Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast – Episode 64. I’m going to speak to Dr. Ryan Williams, GP, Medical Educator and the conductor of the Queensland Medical Orchestra. Absolutely fascinating conversation. In this first half, we get to talk about teachers as professionals. We chat a little about the sometimes unrealistic expectations, particularly around assessment, I guess. He says that he stands with us he has great sympathy, we talk a bit about the brain and learning and framework and scaffolding and that gradient of learning. It’s not just the content into the empty heads. I resonated with everything he said. So welcome to the first part of my chat with Dr. Ryan Williams.
About ‘Read the Episode’: Sometimes, we would rather skim visually than listen to a podcast! That’s a great way to learn too!
The transcript of episode 064 of The Crescendo Music Education Podcast is below.
Dr. Ryan Williams’ Biography
And I would like to welcome to the Crescendo Music Education podcast, Dr. Ryan Williams. Thank you so much for joining us, Ryan.
My great pleasure, Debbie. Thanks for having me.
Now, the way I like to start is to just read a bit of a brief bio so that people can hear a little bit about your background, and I came across you as the conductor of the QMO.
QMO Queensland Medical Orchestra.
So we’ll start though with your bio. Ryan is a GP and medical educator graduating from the University of Queensland School of Medicine in 2011. He is also the conductor and artistic director of the Queensland Medical Orchestra and has been in this role since 2010. His musical studies began at the age of eight with the viola and piano and he began playing flute, bassoon and percussion during his high school years.
Ryan spent two years playing viola in the Queensland Youth Symphony under internationally renowned conductor John Curro OAM and toured with the orchestra to South Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Germany. That sounds great, culminating in a performance at World Expo 2000 in Hannover. Ryan studied undergraduate degrees in Arts and Education at the University of Queensland and began working as a German and science teacher at Ferny Grove State High School upon graduation. In this role, Ryan became an active member of the acclaimed instrumental music department at Ferny Grove, where he conducted several ensembles and performed Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals with Israeli pianist Brachi Tilles.
Ryan’s love of classical music belies his passion for European culture, after completing an exchange in Frankfurt at age 17 (I bet that was an adventure). He was awarded scholarships to study languages in Germany and Russia. Oh, wow. And spent much time soaking up the culture of Europe’s finest musical, artistic and historical venues. That really does sound like an adventure Ryan.
I’ve been very privileged to have been lots of places and quite a Europhile. They don’t have a lot of Vegemite over there, but they have lots of other things that I’m very, very grateful for.
Well, we will start by just saying is there anything else you want to add to that bio before we move on?
I feel like that’s probably enough, don’t you think? Yeah, I think that’s plenty. Probably anymore your listeners might think, I’m sure they already think that I’m a bit of a try hard, so any more than that and they probably will think he’s probably a little bit of a tosser so I’ll leave it there. I’ve got the nerd medal by now, surely they will give me a sticker and put me in a basket being right he’s one of those is he? Yes, I really am. I’m quite self aware. It’s all good. I’ve known I am that kind of self. I am the nerd I’ve been a proud nerd since about grade four. So I’m aware of that, nerd status complete.
I do think it’s good to be self aware and you know what else, we’re really good at giving stickers.
Stickers are amazing. So they brought in Amber Alerts and Amber foods and red foods like we can’t give gummy bears anymore. As a German teacher, I’d give away gummy bears, but we can’t do that anymore. So stickers is what we’re left with.
Yes, even then you can get in trouble. I’ve got in trouble for putting a sticker on a shirt. You don’t put them on shirts, because then if the family forgets to take them off before they wash them, sometimes they’re left with that little sticky thing on their shirt. Stamps aren’t always good either, on your hand.
Give them like an air five? What’s left? Like, I don’t know, what are we going to teach with next? I don’t know.
Yes, we know those problems. But look, your bio sounds so fascinating. So in summary, basically, you did music at school, which we’re all quite interested in, because most of my listeners are music teachers and in Brisbane, and in the state system.
It’s a great system.
Dr. Ryan Williams’ Experience in Music
And then you became a teacher, you did some extra music stuff, you became a teacher, but you weren’t teaching music in the classroom, you were involved in the instrumental program,
Almost, I actually was, kind of, I’m taking my first diversion. It’ll be a few diversions tonight. So to really max out my nerd status, after visiting Germany doing exchange there, my major at university was German language. And I studied that and sat exams to become what’s called a NAATI translator. So I’m accredited to translate documents and have them hold up in court, all that kind of stuff. So that was kind of my jam. And so I got to the end of an Arts degree in German language and Russian language and international politics.
