Who are you? What are you? What do you do?

If you stop to think about those three questions, chances are that they’d elicit very different answers. Which answer is the most empowering to you? Which best reflects how you see yourself? Which best reflects what those who love you see?

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon various bits of writing about labels. In Excellent Sheep: the miseducation of the American elite, William Deresiewicz observed that high-achieving young people are so focused on textbook versions of success that they want to ‘be’ something (a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer), rather than ‘do’ something (save lives, pursue justice, build bridges). It got me thinking about my friends, many of whom have job titles that I don’t really understand – but how their work is just as important to society, and just as much about ‘doing’, even if their label is not something that we initially recognize and equate with professional success. It also reminded me of how much my social interactions have changed now that I no longer automatically introduce myself as ‘a teacher’. When I taught full time, I had friends who always asked “how’s school?” – because that was how I had defined myself to them, and how I defined myself to myself. What happens when we stop defining ourselves by what we do, but by who we are?

Another non-fiction book, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American daughters on obedience and rebellion, edited by Piyali Bhattacharya. Similar themes emerged about how we perceive success as being (a member of a profession), rather than doing . Labels were used: good/bad, brown/white, light/dark, boy/girl. And in many cases, the labels limited, festered, embittered.  The women who recognized these labels and moved beyond them were inspired, inspiring, seeking fulfilment.

My PhD work has prompted a bit of reading about labelling theory. It’s often linked with alienation, lowering expectations and other negative outcomes: interestingly, it seems that self-labelling can be just as limiting as labels that are ascribed by others. What happens if you describe yourself as single, married, divorced, a widow/er, a parent, a child? There are structures to each, but it’s not always easy to recognize whether the structure is a support or a barrier. What’s the difference between saying “I have a disability” and “I am disabled”; “I have been through a divorce” and “I am divorced”; “I play the trumpet” or “I am a trumpeter”? For some people, at some points in time, the label is empowering – but it can also be a cage.

I had a chat about this stuff with my friend Elizabeth, who I perceive as funny, caring, knowledgeable and enquiring (and whose most obvious label is PhD student). She observed that in self-labelling it’s easy to let the past and future encroach on the present. We talked about how most people currently in your life probably don’t care much about your past, and yet we often let our previous labels affect our perception of how people see us in the present.

So, lots of things above for lots of us to ponder. But also a particular message for anyone receiving A Level results this week: “What are you?” and “Who are you?” are absolutely NOT the same questions as “What grades did you get?”. How would someone who knows you, but has not been directly involved in your A Level studies and exams, describe you? Take time to think about this, and to ask people who will think about their answers. Hold on to those attributes. They are so much more important than your paper achievements.



Watching Dunkirk, I spotted the references to Elgar’s Nimrod fairly early, and found myself thinking about the piece and my associations with it.

On arriving home, a quick google established that it’s one of those pieces for many of us: it features on many top ten lists for funerals, weeping, and general somber-ness.

I first played the Enigma Variations in county youth orchestra, aged 18. What a great piece they are for that sort of ensemble, and how much I enjoyed exploring them! In mid-May, just before A Level exams began, we played a concert on a Sunday evening. A few days previously, the mother of a school friend had died unexpectedly. That concert was the first time that I was palpably moved by Nimrod and, despite losing touch with that friend shortly after we left school, I still think of her and her mother when I hear it.

Ten years later, I began working in a school where Remembrance Day was a focal point of the year. It was then that I realized how important Nimrod is in remembrance services, and that it’s one of those pieces that ‘everyone knows’. It fascinates me that, unlike many orchestral pieces, it translates so well to military band when played at the Cenotaph: despite knowing the orchestral version well, I never feel like the band version is ‘wrong’.

A couple of years later, at the end of the autumn term my A Level class asked for more help with recognizing orchestral instruments. I gave them a list of pieces to listen to over the Christmas holiday. One young man returned in January enthused by the Enigma Variations. His excitement about Nimrod in particular was infectious, and we had a great conversation about how Elgar created such a powerful atmosphere. I’m no longer in regular contact with this pupil (we’ve both since left the school), but out of the blue last summer I received a message with a photo of the Elgar-on-a-bicycle statue in Hereford, and the words ‘found Ed’.

