How to make a Virtual Worship Band Video

Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.

Watch “How Deep the Father’s Love and The Blessing “ and “I am free” first 🙂

One of the greatest positive experiences of being in lockdown has been the excitement of finding solutions to solve the challenges of not being able to be together. Especially finding opportunities in situations we thought would be impossible. One hugely inspiring outcome is how this period has encouraged people of all ages to share their creative gifts. In my teaching, I’ve been really inspired to hear from students who would normally be very quiet in lessons, now feeling a genuine opportunity to be heard from the quietness of home-working. It’s made me think about how I might take away the ‘loudness’ in situations to help more creativity happen and indeed whether there should be a ‘from home’ part of the school week in future school timetabling models. 

Loads of people have been in touch to ask how I’ve been creating our People’s Virtual Orchestra and Virtual Worship Band videos, so this article is a step-by-step, behind-the-scenes description. The process itself is fairly simple, but there are some key considerations to reach a good outcome for your players and singers.

This process is accessible to all singers of all ages and all abilities around the world. The leading of it is complex, both musically and technologically, but the impact is so significant, it’s a worthy investment for your skillset in your role as a music leader and it creates a great sense of encouragement in your community.

This is a list of the equipment I’ve used to create the projects from start to finish. I’m not affiliated with any of these companies and I’m sure other kit is available, but this works for me. I’m just working from home in my office and have no acoustic treatment. 

  • Apple MacBook Pro 13” 2019, 4 thunderbolt ports, 8Gb RAM
  • Apple Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X software
  • Additional Sample Libraries: Ivory II Pianos, ProjectSAM SwingMore
  • Additional Plug-ins: Waves Greg Wells Signature Series, SSL EQ
  • Lacie 2TB external SSD Hard Drive
  • Canon 6D Mkii camera, tripod
  • Roland DP90SE Piano
  • Roland GO Piano
  • Focusrite 18i8 USB Audio Interface
  • Genelec 8040 Monitoring
  • Neumann U87 microphone
  • Sennheiser Headphones 

This working example is based on my recent virtual production of “Cornerstone” with the Manor CE Academy Student Virtual Worship Band and Hope/Belfrey Community Choirs.

In all, 3 songs were created for the 9am service at St Michael-le-Belfrey, York on Sunday 24th May 2020, during a time of distancing due to the Coronavirus Crisis. Watch the whole service here.

Step 1: Pre-Production

Guide track production in Logic Pro X
  • Decide which piece(s) to create and who will play/sing. [Tip: to begin with, choose music that has a very clear and constant pulse. Repeating sections are also helpful]
  • Invite participants. Remember you’ll need written permission from parents to include under 18s before they can take part in online rehearsals and have their video posted on YouTube. For “Cornerstone” I invited anyone connected to my school and community choirs.
  • Create a guide track. Decide the tempo and stick to it. This will be the track your players/singers listen to when they practise and record, and ultimately it will become the start for your final mix. [Tip: think about what they need to hear to sing/play confidently, in-time and in-tune. Make it a comfortable, enjoyable experience. Include a cue track of your voice to count into verse/chorus/bridge entries] – I used Logic Pro X, a mic and the USB GO Piano to record these parts: metronome click, my guide singing voice (not my strength at all), simple drum kit played on GO Piano, held string chords, piano, my cue voice. If you’d like an mp3 copy of this guide track drop me a message – MrLowePVO@gmail.com
  • By this point you’ll have received replies from those you’ve in invited. The timescale was short for Cornerstone, so participants had just 3 days to confirm their involvement and 30 people came forward in that time. 
  • Email all participants including: full instructions for recording, lyrics, arrangement parts, guide tracks and the link for the Zoom meeting. The Zoom is compulsory as that single meeting will be the one rehearsal to teach the songs, going over any musical details such as agreed rhythms or lengths of notes. The Zoom is also the opportunity for questions to be asked so we can collectively move in the same direction towards production.

Step 2: Rehearsal & Production

Hope/Belfrey Virtual Community Choir Zoom Rehearsal. Most participants are from around York, but our community reaches even wider as we welcomed a guest from Garland, Texas
  • For safeguarding reasons, there were separate meetings for the students and the adults, but covering the same material
  • Begin the meeting by going through the process of ‘how to record’. then sing through the three songs and allow participants to ask questions to check understanding. Participants must be muted, so they can only hear you and themselves when singing, unmuting to ask questions or to comment. 
  • Demonstrate how to prepare to record and how to use the guide track. 
  • Talk about how to transfer large files.
  • Following that meeting there were additional email conversations to give technical support as needed. These were further joyful times as many people in the choir weren’t initially confident with the technology, but everyone ‘found a way’. 
  • Again due to the timescale, everyone had just 5 days to learn and record the 3 songs, including Cornerstone. I’ve included the instructions email I sent at the bottom of this article for details of ‘how to record’.