And it was kind of like, well, what do you do with that? Apart from take it to McDonald’s and say, Would you like fries with that? Then I, my parents are both teachers. So I went Well, obviously, that’s in my genes. And I love education. I love teaching. So I did have plans to do medicine when I left school, but then I went to Europe and just went, this is the place to be studying for the rest of my life. That’s such a silly idea. Why would you want to be a doctor when you can go and travel and meet these people and study languages and do all this amazing stuff.
So after my first year at uni I went no the medicine thing that’s not me. Do this travel, do these languages. So I did the languages and I went, Well, I can do teaching and do languages.
And that would be great. So when I started my education degree, I did some pracs at the same school that I went to, which was Ferny Grove State High. So that’s where I went to school. And they were keen to have me and offered me some positions doing prac there. And by that stage, when I started doing prac, this is when we were called prac teachers, we don’t call it that anymore I don’t think. By then we were called pre service teachers. I think there’s a new name now, isn’t there? Do you call it pre service teachers anymore or is there something else?
They’re pre service or student teachers.
Ok. Anyway. So by that stage, we actually had now a German immersion program at Ferny Grove, which means that students are actually taught the bulk of their subjects actually only in the language, so at Ferny Grove it’s in German, so they learned their maths, their science, their social science, as many subjects as possible, only speaking German. And so I was sort of a bit headhunted to be part of that because my German was of a high standard, and I could help expand the subject base of that. And so when I taught there, one of the things that I could teach was music.
So I taught classroom music, speaking German, so I was teaching them about beats, which I had to learn was takschlag and all these kind of German words for you know, beat and tone and pitch and rhythm and all these kinds of things. I taught classroom music, but I’ve only taught it ever speaking in German, not in English. So I still know what the words are. But I had to, I had to learn how to teach it speaking German as well. I have taught classroom music to Year 8’s, but it was only speaking German and that is when I taught it.
What’s your music teaching experience? Oh, Year 8, teaching only in German. Fabulous. Oh, I love it. Yes.
I’ve had an interesting life.
Yes. Oh, you so have and then to go from there to I think I’ll be a doctor now.
Well, there is a link in that, yes, I didn’t just have a psychotic break. I mean, that would have been a plausible hypothesis. But because I had done first year science and chemistry and things like that, as part of the preparation to head towards medicine, and then I kind of gave it away. I did have the science and maths kind of background that I could use. So I kind of took over maths and science after the head of department who kind of set up the program, he went sort of in a different direction towards school leadership and went down the deputy pathway kind of chain. So I took over maths and the science.
And I taught that for years 2,3,4 and 5 of my teaching career. But every year as I taught more and more of the science and we’d do the digestive system every year in grade nine, and I just every year I would read further and further and further around the topic. I just kept reading more and more about human biology and anatomy. And I just was like, I need to study this. Every year as reading more and I just kept I couldn’t switch my brain off. I was more and more intrigued and I just I got to a point essentially, I think it was about 25 I just said Who am I kidding? I actually am this person. This is what I want to do.
I can honestly say I didn’t leave teaching because I didn’t like it, because I hated it, because I thought this is you know I can’t stand it. I left teaching when I was on a high going I really love this. And I kind of went, I think I’m at the peak, this is where I’m probably at the peak of liking this. And I want to leave when I’m really loving it. I might have loved it for another few years, maybe even 5, possibly up to 10. But I probably wouldn’t have loved it for another 30 years. And so I left when I was on a high and I haven’t regretted that going into my second career. But I left it loving it. So that’s good. I have really great memories, and I don’t feel bitter than I left when I did.
That does. And I actually think it’s great to leave something while you still love it. I think it’s always a little bit sad if you wait till you’re really at the bottom of something or you’ve really had enough or you hate it. It’s always a little bit sad. But my question was going to be if at any point you’ve regretted your career change? I’m gathering you’re loving working in the medical profession?
A New Way of Teaching
Yes. Well, I certainly don’t regret jumping to this. Oh, look, every every job and career has there good days and bad. It’s definitely been the right thing to do. I don’t see myself going back to the classroom; I still go back most years in the last week or two of school, I still have a great relationship with Ferny Grove State High. I literally had coffee today with my former boss, the head of department for languages there. And I often go back in the last week or two at some point when I can wrangle a day, because one of the great things about general practice is I have very flexible hours, and I’m usually my own boss. So I go back and do some language stuff there just because I can to just sort of keep supporting the program.
