On Music Education

Christopher Dyer | February 2019 | Sevenoaks, United Kingdom

Christopher Dyer is the Director of Music at Sevenoaks School, a position which he has held for 17 years. In February this year, Vantage Music visited the school and he kindly agreed to share his views on music education.

What inspired you to get into music as a career? When did you realise that you wanted to be in music education?

I have been involved with music for as long as I can remember, so it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when I wanted music to be my career. Certainly, I wished for this to be the case from very early in my school days. I have always enjoyed working as part of a team, sharing ideas and being involved in a wide variety of musical activities so it always seems natural to me that I should gravitate towards education rather than performance.

Do you think music is an important part of personal development? Why?

I think every musician understands that musical expression is an essential part of their personal development because music is an important part of our humanity. Given this, every child will have a response – their own response – to music. Experiences and tastes may differ, but music will shape their feelings, often in the ways people may not know nor understand at the time. Regarding children, this gives us teachers a very significant responsibility! In a recent foreword to our principal yearly school concert I have outlined how pieces of music can, over time, become like friends to an individual; over time, we have probably known a number larger than most of our school or college friends. These pieces will arouse in us deep feelings, not simply of nostalgia, but of emotions associated with our formative years and pieces that will have almost certainly inspired us to one degree or another.

You were studying at Cambridge University, reading music. Was there anything you learnt from there that you could apply to your students today?

It is impossible to encapsulate in a short paragraph everything that I learnt at Cambridge University; I could certainly apply a vast amount of what I learned to my students today in some form or other. Overwhelmingly the most important of these is the necessity to involve oneself in as much performing experience as possible. There were so many opportunities for this when I was at university and an incredible determination on the part of the student body to take advantage of these possibilities. I have taken this with me into every department with which I have been involved. On a more specifically academic level, our first analysis lecture was given by the composer Hugh Wood. The point he was keen to get all the students to appreciate was that any analysis method should always seek to make the general, overarching point at the start of any analysis first and subsequently work outwards to the smaller levels of musical detail. He was aware that we would all hear wonderful, exotic harmonies, entrancing shifts in tonality and magical combinations of timbres – and be all too keen to investigate them further. However, without understanding what was generally at play or what the composer was generally trying to achieve, we would find it hard to come up with a genuine understanding and appreciation of the music in question. That was a very inspiring moment.

Has your philosophy in education evolved over the years since you’ve been an educator?

My philosophy with regard to music education has certainly changed over the years. I think it is quite natural, when one starts out as a teacher, to look to the education one received oneself. Usually this is a hugely positive and inspiring experience. Occasionally, this feeling can be the opposite – an experience that was so bad, it should never be replicated! I myself certainly experienced both of these. I received very good academic education in the 6th Form and at university and so it seemed logical to me to continue to teach in this way when I started. I would mark essays and harmony essays extensively and with diligence; some of my early students even commented that I wrote more than they did! But I have come to realise that this is not necessarily a good thing. It can be demoralising for students to receive extensive comments that may be perceived as overly critical. It also encourages a response from the students which relies on those teacher comments for their learning. I now require the students to be more questioning of their work and more questioning of me. This does not negate the need on my part for detailed response, but it does limit the reliance on this and aims to bring the student directly into the learning experience.

What do you find most rewarding as a music educator?

I think most of us would consider our work to be rewarding when we see our charges happy and successful. The former is usually easy to spot but what constitutes a successful student? In my second year as a head of department, some 25 years ago now, I had a super 6th form set which I had taken through from the start of the Lower Sixth. All bar one achieved the highest grade. I was very proud of this and endeavoured at that point to work towards a set of results in which every member achieved the highest grade. But this did not happen, at least not for a very long period of time. At first, I was mildly disappointed on subsequent results days – what could I have done to have improved the mark of some students? I usually came to understand why the results were as they had come out. One day, I did get a cohort in which all the students achieved the top grade, but by then I have come to appreciate that this was a very blunt tool by which to measure success – and not at all the most rewarding part of my teaching. I had come to realise that education is a process and not a product. The rewards in education, if you are looking for them, are every bit as much along the way as they are at the sharp end of things. A lesson well delivered, a rehearsal enthusiastically taken, a problem effectively solved are likely to live long in the memory of a receptive student. Of course, we all remember thrilling final performances and exams that have been nailed. But music is perhaps not a subject where every participant can or even should measure themselves at the highest level. There are some students for whom simply a pass at grade 5 level is a highly rewarding experience and represents huge success; for a larger number than we may care to admit, simply having the courage to play a solo in a performance for the first time is a moment of major achievement. Exams are a measure of how the student performed on one day; this is true of academic exams as much as practical exams. I have also come to realise that what students take from my teaching on a day to day basis is every bit as important as what I believe I am offering them. These two are not necessarily the same and it took me some time to realise this. The best teachers are probably people who understand this osmosis between teacher delivery and student learning.

