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Reflections On Taonga Pūoro (Traditional Māori Musical Instruments) Teaching And Learning At The University Of Otago

Published onOct 01, 2017
Reflections On Taonga Pūoro (Traditional Māori Musical Instruments) Teaching And Learning At The University Of Otago


Using taonga pūoro teaching and learning at the University of Otago as a case study, this article argues that the arts can be a vehicle for social action to challenge Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans) dominance in educational settings. It sets out how the author has found constructive ways to decolonise Eurocentric ways of teaching music performance at the University of Otago. This article advocates in favour of using culturally responsive and culturally appropriate pedagogical methods that recognise, value and validate indigenous ways of being, doing and thinking.

Keywords: Pedagogy; Decolonization; Tikanga Māori; Matauranga Māori; Taonga Pūoro


Schippers (2005: 225) states that, despite cultural diversity being “broadly accepted as an important factor in music education … many educational practices still display an essentially monocultural [read, hegemonic] focus.” I advocate in favour of changing this situation, arguing alongside other scholars (see Desai, 2010; Freedman, 2010; Freedman & Congdon, 2005; Tavin, 2010) that the arts can be a vehicle for social action to challenge cultural disparity in educational settings. As Hindle et al (2011:43) state: “It is important for educational systems to recognize that all students have a right to expect teaching and learning that doesn’t disadvantage them by requiring them to leave their cultural identity outside the … door in order to succeed” (see also Bevan-Brown, 2003; Cross et al. 1989; Macfarlane, 2004; Whitinui, 2007). What is required in order to enable this success is “an epistemological and political pluralism that challenges existing [dominant] ways of knowing and representing the world” (Denzin, 2005: 948; see also Bishop, 2008; Bishop and Berryman, 2006; Bishop, Berryman & Richardson, 2003; Bishop & Tiakiwai, 2003; Macfarlane et al., 2007; Salter, 2000a, 2000b, 2002).

This article presents an auto-ethnographic1 reflection on my inclusion of, and engagement with, Kaupapa Māori (see Smith, 1997; Smith, 1999) informed pedagogies for teaching/learning taonga pūoro at the University of Otago. It outlines what I’ve done to include and engage with matauranga Māori (Māori ways of learning, knowing and doing) in my teaching. The article is divided into five key sections: the first provides some contextual information on my engagement with taonga pūoro and its place in my teaching activities; the second outlines my efforts to follow tikanga Māori in my teaching; the third and fourth look at teaching methods and spaces; and the final section addresses assessment issues. Although there are important exceptions (see Gadsen, 2008; Hindle et al. 2011; Whitinui, 2007, 2010), little empirical research on culturally responsive arts education practices exists; this article is intended to contribute towards knowledge in this largely neglected area.


My taonga pūoro journey began in 1999, when I attended a taonga pūoro workshop given at Otago University by Richard Nunns. I was struck by the physical beauty of these instruments, as well as their haunting, otherwordly sounds. I was fascinated by stories about interactions between taonga pūoro players and local fauna, and about how the contours of natural landscapes and flora could inspire tunes. I was also impressed by how instruments that were at first glance quite simple in their construction – or even found on beaches, riverbeds or in the bush – were actually extraordinarily sophisticated in terms of their playing methods and the sounds they could produce. The sheer variety of the sounds that constituted each of their voices, and the bi- or even multi-vocality of some instruments,2 astounded me.

This experience had a powerful and lasting impact on me. In 2012, shortly after I took up a lecturing position at Otago University, I rekindled my interest in these instruments and asked the Music Department to purchase a selection of taonga pūoro. My department supported this idea, and the first members of our taonga pūoro whanau (family) – made by Nelson-based makers Brian Flintoff and Clem Mellish – arrived in early 2013. We’ve gradually added to our taonga pūoro whanau (family) ever since.