And so I really do enjoy that. But that’s kind of, you know, a day or two and not, you know, an entire term or this that and the other and there are some things about it, I mean, and this is not a podcast sponsored and paid for by Education Queensland so I can say things that I hear things about curriculum and assessment and things are listed there and go Yeah, I’m quite happy to be out of that because that sounds a little bit ridiculous. There are things that I don’t miss about that. And I don’t miss marking. I’m very involved in medical education. So I teach medical students and registrar’s in medicine. I’ve taught at Griffith University for all this year, and I’ve taught at UQ for five years. So I’m very involved in education in the medical sphere.
You know, there’s great things in that. And it’s just as much, you know, who ha, about this is the absolute way to teach. I actually know, we’ve just read some new studies, and this is the way to teach and you sit there and you roll your eyes, and we’ve got reform fatigue, and everyone’s got the new, greatest, amazing way to teach. And, you know, every five years, it’s a new way. It’s just this, you know, they’re all good. No one’s actually completely right. And you just sit there and go, come on, let’s just try. And anyway, so we roll with it, and everything’s good. It’s good.
And then the next day, you’ll have people come in, and they’ll drop their bundle, and they’ll scream and shout at you and tell you, you’re an F, F’n’C and you’re kind of going oh ok good, it still happens in medicine, too, when people don’t take their psych meds and they come in and they need to be dragged off to the hospital. And but some of my friends who work in education, it’s like, yeah, that was my lesson yesterday in fourth grade music. It’s kind of Oh, that was my day in the psych ward yesterday, but I guess they’re kind of similar depends on which school you go to.
So your listeners might be saying, Oh, but that sounded like my day in the psych ward, as I know, that was my day at XX State High. Yeah. Same. My sympathy goes out to you music teachers who are nodding your head right now. But if I could give you scripts to fill out for, you know, send tranquilizer darts with, you know, haloperidol or olanzapine? I would but it’s not yet ethically approved.
No, well let us know when it is. Okay. I think you could have a side business.
I’ll keep my eyes and ears peeled, but not quite there yet.
But I like that term you used “reform fatigue”. I love it. What are the terms I use because obviously, you know, looking, as I’m, you know, nearing the end of my career, I’ve seen many new brooms that have come in that feel, Oh, we have to show we’re making these big changes. Like, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Like, there’s a lot of good stuff we’re doing, of course, we can always improve. In fact, if you think you can’t improve, it’s time to get out of teaching is what I say. You can always improve. But really, there’s not always an argument for just a clean slate. Let’s start again, this is better.
I mean, I’m probably dating myself, but I’m not trying to get I guess I’m probably trying a little bit to get some kudos with your listeners. But so I was trained around the time of Allan Luke’s and productive pedagogies. And then we came into rich tasks. Then we had outcomes based education. And so like we went through a number of these things. I imagine some of your listeners are going Oh I remember that and like none of those things I don’t think were inherently bad.
But when it was kind of pitched as being this is the new and greatest way and everything else before this has actually been sub optimal and research says this is the way to do it. It’s kind of like that but that’s what you said about the last one and then comes the new one. And then because when I was trained, when I was teaching German there was sort of the communicative approach is the way to teach, the grammar and everything else it’s all been very antiquated and that’s, that’s completely wrong. This is the way to do it.
And my supervisor I had when I was on prep was kind of like, that’s what I was taught 40 years ago. And it’s gone around in circles. Actually, everything that was old becomes new again, and you sort of sit and go, can’t we just say, well, this is one way to do it, but an eclectic approach of saying, well, there’s multiple ways. And some students will respond well to this and others, and being able to sort of mix and match and work out which ones do well, for this, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of multiple approaches and learning to be professionals who can say, well, this works well for this activity.
And this pace, and leading and flexibility and these type of things are actually very useful. But we can’t say things like that. Now I’m sounding cynical, but having that flexibility and respect for professional administering that we actually know some of these things is I don’t know, it seems to be a little bit frowned upon.