Interestingly, I’d never previously thought of all these experiences as ‘British’. But since watching Dunkirk I’ve chatted to a couple of American and Canadian friends who do not share the Remembrance connotation of Nimrod, and who hadn’t considered it to be as central to the film as I did. I wonder how the British experience of watching the film is affected by our unconscious and conscious musical associations with the music. And I’ve also been wondering why Nimrod feels to British to us: is it because of where and how we experience the music, or is it because of the music itself? I could do actual reading about Elgar’s music and its association with more nationalistic traditions, rather than a quick skim of Wikipedia, but the PhD is calling me today. Still, it’s nice to be reminded that, a bit like civilians in pleasure boats getting the army back home, some of our most memorable music was written by a bloke who pottered around on a bike that he called Mr Phoebus. Both of which seem far more British than anything with actual pomp and circumstance.

green park



I wrote this at the start of July, but have been tardy about posting!

Over the last few weeks, my Year 6 classes have been writing songs. We began in May, with each class writing a ‘song in a session’: the girls chose to write about moving on to secondary school, the boys wrote a song about curry.  The purpose of this was to model a possible songwriting process, including chord progressions, hooks, and creating effective lyrics.  Since the boys and I can still spontaneously launch into the curry riff, it was probably a worthwhile activity.

Just before half term, each class divided into small groups and began writing their own songs.  Themes included South African apartheid, bullying, social media and self esteem, Donald Trump, the impact of Brexit …a far more informed and thoughtful selection that in many adult conversations.  We talked about how songs can tell a story, and the potential to explore personal and global perspectives of their various topics.  One group chose to write about the Manchester Arena bombing, finding ways to sample Ariana Grande’s material in their own song.  How sad to think that, were we to begin the project now, groups might also consider writing about the tragedies at London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Grenfell Tower.

Halfway through our lessons, I began to think more about the act of songwriting.  As music teachers, we are often immediately critical of any lesson activity of the ‘draw an orchestral instrument’ ilk – and, indeed, it is very easy for lessons to become dominated by the various ‘write the success criteria in green pen whilst standing directly in a flight path and sorting qualifications into a bucket’ trends that result in less musicking and musical experience in our curriculum time.  Yet in this project some groups spent large chunks of lessons reading the newspaper or doing online searches about topics that interested them, and I believe that this use of “music” time was a valuable one.  We’ve had too many minutes of silence recently, for too many sad events.  Perhaps silence is so important at these times because we don’t know what to say.  And perhaps music, and song writing in particular, can help us to find a way of expressing our responses to circumstances which are beyond our usual vocabularies.

Yesterday, in our last lesson together, the Year 6 girls listened to one another’s songs.  I was overwhelmed by their responses to one another’s work, which often highlighted things I hadn’t considered myself.  For example, a member of the class commented on how powerful it was, in a song about friendships dissolving, that the three singers began in unison and gradually moved towards singing different melodies simultaneously.  There were many such moments in the lesson, where the girls recognized the potential for music to illustrate ideas that we also articulate verbally – and those which we cannot.  How wonderful that through music we have a space for these conversations.




My London is passing along the high street this Sunday morning.

The kid on rollerblades, weaving around as he tells his dad about the driving theory test requirements.

The pushchairs and wheelchairs, occupied by those at either end of life.

The lycra-d and hipster-bearded, the hungover and the church-goer.

My London is choosing whether to turn left towards Woodford and Waitrose, or right towards Leytonstone and Tesco, and hearing a snippet of The Archers whilst I’m in the car.  It’s the bus driver last night, who let me on even though my Oyster card was running low and then dropped me off at the end of my road because the bus stop is badly lit.

My London is the children I teach, who are worldly, inquisitive, in tune, aware; who represent so many cultures and countries, who are British and who call London home.  It’s the woman I chatted to on the tube last weekend as she juggled kids and suitcases, and the tourists who asked us both which station was best for walking to the flower show.

My London is heading into Zone 1 to wander amongst the crowds, meet friends, be energized and excited.  It’s how last year I finally overcame my fear of the central line, which began with a bad Bank station rush hour experience back in 2004.  It’s going to Bethnal Green to hear live music and being assaulted by smells and sounds and traffic and arts and interesting people.  It’s finding a Thai curry place near Covent Garden that does luxurious beef mussaman for six quid, or a weird gig venue with taxidermy in the toilets.

