Back in 2011, I’d been a head of subject for just over a year and I’d noticed there were several questions my students asked repeatedly. In my work, I would be asked these same questions over and over again, many times a day. Most of these questions were simple, such as ‘What is……?’, ‘Where do I start?’ (relating to composition), or ‘How do I make it sound ‘good’?’. These are fundamentals in a music teacher’s life to explain such concepts, but the traditional approach very much created a dependent relationship.
I’d already learned that for true creativity to take place, students need to be independent. They need to be sufficiently confident about controlling the fundamentals of music to feel the freedom they need to invent ideas without fear. Questioning has an important role, but deeper understanding can be found if the answers to simple concepts are instantly available.
My students just needed a place to look, but at that time there wasn’t a book to explain these things in a helpful and accessible way. There were books for music theory exams, for GCSE revision and for much higher level musical studies, but nothing for students aged 13-16, relevant to a wide range of learners’ previous or no specific musical study. So I began to write “How to understand music” – that was the original working title!
The first draft focused on defining the elements of music. Texture, structure, harmony and melody were the aspects students needed help to understand most frequently. I shared initial drafts with my students to add a new level of support and the response was positive, but it quickly became apparent that as much as they needed a place to look for information, what they really needed was to understand how all of these musical aspects could work together in a whole piece.
I’ve already written in previous posts about how fortunate I was in the late 1990s and early 2000s to be invited to several major film post production studios. Many of these conversations began with my fascination of the process of how a creative idea could be developed into a final commercial product. One of the fundamentals I found was about ‘production values’. The process of production is the focus, approach and ethos of every edit and decision. This was gained by constantly listening, inventing, developing, and ensuring every small part is as good as it can be in the context of the overall purpose. With all the small parts working, the overall product is of the highest quality.
The process of composition became the focus, and in the next few years I wrote “How to Write Great Music – Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product”.
In the summer of 2014, some of my GCSE students had done exceptionally well. A conversation began that would change how I teach composition. The students and I sat down to work out if there was a helpful order in which to learn about the different aspects of music to be able to feel confident enough to write a whole piece. We concluded there were indeed some aspects of music creation that could be controlled first, without needing knowledge of other areas. This was helpful as students could develop confidence and establish strong production values without needing to understand a range of different concepts. Further on, we learned why some elements were more complex to understand. In most cases it was due to a necessity to be able to control multiple other areas first. I.e. textural control and variation required melodic and harmonic control and development. More difficult aspects included structure, texture and harmony.
The focus on ‘understanding melody’ very quickly became the game changer and also around that time, in a working group with other heads of music, we concluded that ‘control of melody’ (in any genre) was the most important aspect to be able to reach the higher grades in GCSE and A-Level music composition. If the melody wasn’t controlled or written with purpose, this restricted both the standard of the overall work and the musical options going forwards. In my time working as an examiner in the last few years, many students have clearly not felt confident in melody writing. The potential reasons for this is for another day.
Following the 2014 conversation, I wrote the original Progression Tasks Project and this became chapter 21 of my HTWGM book.
The original PTP was a list of 34 tasks that students would complete in order. They couldn’t continue to the next task until they’d proved they had sufficient confidence and control of the one before. Gradually they built confidence in the range and complexity of music they were able to write and they each had a copy of the book to have that ‘instant access’ to look up the music theory and concepts they needed to complete the tasks.
The positive impact across a range of learners was vast and in the summer after we began to use the book, 100% of attending students passed the GCSE, with 70% achieving A or above.
By creating this instant access to helpful explanation and a given process to build on their musical understanding, these students were able to independently develop remarkable music. My role of a teacher changed in those lessons. I was no longer someone who taught the same concepts over and over again, but instead a fascinated facilitator who engaged in deeper discussion about music in a wide range of styles.
Those of you who’ve followed my work in the last 2 or 3 will know I’ve been working to develop a GCSE pathway for students wanting to use technology as their instrument. I have to admit, the original PTP project became less in my thinking, but as we returned to school (in September 2020), after Covid national lockdown 1, the students really needed a sense of the structure the PTP gave, but I hadn’t included it in their course so far.
In November 2020, I began a review of the 2015 book. I found the book itself to be just as helpful as it was before and decided it was unnecessary to write a new edition for now, but I really wanted to challenge the students to go even deeper into composition and decided there was an opportunity to design an updated Progression Tasks Project.
PTP2021 contains many of the original tasks. I’ve added more steps to help with the understanding of melody and included tasks requiring a demonstration of the music both in the written form and using technology. There’s a new column to confirm the evidence required to pass each task, an e-book of charts to complete and a series of on-demand YouTube videos creating access for every young person, not just those in my school. Just as in the original PTP, vocabulary is at the centre, encouraging students to use the most appropriate musical language as they explore, create, listen and compose their music.
The project now includes an advanced composition section. Tasks 32-40 are designed to be accessible to all students, but to especially challenge those aspiring to a grade 9.
PTP2021 was first used by year 9 and 10 students in January 2021, as we entered the 3rd National Covid lockdown. The progress of the 69 students was extraordinary and gave them much confidence at a time when learning had to be remote.
To mark this 10th Anniversary of developments, I’ve decided to share the lockdown work of one of my year 10 students. I’m so grateful to the family for giving permission for the work to be shared. This is an amazing example of the musical learning and creation that’s been possible during the 8 weeks of remote learning. The video presentation of this work is available here
The PTP2021 Task List and Chart E-book is available as a free download at www.davelowemusiconline.com
How to Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product is available here
Listen to the finished compositions of some of Dave’s students here
Access to the On—Demand videos for PTP2021 here