GCSE iPad Music – a game-changer for Music Education

In September 2018 we began our new “GCSE Music Production Via Technology” course. Students are still entered for AQA GCSE Music 8271 in the same way as our traditional course, but they learn and study music in a completely different way. The difference in teaching on this new course is fascinating and has required me to be more open-minded than ever in my approach to planning.

Already the amount of progress for the tech students has been vast. There is greater control in performance, further understanding of details in notation and more confidence in composition than expected at this stage.

The cohort is predominantly made up of students who don’t play an instrument, but who are passionate about music. There are also two electric guitarists, a classical guitarist and a pianist.

It has been possible for technology or DJing to be used within the AQA GCSE course for quite a few years, but few schools take that option. We haven’t chosen that route ourselves before due to the extra expense of having to buy equipment and to pay extra teachers with specific knowledge. It also seemed in the past that it would be difficult for students to access the full range of marks as there was little information published about that type of assessment.

At the start of 2018, a meeting with a principal music examiner and several other heads of music in London changed everything. We discovered that there was now sufficient focus for technology in the GCSE Music (examination from 2018) to enable all learners to access to full range of marks. Furthermore, there was sufficient rigour in the mark scheme to demand a very high quality product to achieve the top marks, just as in the traditional course.

As they learned of my meeting, there was just enough time for three of my traditional 2018 exam cohort to opt for ‘Performance Via Technology’ as their ensemble performances. The work of those three young men has established an amazing new approach to understanding music in our department. They didn’t all achieve the top mark for PvT, but their understanding of the music was greatly deepened and this period of learning was fundamental in them being able to achieve their two ‘9’s and ‘8’ overall.

Most excitingly, this new pathway for GCSE Music has emerged at a time when portable technology and free music apps have developed sufficiently to allow the user to create a musical product with the required level of control of each element. Already in this first term, we’ve found that students are far more creative as they can make their music whenever and wherever they like. They are no longer having to wait for the class time or extra curricular club in the music room. They can compose music anywhere and at any time. Once they’ve created something, they post it securely to me using Showbie and I can listen and instantly give feedback, which creates a great sense of momentum for them in their learning.

The KS3 national curriculum requirements to perform, listen, review and evaluate, are intrinsically linked to everything students will do to create a quality music product. In fact, more than ever, each individual student now has a personal, instantly accessible resource to learn with. We’ve begun to re-write our KS3 curriculum as the iPad technology is having such a profound, positive effect on learning. For example, many students find ‘texture’ and ‘structure’ difficult concepts to understand. In one year 7 lesson in December, all students composed and recorded an 8-bar, 5-part, rhythmic ostinato from scratch. All developed their work by editing textural and structural aspects. In the same lesson, students mixed-down their piece and uploaded to Showbie allowing us to collectively listen and evaluate the outcomes of each one. There was no homework set from that lesson, but some students chose to continue their development and re-posted new work later that evening. This is how music education should be!

For students (and teachers) with instrumental skills, it’s possible to connect a USB keyboard/piano to the iPad and it’s now possible to record with zero-latency. In fact, I was without an accompanist in our ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ at York Minster earlier this month so pre-recorded the piano part for the recessional to allow me to conduct. I recorded the piano into GarageBand on the iPad, which then even had sufficient control of EQ to adjust the frequency response as was needed for the Minster acoustics.

My initial thought on beginning this work was that technology would make music accessible to students without an instrument. In reality, it’s far more exciting than that! It’s inspiring instrumentalists and vocalists to play and sing more, it’s inspiring students without an instrument to learn to play instruments and it’s creating a way that every single individual young person can understand and make music. That is awesome!

More to follow…

The real-world truth about… GCSE Music Composition (How to start)

Most GCSE Music students feel stressed as they begin their composition work. This stress is often nothing to do with music whatsoever and therefore very unhelpful for our young musicians. The stress is usually rooted in expectation about grades, either their own or that felt from a parent or teacher. Without experience of composing before, they have no idea of what to aim for, no concept of a ‘finished product’ or understanding of what it takes to get there. Perhaps most frustratingly, they have no thought of writing music with a context or purpose. They just make sounds, or they don’t make anything. They cannot evaluate their sounds as they’ve nothing to compare it to, not understanding what they’re aiming for. Often the ‘purpose’ is derived later on to tick a box on an exam paper, rather than being a fully explored concept. There are many misconceptions that do nothing but create anxiety and confusion.

I’ve drawn the two images above to describe what I see from students if they begin to compose without a clear purpose. Notice that both are titled “untitled”, proving a lack of consideration of the purpose and making use of the default software file-naming system. There is no less-inspiring title to read when marking a piece of music. The ‘draft 1’ image depicts a student who has sat down in front of Sibelius and decided that they will use every different note duration, every mark, dot and squiggle they can find. Their perception of the construction of music is based on complexity, not understanding. Students creating this type of outcome are also not likely to have listened to their work. The ‘draft 2’ image depicts a student who is overwhelmed by the thought of their music not being ‘good enough’, although it’s also a common 2nd attempt, when the student writing ‘draft 1’ finally listens to their music to discover a wall of stressful noise and chaos. Within ‘draft 1’ there are some great ideas, unfortunately hidden by excessive and un-necessary additions.

Using technology to create music is wonderful. It gives our young musicians the instant opportunity to write an idea, listen to it and simply decide whether to keep or delete. However control is everything. I remember once discussing ADR techniques with Nick Lowe (no relation), who had recorded and edited dialogue on some of the Harry Potter films. His role was to re-record and re-sync aspects of the actors lines that weren’t sufficiently clear from the recordings made during filming. In every re-recording he described having to listen so carefully (or critically) to ensure the quality was as good as it could be. At this point in post-production, the vast sound design and orchestral music was yet to be added, so it was possible to hear and fix any problems. If anything was wrong later, it would be very difficult to resolve once the other 200 tracks of sound were laid together. Students need to think similarly when they compose.

