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I Teach Trad – Professional Development for Irish Traditional Music Teachers

Tuesday 27th October 2020 at 12pm 0 Comments Northern Ireland Music

Liz Doherty Image: Liz Doherty

Award-winning teacher, Donegal fiddler and academic, Dr Liz Doherty, gives an insight into I Teach Trad, a revolutionary new professional development system to support traditional music teachers.

"How often do you hear of a new report being published by an organisation or institution? Days, hours, weeks, months being spent by an individual or a team conducting research, gathering data, considering options, making recommendations. All followed by a big shiny launch. And then … nothing. No action. It’s like the end game all along was the publication of the nice glossy document. It drives me cracked!

So, when Dermot McLaughlin was commissioned by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to carry out an audit of the traditional arts in Northern Ireland 2015, I was not hugely optimistic that it would result in any action. Sure, there would be the usual media launch, the opportunity to take a moment to gather the traditional arts community together to celebrate, and lots of conversation about the findings over wine and cheese. But what then? When everyone went back to their busy lives, their music classes, their committee meetings, their competition prep – what then? How would the brilliant insights and challenges set out in this report actually ignite real, meaningful change?

Hats off to Maria McAlister, Arts Development Officer for Traditional Arts at ACNI - she actually showed that such reports can, in fact, be harnessed to effect change. Through leading by example, she encouraged others in our traditional arts community to do the same; to use the report to frame action, to make progress.

For me, it was the piece around teaching traditional music that I found myself drawn to. It was like a call to action:

“ … there is a need for better resources for Traditional Music teachers and for teachers who are coming anew to Traditional Music, there is a need to develop a method for teaching … there is a need to ensure that the sector has access to suitably experienced people.”

But who was I to do take action? Yes, I was lecturing in traditional music at Ulster University at the time, and was, in fact one of the longest-standing lecturers in Irish traditional music, having started out in that role at UCC in 1994. I had also taught fiddle at workshops and summer schools and festivals all over the world. I had curated teaching events and conferences about teaching. I had established music schools and academies in different locations. I had taught young children and adults, those who were mad for learning and those who were having days when they would rather be anywhere else. I had taught complete beginners and players who were already far more technically accomplished that I would ever be. I had taught in the room and online. But still, I was thinking, who am I to do this? And so I waited. Waited for somebody else to do it, to step up.

While I was waiting, I started unpacking my 30 years as a traditional music teacher. What did I learn along the way? What worked for me? What mistakes did I make (and believe me, there were many of them)? What could I do to save others from making the same mistakes? What could I create to help other teachers? What would have helped me when I was starting out? What could help me now?

Here’s what I learned. It’s tough being a traditional music teacher. You are trained as a musician. Your experience is as a musician. Yet, you find yourself (whether by choice or by circumstance) teaching. And, as we all find out sooner or later, playing and teaching are not the same. Just because you are a fantastic musician, it does not necessarily translate into you being a fantastic teacher. What can you do to get better? Who can you turn to for help? Where can you go to for support and training and materials and tools?

I’ve also been incredibly struck over the years by how many traditional music teachers have spoken to me about how isolated they feel, and how they are crippled by self-doubt. Are they doing it right? Are they good enough? It’s no wonder, really, that many of us feel that way. Of course it’s challenging to work in an environment where you are pretty much left to make everything up by yourself. It’s hard to keep going when you are not always clear about what it is you are working towards. What are our goals? What are we aiming for? How do we know when we are doing a good job?

As with any teacher, the work is often exhausting. You are told on an airplane that, in an emergency, you should put on your own oxygen mask first before you attend to anyone else. So, teachers, are you putting on your own oxygen mask? What are you doing to look after yourself? To keep yourself energised and motivated? You are busy looking after your students, but who is looking after you?

That’s why I set up I Teach Trad. To help and support all those amazing traditional music teachers out there – including those of the future. I left my permanent, pensioned job at the start of this year to do this. Here’s what some of the teachers I have worked with over the last few weeks have said:

“The I Teach Trad program is providing me with a unique and refreshing approach to traditional music teaching. It’s encouraging me to apply a deeper level of thinking in my teaching practice … it’s motivating me as a teacher to think outside the box, apply new skills. I’m loving how this newfound confidence is helping me to create a more meaningful musical journey for my students!” (Aishling O’Reilly, Music Generation Cavan/Monaghan)

“Liz is a master facilitator. The training she provided my team was measured, insightful, and really enjoyable. The feedback was really positive  … above all else, they felt that they had learned some really valuable things over the session, both in terms of general pedagogical practices, but also about themselves and their own journey…That was what my team and I valued the most; we knew we were learning from an expert and dealing with complex issues, but we always felt connected to Liz, and she made things seem so accessible and personal to each person’s individual experience.” (Dr. Aidan O’Donnell, Music Generation Tipperary)

So, what can I Teach Trad offer you? There’s the self-paced, online course, A Framework for Teaching Irish Traditional Music. This is for you if you are interested in refreshing or re-imagining your traditional music teaching practice. In it you will examine your own story as a teacher, and craft your personal teaching philosophy. You’ll use the TradLABB™ as a roadmap to help you understanding your students better, at every stage of their traditional music journey. You’ll plan out and organise your teaching – both your curriculum (what you teach and why) and your pedagogy (how you do it) - and how to make it work online. You’ll build on your existing toolkit of resources and skills with new ideas and approaches – and get loads of downloadable materials (e.g. templates, checklists, infographics) to help you out. You’ll take time to think about your ongoing professional development – what will help you to keep on growing as a teacher? And you’ll take a good look at how to turn your teaching into a business for yourself.

Other options include one-to-one mentoring sessions where you get to discuss opportunities and challenges within your teaching, and get practical supports to help you deal with these.  And, if you are involved in a group or organisation, some of the training workshops might be of interest e.g. ‘The TradLABB as a framework for organising your teaching practice’, ‘The reflective traditional musician’ and ‘Your teaching toolkit.’ If you want to find out more, sign up for my newsletter and receive a free e-book, ‘20 Top Tips for Teaching Traditional Music.’ And  keep an eye on the website, – there’s lots of new material being added regularly.

Now, I know that as traditional music teachers we are not used to giving ourselves the gift of time to focus on our own professional development. We are so busy doing the teaching that we haven’t time for anything else. I get that! I WAS that teacher! Neither are we used to investing in ourselves to upskill, to energise and motivate ourselves specifically around the teaching piece. And I get that too! But we should. In fact, we must! Now, in the midst of this pandemic, traditional music teachers are facing all sorts of challenges as we move our practices online. Touring artists are increasingly turning to teaching as a way to meaningfully engage with music, while generating an income. Let’s use this moment to really lean into our teaching, to embrace the opportunity to spend time on our own learning and development, and to share best practice. For, if not now, then when?

So, where do we go from here? Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, one of my mentors, instilled in me the importance of always closing the loop. ACNI commissioned a report that shone a light on traditional music teaching - the great things that are happening in this space as well as the growth and change and transformation that needs to happen. This report inspired action – and has been created in direct response to it. Now, let’s see if we can close the loop. My next step is working with ACNI towards securing funding for teachers and teaching organisations to enable them to avail of these courses, training workshops and mentoring; this includes allowing them to ‘buy time’ so that they can commit to the programme. ACNI can show real leadership, can close the loop, and be the organisation that supports turning a report into action and effects real change and long-term transformation for traditional music teaching."

Liz Doherty, PhD, BMus, NTF, SFHEA


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