The ‘good-enough’ music teacher

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Keith Swanwick – ‘The ‘good-enough’ music teacher’ (2008)

About this series

Dr Steven Berryman, Curriculum Lead for the Music Teachers Association (MTA), has launched a collective blogging project working with the editors of the British Journal of Music Education (BJME), Martin Fautley and Ally Daubney.

Martin, Ally and Steven have curated a selection of articles from the Journal highlighting some of the key debates in Music Education in the classroom.

Teachers have an article to read each week, and can submit a response by the end of the week. Responses are gathered together to form one blog post shared on MUSIC:ED.

The ‘good-enough’ music teacher

The MTA’s second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Keith Swanwick – ‘The ‘good-enough’ music teacher’ (2008).


Teaching and learning are complex processes and evaluating the work of music teachers is neither obvious nor simple. The outcomes of educational transactions may not be completely or immediately apparent. Furthermore, the contexts in which musical skills and understanding are acquired are multiple, going well beyond the formal categories of ‘general’ class music teacher or the ‘private’ instrumental and vocal teacher. In many of these alternative settings, standardised student assessment or teacher evaluation processes may be inappropriate.

In this paper, an approach to evaluating teaching and learning draws on Swanwick’s three principles for music educators. To these three principles is added the need to understand the educational and social context in which a teacher works. These criteria help to identify the ‘good-enough’ teacher’s contribution to students’ musical development.

The concept of the ‘good-enough’ teacher is exemplified, not in the context of conventional formal teaching settings but in a third, much less defined role, that of music leader. The extent to which music leaders contribute to their musical environment is evaluated in a study of their continuing professional development. This evaluation was initiated by Youth Music, a UK organisation working alongside the formal and community-based sectors to support music-making and training.


Samantha Caffull

  • Head of Music, St Thomas More Catholic School – @s_caff

I find the title of this article, ‘The ‘Good-Enough’ Music Teacher’ to be somewhat controversial! Whilst the article outlines the concept of ‘good-enough’ as based on Winnicott’s (1953) conception of the ‘good-enough’ mother, and indeed considers it as a set of guidelines to strive for in music teaching, my instinctive reaction to the phrase ‘good-enough’ was rather different.

As music teachers, or indeed ‘leaders’, is it enough to strive to be ‘good-enough’, or should we be aiming higher than that? If observed, I would probably be disappointed if my teaching was described as ‘good-enough’, and would much prefer to be described as highly-skilled, inspirational, or dare I say it, ‘outstanding’. Yet if I consider the reality, I would probably have to admit that 80% of my teaching might be considered ‘good enough’ and a smaller percentage of my lessons might be considered as outstanding, particularly in our current climate of remote teaching via online platforms.

The article raises another important issue of the gap which exists between music ‘teachers’ and ‘leaders’, and although written in 2008, it seems this is still an issue. Music leaders are quoted in the article as not wanting to be titled ‘music teachers’, which begs the question, what is wrong with being a music teacher?! Swanwick sheds some light on this, concluding that teachers provide ‘structure and quality assurance,’ whilst music leaders give ‘energy and authenticity to the musical transactions’. Again, as a music teacher, I would hope that in my classroom I don’t just provide structure, but also give a positive energy and that I am perceived by my students as an authoritative musical figure.  Let us strive to not just be ‘good-enough’, but to be excellent music teachers for our pupils!

Catherine Barker

  • Head of Music and Performing Arts, United Learning – @United_Music1

Some reflections: The ‘good-enough’ music teacher – the ‘ultimate’ music department?

Music is about community.

The interplay between formal teaching, music leaders both in school and beyond, and community music-making demonstrates how engagement in the discipline encompasses the world both in and the other side of the school gates. Just like a community, everybody has their role to play

Music is a social discourse, and a social practice.

Where provision thrives, it is where music-making is hand in hand with social practices (the buzzing lunchtime department, well-attended concerts, touring, lifelong friendships). Non-formal structures, and teaching practices, can nurture this.

Music needs leadership and humility (the strong, open HOD). We only know what we know, and we learn from each other for the benefit of the whole department. We draw on each other’s expertise.

To work towards the ‘ultimate’ music department, and therefore the best possible offer for children and young people, all members of this musical community are needed – the vision and ownership must be shared.

Cade Bonar

  • Head of Music, St Andrew’s Anglican College, Queensland, Australia – @cmbonar

Despite the intentions and efforts of many teachers and curriculum designers concerned with the provision of meaningful school music education, traditions and cultural conservatism have remained firmly embedded. School music education is too often an ‘island’, inhabited by well-meaning ‘natives’ intent on preserving their culture, identity and values (whatever they may be). It is an understandable position, but one that may easily stagnate and even sow generational discontent. I am in no way dismissive of the intent, and in many cases value, of these cultural offerings, though the following extract from John Donne’s ‘Devotions on Emergent Occasions’ perhaps provides something for us to consider:

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…’

If we position school music education as an ‘island’, it quickly begins to serve those on that island and that island alone. This is not necessarily a bad thing; that is, until it is seen as the only place where ‘music proper’ is found; an island entire of itself. Offerings from the ‘main’ may be dismissed or seen as lesser in value, but in this we only diminish their potentially rich contribution and continued influence in our own spaces.

I fear I have stretched the analogy a little too far, but fundamentally Swanwick argues that we value and embrace the potential contributions of each ‘island’ as part of the ‘main’. The care for music as a living form of human discourse, the care for the discourse of others, and the promotion of fluency in meaningful exchange, offer a common foundation for all musical interactions, and the tapestry of different dialects only serves to enrich and inform localised models.

The ‘good enough’ teacher recognises not only this, but also that they themselves are a potential ‘island’. To resort to another analogy, they realise that it ‘takes a village to raise a child’ (perhaps on the ‘main’?). They respect that others can complement and even supplement the journey for the learner and humbly accept that it is not their sole responsibility; they place students in front of multiple teachers, musicians, significant others and experiences to enrich and extend; their actions transcend unhelpful categorisations of music learning; they simply ‘teach music musically’…

School music teachers are but one part of a student’s musical journey; those ‘good enough’ offer a significant influence that connect any ‘islands’ to the ‘main’. As Donne warns, if we continue work on (or as) an ‘island’, or we discount the influence of others, we diminish the potential richness of educative interaction for our students:

‘…if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’

The ‘good enough’ teacher works to keep the potential influence of the ‘main’ whole and in doing so the richness of musical discourse alive.

Vaughan Fleischfresser

In reading this article, my mind is drawn to my response from last week, where I discussed the loss of pupils along the path to the pre-determined end point of curricular music in schools. If music education is to be for everyone, then it must embrace the three principles of the ‘good-enough teacher’. When teaching and teachers fail to consider the musical discourse that pupils bring to the classroom, and when the many and varied ways that musical fluency can be acquired are also sidelined, then the aim of music for everyone becomes further from our grasp.

As Salaman states, ‘a child should emerge from a lesson a little altered’, yet it is my belief that this can only occur if they themselves are willing to be altered. For this to occur, we (the teacher) must do all we can to broaden our focus beyond the imposed tick box criteria and pre-determined end points of formal music education. A child can only become fluent in musical discourse when they are consistently and continually engaged in rich musical encounters. This is where the concept of the musical leader/teacher, and the melding together of the two, becomes vital to ensuring music for everyone.

Living and educating in the ‘space between’ is most certainly the ideal, and where the magic happens. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. The pressures of exams and putting bums on seats in the formal qualification years can result in the ‘space between’ becoming the ‘space non-existent’. Thus, the importance of musical leaders aligning themselves with the attributes of music teachers, and music teachers aligning themselves with the attributes of musical leaders, becomes ever more so. If we want our pupils to love music, to have a meaningful relationship with it, and to be fluent in it, then the two approaches need to find a meaningful way of becoming interchangeable. In addition to this, the singular end point of music education in schools needs to broaden. Only then will we be doing a good-enough job at ensuring music is for everyone.

James Leveridge

  • Teacher of Music in Newham, London – @jleverEd

Swanwick’s article begins with a discussion on issues in music teaching and learning, raising some interesting points, particularly that teaching in schools may, in many cases, be geared towards demonstrating the ‘alteration’ of students. Swanwick describes a range of complexities within music education, including the key point that progression may not always be noticeable and/or immediately visible. Furthermore, Swanwick reminds us of how musical learning is not restricted to the classroom and may occur in various ways beyond this environment.

The article’s initial discussion leads me to reflect upon how trying to show ‘alteration’ and teaching to prescribed outcomes may detriment longer-term musical progression. I can recognise how the influence of observers, visitors, or perhaps working in an exam-centric school environment may lead to teachers gaining an urgency to display short-term progress which may not always benefit students’ longer-term development. Furthermore, focusing on enabling students to fulfil checklists may demonstrate ‘alteration’ but may not always have much of an impact on their overall development. Despite this, perhaps there is some degree of balancing required, particularly as students recognising their own musical progress and ‘alteration’ in large classes may play a role in their motivation which may inspire them to engage with music beyond the classroom.

Swanwick states that the good-enough music teacher will ‘promote the growth of their [students’] musical autonomy’. Although school expectations may be to ensure students are prepared for external exams, which may include a certain degree of checklist fulfilment and adhering to prescribed outcomes, it is surely our duty to ensure students develop beyond the confines of exam specifications? Perhaps Swanwick’s point that ‘to promote a musical environment, teachers also need some understanding of the context in which they and their students work’ also reflects the importance of getting to know our students, building upon their existing skills and interests, as well as reflecting upon our own strengths and interests as musicians and teachers and how this can inspire students’ longer-term musical engagement and development.

