How to make a Virtual Worship Band Video

Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.

Watch “How Deep the Father’s Love and The Blessing “ and “I am free” first 🙂

One of the greatest positive experiences of being in lockdown has been the excitement of finding solutions to solve the challenges of not being able to be together. Especially finding opportunities in situations we thought would be impossible. One hugely inspiring outcome is how this period has encouraged people of all ages to share their creative gifts. In my teaching, I’ve been really inspired to hear from students who would normally be very quiet in lessons, now feeling a genuine opportunity to be heard from the quietness of home-working. It’s made me think about how I might take away the ‘loudness’ in situations to help more creativity happen and indeed whether there should be a ‘from home’ part of the school week in future school timetabling models. 

Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.

This process is accessible to all singers of all ages and all abilities around the world. The leading of it is complex, both musically and technologically, but the impact is so significant, it’s a worthy investment for your skillset in your role as a music leader and it creates a great sense of encouragement in your community.

This is a list of the equipment I’ve used to create the projects from start to finish. I’m not affiliated with any of these companies and I’m sure other kit is available, but this works for me. I’m just working from home in my office and have no acoustic treatment. 

  • Apple MacBook Pro 13” 2019, 4 thunderbolt ports, 8Gb RAM
  • Apple Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X software
  • Additional Sample Libraries: Ivory II Pianos, ProjectSAM SwingMore
  • Additional Plug-ins: Waves Greg Wells Signature Series, SSL EQ
  • Lacie 2TB external SSD Hard Drive
  • Canon 6D Mkii camera, tripod
  • Roland DP90SE Piano
  • Roland GO Piano
  • Focusrite 18i8 USB Audio Interface
  • Genelec 8040 Monitoring
  • Neumann U87 microphone
  • Sennheiser Headphones 

This working example is based on my recent virtual production of “Cornerstone” with the Manor CE Academy Student Virtual Worship Band and Hope/Belfrey Community Choirs.

In all, 3 songs were created for the 9am service at St Michael-le-Belfrey, York on Sunday 24th May 2020, during a time of distancing due to the Coronavirus Crisis. Watch the whole service here.

Step 1: Pre-Production

Guide track production in Logic Pro X
  • Decide which piece(s) to create and who will play/sing. [Tip: to begin with, choose music that has a very clear and constant pulse. Repeating sections are also helpful]
  • Invite participants. Remember you’ll need written permission from parents to include under 18s before they can take part in online rehearsals and have their video posted on YouTube. For “Cornerstone” I invited anyone connected to my school and community choirs.
  • Create a guide track. Decide the tempo and stick to it. This will be the track your players/singers listen to when they practise and record, and ultimately it will become the start for your final mix. [Tip: think about what they need to hear to sing/play confidently, in-time and in-tune. Make it a comfortable, enjoyable experience. Include a cue track of your voice to count into verse/chorus/bridge entries] – I used Logic Pro X, a mic and the USB GO Piano to record these parts: metronome click, my guide singing voice (not my strength at all), simple drum kit played on GO Piano, held string chords, piano, my cue voice. If you’d like an mp3 copy of this guide track drop me a message – MrLowePVO@gmail.com
  • By this point you’ll have received replies from those you’ve in invited. The timescale was short for Cornerstone, so participants had just 3 days to confirm their involvement and 30 people came forward in that time. 
  • Email all participants including: full instructions for recording, lyrics, arrangement parts, guide tracks and the link for the Zoom meeting. The Zoom is compulsory as that single meeting will be the one rehearsal to teach the songs, going over any musical details such as agreed rhythms or lengths of notes. The Zoom is also the opportunity for questions to be asked so we can collectively move in the same direction towards production.

Step 2: Rehearsal & Production

Hope/Belfrey Virtual Community Choir Zoom Rehearsal. Most participants are from around York, but our community reaches even wider as we welcomed a guest from Garland, Texas
  • For safeguarding reasons, there were separate meetings for the students and the adults, but covering the same material
  • Begin the meeting by going through the process of ‘how to record’. then sing through the three songs and allow participants to ask questions to check understanding. Participants must be muted, so they can only hear you and themselves when singing, unmuting to ask questions or to comment. 
  • Demonstrate how to prepare to record and how to use the guide track. 
  • Talk about how to transfer large files.
  • Following that meeting there were additional email conversations to give technical support as needed. These were further joyful times as many people in the choir weren’t initially confident with the technology, but everyone ‘found a way’. 
  • Again due to the timescale, everyone had just 5 days to learn and record the 3 songs, including Cornerstone. I’ve included the instructions email I sent at the bottom of this article for details of ‘how to record’.

Step 3: Post-production 1 – Receive, Save and Library

  • While waiting the 5 days for video recordings to arrive, it’s possible to begin to build any additional instrumental parts for the recording. I recorded the piano, which is visible on screen on the Roland DP90SE. I played the bass guitar, drum kit and other orchestral parts from my arrangement (for players we didn’t have) – all created in Logic Pro X using the USB GO Piano.
  • As they arrive, edit the filenames to state the person and the song. I received 96 videos for the 3 songs – hence the 2TB SSD.
  • Once the deadline passes, check with any participants who haven’t sent videos. Check they are ok and offer support. 

Step 4: Post-production 2 – Import, Edit and Sync Videos

Organising the separate video files in Final Cut Pro X
  • Beginning in Final Cut Pro X, import all the videos. Right click to select ‘Lift from Storyline’. You can then drag the videos to play at the same time as each other (drag them to appear like a list, one above the next).
  • Next edit each clip to make them all visible at once on the video screen. Shift+T selects the transform function, allowing you to move the video around on the screen and make it bigger or smaller. Shift+C selects the crop tool, allowing you to trim unneeded space from around each participant. If you’re preparing for a worship service as I was, leave space at the bottom of the screen to add the lyrics later on.
  • The absolute key to success in this project is “The Clap”. Like a human film clapperboard, this is the secret that brings us all together. You’ll have decided on a definite point in your guide track for everyone to clap. That clap creates a very obvious audio peak to see on the editor. The next job is to line the videos up so everyone claps together. [Tip: At this point do this within a couple of frames accuracy as you’ll find there will be some variation to address later]
  • If you’ve not studied post-production or film sound, you might not be aware of how it works. Films are not actually ‘moving-pictures’. They are collections of lots of still pictures played very quickly, one at a time. If we see enough similar still images every second, we perceive them as moving. This is very helpful to know as you edit as there are only 30 frames (still images) per second, so 30 moments the we could be out of sync every second. Helpfully, by using the right and left arrow buttons we can step through each individual frame of our videos. 
  • Add the guide track and turn up the volume (by dragging the horizontal line up) to show the clap peak very obviously. Then simply zoom in and align each video clap to match the peak on the guide track. [Tip: use the , and . keys to nudge videos 1 frame left or right to have more control that clicking and dragging]

Step 5: Post-production 3 – Detaching, Exporting and Importing XML

  • Once they’re roughly in time, have a listen. Don’t panic if it still doesn’t sound perfect at this point! 
  • Select all the videos, right click and select ‘Detach Audio’. Each audio file will now appear at the bottom of the screen. Leave them there for now, however you’ll delete these later on. 
  • Go to FILE>EXPORT XML… and export one of these files to your hard drive. It’s a clever very small file that tells another program where to look for the audio and as what time it plays in the session, so once reopened, everything is still in-sync. 
  • Close Final Cut Pro X to save processor power.
  • Open the Guide track Logic Pro X session and import the XML file you’ve just made. Helpfully, these tracks are automatically grouped. To see the individual tracks click on the small white arrow next to the track number. 

Step 6: Post-production 4 – Listening and Editing Audio

Editing and processing voice recordings
  • From now on you’ll think about audio and video separately, until you’ve completed the final mix.
  • To keep the sync appearing to be realistic, the one thing you must avoid is splicing the audio tracks and moving parts of them left or right. This would be almost impossible to realign when you return to the videos. 
  • The focus of this step is to make each voice or part sound as natural and clear as possible. We want to remove unwanted noise (trimming none singing moments at the start and end), take out any over-resonant frequencies (using EQ), compress the dynamic range of voices who sing very softly and very loudly (Compressor) and help them out with a touch of pitch-correction to hit every note as intended. The editing on Cornerstone for 30 voices, took me about 2 hours in total. I could’ve gone into more detail, analysing individually pitched notes, but as well as having a limited amount of time, I wanted the overall product to sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘studio produced’ so this step can very much be over-done. It’s also important to remember than none of the singers/players used microphones, other than the built-in one on their smartphone, so this limits how ‘crystal-clear’ the signal can be. The important focus at every edit should be ‘Does this make the voice sound more natural?’. 
  • In a couple of situations I used the Greg Wells plugin to add warmth to a voice or give it a touch more presence in the sound, but use this with care, as the overall mix can become very loud, very quickly with too much of this type of processing. 

Step 7: Post-production 5 – Sync-ing and Mixing the Voices

Matching waveforms for sync and blending the voices using ‘solo’
  • One of the benefits of using an audio editor like Logic Pro X is you can instantly see the waveform. In particularly, you can see where parts are out of time. You’ll do the final sync-ing to the video tracks later, so for now it’s fine to nudge whole tracks left or right to make them play as perfectly in time as possible. Whatever you do, don’t move your guide track – that is a constant, but other parts can be moved to create the best fit.
  • I use the solo function to build my voices mix. I begin at the top of the list and work downwards, solo-ing it by press the ’S’ button. No voice in the choir is more important than others – they are all equally valuable. I begin very cautiously with volume, as 30 voices can become loud very quickly. As I add each new voice (by clicking another ’S’), I’m particularly listening for a nice balance between them. I can separate similar voices using pan to move them towards the left or right sides of the mix. Be careful not to have them too widely spread or to have an imbalance of sides as they must collectively work as a choir. This is an exciting step as you’ll begin to hear the richness of the choir sound. 
  • Another helpful function of the automatic grouping, is the ability to add the same reverb to all parts. This creates an illusion that they’re all singing in the same room. Be careful not to use too much reverb as it can make the voices less-clear with a suggestion they’re all in a large tunnel, but using some will have a positive effect. 
  • Once you have a nice balance in your ensemble, their level compared to the instruments can be adjusted with the group fader mostly. 

