It’s been five years since Christian Watson, a music teacher at St Andrew’s, embarked on his 85 000-word journey. Smiling as he described his students who told him, “You look a lot happier” and “a lot more relieved,” Mr Watson admitted, “I am.” After juggling study and work, Mr Watson recently received final approval for his Doctorate of Philosophy in the field of music.
Discovering a love for music early on at school, Mr Watson pursued a Bachelor of Music with Honours at University of New South Wales before continuing on to a PhD in 2007. “When I finished honours, my Head of School at Uni suggested I might apply for a [PhD] scholarship,” Mr Watson explained. And after applying and being granted a scholarship he joined the growing trend of St Andrew’s teachers pursuing work and study. “I really thought, ‘I’m going to give this a go’, because with that opportunity I’d be silly not too,” Mr Watson remarked.
Researching an area out of the genuine interest spurred Mr Watson on in his studies. “I’ve always known how I came to improvise,” the Jazz musician explained, “but I knew that other cultures did it in different ways and I really wanted to hone in on different practices.” Comparing the learning processes of Jazz, North Indian and Egyptian music students, Mr Watson received further funding to travel to Cairo, Egypt to interview musicians and watch them rehearse.
Mr Watson’s research found that many students are completely saturated by music from an early age. Recognising the natural imitation-style learning that babies are born and use in their development, Mr Watson found the same learning process intrinsic to learning improvisation. “We all learn cultural behaviour…speaking, communication, body language,” and a “strong correlation between improvising and speaking without preparation” exists. Yet despite very different learning conditions and musical traditions, a “psycho-biological commonality” exists across all the musicians learning because they are all inherently human.
But the five year process was no easy feat. Describing himself as “very organised,” Mr Watson sought to find a healthy balance of work, study and home. In the same way that students are involved in many aspects of St Andrew’s, “Engaging the learning process is a helpful reminder of how enjoying it can be, but also how hard is can be balancing everything,” he reflected.
Welcoming a new son only months before his PhD’s completion, Mr Watson credit’s his wife along with the Head of Music Mrs Chris Belshaw for their continued support. “[Mrs Belshaw] was always very supportive and understanding of needing to, at certain times of the year, put in a bit of extra work [and] kept that in mind when giving me extra work with my ensembles. She would always be understanding.”
Director of Teaching and Learning at St Andrew’s Mr Richard Ford recognises that schools are communities of continued learning, for both students and teachers. There is “great value in teachers’ learning extending beyond the school to universities, professional associations and educational networks,” he explains. “University study provides teachers with the opportunity to not only learn from the latest research but also make a unique contribution of their own to the research literature.”
In light of that, during his studies and now as full-time teacher, Mr Watson has been able to integrate his findings into the classroom. “It’s really fascinating,” he said describing the fears many students have in improvising. But also, “It’s really satisfying to teach them a few techniques to free them from their fears of having a go.”
In both his Year 9 elective music class and the Jazz Ensemble, Mr Watson is encouraging his students to listen to other musicians and copy them. “Through that process [students] develop their own listening skills, ear training and they internalise all the musical language…it’s kind of like learning an accent,” he explained and he’s seeing results. One student he described had a “fairly good pre-existing ability to listen and copy music” but has really taken on board his research findings and has “developed amazingly this year.”
Mr Ford went further to say teachers who do choose to continue studying “benefit personally, professionally and also are an inspiration to students, most of whom have their eyes set on tertiary study in the near future.” Taking time to teach additional International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, Mr Watson has noticed student interest in his further studies. “I think there’s a lot of correlation between university level study and the IB program. I’ve noticed that they develop a respect when they see that their teacher’s pursuing extra study in bettering themselves academically,” he said. “It’s a good encouragement to them to take what they’re doing a bit more seriously and to see that that can lead somewhere else in an academic way.”
Congratulations Christian, we look forward to making all references to Dr Watson in the near future.
Words by Melanie Pennington