Celebrating 10 years of progress to understand how to help all young people to make confident progress in music.

To mark this 10th Anniversary of developments, I’ve decided to share the lockdown work of one of my year 10 students. I’m so grateful to the family for giving permission for the work to be shared. This is an amazing example of the musical learning and creation that’s been possible during the 8 weeks of remote learning. The video presentation of this work is available below…

Back in 2011, I’d been a head of subject for just over a year and I’d noticed there were several questions my students asked repeatedly. In my work, I would be asked these same questions over and over again, many times a day. Most of these questions were simple, such as ‘What is……?’, ‘Where do I start?’ (relating to composition), or ‘How do I make it sound ‘good’?’. These are fundamentals in a music teacher’s life to explain such concepts, but the traditional approach very much created a dependent relationship. 

I’d already learned that for true creativity to take place, students need to be independent. They need to be sufficiently confident about controlling the fundamentals of music to feel the freedom they need to invent ideas without fear. Questioning has an important role, but deeper understanding can be found if the answers to simple concepts are instantly available. 

My students just needed a place to look, but at that time there wasn’t a book to explain these things in a helpful and accessible way. There were books for music theory exams, for GCSE revision and for much higher level musical studies, but nothing for students aged 13-16, relevant to a wide range of learners’ previous or no specific musical study. So I began to write “How to understand music” – that was the original working title!

The first draft focused on defining the elements of music. Texture, structure, harmony and melody were the aspects students needed help to understand most frequently. I shared initial drafts with my students to add a new level of support and the response was positive, but it quickly became apparent that as much as they needed a place to look for information, what they really needed was to understand how all of these musical aspects could work together in a whole piece. 

I’ve already written in previous posts about how fortunate I was in the late 1990s and early 2000s to be invited to several major film post production studios. Many of these conversations began with my fascination of the process of how a creative idea could be developed into a final commercial product. One of the fundamentals I found was about ‘production values’. The process of production is the focus, approach and ethos of every edit and decision. This was gained by constantly listening, inventing, developing, and ensuring every small part is as good as it can be in the context of the overall purpose. With all the small parts working, the overall product is of the highest quality.

The process of composition became the focus, and in the next few years I wrote “How to Write Great Music – Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product”. 

In the summer of 2014, some of my GCSE students had done exceptionally well. A conversation began that would change how I teach composition. The students and I sat down to work out if there was a helpful order in which to learn about the different aspects of music to be able to feel confident enough to write a whole piece. We concluded there were indeed some aspects of music creation that could be controlled first, without needing knowledge of other areas. This was helpful as students could develop confidence and establish strong production values without needing to understand a range of different concepts. Further on, we learned why some elements were more complex to understand. In most cases it was due to a necessity to be able to control multiple other areas first. I.e. textural control and variation required melodic and harmonic control and development. More difficult aspects included structure, texture and harmony. 

The focus on ‘understanding melody’ very quickly became the game changer and also around that time, in a working group with other heads of music, we concluded that ‘control of melody’ (in any genre) was the most important aspect to be able to reach the higher grades in GCSE and A-Level music composition. If the melody wasn’t controlled or written with purpose, this restricted both the standard of the overall work and the musical options going forwards. In my time working as an examiner in the last few years, many students have clearly not felt confident in melody writing. The potential reasons for this is for another day.

Following the 2014 conversation, I wrote the original Progression Tasks Project and this became chapter 21 of my HTWGM book.

The original PTP was a list of 34 tasks that students would complete in order. They couldn’t continue to the next task until they’d proved they had sufficient confidence and control of the one before. Gradually they built confidence in the range and complexity of music they were able to write and they each had a copy of the book to have that ‘instant access’ to look up the music theory and concepts they needed to complete the tasks. 

The positive impact across a range of learners was vast and in the summer after we began to use the book, 100% of attending students passed the GCSE, with 70% achieving A or above. 

By creating this instant access to helpful explanation and a given process to build on their musical understanding, these students were able to independently develop remarkable music. My role of a teacher changed in those lessons. I was no longer someone who taught the same concepts over and over again, but instead a fascinated facilitator who engaged in deeper discussion about music in a wide range of styles. 

