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Modernising Music Teaching Delivery and Content

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Are exams important? How do we keep students engaged and inspired?

We caught up with Eliette Roslin from Eliette’s Music Academy in Auckland to chat about inspiring students and fostering creativity.

What do you think the biggest challenge is that is affecting teachers as they look to maybe modernise their delivery or content?

I think theres this stigma around, that classical is the only way and it is the most respected way and reading music is the most important thing.

The challenge for teachers is moving into new curriculum areas. For example ‘Play it Strange’ a charity run by Mike Chunn encourages songwriting in High Schools by running competitions throughout the year. An incredible organisation doing amazing work for the contemporary music scene.

He got songwriting credited as a subject for NCEA Level 3 students which is so exciting! The kids are really wanting to do it and there are challenges for some teachers from a skills level and also a philosophical level. The need to place importance on lyrics and songwriting over the creation of an instrumental score. It is a real shame for some students to miss out if a teacher is unable to grow and develop their skills in these new curriculum areas.

There is a mantra – learning how to read [music] first is the right way and that’s the way it has been done for hundreds of years. I still have it with some parents that come for lessons that say…

“But, we want our daughter to do exams.”

But we are dealing with a 6yr old here !
Why do you want them to do piano exams?

“Because that’s what they do and what our friends are doing”.

But why and what is the motivation behind that?
Why does she have to be scored on her playing?
Why does she have to learn how to read first?

I had this conversation about a month ago.

The question comes up “when is she going to learn to read?”

That is not our main focus.

Is she having fun?


Is she playing really really advanced stuff?


Is she playing more advanced stuff compared to your friends’ kids that are learning to read?


So what is the issue here?

She is having fun,
She is playing advanced music,
She has the confidence to play in a group situation,
She is excited about coming.

Whats the problem?

“Isn’t it important that she learns how to read?”

No not really, not right now, she is only 6yrs old.
It will come.

It’s not like we never touch base with it, but when we do enter into that it is going to make a lot more sense because she is interested in it, ready for it, it is going to connect back with what she has already learnt.

You know she is playing 9th chords, 11th chords, dissonant chords all these advanced sounds that she is not going to get in a classical reading style curriculum.

A lot of our traditional kids, know how to play chords that are written but are not told “that’s a G chord, that’s a C chord” which for me I don’t understand, why not connect these things?

I think sometimes contemporary music can be frowned upon and not respected as much of an art form.. sometimes the true reason behind learning an instrument being lost in theoretical and political jargon. If it makes you feel good – whats the issue?

The classical curriculum has always had a hierarchy and levels of proficiency that have all been made measurable, thus creating all these progression points that we can follow.

With the contemporary music, within a year the student can play a bunch of songs, improvise elements of the composition – that’s actually a really high value skill that could be progression point 10 out of 20, is there really any point in measuring, or dividing this learning up?

Yeah and how do you measure the progression.

And is there value at all in measuring it?
There is a classical student at grade 8, what does that really mean?

Yeah and where do they go from there, and the pressure around that.

I think kids nowadays are marked on every single level of development.

Reading levels,
Maths levels,
They are constantly being marked/assessed.
If you don’t fit into that little box then that is not good.

I think that to have a creative space that is safe and not being assessed all the time is actually really important, as , like I say , it takes all the creativity out of it.

You are not thinking creatively when you do all of those traditional exams.

Yes you are playing what’s written on the page, you know what all the Italian words mean, you know what a trill is, correct timing etc.
But we cover those skills also.
It’s not that we are not covering it, we are just not marking it and we are doing it in a contemporary setting through contemporary music.

Improvising is actually really really hard. We have traditional kids that have been learning for 5 years and come for simply music lessons and I ask them, write me a song and they totally freak out and they don’t want to do it for six months!

“I can’t do that” they say.

“Why not, you play beautiful songs! Just make something up with the skills you have been developing”.

“Oh no I can’t do that” they say.

Composition can be terrifying because… you actually have to think for yourself. You almost have to give yourself permission to experiment.

It’s terrible if they are worried it is going to create a mark or be assessed by the teacher as being above or below a standard when really the composition is just a fun creative improvising opportunity, and a chance for the student to use the material they have been learning in their own way.

Yeah there is no level and you can do whatever you want.

It’s funny that you say that as I had a student last week, a beautiful advanced player that has written a song that he was very nervous to show me. Going slow baby steps here, which is fine but he is like “Is that right” but I was like “there is no right or wrong. If you want to go from the F to the Eb I don’t mind ,there is no right or wrong”.

Yeah everyone goes from a F chord to a Eb chord but it is not all in the key of Fmajor anymore cos we are borrowing chords from other keys and that’s where the learning is happening. We are breaking rules and having fun.