Student-Centered Pedagogies in the Singapore Music Classroom: A Case Study on Collaborative Composition
Student-Centered Pedagogies in the Singapore Music Classroom: A Case Study on Collaborative Composition
ALFREDO BAUTISTA 0 1 2
0 Zid-Niel MANCENIDO HARVARD UNIVERSITY
1 Guo-Zheng TOH NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION
2 Joanne WONG NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION
Student-Centered Pedagogies in the Singapore Music Classroom:
A Case Study on Collaborative Composition
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University (United States of America)
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
Abstract: This article responds to recent calls for situated examples of
student-centered education. Our goal is to illustrate what
studentcentered pedagogies may look like in the music education classroom,
particularly in the context of collaborative composition activities. The
sample case presented features a Primary 5 Singaporean music
teacher implementing a collaborative composition lesson on Gamelan
Beleganjur, a traditional music style from Bali (Indonesia). After
describing the structure of the lesson, we analyze data from teacher
interviews, classroom interactions (illustrated with pictures), and
transcriptions of students’ compositions. We argue that the content
and design of the lesson itself, as well as the teacher’s genuine
interest in exploring students’ musical ideas and fostering
collaboration and creativity, led to the enactment of student-centricity.
Our ultimate aim is to provide an additional resource that might
inspire music educators (both specialists and generalists) in
embracing student-centered education in their classrooms.
Towards Student-Centered Education: The Case of Music Education in Singapore
The importance of offering new generations of learners a student-centered education has
been one of the most commonly emphasized themes in educational reforms around the world
(McKinsey & Company, 2007; OECD, 2014)
. After decades of rigid content-focused,
teacherdirected didactic methods, teachers of all education levels and subject matters have been
encouraged to enact student-centered pedagogies in the classroom, placing the learner at the
heart of teaching processes and orchestrating instruction around students’ ideas, interests, and
needs. Underlying this international push towards student-centricity has been increased empirical
evidence demonstrating its positive effects on a variety of outcomes. Indeed, compelling studies
1 Corresponding Author: Dr Alfredo Bautista. Assistant Dean, Professional Learning | Research Scientist & Lecturer. Nanyang
Technological University - National Institute of Education. Center for Research in Child Development. 1 Nanyang Walk.
NIE5B3-23. Singapore . Phone: (+65) 6790 3208. Email:
have shown that the adoption of student-centered pedagogies may lead to improved student
(Armbruster, Patel, Johnson, & Weiss, 2009)
, improved student achievement in
(Echazarra, Salinas, Mendez, Denis, & Rech, 2016)
, improved engagement in
disadvantaged student populations
, as well as higher graduation rates and reduced
(Friedlaender, Burns, Lewis-Charp, Cook-Harvey, & Darling-Hammond, 2014)
The educational literature presents multiple definitions and conceptualizations for the
term student-centered education, also known as student-centered (or learner-centric) pedagogies,
teaching, or instruction. According to Pedersen and Liu (2003), the ‘student-centered umbrella’
encompasses a variety of approaches such as Project-Based Learning (PBL), Case-Based
Learning (CBL), Goal-Based Scenarios (GBS), Inquiry-Based Pedagogies (IBP), and Learning
by Design (LBD). In these approaches, students are presented a ‘central question’ (in the form of
a problem, project, or case), which creates the need for certain knowledge/activities and provides
students with a common goal. This central question is typically open-ended, meaning that
multiple responses or solutions might be equally adequate or valid. Learning is the result of
students’ efforts to answer the central question, a process in which they must make and justify
their own decisions. The ultimate aim of student-centered education is to develop the autonomy
of the learner, foster creativity and problem-solving competencies, and enable lifelong learning
This move towards a student-centered education has been also observed in Singapore, the
country where this study was conducted. In recent years, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has
actively encouraged teachers to be cognizant of students’ unique learning styles, needs,
motivations, and talents, as well as to leverage all available resources to develop pedagogies that
are responsive to the diversity of students in schools (MOE, 2010). Moreover, teachers have
been encouraged to turn classrooms into laboratories for thoughtful experimentations and
creative exploration. The goal is to help every student to become a “confident person,
selfdirected learner, active contributor and a concerned citizen” (MOE, 2010, p. 3), thereby
nurturing key 21st-century competencies such as critical and inventive thinking, communication
skills, and global awareness. These competencies are to underpin the holistic education provided
by all Singaporean schools, with the final aim of better preparing students for the future (MOE,
Music education plays a key role towards MOE’s strategic direction of a student-centered
education. Music is a compulsory subject in Singapore primary and lower secondary schools.
Because music is regarded as one of the key focus areas in pursuing the goal of holistic
(Lum & Dairianathan, 2013)
, all children study general music for at least the first eight
years of their schooling. Students particularly interested in music often participate in
cocurricular activities such as band and choir, and/or take music as a subject leading to national
examinations at the upper secondary and junior college levels
(Chua & Ho, 2017)
. The latest
national music syllabus, called General Music Programme
, applies across primary
and secondary levels and is followed by all the Government (public) schools. Students are
expected to achieve five main learning outcomes: 1) Perform music in both instrumental and
vocal settings, individually and in groups; 2) Create music in both instrumental and vocal
settings, individually and in groups; 3) Listen and respond to music; 4) Appreciate music in local
and global cultures; and 5) Understand musical elements and concepts
In the context of 21st-century teaching and learning in Singapore (Tan, 2017), pedagogies
in the music classroom are expected to be primarily student-centric. When students are
encouraged to create music through student-centered pedagogies, this empowers their voices and
gives them increased agency. Moreover, when students work on musical analyses and
performances collaboratively, this provides them with opportunities to grow in confidence as
self-directed learners and active contributors, nurturing their critical thinking and fostering social
(Costes-Onishi & Caleon, 2016)
. Further, given the diverse cultural perspectives and
musical traditions presented across the Singapore national music curriculum, student-centered
pedagogies facilitate students’ global awareness and the development of their cross-cultural
(Chua & Ho, 2017)
. In the next section, we review the literature pertaining to collaborative
composition, an area of music that offers a particularly powerful avenue towards
Collaborative Composition as an Avenue toward Student-Centricity
In the past decades, a number of music educators and researchers—for example, Paynter
and Aston (1970), Swanwick (1979), Paynter (1982),
, Odam (1995),
, among many others—have argued that collaborative composition
activities should be at the heart of music pedagogy, underpinning the development of students’
musical knowledge, skills, and dispositions. This body of work assumes an experiential learning
approach by focusing on creative classroom music-making, and it builds on the inter-relatedness
of three key activities: listening, composing, and performing
(Garnett, 2013; Winters, 2012)
These ideas, mainly originated in the United Kingdom, have strongly influenced the
development of curriculum frameworks in many nations, from West to East, including countries
such as Singapore.