David House

It was so good to revisit this article. I recall reading it when it came out and the impact it made on me then. For me, the analogy with the “good enough” mother made early on is crucial in that it draws out the way in which a mother will be there, be supportive, be prepared to supply what is needed; but also to be able to stand to one side, to allow failure [with the proviso that they can pick up the pieces], to nurture, support and encourage. That is what I have constantly aimed to do, and still aim to do.

Watching a Y13 group struggle with some harmonic analysis today was a case in point – it would have been too easy to point out the octatonic scale and neapolitan sixth harmony, but to pose apposite questions allowing them to tease out the answers for themselves was what was needed and what I supplied. I think that prior to 2008 and the appearance of Swanwick’s article I would not have done that.  Also pleased that reading this today prompts me to revisit William Salaman’s book.

Liz Dunbar

The concept of the ‘good enough’ music teacher is fascinating. On one level the relationship of the teacher and learner is one of apprenticeship. The teacher models, deconstructs, and maps a pathway that enables students to assimilate new information or new skills. There are so many things to discuss here, so I’ll choose just one; the aspect that Swanwick calls ‘the space between’.

When you first start teaching, it’s easy to be impatient. Why don’t all my students get what I’m talking about first time? Why are they still getting this thing wrong? What’s wrong with the way in which I’m teaching this thing? I need to do it another way to get my students to understand, and understand right now. The clock’s ticking, I’ve got a syllabus to get through you know.

The thing we’re forgetting is the ‘space between’.

With experience, we come to understand the concept of delayed or deferred learning – an acceptance that it might take a certain amount of time for the ‘penny to drop’. Sometimes this takes years, not minutes, hours or days, but weeks, months and years for the students make a fully rounded meaningful connection with the point you were trying to get across. We forget all too often to see it from the student’s perspective. This is new learning.

In the same way as it takes time for our students’ skills to develop and mature, it takes time for us to learn how to create the right conditions to use the ‘space between’ effectively in our teaching. How much is too much? How much is too little? How much autonomy do we give our students? When is it time to step in and redirect, and when it’s right to let students find their own way?

I can stand outside a practice room, unseen, and hear that there’s no need for me to intervene. The learning taking place is a symbiosis of what students have learnt from their teachers, and their cooperation with one another, the sharing of ideas, the self-correction, the agreed direction. The mistakes they make together, the discourse they have along the way, is in many respects much more important than the final artefact.

Sometimes I like to stick my head round the door and say ‘this is great, now move on to that tricky middle section, take it apart, and dig out where the problems are’. Sometimes that’s all it needs. With experience, we learn when to step in and intervene. We get better and better at knowing how to judge the required ‘space between’ to match students’ needs and experience.

When I become impatient, as much with myself as with my students, I take a breath, and steady myself by thinking about yr11 students when they were in year 10, or year 13 students when they were in year 12. I take time to reflect on the changes I have seen in an individual’s fluency, creativity, confidence or maturity. And when students doubt themselves, I use the same technique. I ask them to describe where their learning was a year ago. Hopefully, that’s  ‘good enough’.

Liz Gleed

  • Subject Leader for Music at Bristol Cathedral Choir School – @mrsgleedmusic

How do we know if teaching is good enough? This article brought about so much thought for me. As a classroom teacher this question is what provoked the most thought.

The line between input and output is an important consideration. A big conflict of mine is always trying to balance giving students long and meaningful time in a timetabled music lesson to make music and show progress, yet also taking careful time within that lesson to model and inspire outcomes. There is a craft to making sure the explanation is well timed, inspires and does not oversteer or micromanage these outcomes. Students are always champing at the bit to get onto practical work, but how many times have I started practical too quickly, then realised that more teacher input was needed, and then considered resetting the lesson? The answer is lots! The balance of over managing practical work verses giving students clear guidance and challenge is a tough one.

I also agree with the discussion here about outcomes being given too much value. At key stage 3 I am relentlessly telling students that an imperfect final performance is not the ultimate reflection of the work and progress put in over the weeks. That their progress and music making cannot be judged and valued based on a sole performance. Some of the most powerful moments of music making can often be seen midway through a project, buried within group work in a whole class situation.

I find non specialist observers do need to be signposted to these in order to really understand their value. It can be hard to show this value in the ongoing work instead of the final outcome with the necessary rhythm of whole school end of term assessments, students are used to working to an end goal. It reminds me of a piece of advice I have given to NQTs and trainees over the years: have the confidence to stop and take time to stand back. Watch what is happening and model the value of making music. Not just preparing for an outcome. I think one of the key roles of an excellent music teacher does come down the role of facilitator in this context.

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