Step 3: Post-production 1 – Receive, Save and Library

  • While waiting the 5 days for video recordings to arrive, it’s possible to begin to build any additional instrumental parts for the recording. I recorded the piano, which is visible on screen on the Roland DP90SE. I played the bass guitar, drum kit and other orchestral parts from my arrangement (for players we didn’t have) – all created in Logic Pro X using the USB GO Piano.
  • As they arrive, edit the filenames to state the person and the song. I received 96 videos for the 3 songs – hence the 2TB SSD.
  • Once the deadline passes, check with any participants who haven’t sent videos. Check they are ok and offer support. 

Step 4: Post-production 2 – Import, Edit and Sync Videos

Organising the separate video files in Final Cut Pro X
  • Beginning in Final Cut Pro X, import all the videos. Right click to select ‘Lift from Storyline’. You can then drag the videos to play at the same time as each other (drag them to appear like a list, one above the next).
  • Next edit each clip to make them all visible at once on the video screen. Shift+T selects the transform function, allowing you to move the video around on the screen and make it bigger or smaller. Shift+C selects the crop tool, allowing you to trim unneeded space from around each participant. If you’re preparing for a worship service as I was, leave space at the bottom of the screen to add the lyrics later on.
  • The absolute key to success in this project is “The Clap”. Like a human film clapperboard, this is the secret that brings us all together. You’ll have decided on a definite point in your guide track for everyone to clap. That clap creates a very obvious audio peak to see on the editor. The next job is to line the videos up so everyone claps together. [Tip: At this point do this within a couple of frames accuracy as you’ll find there will be some variation to address later]
  • If you’ve not studied post-production or film sound, you might not be aware of how it works. Films are not actually ‘moving-pictures’. They are collections of lots of still pictures played very quickly, one at a time. If we see enough similar still images every second, we perceive them as moving. This is very helpful to know as you edit as there are only 30 frames (still images) per second, so 30 moments the we could be out of sync every second. Helpfully, by using the right and left arrow buttons we can step through each individual frame of our videos. 
  • Add the guide track and turn up the volume (by dragging the horizontal line up) to show the clap peak very obviously. Then simply zoom in and align each video clap to match the peak on the guide track. [Tip: use the , and . keys to nudge videos 1 frame left or right to have more control that clicking and dragging]

Step 5: Post-production 3 – Detaching, Exporting and Importing XML

  • Once they’re roughly in time, have a listen. Don’t panic if it still doesn’t sound perfect at this point! 
  • Select all the videos, right click and select ‘Detach Audio’. Each audio file will now appear at the bottom of the screen. Leave them there for now, however you’ll delete these later on. 
  • Go to FILE>EXPORT XML… and export one of these files to your hard drive. It’s a clever very small file that tells another program where to look for the audio and as what time it plays in the session, so once reopened, everything is still in-sync. 
  • Close Final Cut Pro X to save processor power.
  • Open the Guide track Logic Pro X session and import the XML file you’ve just made. Helpfully, these tracks are automatically grouped. To see the individual tracks click on the small white arrow next to the track number. 

Step 6: Post-production 4 – Listening and Editing Audio

Editing and processing voice recordings
  • From now on you’ll think about audio and video separately, until you’ve completed the final mix.
  • To keep the sync appearing to be realistic, the one thing you must avoid is splicing the audio tracks and moving parts of them left or right. This would be almost impossible to realign when you return to the videos. 
  • The focus of this step is to make each voice or part sound as natural and clear as possible. We want to remove unwanted noise (trimming none singing moments at the start and end), take out any over-resonant frequencies (using EQ), compress the dynamic range of voices who sing very softly and very loudly (Compressor) and help them out with a touch of pitch-correction to hit every note as intended. The editing on Cornerstone for 30 voices, took me about 2 hours in total. I could’ve gone into more detail, analysing individually pitched notes, but as well as having a limited amount of time, I wanted the overall product to sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘studio produced’ so this step can very much be over-done. It’s also important to remember than none of the singers/players used microphones, other than the built-in one on their smartphone, so this limits how ‘crystal-clear’ the signal can be. The important focus at every edit should be ‘Does this make the voice sound more natural?’. 
  • In a couple of situations I used the Greg Wells plugin to add warmth to a voice or give it a touch more presence in the sound, but use this with care, as the overall mix can become very loud, very quickly with too much of this type of processing. 