What is your personal philosophy in terms of music education at the school?

My personal philosophy of music has performance at its centre. This is where matters musical begin for most students, if not all of them. There aren’t many students who pick up a book and read about baroque music and then say: “I’d now like to play some baroque music.” They either hear a piece of baroque music and decide to play some for themselves, or someone (usually a teacher) directs them towards it. If their experience is a positive one, they’ll probably want to play some more. They may then want to further their own study and that inquisitiveness might take them towards reading a book on the baroque music. So, my music department is built around a series of some 50 performing opportunities over the course of the year. These are not necessarily classical and are not necessarily for the top students. They are for anyone. There’s only one criterion and that is that the individual should want to be involved.

On Education

What do you feel is the biggest struggle that students have in their music education?

Undoubtedly the biggest struggle that students have in their music education these days is finding time for it. Studies repeatedly show that any activity which involves fine motor coordination requires significant concentration over an extensive period of time. There are no shortcuts. This is an age in which time is a very precious commodity. The students have so many calls on their time and so many distractions which prevent that significant concentration from taking place. The successful ones are the ones who know how to manage this; it is not always about natural ability.

What are the areas in music that Sevenoaks School emphasise for their students?

Sevenoaks School has about 1000 students and, of these, only one or two in each year group, maybe three, will on average go on to study music when they leave us. This represents maybe 1% of the school population. Put another way, 99% of the school population will not be seeing music through the lens of what it will offer them as a career. It will not be a surprise, therefore, to hear that my emphasis is on enjoyment and personal fulfilment. This will be different for each and every student and we have to find out what every student needs and what their ambitions are – and these will be very different for every student who comes through our door. It all comes back to performance. For some this might be taking an exam, but for many it will not be. It may be through a personal challenge, a performance in an informal recital or with their friends, perhaps in a boarding house social function. It is often through a collaborative performance, maybe with a choral society or a jazz band. For some it may be supporting a performance as an audience member. We have just started asking the Charity Action Group to help organise all our concerts; 40% of the income raised now goes to charities around the world. I have noticed how important such camaraderie is to the boarders and they are incredibly good at supporting friends in their boarding houses. They clearly derive lots of enjoyment and fulfilment from this.

What support could the school provide for the music students? Anything you think is particular effective?

The biggest way in which any school can support music students is by making sure that there is an appropriate environment in which students can experience music. A science department without properly kitted out laboratories is unlikely to provide the world many scientists. Sports departments without adequate playing fields or sports halls are unlikely to conjure up particularly athletic pupils. We are lucky at Sevenoaks School to have exceptional music facilities. But this environment goes beyond the purely physical. Schools need also to provide the right environment for music by allowing appropriate time in a student’s life for music to take place and this time needs to be suitably protected. In this age where academic prowess is vital to ensure progression to Higher Education, it is all too easy to eat into our students’ co-curricular time by providing extra academic tuition, catch up tuition, academic enrichment and other forms of educational enlightenment. Although these are going to be attractive and surely very well-meaning, they inevitably put pressure on other activities which form crucial parts of a student’s holistic education. Successful schools are ones which are capable of providing a balance between all of the students’ activities and experiences.

We know music performance plays a big part in the music students’ lives at the School. What sort of exposure do they get and could you tell us more about that?

