Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 Home Page

Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Student engagement: An experiential, creative, collaborative approach to primary school music teaching

Jan Gwatkin
School of Music
The University of Western Australia

Preparing to teach music in a primary school can be a daunting task. Teachers are faced with children who range from the disinterested to those who have received private instrumental tuition on a variety of instruments. In order to cope with such a variety of skill levels and interests, teachers need to be flexible, have a wide variety of teaching tactics and repertoire, and be able to engage all students, regardless of their ability, in both group and individual learning and performance situations. As part of the UWA Introduction to University Teaching Program in 2006, a four week program was designed for third year music education students preparing for practicum teaching in West Australian primary schools. Students were given the opportunity to engage in active learning and teaching styles through a variety of individual and group settings. The main focus was to give students a variety of teaching skills through which appropriate repertoire could be taught to primary students to reinforce musical skills i.e. moving, singing, playing, listening and creating (improvising) at different levels simultaneously.

In addition consideration was given to the Education Department music curriculum, children's general cognitive and developmental capabilities, and known musical preferences. Initial feedback at the end of the program was incredibly positive with undergraduates preferring the workshop approach to learning and teaching to more formal scenarios. Further feedback from both students and their practicum teachers reinforced the positive teaching style and preparation of the program for real life experience.

This paper is a synopsis of professional practices used in the training of primary school music educators and will be presented by incorporating practical demonstrations.

Creating a dynamic learning environment

Engaging university students in a program of learning requires a particular set of guidelines. Engaging them with the focus of teaching a much younger audience requires an additional level of thinking and planning. Therefore the challenges lie in engaging these students with appropriate literature and teaching techniques that would satisfy not only them as young adults but would also appeal and be appropriate to their prospective students i.e. children aged between 4 and 12. UWA students begin their specialist music education program at third year level. The class includes both performance and classroom majors representing different levels of expertise and interest amongst the participants. This mirrors the real life situation that they may also encounter with their younger students. The unit is divided into 2 parts; theoretical (covered by lectures) and practical, for which I used a workshop style.

Guiding principles of good practice

A search of good teaching practices developed during the last half century finds a plethora of literature. These approaches include creative, kinaesthetic, cognitive, developmental, behavioural, child centred, multi-skilling and brain sciences to name a few.

As far back as Benson (1967) learning with creativity was advocated. His goals were "to assist [his students] to gain durable interest and competence in contemporary music and to develop ways to present his music to children at the elementary and secondary school levels" (p.3). He claims that those students "Out of direct involvement with the creative process were able to express themselves better, and in doing so, to find more and easier room for the acquisition of additional technical material" (p. 30). Other outcomes included:

The creative act leads to self-expression, which in turn leads to self-discovery. Teachers needs sympathy for the intent, respect for the integrity and sincerity of statement from the student. They must also be careful not to inflict their own point of view on their students as it limits their discoveries. Therefore, Benson advocates that a teacher must examine his/her own resources to help make a creative student and engage the whole child. By assuming all children are creative teachers can educate to go all the way, prepare them to the limit of their own understanding, help them to experience the excitement of discovery, give them the confidence of knowing, develop the satisfaction of having expressed one's own self well and be sympathetic to their other interests to motivate and develop. The teacher is a catalyst not a focal point. In a creative approach, teachers can be effective, interesting and exciting.

Charles Gary (1975) echoes these sentiments. "The purpose of music education is to reveal to students what music can do for their lives and to offer as many opportunities for musical learning as they desire and are capable of assimilating"(p. iii). Teachers should teach not only the subject but the whole child as well. "A good program is a balance between the student's experience and the subject matter which needs to be stimulated by carefully planned teaching, learning and evaluating of processes between teacher to student and student to student flow" (p. 56).

Tait and Haack (1984) report that "teaching involves the diagnosis of student needs and the selection of strategies, styles, and materials to meet those needs.... [It] requires a repertoire of nonverbal strategies including modelling and demonstration abilities, and verbal strategies including professional, behavioural, and experiential vocabularies.... Personal and organisational management skills are an essential adjunct to efficient and effective teaching" (p. 69).

Commenting on the traditional isolation of the intellectually orientated classroom and the performance-based studio approaches, Wierich (1985) advocates the need for a collaborative approach whereby the applied [studio] teacher may teach analysis and the classroom teacher may visit an occasional lesson by the artist teacher (p.26). In this program, teaching practices may be used in both classroom and private studio settings. Teaching should be thought of as a process of unlocking or tapping potential not of building blocks.

