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.

What does remote music learning look like?

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

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

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

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


Dear students,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

More to follow…

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

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

(written on 31st January)

Preparation and Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

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

Friday & Final Comments

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

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

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

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

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.

Inspiring a love of learning (rather than a fear of exams)

There will always be challenges in this profession, but perhaps we’re getting the problems and solutions the wrong way round. Could we approach exam preparation differently?

Here’s a real-world solution with a fantastic outcome!

One of the biggest challenges young people are facing in our schools is examination fear. For most students I’ve spoken to recently, they talk of ‘the fear’, but find it difficult to specify the causes. I’ve also noticed that teachers (including myself) naturally draw conclusions as to why there is this fear, but I’m finding more and more that these perceptions are inaccurate. I’m also finding it helpful just for students to have an opportunity to share how they ‘feel’. Often worry is only developed when students feel that those supporting them ‘don’t understand’.

Often as teachers, we design systems and practices that we perceive to be the best for our students. It’s now fairly commonplace (or should be) to see ‘student voice’ activities taking place in lessons. These are just as important regarding preparations for our exam systems as for any other aspect of school life.

Worry about exams has always been there, but in recent years it appears to be having deeper health implications for our young people. Ultimately the examinations are not therefore proving their ability and understanding. If anything, the process is making students feel that whatever they do, it won’t be enough. I’m not completely sure as to why this has become worse. I certainly remember feeling nervous about my own school exams, but not to anywhere near the extent I see in students now.

The natural reaction is to blame the national system and speaking to lots of teachers, the Progress 8 measure in particular has been a factor in their view. Teachers, particularly English and Maths have felt a much greater sense of accountability to deliver numbers, no matter the circumstances or students they’re working with. There will always be challenges in this profession, but perhaps we’re getting the problems and solutions the wrong way round. Could we approach exam preparation differently?

About 15 years ago, having worked through a long period of mental illness, I learned that we each cannot help how we ‘feel’, but we can certainly change how we ‘think’.

So why share this now?

We are currently going through a full 2-week GCSE mock exam period with our year 9s. The music exam was timetabled for the Friday afternoon at the end of week 1. My perception was that students were finding it tough – they have certainly been very tired this week in rehearsals.

However Friday’s music exam created completely unexpected outcomes. Happy students, they enjoyed the exam, felt like they understood the questions and could confidently find answers. There was a great sense of community between the two very different pathways who were together for the first time. It was a ‘golden time’ in the 10 minutes afterwards with a great sense of joy around the room.

Results were great too, average mark for all Y9s was just 3 marks lower than the national average for last summer’s Y11 GCSE exam results using the same paper. If you’re familiar with my other recent posts, you’ll understand this is especially remarkable as quite a few of these students do not have a musical background.

How did we prepare?

All of these were designed as a response to, or developed by, collaboration with student voice.

– No pause in learning ‘to revise’, just keep creating, keep the momentum, always developing deep, internal experience-based understanding.

Theta music games with league table and Easter egg prizes – these are online games with correct terminology to support aural awareness. I’ll blog in more detail about this soon.

– Ultimate revision guide – I’ve done an analysis of every music exam ever set to determine question types. With former A* students, we’ve discovered which specific musical concepts need to be understood to answer confidently and how to prepare. This resource is used continuously as a skills audit with traffic light feedback, rather than just in ‘revision time’.

– Wordwall placemats. A3 laminated placemats of WordWall2019 allowed in this exam. At this point in the course, I’m more interested in students confidently finding information, rather than remembering it all.

– Tune of the week. Created as part of my action research for this year. Tune of the Week is now commonplace on both courses and we try to do at least one every week. Therefore, when this exam came up, I could share that it was just 8 TOTWs back to back. Students really enjoy TOTW.

I’m so happy with the outcome of this mock. Please try in your own school and let me know if you’d like any support. You can contact me through www.davelowemusiconline.com

Blog Post Photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash

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.

MusicIn60

What could you make in 60 minutes? Be inventive. Be creative. Try it!