One of the most important advocates for the introduction of collaborative composition as
a curricular activity was John Paynter, a leading figure in the development of music education in
the United Kingdom and one of the most influential music education scholars in the twentieth
(Fautley & Savage, 2011)
. As a music educator himself, Paynter quickly realized that
music plays a vital role in children’s general education. He proposed that creative work should
be the starting point for all learners, bringing to the fore the idea of children as creative
composers. His first book, entitled Sound and Silence (Paynter & Aston, 1970), demonstrated
that all children—regardless of their age and ability level—could work imaginatively with
sounds, improvising and creating their own music collaboratively. This book exerted a powerful
influence on the acceptance of collaborative composition as the centerpiece of general music
education, thereby changing approaches to music teaching and learning in schools around the
world. In his subsequent books, Paynter continued to elaborate on ideas aligned with
studentcentered educational principles. For example, in Sound and Silence, Paynter (1982) claimed that
music education was to be centered on the child’s perceptions and insights, and that teachers
should encourage children to compose music in response to topics about which they felt deeply,
as well as about matters that engaged their imagination. Similarly, the basic tenet of Sound and
Structure (Paynter, 1992) was that we all learn best by doing, and therefore, by extension,
students should learn music by using their ears, working with sounds and making decisions about
In his many writings, Paynter argued that composition (what he preferred to call ‘making
up music’) was “the most natural thing in the world” (Paynter, 2002, p. 224), as the only
stimulus required by children is the opportunity and encouragement to play with sound. The
teacher simply needs to create the right atmosphere, by allowing children to make up their own
pieces, perform them for the others in the classroom, and discuss them. Paynter emphasized that
pieces should not be necessarily notated, especially in the early stages. To ensure that children
focus on what they hear, their compositions should be “invented directly through
experimentation and improvisation, confirmed by repetition, and remembered” (Paynter, 2002, p.
224). The teacher should also comment constructively on children’s pieces, drawing in all
members of the class through appropriate questioning, debate, and establishing connections with
compositions by other composers who have explored similar ideas.
The principle “The sound comes first”, initially articulated by Paynter and Aston (1970)
and later theorized by Odam (1995), was the genesis of an influential model proposed by
Swanwick (1979) in A Basis for Music Education. Swanwick argued that a comprehensive model
of musical experience should involve composition (C), literature studies (L), audition (A), skill
acquisition (S), and performance (P) – CLASP. Underlying this model is the idea that music
involves multiple layers of meaning, ranging from intuitive layers to others that involve explicit
analysis. For this reason, the CLASP proposes that music educators should provide learners with
opportunities to experience music in practical ways (i.e., listening to and playing examples of
music, exploring its characteristics through composition, and evaluating the results). This
practical experience is then complemented by reading and analysis of the literature and technical
studies. This ensures that students gain active experience with music (i.e., music from different
cultures, self-composed pieces), as well as knowledge about music (Swanwick, 1999).
Since these seminal works, collaborative composition as a curricular activity has received
increasing attention. For example, during the 1980’s, music educators and researchers
investigated topics such as the nature of teacher-student interactions during the compositional
, how students make meaning through their compositions and develop
, or the spontaneous creativity evidenced in children’s song
. More recent studies have focused on topics such as the variety of
approaches and outcomes from the composing process
(Burnard & Younker, 2008)
, the factors
affecting students’ motivation for composing
, how music teachers undertake
assessment of composing in the classroom
(Fautley & Savage, 2011; Hopkins, in press)
, as well
as music teachers’ attitudes to composition (Odam, 2000), including with the use of
technological devices (Murillo, Riaño, & Berbel, 2018).
Within the Singapore context, moving in tandem with MOE’s strategic direction of a
student-centered education, both primary and lower secondary music teachers have been
increasingly encouraged to introduce collaborative composition into their classrooms. This topic
connects directly with the second learning objective of Singapore’s national music curriculum,
“Create music in both instrumental and vocal settings, individually and in groups”
. More specifically, the curriculum proposes that:
Music creating processes harness and develop students’ innate creativity within
the context of music. Through musical activities such as improvisation and
music composition, students will apply the musical skills and concepts that they
have acquired through listening and performing, thus drawing a connection and
relevance to all that they are learning.
(MOE, 2014, p. 5)
Chua and Ho (2017)
have recently argued that achieving this objective requires music
teachers with a student-centered orientation. Student-centered music teachers are able to
facilitate, stand back, observe, guide, suggest, model, foster discussion and debate, take on
students’ perspectives, and ultimately help learners achieve the objectives they set for themselves
. This way of teaching requires highly nuanced and thoughtful facilitation from
teachers, facilitation that empowers the voices of the learners and helps them develop increased
agency and autonomy (Tan, 2017). However, research indicates that some music teachers find it
difficult to enact student-centered pedagogies in the classroom
(Costes-Onishi & Caleon, 2016)
In the area of collaborative composition, even highly skilled teachers often experience
difficulties to engage stu
dents (Finney, 2011
; Paynter, 2002; Winters, 2012). The potential
reasons are discussed in the following section.