"The evidence suggests that musical arts are central to learning. The systems they nourish, (which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacity processes) are in fact, the driving force behind all other learning" (Jensen, 2000, p. 3). "In order to be creative, many processes need to occur. First, you need the background or 'mental stockpile' of information to generate ideas (memory function); then the idea itself ... then you need a rationale" (Jensen, 2000, p. 42). Music can enhance the cross lateral activity of the brain. "The creative 'zone' is a delicate mental state requiring specific thought processes and both left- and right- hemisphere dominance" (ibid, p. 42).

Music education philosophies

A variety of music education philosophies and practices were chosen as the basis of the program to illustrate a variety of approaches to each topic. These were as presented in the following table.

Table 1: Music education practices

Music educatorSpecialityTeaching approach
KodalyVocal techniques and literature, part singing.Hand signs, aural perception, intervallic structures
SuzukiEarly childhood instrumental, group and individual.Mother tongue, memorisation, demonstration, listening, accumulation of small steps.
DalcrozeEurhythmics, movement and creative body expression.Imitation, creativity and improvisation encouraged primarily in body.
YamahaInstrumental group keyboard. Reading music.Harmony, structure, instrumental improvisation.
Orff SchulwerkGroup instruction, incorporating body, vocal, movement, tuned and non-tuned percussion instruments.Imitation, music literacy. Improvisation and creativity encouraged in all areas.

The most commonly found approach in Western Australian primary schools is Orff Schulwerk with elements of Dalcroze and Kodaly also incorporated. This is also evident in High Schools where the University students in this program will study during their final undergraduate year. All of the above mentioned philosophies, with the exception of Yamaha, are well represented in Western Australia with their own associations.

The West Australian Orff Schulwerk Association (WAOSA) holds regular professional development opportunities including a series of levels courses (1-4). Its primary objective is creative expression through music. Orff developed xylophones and metallophones from the African marimbas and Indonesian Gamelan he had encountered on his travels and which he modified to a more appropriate in size and tuning for children. The echo and dialogue techniques Orff employs to teach "....are easily adaptable to similar objectives as an introduction to, or as an extension of, instrumental performance" (Froseth in Gordon, p. 123).

Dalcroze methodology focuses primarily on the body as the vehicle for creative expression. "To become truly musically literate, one must first acquire basic enjoyment and understanding of music in the form of developed musical imagery - that is, aural perception and kinaesthetic reaction.... This is demonstrated by the ability to respond aurally to tonal patterns and to feel rhythm patterns kinaesthetically, ... as well as to interpret elements (including timbre and form) when listening to music. Further basic musical enjoyment and understanding by their very nature provide the readiness for developing music literacy, the reading and writing of music" (Gordon, p. 66-67).

Kodaly is primarily a vocal program which concentrates on intervallic structures of the melodic line. Complicated vocal lines are learned with the assistance of solfege and solfa hand signing. There is a different sign for each pitch of the scale and singers learn to change from one to the other very quickly. Conductors may conduct two or more parts using the hand signs. Orff Schulwerk and many other traditional learning programs have also incorporated hand signs for learning vocal lines. Other movements and games are also incorporated into the program to assist learning.

Suzuki philosophy, albeit an instrumental program, is a widely accepted program for early childhood education. "Beginning instrumental students quickly develop a familiarity with their instrument, enhance their tonal and rhythmic understanding, and maintain an interest in instrumental music if they are given immediate opportunity to improvise on their instruments (particularly before they are formally taught to read instrumental notation)" (Froseth in Gordon, p. 123).

Whilst it holds regular professional development programs, these are for association members only or those in training. Observation of teaching members is permitted by appointment only and is therefore not so accessible. It was included in this program in order that teachers may understand and assimilate such children who are often quite musically advanced into their programs. It also shares many similarities in its teaching philosophy to Orff Schulwerk.

Whilst creative teaching is encouraged, Bencriscutto (1985) says fulfilling such a goal also requires the stimulation and cultivation of creative thought, response and action. The challenge is to cultivate the creative core of music rather than dictate what is required and to direct students to just imitate what we teach them.