I’m exploring what’s possible with an iPad and 60 Minutes #MusicIn60 #JustBeCreative #MusicIsForEverybody #CreateWithoutFear #Challenge #MusicEducation

The best way to demonstrate our passion is to create.

Listen to Opus 1 here

Listen to Opus 2 here

Listen to Opus 3 here

Enter Competition here

More to follow…

A Real-World Solution To Create Impact In Music Progression

This is specifically written for school leaders, for heads of music and for the parents of my GCSE music students.

We’ll shortly be going into Year 9 mocks. Historically in a 3-year KS4, it has always felt too early to be awarding an attainment grade as the GCSE Music qualification requires much applied development of knowledge to allow students the opportunity to access the full range of marks.

However since becoming an examiner, I’ve learned that my perceived ‘full range of marks’ is not necessary to grade work in an earlier part of the course. I will never meet the students I’m examining for, but it is clear from the evidence I’ve seen and reports I’ve heard that there are many challenges students around the country face in helping them to maintain a sense of progress in what they do. Some students do not have the same teacher all the way through their course, in some cases illness prevents subject leaders from being present at key times and then there are many individual changes of circumstances for the students themselves.

In most situations there isn’t an ideal setting, however just as described in my “real-world knowledge” post, if we Know the students, we can inspire them to be ambitious about their GCSE outcome over 3 years of study.

When examining I often find myself reflecting to try and imagine the circumstances each student has worked in when composing their music. In a range of 0-36, I’ve experienced work across the full available range of marks, including some that is far beyond GCSE standard. This is therefore helpful to consider. Imagine a year 9 student who has an inspirational teacher. Due to ill health the teacher is away for their year 10 and most of year 11 and although the school does what it can to cover the subject specialist, the year 9 student struggles to independently make progress. The greatest progress has therefore been made in year 9 and their musical understanding has mostly come from that year. So the progress in year 9, however simplistic it feels, is crucial. I wonder if they’d have had the opportunity to write a complete piece of original music in year 9, whether it would be of a comparable standard to what was submitted for coursework in year 11?

A flexibility in mind-set is required, that doesn’t require students to have learned all one perceives necessary to succeed before testing. As soon as a composition is written, immediately then analysis, evaluation, discussion and marking can take place.

This year, I’ve encouraged our Y9 and 10 GCSE students to self-assess their work as they look to be more independent. To support this, I’ve simplified the mark scheme as below. Students are not trying to give a specific mark – they’re trying to fit the music they create into a category.

Complex & Inventive (8/9) – 32-36

Developing with devices (6/7) – 25-31

Music makes sense (4/5) – 20-24

Works but repetitive (3/4) – 16-19

Clashes (2/3) – 12-15

Not in control (1/2) – 0-11

I still continue to teacher-assess work to ensure students understand what each category means in practice. However this extra interaction helps to encourage conversation about quality and development of product.

How to really know our music students.

In my earlier blog about measuring students’ ability in music, I described how every student is completely unique and therefore un-definable. Every student has a different musical experience profile. Using the KS2 Maths & English data to ‘know where a student started in music’ is nonsensical. However I still consider that measure as an indicator of ‘academic ability’. It’s not necessary to argue what ‘academic’ means in relation to this, but it does provide our first comparative measure that categorises students (very) generally as top, middle and lower ability. If we consider their ‘academic ability’, alongside the following categories it is possible to create a range of Year 9 GCSE Music starting points.

Thus I’ve developed 6 discrete musical starting points, each beginning a coloured line, for students to advance from. The KS3 grades below can be understood more here. At the start of Year 9 I meet with each individual student and we decide together, which of these best describes their experience so far. This best-fit is only temporary as the system encourages students to far exceed their potential.

