A teacher told me today about a boy in his last year of primary school who was struggling. Painfully quiet, he barely spoke and had few friends. Then one day this teacher discovered that the child could play the piano. The teacher gently encouraged him to play to others. He said that as a result, he left as one of the most popular members of the class. He puts this improvement in his social circumstances, confidence and engagement solely down to the power of sharing his talent informally with his peers and through performing to wider audiences in more formal settings.
It’s a familiar sight. The student at a keyboard surrounded by others listening as they play their grade pieces with a flourish. Or the student on the stage rehearsing for a concert and the gathering of others to listen as they make their way between lessons. Or perhaps the group in the practice room who have come back at break to continue their classwork and outside are a group of others listening. The response of those playing to the attention of peers can result in a massive confidence boost and the perceived approval of their peers for their musical ability can engender a drive to practice more, expand repertoire or to take part in more performances.
Yet all of these anecdotes relate to informal and sometimes impromptu musical performances.
Having the confidence to perform in a formal setting such as a concert or recital can be daunting, however this can be addressed if the culture within school is one where regular performances, formal and informal are embedded.
If there is no genre hierarchy within the school setting, if all music that is valued by students is equally valued by other students, staff and parents, then finding the right balance of encouragement and support with an expectation that this is what we do, can open the opportunity to perform to many.
Establishing a culture or ethos around performing and finding a balance between informal and formal performing opportunities is essential as is identifying the right balance between competing with and supporting peers.
It’s a fine balance between a student pushing themselves to aspire to reach or exceed the level to which another can play and the potentially negative impact that competition can have on confidence if it doesn’t quite go to plan.
It’s often the choice of repertoire where this balance can start to tip. Students may choose a more challenging piece perhaps to compete with a peer or to push themselves harder. But an easier piece played well can result in a more successful outcome and this choice is one that teachers can support with.
So by providing regular formal and informal opportunities to perform, creating an ethos where competition is undertaken positively and ensuring that all musical performances are valued, teachers can ensure that more students can benefit from the positive impact of performing with and to their peers, something that truly underpins a successful school music department.
Anna Gower is Head of Community Music at Monk’s Walk School. She is an Advanced Skills Teacher and the National Coordinator of Musical Futures. You can follow Anna on Twitter@tallgirlwgc and @musicalfutures.