According to psychologists, creative thinking involves several abilities:

In music these can be interpreted as:

Developing the program

In designing the program of learning for UWA students I attempted to develop creative, hands on approach that could be applied to all facets of musical learning as required by the WA Education Department Curriculum framework. Music is situated under the arts strand (one of eight main strands). The scope of the music curriculum requires students to "achieve outcomes through the key activities of creation, performance and reflection" (p.14). Against this background the program was designed over a period of 4 weeks (weeks 2-5 inclusive) within Semester One after which students went to their allocated schools to teach. Foremost was the choice of repertoire, creativity, teaching techniques, student learning and interaction, discipline issues and relevance to their practicum.

        Semester One program structure
Week OneIntroduction and Songs
Week TwoListening to Music
Week ThreeMoving to Music
Week FourPlaying Music
Week FiveCreating Music
Week Six-TenPeer Teaching tasks and assessment

Teaching style

At the commencement of each lesson Power point notes were given with an outline of the day's lesson plan and aims. Questions were invited during the course of the sessions so that points of clarification were immediate. All of the literature was taught following the musical philosophies outlined above. The most commonly used were imitation, call and response, echo, and simultaneous imitation. Students were taught how they would teach. The pace of the lesson was flexible. Sometimes it was necessary for demonstration or understanding of the age group targeted to go at a slower pace. In other instances it was necessary to go at a much faster pace as the students' understanding of the concepts grew. Whilst repertoire was taught in much detail and small steps, extension of the subject matter was always included to cater for advanced students and special interests.

The class was taught as a whole and then broken down into smaller groups and pairs and finally soloists. Each step of a learning task was repeated until all the students were fully successful at the task. This builds confidence amongst the students, with the teacher and as preparation for performing from groups to solo. Learning repertoire by this method creates a layered learning approach which makes it suitable for students to join in at their level. It also ensures that all members of a class are gainfully employed at all times. For example, tasks may range from the simple to the more complex i.e. keeping a beat, a rhythmic pattern, playing a harmonic accompaniment or playing a melody. In addition all components of musical learning (moving, vocal, playing and creating and listening), can be gradually incorporated into a final musical performance.

Repetition of tasks was varied each time, thereby creating confidence, maintaining attention, consolidating the language of the tasks and limiting boredom. Repetition could include using different instruments, group work, adapting the repertoire to different media (vocal, movement, instrumental), combining different media, role play, actions, to name a few. This catalogue of language later became the dictionary from which students could draw for creative expression and then develop into their own creation. In addition a non compartmentalised approach was taken whereby theoretical aspects were embedded in the practical learning process. For example students could sing a melody and hand sign the harmonic progressions at the same time, which in turn could be applied to playing instruments at a later stage. Movement might echo the formal structure of the phrase of a piece of music.

Lesson planning

One of the most important parts of teaching is being able to plan a lesson. Students feel more secure and develop confidence within themselves and with the teacher if structure and organisation is created within their lessons. Learning music involves the following musical elements: These elements are best learned though participating in activities designed for skill development (Musical Skills). Musical Skills include: To assist students plan a lesson I developed the following table (Table 1) In this way, a variety of approaches can be used to teach any musical element maintaining momentum and interest for both the class and teacher. A full reference list and copies of repertoire were provided for each lesson and made available in Wigmore Music Library. Association contacts were also included.

Table 2: Lesson Planning Chart

Table 2

The following are a selection of examples that were used to engage students in teaching musical elements, skills and lesson planning for primary school aged children. An application of the Pick'n Mix chart will be demonstrated during the presentation using one or more of the examples below.

Example one

Intended Outcome: Learning and performing a rhythmic pattern
Activity: Mice Poem (anon)
Mice, Mice,
Eating all the rice,
Nibble, Nibble, Nibble, Nibble,
Nice, Nice, Nice.

Example two

Intended Outcome: Play a melody on instruments with harmonic accompaniment
Activity: Machines Poem (M&M Music)
Make a Machine
Make a Machine
Make the best machine that's ever been seen (x2)

Example three

Intended Outcomes: Creating a rhythmic pattern and/or creating a simple melody (Improvising)
Activity: Poems (Staveley)

Lolly on a stick
Makes me sick
Makes my tummy go
2 4 6

Digga Digga Dump Dump
Digga Digga Dump
Digga Digga Dump Dump
Jump Slide dump.