Step 8: Post-production 6 – Final Mix and Mastering the Audio

Editing automation during the mixing of the 46 instrument and voice parts
  • Your place to listen is very important for this final part. I’m very restricted here as I have no acoustic treatment at home. When I mix, I’m constantly listening to the music on different systems (and in different rooms) to try and find a ‘happy medium’. I come away from using my audio interface to mix as the sound it creates is much richer and warmer that most domestic systems. I often mix using the laptop speakers, then a few different pairs of headphones, then a value range 1990s hifi, then the Genelecs. For me this is the most challenging part to do well from home in lockdown.
  • The mix is about the energy of the music throughout the song, which will change. Use automation (by pressing ‘A’) to adjust volume over time. It’s about making choices like ‘where the climactic point will be’ and how you’ll reach that, which instruments are important in driving that energy, making sure we can hear just enough of every part, so every one feels a sense of contribution and value in the mix. The approach to mixing these worship songs is different to a commercial release or performance, as they are intended to support church sung worship. Therefore they have to be easy to sing to, without the on-screen voices dominating the mix as might be the case in a performance or pop video. When mixing live in a church, I often have the volume of the lead vocal as ‘just enough to hear, but without feeling I have to just listen to them’. This project is about creating a starting point for other people in their houses around the world to feel encouraged to sing together. 
  • Once you’ve mixed your instruments and voices together, export your ‘finished sound’ as an aiff file at 24-bit 48kHz

Step 9: Post-production 7 – Final Video Sync and Adding Lyrics

Lyrics now added for our song “I am Free” at the bottom of the screen
  • Import the aiff final mix into Final Cut Pro X and line it up with the original guide track
  • Delete the original audio files from the bottom of the screen, apart from the original guide track, just turn the volume down on that clip.
  • Watch each individual video to check that lip-sync is perfect, just as when they recorded. Use the , and . keys again to nudge each video clip a frame left or right as needed. [Tip: choose a chorus towards the end of the song to do this as the timing will be slightly tighter and easier to spot, then watch all the way through to check for glaring sync errors]
  • Once the video and final audio are in-sync, if it’s a worship video, now add the lyrics
  • Use one of the ‘lower third’ presets and drag the template to the start of your film. 
  • Use Ctril+T to ‘transform’ the bar to make it fit with your videos and set the font, size and colour in the info window (top right). 
  • Enter your first lyric line. Then copy and paste the title clip along your project to ensure the settings stay the same for each line of lyrics. Drag the start and end points of each title clip to musically set when the new line appears in a helpful way to sing, but not be distracting.  

Step 10: Post-production 8 – Export and Delivery

My ‘Mr Lowe’ YouTube Channel. Musical challenges, demonstrations and virtual orchestras for all.
  • Once everything has been checked and you’re happy it’s complete, export the project by going to FILE>SHARE>Master file… [Tip: It’s faster to export like this, rather than going straight to YouTube and it creates a local backup of the finished video]. 
  • I use wetransfer.com as a free option to deliver the final file. Or I could upload to YouTube directly.

I’ve explained the process in this much detail to hopefully encourage you to have a go in your community. The total time I spent on Cornerstone was about 20 hours, including the creating of the initial guide track and materials, the invitations, zoom meeting, file storing, recording, editing, mixing, mastering and completing the video with lyrics.  

Betty’s Artwork

This special picture was painted by Betty Law, a member of our community choir. She painted the work during online worship on Easter Sunday this year. A photo of the painting appears in our Cornerstone video. 

It reminds me that we have been greatly restricted during this period of lockdown and not able to be together. However, it’s also been a great time of opportunity for creativity to explode with vibrant richness across our whole community. 

Thanks for reading. Get in touch if I can help.

DL

——————————————————-

My email instructions:

Hi everybody,

Thanks for joining our Virtual Worship Team. I’m really looking forward to meeting you online on Thursday to go through our project. 

After Thursday’s 45-minute zoom meeting, you should have everything you need to record yourself. After our zoom, to make the recordings, you will need:

– Headphones or earphones

– 2 devices – one to play the guides tracks on, and one to make a video of yourself

I’ve attd. the 3 guide tracks, made specially for this group. Please only use them for the purpose of this project and don’t share them with anyone outside our team. I’ve also attd. lyrcis and some orchestral parts, although I’ve not quite finished writing parts out so there are a few more to come.

I’ll need to receive your videos by bedtime on Wednesday 13th May. As they are quite big files (too big to email), you can send them securely for free using wetransfer.com If you need help doing that let me know. 

We have three golden rules: Play/Sing in time, Play/Sing in tune, Play/Sing with passion. If you can do all three I’ll be able to include your videos in the final Virtual Worship Band, which will broadcast to the world on YouTube on Sunday 24th May at the Belfrey. 

It might be sounding like a lot, but it really is straightforward. Please find the zoom meeting link and recording instructions below. Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday. 

Best wishes

Dave Lowe

——

Mr Lowe is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Mr Lowe Virtual Community Choir

Time: May 7, 2020 05:30 PM London

Join Zoom Meeting

Link was here**

Meeting ID: 

Password: Password was here***

Instructions

USE THE QUIETEST ROOM IN YOUR HOUSE (NOT BEDROOM)

ANYONE ELSE IN THE ROOM MUST BE SILENT

When you’re ready to record…

1. TUNE your instrument – make it perfect

2. Put your headphones on

3. Check the camera image can see your head, instrument and hands

4. Press record on the camera/phone or whatever you’re using

5. Press play on the backing track (only heard in headphones)

6. CLAP on the 5th Click – if the clap is not perfectly in time, start again

7. Relax and listen

8. Play/Sing with passion and communicate the music, knowing that what you do will inspire A LOT of people. Singers – tell the story, everyone must be involved in the music. Play perfectly in time and in tune.

9. Wetransfer your video

Part 2: Teaching Music in Isolation: A deeper, real-world reflection into lockdown: Finding a new ‘Extra Curricular’

Despite this deeply negative time, from that 2nd rehearsal did come an idea, like a small shoot of a spring flower appearing as a symbol of hope after a harsh winter. We decided together that rhythm and pulse could not be followed in real-time. So rather than focusing on things that were not possible, we began to think of what was possible.

You may have already read my deeper, real-world blog post about teaching during lockdown. Always, my job as a music teacher has two main focuses: delivering the music curriculum and managing an extra curricular programme.

The second area, extra curricular, takes just as much thought as the curriculum and dominates my head-space as I constantly have themes going round in my head from rehearsals, problems to solve and I’m often thinking of ways to improve. However, extra curricular in any context is a profoundly positive experience for all who partake. It helps us to grow, both in our community relationships and in our music.

Other than the (significant) face-to-face issue described in the previous blog, I’m not feeling much difference in my working life and I’m perhaps even busier than ever. There are more problems to solve at the moment and more barriers to break down, but it’s very much worth the effort. I’ve heard of so many times when people have spoken of ‘unprecedented times’ and therefore cancelling groups and events and that ‘things can’t happen at the moment’. Surely, in this time, more than ever, we should be finding ways to bring people ‘together’.

The Lowest Point

At the point of lockdown, it was already widely being reported about the possibility of choirs singing together through internet video software such as google hangouts, houseparty and zoom. However this was a myth, and that deep feeling of loss when our Voices choir realised we could not continue together, was momentarily given a sense of encouragement, and then in the first rehearsal was taken away in the most discouraging way. The truth is, that choir of students aged 11-15, had reached a standard I’d never experienced before from a school-based choir. They rehearsed on two mornings a week, every week, for 45 minutes (a lot in the current educational climate) and they had really become like a family. They inspired many people with their singing and both the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the new Dean of York Minster, Jonathan Frost were amongst the many visitors who came to observe their rehearsals. Significant developments had taken place in rehearsals in preparation for many bookings they had for summer 2020, including a new arrangement of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Somewhere Only We Know we’d written together. There were performances booked at local choir festivals, National Music for Youth Festival and a special performance at the UN Security Council in New York. They’d been booked to make recordings and to lead at some special summer events at York Minster. All of these events and recordings were cancelled. Despite the incredible sadness felt, nothing compared to the helplessness we felt with the online video platforms not allowing real-time singing together. The voices group is very much built on the determined creation of one collective true sound, with many live contributors. This, sadly is just not possible at a distance. About 16 of the (21) choir came to the first attempt online. Only 8 to the second as the first had been so discouraging and after that a few of us met to talk about it, but it’s never restarted since.

Despite this deeply negative time, from that 2nd rehearsal did come an idea, like a small shoot of a spring flower appearing as a symbol of hope after a harsh winter. We decided together that rhythm and pulse could not be followed in real-time. So rather than focusing on things that were not possible, we began to think of what was possible. I remember studying a piece for string quartet in the past in which each player was given music to play, but there was no given rhythm. It was left for them to choose when to change to the next given pitch. This created a new performance every time. As musicians, we respond to the circumstances around us, listening carefully to other parts and making our part fit with the others. We attempted our own performance of this on the zoom call. One year 10 boy chose a note to begin with and sang that as a sustained note. Other voices joined at a time they heard as appropriate. Fascinatingly, they were all contributing to the same performance, but all heard the music differently, mostly depending on their broadband connections. The first take was a disaster as we all made each other laugh. But remarkably the determination to make this work, caused everyone to instantly find a way they could listen with great focus. The second take was beautiful. It was a ‘new sound’, with so much to represent the ‘new’ lockdown, as was the case then.

Despite the glimmer of light, our choir hasn’t continued to meet, but that was an important turning point in planning for other activities and groups.

It is possible to have a shared collective purpose

It is possible to create music together (without live shared pulse)

It is important to see each other and interact, even if it’s not what we expect

It is important to have a goal or focus, but to keep this relatively short or simple

It is possible to each record a performance and combine them together to appear as if together

It is encouraging to be part of some extra curricular music during lockdown

It is something that creates outcomes that are exciting, inspiring and surprising at the same time

It is possible for people of all ages, abilities and nations to come together to make music (provided safeguarding considerations are in place)

Therefore many people can learn a musical part from a single leader and practise it, live, at the same time. For this to be successful in a large group on Zoom, all individuals must be muted, so they can only hear themselves and the leader. They can hear and play in time with the leader. With smaller groups (5 or 6), individuals can remain unmuted to hear others practising at the same time as them. In this, they cannot all play in-time together (live), but often it’s helpful to hear someone else in the section mastering a particular rhythm, that they can then play themselves. The leader can listen to each part being developed at the same time and, importantly, can verbally encourage by name when an idea is played correctly. I wonder when we return, whether I’ll be less-requiring of silent moments in rehearsals.