No, no, but I think you’re right. And I do think teaching as a profession has those issues. I think that we’re not looked upon all the time, as professionals who have this good judgment and who have this flexibility, because you’ve sort of got to be to survive, when you’ve got 30 kids in front of you, in our case, half an hour at a time, you’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to be responsive. And you’ve got to have a whole raft of strategies ready to go, just in case. But I think there are a lot of people who don’t give teachers credit for having that level of professionalism to make those decisions.
Yes, absolutely. And for what it’s worth talking to a friend this week, at a catch up on a public holiday we’ve just had this week, and we just had a bit of a heart to heart with friends and a music teacher at a school that No, I’m not talking about, but was just catching up and hearing, you know, how’s things going new school this year, and just hearing about what was expected in terms of assessment and where they had to get to level and what they wanted to do. And just hearing about how much was expected and in a term, what was required and the amount of time that they had to actually cover this half an hour per week. That’s, you know, that’s not very much.
And then it kind of the penny dropped, they said, That’s the equivalent of one day, by the time you sit and map out half an hour, per week in an entire term, you put them together, that’s one day, and what was expected in that much time. I just, I just was aghast saying that’s, that’s all you get. And they expected to have all of this achieved. And I just went all of that.
Then by the time you say it was half an hour a week, that means well, you lose the first five minutes, you lose the last five minutes, and then you get some. So you’re getting about 17 minutes, once a week to try and I say that to anyone who’s listening just to give you my empathy. My I hear you, I hear your frustrations, I return it with a sense of passion, you are heard, I stand with you.
The Struggle of Limited Music Class Time & Brain Development
Thank you Ryan. What I like to mention in my workshops, when I get a chance is that if you have your half hour a week lessons, and I know some of my US listeners have longer lessons, and some people here do but generally it’s half hour a week, if you have every week, no public holidays, no sports days, they’re never late, they’re never sick, you’re never sick. So if you have them every single week, you’ve had them in the year for less than a week.
So the way that I get around that mindset wise, just a little teaching tip mindset for people out there, is I think of it in a negative way, like Chinese water torture, in a positive way, think of stalagmites with drip, drip, drip. I’m going to just keep covering this content, I’m going to cover it in a really interesting way, in a different way, with different repertoire.
A different way to practice using paddle pop sticks, I’m going to just keep doing all of these different things, dripping the same content. And I will get there with most of the kids in the end over time. But like my program is seven years. It’s a seven year program prep to grade six. And I think if you’re at a school for a year, that there’s very little difference you can make in a year on half an hour a week.
If I can add any kind of encouragement to that is that without trying to add any kind of value judgment just to what we know about human brains and how human beings learn full stop is that none of us can just open our skull, open our brain, give me information, dump it in there, close my brain, close my skull, I had information I will now move on it is done. Like we have to acquire information and it takes time. It takes a process and we have to there’s a number of processes how we do that. And I guess what I’m trying to say about that is like being involved with medical education. And what some people might say that’s a very high level of education.
Tomorrow I’m going to be examining medical students who’ve just been learning for the first time ever in their first year how to use their stethoscope and how to listen to the heart and the chest and try and work out, where are the parts of the heart to listen to, and where are the valves and where’s the carotid artery and all these kinds of things, we had one 2 hour session to sort of show them how to examine the heart and the blood vessels and all the way around the whole body. These are incredibly bright students, some of the brightest around have to work very hard to get into medical school.
And we have one session to kind of show them that for two hours, even then, the next time we see them the next week, that’s not enough to mean Right that’s it, they’ve got it, they can then reproduce a week later, brains are not able to do they need to have things reinforced, they have to have all right I can take this now and I will get some of that I won’t absorb all 100% of what I have just seen, I will only ever get a fraction of that. And so they will get Alright, some people might get I got 15%, some people might say I got 50%. But nobody gets 100%. And if anybody actually thinks that they do, those people are what is the word, delusional? Nobody gets that.
And we all have to say, well, this is the base that I got. And from that, I will get a framework, I can then build on that for the next time we get that scaffolding and we can build the next part and the next part. So I guess I say that thing that I think almost all of us will have will understand that. And we will know that in our heads. But we’re all vulnerable when we get into our heads. And we get into that kind of stress and negative space that we see our students not getting where we want them to be or where we feel that they should be. We can for all of us, whether it’s music, whether it’s medicine, where it’s whatever we’re doing, we can then become very self critical.