Those of you who’ve followed my work in the last 2 or 3 will know I’ve been working to develop a GCSE pathway for students wanting to use technology as their instrument. I have to admit, the original PTP project became less in my thinking, but as we returned to school (in September 2020), after Covid national lockdown 1, the students really needed a sense of the structure the PTP gave, but I hadn’t included it in their course so far. 

In November 2020, I began a review of the 2015 book. I found the book itself to be just as helpful as it was before and decided it was unnecessary to write a new edition for now, but I really wanted to challenge the students to go even deeper into composition and decided there was an opportunity to design an updated Progression Tasks Project.  

PTP2021 contains many of the original tasks. I’ve added more steps to help with the understanding of melody and included tasks requiring a demonstration of the music both in the written form and using technology. There’s a new column to confirm the evidence required to pass each task, an e-book of charts to complete and a series of on-demand YouTube videos creating access for every young person, not just those in my school. Just as in the original PTP, vocabulary is at the centre, encouraging students to use the most appropriate musical language as they explore, create, listen and compose their music. 

The project now includes an advanced composition section. Tasks 32-40 are designed to be accessible to all students, but to especially challenge those aspiring to a grade 9. 

PTP2021 was first used by year 9 and 10 students in January 2021, as we entered the 3rd National Covid lockdown. The progress of the 69 students was extraordinary and gave them much confidence at a time when learning had to be remote. 

To mark this 10th Anniversary of developments, I’ve decided to share the lockdown work of one of my year 10 students. I’m so grateful to the family for giving permission for the work to be shared. This is an amazing example of the musical learning and creation that’s been possible during the 8 weeks of remote learning. The video presentation of this work is available here       

The PTP2021 Task List and Chart E-book is available as a free download at www.davelowemusiconline.com

How to Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product is available here

Listen to the finished compositions of some of Dave’s students here

Access to the On—Demand videos for PTP2021 here 

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.

iPad Music Competition – Results

Many congratulations to all young people across the country who have begun to discover the joy of creating music on an iPad.

Our 2019 iPad Music competition has now ended.

Congratulations to our winners who each received a £25 Apple App Store Voucher, a copy of “How to Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product”, and a hoodie of their choice from KnowMusicShirts.

Y7: Harvey Wood

Y8: Hollis Lansford for “Dark Matter”

Y9: Lucas Farnier for “Fearless Warriors”

Enjoy their original music creations in the video below.

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.

ORASingers #PerfectInspiration

Last night I was fortunate to be at LSO St Luke’s in London to listen to ORASingers. It was the second time I’ve experienced the choir live, the first being at Manchester Cathedral with 40 or so of our students (aged 13-15) in February 2018.

After last night’s performance I tweeted:

Why #perfectinspiration?

For me, ORASingers symbolise a perfect solution in music.

1. Always something new

“ORA Singers was established with the aim of commissioning 100 new works by 100 different composers in 10 years.” (www.orasingers.co.uk)

It’s very easy as a music teacher to ‘stick to what you know’. Often the challenges in recent years have been to adapt what we do to changes in policy or assessment – in practice, not a particularly musical process. This creates a real risk of us becoming disinterested in our passion, the music itself. As creatives, there should always be an aspect of ‘finding the new’ in music as well as keeping hold of the opportunities that repeatedly inspire us. ORASingers’ aspiration encourages composers to reflect on the much loved works of Renaissance music and we should do the same. For me, a new model for music education must encourage space and time for teachers to reflect on all aspects of their teaching and to discover the music most impactful for their unique culture of students, but with flexibility to encourage constant development in what and how we learn together.

2. Flawless Performance

If asked to pinpoint why I’m most inspired by ORASingers, it’s the seemingly effortless precision of vocal performance. It is flawless. Every note is purposely placed, with truest timbre, exact articulation – perfectly consistent with all similarly articulated notes, perfectly tuned, and each note tonally and dynamically shaped with control of expression from beginning to end. When every voice is so perfectly placed, the richness in overall timbre is incredible. This sense of quality is there in each of the individual voices before combining together with the others, with no one voice standing out as superior in quality or importance. This example for young people beginning to sing and communicate in music together is unmatched. It therefore should be our focus in the classroom too. Why not challenge our young people to aspire to flawless perfection. In previous blogs I’ve described how counterproductive target grades based on KS2 Maths and English are. Even though as we consider each individual student’s potential in music, aiming for full marks is restrictive. Aim beyond, teach beyond. Who knows what can be unlocked.