Step 7: Post-production 5 – Sync-ing and Mixing the Voices

Matching waveforms for sync and blending the voices using ‘solo’
  • One of the benefits of using an audio editor like Logic Pro X is you can instantly see the waveform. In particularly, you can see where parts are out of time. You’ll do the final sync-ing to the video tracks later, so for now it’s fine to nudge whole tracks left or right to make them play as perfectly in time as possible. Whatever you do, don’t move your guide track – that is a constant, but other parts can be moved to create the best fit.
  • I use the solo function to build my voices mix. I begin at the top of the list and work downwards, solo-ing it by press the ’S’ button. No voice in the choir is more important than others – they are all equally valuable. I begin very cautiously with volume, as 30 voices can become loud very quickly. As I add each new voice (by clicking another ’S’), I’m particularly listening for a nice balance between them. I can separate similar voices using pan to move them towards the left or right sides of the mix. Be careful not to have them too widely spread or to have an imbalance of sides as they must collectively work as a choir. This is an exciting step as you’ll begin to hear the richness of the choir sound. 
  • Another helpful function of the automatic grouping, is the ability to add the same reverb to all parts. This creates an illusion that they’re all singing in the same room. Be careful not to use too much reverb as it can make the voices less-clear with a suggestion they’re all in a large tunnel, but using some will have a positive effect. 
  • Once you have a nice balance in your ensemble, their level compared to the instruments can be adjusted with the group fader mostly. 

Step 8: Post-production 6 – Final Mix and Mastering the Audio

Editing automation during the mixing of the 46 instrument and voice parts
  • Your place to listen is very important for this final part. I’m very restricted here as I have no acoustic treatment at home. When I mix, I’m constantly listening to the music on different systems (and in different rooms) to try and find a ‘happy medium’. I come away from using my audio interface to mix as the sound it creates is much richer and warmer that most domestic systems. I often mix using the laptop speakers, then a few different pairs of headphones, then a value range 1990s hifi, then the Genelecs. For me this is the most challenging part to do well from home in lockdown.
  • The mix is about the energy of the music throughout the song, which will change. Use automation (by pressing ‘A’) to adjust volume over time. It’s about making choices like ‘where the climactic point will be’ and how you’ll reach that, which instruments are important in driving that energy, making sure we can hear just enough of every part, so every one feels a sense of contribution and value in the mix. The approach to mixing these worship songs is different to a commercial release or performance, as they are intended to support church sung worship. Therefore they have to be easy to sing to, without the on-screen voices dominating the mix as might be the case in a performance or pop video. When mixing live in a church, I often have the volume of the lead vocal as ‘just enough to hear, but without feeling I have to just listen to them’. This project is about creating a starting point for other people in their houses around the world to feel encouraged to sing together. 
  • Once you’ve mixed your instruments and voices together, export your ‘finished sound’ as an aiff file at 24-bit 48kHz

Step 9: Post-production 7 – Final Video Sync and Adding Lyrics

Lyrics now added for our song “I am Free” at the bottom of the screen
  • Import the aiff final mix into Final Cut Pro X and line it up with the original guide track
  • Delete the original audio files from the bottom of the screen, apart from the original guide track, just turn the volume down on that clip.
  • Watch each individual video to check that lip-sync is perfect, just as when they recorded. Use the , and . keys again to nudge each video clip a frame left or right as needed. [Tip: choose a chorus towards the end of the song to do this as the timing will be slightly tighter and easier to spot, then watch all the way through to check for glaring sync errors]
  • Once the video and final audio are in-sync, if it’s a worship video, now add the lyrics
  • Use one of the ‘lower third’ presets and drag the template to the start of your film. 
  • Use Ctril+T to ‘transform’ the bar to make it fit with your videos and set the font, size and colour in the info window (top right). 
  • Enter your first lyric line. Then copy and paste the title clip along your project to ensure the settings stay the same for each line of lyrics. Drag the start and end points of each title clip to musically set when the new line appears in a helpful way to sing, but not be distracting.  

