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.

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!

Building the ‘Ultimate Extra’

The ‘Extra’ is always a choice. I aspire to creating ‘Ultimate Extra’, which ensures every minute of every day is filled with opportunity. It is not contractual, however the difference it makes to every student and their wider community is so significant, it’s a choice worth making. The students are always my first thought, but it is greatly inspiring to me too and creates many more opportunities for me to develop in my own learning. It creates a richness in what we do together every day and develops strong, trusting relationships.

Yesterday was a remarkable day. Completely exhausting, but filled with so much joyful ‘Extra’ that any sense of weariness just disappeared to leave a sense of great encouragement for all.

My ‘Friday 5th April’

0815 Prayers with Archbishop of York John Sentamu and 30+ Manor staff

0840 House Assembly with my form 9DL

0915 Meeting and warm-up with Manor ‘Voices’ choir

0930 Open rehearsal with the Archbishop, his team and leaders of Hope Learning Trust (watch here)

Read the story of “I am free” here

1000 Year 8 – Final ‘Production’ lesson about Mastering

1100 Break – Student opportunity to share iPad Music Production work with the Archbishop’s team

1120 Year 7 – Final ‘Performance’ assessment lesson

1220 Lunch – GCSE Performance Exam Recordings & Composition Workshop

1320 Year 9 GCSE Music lesson. Looking over recent mock results in context, initial questions from students and reflective discussion about specific questions

1420 Year 11 Enrichment lesson, including setting up for studio recording

1520 Studio recording with Year 8 Songwriting winner Isaac and guest vocalist Maggie Wakeling

1830 Home time

The ‘Extra’ things from yesterday are shown in Italics.

The ‘Extra’ is always a choice. I aspire to creating ‘Ultimate Extra’, which ensures every minute of every day is filled with opportunity. It is not contractual, however the difference it makes to every student and their wider community is so significant, it’s a choice worth making. The students are always my first thought, but it is greatly inspiring to me too and creates many more opportunities for me to develop in my own learning. It creates a richness in what we do together every day and develops strong, trusting relationships.

It creates school-wide impact, variety, opportunity, enjoyment, fulfilment, encouragement and more. It creates a culture of great exploration and experience, which encourages students to study more deeply and independently. Every ‘Extra’ is different but relevant.

As a teacher, ‘Ultimate Extra’ creates a unique, positive mindset. Without it, the natural ‘thinking about the job’ time becomes focused only on the classroom, the data, seating plans etc… The different mindset means all those things that have to happen, just happen. And instead, you get to imagine the next exciting opportunity.

If I’ve learned one thing from designing the ‘Extra’ at Manor in the last 9 years, it’s flexibility! In a school with so much going on, we have to be flexible and others have to do the same. For example, I used to get so frustrated when asked to use a lunchtime for detention duty as I’d have to cancel a choir rehearsal, but these days we just take those times as an extra challenge. If it is a choir, students will begin the rehearsal themselves and I’ll come in later. This shares great responsibility with them, especially if we have an event coming up.

Another example of flexibility is seasonal ensembles. Often visitors ask how it’s possible to do all that we do as I’m a one-man-music-department. The truth is, I may be the only full-time member of staff at Manor, but I have a fantastic team of instrumental specialists and we develop the music provision together. This in itself, creates a great sense of richness as there is such a variety of expertise in the team. I really enjoy leading many activities every week, but really my role is very much as ‘chief encourager’. The seasonal ensembles programme works as follows:

Term 1 – September to December

Students of all ages and abilities. Opportunities for all to grow and make music together. Additional ensembles for advanced students are designed for anyone, but are for those who want to explore music more deeply. Advanced ensembles are accessed through invitation or audition and younger students are encouraged to work towards these. Repertoire is designed towards a performing arts festival in October and Nine Lessons and Carols at York Minster in December. Also a parents, staff and friends community choir. Often there are 8-10 performances in term 1 including for example: York Food Festival, BBC Radio performances, awards evening, seniors’ Christmas party etc… Term 1 also includes the audition process for our Performing Arts Leaders’ programme.

Term 2 – January to April

A major focus on final recordings and composition workshops for Year 11 GCSE Music students. Also early collaborative dance, drama and music rehearsals for our biannual summer musical production. Student production band begins. Other instrumental tutor-led ensembles continue.

Term 3 – April to July

Manor Concert Orchestra and Band78 groups combine to focus on pushing our technical skills, exploring more complex music but in a way accessible to all ages and abilities. Choirs and worship band are combining this year to lead a huge event for York Diocese at Selby Abbey on 5th July. Final rehearsals and production development for our major summer production, this year is Disney’s High School Musical 26-28th June. Tickets here.