The 6 Music Lines of Development

Lower B – Purple Line – expected grade at end with good progression 3, with outstanding 4

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– No extra-curricular experience

– No awareness of music theory

– KS3 result in music D (developing) or S- (nearly securing)

– “Lower” academic ability

Lower A – Red Line – expected grade at end with good progression 4, with outstanding 5

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– Some extra curricular experience

– Minimal awareness of music theory

– KS3 result in music S (securing) or S-

– “Middle” academic ability

Middle B – Orange Line – expected grade at end with good progression 5, with outstanding 6

– May or may not have grades 1-2, but some instrumental experience

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

– Awareness of functional theory (understanding of how music works)

– KS3 result in music S

– “Middle” academic ability

Middle A – Yellow – expected grade at end with good progression 6, with outstanding 7

– May or may not have grades 1-2, but some instrumental experience

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

– Awareness of functional theory (understanding of how music works)

– KS3 result in music M (mastering) or S+ (nearly mastering)

– “High” academic ability

Upper B – Green – expected grade at end with good progression 7, with outstanding 8

– Grade 3-4 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 2-4 Music Theory Understanding

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

Upper A – Blue – expected grade at end with good progression 8, with outstanding 9

– Grade 5 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 5 Music Theory already achieved on entry

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

Progress in music is never linear. The most common rate of progress is little-by-little until the spring of year 11, when there is significant increase as things all come together. This rate of progress makes data managers nervous though. So I began to think about whether students could push their ambition much earlier in the course. With “The Wheel of Music Ambition” as it’s now apparently called, we can certainly make sure everything is in place to support them.

When I first developed the 6 starting points, it was to try to define a close-as-possible ‘musical start and end point’. Manor principal, Simon Barber asked in the development of this new system whether it was possible for students to move between the coloured lines. I initially responded ‘no’ as I’d set out specifically to try to prove a specific start and end point in music, but Simon was absolutely right and from this development we’ve created a real-world success, inspiring real ambition amongst the students.

On the first occasion of discussion with the students, they instantly made a visual connection to the London Underground map. They saw the lines as tube lines and the circles (points at which we’ve chosen to measure grades) as ‘main stations’. When at a ‘main station’, it’s possible to get onto another line. This has developed conversation amongst students about what it’s like to be on each line and the different things they’re having to think about. It’s also naturally created ambition in students wanting to discover what’s necessary to be at a higher level station when the next opportunity of grading happens. Students are also very aware of the possibility of going down to lines below, but as such no-one has ever moved down (yet).

For senior leaders, the system has created a method to ‘target-set’ based on musical experiences and musical outcomes. Ultimately this is the only information they’re really concerned with, as it gives a real-world outcome in a P8 hypothesis. Based on a starting point, it shows what should be achievable at the end of the course. It’s still not relevant to KS2 banding alone, as the calculations for progress 8 are related to, but it’s so much more helpful in our real world.

By each measuring point (3 times a year at Christmas, Easter and July), students complete the following:

– whole or part of a real GCSE Music exam paper – for AQA, section A only /68 in Y9 and 10

– Compose an original piece of music

– Perform a piece of music or create a Production Via Technology

None of these measures is ever an ‘easier version’. There’s no point. Students are graded in composition and performance as if it’s their final year 11 work. As much as targets are mentioned above as required by schools, in reality students are offered the opportunity to achieve 100% of the available marks. It is counterproductive to suggest students aim for anything less.

When I worked at Huntington School in York, headteacher John Tomsett challenged us to think like the British Cycling team had done in their preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games. They used the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ as a method to create the ultimate outcomes by constantly looking at how every detail of preparation could be improved. Inspired by this, every grading point on the GCSE course is immediately followed by an AMG point, although the AMG chart is available for students to look at whenever they like. Often AMG conversations help students to independently identity the aspect they would like to improve next. It also encourages students to plan and request specific help to advance. Students may also request a hypothesis at any time to see the impact each change will make.

