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

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

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

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

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

The Lowest Point

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

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

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

It is possible to have a shared collective purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 of The Highest Points

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

1. Make Music On Mondays

Live from York, every Monday 1220pm #MakeMusicOnMondays

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

2. The Manor Concert Orchestra

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

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

3. People’s Virtual Orchestra

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

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

4. Manor Virtual Student Worship Band

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

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

5. Hope & Belfrey Virtual Community Choir

Our amazing wider community begin to prepare together on Zoom

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

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

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

More to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better, new solution using Kahoot!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come I’m sure…

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

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.

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.

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.

iPad GCSE Music Demo (now with Voiceover)

This term my Y9 GCSE Music students (on both music pathways) have the challenge of producing a complete song using an iPad, beginning only with a lead sheet. They have 5 weeks in total to complete the project.

This is an example of a possible Production Via Technology Performance – an option available to students on the AQA 8271 GCSE Music course. The song I’ve chosen for this project is “Oceans” by Hillsong. Lead sheet available here

Due to illness, two students missed last week’s introductory lesson, which inspired me to make this video for them to catch-up. As colleagues around the country are just getting started in using technology in the classroom, I’ve decided to share it with you too. If you have an iPad, why not have a go! And also then think about entering my iPad music competition – closing date not until 20th April, so there’s plenty of time for great invention!

Watch the Video on YouTube

Tune of the Week

To develop confident musical understanding, students must be constantly listening to and exploring music in a range of genres and contexts. As they begin, they need support in how they focus on music when they listen, and encouragement that ‘it’s going to be ok’, especially when approaching music in a style they’ve never heard before.

As a result, students can prepare confidently to listen and demonstrate their awareness of music in their GCSE exam.

I created ‘Tune of the Week’ in summer 2018 and it is planned as the first activity in every year 9, 10 and 11 lesson every week. I use the same music for all three year groups to encourage integration and discussion between the different age groups. I give all students the same (exam) questions too, but there’s flexibility in-built to give clues or to demonstrate live answering, where I take the role of the student and think out loud to show how I would answer. For Year 11 students there’s an extension task to define the style they’re listening to, which students find harder as it requires them to apply previous knowledge.

All students at Manor have an iPad and we use the app Showbie as a paperless solution. Students begin by downloading a new template like the one below. It is now a routine for them to do this so takes little time. When complete, they screenshot their answers and upload back to Showbie to keep for further study and revision.

This is the 2nd version of the template, now including an automatic marking system using conditional formatting (the template automatically opens in the numbers app to make this possible). Therefore zero additional marking outside the classroom and students receive instant feedback. As we go through the answers, students simply enter a Y or N into the appropriate column. Instantly this turns green or red and is then easy for me (and them) to see at a glance of things they’ve understood or need extra support with. There’s also an extra box to write in the correct answer so they can go back and look over it to check understanding.

The three ‘educated guesses’ encourage students to openly discuss the music as soon as they hear it – these are not exam-style questions but helpfully add context. They also help students to be aware of a wider range of styles, which they need to have available to them as they compose.

The 5 questions are on a Keynote/PowerPoint slide on the screen, shown for reference in the slide below. These 5 questions are similar to those found in the AQA Music exam. The ‘longer’ question at the bottom of the page is a more difficult exam question, purposely requiring 4 answers, as opposed to the 3 on the examination.

It was important to begin with familiar music and the customary Earth, Wind & Fire choice was an instant success as the student to my right shouting “That’s a right tune” proved after the opening 3 seconds. It’s important to begin with familiar music as it creates a natural point of confidence. As soon as we begin to unpick the music, it’s unlikely that students have considered it in this way before.

The week 3 tune, “End of the line”, is an example of where you might go next. The music feels familiar but is not heard in its usual context of the film. It wasn’t originally designed for week 3, but was suggested by a student in a separate conversation about developing narrative music in film. The outcome of that conversation was so helpful that we decided to share it with everybody as a Tune of the Week. The choice was inspired – it actually gave us a highly complex orchestral piece to hear, and sparked intrigue to discover other orchestral music.

The most interesting response from students came in the 2nd week of February – Steve Reich, Clapping Music. The 2% of students who had heard the music before got very excited as, it was announced it was a favourite of their father who listened to it over and over in the car. The 98% first listeners independently began an amazing discussion. I’d prepared a practical activity for them to experience Clapping Music to understand more about its construction. Within 40 minutes, those students went from ‘never experiencing this genre before’ to enjoying, questioning and being fascinated by it.

This project is part of our Performing Arts staff team research for 2018/19, which is exploring the impact an ‘iPad-based Interactive Coursebook’ has on students developing confidence in understanding in Music, Dance & Drama. I’ll post further updates on this project as it continues. Already, the most significant impacts have been ability to provide instant feedback to students, while building stronger relationships with them and reducing teacher workload. Watch this space!

The Betty’s Challenge

This is a critical time for Y11 GCSE students all over the country as final tweaks are made to compositions and final performance recordings. However it is essential for students to be ‘on it’ from day 1, so that their ‘final tweaks’ help them to reach their farthest point possible. Therefore I have “The Betty’s Challenge”.

For those of you reading in other parts of the world, Betty’s is our Yorkshire Traditional Tea Room, this year celebrating its 100th year. It’s a bit more expensive than most, but a high quality experience and well worth the queue around the building to get in. I don’t have any commercial affiliation with Betty’s, but I have been fortunate to have visited on several celebratory occasions in the past.

The Betty’s Challenge is simple. All students have to do is pass. That is, they are in this together and all have to pass (100% A*/C, or nowadays 100% 9-5). If they can achieve this they will enjoy Afternoon Tea all together on me. The last time it happened, this cost me over £400!

Our GCSE music course is open to all students – musicians and non-musicians. There is no selective entry exam to come to our 11-16 state school and no entry requirement to enter the GCSE course. As a result every class is mixed ability. To be ‘successful’, students must be independent in their learning and must build strong trusting relationships with other students (as well as with their music teacher). Those relationships are built on the knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and awareness of moments when encouragement is required. Students must strive to understand concepts together, without leaving anyone behind. When they start to produce exam work, they cannot help each other. However a strong culture of proactive invention and creativity continues to be inspirational, even if not directly used in the production of exam work.

The grades, although important for the students’ career progression, are quite incidental and ultimately a bonus. What I really hope to inspire is a love of collaborative learning in music. If this ultimate production environment is created, students develop great confidence in how they learn in all subjects. The music they develop is of a very high standard and I only very rarely have to consider ‘behaviour management’. Students are challenged to make the most of every opportunity they have together.

Enjoy some of their amazing compositions here.