The summer production is biannual as a result of student and parent voice. The consensus at the last discussion was that students and their families really wanted to have the full west-end type experience, but the challenge is how to make that a possibility to the 652 students who study performing arts with us for 2 hours every week. (And the other 100 or so who don’t, but still want to be involved). Hence, we launched our Performing Arts Leaders’ Programme, to select 40 students who would not only become the company for High School Musical, but would learn leadership skills to be able to disseminate their experiences and skills across the community. We’ve decided to have this style of production biannually, so that in ‘the other year’ everybody who wants to be part of a mahoosive ultimate summer showcase can be involved. Summer 2020 will be particularly exciting as we’re also planning to contribute to the YorkHub summer festival.

In additional to the vast programme of tuition, rehearsals, workshops, recordings and performances, another hugely important ‘Extra’ is competitions. There are many competitions throughout the year, some for specific groups of people and some open to anyone. Competitions inspire creativity and invention as students aspire to developing something unique and of exceptional quality. Last night’s recording was for Isaac’s song “The Fight”. The song was one of 97 original songs written last year by Year 8 students at Manor. Isaac’s winning song was chosen by a panel of songwriting and production experts. Isaac’s prize is for the song to be produced and released worldwide to platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music & iTunes. All proceeds from the song will go to Isaac’s choice of charity, which is Scope.

Photo (below): Great collaboration in song production yesterday between Isaac (Manor CE Academy) and Maggie Wakeling (Archbishop Holgate School)

Other popular competitions this month have been Theta Revision and MusicIn60. Theta Revision is an online league table encouraging students to develop their aural understanding in preparation for the GCSE listening exam. This competition was for year 9s as they prepare for their first full mock paper. The highest scoring students received Easter eggs!

As I hope to encourage people more widely to get into iPad music creation, the international competition is still open. Deadline for entries is now a few weeks away. Full details here.

Competition Time: iPad Music 2019

The purpose of this competition is to encourage people of all ages to get involved in music creation. Portable technology now enables us to create our music anywhere and at anytime. Many aspects of life inspire creativity. When each moment arrives, we can now create without delay.

About three years ago I ran an international competition challenging composers to write the ultimate 8-bar melody. It was fascinating to see how entrants approached it. Every melody had a unique sense of character and we saw so many creative ideas exploring melodic shaping, pitch-range, phrasing, use of rests, rhythmic devices and step/leap movement. After over 40,000 votes online, the two melodies below were our top two, with Alice’s melody winning the competition overall.

Both melodies copyright protected. 2015. All rights reserved.

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Competition 2019

To celebrate a change in GCSE Music that’s making ‘Music’ an accessible and brilliant creative choice for all students, this year’s competition will explore inventiveness and creativity using an iPad to compose original music.

Brief

⁃ Compose an original piece of music using an iPad with GarageBand

⁃ It must be 30-36 seconds in duration (the sound must stop before 36s is reached)

⁃ The music should sound ‘finished’ at the end and have purpose as TV theme music

⁃ The music can be in any genre and written for any solo instrument or combination of instruments. You may also record your own samples and perform them at different pitches, using the ‘Keyboard Sampler’ in GarageBand

⁃ You may use quantisation, EQ and the other included plug-ins to mix your music

⁃ The music must not include pre-recorded loops, smart drummer or auto-play functions. Every aspect must be your own creation

⁃ All music must be created only using the iPad and without connecting other devices

The purpose of this competition is to encourage people of all ages to get involved in music creation. Portable technology now enables us to create our music anywhere and at anytime. Many aspects of life inspire creativity. When each moment arrives, we can now create without delay.

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This competition has now closed.

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Examples

With this competition in mind, I wrote the following two 30-36s themes. These are not included in the competition, but I just wanted to share the first 2 diverse ideas I had when considering this task. Many many outcomes are possible. I can’t wait to hear what you will create.

iPad Music Example 1:”Gritty Crime Drama Theme” by Dave Lowe

iPad Music Example 2:”Countryside Walk Theme” by Dave Lowe

Copyright of both themes. Dave Lowe 2019. All rights reserved.

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‘GCSE Music Production Via Technology’ at Manor CE Academy, York

In addition to our popular ‘GCSE Music’ course we now run this second pathway. Ultimately all students are entered for the same qualification, but the type of learning is very different between the two. The ‘technology’ course, as the name suggests, has technology at the centre of all learning. Students on this pathway do not need to be able to play an instrument or sing as they can use ‘production’ instead.

