Supporting teachers, promoting piano education.
Written by Andrew Eales
Originally published in 2002, A Common Approach is perhaps the ultimate instrumental music teaching manual, offering a complete curriculum and extensive lesson activities for most instruments, including separate schemes of work for piano and electronic keyboard.
Now it has just been fully revamped and made available as an updated, free online resource to support instrumental teachers everywhere. Whether working privately or in a school, all piano and keyboard teachers would do well to have a look at this extensive and superb material.
According to its publishers Music Mark,
“A Common Approach is an online resource to support music educators in their teaching practice and help develop a holistic approach to music education. Relevant to all vocal and instrumental teaching, including individual, small-group, large-group and whole-class lessons, music educators at all stages of their career can use the support and shared learning found in A Common Approach.”
Music Mark Chief Executive Bridget Whyte tells us,
“Twenty years after the original version of A Common Approach was published, Music Mark has worked with a skilled team of music tutors from across the UK to update and enhance this valuable teaching tool. Containing both universal guidance and instrument-specific content, this online resource not only provides a great starting point for trainee and early-career tutors, but also gives those who are more experienced the opportunity to reflect on their practice.”
This has particular interest to me because back in 2002, I was a member of the national steering group who put together the original version of A Common Approach which provides the ongoing foundation of this update.
It’s therefore time both to take a short stroll down memory lane, and to consider how the updated version of this milestone resource can help piano teachers today…
Finding Common Ground
A Common Approach started life as a small booklet offering a framework for an instrumental and vocal curriculum which drew together the common strands shared by teachers across different disciplines. But early indications suggested that teachers would welcome some meat on those bones: a fully fleshed-out curriculum packed with teaching ideas ready to put straight into practice in lessons. And so A Common Approach 2002 was born.
Having already written a keyboard tutor book series, I was approached to join the national steering group for the project, and around 1999, we began to meet regularly in Central London. An ongoing series of weekend retreats in Oxfordshire and Leeds followed, during which a larger community of willing teachers contributed their instrument-specific expertise.
At these weekends I led a team of keyboard experts which comprised David Glynn, Nancy Litten, Rosemary Kemp and Graeme Smith, while also collaborating with pianists Mark Ray, Heli Ignatius Fleet, Nadia Lasserson and others in producing the classical piano schemes of work. There was a profound optimism in the air.
For me, the biggest blessing in all this was the opportunity to quiz and work alongside some of the best minds in music education. Engaging, so early in my career, with the big ideas of the curriculum happily also put me on a fast-track to improving my own teaching practice.
A strong hallmark of A Common Approach 2002 was its emphasis on holistic learning, a concept that was then less familiar to most, and which contrasted the compartmentalised assessment of grade exams. Yes, we’re talking about 20 years ago, but how much has changed? It seems to me that now, as then, too much instrumental teaching is syllabus-driven rather than (as it should be) curriculum-led. A Common Approach points us to a better path.
When A Common Approach 2002 appeared it included five Programmes of Study ranging from beginner to advanced level (around UK Grade 8), each scheme of work packed with the array of teaching and learning activities that we had collectively shared and devised, holistically teaching learners:
A. Listening and internalising, including
• listening to music with concentration in and out of lessons, building on their experiences
• having a clear aural perception of the music to be played
• recognising and discriminating between the musical elements of pulse, pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, texture and tone colour
• recognising and conveying structural elements in their playing
• making links between sound and symbols when using notation
B. Making and controlling sounds: developing technique
• posture and freedom of movement / keyboard geography
• fingering and co-ordination
• tone quality, sound production and articulation
C. Creating, developing and interpreting musical ideas
• improvising expressively
• applying their instrumental skills in composing
• interpreting music, developing a personal response
D. Playing music
• working out how to play music by ear
• repeating musical patterns and phrases accurately from memory
• playing pieces in a variety of styles with fluency, expression and understanding
• memorising pieces that have been learnt
• reading and playing music at sight
E. Playing music with others
• listening, watching, responding and leading
• contributing to collective decisions, including interpretation
F. Performing and communicating
• interpreting and communicating the character of the music
• evaluating their performance and making improvements
The musical learning agenda
You will undoubtedly realise by now that this was a huge undertaking, and that the resulting document is of substantial importance and singular value to teachers. And it is surely needed today as much as ever.
Appearing in a weighty ring-binder containing a generic introduction and the appropriate schemes of work, A Common Approach was quickly adopted by Music Services across the UK and became an important resource for teacher training in this country and beyond.
Its fair to say that as I travelled to more than 20 Music Services around the UK to present A Common Approach on behalf of the FMS, I noticed some teachers feared that with the adoption of a more standardised curriculum they might forfeit their autonomy (never the intention) and that the schemes of work would be used primarily for quality assurance.
Nevertheless, A Common Approach brings together so many superb ideas and teaching activities, so much wisdom and hands-on experience, that it would probably be foolhardy for any teacher to ignore its content.
It is odd to think, twenty years on, that I was one of the architects of this project, because it would be equally true to say that A Common Approach is the chief architect in who I myself have become as a teacher. Though my understanding and experience continue to unfold, these core curriculum values continue to underpin my own, and profoundly inform both my teaching and my writing.
In truth, I don’t think any of us can individually claim too much credit for A Common Approach, because with so many excellent teachers contributing to the final project it developed into a universal repository of best practice; it is collectively that we have made our mark on the music education landscape, and an unfathomable privilege to have been involved.
Refreshed and Improved
Two decades on, A Common Approach certainly merits an update, however. Marvelling at the impressively enlarged list of new contributors, it is heartening that so many are keen to continue this work of sharing their experience and expertise.
The headline changes to the new 2022 version are:
- A Common Approach 2022 is a fully digital resource for online exploration, rather than a hefty printed document. The layout has been completely reworked.
- A Common Approach 2022 gives greater emphasis to equity, diversity and inclusion.
- A Common Approach 2022 includes new schemes of work for ukulele, harp and music technology in addition to the existing schemes for piano, electronic keyboard, strings, woodwind, brass, percussion, voice, classical and contemporary guitar.
- A Common Approach 2022 includes generic activities which seem to have been significantly rewritten, while the existing instrument-specific content is more modestly refreshed.
Exploring the material, smaller changes soon become obvious. For example, the word pupils has consistently been replaced with learners. There are many similar and welcome examples of updated language.
Building on the foundation of A Common Approach 2002, extending its positive legacy and refreshing its content, these hugely welcome changes update and improve A Common Approach for the next generation of teachers, whether working in schools or as private practitioners.
More than ever, A Common Approach offers both a defining benchmark of mainstream instrumental teaching practice and, I would suggest, the most broadly useful training resource freely available today.
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