Reflecting on the GCSE Music performance mark scheme, it is relatively straightforward to find ‘the right notes in the the right order’. It is also relatively straightforward to understand and play a rhythm correctly. Students with determined aspirations, should be able to understand pitch and rhythmic aspects easily. The second aspect of assessment, ‘expression & interpretation’, is far more challenging as it requires the young person to engage with the music, and it’s only through a deeper, spiritual understanding of the music that they’re able to deliver the performance, and fully bring it to life. The ‘accuracy’ is the only aspect of the performance that could be (vaguely) related to the KS2 Maths. Since enjoying the last concert with ORASingers at Manchester Cathedral, the difference in how our students have approached their performance work is vast. We are incredibly grateful to the choir who organised for our students to attend for free.

3. #youngpeopleareawesome

“Our young people have much imagination, curiosity and creativity already inside them. The role of the music teacher is to help them to unlock what’s already inside”. Julian Watson

I wonder how many of us would truthfully consider this when planning a new unit of work. Martin Fautley helpfully talks about how important it is to focus on the learning in curriculum design, rather than the assessment. Julian’s comment, challenges us to go even further to consider the individual young person. From recent experiences of teaching composition using technology and having a particular focus on how to make GCSE Music accessible to those who love music, as opposed to those who happen to already play an instrument or sing, I can completely relate to the importance of designing a flexible approach that encourages ALL students to explore their own unique musical gift.

This year ORASingers have run an amazing Composers Competition aimed at high school aged students. I can’t wait to hear what the chosen 10 young people have designed to be performed by ORASingers.

4. The importance of us all being different together.

Absolute inclusion. Music is for everybody.

Just before last night’s concert an audience member arrived who was occasionally very loud before the concert began. I have to admit that, during Suzi Digby’s spoken introduction, it crossed my mind as to whether or not the choir may be distracted by the sudden sounds coming from the audience. However, from the moment the choir began to sing last night, I can’t remember a single moment when I felt distracted by the wonderful sound in front of me. It was perfect and inspiring from beginning to end.

Sometimes we really have to work to recognise that everyone is different and to not become transfixed by things contrary to our personal expectations. A musical product of the highest quality requires everyone working together to ‘make it work’, just as the voices in ORASingers do, fitting perfectly together. Each stakeholder has a responsibility in the performance. Each must maintain their own ‘quality’, no matter the circumstances, while constantly working to find new ways to work together. Just in the same way that conflict is necessary to see resolve, a balance of dissonance and consonance in musical harmony is important in creating a sense of contrast in the development of musical ideas. In a faculty team, it’s ok (and healthy) that people don’t agree as long as they leave opportunity to listen to each other, leading (hopefully) to a point of collective resolve.

Another wonderful experience providing new thoughts, perspectives and ideas to share. Thank you again to Suzi and the team at ORASingers.

——

Blog Post title photo from: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2018/event/ora-singers-renaissance-maria

No part of this article has been written with the permission of ORASingers. I am equally not affiliated with the group. I’m just a very fortunate audience member.

Harmony & Control: Real-world curriculum design to inspire confidence and ambition in music

This term’s lessons for GCSE year 9 music are all about Harmony & Control. Control, though not an element of music, is one of the fundamental skills or levels of skill there is. Without it, the outcome is uncontrolled, messy or unintentional chaos. If we don’t model ‘control in music’, we should not be surprised when this is something our students struggle with later on.

We began 6 weeks ago by focusing on melody first, exploring how we can create a natural flow in our music, how we can split musical ideas into phrases and how a phrase usually sounds complete or incomplete at its end. From week 2, we used an ABAC melodic structure as a (Control) point of focus and decided on some other aspects of control, for example the B phrase sounding unfinished (imperfect) and C very definitely sounds finished (perfect), presenting an opportunity to discuss cadences and immediately showing connection between how melody and harmony have to be considered together.