Both courses are for students who love music and want to explore everything about it. Both guide students to discover how music is constructed and help them to strive to understand, perform and compose music in any genre, time or culture. Both courses help students to develop their craft and grow confidently in their creativity.

We currently enter students onto the AQA 8271 GCSE Music course. Other exam boards are available and the people running those qualifications are equally fantastic. The assessment on the AQA course is as follows:

40% – One 90-minute exam, testing understanding of music by listening as well as some questions based on a choice of study pieces

30% – Performance – students produce two technology productions of existing music

30% – Composition – students write two original creations, one to a brief (like the one in the competition)

The creative, problem solving and organisational skills developed in GCSE Music, significantly support students as they study other subjects like English, Maths & Science. The experience helps them to develop determination, resilience and independence in their work.

Title Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Harmony – The Hot Chocolate for Your Marshmallows

Following on from ‘Detox Melody’, the natural next move was to ‘Detox Harmony’.

Harmony is the most complex musical element for our students to understand. Mostly problems occur when they don’t consider the impact of an additional part, which naturally they don’t. When beginning to compose, they layer sounds or melodies together and are transfixed on time (often asking how long it should be), without any consideration of the vertical relationships of notes. When students submit composition work to be marked, they often haven’t considered ‘the harmony’ at all so a significant amount of unpicking follows due to the amount of ‘clashing’.

I began today’s Y9 lesson just as I had with melody. I firstly asked “What is harmony and why create harmony?”

The students answered:

“It’s just different notes played together”

“It creates a more complex texture”

“It makes the music sound richer or fuller”

“It’s the hot chocolate for your marshmallows, the jam for your doughnut”… then followed a huge argument as to whether that should be “doughnut for your jam”

The suggestions are all correct in some way, but perhaps the most helpful is the Hot Chocolate. It supports the melody (the marshmallows), and is usually in the pitch range below the melody to begin with. The two go together well, sharing a common purpose. In the time that follows though and as the music develops, or the marshmallows begin to sink through the chocolate and melt into different shapes, the relationship between the two can change. The melody can have a greater interaction within other parts of the texture.

We then agreed that when two or more notes are played together, a sense of harmony is created. Sometimes that relationship is consonant, sometimes dissonant, but that we need to be able create both, and every other harmonic relationship on a spectrum in between. We cannot help that there ‘is harmony’, but we can learn more about tonalities, keys, intervals and chords to be able to control it.

I find harmony to be one of most powerful tools with the rate of change of harmony controlling how the energy of the music is able to flow. I’m also fascinated by the additional opportunities created by considering harmony, texture and articulation together. A seasoned composer might well be able to think about the music holistically. Students, learning about composition for the first time don’t have that luxury. They need to understand the impact each change within an element has. Harmony is more difficult to understand as many considerations have to be made simultaneously.

So in preparation for the following task, I first took the decision to limit the number of possibilities within harmony, rhythm and texture, just as I has limited the melody rhythms to using only crotchets and quavers in the last lesson.

The process chosen for today’s harmony task as follows:

1. Looking back to the plan from last week, we began by inputting ‘signpost’ bass notes. That is choosing to begin with a ‘D’ in the bass at the start of bars 1 and 5 (both structural A-sections). Then an ‘A’ note as the furthest diatonic tonal point from ‘D’ at the end of bars 2, 4 and 6 – the moments we wanted the music to sound unfinished. Finally ending bar 8 with a D to make it sound finished. Initially we decided that changing the bass note every 4 beats would create unwanted clashes between some melody notes and the held bass notes, so we began by composing a different bass note every two beats (as minims).

2. Using the D Major Diatonic Chord Chart as below, we were able to fill in the missing notes.

**Image from How To Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product, 2015, Lulu Publishing

For example if, at the vertical point we need to add a bass note, the note in the melody is a G, we look at the chart to see which diatonic chords in D Major include a ‘G’. There are three diatonic chords in D Major containing a ‘G’:

– E Minor (E G B)

– G Major (G B D)

– C# Dim. (C# E G)

The strongest bass notes to choose to go with the melody ‘G’ would therefore be E, G or C#, however it’s only possible to decide which is most appropriate in the context of what is written before and after by listening. Repeating the same bass note from one minim to the next caused the harmony to feel stuck, as it did in the melody. Having the same note in the melody and harmony parts made the texture sound ‘thinner’ at those points. Students also found step-wise movement in the bass line was preferable when possible, and that problems were caused when the movement of the bass notes leaped up and down on subsequent minims.