Your London is different to my London, and different to your neighbour’s.  And our Londons carry on today, and we carry on within it.  I love what this city makes me and what I can make of myself here.  So to answer the questions that have arrived on messenger from across the world, I’m ok this morning.  I’m angry and saddened, and so is my London.  But it is still so much more than terror.

st pauls from the bridge


I’m on a week’s holiday with the family, which prompts tweets like this one:

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To which David Ashworth sent a fascinating, almost spooky reply, given that Little Nephew (who is 4) had also enthusiastically demonstrated and then delegated the performance of the various sound effects of Yellow Submarine:

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David’s tweet prompted thoughts about music that has interesting features, but is not good to listen to.  For example, I have no doubt that many GCSE teachers are glad to see the back of Peripetie!  I personally love some of Schoenberg’s music, and the logical bit of me can understand why that particular piece was included in the old anthology – but I did not enjoy listening to Peripetie regularly, and often found myself encouraging pupils to listen to Verklarte Nacht for a bit more context about Schoenberg’s output.  I imagine it’d be a bit like learning all about Yellow Submarine without ever hearing Yesterday or All You Need Is Love.

Then Nigel Taylor saw my reply to David, and made this fabulous point about the different ways to experience music:

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All of this reminded me of a recurring conversation amongst music teachers: is it a good idea to get kids playing the music they like to listen to?  Will it inspire them, or put them off? And if the latter, why?  Because we are trying too hard to make our lessons relevant and ‘cool’?  Because the resources available aren’t ideal for replicating the recordings that they are used to? Because the music is too technically demanding, or not demanding enough?  Because teachers try to make it conform to western classical norms by the use of staff notation or other inauthentic alterations?  I raised concerns about this last point in a recent presentation about the permeation of the western classical music canon and its approaches into school music education generally – but that’s another story.  And of course the frequent assumption that using recently-released music automatically equates to informal learning and/or “fun lessons” is another story again.

And there’s the media response whenever we have new exam specs that include popular music: in 2015, AQA featured in the press for “refreshing” the GCSE listening paper by including The Beatles (that’s The Telegraph’s word, not mine).  But to our pupils The Beatles are OLD.  And whilst I’m definitely not saying that this means young people won’t enjoy studying their music, we should recognize that it is not necessarily any more “refreshing” to them than, say, Mozart.  Indeed, when teaching the legacy Edexcel GCSE course, I found that my classes often mentioned the Mozart and Handel pieces as their favourites in the anthology, and not because they were ‘classical kids’ who performed Mozart and Handel outside of school.  In a list of 12 pieces, these were no more relevant or irrelevant to them than the popular music and 20th century music choices.

Thanks then to both David and Nigel for raising some useful questions about interesting and good music, and about different ways of experiencing music.  After half term, I’m going to ask them to my KS2 classes and see what they have to say.  Finally, this seems like a great photo/blog matching opportunity.  Bananas are yellow, like the aforementioned submarine.  I really hate bananas, but I liked that this one had been personalized – and was somewhat disturbed to find it abandoned in the road.  We should be less willing to abandon music that contains interest, even if it is not good to listen to.





May Day is a time for DIY, media coverage of SATs angst, finishing up the last of the Easter chocolate and, like all bank holidays, probable rain.  If you live somewhere Ambridge-like, there’s Maypole dancing.  For secondary teachers, it’s also a time for marking GCSE and A Level coursework, and sending up desperate prayers about the fate of any students whose work is still incomplete.

This year my coursework deadlines have been for my own work.  Rather than spending the Easter holiday marking GCSE performances or A Level compositions, I was trying to make sense of Nietzsche.  Unlike most UK PhD students, I’ve spent the first five terms of my degree doing coursework.  And yes, there are similarities to doing GCSEs.  Some courses have very specific requirements about how work is presented – not dissimilar to DT coursework back in 1999, where everything had to be done on A3 paper: the school only had one A3 printer and colour printing was expensive, so woe betide anyone who asked to re-print a page.  There are the “big” assignments, often worth 40% of a final grade, that take months and often have a fair degree of freedom over topic and approach.  And there are the “busy work” assignments, as my friend Amy refers to them, which are reminiscent of experiments for Double Award Science both in weighting and intellectual freedom.

