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Merlin B. Thompson (shown above) is a forward-thinking music educator with over forty years teaching experience in private studio, conservatory and university settings. His career has taken him around the world, and podcast enthusiasts may know of his excellent series, The Music Educator’s Crucible.
Subtitled “A Studio Teacher’s Guide to Parents, Practicing, Projects and Character”, Thompson’s book More than Music Lessons was published a few months ago by Rowman & Littlefield, and is one of those books which could prove to be a game-changer for any instrumental teacher who takes time to absorb and apply the author’s key messages.
According to the author’s introduction,
“More than Music Lessons shifts the focus away from established music curricula to something of equal importance: the personal and interpersonal dynamics of students’ own musical life. This book demonstrates what can happen when music teachers take an interest in and have an ongoing appreciation for their students’ home life, sense of self, musical interests, personal and world views, culture and spiritual individuality.”
The book has a four-part framework with sections on Parents, Practising, Projects and Character. In this review, I will touch on the content and give a general overview of the publication itself, hopefully enticing teachers to take a closer look for themselves…
Sharing the Journey
Before moving onto the four main topics which he addresses in the book, Thompson includes an introductory chapter outlining a key foundation of his philosophy: student-centred teaching. He explains,
“This means teachers envision teaching as a partnership whereby they learn and work with students, in contrast to teaching at them. Somehow, teachers need to lead the way, walk alongside, get behind, and let go of students, which is an extraordinary undertaking by any means…. this pedagogic approach emphasises student participation, ownership, and autonomy as essential elements in effective educational processes.”
Suggesting that a twenty-first century instructional philosophy requires teachers to “build on and exercise what’s already there”, Thompson encourages us to be curious, to listen and to collaborate. He recommends, wisely in my view, that we seek to align our curriculum model to meet with students’ musical aspirations by:
- making students’ musical journey a shared experience
- leading where necessary
- providing resources students can’t uncover on their own
- being sensitive to students’ learning needs
Concluding this introduction, Thompson urges us to teach for inclusion and diversity, reflecting on our own upbringing, taking responsibility for leaning about our students, their culture and communities.
By this point it is already clear that Thompson is advocating a very different path to the one-size-fits-all exam-driven approach that is so common here in the UK. For my part, I found much to reflect on even in this brief introductory chapter, also realising that to a considerable degree Thompson’s philosophy and approach overlap with my own, and with the values underpinning the Pianodao site.
I would also suggest that while Thompson takes aim at pedagogy (teaching children) throughout, his suggestions and values apply in fairly equal measure to andragogy (teaching adults).
The Four-part Framework
This brings us to the main meat of the book. Rather than précis further, I will list the chapter headings, which I think will give a clear indication of the main content and the shape of its delivery:
Part One: Parents
• Parents Make a Difference
• In the Lesson
• Meaningful Conversations
Part Two: Practicing *
• Framework of Basic Human Needs
• Practicing and Autonomy
• Practicing and Fluency
• Practicing and Purpose
• Practicing and Relatedness
• Practicing and Reflection
• Practicing and Listening
Part Three: Projects
• Non-performance Music Projects
• Giving Voice to Students
Part Four: Character
• Imprinted from Birth
• Character and Music Lessons
• Finale: Our Shared Humanity
Appendix A: Challenge
Appendix B: Parent Letter & Teenager Letter
Appendix C: Everyday Music Connections Projects
Appendix D: Character Cards
* note that the book uses US spellings throughout.
From these topic chapter headings it should be clear that the book covers a wide range of subject matter; in doing so, the emphasis throughout is on developing a more reflective, humane approach to all our teaching.
In the first major section of the book, PARENTS, Thompson presents a rather idealistic view of family life, but his clear suggestions for developing effective communication and working together to help students develop autonomy within a supportive home environment are invaluable, as are his insights on how to include parents in the planning and learning process.
The chapter dealing with Meaningful Communication will, for some teachers at least, be worth the price of the book alone. Thompson’s very wise advice here is supported in the Appendices at the back of the book, where practical examples are given of letters to older pupils and parents.
Turning to the subject of PRACTICE, Thompson invokes Deci and Ryan’s model “Framework of Basic Human Needs”, thus unfolding five key topics:
Autonomy: the need to feel that our personal efforts or pursuits are internally generated and implemented rather than externally influenced or imposed. The need to direct our own lives.
Fluency: the need to feel personally effective/successful in acquiring competency and executing skills necessary to our pursuits. The need for mastery of aspects in our own lives.
Purpose: the need to feel that our personal efforts or pursuits are meaningful. The need to create things that are vital for our own lives.
Relatedness: the need to feel that our personal efforts or pursuits are connected and relevant to the surrounding social context. The need to participate in our world.
Reflection: the need to consider how our personal efforts or pursuits contribute to and detract from our own lives. The need to critically question and examine our personal efforts and pursuits.
This section of the book is by far the most substantial, offering a wealth of excellent advice. Taking a philosophical and psychological approach to this ever-important topic, Thompson’s book not only chimes well with my own (more practically based) How to Practise Music, but provides a complementary and deeper understanding of these vital issues.
Teachers and parents alike need to embrace the underlying message here: intrinsic motivation lies at the heart of effective, progressive learning, personal development and fulfilment. I can’t help wondering how many times, and how loudly, this point will need to be made before our present extrinsic, exam-driven culture changes for the better, but Thompson offers both hope and an intelligent route-map.
Digging deeper still, Thompson next turns his attention to PROJECTS, considering how we can amplify students’ musical persona with non-performance projects.
Rooting his ideas about project based learning in the educational philosophies of Dewey, Montessori, Piaget and Kilpatrick, Thompson posits that:
“Project Based Learning is a student-centred pedagogy that advances learning through genuine exploration of real-life situations, ideas, concepts, and challenges. Because PBL purposefully integrates knowing and doing, students deepen their understanding of a particular subject and learn to apply what they already know in order to come up with solutions and produce results that matter.”
Thompson explains and unpacks the everyday musical connections projects which he has employed with his own students over the years, explaining how these can serve to amplify a student’s musical persona.
Finally, the author tackles the question of CHARACTER, pointing out that throughout the preceding sections the theme of character has already played an underlying role as teachers “build on and exercise what’s already there”.
We have come full circle in terms of Thompson’s own educational philosophy, and what a journey it has been! Celebrating the “student-centred” approach, and concluding with a paean to our shared humanity, More Than Music Lessons is a profoundly hopeful and optimistic book.
More Than Music Lessons appears as a standard text book in hardback, paperback and eBook versions. For the purposes of the review, I was sent the paperback version, which is well-produced and rather has the air and presentation of an academic text:
The book has 212 pages (including bibliography and index) and is written in an easy-to-digest style with an emphasis on practical illustration. Along the way, Thompson includes at regular intervals:
Teaching Tips: more than fifty inspirational tips that keep the overall content on a practical footing
From MBT’s Studio: pivotal experiences with students and parents that have shaped the author’s teaching career
Your Thoughts: ongoing, reflective explorations to engage the reader
Frequently Asked Questions: answers to tangential questions that deserve a thorough and thoughtful response
These engaging elements combine to add relevance, depth of insight and understanding to what might otherwise have been a less approachable text.
With Thompson’s four decades as a reflective practitioner, and my own three, I should think that we would have much to discuss and ponder over several mealtimes, were geography not such a compelling problem!
In the meantime, though, More Than Music Lessons will not be gathering dust on my bookshelf, because this is a slim volume to which I will be returning again and again, offering up a multi-course feast of food for thought.
This is an important and superb book, which I can highly recommend to all who teach an instrument. Take time to read it more than once…
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