Considering that last week’s lesson was the first for students to write a melody, and this week was the first glimpse of harmony, all the outcomes were amazing.

Year 9 student Ollie, excited by the idea of sharing our practice online, has volunteered to be included in this week’s blog. Ollie’s is happy to share that he’s not a confident reader of music yet. He’s not had specific tutoring before, but has chosen to use his voice as his instrument for GCSE music.

This is beautiful melody writing, with a lovely sense of shape and balance. It is simple due to the restrictions I’d set of only using crotchets and quavers, but is of quality far advanced of his point of learning. The harmony is also very sensitively written and shows evidence of understanding and control. I interviewed him just after he showed me his work.

How did he write the melody?

“Since it’s in D major, it [the melody] started with a lower note D and ended on higher notes at the end of the second bar. Then it went back down from there until the end of the 4th bar. What I do is raise the pitch up in the first bar and then when it feels right, I go down again. I thought about the moments when the melody direction changed – it was when I reached a crotchet, having always played quavers. I listened and tried to think about when the right time was to go up or down, before it felt like it had gotten too high or too low”.

How did you write the harmony?

“I listened to find which notes matched with the melody notes above. I looked for which notes were in a chord to find out which other notes worked together. The end of bars 2 and 6 are the same, so I tried to make them both sound unfinished. The end of 4 sounds unfinished, because it feels like it wants to carry on. The end of bar 8 feels finished because it ends on the D but in a higher octave. I made it start and finish with D as I was in D major.

Another remarkable creation was from Lucas and Leo, two of our Year 9 Music Production via Technology students whose melody was featured in last week’s ‘Melody Detox’. They had accidentally written in Dorian on C. Using the Dorian Mode Chart as below, they worked out that by thinking about the note row C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C, it was possible to see which notes worked consonantly well together.

**Image from How To Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product, 2015, Lulu Publishing

For example if playing an Eb, they could play-one, miss-one, play-one, miss-one, play-one to reach Eb G Bb and when listening, they found that any of these notes worked well together. This pattern worked for all notes in all keys.

(No idea why clip appears upside-down on some browsers – apologies).

Their beautifully written melody and harmony could easily become music for film, television or video game. Lucas and Leo tell me they’re already imagining and discussing music that depicts adventure and tells a story. Amazing!

Photo by Stefen Tan on Unsplash

A Practical Model to Grow Confidence in Music for Young People Aged 11-16

Over the last 8 years in my current school, I’ve been continually looking for ways to improve the experience of my music students. Every one of them is unique, no matter ability, demographic or experience of life. A one-size-fits-all model would have failed within minutes so I’ve developed a flexible, customisable model for every individual and, so far, for every situation we’ve encountered, I have seem positive outcomes.

The fundamental purpose is to help every young person to have everything they need to develop in music ‘to the max’ and to prepare them for their musical life into the future. Measurable aspects, such as examinations, are a helpful inclusion but they’re only part of the bigger picture of each individual’s experience.

The Starting Point

The starting point of the 230 or so students that join my school every year varies greatly. There are 230 starting points. It is counter-productive at this stage to produce a starting ‘grade’ and often this can be a discouragement for the young people. A few have been learning to play an instrument at KS2, but many haven’t and there has been variety in the quality of tuition received. As students begin to explore music, it is often for the first time with us and some haven’t come across even simple musical aspects like pulse or rhythm. A few have done a weekly singing activity. Equally I always have some young people who have already developed a sense of musicianship.

Musically Understanding the Starting Point

I’ve always run a baseline test to understand:

– if students are able to recognise musical changes by listening

– if students are aware of musical instruments, how they’re played and to which families of the orchestra they belong

– if students know the meaning of musical terms like pitch, dynamics, texture and tempo

– if students can recognise shapes and patterns in notation

– if students can read musical notes on the treble and bass clef staves

– if students are aware of more complex language such as Italian terms

The average score is 24/50. The lowest score ever achieved is 4/50 and the highest 50/50, achieved this year by a percussion student. He was the first to achieve the top mark in 4 years.

However, over the last two years I’ve also run a baseline performance task. Students are given a piano, some letter-named notes and 20 minutes to prepare a performance of a well-known 8-bar melody. Each student performs and these are recorded on video. This task would be fascinating for those interested in music education research. In many ways this type of test is a much more accurate measure of musical awareness, as there are no multiple choice answers to guess. The first observation is proof that a student’s musical ability is not equivalent to a result in a year 6 Maths or English test. Each student gives their best performance based on their individual experience. Each performance, and particularly how each student approaches their playing in the 230 videos, is different.

