Body percussion maestro Ollie Tunmer speaks to Alex Stevens about teaching the teachers, ahead of an appearance later this year at the Music & Drama Education Expo in Manchester
Ollie Tunmer’s choice of name for his percussion education business is certainly apt – it’s a key part of his teaching methods that the music doesn’t stop, even if everything might feel like it’s not going to plan – but it also functions as a positive metaphor for teachers in what can feel like an everchanging teaching landscape.
In January 2016, Tunmer formed Beat Goes On as an outlet for his work as an all-round percussion workshop leader, specialising in samba and Stomp-style body percussion. And ‘it’s going very well,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure whether calling it a name rather than “OllieTunmer.com” has any psychological difference, but it’s certainly worked. As the company has developed, not only have I been able to employ people on a freelance basis – to join me for bigger jobs, or to provide other skills and specialisms – but we don’t turn away any enquiries now. I’ve got a team of experienced facilitators ready to go.’
Despite it having been around for centuries – and, more recently, with the phenomenal success of Anna Meredith’s Connect It, one of the first set of BBC Ten Pieces – there is still a residual perception of body percussion as being ‘just clapping and stomping’, says Tunmer. In fact, it is a versatile, lowcost, energising weapon that teachers of all types should have in their arsenal. ‘All of our workshops, regardless of whether they’re samba or anything else, will always start with a body percussion warmup. It’s a great way to engage people and doesn’t require any additional resources to make it happen.’ Self-confidence can be a big issue for teachers – getting over their fears of making mistakes. ‘With primary CPD we might be working with teachers without much prior musical experience, as well as music coordinators. With an energising thing like body percussion, everyone can do it. I have to get a little ‘mock-stern’ with some teachers, telling them to stop convincing themselves that they can’t do it. I joke with them, but it’s a serious point.’
‘With classically trained music teachers, they’re often not used to getting things wrong – they’re used to excelling. So when they’re in a slightly alien musical context it can be quite interesting! It’s a case of: “You’re going to make mistakes, and mistakes are fine.”
‘Or if a teacher has an authoritarian teacher-pupil dynamic that they feel they have to maintain, they won’t feel that they can make mistakes. I might have a quiet word, suggesting that the kids will actually respect you more if you’re prepared to give it a go and see what happens, and you’ll get far more out of the whole experience. This will also allow them to carry the work on after I go, which is a big part of why we do what we do.‘
Recently, Tunmer has also been working with primary literacy specialist Pie Corbett, using the rhythms of topic or curriculum-based words as a creative, compositional tool: ‘It’s the combination of music with literacy to develop both simultaneously, in a creative and kinaesthetic way.’
Samba is a key element in Tunmer’s work – his first teaching job was as a workshop leader with Brighton’s Carnival Collective – and from a simple start, he says, it is possible to take it in any number of creative destinations. ‘Samba can be approached initially as a series of fairly simple rhythms that sound good when you put them together: you’ve got the clave, a wellknown rhythm that crops up in cultures all over the world, and then there are simple, pulse-based lines.
‘Within UK educational circles samba is probably the best-known genre featuring Afro-Brazilian percussion. But samba is itself an umbrella term, which includes bossa-nova, samba-reggae, batucada from Rio, samba hip-hop, samba drum and bass – so you can explore all these elements, or you can pick up on the styles of music that your students are into, and then adapt them for samba instrumentation. It becomes like a Musical Futures-informed approach, where you’re drawing on students’ own musical interests. The more ownership of their learning that students have, the more they are going to engage with it, and begin to take their own leadership of it.’ For teachers, getting a samba band up and running is as much about communication as musical skills. ‘It’s about establishing the musical roles, giving them a clear count in and having enough confidence in yourself that students will follow. The first time you do it, it might not really work, which is fine – but if you try it a few times, you will become clearer and more confident as a leader.
‘When someone is trying leading for the first time and their communication may be ambiguous, I have a golden rule for the rest of the band: ‘if you’re not sure, keep playing. Even if you’re wrong, keep playing.’ That way, people don’t just stop if they’re unsure what they’re supposed to do. Hopefully at least one person will carry on – and it just becomes a solo! The leader can then try again with the music having continued.’
Beat Goes On’s work includes taster days and longer-term school projects, CPD events and keynote speeches. It is also the case that teachers are increasingly taking part in CPD at events and conferences – such as the Music & Drama Education Expo – rather than, for example, local authority or music serviceorganised programmes of bespoke CPD. ‘I heard from teachers that they might go to a CPD event and have a really inspiring day, and then they go back into their daily teaching unsure of how to implement what they’ve learned.’ In response, Tunmer has tailored Beat Goes On’s activities to suit the reality of teaching: ‘We’ve tried to make it as user-friendly as possible. We run two-part CPD sessions which include a whole-group content day, followed by a bespoke support session for each participant, which allows us to observe them delivering the material they have learnt and give suitable feedback. ‘Even with that, in our data-driven age of core subjects, teachers can struggle to convince senior management of the benefits of investing in music CPD, despite the wealth of evidence available. ‘However, the fact that Beat Goes On, and other music workshop organisations, are in high demand, gives a hopeful indication that music is still valued as a key element of education, both nationally and internationally.’