Step 10: Post-production 8 – Export and Delivery

My ‘Mr Lowe’ YouTube Channel. Musical challenges, demonstrations and virtual orchestras for all.
  • Once everything has been checked and you’re happy it’s complete, export the project by going to FILE>SHARE>Master file… [Tip: It’s faster to export like this, rather than going straight to YouTube and it creates a local backup of the finished video]. 
  • I use wetransfer.com as a free option to deliver the final file. Or I could upload to YouTube directly.

I’ve explained the process in this much detail to hopefully encourage you to have a go in your community. The total time I spent on Cornerstone was about 20 hours, including the creating of the initial guide track and materials, the invitations, zoom meeting, file storing, recording, editing, mixing, mastering and completing the video with lyrics.  

Betty’s Artwork

This special picture was painted by Betty Law, a member of our community choir. She painted the work during online worship on Easter Sunday this year. A photo of the painting appears in our Cornerstone video. 

It reminds me that we have been greatly restricted during this period of lockdown and not able to be together. However, it’s also been a great time of opportunity for creativity to explode with vibrant richness across our whole community. 

Thanks for reading. Get in touch if I can help.

DL

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My email instructions:

Hi everybody,

Thanks for joining our Virtual Worship Team. I’m really looking forward to meeting you online on Thursday to go through our project. 

After Thursday’s 45-minute zoom meeting, you should have everything you need to record yourself. After our zoom, to make the recordings, you will need:

– Headphones or earphones

– 2 devices – one to play the guides tracks on, and one to make a video of yourself

I’ve attd. the 3 guide tracks, made specially for this group. Please only use them for the purpose of this project and don’t share them with anyone outside our team. I’ve also attd. lyrcis and some orchestral parts, although I’ve not quite finished writing parts out so there are a few more to come.

I’ll need to receive your videos by bedtime on Wednesday 13th May. As they are quite big files (too big to email), you can send them securely for free using wetransfer.com If you need help doing that let me know. 

We have three golden rules: Play/Sing in time, Play/Sing in tune, Play/Sing with passion. If you can do all three I’ll be able to include your videos in the final Virtual Worship Band, which will broadcast to the world on YouTube on Sunday 24th May at the Belfrey. 

It might be sounding like a lot, but it really is straightforward. Please find the zoom meeting link and recording instructions below. Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday. 

Best wishes

Dave Lowe

——

Mr Lowe is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Mr Lowe Virtual Community Choir

Time: May 7, 2020 05:30 PM London

Join Zoom Meeting

Link was here**

Meeting ID: 

Password: Password was here***

Instructions

USE THE QUIETEST ROOM IN YOUR HOUSE (NOT BEDROOM)

ANYONE ELSE IN THE ROOM MUST BE SILENT

When you’re ready to record…

1. TUNE your instrument – make it perfect

2. Put your headphones on

3. Check the camera image can see your head, instrument and hands

4. Press record on the camera/phone or whatever you’re using

5. Press play on the backing track (only heard in headphones)

6. CLAP on the 5th Click – if the clap is not perfectly in time, start again

7. Relax and listen

8. Play/Sing with passion and communicate the music, knowing that what you do will inspire A LOT of people. Singers – tell the story, everyone must be involved in the music. Play perfectly in time and in tune.

9. Wetransfer your video

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

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

Competition Time: iPad Music 2019

The purpose of this competition is to encourage people of all ages to get involved in music creation. Portable technology now enables us to create our music anywhere and at anytime. Many aspects of life inspire creativity. When each moment arrives, we can now create without delay.

About three years ago I ran an international competition challenging composers to write the ultimate 8-bar melody. It was fascinating to see how entrants approached it. Every melody had a unique sense of character and we saw so many creative ideas exploring melodic shaping, pitch-range, phrasing, use of rests, rhythmic devices and step/leap movement. After over 40,000 votes online, the two melodies below were our top two, with Alice’s melody winning the competition overall.

Both melodies copyright protected. 2015. All rights reserved.

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Competition 2019

To celebrate a change in GCSE Music that’s making ‘Music’ an accessible and brilliant creative choice for all students, this year’s competition will explore inventiveness and creativity using an iPad to compose original music.