Initially, I approached the playing of these taonga with trepidation and caution. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the tikanga (protocols; the correct way to do things in Māori contexts) surrounding their use before learning more about how they are played. I was afraid of causing offence by my actions, and wanted to avoid any adverse consequences to myself – spiritually, and in terms of damaging personal relationships with Māori. I’m a Pākehā (non-Māori) woman,3 and believed that both my culture and gender could present barriers to my learning and teaching these taonga. From prior study of traditional Māori musics, I knew that certain songs/chants could only be performed by people of a certain gender, age or expertise; I also knew that songs/chants had very specific functions, and that performing these songs/chants for purposes other than those intended for them could carry dire consequences for their performers: illness or even death. I did not know whether these kinds of limitations pertained also to taonga pūoro, but suspected that was likely. I was anxious to avoid misappropriating these instruments, and to avoid using them in ways Māori would find culturally inappropriate or offensive. I was also not dismissive of any potential spiritual risks to myself.

A certain amount of prior knowledge of Māoritanga (Māori culture) provided some useful guidance. I knew, for example, about how certain activities and parts of the body were considered either sacred or profane, and that contamination of the sacred by the profane was to be avoided at all cost. Because the instruments are regarded as sacred, avoiding contact with profane things (such as food, or parts of our bodies such as our bottoms) appeared commonsense to me. Beyond this, though, I was plagued by questions: Was the playing of particular instruments gender restricted? Could certain instruments only be played in certain contexts for certain reasons?

Feeling paralysed by my lack of knowledge, I asked colleagues at the Music Department as well as the School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies for advice, but I was unable to find anyone who could help fill my knowledge gaps. At that time, I didn’t have connections to local knowledge bearers in the community who could help answer such questions. To help overcome this, with my department’s support I arranged for two taonga pūoro specialists to give workshops at Otago University. These workshops, conducted by Alistair Fraser and Richard Nunns, took place in mid-2013. Both Fraser and Nunns encouraged me to start using the instruments. Feeling enthused and somewhat reassured, I took their advice.

These taonga have become important to my teaching and community outreach activities. Since mid-2013, I have incorporated these taonga as part of my teaching on a range of ethnomusicology papers; in workshops held at pre-schools, kura kaupapa (Māori language immersion schools) and marae; and in a community music group I set up and continue to facilitate.

Rather than discussing all these teaching contexts, this paper focuses on teaching in the taonga pūoro performance papers4 and in the community group hosted at the University.5 While there are some key differences, there is also a great deal of overlap in terms of teaching methods and practices across these two settings; moreover, students taking the performance papers are strongly encouraged to (and do) attend the community group sessions. In other words, the community group is an extension of the classroom for students enrolled in the performance papers.


In both the performance papers and community group, we observe tikanga in various ways. When each new group meets together for the first time, we have an induction session. We sit in a circle, and begin the session by outlining the nature and significance of mihimihi (a greeting which outlines your relationships to people and to the land) for Māori before taking turns giving our own mihimihi (or our own versions). We then turn our attention to discussing tikanga Māori that should be observed around and with the instruments. Tuakana-teina6 relationships are invoked in these settings with respect to sharing and developing understandings of tikanga Māori. In the performance papers, I adopt a tuakana role; whereas, in the community group, I share that role with other existing members of the group – including (from 2016) Rua McCallum, who has taken on a kaitiaki role with respect to the group. While the induction sessions are aimed toward guiding the new members, they also present an opportunity for older members to refresh their knowledge and to reflect and comment on past practices. Together, we arrive at a set of protocols, and discuss core Māori concepts that underpin them, such as tapu (sacred, restricted) and noa (unrestricted, ordinary). We also talk about the meanings of the term taonga pūoro, and discuss how the concept of mauri (life principle, vital essence) applies to these taonga and how it shapes our relationships with them. It has always been important to me that group members unfamiliar with tikanga Māori don’t just approach tikanga as a set of rules to follow, but that they come to understand the reasons behind these rules and thus arrive at a deeper understanding and appreciation of Māori culture.