AMG 1: Year 9 and 10

In the first 2 years of development, I consider the ‘long brushstrokes’ of the assessments, being careful not to over-measure and to make sure my focus is on their learning, rather than the numbers. Therefore just one number for each of composing, performance and exam each term. The far left-hand column shows their KS3 result (Developing, Securing or Mastering). Students without grades have joined the cohort from other schools at Y9. The red column of target grades based only on KS2 data is interesting to compare to the targets with good or outstanding progress created by the Musical starting points, but ultimately irrelevant. The “expected attainment December” column shows the ‘main station’ point they should reach. The column just before that shows their actual real-world GCSE grade based on grades that term. These grades are given based on the previous year’s grade boundaries and update automatically using a Lookup table (if you’re reading this and want to know how to programme that, let me know). To the left of that, the overall % is the easiest column for students to understand as ‘the bigger picture’ as they see their exam progress grow.

A great example of a real-world success already is with the student 7th down. He achieved an average of 24.2% in term one of Y10. We looked together to see that he’d particularly struggled with how to approach the listening questions and also how to retain element information contextually, so that helped to create a plan together for intervention. One half term later, he’s advanced to 43.8% and in real-life is significantly more encouraged and confident in the classroom.

Finally, the colours in the “expected attainment” column are as follow:

– Red – below the ‘main station’ point expected on that student’s coloured line

– Orange – on the ‘main station’ point

– Blue – above the ‘main station’ point

In the case of Red or Blue, the student has moved to another line.

Having completed the first term’s projects and seen how much many of the class were struggling to make the expected progress, we has some very open and honest discussions together. All students had worked hard in the first term, but something wasn’t fitting together. We realised that everyone struggled with harmony. So I put aside the scheme for this term and wrote the new harmony project described here. The impact in progress is already significant as many of the reds are now orange, and we’ve just finished for half term today. There’s still another 6 weeks of learning until Easter.

AMG 2: Y11

This version takes the mock grade as (hopefully) the worst case for the exam mark and considers the live overall result – in the gold box on the right – together with the ‘live and always improving’ coursework elements. The main focus in the last two half terms has been recordings of performance. Students can record their own performance work and securely upload using @Showbie to receive feedback. For it to count for their final exam though, it has to be recorded with me under exam conditions. The development of performance is most helpfully done on an individual basis, so we use the AMG to identify the aspects of performance students could improve. It was easier for students to calculate grades this year with the removal of UMS, so the Y11 AMG is now simpler too as it just adds up the weighted marks and compares them to the previous grade boundaries.

It is a further nonsense to compare specific individual grades in music year-on-year as no two students are comparable. But to give an indication of the impact of these AMGs and the implementation of ‘The Wheel’, grades for our centre have gone from being A*-C equiv. 67% to consistently 90%+ and A/A* from 10-30% to 40-70%. I will also say, I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet and there’s certainly lots more development to come. But this is working well for us so, if it helps, go ahead and try it at your centre.

Happy half term 🙂

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

Using real-world knowledge to inspire confidence and ambition in music

‘Data’ is probably the least favourite word in a music teacher’s working life. Often ‘data’ relates to a series of numerical values and the need to find a ‘best fit’ to ‘make the data work’, rather than considering the real-world situation of each music student.

In the last few years changes in education have brought us ‘life without levels’, ‘9-1 GCSE grading’ and ‘flightpaths’ etc. These seemingly constant changes, have triggered some very helpful discussions with senior colleagues. Rather than requiring endless additional work, it’s created a genuine opportunity to question ‘What are we really trying to measure?’. It was a surprisingly easy conversation and presented a very simple outcome. ‘Knowledge’ was all that was needed. We need to get to Know each of our students as quickly as possible when they arrive at Year 7. It is helpful to Know about the types of musical experiences they’ve had in earlier life (or not had). We also need to Know about their home-life, their strengths and weaknesses, their ambitions and the things they worry about. However, little of this knowledge can be discovered through testing or by studying data from other subjects. We need to create opportunities to get to Know each student, to create a strong and positive, trusting, working relationship with them. A relationship in which they’re not afraid to give an answer or to question something they don’t understand. A relationship that inspires them to be confident and ambitious in their musical development. We want them to be passionate and independent in their own work and to have outstanding skills in communication and collaboration with others.