Having composed a simple 8-bar melodic shape of the 4 phrases, we added a complementing bass line as described in my “Hot Chocolate” post.

In week 3 we discussed ‘texture’ as the layers that make up the harmony, and how we could change the relationship between how the layers worked together to vary the texture. It was also an opportunity to discuss instrumental timbre and range as we added a 2nd violin and viola to create the configuration of a string quartet. Having made these controlled (purposeful) decisions, and deciding for the moment to write diatonically in D Major and homophonically with the rhythm of the cello part, students found it very easy to ‘fill-in’ the inner voices, again using p244 of “How to Write Great Music” as below. Further interesting discussions could be heard around the class as to whether there were ‘better solutions’ of which notes to place in which instrument, which led them to independently discover how to control inner parts by making small (step-wise if possible) movements rather than larger leaps of unwanted intervals.

Still within that same lesson, about two thirds of the class continued to then create a development of their first 8 bars by incorporating scalic motifs and auxiliary and passing notes within their lower 3 parts. There was great excitement and beaming smiles around the room as students realised how straightforward it was to develop their own complex music by having a controlled consideration of melody, harmony and texture.

It is often difficult to comprehend the depth of musical understanding we can reach in any 11-16 lesson, but this new approach to harmony has this term, I feel, pushed the boundaries again. To have progressed from ‘not feeling confident about composing a simple melody’, to feeling confident enough about all of the above to independently compose beautiful music, is absolutely mind-blowing. Often our ‘high expectations’ is not enough. #youngpeopleareawesome

I decided for the moment however, that this level of depth was as far as was helpful to go in their exploration of harmony (for the moment!). Instead, from week 4, I presented a similar challenge but from a completely different angle, ensuring the task was new for everybody and completely out of their comfort zones. To succeed, they had to use the knowledge developed above and their experience of controlling music. They have to prove not only understanding, but ‘confident understanding’ to succeed in this new challenge.

In week 4 we were visited by the amazing Dr Kirsty Devaney (@KirstyDevaney) who has written a brilliant article about her time with us, including some very helpful thoughts on gender in music and technology. We are greatly appreciative of the time we were able to spend together and many of the students she met have been inspired by her time with us.

In that week, the new challenge began with a lead sheet for a song (above). Students had to study the chords in verse 2 and, using Sibelius, compose a 4-part string quartet arrangement for the 8 bars of the verse. This was to be a new timbre to be introduced in verse 2 as a development of texture in the overall production and students were encouraged to listen critically as they tried to develop a warm/rich ‘sound’ for their string parts. The second challenge was more practical, but of equal value in the composing process – they had to export the audio of their string arrangement (so now considering file format, sample rate and bit depth) and discover a secure method to transfer this into GarageBand on their iPad. I had specifically encouraged them to do this as ‘audio’ to challenge their critical listening of making sure the string parts worked before continuing. If they found there were clashes later on from not having control of the process, they would have to go through this extra part again to fix it.

Once into GarageBand, students now had to take a new risk. They had to maintain control of the harmony of their 8 bars, but compose and record parts for piano, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, drum kit and an extra drum kit track to use for fill-ins or cymbal crashes.

Some aspects of musical learning appear simpler to me, but I often learn that my understanding of simplicity or difficulty can be wrong. This was especially true in this situation – students had not realised that all instrumental parts follow the same harmony in the music. I’m not sure at which point in my own musical learning I first discovered this, but thinking about it, I’ve never taught this before. It was particularly poignant to see that even the most able seemed surprised. This discovery opened a door in their learning. It has especially given them more confidence in improvisation or recording when using unfamiliar instruments.

In her observations, Kirsty mentioned a student who had struggled with this task, becoming stuck on the development of the drum kit part. That student returned the next morning and after 3 or 4 minutes of intervention, she was creating music independently again and perhaps even more confidently than before. Often it’s so important to see moments when students ‘get stuck’ as positive. They’re opportunities for greater understanding.

Having now produced an arrangement of their verse including 4-part harmony strings, bass guitar, piano, acoustic guitar and drum kit, students this week were considering structure and texture. These are (with harmony) the most mis-understood elements of music at GCSE. The vocals for the song are still to be recorded and that will happen next half term. For now though students have to repeat the above for the chorus immediately following their ‘verse 2’.