5 of The Highest Points

These are my 5 weekly lockdown extra-curricular ensembles and activities with details of what’s happening at the moment.

1. Make Music On Mondays

Live from York, every Monday 1220pm #MakeMusicOnMondays

A live, public, worldwide YouTube stream, open and free to all. I use this weekly programme to demonstrate aspects of music creation. The 30-60 minute programme is at 1220 every Monday to coincide with the beginning of ‘the lunch break’ (as our students are being encouraged to stick to their timetables). We’ve heard from working adults who watch the show that it’s a helpful something to help them to stop their ‘working at home’ to have lunch and have a break as they watch. In response to student requests I have created a series of Quick-fire Music Challenges to help develop instrumental technique and control as well as discovering a greater understanding of music theory. Already many people of different ages have taken part in this, some posting their efforts online with #QuickfireMusicChallenge . In addition to the challenges, I’m also encouraging everyone to be creative during this lockdown time and explore ideas to write new original music using whatever resources are available at home.

2. The Manor Concert Orchestra

The families of these 7 young people gave permission for their performances to be used online, to encourage others to get involved.
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cqz2NlPiLM

This group is restricted to the usual members of MCO. They meet every Thursday 3.30-4.15 on Zoom. They are currently warming-up together using the QuickfireMusicChallenges, being sociable and rehearsing pieces to be eventually built together to represent this time we had apart. To ensure everyone in the group can partake without safeguarding fears, there is no plan to release their collective work online. However it will be something for them to keep and possibly use within live performances when we return.

3. People’s Virtual Orchestra

Get involved here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfCRUpHXCAA

This exciting new group has been born from MCO members showing me what’s possible. The PVO is for everybody in the world – all ages, all abilities, all instruments, all nations, all cultures. It is by the people, for the people. Already it’s a fantastically inspirational group of people including everybody from beginners to professionals. I can’t wait to show you what they’ve made together. This is such a unique group, bringing together people from all over the world who’ve never heard of each other, never mind played together before. This group breaks down all boundaries and the people create a great, rich sound together, at a time when ‘together’ has had to take on a new meaning. They are performing a piece I wrote in 2011 called “Latin…”, written at that time as I began to form MCO for the first cohort. It’s a rhythmically complex piece, but by the way it’s structured, is very simple to learn. It also features opportunities for players to develop their own parts as they play and build confidence to explore variations. We’ve had one of the four rehearsals so far. The next is this Monday, live on YouTube. I’ve already received 20 video recordings from 3 continents of the material learned in session 1. This week we’ll be focusing on the ending of the piece. It’s still possible to join until the final deadline for me to receive recordings, which is Monday 22nd June. Any participants under 18 can take part, but I must receive permission in writing before I can include your videos online. Many people are beginning to follow the progress of this group. I’m grateful to BBC Radio York for interviewing me about the project and helping to share the invitation more widely.

4. Manor Virtual Student Worship Band

Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bONewsoVKds

As a Church of England Academy, there are no restrictions in our school to talk about faith, God, the Bible etc. and we create opportunities for our young people to worship. Also in 2011 I started a student worship band. The ‘worship’ aspect was meaningful to some, but for most, they just enjoyed the type of sung repertoire this involved. In essence, simple songs that young people could sing and play together. As that first group (W1 Worship Band) grew, we learned of churches locally who either struggled for musicians or didn’t know how to develop their music. W1 began to tour local churches to lead services and encourage other young people to get involved in the music in their church. The group developed to lead at some national events with the Archbishop of York and at York Minster. In 2014 11 members of that band toured Georgia and Alabama in the USA to lead events in churches and schools and to make friendships with young people in different cultures. That group has long-since moved on, but a new generation has emerged in this lockdown, with these young people seeing the opportunity to be an encouragement to others through their singing and playing. They led their first service at St Michael-le-Belfrey church in York last weekend. Their 3 songs were very well received and they’re already recording for another service at the church. I know it meant a great deal to them too to be able to do this together.

5. Hope & Belfrey Virtual Community Choir

Our amazing wider community begin to prepare together on Zoom

Following the success of the Manor Virtual Worship Band, this week I’ve launched a Virtual Community Choir. On this first attempt I’ve restricted the invitation to the Hope & Belfrey community choirs I directed in York Minster at Christmas. This new group will join the student virtual band to lead worship at the Belfrey on 24th May. It was a brilliant first Zoom rehearsal together on Thursday.

It’s been quite a journey so far in the last 7 weeks.

I’m learning so much in directing these ensembles and activities. It takes a lot of planning and preparation, but it’s so very worth it.

More to follow.

Part 1. Teaching Music in Isolation: A deeper, real-world reflection into lockdown

In this lockdown, I’ve experienced students of all levels of ability developing skills of independence in their learning. So I know the materials I’ve provided are helpful for all abilities, but maybe this is a great time to return to more study-skill type activities. There’s still nothing I can do if a student chooses to not ‘have a go’, but could some learners be better equipped for the restart?. At this point, are skills and resilience in how to learn within different situations more important that the subject learning itself?

Friday 20th March 2020 was my last day teaching music to classes at Manor CE Academy, York. It feels a long time ago, when in context it was 2 weeks before the Easter break, and we’re just at the end of the 3rd week back after the holidays. So in curriculum time it’s not really that long, although I expect not to be able to teach all my students in-person for a while yet.

It has been a time of of great re-adjustment, much new curriculum development, significant emailing, ‘zooming’ and creation of new types of online content, to try to ensure learning (and appropriate support) can continue for all students.

One thing is for certain. My teaching has changed during this time, as well as my appreciation of how key face-to-face education is. When I’m in front of the students, I can plan everything. I can make changes in real-time to find an optimal environment for each student as they progress. I can solve problems, share resources and encourage them, as I disseminate information and demonstrate music. This planning usually includes deciding where everyone sits. Students often complain about ‘seating plans’, but there are so many advantages that they benefit from, but are not aware of in advance. In ‘lockdown’, there isn’t the opportunity, for example, to seat them near other students with a mixture of abilities where I know they’ll feel encouraged as they work.

My most recent classroom experience was that about 80% of students engaged in the tasks I set without prompting. In general, year 8 were the most challenging year group to inspire to be ‘on task’ when we stopped. Whether there’s an age-related reason or a connection to students who haven’t selected the GCSE option, as they do as my school in year 8, less attention to detail was certainly evident in practical work. Whilst in school, there is a behaviour policy, including sanctions for students who don’t try in their learning, or for students who disrupt others. At home, it’s a physical impossibility to provide the same support to encourage learning. We have to think differently. As we plan lessons, so much information is available about each student, about their prior attainment in various subjects or about any barriers to learning they might have. However, the greatest, most insightful information I can know about a student, is seeing how they react when each new aspect is completed, or seeing how they struggle when they can’t see connections in knowledge to reach a confident level of understanding. It is a fundamental problem, to not have the opportunity to see our students during this time.

A frustration I’d felt for a few years (before lockdown) was a seeming perception that some students knew the best way to learn and could very much dictate this to teachers. I’ve even had a few conversations in the last couple of years where students have disagreed with the content of the curriculum. I’m very much in favour of student-voice activities and I’ve shared much in previous blogs of situations when students have inspired me. However, it seems to be more overlooked these days that I’m a specialist in my subject, and perhaps even more so in the context of education. I think historically, certainly in my own school education, there was a ‘taught respect’ to learn as much as possible from teachers. These days, that sense of respect requires a ‘trust’ to be earned by the teacher, before any sort of respect can come. Sometimes there are barriers or pre-conceptions that prevent this from happening easily.

So with all these challenges, it’s perhaps not a surprise if some students, who would need significant encouragement to work whilst in school, struggle to get started on their work at home.

For me, this is the most demoralising part of teaching in lockdown. It’s something that I can’t control. I can produce the most inspirational, practical, ‘accessible to all’ tasks possible, considering a very wide-range of factors, with clear instructions, but if students choose ‘not to engage’, I cannot help them. Even with a little attempt, ‘just having a go’ can be a starting point for an online dialogue to begin and for some students who had struggled in the past, this new style of learning has been hugely encouraging for them.

In this lockdown I continue to use Showbie as a secure online platform for file-sharing and feedback. The majority of my 762 students have an iPad, but for those who don’t, they can still access their Showbie account through any computer (Mac or PC), or smartphone, and from what I can see, all but a few can therefore access everything I’m sharing. (The few are sent a paper pack). Specialist music students who are learning to play an instrument, have their instrument at home. Many have found an instrument in their garage or loft and others with iPads are using the GarageBand app as an instrument. So lots of live music-making can still take place. The notification system in Showbie sends me an email every time a student: makes a comment, asks a questions, adds a answer, annotates a worksheet or uploads a performance. This creates many thousands of additional emails every week, but is a great way to ensure I don’t miss any student interactions. I endeavour to respond during the same day and in most cases can mark work or give feedback within minutes.

I am completely in the dark when students receive work or feedback from me and this is the greatest challenge. If they’re in front of me as I give feedback, (so much of which is usually verbal feedback in music), I can instantly see if my contribution is encouraging or helpful. In lockdown, I cannot see this. In the last week or so, I’ve begun to receive some encouraging signs that I’m helping, as a few parents have written to say how much the work or a “well done” 😀 has meant to their son or daughter when they’ve received it. I’ve also begun to receive messages to say “thank you” directly from students.

Showbie also time-stamps every interaction, so it’s possible to see when each interaction happens. It’s therefore also very easy to see if a student has had no interaction with the online work. As a team, our faculty have just completed a review of students’ interactions since Easter, including students producing outstanding work and those who haven’t engaged with their work during the 3 weeks at all. We’ve shared this information with other faculties and there seems to be 3 groups emerging (from my early analysis). Some students are attempting work in all subjects, some are choosing to prioritise some subjects over others (although it’s impossible to see whether it’s due to a perceived hierarchy of academic importance, or a choice of subject preference) and some are not accessing work in any subject, although I’m approaching all of this with some caution, as I cannot see the circumstances in which every student has to work in during lockdown. To begin to form assumptions as to why students might have made a choice to ‘not work’, is unhelpful. We cannot understand an individual’s circumstances unless there is communication.