There are various ways in which we observe tikanga Māori in how we interact with the taonga. We leave our shoes outside the door before the start of each teaching- learning session, as a way of acknowledging the tapu nature of the taonga and the temporarily sacred nature of the space in which we are interacting with them. We start and end every gathering with a karakia (prayer/invocation). Sometimes, a group member who knows a karakia will perform it, with everyone joining in with responses where appropriate. I’ve also printed the texts (and translations) of karakia from one of Otago University’s webpages,7 which has helped members who are not fluent in te reo Māori to join in. We spend some time practicing karakia and going over te reo pronunciation and their meanings before we perform them. One of our group members has recently asked a local kuia (female elder) to create a karakia specific to our group, and I am hopeful that this will eventuate and that all members of our group will be able to learn it. Sometimes, we substitute a blast on the pūtātara for a karakia timatanga (karakia to open a meeting), and substitute a whakanoa (removal of tapu) – or another blast on the pūtātara – for a karakia whakamutunga (karakia to close a meeting). For a whakanoa, we use water that is contained in a bowl that has not been in contact with food. We dip our fingers in the water, then flick the water over our heads. In order to preserve the tapu of the taonga, we make sure they do not come into contact with food or items associated with food (e.g. table cloths), or with areas of our bodies considered noa. We treat them with gentleness and respect.

While there are several ways in which we observe tikanga Māori with respect to these taonga, there is one key aspect I failed to observe. One of my regrets is that I was unable to find someone from the local community to bless these taonga when they first arrived at Otago University (it is customary for newly created taonga to be blessed prior to their use). Around the time of their arrival, taonga pūoro specialist Alistair Fraser gave a talk at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens on research he’d been doing on the taoka8 pūoro of Rakiura (Stewart Island). As part of the opening of that event, the instruments he had created during the course of his research were blessed by Kane Holmes, the son of local kaumatua (male elder) Huata Holmes. Alistair suggested I contact Huata Holmes, who bears an enormous wealth of knowledge about taonga pūoro. I tried using his work email address, but never received a reply. Only later did I discover that Huata had retired, making lack of a reply completely unsurprising. That the instruments were never blessed remains an important element of tikanga Māori that I remain uncomfortable about not having observed.


Personal experimentation remains the key way in which myself, my students and other members of the community group learn taonga pūoro. Everyone’s journey with these instruments is different. Even with information from a variety of sources (discussed below), the instruments take people varying lengths of time to learn. Persistence, perseverance and patience is required, and there is a lot of trial and error involved. There is also a lot of excitement though, when you hear a taonga’s voice for the first time, its breath mingling with your own; and also when you discover new voices for these taonga (whether the intention behind that voice is yours or the taonga’s).

Learning by experimentation has often been guided by information found from other sources. Learning from live demonstrators has, in my experience, been very effective as a teaching-learning method. My first learning experience was of this nature. I first learnt the technique used to play the cross-blown flutes when Brian Flintoff demonstrated it for me when I visited his Nelson studio – although it subsequently took around an hour experimenting on my own to make a sound on the length of bamboo Brian kindly gifted me. I subsequently employed the teaching method he modeled. In the first classes I taught, I’d try to impart what I knew about various playing techniques to the rest of the group by verbally describing and modelling them (i.e. using a practice-led approach). Taking turns with the instruments, learners would then experiment, with some guidance from me, until they could produce sounds. The benefit here for learners is that they have direct and immediate feedback from a more experienced individual,9 and the teaching can be tailored specifically to a student’s learning needs. This kind of aural/oral and visual learning replicates traditional teaching/learning practices. The trumpet-like pūtātara and pūkaea, at that early stage at least, were instruments that I found very difficult to play; my colleague Peter Adams, who is a brass specialist, attended a session and was able to give the group some really helpful tuition on embouchure. As I’ve become more competent with these instruments, I’ve been able to impart this knowledge to learners rather than being reliant on the skills of my colleagues.

In the absence of local taonga pūoro specialists with a public profile, the opportunities to learn from visiting experts are rare and greatly appreciated. Performances and demonstrations given by Alistair Fraser, Rob Thorne and Richard Nunns in recent years, have been valuable learning opportunities. I was also given the opportunity to participate in a wānanga held at Ōtākou Marae in 2015, working with a visiting Christchurch-based taonga pūoro group to create a piece for the opening of the national kapa haka festival Te Matatini.