For me, there have been huge advantages to this system.  I’ve read diversely and become aware of relevant theory, learnt from several professors (yes, in Canada we make university sound like Hogwarts), had regular writing deadlines, explored other disciplines, and had weekly opportunities for face-to-face interaction with other doctoral students.  Crucially, I didn’t need to have a research proposal before starting the PhD, which is often the case in the UK.  Instead, the coursework process has allowed me to really explore the field of music education and dip into other areas that interest me, and I hope that the research and dissertation-writing process (not called a thesis, as in the UK) will be easier as a result.

Of course there are drawbacks too.  The whole PhD process is longer, there will bits of courses that are unpleasant, and my perception is that coursework creates a bigger hierarchical divide amongst PhD students than that of the upgrade system in the UK.  Plus it’s a bit demoralizing when I have to explain to UK colleagues that not only am I not nearly finished, I haven’t even started data collection.

Some ‘concluding thoughts’, if I’m being scholarly, and ‘takeaways’ if I’m being teacher-y.  Coursework is tough going at any age: I didn’t blog at all in March or April, and I know that most GCSE and A Level students probably faced even more pressure with deadlines.  PhD structures vary considerably (some doctoral degrees at Western have actual written exams post-coursework, which sounds horribly like doing A Levels again), and we should try not to make assumptions about what others are experiencing.  Finally, finding opportunities for choice and individuality has made my own work more valuable to me: from the infamous bacon and coconut bread of DT coursework, to analysis of music education provision for children with SEN in mainstream schools.  And since I’ve been too busy unravelling Nietzsche to find a course-work related photo, here’s something generically moody and intense.



My holiday finishes later today, when Laura and I fly back to Canada and part ways.  We’re at La Guardia airport now (Terminal B is not exactly a major shopping and dining destination), so there’s just time to post a final update.

I spent Friday afternoon meandering my way up town through several neighbourhoods and SATC fan-girling at the New York Public Library.  On Saturday, I walked in the other direction, down to the lower east side, taking pictures of shopfronts and street art, and stopping every few blocks for tea or coffee.  I was booked onto two tours at the Tenement Museum, which were amazing.  The walking tour, which focused on the food cultures of immigrant communities from the 1880s to the present day, was the best sort of history lesson: we were outside, the sun was shining, and there was a different snack every ten minutes.  The places we visited told stories of assimilation, persecution and poverty, but the wonderful food was a powerful illustration of how societies and individuals can also evolve in positive ways.

Saturday evening began with us getting caught in the rain.  Like, proper movie rain.  Only I was with Laura, rather than Colin Firth or Hugh Grant, and it was made even less romantic by leaking shoes and broken umbrellas.  We dried off in a pizza place before arriving at Radio City Music Hall to see Lauryn Hill.  I may write about the concert another time, but the pertinent point for now is that we regretted not eating a more substantial dinner.  Accordingly, this morning we returned to a vegetarian breakfast place from earlier in the week where we both had smoothies, granola-y things and copious hot drinks.  After packing, we did a quick tour of the Whitney, which has wonderful balconies as well as art, then got hot dogs from Greenwich Market to eat on our way back to the hotel.

Thank yous are owed to Emma for breakfast in DC and meticulous NY food tips; to Eric for Friday night beers and bar snacks; to Cathy for museum recommendations; to Jess for telling me about her parents’ trip to the Tenement Museum; to Grandma for the birthday and Christmas presents of holiday funds; and to my oldest friend, Laura, for a wonderful ten days away.  Not only did she bring garibaldi biscuits, but she also paid for cocktails and volunteered to sleep on the top bunk.  In fact, she’s so fabulous that I value her friendship almost as highly as a rainy encounter with Colin.  Almost.



This is our third full day in New York and the glorious weather continues.  We have a ‘cabin’ in a boat-themed hotel, and all the space that the term ‘cabin’ implies.  It is great to be staying somewhere interesting, and the stuffed peacocks and stag heads in the lobby make up for not having a wardrobe, although my own previous experiences of boats have never coincided with taxidermy.