We can continue to create inspiring and helpful content to encourage our young people. We can also make sure we’re ready to help and support when it’s needed. Above all we can celebrate every achievement. Remarkable is even more remarkable in the current circumstances.

Another platform I’m using more and more is YouTube. The analytical data is similarly helpful to the time-stamping in Showbie in that it highlights the number of viewers to each video. For those choosing to login into YouTube with their school google account, it’s also possible to see a breakdown of which age groups are accessing the materials and whether they are boys or girls. According to the data of users who’ve logged-in, more boys are watching the videos.

It’s possible to present live on Facebook or YouTube (as well as a few others), but some time ago I was recommended to keep Facebook for personal use only and that continues to be my choice. I communicate developments publicly with Twitter (@DaveLoweMusic) and the occasional Instagram, and share video content on Vimeo and YouTube. Vimeo I’ve found is an expensive personal outlay and doesn’t have the same features as YouTube. Since the lockdown began, my YouTube content has expanded to over 100 videos, including some live streams.

For GCSE learning, YouTube Live (via Wirecast) is great as I can combine ‘talking-to-camera’ with visual demonstrations on instruments, software and theoretical drawings on iPad. If students watch the live stream, they can have real-time discussions with other students within the safety of Showbie as they watch. They can then revisit modelling demonstrations as often as they need, to see how an idea was created and developed and they can go through descriptions of theory as often as needed. It’s like having an interactive textbook, specifically for them. The response from my year 9 and 10 GCSE students has been mixed. Just as with the younger students, there again seems to be the 3 groups and not all are choosing to engage. That said, a number of colleagues in other schools have contacted me to say how much my materials are helping their students.

However, the greatest challenge is an assumption I’ve felt when creating the content. From the timely analysis of the YouTube data, not all students are watching the videos, and those who are watching, are not watching and listening all the way through. Perhaps this is a deeper understanding into how 13-16s approach online video content. My assumption had been that I’d explained everything that’s needed to complete a task at the simplest level. Whereas, that might be true, some students have emailed questions that prove they’ve not listened to the videos all the way through. Subsequent conversations have confirmed this. A further helpful analytical figure from YouTube is the average % of viewing time. In one recent case, an 8-minute demonstration of how to recognise intervals by listening, the average viewing duration is 6 minutes (75%). In comparison,that’s quite high, but only 16 times has that video been viewed ever and it’s possible that it’s not been viewed by 16 different people. Of the 67 cohort, I’m unsure as to why so many chose not to view the resource. However, the video I’ve found most astonishingly-ignored is one I made for year 8 students to demonstrate how to play drum-fills on an iPad. The average viewing time is 33 seconds of the 10 minute video and unsurprisingly that was an aspect that most of the 250 students struggled with when it came to the recent assessment.

This is deeply challenging. It’s probably no more frustrating than being in a classroom giving instructions, for the student who wasn’t listening to then question what they should do. But I wonder whether if I should be sharing information differently. In this lockdown, I’ve experienced students of all levels of ability developing skills of independence in their learning. So I know the materials I’ve provided are helpful for all abilities, but maybe this is a great time to return to more study-skill type activities. There’s still nothing I can do if a student chooses to not ‘have a go’, but could some learners be better equipped for the restart?. At this point, are skills and resilience in how to learn within different situations more important that the subject learning itself?

I’ve found I’ve become more-reactive within lockdown and this is something I’m wrestling with at the moment. Feeling a duty of care to these young people, the moment they struggle with something I’ve made, I try to help them. This comes back to that impossible situation of not being able to see how they’re struggling and trying to make my provision the best it can be. This realisation (of immediacy in reaction) hit home this week. Straight after Easter I launched a new approach for GCSE students to address two aspects they’d shared they wanted more help with. These were: confidence in music theory and technical ability in performance. Perhaps having not fully read the first week’s instructions, two or three students got in touch to ask for more explanation in the work I was setting. My reaction to this was to panic that everyone would have difficulty understanding, so I recorded a podcast-like video and began to write more and more explanation for the tasks they had to do. I’ve now had a couple of students email to say they don’t understand the work as there’s too much to read! This is not a battle I’m going to win.

The 67 GCSE music students are all fantastic young people. They’re all great to work with, but are all vastly different (which is challenging and wonderful at the same time!). They represent a vast range of musical abilities from those who don’t play an instrument, to students who are already working towards grade 7/8. From the honest feedback I’ve received, people have shared of how grateful they are for me keeping things going and remaining positive in the content I produce. So many times we’ve decided that ‘things aren’t perfect’, but perhaps they can’t be just at the moment. An agreement shared by all I’ve spoken to though, it’s far better to try to do something, than to not do anything at all!

At risk of being further reactionary, next week, I’ll try another different approach to setting work. There will be one statement on Showbie for GCSE Music students. “Watch this to know what you need to do this week”. Next to that will be a Video link. I’ll keep the video short and will outline the 3 tasks for the week (to cover the 2 hours of lesson time and 1 hour of home work they are used to). Of the 3 tasks, one will be related to developing a study skill as opposed to a musical skill. I’ll write a blog to share findings of this later.

There’s far more to share about the real-world of music teaching in this lockdown, but at risk that you might not read all the way through (joke!), I’ll write a separate post about extra curricular, the second half of my job, which has created the very lowest point of this lockdown for me as well as the very highest. And the highest(s) far far outweigh any lows I’ve experienced in this period!

My passion to help young people to discover great wonderment of music and great confidence in performing and creating it, is as strong as ever. I can only do what I can do, but I’m learning many new things during this period. There are always things to improve.

All views my own.

Remote Learning Update: Understanding this new approach to school from the student’s perspective

The reaction when the call first connected was wonderful – like old friends meeting again after a long absence (even though it’s unbelievably only a week since we had a lesson at school). We cannot underestimate the importance of communicating with our students – even if it is just to say ‘hello’.

I had a fantastic video call with one of my Y10s this morning, student A (to protect their identity). The call was made through Google Hangouts, part of a new upgrade we’ve just had to G Suite across Hope Learning Trust.

Within seconds of the call being live, I was reminded of the two things we absolutely have to get right for learning to be effective; communication and relationship. Without these, there is no chance of developing trust between teacher and student and limited opportunity for collaborative learning.

During the time of being away from our students, it’s very easy to just assume how they are thinking or feeling and very easy for us to be wrong. We need to communicate. We set up the class video meeting this morning just to chat, to see familiar faces and to talk about our experiences of how it’s going. It cannot be underestimated of just how much is lost from not being there to talk face-to-face.

In York we’re blessed with fibre broadband and I have a 45-50Mbps connection. I suspect student A had a similar connection as the quality of audio and video was like we were sitting opposite each other in the same room. It was very easy to communicate. Others in the call found it difficult though, due to lower broadband speeds and this has to be considered, particularly when ensuring disadvantaged students have equality in what we do.

I read a really interesting article by Marc Rowland this week, helping us to think about disadvantaged students and, although student A isn’t in that group, the article led me to ask specific questions to check how the work being set by me and my colleagues was working in practice for them.

I first asked about the amount of work being set. Was it too much, too little or about right. Student A said it was “pretty overwhelming with how much there is to do”. There was definitely a perception that everything we post has to be completed. I wonder if we compared the workload we normally expect of students in our lessons with what we’re setting at the moment, how would it compare? On first reflection, I’m certainly guilty of over-setting at the moment.

A natural feeling of wanting to provide the very best opportunity for students, instantly, makes me want to share every opportunity I can find with them. I have to remember that, no matter how much they enjoy my subject, there is a bigger-picture need for them to continue to progress in all subjects. I am hugely bothered about their overall development so I have to get this balance right. My students also need space to think, reflect, create and develop so I must not bombard them with too many new ideas at once. Ultimately I want them to become more independent in their studies, providing accessible starting points, and sufficiently open ended opportunities, while also creating signposts to allow them to see progress. I want them to be independent, but for them to have the facility to ask for help when it’s needed.

I asked student A what they thought of the new content. They were very happy with the quality of content, especially with the YouTube Live lesson. Remembering again what I learned from the recent BBC experiment, about using the technology to extend learning possibilities in a timely and purposefully focused way, we must have the same approach to our new remote curriculum.

Student A also talked about how they were feeling. They’d been unwell with sickness the previous evening, but was much better this morning. They talked about feeling ‘not great’ (hot and stuffy) about the place where they sit to work. The place itself was ok – it was comfortable and they have everything they need, but it’s just being in that same place all the time that’s really hard. Student A is going out for a run once a day to make use of their opportunity for regular exercise. They are proud of improving their time to complete the circuit each day. They are also playing a bit of football in the garden to get some air.

The reaction when the call first connected was wonderful – like old friends meeting again after a long absence (even though it’s unbelievably only a week since we had a lesson at school). We cannot underestimate the importance of communicating with our students – even if it is just to say ‘hello’.

Going forwards, I’m going to set less work per year group and really focus on what I’ll ask students to be able to complete confidently in an hour’s lesson. My YouTube Live lessons at 1220 on Mondays will continue to be practical, but won’t particularly be linked to GCSE coursework to make them accessible to all ages and abilities. The YouTube lessons will be shared as an extra curricular opportunity and broadcast at lunchtime so as not to clash with other timetabled lessons. I will just stick to the 1 live lesson a week.

KS4 Music lessons will be simplified, featuring a single ‘Tune of the Week Kahoot’ as the starter for every lesson, rather than the current 3 Kahoots on different topics. There will be one larger project for students to develop over a few weeks with enough flexibility for students to work with their choice of approach. KS4 students can continue to email me at the instant they have a question and all 66 GCSE Music students in Years 9 and 10 can access and post to an open online Showbie chat to engage in collaborative community discussion for 7 hours every week (optional and at times fitting their schedule).

I haven’t attempted opportunities to play or sing together yet over hangouts. That’s for the future.

