Interview with Michael Griffin

Michael GriffinToday I am pleased to welcome Michael Griffin, author of the Music and Keyboard in the Classroom curriculum, to Music Matters Blog for an exclusive interview.

Music Matters Blog (MMB): What prompted you to write your own classroom curriculum for your music classes? Why did you choose to emphasize keyboard studies?

Michael Griffin (MG): For many years, I was teaching occasional lessons in a keyboard lab as part of a wider curriculum, and whilst each lesson I designed had a structure and purpose, I recognized the need for an over-arching curriculum design. It also occurred to me that I needed a differentiated curriculum to allow all students to work comfortably at their own rate. To my surprise, and despite a world-wide search, I could not find any suitable resources or models, so I decided to write my own.
The emphasis on keyboard studies was the natural result of witnessing so many general music kids respond and engage enthusiastically to learning through keyboards. Keyboards are a fantastic value for money these days, and I have tried to share many creative lesson ideas through my books. In my background, I studied classical piano at university for 4-years, and now play professionally in a jazz trio. Also, I have been a keen student of educational pedagogy, so all in all I felt I had something to offer the educational community.

MMB: I love your student teacher idea! Will you explain to my readers how it works and the benefits you have experienced in your classroom as a result of implementing it?MG:Thank you –I have to say that despite the simplicity of this idea, it has proven to be a fantastic motivator in my classrooms, yet somewhat surprisingly it is unique! Everyone who learns about this gets very excited about implementing it. I explain it fully in the teacher manual, but in a nutshell, this is how it works:
The first premise is that students need to learn self-evaluation. Hence after each exercise, there is a place for students to place their signature indicating that they believe they have played the exercise correctly. They are then free to move on to the next exercise. In the meantime, the teacher will also assess the student and sign off if appropriate. As you can imagine, there can be quite a disparity between student evaluation and teacher evaluation. This is where some wonderful learning opportunities arise as the teacher helps the student to discover necessary improvements in order to complete the task correctly. At the beginning of this expectation, I find many students reticent to evaluate themselves. They are more comfortable in the teacher evaluating every step of their progress. Maybe they are used to this, but we must try and lead them into these higher-learning processes. With practice and effort, they can all do this.
The second premise is that students enjoy learning and sharing knowledge with their peers, so I actively encourage this. I tell the students that I am not the only teacher in the classroom, and that if they can play an exercise particularly well, I may grant them ‘teacher status’ for that particular exercise. This allows them to do what I do: find students who have signed off on an exercise and are ready for a ‘teacher’ evaluation. I then observe their interactions with their peers and in a sense teach them how to teach. They love this aspect of the course and it excites me to see them respecting each other on these new levels. My students know that ‘teacher status’ can be revoked if abused, but I have only ever had to do this once!

MMB: Could you see your curriculum being successfully implemented by an independent music teacher who wanted to offer a group keyboard class for Middle School students?

MG: This course was designed with classes of middle school students in mind, and I have enjoyed teaching classes of up to 24 students in my keyboard lab, with one student to a keyboard. However, I have had independent music teachers buy the books and the feedback has been very positive. I know that some teachers have found the improvisation and aural exercises in Book 2 a useful model to copy. Also, I have an adult education version and I recently delivered this to a group of 10 parents from my school. They were inspired by their students learning my student course to take up keyboard themselves and they loved it! I see this as a springboard to learning with an independent teacher, not as an end in itself. The thing about adult learning is that many like to learn in groups, as long as they can work at their own rate. One of my prime aims with adults is to give them confidence in their ability to learn new skills. After the course, I encourage these adult learners to continue their learning and I have found that now they have dipped their toe in the water, many seek the private tuition model.

MMB: How well do you think a student would transition from this class-based approach into a private piano study setting? Do you think that delaying the introduction of the left hand and hands-together playing is an obstacle to the student’s progress if they desire to go further in their piano studies?