Music Teachers’ Difficulties with Student-Centricity and Challenges of Teaching Composing
The level of specialization in music and music education of school music teachers varies
widely around the world, particularly within primary (or elementary) schools
. Although music specialists are becoming more common in schools, there
are still many generalists who are deployed to teach music with very little (if any) music
background. This has been the case in Singapore for many years, although the situation is
changing towards higher specialization
(Bautista & Wong, 2017)
. Indeed, Singapore has a
growing fraternity of music specialists. These teachers typically hold major degrees in music
education obtained during their initial teacher preparation or in postgraduate programs; in most
cases, they also hold external certifications in music theory and/or performance. They are
therefore highly qualified to teach the national music syllabus (MOE, 2014). Apart from music
specialists, the system has teachers who minored in music education during their university
years, as well as generalist music teachers, many of which have little or no formal training in
music or music education. The music teaching load for non-music specialists is generally low, as
they cover those periods that cannot be absorbed by the music specialist/s of the school
Several research studies have shown that generalist music teachers have difficulties
implementing student-centered pedagogies in the classroom, due to their limited preparation in
music and music education. For example, a recent study conducted in Singapore by
CostesOnishi and Caleon (2016) has shown that generalists struggle particularly with connecting music
content knowledge with pedagogical content knowledge, with listening to students’ voices
during lessons, and with encouraging their individual self-expression. Such difficulties persisted
even after completing an intensive professional development (PD) program specifically designed
to help generalists enhance their music skills and student-centered pedagogical strategies. Similar
findings have been obtained in other countries. In the United States,
Wiggins and Wiggins
found that generalist music teachers lacked the skills to engage students in musical
thinking and did not know how to contextualize music theory lessons. These teachers were found
to spend most instructional time in listening and singing activities, but they rarely engaged
students in composition or improvisation. In fact, many generalists taught from commercially
developed music kits, designed to teach music in a highly scripted fashion, which prevented
them from listening to the voices of stu
dents. In Australia, de Vries (2011
) found that many
generalists opt for not teaching music regularly to students due to their lack of knowledge and
confidence with this subject matter. Singing and listening are the activities most frequently
identified in the classroom of these teachers, while activities involving creation and
selfexpression are rare.
Research has shown that there are also many music specialists who often struggle with
enacting student-centered pedagogies within the context of collaborative composition (Paynter,
2002). In countries such as the United Kingdom, music teachers are highly educated in music
and music education. However, the main emphasis of their training is often on instrumental
performance and/or singing, with composing playing a secondary role (if any). For this reason,
composition is rarely a strong aspect of the music teachers’ musical i
dentity (Finney, 2011
Comments such as “I’m not a composer, how do I teach composition, I’m not sure about this, I
don’t feel confident…” are common among music specialists, particularly among new beginner
(Winters, 2012, p. 19)
. Thus, while pedagogies for the teaching of collaborative
composition have been extensively documented for more than 40 years, there are still many
music specialists who lack confidence, not only in their own ability to think compositionally but
also in students’ potential to undertake these kinds of activities. Paynter (2002) argued that
despite the numerous attempts to develop a more musical curriculum in the United Kingdom,
“the ‘immediacy’ of the experience is given scant attention in the classroom, the emphasis being
still, as it has been for so long, on pupils absorbing inert information about music” (p. 217). In
Paynter’s view, many music educators continue to spend instructional time “talking about
music” (p. 217)—that is, focusing on the delivery of factual knowledge as opposed to centering
music education on students’ creative experiences.
Apart from teachers’ level of specialization and confidence, another factor that might
contribute to music teachers’ difficulties with student-centered pedagogies is the lack of a
common understanding of what the notion of student-centricity means, not only among music
teachers themselves but also among teacher educators, PD providers, and even researchers
(Shively, 2015). Like many other umbrella terms with widespread and ubiquitous usage, there is
great conceptual diversity regarding its meaning. This causes unfortunate yet important
misinterpretations (Pedersen & Liu, 2003). For example, there is evidence that, for teachers in
areas such as chemistry, biology, or physics, the notion student-centricity simply refers to
instructional methods that recognize individual differences in students’ learning styles or
(Lund & Stains, 2015)
. For others, it merely refers to the idea of keeping
students behaviorally ‘busy’ in the classroom, rather than cognitively active (Pedersen & Liu,
2003). In the music classroom, this conceptual complexity has led some teachers to incorrectly
conflate teacher-directed student work, where students are asked to do hands-on actions (e.g.,
rote practice of rhythmic patterns), with the notion of student-centered pedagogies, where
instruction is designed on the basis of students’ ideas, interests, and needs. Difficulties with
student-centered pedagogies might also be due to teachers’ concerns about losing a degree of
power if they hand over decisions and direction to the students
Finally, we argue that another factor that might be preventing music teachers from
adopting student-centered pedagogies, specifically in the area of collaborative composition, is
the limited accessibility to concrete examples illustrating how these pedagogies might be
enacted. Shively (2015) has recently stated that although the application of student-centered
pedagogies and constructivism in the music classroom has been proposed for several decades,
practitioners and researchers in the field need to take a step back to analyze how these ideas are
being applied across a range of music learning contexts. Analyses such as the one presented in
this qualitative study are necessary, as they might provide music teachers with theoretical and
practical insights to inform their practice. This paper also responds to more general calls for
situated examples of student-centered education, such as the call by Darling-Hammond and
McLaughlin (2011), who argued that to enhance teacher quality and ultimately student learning,
“teachers must learn about, see, and experience successful learning-centered and learner-centered
teaching practices” (p. 83).
The goal of this study is to illustrate what student-centered pedagogies may look like in
the context of collaborative composition activities within the Singapore music classroom
& Ho, 2017; Tan, 2017)
. The sample case presented features a Primary 5 music specialist
implementing a collaborative composition lesson on Gamelan Beleganjur, a traditional music
style from Bali (Indonesia). After describing the structure of the lesson, we analyze data from
teacher interviews, classroom interactions (illustrated with pictures), and transcriptions of
students’ compositions. The teaching episodes presented are analyzed theoretically in the
discussion, in light of recent educational literature.