KS3 Music lessons will be even more simple. Beginning with a student-paced Kahoot, then a video clip to watch during which I’ll model a task on a given topic. Then time for the students to prove their understanding confidently, uploading their work. I’ll continue to have their class Showbie discussion open for posting comments during their hour lesson as that’s very popular.

For KS3 students wanting to develop more musical understanding, a 2nd lunchtime club, probably on Thursdays, is a place to share some of the other great work I’m receiving from other music teachers across the country.

It is more simple, but I’m absolutely determined that my students are actively encouraged to be creating music throughout this period.

So to simplify the simplifying:

Y7/8 Lessons

  1. Student-paced Kahoot!
  2. Watch Mr Lowe demo video
  3. Have a go and post your work on Showbie
  4. Showbie Class Discussion open during lesson time

Y9/10 Lessons

  1. Student-paced Tune of the Week Kahoot!
  2. Continue with single focused project
  3. Post work to Showbie for feedback or help
  4. Showbie Class Discussions combined for 66 students, open 7hrs per week
  5. Email questions 24/7 when students think of them

Music Extra Curricular

Mondays 1220 – YouTube Live Composing for Everybody

Thursdays 1220 – KS3 The ‘We Want More Music’ Club

Special thanks to Marc Rowland for making me think and to Mrs Lowman for sharing the article. I particularly think this structure for every remote lesson will be very effective for all students.

I’ll continue to reflect and keep you all posted of how things are going.

Cover Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Remote Music Lessons for Y7-8. Status: EVERYTHING WORKS AND IT'S AWESOME!!

I write to you with tremendous excitement. Not only are things up and running in our quest to ‘continue music education during the Coronavirus outbreak’, but many many young people are now actively involved in music creation across the country as a result and already the standard is incredible! Here’s this week’s remote work. If you’re reading this as someone outside of Manor CE Academy York, we welcome you! Please feel free to try the Kahoot! challenge using the link below – I’ve set up this challenge to be separate to the one our students are using (to protect their identities). I’ve covered the cost of this – you’ll just need to download the free app to play. Please do get in touch if I can help you in your work. This is a time for great growth in music education for our young people.

Students are already attempting ‘Super-Mastering’ – two year 7s add an improvised electric guitar solo using the minor pentatonic mode

I write to you with tremendous excitement. Not only are things up and running in our quest to ‘continue music education during the Coronavirus outbreak’, but many many young people are now actively involved in music creation across the country as a result and already the standard is incredible! Here’s this week’s remote work. If you’re reading this as someone outside of Manor CE Academy York, we welcome you! Please feel free to try the Kahoot! challenge using the link below – I’ve set up this challenge to be separate to the one our students are using (to protect their identities). I’ve covered the cost of this – you’ll just need to download the free app to play. Please do get in touch if I can help you in your work. This is a time for great growth in music education for our young people.

I’ve hidden the ‘iPad Help Videos’ link for security reasons.

Week 2 Lesson Instructions (23-27th March)

Year 7 & 8 Music, Manor CE Academy, York

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about the guitar in a popular song
  • To understand the assessment levels for this project with one week to go
  • To know what to do next if you’re loving this project and want to do more
  1. Information
  • Our testing day on Friday was very successful and lots of you have messaged me to say how much you’d enjoyed in. That’s great!
  • I’ll post your work at the start of each week. It’s up to you when you do your hour of music.
  • Don’t forget to join the ‘iPad Music Help’ Showbie group (code: *****) and check these videos before asking for help. You might well find your answer there.
  • I’m helping 472 of you at the moment so to make it fair to everyone, I’ll only be able to promise to reply to your comments and questions during your timetabled hour. The only exception to this is students who have me on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays I’ll be leading sessions for students of key workers, so I’ll support Wednesday classes online between 4-6pm on Wednesdays.
  • A few students are moving towards ‘Super-Mastering’. I will run an online lunchtime club for you soon, but I just need to think about which day
  • I’ve posted some additional resources into the ‘iPad Help Videos’ group so between that page and this you should have everything you need!
  • Other than your 1 hour of music, I have no additional expectation of how you’ll spend time this week. However, if you’re enjoying making music, just do it, because you love it!
  • Special thanks to students who have noticed things that everybody might need help with. You are Amazing!

Here we go… Enjoy!

  1. Your Kahoot! Challenge for this week is here. Click this link to play: https://kahoot.it/challenge/0710763?challenge-id=e9fb6ebc-c0f6-4196-9ce4-6f8eae4c847c_1584885802115
  2. If you’re not finished from last week (instructions below), there’s no need to rush or panic. Just crack on! You’ve got this.
  3. If you’re confident you’ve finished everything from last week and the quality of your production is the best it can be… watch this video about developing Grime/Trap beats in your music to give your music a more current sound. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra41qQqKoHU&list=PLCwa5VlECOWw89VyTNtvpdV1eAKtzEBif&index=5&t=0s
  4. If that’s not enough, push on and attempt ‘Mastering’. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVa4HHEcwa8&list=PLCwa5VlECOWw89VyTNtvpdV1eAKtzEBif&index=6&t=0s

Have a fantastic week

Mr Lowe 🙂

What does remote music learning look like?

… this is my year 7 and 8 work for next week. I’m testing it with y7 and 8 music lessons all day tomorrow – I’ll post findings from testing. Students tomorrow will be challenged to act as though they’re at home on their own, rather than in front of me.

… this is my year 7 and 8 work for next week. I’m testing it with y7 and 8 music lessons all day tomorrow – I’ll post findings from testing. Students tomorrow will be challenged to act as though they’re at home on their own, rather than in front of me.

Instructions below given to students on their Showbie account. Lesson can be completed on an iPad or iPhone.

If you’re reading this… have a go at the Kahoot using the link below, watch video tutorial 1 and (if you have GarageBand), have a go 🙂


Dear students,

In today’s lesson we’ll test an approach I’ve designed to make it possible for you to continue with your music learning when your school closes for the coronavirus outbreak. You must imagine you’re sitting at home on your own. Read the instructions below carefully. Enjoy everything you do. Good luck!

These are unprecedented times. We will go on with our learning in music and look forward to what we can discover independently. But we have an incredible ‘bigger picture’ opportunity – if we can make this work, we will inspire many other young people around the world to do the same.

Week 1 Lesson Instructions (test day, Friday 20th March)

Learning Objectives: Today we’ll learn about the voice part in a popular song.

NOTE: at the end of your hour of music, take a screenshot of your GarageBand screen and upload it to this page. Rename the image with today’s date. Also add a sentence as a comment to share your experience in this session or to make suggestions of improvements.

HELP: if you’re completely stuck and can’t continue without help, even though you’ve tried to solve the problem… write the problem or your question as a comment on this page. Mr Lowe will either answer your question by commenting back or make a video to help everybody. Help videos can be found in a new Showbie class (code:*****)

  1. Play this week’s Kahoot! Link: https://kahoot.it/challenge/055154?challenge-id=e9fb6ebc-c0f6-4196-9ce4-6f8eae4c847c_1584644464345
  2. To catch-up parts you may have missed from weeks 1-3…
    Watch Video Tutorial 1. Link: https://youtu.be/DJp9IINoN7c
    In this video you can learn how to record the piano, bass guitar, drum kit and guitar parts and how to edit them by quantising so that everything fits perfectly in time. Don’t continue until you’ve completed all of these parts.
  • Piano
  • Bass Guitar
  • Drum Kit
  • Acoustic Guitar
  • Electric Guitar
  1. Open GarageBand, click on the cog in the top right corner and change the tempo to 75 bpm (if you don’t do this, the voice recording will be out of time with the other tracks)
  2. Watch ‘Video 2 – Importing the Vocal’ on Showbie. Keep checking back to the video to make sure you do everything needed and import Anna’s lead chorus vocal into your session.
  3. Watch ‘Video 3 – Adding crashes and drum fills on chord changes’ and then add these parts to your session.

At this point, if you’ve finished everything, share your GarageBand project to this page to get feedback. To share your work from looking at GarageBand

  • tap the file logo in the top left corner (or it might say ‘my songs’)
  • hold your finger on the file for a second and release
  • select share
  • choose ‘project’
  • tap Showbie and add to this folder


Mr Dave Lowe
Director of Learning (Performing Arts)
Head of Music
Manor CE Academy, York

More to follow…

A solution to help ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’ to find confidence in the understanding of music theory and language

This amount of learning is vast for an 11-12 year old student. That every single individual learner is engaged and wanting to do more, is awesome. The learning potential of this approach with the addition of Kahoot is amazing!

When I think back to my own high school music studies, I felt the freedom to compose and had the confidence to perform, but I struggled to describe my music and developing confidence in music theory was a real challenge to begin with. This memory has always given me determination to understand the needs of my students and to find the level of ‘breaking-down’ each requires to grasp a musical concept. Having said that, I was an active musician, rehearsing, performing and composing regularly. The challenge for a ‘students who is not actively playing or writing music’, is significantly greater.

I’ve written a lot in the last couple of years about the two GCSE Music pathways we offer at Manor CE Academy, York. Ultimately both cohorts achieve the same AQA GCSE qualification, but one course is designed for musicians and the other for ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’. The two groups learn in completely different ways. All can access the full range of examination marks, but their approach to musical understanding is very different, with the ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’ relying more on technology to learn and perform.

One of my major development projects in the ‘Music Production Via Technology’ pathway is finding methods for students to truly understand how music works and how it is described by listening. Importantly, they don’t have the opportunity to ‘internalise’ music as is one of the key benefits of playing an instrument. 

The biggest successes until recently were my ‘WordWall’ and ‘Tune of the Week’. Wordwall became a visual focus for all music students from years 7-11. Its prominence, covering the whole of one of the classroom walls, showing its importance for use and the coloured categories for each element helping students to see terms in their element categories. This tool has always helped with spelling and to help students to learn which terms are related to each element. However, it is just words on a wall and teacher explanations and demonstrations are needed to bring it to life. Brilliant for a whole class demonstration, but limited if used alone for students’ independent further study, other than as a starting point for things to look-up.

‘Tune of the Week’ was instantly successful as it took away the stigma students have of approaching musical styles they don’t normally listen to. Students became quickly aware that the first thing they would be asked to do at the start of a new week of learning in music was to listen. It developed a curiosity of what the next piece to explore would be. In addition, by studying the same ‘Tune of the Week’ as students in other year groups, some students began to have musical conversations between age groups, which is great for building a musical community bothered about what they can learn together. 

