Jane Werry

Diary of a Head of Music: Mastery

8:00, 25th May 2017

Jane Werry reflects on the meaning of ‘mastery’, and how teachers can use it to lift their students’ confidence

Sometimes you come across a phrase that sums up everything you think about a topic. I had such a moment recently when the words ‘building a sense of mastery’ jumped out at me. I can’t even remember what it was that I was reading, but it crystallised my thoughts on what I am trying to achieve with my students.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the purpose of KS3 music. Partly because it is under siege in an era more perilous to its survival than any most can remember. Also because a backdraught from the supposedly more rigorous new GCSE specs has caused teachers to panic about whether their programme provides adequate preparation. We have a small but precious amount of time with our Year 7s and 8s (and, if we’re lucky, 9s too), and it seems more important than ever not to waste a moment.

Mastery seems like a really big thing, especially given the hair-raising brilliance of many of the most well-known performers. Lang Lang has undoubtedly achieved mastery of the piano, against which my modest and erratic pianistic skills look like distinctly small, misshapen potatoes. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling a sense of mastery when I conquer a piece, even if that piece is not any particular highlight of the piano repertoire.

When students can play something, they take great pleasure in playing it again and again. Have you noticed how, when they go wrong, they always start again from the beginning? I think this is to do with their sense of mastery of the music: their ownership of it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘Heart and Soul’, the ‘Seven Nation Army’ riff, or the intro to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ – you just want to keep playing it to prove to yourself that you can. It is hugely rewarding, like planting your flag on it and making it part of your empire.

Recognising this is the key to building a progression model at KS3 that will get students hooked, whether or not they take music forward.

We have been using the Musical Futures Just Play resources with all our KS3 classes recently, and it is exactly this sense of mastery that they bring. Students acquire skills on guitar, ukulele, keyboard and bass very quickly through a sequence of videos that build up knowledge of chords through whole-class performing. It is easy to differentiate – students might play root notes only, or just the first beat of each bar, or simplified versions of the chords. As they progress, they play more difficult chords, add more complex strumming patterns, inversions, bass lines, and get used to singing and playing simultaneously.

At a recent parents’ evening, the mother of a Year 9 student I can only describe as ‘unlikely’ told me that her son had asked her to buy him a guitar, and asked what sort she should get for him. He is not a high-flier at school generally, and had not shone in music lessons until he got to grips with a few guitar chords and was able to play along proficiently with some songs.

Often, students’ perception of their own achievement is a bit shaky, and I see actively noticing students’ successes as an important part of building their sense of mastery. This particular Year 9 boy might not have thought much about his new guitar skills if I had not noticed how well he was doing, and told him he looked like a natural. Finding different ways of telling students ‘You can do this!’ has a huge effect on their initially fragile sense of competence, which snowballs as it accumulates.

We all know students who have found a sense of identity in music – in fact as music teachers, we all see this in ourselves too. Being a singer, a pianist and a songwriter becomes an indelible part of who we are. To provide opportunities for a sense of mastery to contribute to a sense of identity is one of the most valuable parts of our jobs.

Building this sense for students who have a wide range of musical starting-points is not easy, but it is an extremely worthwhile mission. Acknowledging the steps they make along the road, and celebrating the mastering of each new skill, can help put students into a place where they feel like music is something they can do. Whether they pursue it at GCSE or BTEC level, or whether they just enjoy it for themselves for the rest of their lives, the time will have been well‑spent.

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