Context for the Research
The sample case analyzed in this study was identified in the context of a larger research
project aimed at mapping the PD needs of Singapore primary school music teachers
overview, see Bautista, Toh, & Wong, 2018)
. One of our purposes was to identify teachers’
needs regarding the use of student-centered pedagogies across the General Music Programme
(MOE, 2014). Collaborative composition was not the main focus of our project. However, upon
viewing the data, it became clear that the information collected from one particular teacher could
illuminate our understanding of how student-centered pedagogies may be enacted in the
Singapore music classroom, particularly within the context of collaborative composition
activities. As such, the current study needs to be interpreted as a secondary data analysis.
Given the exploratory nature of the project, we recruited a group of participants that
roughly reflected the basic demographic characteristics of the population of music teachers in
Singapore public primary schools. We selected 12 music teachers from four schools, including
two males and ten females. This distribution mirrored the gender breakdown for the national
teacher population, with 18% males and 82% females
. Of the 12 teachers, four were
music specialists and eight were generalists, which also reflected the national proportion of
specialists/generalists. Participants varied in their length of music teaching experience, which
ranged from 1.5 to 13 years (M = 6.4, SD = 4.3), and in their teaching load for music, which
ranged from 1 to 18.5 hours per week (M = 8.3, SD = 6.4). They also had differing prior
experience in music-specific PD initiatives and held different portfolios concerning the grade
levels taught (from Primary 1 to Primary 6).
Ethics approval was obtained from the authors’ university Institutional Review Board
(IRB). The first author (Principal Investigator) and fourth author (Research Assistant) met up
with the Heads of the Music/Aesthetics Departments of the four schools to inform them about the
aims of our project. During these meetings, we requested permission to invite specific music
teachers to participate in classroom observations followed by individual interviews. First, we
wanted to observe the teachers delivering a full unit of instruction of their choice to identify areas
in which they might need further support. Units of instruction, which ranged from one to three
classroom periods, were video-recorded. Subsequently, we had individual interviews to
investigate in depth these teachers’ ideas, suggestions, and challenges related to music-specific
PD. Interviews were conducted by the first author, while the fourth author took field notes and
asked follow-up questions, when necessary. Interviews were audiotaped and their duration
ranged from 45 to 60 minutes. Signed consents were collected from teachers, students, and
parents. They were informed that participation in this study was voluntary and would not result
in any monetary or graded incentive.
The observational component of our research project was based on the ecological
approach to design ethnography
(Barab & Roth, 2006)
. Analyses of the classroom observations
drew on curriculum materials, lesson plans, transcriptions of student-teacher interactions
(illustrated with pictures), and transcriptions of students’ musical productions. The design of the
semi-structured interview protocol was informed by the theories of responsive professional
(Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995)
. The protocol had four sections. Section 1
gathered details on teachers’ demographic information (e.g., age, teaching experience, prior
training in music and music education). Section 2 explored how teachers came up with the unit
of instruction, the desired lesson objectives, and future potential improvements. Section 3 looked
into teachers’ PD needs in relation to the unit of instruction observed. Finally, Section 4 asked
teachers to identify their PD needs to improve as music educators more broadly. The interview
transcripts were analyzed by the second and fourth authors using conventional content analysis
(Hsieh & Shannon, 2005)
The School, the Teacher, and the Students
The sample case presented in this paper was selected because of its inherent interest,
using an information oriented sampling strategy (Sandelowski, 1995). The school featured
offered music as a niche content area, in particular Chinese Orchestra. The teacher, referred to as
Mr Smith (pseudonym), was a music specialist with ten years of experience teaching music at the
primary school level. He had academic qualifications in both classical guitar and music theory.
Mr Smith’s class consisted of 38 Primary 5 students (18 boys and 20 girls). Primary 5 students in
Singapore are typically 10 to 11 years old.
Topic of the Lesson: Gamelan Beleganjur
Mr Smith designed and implemented a lesson on Gamelan Beleganjur, one of the most
popular styles of traditional music in Bali (Indonesia). Also known as ‘gamelan of walking
, its original function was to accompany armies into battle and frighten
the enemy. Today, Gamelan Beleganjur is essential to Balinese Hindu religious ceremonies, for
example in festivals dedicated to celebrating the anniversary of a temple’s dedication, during
cremation ceremonies, and during rites to honor good spirits or appease evil ones. The most
primitive instrumentation of Gamelan Beleganjur consisted of one primary gong (called ‘great
gong’), one secondary gong, four pairs of cymbals, two differently tuned drums (which are
considered male and female), and finally one small hand-held gong that acts as a metronome.
The standard formal structure of Gamelan Beleganjur (known as gilak) is based on a repeating
eight-beat gong cycle. A steady beat, called kajar, serves as reference for the other instruments
which would either play an interlocking rhythm or a syncopated unison rhythm. The drums and
the cymbals play over the ostinato of the gongs
The lesson involved the collaborative discussion, composition, and performance of
Gamelan Beleganjur pieces, using percussion instruments. Prior to the lesson described in this
paper, Mr Smith had already covered the basics of Gamelan Beleganjur (e.g., history,
instrumentation, formal aspects, auditions) and the students had also formed small working
groups. The following is an excerpt from the interview held with Mr Smith after the class, in
which he detailed the overall goal of the lesson:
I have actually taught the students about the concept of interlocking rhythm
and how the Balinese use it in their various forms of music. So, right now,
what they are doing is creating their own interlocking rhythm and then
applying it in the context of Gamelan Beleganjur […]
This lesson served as the final rehearsal of students’ Gamelan Beleganjur compositions,
prior to their upcoming semester assessment. The lesson was structured in three sections:
1) General discussion [15 minutes]. To start off the class, Mr Smith and the students
spent some time discussing the essential aspects of a good Gamelan Beleganjur performance.