MG: Each year I do some action research to ascertain the success or otherwise of my courses. From recent data 72 % of my students (I presently teach almost 200 students this course) indicated an increased interest in music directly attributable to taking my course. 45% said they would consider private piano lessons in the future. These figures please me very much as I like to encourage all students to explore their musicality on an instrument that suits them, and with a teacher they can connect with.

As for your 2nd question, Music and Keyboard in the Classroom is first and foremost a general music curriculum as distinct from a keyboard skill development program. Students learn musicianship through practical keyboard activity. I delay the introduction of the left hand and hands together playing so as to focus on some very basic musical rudiments with a minimum of technical restrictions. There are many excellent beginner books; mine was not designed to compete with them.

MMB: In the Teacher’s Guide (pg. 39), you state that you spend about 20 minutes in another room before moving over to the keyboard lab. You mention that, “This time is spent doing the associated theory and listening exercises within Music and Keyboard in the Classroom, practising aural skills through the pieces and setting goals for their practical work.” I’m curious to know more about the goals that you have the students set for their practical work. Can you elaborate?

MG: My intention here is to encourage students to plan their learning and practicing session. Students will goal set for the lesson by looking ahead at what difficulties they expect to encounter, and how best to overcome them. We talk about chunking, practice tempo and things like that. Also, each lesson has some associated theory questions pertinent to that lesson. I might do some extra exercises on the board. As you said in your review, my books use many well known classical melodies so I often find examples on YouTube to help bring the music alive for the students and play them on the interactive whiteboard. I also use some of the exercises for sight-seeing and rhythmic reading. In other words, I try to integrate the exercises as fully as possible. So this is how the first 20 minutes or so is spent. Bear in mind, my lessons are for 1 hour, and for kids this age, that’s a bit long to spend at a keyboard in one session.

MMB: What are your future plans for the development of this curriculum (subsequent books, web resources, etc.)?

MG: Firstly, I wish to continue to add interesting and relevant support to my web resources page. I have started a 3rd student book which should be finished by the end of this year. I will also be presenting a paper ‘Creating Emotional Intelligence Opportunities through the Keyboard Laboratory’ at the ISME conference in Bologna, Italy in July this year. (By the way, this conference is a must for world-wide music educators; go to for more details).

My books are being well received in a number of countries now, possibly because the content is relevant to the music education aims of many countries, but due to my full-time commitments as a school teacher, and my part-time work as a musician, time is becoming more difficult to find to promote my materials. Therefore, I presently have a couple of publishers considering my work. But as for now, I still receive orders by email, and (for international customers) am selling the books in PDF format only.

MMB: Will you share a little bit about some of your other music work – your choral arrangements, etc?

MG: Choral music is another passion of mine. When I worked in Australia I was very fortunate to conduct some fine student choirs and I have made available many of the recordings on my website for free download. Hopefully, this is a useful resource of repertoire for high school and college choral directors. I’ve also uploaded about 50 YouTube videos of choir performances. I have done some choral arranging, but not as much as I would like due to time constraints.

One other area of interest is the use of background music in educational and other commercial environments. I did a Masters degree on this topic a couple of years back, and have given some seminars to various groups on the psychology and implementation for background music structures. For example, I have a presentation called Study, Stress and Music for senior students where I present and discuss with students how the music they listen to whilst studying can positively or negatively affect their learning. It’s a fascinating subject and I really enjoy learning about it. I think schools could implement music in a very positive manner through the entire school environment. Recently I’ve been interviewed in a few industry magazines on the same ideas, but applied to marketing and retail industries such as how to select appropriate music for various commercial scenarios etc. My Masters dissertation Background Music and the Learning Environment can be downloaded freely from my Background Music website page.

MMB: Any other comments you would like to share?

MG: I just wish to thank you Natalie for giving me the opportunity to discuss my ideas on your blog. It’s great meeting people like you who share the same passion for spreading the wonders of music education around the world. If your readers would like to discuss these issues further, they may email me. I am also available for school consultations and conference presentations.

MMB: Thank you so much, Mr. Griffin! It’s been a pleasure to review your materials and conduct this interview!

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