‘Tune of the Week’ was also successful by students using the TOTW template to answer questions each week. Students ‘knowing where to look’ and how to read the questions are aspects I’d overlooked before. Students quickly became more confident about writing down musical language. Together with the WordWall they found they ‘knew where to look’ more quickly, which is so important when searching through the 516 possible answers. 

Each week the activity is marked by student/teacher discussions, which in a 1-1 situation would be fine, but the waiting time for others is far from ideal. Students keep the record of the wrong answer and type the correction in the next column. A conditional formatted cell turns red or green to allow us to quickly see students who need more support. As useful as all this is, the activity takes 20 minutes each week so takes up a significant period in the first of the week’s two GCSE lessons. A restriction is that all students are given the same help, the same feedback and the same time to read and answer questions. The listening materials on Spotify, without lots of editing preparation, can only be played as full tracks, which is often challenging for ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’ to unpick, as they ultimately will need to do for their GCSE exam. It certainly isn’t as ‘broken-down’ as would be preferred. 

Students learn simple musical terms first, then recognising them into the element categories. It is one challenge to learn the right word in the right category and to correctly define it by listening in a musical moment, it is another to have the confidence to write it down, and further to have the confidence to write it in a concise, meaningful, grammatically-correct sentence. 

A better, new solution using Kahoot!

The addition of the Kahoot app, has been a further significant advancement in the last three weeks. 

I took two decisions. Firstly to convert my ‘Tune of the Week’ GCSE resource into Kahoot quizzes and then to expand the method into the KS3 programme to help students to grasp key terminology earlier. I’m also currently working on the possibility of a solution useful from year 3 to 16 that could be rolled out into primary schools to support them. Into the future, this would be the ideal solution to support each individual student’s progress in music. 

Kahoot quizzes are easy to programme. Each 10-question Kahoot takes between 15-30 minutes to programme, including the time it takes to add YouTube video links. There’s a really helpful bank of Getty Images photos to quickly search for within the app and it’s easy to find suitable images. For specific theoretical ideas I want to show, just as I would draw on a white board, I can draw on my iPad with an Apple Pencil and then upload the image to the question.

The opportunity to display part of a video or a fragment of a notated score helps students to focus on the aspect they’re trying to understand.

I’ve upgraded my Kahoot membership to ‘Premium’ to be able to offer challenges to 2000 people at once, which although so far used only within my own academy, will eventually be offered to colleagues across the trust and beyond (at no charge). The premium membership also gives me additional question types, including the ability to request a specific, correctly-spelled, typed answer in additional to the multiple choice selections. It costs me £48/yr.

Students must type the answer with the correct spelling to be successful. It is possible to program a range of possible answers.

The greatest feature however, is the ability to select a very specific start and end time for my chosen YouTube clip. Using this, in addition to giving my students a full length clip to play, I can isolate a specific few seconds clip to focus their listening on the required aspect in the question. For example, in a focus on a classical piano sonata I wanted my students to be able to recognise specific melodic devices such as: scale, sequence and arpeggio. I chose excepts that gave students clear examples of these. Once discovered within the quiz, immediately students chose to discuss these using the appropriate terminology and discovering their meaning inspired them to try to use them in composition ideas. One improvement I will suggest to the team at Kahoot is to allow students to re-listen to the shortened clip when reviewing errors – currently they can only listen once and then listen to the whole YouTube video.

In the first week, the Kahoots were instantly appealing to the students. We always talk openly about how helpful the different resources are for learning and this new approach has been positively received. However, students’ experience of Kahoot-type quizzes before had been seen as a ‘game of chance’, which was fun because you could choose a crazy nickname to appear on the big screen and have some kind of online game-play in a school lesson. For this reason it was initially a challenge to encourage students to actually read the questions and answers, rather than just guessing the answer and watching the game unfold. I tweeted to suggest a period of time could be programmed into the game to prevent students from answering without thinking time. This was echoed by others online. 

But there was enough in that first week to suggest that this could be a very helpful tool, if I could solve the timing problem.

That solution was found by using the ‘student-paced challenge’ option. Rather than starting the quiz all together in the lesson, students received a link from me through Showbie a couple of days before the lesson. I could programme sufficient information to allow the students to begin independently and despite not sharing this plan, many students engaged without prompting. When I explained to the students that the question timer had been switched off, it was greeted  with much appreciation. Students told me how frustrating it had been that they didn’t have time to read and think before answering. The ‘student-paced’ option had majorly ticked the ‘differentiation’ box, as all individuals could take the amount of time they needed. Some students asked questions to confirm they had understood what was being asked and results were much higher instantly. It also became possible to be a ‘reader’ for those students who had that as an exam concession without the need for additional TAs.

Puzzles challenge students to sort information into a correct order to prove understanding. In this example the challenge is to sort the 4 2-bar phrases into the correct structure.

Another great part of the new challenge format is the instant opportunity to review the questions and audio clips they hadn’t understood. For many, this was the first time they’d understood what a sequence was in music and they now had an example to revise from. When played other examples, they could now identify all the melodic devices with more confidence. 

We’ve yet to test it, but the additional challenge to repeat the quiz 7 days later sounds like a good idea to consolidate learning. 

I tweaked a few things by the end of the 3rd week of testing (based on students’ feedback). The most helpful is routine. The successful routine for the KS3 experience is as follows:

All students arrive with better punctuality, looking forward to their music lesson

All students know the expectation to enter and begin their Kahoot at their own pace, recognising that the knowledge they’ll develop will help them in the practical work 

Students have 10 minutes to complete the quiz and revisit any problems, ask questions etc. (note the reduction in time from the original Tune of the Week)

I use the Apple Classroom app to lock all student iPads, which is their cue to move to sit at the front of the class

I model the practical task, directly based on the understanding developed in the Kahoot. This part of the lesson is short but allows time for whole group discussion with merits given for students who can confidently describe key aspects using the correct terminology

A set period of time to complete the practical task (15 mins max). The first 10 students who complete the work to the required (high) standard receive merits and become ‘Mini Mr Lowes’, spreading out across the room to support those who need help or have questions. Mini Mr Lowes may choose to develop their understanding further by solving problems with others or attempting more advanced tasks. All students have opportunity for feedback and help within the lesson. The environment for learning is electric and absolutely every student is on task.

We repeat the Kahoot at the end of the lesson to consolidate learning, as another chance to win merits and enjoy being able to confidently answer together. This is a choice for students – some prefer to continued to develop their work.

The lesson ends and it is a genuine challenge to get students to leave for their next lesson!

Students’ focus at the start of GCSE music lessons is improved by having the student-paced Kahoot at the start.

The most exciting aspect is the amount and depth of musical learning made possible for all learners. To show an example of this, these are the concepts covered in last week’s 1-hour music lesson for year 7.

  • Understanding a bass guitar, including discovering how it’s different to an electric guitar
  • Understanding the role of a bass guitar in a band, including how the bass player will listen to others to make their part ‘fit’
  • Understanding how to read bass notes from a lead sheet
  • Understanding and reading bass notes written on staff notation
  • Understanding note durations and rhythms including relevant terminology
  • Understanding metre and beats of the bar including helpful methods of counting
  • Understanding quantisation values and using them appropriately
  • Engaging in critical listening and based on findings, making musical improvements
  • Performing to a given pulse
  • Recording a musical part to fit dynamically and rhythmically with other parts
  • Editing a musical recording using technology to adjust note lengths and velocities
  • Understanding the process to develop a high quality music product
  • Understanding a positive workflow with frequent listening at the centre
  • Understanding the construction of a popular song
  • Understanding methods to develop work together as well as independently

This amount of learning is vast for an 11-12 year old student. That every single individual learner is engaged and wanting to do more, is awesome. The learning potential of this approach with the addition of Kahoot is amazing! 

More to come I’m sure…

Students at Manor CE Academy discussing analysis of Copland’s “Saturday Night Waltz” using Kahoot!

A new tool with value for students to track their investments in musical learning

When filming the recent BBC Inside Out programme, I was drawn to consider the challenge of student accountability. In particular, that Key stage 3 students are rarely challenged individually to prove their understanding or progress. Using the traditional (non-iPad) approach the whole class listened to the lesson, but weren’t each expected to show understanding within the hour. In reality it is a great challenge to continually assess understanding for each of 30 individuals when only seeing them once a week at most. In a further conversation with visiting colleagues from a local independent school on Friday, we reflected on how often students in this age group are assessed in pairs, which so often doesn’t given teachers a true reflection of each individual’s development.

Over the last 2 years I’ve been working on a new approach to track musical progress for students in years 9 and 10, which will eventually be for 9-11. (And I hope ultimately for students in years 3 -11).

Much of this system had been hidden so far to allow me to test its usefulness, but it’s now live, with my students fully engaged. Early indications have shown them having much intrigue and the tool has created much positive conversation about the development of learning.

The more we attempt to test our young people, the fewer opportunities they have to explore and create music, so I’m thinking more and more about which systems we use in our schools and which add true value to learning. If there isn’t a value and it’s just a mechanism for teacher accountability, it needs to stop. However if the value genuinely helps to support and inspire the student, it’s worth the investment.

For this solution to be successful, it must therefore be simple, openly understandable for all stakeholders with little guidance and create no cost or time to operate.

I was partly inspired by an old toy coin sorter, similar to the one in the picture below. This visual ‘money box’ was, other than being a gadget to sort your loose change (as you watched each coin roll down the slide at the top), an encouraging way to see your savings grow. In the same way students are encouraged to see their learning or understanding grow, but it’s often difficult to see an overview, progress and impact of their development all together.

A key feature of the design was to be able to see the different components at the same time as the overall impact.

The Progress in GCSE Music chart is the overview for each individual on their GCSE Music course. Importantly it is just a single A4 page. The lower table shows every key assessment point. Note, there aren’t more than these in the 3-year course to maximise ‘time doing’.