Among other topics, they addressed the importance of having a good kajar, how to compose
interlocking rhythms, the instrumentation needed for Gamelan Beleganjur, and
2) Collaborative composition and rehearsals [15 minutes]. The students dispersed to
their group to work on the collaborative composition and rehearsals. There were four groups in
total (here referred to as Groups A, B, C, and D), each comprised of nine or ten students. As the
students rehearsed, Mr Smith walked around the classroom to check on each groups’ progress
and to provide the students with constructive feedback.
3) Group performances peer evaluation [20 minutes]. Finally, Mr Smith proposed that
the first two groups who practiced with instruments (Groups A and B) would perform first. He
explained that today they would do an ‘informal peer review’, and that after each performance,
students from the other groups would be invited to offer feedback to the performing group,
describing strengths and weaknesses, areas for improvement, and suggestions. Each performance
was allocated two-three minutes.
One of the pedagogical strategies most prominently used by Mr Smith throughout the
lesson was that of asking open-ended questions. For example, he began the general discussion by
asking the class what made a good Gamelan Beleganjur. Several students quickly raised up their
hands (Fig. 1). The teacher invited David and Jane to share their thinking with the rest.
Let’s get David?
What do you mean by kajar?
How do I decide whether your constant beat is good? Your kajar, or
your gong cycle, how do I decide? Let’s say, for example, I’ve got four
stars, three stars, two stars, and one star. How can I give you a
fourstar assessment for your kajar? Let me get somebody to add on to your
[David’s] point. Jane?
The rhythm must not be going too fast. It cannot go faster and faster,
it should be steady.
So the steady beat, or rather the gong must be constant.
Notice that although David’s answer was adequate, Mr Smith requested him to elaborate
further by asking what he meant by the term kajar. This question lead to a short definition, in the
student’s own words. Subsequently, by asking “How?” questions, the teacher effectively
engaged other students in the class (for example Jane, as shown) to build on the idea of constant
beat previously shared by David. Another interesting aspect to notice is how Mr Smith often
adopted the same words used by the students, implicitly validating their responses, and then
reformulating certain ideas using similar—or, if necessary, more precise—terms (e.g., steady,
Another aspect brought up by the students during the class discussion was the importance
of instrumentation. The following excerpt is an interaction between Mr Smith and three students
(Kerry, Jerome, and Beth), who highlighted the importance of instrumentation and musicianship
for a good Gamelan Beleganjur composition and performance.
Any other thing do you think we need to look at?
The music must be clear.
The music must be clear, what do you mean?
If you cannot hear the music too well, you won’t get high marks.
How would you be able to hear the music clearly?
Must try not to use things like tambourine. If not, you can’t hear...
Okay, you must try not to use things like tambourine. Then, what
will happen if you use tambourine?
Other instruments will be affected.
Okay, other instruments will be affected. But is it necessary that we
do not use tambourines? Or are there any other possibilities? Let
me get, ah… yes? [Another student raised his hand]
Just adjust the volume of each instrument.
Okay, adjust the volume. Actually, you two are bringing in two
different points but let me just focus on them. Ah, yes let’s get Beth?
Let’s say interlocking rhythm one is really loud and interlocking
rhythm two they… They can’t play very loud, then you can’t hear
the number two (instrument), you can only hear number one.
Okay, maybe I’ll focus on Jerome and Beth’s point, later I’ll come
back to your point [Points at Kerry]
Note that to prompt Kerry, Mr Smith rephrased the statements previously made by him
using follow-up open-ended questions. In addition to “What do you mean?” and “How?”
questions, notice the use of questions involving prediction (“What will happen if…?”). This
conversational exchange, similar to many others that were observed during the lesson, can be
described using the metaphor of the ping-pong game: the teacher and the students went back and
forth on each other’s utterances quickly, in a very dynamic and fluid fashion. Mr Smith showed
true interest and curiosity about students’ ideas. In fact, after several exchanges involving
openended questions, the teacher observed that some students in the class were uncertain about the
instruments required for Gamelan Beleganjur. This allowed Mr Smith to realize the need to
boost the students’ understanding by providing them with additional explanations and practical
demonstrations with actual instruments.
Later in the discussion, Mr Smith engaged students in the composition and rehearsals of
Gamelan Beleganjur pieces. As he explained during the individual interview:
Teacher: The goal was to get students to rehearse their own interlocking rhythms,
using any instruments of their choice, or even body percussion if they like,
and then to actually put up a performance.
There were four groups in total (Groups A, B, C, and D), each comprising of nine to ten
students. Only one group had boys and girls. Each group was seated in one corner of the
classroom, forming a circle. Due to the limited number of instruments, Mr Smith suggested that
two groups could practice with instruments first (e.g., triangles, castanets, drums), while the
other two groups practiced using body percussion. As the students worked together, Mr Smith
walked around to listen to their compositions, asking reflective questions and providing them
with constructive feedback.
After 15 minutes of collaborative composition and rehearsal, Mr Smith called the class
back to silent attention and proposed the start of group performances. Each performance was
allocated two to three minutes. The non-performing groups were advised to observe and listen
carefully. This was so they were able to provide feedback and suggestions to the performing
group. The first group to perform was composed of ten boys (Group A). The group’s de-facto
leader was Kerry, who played the role of conductor during the rehearsals and performance. Kerry
positioned himself in the center of the circle (Fig. 2), where all the member of his group could
see him clearly.
The piece composed by Group A involved the use of three castanets, two body percussion
(handclaps), one hand drum, and three triangles2. As can be observed in Figure 3, the rhythm of
the castanets and the handclaps served as Group A’s interlocking rhythms 1 and 2 (note that
these elements are indicated in the transcription provided). The hand drum played the role of the
kajar and the three triangles as the gong cycle. Throughout the performance, Kerry controlled the
pace by counting the beats and cueing his teammates into their entry and exit points. Their
performance involved 10 cycles and the group finished strongly on their final kajar and gong
beat. Group A’s performance was met with an applause by the other students in class. The group
members did a half bow as acknowledgement.