Performances, demonstrations and wānanga given by visiting taonga pūoro specialists may be infrequent, but they present valuable opportunities to learn not only about how the instruments are played, but also about their uses and meanings. There is also often storytelling involved in the imparting of knowledge about taonga pūoro – whether these be stories passed down from the ancestors, or personal anecdotes about unusual (humorous or horrifying) events that have happened while playing. I often find these stories very memorable, and I – like others, I imagine – enjoy passing them on in teaching-learning settings. These stories about taonga pūoro, shared among players and to audiences, become part of the oral tradition surrounding their use.

What’s been particularly rewarding and fascinating has been that such storytelling often prompts learners (in Otago University settings) to relate their own knowledge and experiences, touching on things such dreams, emotions, aesthetics, and events that have occurred whilst playing. These stories have generated ongoing dialogue, which has been key to linking praxis to epistemology. Discussions have been wide- ranging, touching on and connecting physical, mental and spiritual knowledges. They’ve been an important way of acknowledging and valuing kaupapa Māori (Māori philosophies), and exploring some of differences in perspective held between and within different iwi. Group discussions that we’ve had have contributed greatly to our collective knowledge as well as to members’ self-knowledge. They’ve also sparked a thirst for knowledge in some of our members – a keen desire to discover and engage with the taonga pūoro traditions of their own hapu (sub-tribe) or iwi (tribe).

In addition to learning from visiting specialists, students taking taonga pūoro performance papers and members of the community group also learn from their peers. Although learners taking the first year performance paper (MUSI140) typically begin with no knowledge of taonga pūoro, they develop their skills over time at their own pace. In the higher-level performance papers, as well as in the community group, skill levels are varied from the outset. With such variation in skill level, a lot of peer-to- peer teaching-learning takes place, with those who are more skilled/experienced passing their knowledge to those who are less so (in the manner of tuakana-teina). The ako concept also comes into play, whereby learners become teachers and teachers become learners; i.e. learning is reciprocal. Myself and other experienced players are often the ones asking newer learners “How did you make that sound?” We all experiment with different playing techniques, and sometimes players come up with techniques that become widely adopted by the group (because they make it easier to produce sound, or because they result in a new kind of sound).10 Without hearing other people experiment, I doubt I’d have become alert to the sheer breadth of sounds these taonga are able to produce. There are certain benefits to holding regular group teaching-learning sessions: They enable members to share each other’s discoveries, and also to develop an understanding of how particular instrument combinations sound together.

Outside of learning face-to-face, learners based at Otago University have taken advantage of social media as a way of sharing and archiving knowledge. Our community group has had a Facebook page since 2014. Currently, there’s 36 members; the site has become a network linking taonga pūoro makers and players from Dunedin and elsewhere around Aotearoa. Occasionally, classes taking the performance papers also set up their own pages, although these only last for the duration of each course. Learners have also learnt from, and contributed to, discussions on the nation-wide Facebook page of the group called Matapakitia ngā taonga pūoro.

Recordings (CDs, YouTube) have also been a valuable source of information for both the performance students and members of the community group. We sometimes spend time as a group listening to and watching recordings, discussing them, imitating them, and occasionally improvising around them while they are playing. We listen to recordings of taonga pūoro being played in a variety of contemporary performance contexts by a variety of artists, and also listen to recordings of traditional Māori songs and chants (e.g. the CD accompanying McLean and Orbell, 2004) in order to gain some insight into the kinds of tunes that might have been played on taonga pūoro in pre-European contact times. We also listen to recordings of a variety of native bird species, and imitate their sounds (not just their songs, but also other distinctive sounds: e.g. the sound made by the kereru [native wood pigeon] in flight, or the sound of toroa [albatross] beaks clacking against one another). YouTube has also been a valuable source of information about playing techniques. One instrument, the pūmotomoto, has a mouthpiece like that of a Japanese shakuhachi. In the absence of suitably skilled colleagues, I’ve found YouTube clips on how to play the shakuhachi really useful – at least as far as learning about the correct embouchures concerned.