Thousand Hairy Savages
Sitting down to lunch,
Gobble gobble gulp gulp
Munch Munch Munch.

Example four

Intended Outcome: Demonstrate Movement to music with an irregular beat
Activity: Groove 5/4 (Davies)

Example five

Intended Outcome: Demonstrate aural appreciation of form, texture etc. by listening to music
Activity: The Wind Poem (L. Moore)

When the wind blows
The quiet things speak.
Some whisper, some clang,
Some creak.

Grasses swish,
Treetops sigh
Flags slap
And snap at the sky.
Wires on poles
Whistle and hum,
Ashcans roll,
Windows drum.

When the wind goes -
the quiet things
are quiet again.

Student learning outcomes

By the end of the program, participants were able to: Concerns during the lessons were mainly directed towards discipline issues such as behaviour control, instrument and noise control. These were dealt with in group discussion and often by example. For instance, when playing tuned percussion instruments was introduced, no mallets were handed out until one student went to find them, thinking I had forgotten them. Another tried to take them without asking from behind me. This led to a productive discussion on discipline techniques. Students were then introduced to playing tuned instruments with their fingers.


In conclusion students were engaged successfully within the program which attempted to incorporate the best of appropriate teaching practices. Student motivation and engagement was reflected in a SPOT (Student Perceptions on Teaching) review conducted at the end of the program. Comments were incredibly positive on both content of the program and my personal teaching style. In response to "What aspects do you feel are the best?" students responded:
"The practical application of lesson content"
"Variety of resources"
"Enthusiasm and natural teaching style of the teacher"
"Hands on activities"
"Very, very useful and encouraging"
"I thought it was great how practical and relevant the material she showed us was and I really enjoyed participating in them as a student".
They seemed fully appreciative being able to do rather than watch or listen. Several participants requested the program be extended, echoing my sentiments. Not being able to follow their progress further was a personal disappointment. Valuable feedback was received from practicum teachers reporting that the students felt well prepared for their classes and fully understood the principles when observing it in real situations. The permanent inclusion of a wide range of teaching techniques and skills in music education curricula would enable future music graduates to create engaging classroom situations for upcoming musicians and enjoy their own teaching careers in a positive manner.


Bencriscutto, B. (1985). Develop creative musicians. The Instrumentalist, 39(10), 22-23. Illinois: Instrumentalist Co.

Benson, W. (1967). Creative projects in musicianship. Music Educators National Conference. Washington: CMP Publications.

Charles, G. (1975). Music in education. In M. Tait and P. Haack. Principles and processes of music education: New perspectives (Ch 3, p56). New York: Teachers College Press.

Davies, S. (1995). Five-Four Groove on Razamajazz [cassette]. Melbourne: Two Up Music Education.

Froseth, J. (1968). Instrumental music. In E. Gordon, The psychology of music teaching, Chapter 8. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Gordon, E. (1971). The psychology of music teaching. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Jensen, E. (2000). Music with brain in mind. San Diego: The Brain Store, Inc.

McGowan-Jackson, M. (2000). Machines. Eleventh Conference of Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk (Elevancos (np)). Original song written 1999.

Moore, L. (1969). Wind song. In Vocal Ease (1998). New South Wales Department of Education and Training. Modules 1-2.

Staveley, R. (2000). Hairy Lollies, Thousand Hairy Savages & Digga Digga Dump Dump. In West Australian Orff Schulwerk Association, Activity Ideas In Music Education Outcomes Focused Workshop, p.5.

Tait, M. & Haack, P. (1984). Principles and processes of music education: New perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press.

Weirich, R. (1985). The education of the performer. The Instrumentalist, 39(10), 26-29.

Author: Jan Gwatkin MMusEd, BMus (Hons), AMusA is currently engaged in doctoral research at UWA investigating training and accreditation for Australian studio piano teachers. Sheteaches regularly at the School of Music having gained accreditations in both school music education and private studio/performance practices. She has recently presented several papers at the ISME conference in Kuala Lumpur and its Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (CEPROM), Hanoi. Postal: 1035 Glen Road, Darlington WA 6070. Email: jacrian@bigpond.net.au

Please cite as: Gwatkin, J. (2007). Student engagement: An experiential, creative, collaborative approach to primary school music teaching. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/gwatkin.html

Copyright 2007 Jan Gwatkin. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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