2 Although Gamelan is traditionally noted using cipher notation, students’ compositions in this paper are transcribed using
Western rhythmic notation, which we consider to be easier to understand by a non-specialized audience. The fact that Western
notation allows for a more “visual” representation of rhythms will enable all readers to identify the various components of the
Gamelan compositions presented.
The next group to perform (Group B) was composed of nine girls. This group was led by
Rebecca, who played the kajar. She was also in charge of orchestrating and cueing members
during their performance. Group members were seated in a circle, with Rebecca seated slightly
in front (as seen in Fig. 4), so that others could see her and hear the kajar better.
The instruments selected by these girls for their composition were three castanets, two
hand drums, two tambourines, and two triangles (Fig. 5). The rhythm of the castanets and the
tambourines served as Group B’s interlocking rhythm 1 and interlocking rhythm 2. The hand
drum was used for the kajar beat and the two triangles as the gong cycle. At the beginning of the
performance, Group B was able to coordinate relatively smoothly with the instruments sounding
in sync. This performance lasted for 11 cycles.
Immediately after each of the Gamelan Beleganjur performances, the students were
invited to provide the members of the performing group with constructive comments,
suggestions, or even criticism for improvement. During our individual interview with Mr Smith,
he articulated the following regarding peer assessment:
My aim was actually to get the students to share their feedback on their peers.
So, that is what I would call an informal feedback. It’s also an assessment for
learning because the feedback will be the one… how they learn to improve!
The teacher set up some guidelines, such as raising hands before speaking to avoid
having several students talking at the same time, offering feedback in a constructive manner, and
being respectful of everyone’s opinions (Fig. 6). The following is a transcript of the informal
peer review of Group A’s performance.
Your friends have some comments and feedback. Shall we listen?
Okay, Sabrina has something to tell you all.
It’s like it’s not interlocking with the rhythm.
Okay, Sabrina thinks the rhythm was not interlocking. I have a
question, how did you all plan your interlocking rhythm? [Posed to
Because we spent some much time choosing the instruments…
Number one, we chose instruments which took a bit of time. Number
two, sometimes, some of them don’t listen so much, then… It takes
some period of time to quiet them down.
So, the difficulty that you have is actually getting your group
members to listen. Okay, how can you overcome this problem?
Er… just keep quiet.
Okay, just keep quiet. Or…
Let all of them know…
Okay, maybe you need to work out something on how you can
Sabrina, from Group B, pointed out that Group A’s composition was “not interlocking
with the rhythm”. Note that Mr Smith did not comment on whether Sabrina was right or wrong.
Instead, he paraphrased her statement and then asked the Group A members an open-ended
question to foster reflection on the composition process. In response, David and Kerry explained
that their problem was due to the time it took the group to choose right instruments and to get
everyone on task. Implicitly, they acknowledged that Sabrina’s statement was correct and that
they were aware of the need to improve on this matter. Mr Smith added on to Kerry’s point by
asking him how Group A could overcome these issues, therefore letting the students to identify
3 In the remaining transcripts, a capital letter in parenthesis is used to indicate the group in which the student belongs (A, B, C, or
D). Note that the group is indicated only the first time that a new name appears.
their own solutions. The following transcript shows the feedback given to Group A by a student
from Group D.
Okay, any other feedback? Yes? [Points to Group D]
Some of them are using the instruments wrongly.
Okay, I’ve got a very interesting feedback here. Can you explain to
them what do you mean?
For example, one of them keep on hitting the… [Demonstrates a
hitting gesture onto the floor]
Oh, the castanet, right?
You’re not supposed to hit it on the floor.
I see, good point. At the same time, what kind of sound did it create?
Serene pointed out that some members of Group A were not using the castanets in the
way they were supposed to be used. Just like in the previous transcript, notice how Mr Smith did
not specify whether Serene was right or wrong. Instead, he requested her to explain her thinking
further. Not only Kerry, but also the other members of Group A, immediately understood what
she meant and agreed that they should have used the castanets differently during their
performance. These interactions demonstrate the power of peer-to-peer feedback, as the students
themselves were able to identify and point out relevant comments and areas for improvement
with limited intervention from the teacher. Mr Smith essentially played the roles of facilitator
and mediator, not disregarding any answers from the students, even if these deviated from his
own expectations or opinions.
Despite having a structure to the discussion, the students at times got very excited, which
inevitably led to noisy moments. The teacher was very patient and tolerant of students’ high level
of excitement. For example, Group B members did not seem very satisfied with their
performance, even though Rebecca did her best to signal when to stop, after the tenth cycle.
After Group B’s performance, Kerry and then Emmanuel provided feedback that agitated not
only members from Group B, but also a large portion of the class.
Can I have one more student? Kerry?
The… the gong bang and the castanet, they don’t match.
Huh? Huh? [Started to defend themselves and the class became noisy]
Okay, guys, guys! Can we just listen to Kerry? Shhhh… [Signaling
students to quiet down]
The castanet is faster.
Okay, the castanet…
[The class was audibly noisy now with a lot of chattering. It seemed
that everyone had an opinion. One student even gestured wildly with
both hands up]
At first, at one point, at one point not the whole song!
Okay, one point. There was a certain point you’re out of tempo… [The
students were overwhelming Mr Smith now]
The tambourine was faster…
At first, the gong cycle was different from the…
Okay! Wait, wait, wait! Shhhh… [Signaling students to quiet down]. I
don’t think we can hear your feedback unless we have one voice only,
please. Let me wait for the group to finish your discussion [Mr Smith
gave Group B a few seconds to consolidate their response].
Kerry pointed out that the gong bang and the castanets did not match. His feedback was
met with audible confusion by Group B members. All students in class started to talk among
themselves, creating a noisy environment. As there were too many conversations going on in the
classroom, the teacher stepped in to quieten the students down and maintain order before
proceeding. He patiently explained to the students that he could not hear their feedback unless
there was only one student talking at a time. Mr Smith was tolerant of the noise but signaled the
class to quieten down. This let Kerry have a chance to explain his thinking further.