Although written information on playing taonga pūoro is scarce, books by Dashper (1996) and Flintoff (2004) do contain practical tips on the cross-blowing method used for flutes such as kōauau and nguru that myself and people I’ve taught have found useful guides. More broadly, our playing has been informed by reference texts on taonga pūoro (such as Flintoff, 2004; and Nunns and Thomas, 2014), which provide a wealth of information about the instruments. Information about their meanings, uses and whakapapa inspire us and guide our choices of which instruments are appropriate for which particular themes and settings.


In 2014, Otago University taonga pūoro performance students and community group members attended a film screening of a documentary featuring taonga pūoro specialists Richard Nunns and Horomona Horo titled Nga reo o te whenua: Voices of the land (Wolffram, 2015). One powerful message from this documentary was that the land itself (the sonic environment or natural soundscape) is an enduring teacher for taonga pūoro players. Dunedin’s cold climate, unfortunately, has precluded us from spending a lot of time learning outdoors, but students taking the performance papers have occasionally spent time in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens, located within easy walking distance of the University. In that setting, we’ve listened to and emulated the voices of the land (the wind, the water, the bird song). We’ve also used the contours of leaves, rocks and skylines visible from the gardens to inspire tunes, in accordance with traditional and contemporary practice. I’ve developed, I think, a much greater awareness of my environment – particularly my local soundscape – as a result. Taonga pūoro are comprised of natural materials (wood, bone, shell), and give voice to physical and spiritual attributes of the land and its fauna and flora.

As mentioned above, most of the taonga pūoro teaching and learning I have been engaged with takes place indoors. I’ve found the choice of indoor teaching environment to have an important effect on learning. In this, I have been directly influenced by Karyn Paringatai, a colleague of mine who teaches at Otago University’s Te Tumu: The School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies. Paringatai has pioneered introducing pre-European contact teaching methods into an inherently Eurocentric, monocultural tertiary educational setting. For Māori in pre-European contact times, learning was undertaken at whare wānanga (houses of esoteric learning), often in total or semi-darkness. Karyn has found that turning off or dimming the lights has had beneficial results for her Māori performing arts students, including: Enhanced listening skills, increased information retention, and minimized embarrassment (Anon, 2015; Paringatai, personal communication 2016).

I found out about Paringatai’s method in 2014 due to publicity surrounding her receipt of the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence and subsequently adopted it in my taonga pūoro performance paper teaching. This necessitated a change of venue – from my office to Te Wānanga, a room located within Te Tumu’s premises (the same room Karyn uses in her teaching). Unlike my office, Te Wānanga has a high, vaulted ceiling (which is good acoustically, and also means that there’s enough space to play instruments like the pūrerehua); it also has no external windows as well as dimmable lighting. All taonga pūoro performance students at that time were based in Te Tumu, and the venue was familiar as well as convenient for them. For myself, learning in the dark did indeed help me to concentrate on the sounds; as a musician trained in performing from scores, I also found it made me feel less self-conscious and more freely able to contribute when the class was improvising together.

In 2015, we used a room at Te Roopu Māori (the Māori Centre at Otago University) for our community group meetings; from a learning perspective, this space was not as useful a space as Te Wānanga (it’s a small space, and you can’t dim the lights), but it did allow us to hold our sessions after work hours (5:30-6:30pm), which has enabled our membership base to broaden. In 2016, we changed venue again for ease of booking purposes – this time relocating to the rehearsal room and library in Allen Hall. The rehearsal room in particular has lovely acoustics; neither space, however, has dimmable lighting. Having tried several alternative venues, Te Wānanga is the one that works best for taonga pūoro teaching and learning, and I will attempt to book this venue for teaching-learning activities in future.