On Tuesday evening we walked through Manhattan and over the Brooklyn Bridge, which helped us to get our bearings.  I spent most of Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was phenomenal.  Yes, there are big museums in London, but they are not as big.  It was a new experience have so many collections from different places and periods all in one building.  The deer in the Japanese exhibition was perplexing, being so obviously real despite its unusual presentation.  Thursday included a visit to the 9/11 memorial, time at the National Museum of the American Indian (which has a fantastic fashion exhibition) and a trip on the Staten Island Ferry.  The evening was taken up with a broadway show and cocktails.  So far today, I’ve been to yoga and explored more of the West Village, and I’m about to head up towards the New York Public Library.

Of course the ‘big’ things have all been interspersed with much walking and much food.  And the walking is really the best bit about being here, seeing so many familiar landmarks, browsing shop windows and people-watching.  As a Brit who finds Canada a bit too wide (sorry, Canada), it’s wonderful to be on a small island with visible coasts.  Which of course explains the boat-themed hotel, if not the stuffed peacocks.



A few years ago the Junior Christmas Play included a ‘country’ song, sung by the Wise Men, with the glorious line

“When we started out we didn’t mind the odd blister

But now every blister’s got a brother and sister”

It’s been playing on my internal loop this weekend, since we’ve walked at least ten miles each day whilst in Washington DC, accompanied by lots of time spent standing at memorials and in museums.  Diligent use of a Boot’s blister stick has staved off serious pain, but we are both feeling a bit creaky this morning and glad of a chance to recuperate on the train journey to New York.  Here’s a quick run-down of events since my last post:

We visited the Stuart Davis exhibition in the west building of the National Gallery of Art and also took in a few Monet paintings.  I was bemused by the number of people openly taking photographs of paintings, which would not be tolerated in UK galleries.  A few paintings had signs asking visitors not to take photos, so presumably the others are fair game?

Next was the Vietnam memorial, which was incredibly powerful.  We spent quite a while reading the names on the main memorial, then moved to see the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which contrasts in design and anonymity.  In a part of the city where so many individuals and groups are memorialized, it is a powerful opportunity to reflect on who is remembered, how, and by whom.

Saturday evening was our jolly to the Kennedy Center, which will probably feature in another blog.  It was Laura’s first experience of an orchestral performance in a major concert venue, and she asked some questions that really got me thinking about how I listen to music.  I also spent quite a lot of time admiring the building – and thinking how much more posh it is than the South Bank Centre!  The audience’s standing ovations were intriguing.  A large proportion of the audience stood immediately after the concerto performance: I did think it was very good, but I was bemused by the speed at which people got to their feet.  The same response was given to the orchestra after the final item in the programme, which surprised me again.  Are Americans more enthusiastic, more willing to express their praise?  Perhaps in Britain we are overly caught up in classical music etiquette?  Or just lazier?

Sunday morning was designated for our visit to Arlington Cemetery, which was awesome in the true sense of the word.  The warm weather continued, so we walked over the bridge into Virginia (another state ticked off!) and wandered round the cemetery in shirt sleeves and sunglasses.  The number of graves was powerful, as was the simplicity and beauty of the site.  I haven’t visited any of the equivalent British cemeteries, but there seems to be a difference in how we create and maintain spaces for grieving and remembering.

Laura spent the afternoon at a battle site and vineyard, whereas I walked back into the city and went to the National Portrait Gallery.  It was a calm, beautiful indoor space that I could probably spend a week in.  The Bravo! exhibition was fascinating for its juxtaposition of media and subjects, and I also enjoyed spending time sat on a comfy sofa, catching up with Facebook whilst surrounded by modern sculptures.

Monday morning saw yet more sun and a beautiful walk that took in the Capitol Building, Supreme Court and Library of Congress.  We didn’t go into any of them, but revelled in the warm weather and small crowds, before heading over to Newseum.  What a fascinating blast of reality it is!  Again the blisters/sisters line seemed relevant.  So many of the struggles recounted there highlighted the potential for people to unite and support one another.  The vivid examples of oppression and disaster were particularly poignant when considered alongside all the memorials we’d visited.  Humanity’s ability to repeat the same mistakes was depressingly evident, prompting us to discuss issues of power and community over dinner.

So, here we are on the train, watching Delaware go by, and it all feels a bit serious.  Maybe it’s time to listen to the Kinky Boots soundtrack in preparation for Thursday’s Broadway trip.  On the other hand, that makes me think of shoes, which makes me remember how much my feet hurt… and then I just feel lucky that my #firstworldproblems are unlikely to feature in a Newseum exhibition.