Rob Heath (@robheathmusic) tweeted recently about the challenges of grading performance skills, which has inspired me to write about this topic as soon as I could.

When I announced my intention to blog about assessment, Ally Daubney kindly directed me to the ISM Webinar from 2015 presented with Martin Fautley. It was fascinating, and very encouraging that many of my own decisions in curriculum/assessment design followed suggestions they made in the session, as well as giving me ideas to explore going forwards. If you’ve not heard it, definitely have a listen (https://www.ism.org/professional-development/webinars/a-guide-to-progression-curriculum-and-assessment)

In the Webinar, Martin spoke about ensuring the purpose of assessment was ‘what they learn’ (or Know), ‘not what they do’. They also challenged us to return to our values in musical learning. [for interest… during the session I listed these as my core values: understanding with enough confidence to create and share knowledge with others, creativity, functional understanding of how and why the different elements of music ‘work’, individual spirituality and reflection in approach, collaboration, internalisation, improvisation, application, control, invention, development, quality in production values and critical listening.]

The biggest challenge to overcome is time – the actual number of hours and minutes I have available to work with the young people. At this point it seems helpful to describe the context I’m working in. Going back 7 or 8 years, we were a Specialist School: Performing Arts and with that focus and extra funding had an amazing 3 hours/wk to teach every KS3 student in music, dance and drama. With the end of that funding and pressures elsewhere in the curriculum, our KS3 time was reduced to 2 hours/wk, although a new additional rotation subject was created to provide students with development in 2 essential key life skills; cooking and singing. This effectively ensured music education could continue to be 1-hr per week, although due to staffing and timetabling restrictions the hour unfortunately couldn’t be regular, making consistent progress more challenging. The singing part has now been lost to create more time in maths and English responding to the challenges of progress 8. Three subjects (music, dance and drama), does not easily split into 2 hours, but the collective impact we can have as a team on the lives of these young people far far outweighs personal ambition for any of the individual subjects.

Designing an inspiring and practical assessment model for KS3 Music

In music I have 19 hours per year to inspire each of my 468 current key stage 3 students. I teach all 468. Returning to the purpose of this blog post, designing an assessment model based on the values mentioned above, the DfE national curriculum programme of study and importantly, considering my own well-being and work/life balance, has to be approached passionately and positively. I also have to understand that that I might not be able to include everything as I want to, as there is a bigger picture to make it work within.

‘High Expectations’ as described in the first of the government’s teacher standards, is not enough with the given timeframe. ‘Sustained and exceptional expectations’ is required of all learners to instil the level of desire required to make any sort of comparable progress with students who have the luxury of a regular weekly hour.

Specific extra curricular activities are not an expectation within my teacher’s contract. However in addition to the 19 hours/yr, a possible 12 hours every week are available at lunch or in ‘after school’ time, to create more opportunities to develop relationships with our young people. In wanting to maximise how I can use those times, the assessment model has to not create marking in the lunch hour or in the time between 3.20 and 5.30 every day. When I first began in my teaching career (in 2008), I delivered the same ensembles programme every week and crammed in as much as possible, but, as popular as that was, it didn’t have the flexibility I now require to support the additional demands at GCSE and to lead the faculty.

To design this assessment model I’ve therefore had to think very critically about what I’m measuring and how much can be measured given the time available. It’s challenged me to develop more open-ended tasks, only limited by each student’s ambition. The way I approach differentiation has also changed with more projects having the same starting point, then having flexible directions and outcomes to suit the progress of the variety of abilities.

I’ve also been forced to develop how and when I assess students, considering the encouragement they each need as well as the type of informative feedback I give them. I’ve found the most helpful feedback is verbal as it’s then a real-world relationship-building conversation. That method of feedback is also instant, and if a student needs to make slight adjustments to improve quality or understanding, that change can be modelled there and then within seconds.

