you won't mind giving up your time.
I'm also really passionate about my own time and spending time as I please, if I'm going to do my job for an extra few hours, I expect to be compensated for that.
Even though it makes sense in general, music teachers' time usually taken for granted.
I interviewed many music teachers for a module at University about career planning. So I found that in some places if you get asked to do an extracurricular activity, and the school doesn't pay you can refuse. don't ever, ever, ever do something for free. There are places that recognize the value of time as well and recognize the value of the fact that teachers are giving up more of their time besides, the lesson planning, the marking, the actual teaching and everything else, to make sure their children succeed in the subject that they are good at.
Let's talk about the COVID-19 effect. How did you manage to deal with that in general and specifically how the school reacted?
Generally, for Coronavirus, it was a big shock for me personally.
I flew back to America to see my girlfriend, and it was slowly developing. We thought we'll be fine, it'll stay in China.
And then it's started getting worse.
I miss getting up and having somewhere to go.
I was studying from home, completing my degree, and for the first few weeks of the whole Coronavirus thing, I taught in person at my students' houses because I've traveled to them generally. But obviously they had to sanitize their pianos and wash your hands, etc. And I did the same and then it moved to lockdown. Complete lockdown. We couldn't go anywhere.
So at this point, I realized I needed to find a way to ensure that my students still achieve what they were aiming for despite the difficulties of being over the phone.
One of my students really struggled with it but he was quite young. So I said, Look, it's understandable, we're all struggling with it, even adults. So we postponed his lessons.
But one of my other students carried on with his lessons, and we've been doing lessons over WhatsApp for the past few months. He's managed to do an online exam called debut piano exam, which is really good.
So let's focus on that. What are the subjects that you have been teaching? As part of the remote teaching? And how did you manage to digitize all the teaching process?
Generally, I taught how I always taught.
So in my lessons, I do a system where each student gets their own curriculum plan. We focus on general piano skills, music theory, and production and composition. For younger students, I focus more on music theory, piano techniques, mainly on playing the piano properly and improvisation and composition.
The one challenge he did have when I was taking him through the exam stuff, I don't have a copy of the exam book because I always went to his house and the book was there so I didn't worry about getting a copy. So to get around that, because I've got quite a good musical ear. I've got a near-perfect pitch, but not quite, when he played I was able to hear if he was playing the pieces/ scales right or wrong.
What digital tool did you use?
Just a video call.
It took a while, but that's the one challenge I had. It was adjusting to the fact that technology is unpredictable. And I could lose WiFi or I could cut out you know, I think with patience and collaboration from both sides, from me, from the parents from the students, it’s now seamless. So now where I would normally create documents and things for him to work on and give it to him in person. I just create them from home, email on to his dad, and he prints them off. So today, actually, I made him a document explaining the different modes, sent it out to his dad, and he's going to work on that ready for next week. He's going to show me what he's done. We're going to discuss it and move on.
And that's the piano learning the piano playing aspects. How about the music theory and the compositions?
When teaching in person I used to do all kinds of short games with the student like identifying notes, for example. But it didn’t work remotely.
So I transitioned to a site called musictheory.net and I used it used their materials for teaching.
What were the biggest challenges that you encountered?
The digital lessons were harder for the students to stay focused rather than in-person lessons. It was harder for them to get engaged, and the new situation made it more difficult for them to focus for a full 45 minutes or 60 minutes.
Have you tried to use some digital aids to help them learn at home without you?
Yeah, generally I create a worksheet for them to work on at home.
I've always been open to using technology. So any form of technology I can take on to make my life easier I will.
Generally, I use this website called Easy Class to manage my private students. All my students are on it, they've got their own individual classroom, worksheets, they can get in touch with me if they struggle with something. It helps with students' communication and getting homework, back and forth.
The only difficult thing was if I was trying to teach something that the students had to rely on their ear more for, generally, their musical ear isn't as strong due to lack of experience. If I'm teaching a new scale or a new piece of music, it takes them a while to grasp it because I'd normally be there in person showing it, and now I was on video.
A solution could have been setting up two cameras, but I couldn't do it and it’s limiting for other reasons as well.
But there some benefits to teaching online, benefits for the students.
Because I wasn't there to play with my students and show then, their musical ear has improved dramatically. Because they had no choice but use it more, to focus more and achieve what they want to achieve.
One thing that really shocked me a few weeks ago is that one of my young students learned some of The Phantom of the Opera's main theme, by himself, note-perfect, by ear. His only seven or eight years old!
Wow, so there are benefits to online learning as well?
Yes. The student must work for themselves.
Because I'm not there, you’ve got to work it out. And they do.
In addition, Students develop more patience for the learning process. Those skills, the freedom work on their own has increased the student's own individual learning capabilities, which will help them in the long run in school, in other subjects as well. Because you become a more independent learner.
A very interesting thing I noticed is that parents start to understand the value of music lessons more than before.
One of my student's parents said "You know what, Gary, we really enjoy the lessons because it's something different could do during the day, we never had the chance to experience the learning with our child".
Because the safeguarding laws in the UK are very strict, As a teacher, I can't call a student's phone, I had to use a parent phone and a parent must be in the room during the entire lesson. During the lesson, the only view I can show is my piano. And that's it. If I had to move the camera away from the piano, I had to cover it by hand, because they can't see my room.
Due to those laws, parents are able to experience the learning, the progress, and the happiness of the child's achievement with the child in real-time and not through me. Instead of me telling them "Oh, by the way, john did this today and he did really well" now they can see it for themselves. It helps with the whole going back to the origin of the value of music education
Moreover, my students are becoming more proficient in logic, Cubase, Sibelius, and other music-related software because they don't have a choice, they have to use what's in front of them, which is the computer.
Did you deal with a situation where students did not want to continue to study in the online format?
Yes, one of my students didn't want to because we tried it and she simply just wasn't getting on with it. It was because she was younger, I believe. She didn't like not having me there in person.
It is totally understandable, some people having a harder time getting used to online learning. I hope that once the pandemic is over, I can get her back because she was a student who showed a lot of potential.
Yet I still feel online teaching has a great potential.
I love the freedom. I don't have to travel anywhere, it's a lot easier for me to make time to develop content for my students. Normally I had to leave the house half an hour before, get dressed and ready to go straight away. Whereas in the online format I don't need to do it. My schedule is a lot more flexible as well and I can give even more music lessons each day.
The only downside is the technology itself, as wifi connection is not very stable and the personal experience is impaired. But other than that, I wouldn't be surprised if other teachers will continue to teach online even after the pandemic is over.
More about Gary:
Gary Cunningham is an experienced musician & music educator. Due to his extensive performance experience, he is able to bring a unique methodology to his teaching and has the confidence to lead a classroom of varying ability and size. Gary has been a long-term advocate for music education in schools since 2017 and wants to use his years of performance and band leadership experience to create and nurture the musicians and music educators of the future Overall, Gary’s passion for teaching and learning is what drives him to become the best he can. Having Gary as a part of your learning environment will ensure that the best is brought out of your pupils at all times and show that no matter what a learner feels about themselves, they can achieve anything with the right amount of work, dedication, and support from those around them.
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