And we can become very, they’re not getting where they should be. I wonder am I not doing this right? I wonder if my program is not developed well enough? Am I doing too much? Am I doing too little or am I not teaching it clearly? And we can become part of that problem becoming very ragging our own self. This ‘Is it me?’ And I think it can become very toxic, often in kind of this is my humble opinion.
But I think we can be very vulnerable to being like, how much of this problem is my fault? And I’m not doing this, and I’m not doing that. We sometimes really need to take a step back and say, Okay, what is happening here? And how much are they absorbing? And how much is that, because I’m providing very clear instruction and breaking it into the pieces that are reasonable. What would be fair and reasonable for people to understand these are bite sized chunks, and it is well scaffolded that people can build from.
I did teach rhythm and four beats and Ta Titi. And I did teach that same kind of sequential learn that builds and builds. And that’s fair, or what is the I can’t move from Tati Tika Tika, when I had half an hour, and then half an hour, and I didn’t see them for three weeks, because we had the swimming carnival. Then I was supposed to see them, but then I was sick.
And then the next week was stranger danger learning. I haven’t seen them for three weeks, and now they’ve all forgotten what it is, and I can’t move forward. So I can’t blame that as being my fault. You know, there are situations beyond our control.
And then we end up being like stressed because report cards are coming and they’re only seven years old. But if I don’t have 300 of them marked with a rank of out of five very high heights, like these ridiculous matrices that we have to have, you know, seven year olds, you have to have these ridiculous, you know, just I don’t know, I really do feel sorry for people who have these silly systems. That’s like seven year olds need to have like 5000 word essays written about what their musical ability is. It’s kind of like calm down people. But I’m just trying to give people some permission to say that it is okay that human beings learn in increments.
And we need to understand that natural process, because even at high levels, when the people are learning for PhDs, we still learn in increments, it is still a step by step process, we might get to be very in tune with what that step is for us and what that looks like and how we can streamline that, but it is still a curve, it is not a straight line up, you know, 90 degrees, there is still a gradient. So we have gradients all the way friends, those of us who are in education, it’s a gradient all the way it is never perpendicular straight up. As we can see, it’s not 90 degrees, it is always a curve. So embrace the curve friends embrace.
Oh, well, I’ve always embraced the curve.
My partner’s in the second trimester, so I’ve got the curve.
But I also think, even then, it’s not even a nice even curve, it’s a bit here and a bit there and then going backwards and building memories. Like you’d need all these little episodic memories before it goes into your I think the brain is fascinating. We should, we should talk about the brain a little. I imagine, you know a little more about the brain than your average person.
Very complicated organ that scares me a little bit how complex it is.
Yeah, I think it’s got amazing power. But before we leave that the other thing I want to tell music teachers is that sometimes we need to push back a little bit. Now, I’m not judging people. And I know everyone’s in very different situations. But if you’re being asked to do reasonable assessment and assessment tasks, and I think we’ve got to be professional and say, Okay, you realise these children are five, you realise I only see these children for this amount of time, what you’re asking is actually unreasonable. I think, as a music education professional with X amount of experience, I think it would be reasonable to ask them to play this game where they sing one little phrase by themselves while they’re playing a game, rather than do x, y, z as a performance task.
You know, we have to sort of stand up for ourselves and our children a little bit and say, and as someone who is a bit of a curriculum nerd, our current curriculum is actually a little bit amorphous and blancmange. And our achievement standards can mean almost anything. So we actually have a fair bit of power within that to insist on reasonableness. So I just think sometimes we’re our own worst enemies by sitting back and going, Oh, okay. Yes, the English people are doing that. And they’ve got to do that for maths and they’ve got to do that. But hang on. In our situation, we think this is best. So I think we need to stand up for ourselves a little bit too.
I’ve got one word, reach. Reach.
This podcast is brought to you by Crescendo Music Education connecting supporting and inspiring music educators. In the show notes you’ll find links to Crescendo’s social media platforms. Please connect with me and be part of the Crescendo community. You might consider becoming a Crescendo member, for a low annual fee you can access hundreds of files worksheets, printables workbooks, repeat workshops and webinars and receive great discounts on events. So come and connect with me Debbie O’Shea. See you in the socials.
Just for Laughs
As we know laughter relieves stress. Don’t lose sight of the funny side of life.
I was going to buy a book on phobias, but I was afraid it wouldn’t help me.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
“We’re all musicians … there’s no sense of hierarchies here.” – Featured on ABC News
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