The image at the top is a quick look-up of my musical flightpaths. Based on their unique musical starting point, students begin on one of the coloured lines. Musical developments are not linear. The lines simply reflect the fact that students, as they learn, should understand more over time. The variation in rate of change between different lines reflects the change in rate of progress within the 3 years that students I’ve taught developed when beginning from the different starting points. How quickly and deeply they learn is a personal choice, together with how well they are supported and how much determination they have to develop. Their individual ‘feeling’ at each moment in the course also has a significant impact on how much progress they can make. I was recently inspired by a workshop with Hywel Roberts and from subsequent student discussions, decided his ‘3 states of student interaction’ was a key inclusion on the chart. We can change how we think, but it’s much harder to change how we feel as so many live factors contribute to this.

The three ‘states’ I ask students to reflect on are:

Dependent – they are here (in the class), but completely rely on the teacher to share knowledge

Bothered – their learning and the ultimate outcome matters to them, they challenge ideas and question things they don’t fully understand

Independent- they may still ask questions whenever needed, but have the confidence to develop their understanding alone and by collaborating with others.

At every assessment point, my students see the circles on the coloured lines as stations (as similar visuals appear on the London Underground Map). They can see the continuous opportunity to progress as indicated on the chart and notice in particularly the possibility of moving up (or down) to another line, also then being reminded of where they’re heading.

I previously resisted from GCSE assessment in year 9, feeling like students had completed an insufficient amount of the course to be tested, but through my examining work, I’ve now enjoyed work across the whole assessment range, proving that there is great value in marking early work as if it’s the final submission. It inspires a deeper teacher/student conversation about music complexity. In fact, this deeper discussion has led me to change my approach to composition and performance teaching to include extra work on: development with musical devices, textural variation, modulation, structure, multipart harmony, shaping for expression and extended instrument techniques. I had considered many of these topics to be beyond GCSE in the past, but greater student ambition has encouraged the change.

The sheet is specifically designed for use on an iPad. The colours are a key factor, but the ability for students to change their shading colours is a helpful method to ensure they know where their up to. These are all stored and editable on their secure Showbie platform, making it possible for the teacher to quickly see overall class progress, but without the need to show everyone’s data to everyone.

My Reflections on the BBC Digital Detox week at Manor CE Academy, York 27-31 January 2020

At the end of 2019, I was approached by BBC Inside Out to take part in a challenge, which would be filmed and shown on BBC1. They were interested in seeing “how much smart screen technology has got into our lives.”

(written on 31st January)

Preparation and Context

If I was asked to think of a top list of ‘things that have a profound impact on the learning potential of my students’, the opportunity to use technology would come very close to the top. However, it’s difficult to describe this positive effect and only really possible to demonstrate in person. As such, quite a few heads of music, school leaders and education professionals have visited Manor to observe this in the last few years. The music department leads have all gone away encouraged and have now launched similar work in their schools. 

At the end of 2019, I was approached by BBC Inside Out to take part in a challenge, which would be filmed and shown on BBC1. They were interested in seeing “how much smart screen technology has got into our lives.” 

I gave up my @DaveLoweMusic twitter after Christmas and during the week of filming didn’t check, send or reply to emails, didn’t use our @ManorPerfArts twitter (which we use to share information with parents of our 762 Performing Arts students), and didn’t use projectors, Apple Macs, PCs, iPads or phones. 

The aims of the BBC project were limited to the quote above and I wasn’t sure of the intended narrative for their programme, but I was initially sceptical as I felt it likely that it was a way to challenge us to use less technology or to even suggest that we shouldn’t use it at all. 

In AQA’s GCSE Music course, students must submit two performances, totalling a minimum of 4 minutes. For students who are passionate about music, but who have chosen not to learn to play an instrument or prefer not to sing, the course would not be accessible for them. However, the course includes a ‘Production Via Technology’ option for performance, which essentially involves producing a recording of a song from creation of tracks to final mix. 

In the 10 years I’ve been head of music at Manor, we’ve consistently had 250-300 students choosing to take additional studies or ensemble opportunities to develop their technique in their voice or instrument. Now a school community of 1,124 students, that 25%ish is nationally quite high, but I’ve always been challenged that the other 75% are not given an opportunity to continue their musical learning at GCSE-level and have access to the full range of marks. 

In the last few years I’ve developed our key stage 3 course to incorporate some of the ‘Production Via Technology’ type projects as a method for non-musician students to demonstrate their ability. This has also then set the groundwork for them to continue into our GCSE Music Production Via Technology Pathway. 

Music, whether it be singing, listening to, watching, writing or playing has always had a significant and positive impact on the lives of the young people I’ve taught. It enriches them in so many ways. In a recent analysis of highest achieving students, 9 of the top 10 are members of our most advanced choir, not all of them ‘music students’, but all frequently investing in music.

Monday

On the first morning of this week’s project, my Year 9 GCSE Music lesson was filmed for the hour. Preparing for the lesson was a huge challenge. Knowing the impact technology has had on learning in my classroom, I always look forward to any opportunity to share with others. In my own teaching practice, I frequently reflect on my lessons and have many visitors coming to observe me teach. Performance management or subject review observations are the most complex to deliver, as you are trying to demonstrate a range of factors including the progress of the students over time, rather than just what happens during the hour. This is made more complex by the knowledge that if the observer disagrees with your practice or perceives it as sub-standard, it could have a negative operational impact on your department or even the wider school. 

I’ve had lessons filmed before as part of coaching programmes encouraging me to reflect on my own practice. I’ve found that method to be very helpful in my own development, but the BBC filming was different, mainly as it was unclear of what they were hoping to prove by observing my lessons, so therefore I wasn’t certain what I was preparing for.

The year 9 class are studying popular song this term and by the end of term I’ve challenged them to produce their own recording of a song, using only a lead sheet (containing lyrics and chords) and a link to YouTube to be able to understand how the melody sounds. They’re expected to record all the tracks for piano, bass guitar, drum kit, acoustic guitar and voice accurately in pitch, rhythm and with a consistent sense of style. They have to perform all of the instrumental parts, which most do by using the instruments on their iPad GarageBand. All attempt their own voice recording, but may then choose to record another student’s voice to become part of their production. 

My expectations of them are astronomical, especially for 13-14 year old students. However, the outcome of the project is significant, allowing them to apply their understanding of the popular song components and have a true sense of achievement that they’ve been able to create something that is industry-comparable. I find the earlier they can achieve a high standard in production values in their work, the better, as this contributes to future development of their own expectations in producing high quality work. 

There are some relatively simple concepts in a popular song. The structure of the song consists of 3 or 4 different short sections, some of which are repeated (like the chorus), and the pattern of chords in a verse for example, is often made up of only 2 or 3 chords. A concept that my students are often surprised about is when they discover each instrument plays the same chord (or a note from that chord) at the same time. As a practicing musician of many years this seems so simple, but I can’t remember when I first realised this to be the case. It is a critical factor in their learning to hear this before students can confidently listen to how the harmony works in a piece of music. 

In fact, popular songs are often not complex. They consist of several simple ideas put together, but the control of each musical element, of audio content, and of overall mix is vital for a successful outcome. This control is key in both product creation and understanding.

The BBC had asked me to teach my Monday year 9 lesson using no technology whatsoever. I chose the objective for the lesson “To understand the use and purpose of a drum kit part when composing a popular song.” 

The lesson began by asking students to identify 8 components of a drum kit. Most struggled with this, but once they’d labelled the worksheet (I’d created using my iPad) they were able to use the language confidently in the lesson. We then continued to learn a simple pop groove all together, using body percussion so everyone could take part. Focus was excellent, and most could master the co-ordination quickly. As a few students came up to the drum kit at the front, all watched to see what happened and all participants were able to find some success in playing the real drum kit. I was particularly impressed by the amount of progress made by non-musician students in the group and how much the experience clearly meant to them. We continued in the lesson to discuss how the drummer should think about tempo and dynamics during a performance, and all students moved on to compose a variation of the original groove, following their thought that simple repetition could become monotonous. To challenge the two drum students in the room, I invited them to demonstrate advanced considerations in song writing, such as using cymbal crashes to emphasise chord changes, matching rhythms played by other instruments in the band, using regular quaver rhythms to build energy and performing fill-ins to announce a new phrase or section. I was pleased that this part of the lesson remained relevant to the whole class, while pushing the more experienced drum students to advance further. Some of the lower-ability or non-musicians within the group appeared to zone-out by this time, however, when I asked them about this later, they suggested their focus was kept throughout. It made me wonder whether I really can tell if a student is concentrating by their facial expressions. 

A very successful lesson, but I wasn’t prepared for what followed next. BBC news presenter Amy Garcia asked to address the group. She asked the students if they’d enjoyed the lesson, which was greeted with a resounding ‘yes’ from all. Amy continued to ask how many of them would like to do this more often, instead of lessons using their iPads. Of the 18 students present, 16 said they preferred ‘without iPads’. I was completely shocked by this response and felt gutted. I’d spent so much time developing this type of work for them and have seen so many successes, I’d never thought this outcome could be a possibility. I didn’t understand and found it difficult to believe, a shock also shared by other teachers in the academy who I went to share this with immediately after the lesson.

Tuesday

The students’ feedback from the Monday lesson triggered many deep conversations with students and staff. Unable to ask advice of other music education specialists, due to my detox from email, twitter and the like, I spent much of Tuesday trying to understand the response through internal discussions. On Tuesday morning, my year 11s and I were analysing the music of Aaron Copland, which required the brief use of Spotify as I didn’t have the music on CD or cassette tape. (It had been agreed prior to the project that technology could be used if needed with Y11s as it was their final term before examination). I asked these older students if I was just way off-beam, and just wrong in my perception that students enjoyed using tech in their learning. To my great relief, they confirmed that I wasn’t wrong. They responded with great passion, asking how it would be possible to complete coursework as they wanted, or to revise using the audio app we use. One student was so passionate that he leapt from his chair, and proceeded to stamp his feet as he shouted his thoughts about how some people were making suggestions that would ruin his chances. 

As much as this made me feel better, I was still considering the year 9s, whom I am so fortunate to have a brilliant working relationship with. I didn’t believe those students voted as they did to impress the presenter, as was suggested by one colleague. 