Brief

⁃ Compose an original piece of music using an iPad with GarageBand

⁃ It must be 30-36 seconds in duration (the sound must stop before 36s is reached)

⁃ The music should sound ‘finished’ at the end and have purpose as TV theme music

⁃ The music can be in any genre and written for any solo instrument or combination of instruments. You may also record your own samples and perform them at different pitches, using the ‘Keyboard Sampler’ in GarageBand

⁃ You may use quantisation, EQ and the other included plug-ins to mix your music

⁃ The music must not include pre-recorded loops, smart drummer or auto-play functions. Every aspect must be your own creation

⁃ All music must be created only using the iPad and without connecting other devices

The purpose of this competition is to encourage people of all ages to get involved in music creation. Portable technology now enables us to create our music anywhere and at anytime. Many aspects of life inspire creativity. When each moment arrives, we can now create without delay.

——————

This competition has now closed.

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Examples

With this competition in mind, I wrote the following two 30-36s themes. These are not included in the competition, but I just wanted to share the first 2 diverse ideas I had when considering this task. Many many outcomes are possible. I can’t wait to hear what you will create.

iPad Music Example 1:”Gritty Crime Drama Theme” by Dave Lowe

iPad Music Example 2:”Countryside Walk Theme” by Dave Lowe

Copyright of both themes. Dave Lowe 2019. All rights reserved.

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‘GCSE Music Production Via Technology’ at Manor CE Academy, York

In addition to our popular ‘GCSE Music’ course we now run this second pathway. Ultimately all students are entered for the same qualification, but the type of learning is very different between the two. The ‘technology’ course, as the name suggests, has technology at the centre of all learning. Students on this pathway do not need to be able to play an instrument or sing as they can use ‘production’ instead.

Both courses are for students who love music and want to explore everything about it. Both guide students to discover how music is constructed and help them to strive to understand, perform and compose music in any genre, time or culture. Both courses help students to develop their craft and grow confidently in their creativity.

We currently enter students onto the AQA 8271 GCSE Music course. Other exam boards are available and the people running those qualifications are equally fantastic. The assessment on the AQA course is as follows:

40% – One 90-minute exam, testing understanding of music by listening as well as some questions based on a choice of study pieces

30% – Performance – students produce two technology productions of existing music

30% – Composition – students write two original creations, one to a brief (like the one in the competition)

The creative, problem solving and organisational skills developed in GCSE Music, significantly support students as they study other subjects like English, Maths & Science. The experience helps them to develop determination, resilience and independence in their work.

Title Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Harmony – The Hot Chocolate for Your Marshmallows

Following on from ‘Detox Melody’, the natural next move was to ‘Detox Harmony’.

Harmony is the most complex musical element for our students to understand. Mostly problems occur when they don’t consider the impact of an additional part, which naturally they don’t. When beginning to compose, they layer sounds or melodies together and are transfixed on time (often asking how long it should be), without any consideration of the vertical relationships of notes. When students submit composition work to be marked, they often haven’t considered ‘the harmony’ at all so a significant amount of unpicking follows due to the amount of ‘clashing’.

I began today’s Y9 lesson just as I had with melody. I firstly asked “What is harmony and why create harmony?”

The students answered:

“It’s just different notes played together”

“It creates a more complex texture”

“It makes the music sound richer or fuller”

“It’s the hot chocolate for your marshmallows, the jam for your doughnut”… then followed a huge argument as to whether that should be “doughnut for your jam”

The suggestions are all correct in some way, but perhaps the most helpful is the Hot Chocolate. It supports the melody (the marshmallows), and is usually in the pitch range below the melody to begin with. The two go together well, sharing a common purpose. In the time that follows though and as the music develops, or the marshmallows begin to sink through the chocolate and melt into different shapes, the relationship between the two can change. The melody can have a greater interaction within other parts of the texture.

We then agreed that when two or more notes are played together, a sense of harmony is created. Sometimes that relationship is consonant, sometimes dissonant, but that we need to be able create both, and every other harmonic relationship on a spectrum in between. We cannot help that there ‘is harmony’, but we can learn more about tonalities, keys, intervals and chords to be able to control it.

I find harmony to be one of most powerful tools with the rate of change of harmony controlling how the energy of the music is able to flow. I’m also fascinated by the additional opportunities created by considering harmony, texture and articulation together. A seasoned composer might well be able to think about the music holistically. Students, learning about composition for the first time don’t have that luxury. They need to understand the impact each change within an element has. Harmony is more difficult to understand as many considerations have to be made simultaneously.

So in preparation for the following task, I first took the decision to limit the number of possibilities within harmony, rhythm and texture, just as I has limited the melody rhythms to using only crotchets and quavers in the last lesson.