The End Point

For a student attending an 11-16 school, the end point is often seen as the grades they leave with as a GCSE student. There is a bigger picture here though, and to constantly create the highest expectations, I challenge my students to think at a standard beyond the GCSE syllabus. Ultimately I’d like my students to have a rich and developed understanding of music, that enables them to confidently perform and compose music, constantly developing their own craft and creatively collaborating with others.

A Flexible Customisable Model to Develop Confidence in Music for Students Aged 11-16

Having established the starting and end points, it’s then been possible to develop a bespoke experience for each individual student, based on the types of needs they have in common. This model has helped us to develop the students’ experience in our school. It could easily be used in other schools as there’s sufficient flexibility and little cost to embed.

How does it work?

Consider the 4 concentric circles as below.

The centre (1) represents each individual student. They each have to be at the centre of our thinking. Always. It should challenge us to always consider whether an aspect of their experience is genuinely ‘creative, helpful and inspiring’ or ‘tedious, un-necessary and destructive’.

The next circle (2) represents all the opportunities that a music student must have in order for them to develop. Each opportunity around the circle can be customised based on each student’s needs, interests and ambitions. The opportunities are not ‘on’ or ‘off’, the more of each opportunity the better for the student’s overall development, but recognising that (often due to time or funding), some students will have a different balance to others. This should not be a ‘have’ and ‘have not’, all should ‘have’, but there will be differences in the amount of involvement, often down to the individual’s choice or ambition. As a head of music, I can have an impact on helping to improve all of these areas, even though other agencies and organisations have the responsibility to manage them. Some areas seem obvious, but I find that quite regularly some stakeholders are not aware of their required responsibility. Open and honest, proactive and positive communication between all stakeholders is vital. Focusing on and improving each of these opportunities for all learners has been key in helping them to develop and build confidence in music.

The next circle (3) represents the products and experiences that all music students should focus on. These are easy for stakeholders to organise at minimal or no cost but are the things that students are inspired by and use to develop their understanding of music through application.

Finally the outer circle (4), the outcome at the end of Year 11, following the completion of products and experiences. Not the end, but the beginning of the next period of musical learning and development.

This is our current model.

There’s probably room for several more blog entries to describe the impact of each ‘opportunity’. In practice each area is vast and contributes to a rich, varied music education. Key aspects to mention initially though:

1. It has very much felt in the last few years, that the accountability of outcomes has rested more with teachers and schools. This model is design to not consider any stakeholders as have more importance or accountability than others. Thus, products, experiences and outcomes are written around the circles to represent the joint impact all stakeholders must have. The role of the student themselves and how they each choose to approach their learning is just as important as every other aspect.

2. We became an academy around the same time as arts fundings was reduced, which locally fragmented the services in place to offer instrumental tuition. We decided, following discussions with peripatetic tutors, students and parents, to run our own tuition programme. Tutors are contracted directly to our department to deliver high quality lessons. Within their contract we ask each tutor to have a passion to develop the confidence and interest in their instrument by them leading a relevant ensemble. This helps to grow a strong music team of like-minded professionals. All lessons, with all tutors for all instruments cost the same. Students can choose to share their lessons in 2s or 3s, in which case the cost is shared, but most students are taught individually or in pairs. They are paid directly our parents. When affordability is an issue for parents, there are funding opportunities through YorkMusicHub. Some members of our staff or others in the community have also supported students in the past by paying for lessons. We currently offer lessons in: piano, keyboard, drum kit, percussion, bass guitar, music theory, classical guitar, brass, woodwind, electric guitar, popular acoustic guitar, voice, upper strings, cello, double bass and harp.

3. In addition to the included students’ perceptions of their ideal music teacher, students need me to be constantly developing a relevant curriculum. At our school every student has an iPad. We use the app Showbie as a method for students to upload videos of their performances or scores and recordings of compositions. In this way, I can provide a more fluid and instant method of feedback, which encourages them to be always reflecting, questioning and developing.

4. The model is for all students aged 11-16.

We find this model to work very well. Naturally there will always be things for us to improve, but the flexibility and collective responsibility the model creates, inspires our young people greatly. If you’re reading this as a department, school or education leader, please try it if you’re not doing so already and let me know if you need help or more information.