Throughout the session, Mr Smith was respectful of views and ideas that contrasted with
his own. He at times disagreed with certain responses given by the students, but never imposed
his own opinions. One instance of this took place after the controversial statements made by
Kerry, which led to murmurs, looks of disagreement, and confusion among Group B members.
Kerry seemed to understand the impact of his feedback, and immediately clarified that the
castanet was only faster at one point, not during the entire performance. Mr Smith then gave
Group B a few seconds to consolidate a response to Kerry’s feedback.
Rebecca, would you like to share your response to this feedback?
The interlocking rhythm 1 is, like, very fast... Then, Priscilla told
me to slow down, so I slowed down. And after that… [Rebecca
points to another student. Other Group B members laughing and
acknowledging their error].
Orh… [Showing understanding]
Ah... so, there is a reason why suddenly there was a change of beat
[tempo]. Ann, would you like to add on?
I found that the interlocking rhythm 1 didn’t match up. It was very
Ah, okay. It’s interesting because I actually felt that interlocking
rhythm 1 was fine… Do others agree with Rebecca and Ann?
Rebecca, Group B’s leader, explained that there was a miscommunication in the group
that caused certain problems with the coordination of their interlocking rhythm 1. Ann agreed
with this explanation and described the interlocking rhythm as being “very messy”. Note that Mr
Smith disagreed with Rebecca’s and Anna’s views, as he “felt that interlocking rhythm 1 was
fine”. Instead of making his view prevail or proving the students wrong, he gave them reason by
asking the class if others shared the same opinion, hence acknowledging and validating their
thinking. The conversation continued as follows.
Okay, one more feedback please? I want to get the other two groups
to play. Okay, I think to be fair, I let this group share their feedback
[Points to group A]. Okay, Emmanuel?
Serene, when she hit the, I mean just the gong cycle, they were, er…
they were not, er… matching with Ann and Rebecca.
Okay, okay... [Group B immediately became quite agitated]
How to match? What do you mean? [Loudly]
It’s like not in the middle…
You mean they are not playing on the same beat, right?
You mean not matched up with the Kajar?
Okay, he’s talking about the tempo of the different instruments.
What do you all think? I personally also thought this was fine too,
but perhaps I didn’t notice that aspect…
Another student from Group A, Emmanuel, pointed out that the member playing the gong
cycle in Group B did not match with some of the other instruments in group. Because
Emmanuel’s explanation was rather unclear, both Mr Smith and another student in the classroom
rephrased his idea with different words, making sure they were understanding his point correctly.
Again, note how even though the teacher had a different opinion about Group B’s performance,
he validated Emmanuel’s contribution by asking if others in the classroom shared his view and
by saying that “perhaps I didn’t notice that aspect”. This way, the teacher actively contributed to
the co-construction of knowledge. Mr Smith showed his students that he was one more
participant in the learning process, that he was not in charge of producing the answers, and that
everyone’s opinions were equally important. He did not confine the student’s feedback to what
he thought it was correct.
The goal of this paper was to illustrate what student-centered pedagogies can look like in
the context of collaborative composition activities within the Singapore music classroom
& Ho, 2017; Tan, 2017)
. Our ultimate aim was to provide an additional resource that might
inspire more music educators—both specialists and generalists—in embracing student-centered
education in their classrooms.
The Primary 5 lesson on Gamelan Beleganjur designed by Mr Smith was, in our
viewpoint, solid from a curriculum standpoint. The lesson involved discussing, composing,
rehearsing and performing traditional Asian music, which allowed to tackle four of the five
learning objectives of Singapore’s national music syllabus, namely: 1) Perform music in both
instrumental and vocal settings, individually and in groups; 2) Create music in both instrumental
and vocal settings, individually and in groups; 4) Appreciate music in local and global cultures;
and 5) Understand musical elements and concepts
(MOE, 2014, p. 4-7)
The comprehensive nature of this lesson resonates to a great extent with Swanwick’s
(1979) CLASP model. The lesson was structured into three sections. The first involved a general
whole class discussions, during which students reflected upon previous (A)uditions of Gamelan
Beleganjur compositions and their prior knowledge of the (L)iterature. The second section
involved group rehearsals of students’ own (C)ompositions and the third one public
(P)erformances, during which students had opportunities to practice their instrumental (S)kills.
At the macro level, therefore, we argue that the design of the lesson conducted by Mr Smith was
appropriate to allow students gain active experience with music as well as knowledge about
music (Swanwick, 1999).
Mr Smith used the strategy of posing a central question (Pedersen & Liu, 2003;
Thompson, 2013), which involved the creation of original musical pieces, specifically
interlocking rhythms, using any combination of instruments. This strategy resonates with the
work of many music educators and researchers who, in the past decades, have pushed for
collaborative composition to become the heart of music pedagogy
(Garnett, 2013; Loane, 1984;
Odam, 1995; Paynter, 2002; Paynter & Aston, 1970; Swanwick, 1979; Winters, 2012)
activity was student-centered as it allowed the learners to collaborate and actively solve a
concrete musical problem (Stavrou, 2006). This does not mean that learners constructed
knowledge that was new to the field of music. As argued by Shively (2015), learners in
studentcentered music classrooms construct knowledge by simply engaging in rich and stimulating
conversations and musical experiences. Mr Smith created the right atmosphere for knowledge
construction to occur, by allowing students to make up their own pieces collaboratively, perform
them for the others in the classroom, and finally discuss them constructively (Paynter, 2002). He
acted as a facilitator as learners determined the type of compositions they wanted to create. He
helped them work through the difficulties encountered (although not solving the difficulties for
them) and suggested alternative ideas or paths.