The process chosen for today’s harmony task as follows:

1. Looking back to the plan from last week, we began by inputting ‘signpost’ bass notes. That is choosing to begin with a ‘D’ in the bass at the start of bars 1 and 5 (both structural A-sections). Then an ‘A’ note as the furthest diatonic tonal point from ‘D’ at the end of bars 2, 4 and 6 – the moments we wanted the music to sound unfinished. Finally ending bar 8 with a D to make it sound finished. Initially we decided that changing the bass note every 4 beats would create unwanted clashes between some melody notes and the held bass notes, so we began by composing a different bass note every two beats (as minims).

2. Using the D Major Diatonic Chord Chart as below, we were able to fill in the missing notes.

**Image from How To Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product, 2015, Lulu Publishing

For example if, at the vertical point we need to add a bass note, the note in the melody is a G, we look at the chart to see which diatonic chords in D Major include a ‘G’. There are three diatonic chords in D Major containing a ‘G’:

– E Minor (E G B)

– G Major (G B D)

– C# Dim. (C# E G)

The strongest bass notes to choose to go with the melody ‘G’ would therefore be E, G or C#, however it’s only possible to decide which is most appropriate in the context of what is written before and after by listening. Repeating the same bass note from one minim to the next caused the harmony to feel stuck, as it did in the melody. Having the same note in the melody and harmony parts made the texture sound ‘thinner’ at those points. Students also found step-wise movement in the bass line was preferable when possible, and that problems were caused when the movement of the bass notes leaped up and down on subsequent minims.

Considering that last week’s lesson was the first for students to write a melody, and this week was the first glimpse of harmony, all the outcomes were amazing.

Year 9 student Ollie, excited by the idea of sharing our practice online, has volunteered to be included in this week’s blog. Ollie’s is happy to share that he’s not a confident reader of music yet. He’s not had specific tutoring before, but has chosen to use his voice as his instrument for GCSE music.

This is beautiful melody writing, with a lovely sense of shape and balance. It is simple due to the restrictions I’d set of only using crotchets and quavers, but is of quality far advanced of his point of learning. The harmony is also very sensitively written and shows evidence of understanding and control. I interviewed him just after he showed me his work.

How did he write the melody?

“Since it’s in D major, it [the melody] started with a lower note D and ended on higher notes at the end of the second bar. Then it went back down from there until the end of the 4th bar. What I do is raise the pitch up in the first bar and then when it feels right, I go down again. I thought about the moments when the melody direction changed – it was when I reached a crotchet, having always played quavers. I listened and tried to think about when the right time was to go up or down, before it felt like it had gotten too high or too low”.

How did you write the harmony?

“I listened to find which notes matched with the melody notes above. I looked for which notes were in a chord to find out which other notes worked together. The end of bars 2 and 6 are the same, so I tried to make them both sound unfinished. The end of 4 sounds unfinished, because it feels like it wants to carry on. The end of bar 8 feels finished because it ends on the D but in a higher octave. I made it start and finish with D as I was in D major.

Another remarkable creation was from Lucas and Leo, two of our Year 9 Music Production via Technology students whose melody was featured in last week’s ‘Melody Detox’. They had accidentally written in Dorian on C. Using the Dorian Mode Chart as below, they worked out that by thinking about the note row C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C, it was possible to see which notes worked consonantly well together.

**Image from How To Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product, 2015, Lulu Publishing

For example if playing an Eb, they could play-one, miss-one, play-one, miss-one, play-one to reach Eb G Bb and when listening, they found that any of these notes worked well together. This pattern worked for all notes in all keys.

(No idea why clip appears upside-down on some browsers – apologies).

Their beautifully written melody and harmony could easily become music for film, television or video game. Lucas and Leo tell me they’re already imagining and discussing music that depicts adventure and tells a story. Amazing!

Photo by Stefen Tan on Unsplash

Year 8 “Production” Launched

This first week of 2019 has seen the launch of our exciting new “Production” unit in KS3 music at Manor. The unit gives students the opportunity to explore the type of work they might do on our new GCSE Music Production Via Technology Pathway. It could also be the first step of development towards a career in music, media, theatre, film, TV or journalism.

In addition to the ‘Developing, Securing & Mastering’ standards now operating at KS3, we’ve introduced ‘Super-mastering’ to challenge students, even at age 12-13, to develop industry-level production values.

