Learning with Lemov: Without Apology

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In my early years as a lecturer, I was teaching a class on music analysis one day, when a student asked, ‘And why are we learning this?’ It’s the kind of question that can come over as quite confrontational, especially when you are feeling new to the game. But it’s also a good question to ask every so often. So I talked for a short while about why I thought the method we were looking at was useful to musicians (I suspect it was Schenker, but can’t actually remember for sure). The student accepted my answer, and we went on with the class, all of us feeling some relief that we weren’t wasting our time together.

This incident came back to me as I read Doug Lemov’s principle of teaching Without Apology. If we implicitly (or indeed explicitly) apologise for the content we deliver or the people we deliver to it, we lower expectations about both the achievements that are possible or the rewards that come from achieving it. If we don’t believe in what and who we teach/conduct, who will?

So that’s a principle that’s easy to agree with in the abstract, but let’s look at some of the ways it can play out in a choral context.

  • Assuming something will be boring. The ‘eat your greens’ approach to technical work sometimes sees us ‘rewarding’ hard work on serious music with the lollipop of a sing through something lighter. This is insulting to both types of music: deep expression deserves to be relished, and frivolous expression deserves to be sung well. For sure, some activities and repertories are more demanding than others, but we need to frame these demands in terms of the opportunities they present for growth, mastery and aesthetic experiences. Challenge is, after all, one of the pillars of happiness
  • Blaming external agencies for content. The excuse of ‘We have to learn this because it’s on the syllabus’ in educational or competition contexts is a clear act of a director distancing themselves from musical content. It’s less overt, but still as damaging when it’s less formal agents who are blamed: ‘We have to do a Messiah every Christmas as it’s our best fund-raiser’; ‘We can’t do any traditional hymns because the congregation will only join in with modern choruses’.

    If, as directors, we accept these constraints on our musical choices, we have the obligation to embrace them, not merely play along while simultaneously undermining them. The people who design syllabuses, or who come every year to enjoy your Messiah, or who find modern choruses the best vehicle for their devotions find value in that music. We owe it to our singers to find that value too and to help them share the experience that the people who chose that music care about. If we agree to direct that music, we are agreeing to commit to empathising with it.

  • Making ‘it accessible’. Helping people find a way into repertoire or skills that they have had no previous experience of is obviously a Good Thing. Doing so by means of diluting the matter to be learned is a disservice to both to the music and to the people. As Lemov puts it: ‘Content is one of the places that teaching is most vulnerable to assumptions and stereotypes’.
  • Assuming something is too hard for the people you’re working with. This is the flip side of the previous point, but involves apologising for the people rather than for the material.* For sure, not every group is ready to start every piece of repertoire from a standing start, but that’s not to say they couldn’t get there if their director puts their mind to working out what they need to teach them to get them up to that starting line. To say, ‘Oh it’s only an unauditioned community choir,’ or ‘They’re only children,’ as an excuse for either technical deficits or under-ambitious repertoire is an abdication of the director’s responsibility. These are human beings with hearts and brains; they can learn how to sing stuff. Nobody is born able to do any of this after all. And for sure people have to struggle with all kinds of limitations; let’s not add the director’s expectations to that list.

    The bottom line is that to assume that certain people are inherently incapable of a skill is to deprive them of the opportunity to feel good about themselves when they rise to the challenge.

Heh, I find it interesting that so many of the posts I’ve have been going back to link to from this one are tagged in my ‘Soapbox’ category.

*I have been trying to work out whether the practice of using teach tracks as your choir’s primary learning tool is apologising for notation (i.e. an accessibility issue) or for amateur singers who have not yet had the opportunity to learn to read music.

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