Since semester 2, 2015, I’ve been responsible for formulating paper profiles for MUSI140 and MUSI240 in taonga pūoro performance. These are generic 18-point performance papers that can be taken in a variety of instruments. Formulating these paper profiles has proved a somewhat challenging exercise due to the inherently Eurocentric nature of the profile template. The assessment for these papers, as per the templates, comprises a mid-semester technical assessment and performance (each worth 15%), and a 70% final recital; students are assessed individually, even if they perform as part of an ensemble. For their final recital, students are required to provide the audience with programme notes – although this is not an assessed activity. The template has been devised to cater to students of western art performance instruments, despite students being able to take the paper in a range of non-western instruments (e.g. Javanese gamelan, Japanese taiko and Māori taonga pūoro).

I found this template problematic and limiting. The template assumes that the teacher will set pieces for students to learn. While there are pieces that have been written for taonga pūoro, much contemporary repertoire for these instruments is improvised; moreover, there is no standardisation in instrument manufacture (each taonga is a unique individual in its own right). As a result, I have been asking my students to work collaboratively to create their own pieces. I have encouraged my students to think beyond narrow, Eurocentric definitions of music as a discrete art form as well. Due to this, they have been thinking not only about the playing of taonga pūoro, but about the performance setting (spatial arrangement of performers and audience, backdrop, lighting, effects), costuming, and the inclusion of narration, singing and dancing. My students have also been very interested in the historical uses and meanings of particular types of instruments, and regard this (rightly) as a critically important aspect of their learning. Classes have occasionally asked if they could present short seminars every week as part of our one-hour group sessions, and this has proved a valuable learning activity for all involved. There are other activities we have been engaging in as well, such as having students make their own kōauau, and visiting the Otago Museum to see their taonga pūoro (those on display as well as those in storage), that have been built into the assessment for this paper.

In consultation with Karyn Paringatai (personal communication, 2016) and my students, we’ve collectively agreed that students should be assessed on the range of skills they’re developing and strengthening by doing the paper. These go far beyond technical playing ability to include, for example: the ability to improvise in a group setting; to work effectively as a member of an ensemble, which involves displaying mahi tahi (group work), whānaungatanga (building strong relationships), manaakitanga (supporting and respecting others) and aroha (love/care/concern); to devise a performance; and to communicate and express ideas effectively – musically, verbally and in writing.

Going through the process of devising the assessments for these papers has made me very aware of a need to discuss this ‘generic’ paper with other performance teaching staff so we can build in a greater degree of flexibility. For the time being, with my Head of Department’s approval, I’m modifying the assessments to better meet my intended learning outcomes in consultation with colleagues from Te Tumu who teach performing arts. As much of the assessment will involve groupwork, I’m also using a self- and peer- assessment tool. It’s important to me the teaching and assessment in this paper be done along culturally appropriate lines, and that students can get full recognition for all the learning they’ve achieved. In addition to honouring Otago University’s commitment to upholding the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi,11 these modifications are very much intended to address disparities of educational opportunity and improve educational outcomes for our Māori students.


In this article, I set out to reflect on some of my experiences of, and attempts to decolonise, teaching and learning taonga pūoro at Otago University. I’ve been inspired by colleagues of mine who teach Māori performing arts (particularly Karyn Paringatai), and have been challenged to confront and find constructive ways of responding to the implicit monoculturalism of my department’s -40 coded paper offerings, which favour the learning practices and processes of New Zealand’s hegemonic social group (i.e. Pākehā, or New Zealand Europeans). I’m committed to using culturally responsive and culturally appropriate pedagogical methods, and to recognizing, valuing and validating indigenous ways of being, doing and thinking. Although I’ve taken steps towards this, I still feel there’s still a lot for me to learn, and that I will always need to remain flexible and adaptive.

I often question the appropriateness of teaching/learning taonga pūoro in Otago University’s institutional setting, and share concerns expressed by Schippers (2015) regarding what he terms ‘interventionist institutionalization,’ a term applicable to my own activities. However, the institutional setting of Otago University does provide a point of access to these taonga, and this article has outlined some of the ways in which myself and others have worked to transform this setting into a culturally safe and appropriate space. I also still harbour doubts about the appropriateness of my role as facilitator of these activities; however, positive validation from students and members of the wider Dunedin community gives me sufficient incentive to continue.


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