Then followed another profound learning point in my week, a conversation in passing with a support colleague I’ve now worked closely with for quite a few years. He challenged me to remember what it felt like when I was at school. My schooling, being in the 1980s and 90s, involved early use of computer-based technology, but that use was rare and a novelty. He challenged me to consider that young people are completely surrounded by screen-based technology and (for year 9s born in 2005/06) they have never experienced life without it. For this reason alone, their experience of life is significantly different to mine. The novelty that I’d felt of using the technology could be more comparable to the currently younger generation of having situations that don’t use the technology. 

Wednesday

The cameras returned on Wednesday morning to film a repeat of Monday’s lesson, this time with my year 9 Production Via Technology class. The lesson was enjoyed again, although students appeared not quite so focused as I’d seen on Monday. At the end of the lesson, two boys were interviewed about their experience and both said how positive it was to play the real instrument, although only one had actually played it during the lesson. I was less surprised this time and reassured by the idea of it being a ‘novelty lesson’ as suggested on Tuesday. 

On Wednesday however, I was floored for a second time, this situation causing me so much deep thought that I was unable to sleep on Wednesday night. Year 10 GCSE music students are just beginning their work on a major composition project. They’re focusing on the development of melody this week and as such, the task was to compose an 8-bar melody. This class began the task on Tuesday, with the challenge to compose a melody initially with just manuscript paper and a pencil and rubber and no device or instrument to create sound other than their voice. In the Wednesday lesson, they could use one of 3 pianos in the department or 2 guitars, but couldn’t use computers or iPads. One student became very upset. They described not being confident enough with finding notes on a piano quickly in order to compose, not having access to their instrument (guitar) as they were being used by others and so much wanting to hear to know if it was the melody hoped for. This deeply challenged me as that student was fully aware of their learning and the help they needed. They were working independently, but had become deeply discouraged by the restriction of this week’s detox project. After a night of deep thinking, and feeling a sense of sadness for the student, I decided that, despite the clear benefits of me being involved in the experiment, that this negative-impact in the student’s well-being and hinderance of their development was significant and needed to be avoided in the future.  

A further negative moment on Wednesday was a second complaint of the week from one of the administration team. Communication is everything in how schools function, and due to me not using email and another internal app, I’d created extra work for another member of staff. 

Thursday

On Thursday morning I taught the year 10 Production Via Technology class, who are also studying melody writing. In response to some earlier student feedback, I’d developed a new tool to help students to find a starting point in composition (an aspect that many students find challenging). Following the events of Wednesday, I allowed all students to use their technology except for one, who had signed up to the digital detox himself. I felt I needed to do this, to ensure he could be allowed to complete his BBC challenge. He was visibly very annoyed, especially as other students had a different opportunity. As the lesson got started, the detox student was able to use paper to take notes of his musical choices (tempo, key, scale notes, range etc.) As a guitar student, he was then able to develop ideas and represent them on paper, though not in notation or TAB. The second task was to create a drum kit groove to complement the melody. He did this by drawing a grid similar to the one he’d used previously on GarageBand. He attempted to play the pattern on the real drum kit, but found it difficult and also couldn’t play his guitar and drum parts together. By this time all other students in the room had developed ideas and he found this frustrating too, especially as by now, some had added a harmony part. This was a vital learning point of the week. It proved that (of course) it is possible to create original music without technology, but that there is a limit, that otherwise technology can enhance. 

Also on Thursday, I taught a simplified version of the drum kit lesson with year 7. Partway through, a group of boys switched-off and moved to sit together and talk. On this occasion I chose to allow this, then reassuring them that they weren’t ‘in trouble’ asked what made them make this choice, rather than to take part with everyone else. They were so surprised that I’d shown this interest in them, rather than sanctioning it as poor behaviour and it triggered a further fascinating discussion. They shared of how interesting they found the drum kit work, but that after the first one or two individuals had been to the front to ‘have a go’, there wasn’t anything additional for them to learn as the same information was just being repeated for each participant. They made the choice to interact with each other, rather than sitting and appearing bored. They chose to move themselves away from the group so as not to interrupt the lesson. I wonder how many teachers have this type of conversation with their young people. 

A key benefit I’ve found in delivering music lessons with every student having a device is the opportunity for every student to remain engaged and able to apply their musical learning instantly, without having to wait for others. If I had a class of 5 students, it would be more straightforward for students to be involved together throughout the lesson, but this is far more challenging with a class of 30+ students and therefore the use of technology makes it possible to offer the same level of opportunity to all students at the same time. I’ve found this method promotes independent learning as well as collaboration and discussion between students as they discover new ideas individually and want to share them together. Until this year 7 lesson, I’ve not had evidence of the opposite of this, so this was greatly encouraging. It also highlighted the differences in the required levels of engagement between different key stages.

With the final day of the experiment approaching, I felt it important to share that I’d chosen to not complete the full 5-day detox and resumed my use of email and twitter. 

Friday & Final Comments

As I approached the filming of final comments with Amy Garcia today, I started to draw together my thoughts from the week. It has been a week of profound challenge and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned as I continue to develop things into the future.

In response to the original BBC question, it is clear that smart screen technology is significantly embedded into our lives. There is a risk that it can be over-used, and this is something I’ll certainly be more aware of moving forwards. I’ve known of positive opportunities technology can create for a long time, but this week has helped me to understand why. For some students, access to music education would be more difficult or impossible without it, especially in composition. For all students, it’s possible to learn about music with or without technology, but technology enhances the possibilities of music creation, for example allowing us to create and listen to many new ideas at the same time. So the technology for us is an extension for learning.

Following further discussion with students about why many students preferred lessons without iPads, it was completely legitimate that they’d enjoyed exploring the use of a new real instrument, and I must now look to find ways to create that type of experience within each project. However, we’ve also discovered that a key consideration for our young people is accountability. In a lesson using iPads, all are expected to partake immediately, and there has to be an outcome. They can’t simply sit at the back and relax. Students are forced to be responsible for their learning and to prove their understanding. Whereas this is positive from an ‘always proving progress’ standpoint, it does highlight the desire our young people have to just experience new ideas and have the space to allow knowledge to develop (without having the pressure to prove anything). Often as a teaching professional, I can relate to that pressure of a sense of always needing to meet accountability targets. I wonder if education policy makers consider this. I will certainly be more aware of this going forwards as I think about how I do more to support students as they develop their individual musical understanding. My lessons are enhanced by the best and timely use of the technology available. That ‘best use’ must have a defined purpose and come with additional support for students for its use, together with real-world musical experiences to ensure they can each have every opportunity to flourish. A balance of real-world and technology-based work is important.

It was a shame the BBC didn’t film any of the lessons involving the technology to be able to compare, although maybe that will be another opportunity for the future. I am deeply grateful to Amy Garcia and Mat Heywood for the opportunity to work together this week and for the time they’ve invested in music education. Many thanks to you both.

A Year In The Life…

Reflection – My Music Teacher Year September 2018-July 2019

Those of you who have read my posts since January may have noticed a silent period between Easter and July. It’s always busy in my job, but some times of year are complex due to the number of things happening at once. My busiest times are Nov/Dec, mainly due to the annual Carol service at York Minster, and March to July as my Y11s complete coursework, my external work as an examiner kicks-in and final preparations for the summer production are full on. This year was busier than ever as there were 5 performance projects in the final 4 weeks of term, of which one was a 4-performance full production of Disney’s High School Musical.

In addition to the 672 students I’m responsible for every week, work with my amazing staff team, managing the 100s of individual music lessons and running rehearsals (at times, 9 per week), I try to focus my energy on investing as much time as possible in our young people, developing projects to support their learning. I also actively look for opportunities (like this one!) for sharing my practice to encourage other music teachers.

This week I’m away in the far north of Scotland resting and reflecting. I remember when I first started teaching, it was difficult to know what was coming in the calendar year. So as a guide, this is what happened, when, on top of the bog-standard contracted teacher stuff this year.

SEPT New GCSE Music Production Via Tech pathway begins

SEPT Performing Arts Leaders Applications & Auditions

SEPT Tune of the Week development for research begins

SEPT Open Night – MCO Live – 2 hour open orchestra rehearsal

OCT Spoke at National Music Ed conference

OCT Podcast for Youth Music

OCT Autumn Showcase Performances

NOV Presentation Evening

NOV Visiting primary schools to teach songs for York Minster

NOV Hope Community Choir recruitment and rehearsals

DEC York Minster Nine Lessons & Carols

DEC Senior Citizens’ Christmas Party

DEC Final Whole School Christmas Assembly

JAN Blog launched to help other teachers/schools

JAN Designs and Launch – KnowMusicShirts – clothing to highlight key musical understanding

JAN High School Musical Rehearsals begin

JAN London Les Mis Residential

FEB Final recordings for GCSE Music Coursework

FEB Meetings, rehearsals, and development for July’s Selby Abbey

FEB Videos produced and distributed to teach 4 songs to 120+ primary schools across the north of England

MAR iPad Music Competition

MAR Battle of the Bands York

MAR Development of choir tour to New York for 2020

APR Open ‘Voices’ choir Rehearsal with Archbishop of York, John Sentamu

APR Full Production & Release of “The Fight” (year 8 songwriting winner from 2018)

APR Ticket sales and promotions for HSM

APR ISM Conference at Birmingham Conservatoire

APR-JUNE GCSE Composition Examining

MAY MTA Conference at Bromsgrove School

MAY Photos & Programme design for HSM

JUNE HSM Radio

JUNE “The Fight” Worldwide Release & Performance at York HubFest, NRM

JUNE High School Musical Production

JUNE Music leadership at Belfrey 9am begins

JULY Full Production performance for Y6 Transition students

JULY Service at Selby Abbey

JULY Y7-10 Presentation Evening

JULY Ultimate Showcase 2020 Launch & Survey

An epic year on many levels. Student confidence and independence in music seems stronger now, which I consider our greatest achievement. Fingers crossed for results as always. Next year…

1. hoping to understand challenges of music at KS2 more to hopefully encourage primaries to engage wholeheartedly in music with their young people. Our year 7s arrive from over 30 primaries and the range of prior experience is vast.

2. our performing arts leaders have been a real success – they’ve grown in so much confidence. Next we raise the bar, with cohort 1 leaders challenged to take leading roles in designing/managing the product of performance.

3. work/life balance – as much as I enjoy my work, next year I’m aiming to have a maximum of 2 extra projects in any month.

Out of Office… I’ll be back in September!! Time to re-create