A common characteristic of the three sections of this lesson was the centrality of
students’ voices (ideas, opinions, perspectives, etc.). One of the pedagogical strategies most
prominently used by Mr Smith was that of asking open-ended questions. According to Wasik
and Hindman (2013), open-ended questions or statements are those that require multiple-word
responses and that typically accept many possible responses as equally valid. Questions such as
“What do you mean by…?”, “Why do you think that way?”, “How would you do that?”, or
“What do you think that will happen?” provide students with opportunities to express their own
ideas, to elaborate their thinking further, and to think more deeply and creatively. The
information gathered from open-ended questions allows the teachers to better understand student
thinking, to better help the students build new knowledge based on their prior understandings,
and ultimately to use the learners’ own ideas as the starting point of the learning process
. The pedagogical role of open-ended questions significantly differs from that of
closedended questions (i.e., those with one single correct answer, as well as ‘yes/no’ questions), which
are commonly used by teachers to check for understanding and/or with management purposes
. The strategy of asking open-ended questions allowed Mr Smith to build upon
students’ understandings and to tailor the flow of the lesson to their specific needs. Mr Smith’s
interactional style suggests that he regards the students as “thinking individuals”, treating their
ideas as the cornerstone of the teaching and learning process (Pianta, 2016). He actively involved
his students in collectively thinking about the topic at hand, which allowed the learners to
connect their own prior knowledge to the knowledge of the teacher, as well as to knowledge
about the field of music
Mr Smith was respectful of views and ideas that contrasted with his own, always
accepting alternative interpretations. He at times disagreed with certain responses given by the
students, but never imposed his own opinions. This contributed to create a safe and
nonjudgmental learning environment
. These strategies are consistent not only with the
principles student-centered education, but also with constructivism
Adopting a constructivist stance in the classroom, according to Stavrou (2006), produces a
necessary level of uncertainty or unpredictability, given that teachers constantly seek and value
alternative views of reality among students. This is why constructivist teaching has been
described as a way of being, as teachers need to genuinely see themselves “working side-by-side
with thinking individuals whose ideas matter––in fact, whose ideas are central to the
learning/teaching process” (Wiggins, 2015, p. 23). For this reason, music teachers have been
encouraged to carry out activities that foster the emergence and discussion of multiple
. The aim is to involve students in collectively thinking about their
musical experiences, as opposed to approaches to music education where the voice of the teacher
silences or invalidates the voices of students
After each group performance, Mr Smith asked the students from the other groups to
offer constructive feedback to their peers: strengths and weaknesses, areas for improvement, and
suggestions. Feedback in the student-centered music classroom, according to Wiggins (2015),
needs to be embedded in and emerge from students’ learning experiences. The main focus is to
help learners examine and reflect on their own learning, focusing attention on how their
understandings change (Shepard, 2000). This is precisely what we observed in Mr Smith’s
lesson. The peer-to-peer feedback clearly demonstrated a student-led learning environment,
which we believe the students found stimulating and exciting. To create this positive climate,
conducive for discussion and exchange of ideas, Mr Smith was strategic regarding when to move
in and when to move out of the learning process. He did not abdicate his role as a teacher,
though, as he was still the one who calmed the class down when discussions were getting out of
control. Working side-by-side with students and building improved relationships with and among
them requires flexibility on the teacher’s side
(Chua & Ho, 2017)
. This comes with the
understanding of how students are and behave in situations that are meaningful and engaging to
them, such as the peer-to-peer discussions featured in this lesson
(Dole, Bloom, & Kowalske,
2015; Lund & Stains, 2015)
Summary and Closing Remarks
This case study illustrates how pedagogies in the music classroom can be student-centric,
particularly within the context of 21st-century teaching and learning in Singapore (Tan, 2017).
Mr Smith empowered students’ voices and gave them autonomy, providing them with
opportunities to grow in confidence as self-directed learners and active contributors, nurturing
their critical thinking and fostering collaboration
(Chua & Ho, 2017)
. To support students in the
co-construction of meaningful musical knowledge, he facilitated open-ended discussions and
fostered peer-to-peer feedback, pedagogical strategies in which it was sometimes necessary to
tolerate the noise resulting from students’ enthusiasm and excitement. His class was “one in
which the teacher welcomes learners to enter with the teacher into the learning process, as full
participants in exploring our, their, and others’ musical worlds” (Shively, 2015, p. 133). Mr
Smith treated his students as active and productive agents, instead of as passive recipients of
information. He encouraged the emergence of multiple viewpoints rather than imposing his own
opinions or radical right-or-wrong dichotomies
(Cleaver & Ballantyne, 2014)
. This allowed him
to not just teach but also learn from his Primary 5 students. As stated by
, when a
teacher and his/her students engage in some form of collaborative activity, “the teacher is a
learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less
consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better” (p.
The various pedagogical strategies identified in this case are not meant to be exhaustive
in the characterization of student-centricity in music education (Wiggins, 2015). Note that we do
not claim that these are new or innovative strategies for the teaching of collaborative
composition. As seen in the Introduction, we are aware that many music educators and
researchers have been advocating for this way of teaching for decades
(Bunting, 1988; Finney,
2011; Odam, 2000; Paynter, 1982, 1992; Paynter & Aston, 1970; Swanwick, 1979, 1999;
. Similarly, we do not claim that the lesson described here is “excellent”,
“perfect”, or “best” teaching that should be replicated by others. We agree with
in that these are ambiguous terms and that the idea of spreading “excellent”,
“perfect”, or “best” practices is problematic and unrealistic in educational settings. Thus, we
simply claim that the content and design of Mr Smith’s lesson, as well as his genuine interest in
exploring students’ musical ideas and in fostering collaboration and debate, led to the enactment
student-centricity in the context of a Singapore primary music classroom.
Finally, it is important to clarify that embracing student-centered pedagogies does not
necessarily require a complete abandonment of more directive teaching methods, which may be
the most practical and efficient under certain circumstances
. As noted by Shively
(2015), the contemporary music classroom may include a combination of both student-centered
and teacher-centered teaching approaches. Music teachers need to wisely make decisions about
the type of instructional approach that might best suit a given learning purpose, considering the
range of pedagogical possibilities that are available (Thompson, 2013).
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