The exposure a student gets will vary from student to student. With the exception of Music Theatre, which we only put on once every four years, nothing in the music department at Sevenoaks School is auditioned. Even with the Senior Chamber Choir and the Senior Symphony Orchestra, a student’s willingness to take part and to commit to an ensemble is the most important qualification. So, students can effectively direct the exposure that they get. For most it will be the study of a musical instrument and this will be fine. For many of these there will also be the opportunity of one or more ensemble experiences. This could be one of our seven choirs or six large orchestral ensembles/bands. Most of our students do indeed enjoy performing with other people. But there are also plenty of opportunities for students to perform on their own and, for the majority of these people, this will be in the form of what we call a platform concert. These are solo recitals which take place throughout the year of an evening in our beautiful recital room and there are about 15 of these.

Students study IB music: are there any challenges which students face in this programme? And how does the school assist the students in this area?

The big issue with the IB music program at the moment is that it is changing. From September 2020, we will all be teaching a new syllabus and it would appear that this syllabus will be very different from the old one. I have always thought that the old syllabus is actually a very fine one, but the IB has identified problems with it that they wish to address. We will have to wait and see how they intend to do this as they have not published their new ideas yet.

The main reason why I like the current IB syllabus is that, no matter what your strengths and interests are, you can still pursue these and thrive. However, there are still requirements that ensure that a student’s study is not too narrow. Thus, the listening exam requires students to answer on classical music, world music and contemporary music. They cannot choose between these! They are also required to undertake a written piece of cross-cultural study which requires them to link the music of two contrasting cultures rather than provide an in-depth analysis of just one (or two from the same culture). They also have to compose and perform but may choose their preferred style. They also have to study at least once at work, which is also good for their musical analysis.

Your music scholars’ intakes are outstanding; what support do you think the school could give to facilitate their development?

Once again, it is very difficult to answer this question in one sentence as I firmly believe that each music scholar is a different person with different needs. Recently we have had several students with a very serious interest in becoming professional pianists. It is simply not possible to ignore the necessity for such students to receive exemptions from a busy school curriculum, since the skills necessary for this to happen require extensive daily practice. For most students, the biggest assistance we can give revolves around how they can manage their time and balance their commitments. This is an essential skill for anyone involved in music.

The School comes top in the IB league in the UK. How would you encourage students, and what should they be aware of when attempting the IB music syllabus? Any recommendations?

As I’ve said, the IB music syllabus is a very broad syllabus as it currently stands. In theory, it should be possible to encourage all students with a keen interest in music that they can approach it positively and with an expectation of success. It is necessary to have an open-minded approach and it’s also important to look at all forms of music with equal degree of academic seriousness. For most people starting at the course, they will have particularly enjoyed at least one area of music, but it might be hard for them to view areas with which they are unfamiliar with the same degree of enthusiasm. My recommendation for somebody starting the course would be to challenge themselves to listen to music with which they are unfamiliar and, so far as they are able, to talk about their experiences with others. If this leads them to books and magazines on these subjects, then great!

What sort of repertoire are the students working on now? How did you choose the music for them?

Again, it won’t come as a surprise to you to hear that I don’t choose music for my students. I talk to them about their interests and experiences and make suggestions only as and when asked. Their own individual music teachers will also make suggestions. The IB quite rightly suggest that the students’ study should be broad, and their program submitted for performance assessment should be contrasting. I would always start by asking students what they like and work from this point. Moving forward, it’s good to suggest things which are different, but nonetheless should still appeal to them. One of our recent 6th Form students came to us having already impressively learned Chaminade’s concertino for flute. I recommended that she look at Hindemith’s flute sonata and a baroque sonata by Handel or Bach, all of which she did – as well as a gorgeous arrangement of a Disney classic.

She appreciated the introduction to music with which she was largely unfamiliar and these contributed in a highly positive way to her performance component in the summer.

The School recently has expanded quite a lot, especially the facilities for music. Could you please describe the status quo?

We spent a lot of time at Sevenoaks School planning the wonderful music facilities which we now enjoy. Central to the planning was a purpose-built concert hall. Before 2010, we used the church over the road as a concert hall, which was unsatisfactory on a number of levels, even though the church was as supportive as it could have been. The acoustic of our new hall was modelled on the Cambridge University Concert Hall at West Road and the architectural design on the concert hall at Snape Maltings. The size of the stage was suitably wide and deep so as to accommodate as large an orchestra as we felt we could ever assemble and also provide seating for a healthy choral society. The concert hall also serves as an assembly space, a lecture hall and a cinema, to name just three of its other usages. Such a space would, though, be very imposing and certainly not conducive to informal performances. So it was important to me that there was a smaller recital room, with space for an audience of approximately 60, in which more intimate performances could be given. These are our two main performance halls and there is a suite of 15 teaching rooms and half a dozen offices complementing these.