At this point, I’m offering less controlled guidance. Students have to decide how the role of each instrument will remain consistent or develop as they go into the chorus. Which of the 8 instruments they will keep, how they will plan rhythmic changes in each part, will the energy of the music become greater or less? All of these decisions are now their own in these last two weeks. The harmonic progression is more complex in the chorus, with more changes of chord and the pattern or rate of harmonic change is also quite different. Due to an instrumental section after the chorus, that new section is also 11 bars instead of 8, so much more to consider. The video below shows my modelled example I made as they watched in yesterday’s lesson – the section you can hear took 10 minutes to model from blank screen including descriptions of where, why and how.

The song is “Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)” by Hillsong United.

Title Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash

Inventiveness & Creativity

Having launched the new iPad Music competition last Sunday, I’ve spent the week discussing the concepts of inventiveness and creativity with my students. I chose these two words as they explain a meaning of “exceptionally creative”, which is given in the top-band on the mark scheme for AQA GCSE Music Composition. A student who is inventive is on their way to achieving a top grade in music composition.

But what does inventive mean? It must be a complex thing to understanding, being in the top-band?

Actually no. We’ve found that it’s not complex at all. In fact, it’s one of the easiest concepts to understand. However the difference between invention and ‘lack of invention’ is so fundamental in music creation that it’s an important consideration from the moment you begin. It’s not, as some possibilities in composition, something you can add later to get extra credit.

My year 7s were most excited when thinking about invention. They began to imagine inventors and the things they had invented. Having thought for a moment the concept was so clear to them. Inventiveness is, as one great answer, “creating something new, something unique that is unlike other things”.

But invention in music is not just what you make. It is defined by your approach to making it. I gave students this week the idea of approaching a box of Lego bricks. If I took 5 bricks out of the box, stuck them together, put them on the table in front of me and told people that it was finished, I have not been inventive. I had just ‘picked up some plastic bricks and stuck them together’. This act of choosing bricks and putting them together is important, just like in music we choose notes and put them together in a melody. But to then be inventive, we should pick up the shape we’ve created, look at it from different angles, imagine creatively what it could represent for us, imagine how we could make it into something else (“like a spaceship” was one answer this week). We should decide whether or not we like it. If we like nothing about it, just break it up and try a new idea or begin to develop it to see if it improves, but being cautious not to lose control and become frustrated. Being creative and inventive in music takes patience but is a joyful experience. When you discover an idea that you enjoy or inspires you, then you can start to dream about what that could become.

I mark many GCSE Music compositions every year. Inventiveness is sadly not frequently heard in a great number of pieces, but I’m sharing this in my blog in the hope that I can encourage students and teachers to approach this differently. So if you’re reading this in that context, think about this. What range of marks are you aiming for?

If it’s 1-24 out of the possible 36, in any style, you can write a simple melodic idea, that makes musical sense, make sure your harmony works. Higher marks in that range might be given if it’s in a structure so different sections ensure it’s not all the same all the way through.

Once you’ve got something that ‘works’ develop its complexity to prove your understanding of other musical concepts and devices (now getting you a mark of 25-31 if successful). However to get beyond 31/36, you must be inventive from ‘day 1’, having ambition to develop something amazing and spending often many hours shaping your initial ideas. Hopefully everybody should begin by aspiring to this, no matter their starting ability.

[a word of caution: this advice is my personal advice and is not a formal line from the exam board. The standard of how grades are awarded is set year-by-year by the board]

For my own students I’ve condensed the examination mark scheme to fit on one page (as shown in the title picture), making it easy for them to understand the standard of their work. I’ve found the examples of the types of musical devices shown to be useful for my students as they think of how they might develop their work. The gold boxes are what I perceive to be ‘GCSE pass’ standard work. As the gold area becomes richer/darker the mark increases. As much as I discourage students from learning-to-the-exam, in this case it challenges them to think more deeply about their music and creates a helpful point of discussion amongst the cohort.

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

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.

GCSE iPad Music – a game-changer for Music Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to follow…