Students in KS3 all make different patterns of progress. Therefore it’s important that I’m flexible to be ready to assess them at any time of their choosing within a lesson. Usually when I’m not leading a whole class discussion or modelling an example at the front of the class, I use a countdown clock to indicate the time left in each assessment period. During that time students may approach the teacher’s desk with one of two purposes. To request support, guidance or clarification about something they’re learning, or to show me proof of understanding (and to receive the next challenge). This proof doesn’t necessary always relate to achievement of ‘a box’, but often it gives me the opportunity to celebrate with them on achieving something they could not ‘do’ or ‘understand’ before. When a student does achieve ‘a box’ I can instantly record that on my master sheet (as below) and the student has a place to colour-in that box on a course sheet, (like the one in the post title image), in Showbie on their iPad, enabling them to keep track of their own progress. Incidentally, all the course documentation for that unit of work is also instantly available to them in the same area on their Showbie app.

The amount of different musical concepts that students are learning in these projects is extensive, however if I try to measure too much, I’ll spend more time ‘measuring’ and they spend less time ‘doing’ and therefore have fewer opportunities to explore, reflect and understand. Therefore I minimise the points of assessment to give them clear outcomes to aspire to, and focus on helping them to discover what they need ;to learn with confidence in order to sufficiently understand and control each outcome.

Similar to Martin and Ally’s example, as a school we adopted a 3-stage assessment model for ‘life without levels’. In our case, the 3 are: Developing, Securing & Mastering. There are aspects to understand that ‘everyone’, ‘most’ and ‘few’ can access and these feature in the 3 stages respectively. However outcomes worthy of ‘a box’ are often:

– Developing – using relevant skills and showing a basic working knowledge

– Securing – the above, but with sufficient understanding and skill level to control the outcome with confidence

– Mastering – having complete control of the outcome to the point where something new can be developed or transformed into something new

I designed the statements to define each ‘box’ using the exemplar materials provided by PiXL. I adapted the language to help students to understand the types of understanding they needed to be confident in before they could achieve each box.

The master sheet excerpt (shown above) is a real-world document, with names omitted for obvious reasons. It demonstrates the amount of knowledge I can expect to accumulate about a class after their first six key stage 3 lessons. The bracketed/numbered sections are as follows:

1. Each student’s perception of their previous experience. If they had a music lesson every week at primary school or had weekly singing they ticked the middle box. If they have been learning to play an instrument, with or without a tutor, or have played in the past, they tick box 3. Otherwise they tick box 1.

2. The first two lessons are baselines. The first, a test exploring each student’s awareness of music by listening to musical changes, instruments, melodic shapes and rhythms and considering their awareness of notation and other musical terms. The average score is around 24/50. ‘Generally’ (and cautiously), students with scores below 24 will need significant extra support and additional encouragement when they start to create, with greater support being required as the score gets lower. Students scoring 30+ tend to have had regular classroom lessons previously and students who have also studied an instrument with a tutor score 40+. Only one student has achieved the top mark (50/50) in the last 4 years and it is unusual. The second baseline is a performance baseline. Students are given the letter-named notes of the “Happy Birthday” melody, a keyboard/piano with a guide of how to find the keys and 30 minutes to practise. After this independent period, we video every student giving their best performance. The range of outcomes is fascinating and a helpful indicator of the real-world musical starting point for each individual student. The students achieving ‘S’ at this point have been able to give a controlled performance. I recently posted a video on @DaveLoweMusic twitter of “the amazing” Sam from this year’s year 7. Sam’s progress is amazing from the ‘developing’ performance in week 1.

3. The codes along the top represent the boxes students are trying to achieve. D,S and M represent the difficulty of each box. When achieved, conditional formatting turns the developing boxes blue, the securing green and the mastering gold. For reporting purposes and when reflecting on progress it’s therefore instant to see where everyone’s up to.

To define the progress made by each student during the KS3 course, the boxes achieved have to be considered together with the latest product as created by the student. This ‘product’ could be as a performance, composition or combination of the two. I’ve found video evidence to be most helpful as long as you have a secure method to store the media and permission from each parent. Video is far better evidence than audio in being able to see the level of assurance and confidence each student has.

To be continued… developing knowledge for exceptional GCSE progression coming soon.