The School

Has the School’s curriculum changed over the years?

Five years ago, Sevenoaks School expanded its curriculum for students aged 13 to 16 when it implemented the Sevenoaks school curriculum. This is a mixture of GCSEs and syllabuses devised and implemented by the school. Some of these are full-blown academic subjects, such as English language. Music is another and these syllabuses replace the GCSE examination/qualification. However, the school also introduced courses such as Critical Thinking and Systems of Belief. The intention was to challenge students by placing less reliance on memory-based study, to encourage independent learning and, crucially, an interest in the idea that questions can be open ended and there often isn’t only one right answer to a question. I would like to think that the skill set that Sevenoaks School is providing its students with is one which will not only help them adjust to 6th Form study more easily but also prepares them best for university study and the world of work beyond.

We took a look at the Music Department website: there is a quote, “A practical subject within an academic curriculum.” – could you please explain a bit more why that’s the case?

Sevenoaks is a very strong academic school and, whilst I would never wish to suggest that music cannot be an academic subject (because of course it can and is), for the vast majority of our pupils, their experience with us will be largely a practical one. I wish to get pupils making music, experiencing it, enjoying it. I believe if I can achieve this, pupils will want to understand it more. They will want to find out more about how it operates and why it can be so magical. But the journey starts with that practical experience and a greater love for and knowledge of it grows from here.

The Sevenoaks School Certificate in Music seems unique among schools in the UK. Could you please tell us more about it? What do students have to go through to qualify for that?

The students do not really have to qualify in any way in order to study the Sevenoaks School Certificate in Music. When I wrote the qualification, I had a number of matters in mind. Clearly the qualification could not deviate too far from existing GCSE syllabuses; this would frighten off potential students and make it hard to link into a 6th Form course of study. In any case, the idea of listening/ composing/ performing, which has served music education very well since the start of the GCSE examination in 1988, does not need whole-scale change. What I wanted was a qualification which is based around the individual, not the collective – a qualification where it was impossible to top out and descend into a series of past paper practice, a qualification where any student could develop their own interests to the extent of their choosing but one which also provided them with the nuts and bolts of how music operates and a good all-round understanding of music.

Each student is required to complete a personal project on an area of their choice. This is treated a little bit like how IB treats the Extended Essay. Whilst many will choose to write on a piece of music or a style that they had enjoyed, quite a few look at a musical phenomenon and investigate it further. We have students look into perfect pitch, musical synaesthesia and music therapy. One student has made his own instrument and several students have involved themselves with music technology to an exceptionally high level. In all cases they are required to discuss analytically what they have done.

Students are required to compose only one piece of music, but this has to be an extensive composition with minimum requirements in place regarding length and content. They not only have to perform on their own three times for assessment purposes, but they also have to keep a log of every single performance they have been involved with over the entire duration of the course; they get significant credit for this. Students are also expected to attend concerts as journalists and provide at least write-up of their experience for an imaginary newspaper. Each class has to stage one concert during the course where they are responsible for the entire coordination and organisation of the event. They learn to delegate and work as a team, with each of them taking on a defined role. So one person may be involved as front of house, another will assemble the program, a third will sort out the stage requirements, and so on. They are normally a good deal more appreciative of me when they have put this concert on!

Like the IB, the examination also includes the study of a set work but the unprepared listening requires familiarity with not only a wide variety of musical styles but also of types of questions asked. They are required to answer several questions in essay form and to show an ability to analyse music effectively with which they will not be familiar. Finally the student is encouraged to complete a personal assignment or challenge. This is entirely down to the student and they receive no actual marks for this However, the examiner looks at their total involvement over the entire course and, if the examiner feels they have produced work above what can be expected of the highest grade at national GCSE level, the examiner will award them the SSC in music with distinction. This is where students can show a real personal and intrinsically motivated interest in music. It is also something which they can talk about in their university personal statement, if they so wish.

If you were to give a music student one piece of advice, what would it be?

Every time you pick up your instrument, be involved, try to enjoy any music making which comes your way. If you are having difficulty doing something or if you have lost your enjoyment from your music, talk to someone.