Music composition is a wonderful thing to do and quite unbelievable that something of such joy can be related to a school examination given the current challenges in education. The freedom to be creative and explore, invent and build something for others to enjoy is so unique. The exam boards have helped too by developing their courses to invite students to write in any style or genre and for any combination of instruments. What an amazing opportunity!!

However, control is everything. Students should first listen… Listen to as much music as they can, in many styles, from many cultures, in films, theatre, television, video games, supermarket tannoys, sporting venues etc. The role of the music teacher is very much to be ready to help them to understand the music they’ve discovered. Good questions for students to ask could be… “Why does this music sound exciting?”, “Why does this melody make me feel sad?”, “Why did the music make me jump at that moment?”. All answers should be given using the elements of music to encourage them to adopt this language.

Students need support and encouragement in understanding and using every element in context with a purpose. A few years ago at a round table discussion with other heads of music in York, we agreed that the single most fundamental aspect to be successful in composition was melody. That is, without a successfully written melody, the music will struggle to connect to its chosen audience.

The challenge we face as teachers is how we can support and encourage students in composition without being prescriptive or restricting their own creativity. I try to set small tasks or challenges in preparation for composition, but not relating to their final piece. Often students respond much more positively if they are controlling, or focused on, one element, like melody, rather than considering all together. I encourage my students to reflect on and describe the musical qualities they create in each task. Once they have many small experiences and have begun to understand how to control musical ideas with a purpose, finding an inspirational starting point is quite straightforward.

Mini-Mr Lowe

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Something I use on a daily basis is “Mini-Mr Lowes”.

My own understanding of music has developed so much more during the period of my teaching than at any other time. Every day, students approach concepts differently to how I have ever perceived or imagined them before. I provide a starting point with a specific focus, but there are always a vast array of related outcomes found. I therefore encourage all students to share the leadership of learning in the class environment.

This strategy instantly recognises and rewards confident understanding of musical concepts. It deepens the students’ understanding by adapting what they’ve learned to support someone else. It helps students to understand how others learn and provides unique information about their strengths and weaknesses. It grows confidence in subject-specific conversation and discussion, and rewards a passion and determination to learn.

As soon as a student feels they can demonstrate confidence in their understanding, they come to show me evidence at the front of the classroom. If I agree that they’ve sufficiently understood the concept, they are offered the opportunity to be a “Mini-Mr Lowe”, which gives them a merit and the freedom to wander around the class. They can ask to hear the work of any other student, question their understanding and offer verbal support. They cannot create work for somebody else, but can encourage and support them to create it themselves. Other students may ask them for specific help too.

There are always a maximum of 5 Mini-Mr Lowes at any one time. This strategy generates rich, musical conversation and development, and encourages students to use appropriate vocabulary.

Discovering a ‘Production Environment’ for learning

In the early 2000s (before I retrained to be a secondary music teacher), I was greatly fortunate to be invited to some of the leading music and audio production facilities in the UK, perhaps the world. The primary purpose of my visits was to meet professionals at the top of their industry and to learn about the protocols that made it possible for a world-class creative product to be developed. Every visit and conversation was an absolute privilege. Not only did I meet incredibly kind, passionate and gifted people, but I learned how they were able to inspire each other, constantly endeavouring to develop the quality of their overall product. This was especially impressive under the pressure of each client’s expectations of delivering the ‘ultimate sound production’ for their (in some cases) $100million project.

It was an amazing period of learning, but I couldn’t possibly imagine the scale of the immense impact these visits would now have on my practice as a teacher. I will forever be grateful to the amazing people at Pinewood Film Studios Post Production, Films@59, BBC Radio, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Reelsound, Twickenham Film Studios, Dolby Laboratories and The Digital Audio Company.

The single most important asset of all of these studios was ‘environment’. Not necessarily the building design, comfy furniture or well-stocked fridge, but those were important too! For exceptional creative developments to occur, the environment had to be designed with purpose to enable individuals to form exceptional, trusting relationships and to maintain open and honest communications. These aspects were completely fundamental in every aspect of production. Every stakeholder had a clearly defined objective in their work, but there was great transparency and respect between colleagues with each individual seeking to encourage others or having the flexibility to support others as they needed. Every stakeholder constantly looked for opportunities to discover something new, not relying on their own understanding and were frequently asking others for evaluation or advice. There was a hierarchy of roles and therefore responsibilities, but no-one was ‘more important’ than the others. There was a genuine passion for the product and collective excitement when something new was achieved.

We can learn much from this as education leaders and it is greatly relevant to our young people. The insight of how our production industries operate at the highest level is greatly inspiring. I wonder if students ever stop to consider how creativity is truly encouraged and developed by those who create the film and video game products they experience every day. I try to keep this experience of the ‘Production Environment’ at the centre of my curriculum design as it makes such a profound difference to the young people I work with.

(No part of this post is affiliated with any of the companies listed above.)

Hello!

Over the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve shared my real-world experiences of Music Education with many people – PGCE, GTP and School Direct students, fellow heads of music, parents, exam boards and school leaders from around the world. Usually this has been on a case-by-case basis to offer support or to share understanding.

The landscape of music education is changing in the UK. Government changes have caused a significant national decline in the amount of music education taught in schools. In this period however, the uptake and engagement at my own school has grown. I hope that by sharing the detail of our work, other heads of music and school leaders might be encouraged in their own practice. I hope to also develop a group of passionate music educators who will collaborate, without any thought of personal gain, to make a difference in the lives of thousands of young people across the country through the dissemination of inspirational and relevant practice in Music Education.