To begin with, the unit encourages students to learn about the role each instrument plays within a band. Rather than working towards a particular style or genre, they are concentrating on understanding how musical parts fit together in pitch and rhythm. Once these fundamentals are in control, they will have absolute creative freedom to explore their individual chosen style or genre.

Each student will take the role of the producer, taking the creative lead in the process to deliver a fully mixed and mastered recording. They are each given a lead sheet of the song and audio tracks of the vocals – there are female and male vocals to choose from. They must understand and record all of the instrument parts (piano, bass guitar, drum kit and acoustic guitar) using their iPad with GarageBand. Initially students will be challenged to create the chorus. More ambitious students will aim to complete the whole song in the next 6 weeks.

The level of discussion between students using musical language is already amazing. In the first week, many came to realise that the “annoying thing ticking in the background” (the metronome) had a real and important purpose. Their new musical world relied on it and by ignoring it their music did not sound good at all! It was also fascinating to learn of the number of students who hadn’t realised that all instruments follow the same lead sheet. They had not comprehended that bass, guitar and piano would need to play similar notes at each of those points in the lead sheet. This realisation gave them confidence that music wasn’t as hard to understand as they’d thought. Above all, they were instantly challenged to listen critically and learn how to improve their work if it wasn’t what they wanted.

They began by recording the piano as chords. Once recorded they used quantisation and were able to choose the correct settings, based on their chosen rhythm. They also edited the individual notes, by listening, to make sure they were each the desired length and volume for their chosen style of production. Following on, some students recorded a complementing bass line and a drum kit track. One student, Hollis, recorded and edited 4 tracks (shown below) within the 40 minutes available in the first lesson. When I asked him about the process so far he said “it’s really good, the only frustrating thing so far is that the quantisation function does not consider the strumming motion which was helpful to use in the recording of the acoustic guitar”. He was absolutely right and I was slightly taken aback at the level of thought already in his work.

Another fascinating conversation was with Lauren on Thursday. She had recorded the bass to fit with the piano, but wanted the bass to have more punch or presence in the mix compared to the piano. I really didn’t think I’d be teaching about compression and EQ in the first lesson of our new year 8 unit, but she understood the theory well enough to create a great piece of work. Amazing!

Title Photo by Mitchell Leach on Unsplash

Discovering a ‘Production Environment’ for learning

In the early 2000s (before I retrained to be a secondary music teacher), I was greatly fortunate to be invited to some of the leading music and audio production facilities in the UK, perhaps the world. The primary purpose of my visits was to meet professionals at the top of their industry and to learn about the protocols that made it possible for a world-class creative product to be developed. Every visit and conversation was an absolute privilege. Not only did I meet incredibly kind, passionate and gifted people, but I learned how they were able to inspire each other, constantly endeavouring to develop the quality of their overall product. This was especially impressive under the pressure of each client’s expectations of delivering the ‘ultimate sound production’ for their (in some cases) $100million project.

It was an amazing period of learning, but I couldn’t possibly imagine the scale of the immense impact these visits would now have on my practice as a teacher. I will forever be grateful to the amazing people at Pinewood Film Studios Post Production, Films@59, BBC Radio, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Reelsound, Twickenham Film Studios, Dolby Laboratories and The Digital Audio Company.

The single most important asset of all of these studios was ‘environment’. Not necessarily the building design, comfy furniture or well-stocked fridge, but those were important too! For exceptional creative developments to occur, the environment had to be designed with purpose to enable individuals to form exceptional, trusting relationships and to maintain open and honest communications. These aspects were completely fundamental in every aspect of production. Every stakeholder had a clearly defined objective in their work, but there was great transparency and respect between colleagues with each individual seeking to encourage others or having the flexibility to support others as they needed. Every stakeholder constantly looked for opportunities to discover something new, not relying on their own understanding and were frequently asking others for evaluation or advice. There was a hierarchy of roles and therefore responsibilities, but no-one was ‘more important’ than the others. There was a genuine passion for the product and collective excitement when something new was achieved.

We can learn much from this as education leaders and it is greatly relevant to our young people. The insight of how our production industries operate at the highest level is greatly inspiring. I wonder if students ever stop to consider how creativity is truly encouraged and developed by those who create the film and video game products they experience every day. I try to keep this experience of the ‘Production Environment’ at the centre of my curriculum design as it makes such a profound difference to the young people I work with.

(No part of this post is affiliated with any of the companies listed above.)