Paul Harris: Simultaneous Learning

Paul Harris is considered one of the most eminent music educators in the UK. In his book Simultaneous Learning he introduces a teaching approach which benefits pupils as well as teachers. It is a philosophy that breaks music down into manageable aspects and teaches multiple aspects at once, all while maintaining a positive atmosphere. Here I will summarize the main aspects of the book and comment on how it has positively influenced my own teaching.

Pillars of musicianship

Harris believes that musicianship can be achieved by carefully observing and developing these four “pillars:” posture, phonology, pulse and personality. Simultaneous Learning is full of activities and lesson ideas which apply these concepts to both learning and teaching music .

Here are more details about each of the pillars.

Pulse relates to the understanding of metre, internalisation and ensemble playing. Strong acquisition of pulse portrays a musical idea to listeners and other fellow musicians in an understandable and convincing manner. To develop pulse, we include clapping, counting aloud, whisper-counting, internalisation and using other percussive instruments or sounds to create variety.

Phonology is referring to all the qualities of the sound produced. It encompasses sound control, colour of the sound and general aural perception. Improvement of phonology is achieved through exploration of pupil’s voice and it’s connection to the instrument, developing sensitive intonation and continuously observing the quality of dynamic range and articulation.

Posture concerns the awareness of one’s own body and the efficient use of it. Exploring aspects of posture does not only ensure smooth technical progress in music, it also improves pupil’s general well-being and prevents long-term injuries. Poor posture weakens other pillars of musicianship, especially phonology. Teachers should instill this connection between sound and posture in the student, inspiring the student to maintain good posture instinctively for the sake of their sound.

Personality is discovering a pupil’s imagination. Considerate application of imagination brings character to a piece of music and makes it easier for the performer and the listener to relate to. We can explore this through discussion about the title of the piece, noticing instructions given by composers, creating lyrics for a song or by improvising.

Core Principles of Simultaneous Learning

Harris views Simultaneous Learning not as a method, but rather as a guidance in the development of our teaching form. While the four pillars (posture, phonology, pulse and personality) refer more to the student, summarising what a proficient student should be able to do, Harris’ Core Principles are by contrast aimed at the teacher. These, which I will explain below, guide the teacher in how to build the “pillars” in their students in a positive, holistic way.

Teach proactively – Always following the sequence of activities, making the learning process as smooth and entertaining as possible. Every activity should be carefully thought through and fit in a bigger picture of a skill we want our pupils to achieve. For example, when we are improving our student’s pulse, we need to sequence clapping, counting aloud, internalising, whispering, miming and other activities in a suitable succession that fits their current understanding and ability.

Teach through the “ingredients” of the piece – The activities should be based on the unique elements of the piece the student is learning. These “ingredients” depend on the piece’s difficulty, and can include a title, tempo/character indication, key signature, time signature and different pitch and rhythmic values. In Simultaneous Learning it is highly recommended that these “ingredients” are introduced well before the music is put in front of the students, requiring extra foresight from teachers.

Make connections – Our goal should be that the student recognises how musical ingredients connect and form various musical ideas. They might recognise how dynamic relates to character, how articulation relates to metre or how scales relate to technical proficiency – possibilities are endless. By making one connection at a time pupils gradually build their own musicianship.

Empower, don’t control or judge – The attitude that ideas are conveyed is paramount. As teachers we must secure that every lesson is a positive experience that eventually leads to musical independence of each student. Making sure that everything is clearly understood will result in our students succeeding consistently. We ask questions, carefully listen and observe for any non-verbal signals such as posture or facial expressions.

Other important aspects of Simultaneous Learning

Understanding clearly and securely

Things are really understood when they are in our subconsciousness and we can access them at any point in time. Harris gives us an example how this manifests in sight-reading. When our working memory deciphers the scribbles on the page it refers to what we already know and understand. A musician is only able to sight-read well if all the musical elements that he is processing have been clearly introduced, understood, stored in the long term memory and regularly revisited.

Building a positive atmosphere

The essence of Simultaneous Learning works best when a conducive environment for learning has been established. Lessons should be clearly structured and filled with engaging, fun activities. Such activities flow seamlessly from one another and are aimed to encourage our student’s creativity and musicality. Teachers should always ensure that pupils achieve as this will improve pupils confidence and prevent fear of failing.

Going on learning journeys

In every lesson we aim to make connections between the ingredients of the piece. When these connections follow in an organic sequence they create what Harris refers to as a learning journey. While on this journey teachers are encouraged to find balance between single focused activities and longer sections. A single focused activity tackles a particular weakness that we might notice with the pupil and is then connected with other single focused activities and put into context of a larger trajectory.

A teaching revolution

At first it seemed daunting to include Harris’ method in my teaching. After giving it a few tries, students have responded positively and made faster progress. The most convincing moment occurred in the second lesson of a beginner student, during which we explored first few notes on the clarinet. I based my call and response exercises and clapping patterns on the piece’s “ingredients,” and the pupil was able to perform the piece by the end of the lesson with real confidence and security!

Paul Harris’ work on developing Simultaneous Learning can be deemed a “teaching revolution” for its holistic and meticulous approach that constantly energises, engages and entertains. It also favours quality over quantity, which could also be called revolutionary in today’s competitive learning environments. I am grateful that I have had a chance to learn about Simultaneous Learning and put it into my practice of teaching.

Buy the book | about Paul Harris | about Jernej Albreht

%d bloggers like this: