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.

The Story of “Performing Arts Leaders”

In the summer of 2018 we surveyed many groups of people across our community to gauge opinion on a range of factors relating to Manor Performing Arts. One aspect was the summer production.

The challenge is how we can have a summer performance event that has a positive impact on the learning and experience of the 672 students who currently study performing arts at Manor for 2 hours every week as well as the 100 or so others who no longer study music, dance or drama, but who love to take part in our events.

A single full production is a great project to do together, but there is always a restrictive limit in the number of parts available or indeed the space available to safely perform on the stage.

Many people in our survey wanted an opportunity for everybody to be involved, but equally many also wanted a single full musical theatre production. Therefore a decision was taken to produce a single full production every 2 years and an ‘Ultimate Summer Showcase’ every year in between, which would feature many performances from different productions.

For this year, we chose to present Disney’s High School Musical, involving 40 of our young people. As the number is such a low percentage of our performing arts population, we began to consider how those 40 could share their experience with the wider community and this was the start of ‘Performing Arts Leaders’. For this to be successful, we needed to find young people who are passionate about development in Performing Arts.

Students applied for this opportunity in the autumn term, initially in writing and then through 3 stages of music, dance and drama auditions. Students were applying to be a Performing Arts Leader, which in this academic year would also give them a role in High School Musical.

This was the criteria we challenged students to consider. We were looking for young people who:

– are ambitious about their learning in performing arts

– want to achieve at the highest level possible

– are ready to share what they learn with others

– are determined to find a solution, even when it seems impossible

– want to learn at every opportunity from specialists in performing arts

– are always looking for opportunities to encourage others

– want to be part of a team

– have 100% commitment to a project, attending all meetings, rehearsals and events with exceptional organisation and punctuality

Our Performing Arts Leaders are an incredible, inspiring, encouraging group of people. They go above and beyond in everything they do. They make a genuine positive difference to the people they work with. They are like a family.

————

What’s next…

Summer 2020’s production will be an ‘Ultimate Showcase’ featuring:

Manor young Musician of the Year

Manor young Dancer of the Year

Manor young Actor of the Year

12-15 full production performances of ultimate performance choices from our community. These could be from: musical theatre, pop music, film, dance or anything else

Collaborations between dance, drama and music

Specific performances for KS3 and Ks4 students

Performing Arts Leaders’ Performance

Live music tech performance

Live multi-art performance

There will be 3 identical performance nights at Manor as well as a performance in the centre of York as part of the York HubFest 2020 Festival.

Performing Arts Leaders 2018/19 will be invited to continue as leaders for 2019/20, however the responsibility will be greater in 19/20 to include:

– Taking co-responsibility with staff for the design and delivery of performances

– Leading rehearsals and encouraging peers and younger students

– Taking a leading solo role in the showcase as part of a larger company

Students not wishing to continue as leaders may still partake in the showcase not as a leader, but they must confirm their plans to the PA staff by the end of the summer term.

In the autumn term students will have the opportunity to apply to be a performing arts leader if not in the 2018/19 cohort.

The planning and development team for Showcase 2020 will be led by a team consisting of performing arts staff and selected performing arts student leaders.

The impact of Performing Arts Leaders through High School Musical has been significant. Many of the 40 young people have had a life-changing experience. These 40 have already begun to disseminate ‘best practice’ across the academy. The ambition for 2020 is to give as many young people as possible the opportunity to experience a public performance in performing arts as well as then taking our show into the city to encourage many young people across the city.

Timescales

July 2019 – students, teachers, parents and friends reflect on, and share their ultimate performance art performance through an online survey.

September – December 2019 – new Performing Arts Leaders recruited. Leaders team confirm the show items. Whole student community given opportunity to sign up for specific items – no audition required. The commitment for rehearsals will not be year-long. Each item will come with a 10-12 week commitment.

Before January 2020, the focus will very much be on the York Minster Carol and autumn performances, as well as GCSE coursework development.

January to June 2020 – rehearsals, preparations for each item.

June 2020 – showcase at manor and in York

Building the ‘Ultimate Extra’

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

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

My ‘Friday 5th April’

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

0840 House Assembly with my form 9DL

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

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

Read the story of “I am free” here

1000 Year 8 – Final ‘Production’ lesson about Mastering

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

1120 Year 7 – Final ‘Performance’ assessment lesson

1220 Lunch – GCSE Performance Exam Recordings & Composition Workshop

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

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

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

1830 Home time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Term 1 – September to December

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

Term 2 – January to April

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

Term 3 – April to July

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

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

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

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

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

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

ORASingers #PerfectInspiration

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

After last night’s performance I tweeted:

Why #perfectinspiration?

For me, ORASingers symbolise a perfect solution in music.

1. Always something new

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

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

2. Flawless Performance

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

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

3. #youngpeopleareawesome

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

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

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

4. The importance of us all being different together.

Absolute inclusion. Music is for everybody.

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

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

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

——

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

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

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…

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.

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