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.

Building the ‘Ultimate Extra’

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

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

My ‘Friday 5th April’

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

0840 House Assembly with my form 9DL

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

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

Read the story of “I am free” here

1000 Year 8 – Final ‘Production’ lesson about Mastering

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

1120 Year 7 – Final ‘Performance’ assessment lesson

1220 Lunch – GCSE Performance Exam Recordings & Composition Workshop

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

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

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

1830 Home time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Term 1 – September to December

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

Term 2 – January to April

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

Term 3 – April to July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why share this now?

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

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

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

How did we prepare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Post Photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash

ORASingers #PerfectInspiration

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

After last night’s performance I tweeted:

Why #perfectinspiration?

For me, ORASingers symbolise a perfect solution in music.

1. Always something new

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

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

2. Flawless Performance

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

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

3. #youngpeopleareawesome

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

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

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

4. The importance of us all being different together.

Absolute inclusion. Music is for everybody.

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

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

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

——

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

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

A Real-World Solution To Create Impact In Music Progression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complex & Inventive (8/9) – 32-36

Developing with devices (6/7) – 25-31

Music makes sense (4/5) – 20-24

Works but repetitive (3/4) – 16-19

Clashes (2/3) – 12-15

Not in control (1/2) – 0-11

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

How to really know our music students.

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

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

The 6 Music Lines of Development

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

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– No extra-curricular experience

– No awareness of music theory

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

– “Lower” academic ability

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

– No instrument on entry

– Basic aural ability

– Some extra curricular experience

– Minimal awareness of music theory

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

– “Middle” academic ability

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

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

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

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

– KS3 result in music S

– “Middle” academic ability

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

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

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Secure aural ability

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

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

– “High” academic ability

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

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

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 2-4 Music Theory Understanding

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

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

– Grade 5 Instrument/Voice already achieved on entry

– Regular extra curricular involvement

– Strong aural ability

– Grade 5 Music Theory already achieved on entry

– KS3 result in music M

– “High” academic ability

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Compose an original piece of music

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

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

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

AMG 1: Year 9 and 10

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

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

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

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

– Orange – on the ‘main station’ point

– Blue – above the ‘main station’ point

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

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

AMG 2: Y11

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

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

Happy half term 🙂

Harmony & Control: Real-world curriculum design to inspire confidence and ambition in music

This term’s lessons for GCSE year 9 music are all about Harmony & Control. Control, though not an element of music, is one of the fundamental skills or levels of skill there is. Without it, the outcome is uncontrolled, messy or unintentional chaos. If we don’t model ‘control in music’, we should not be surprised when this is something our students struggle with later on.

We began 6 weeks ago by focusing on melody first, exploring how we can create a natural flow in our music, how we can split musical ideas into phrases and how a phrase usually sounds complete or incomplete at its end. From week 2, we used an ABAC melodic structure as a (Control) point of focus and decided on some other aspects of control, for example the B phrase sounding unfinished (imperfect) and C very definitely sounds finished (perfect), presenting an opportunity to discuss cadences and immediately showing connection between how melody and harmony have to be considered together.

Having composed a simple 8-bar melodic shape of the 4 phrases, we added a complementing bass line as described in my “Hot Chocolate” post.

In week 3 we discussed ‘texture’ as the layers that make up the harmony, and how we could change the relationship between how the layers worked together to vary the texture. It was also an opportunity to discuss instrumental timbre and range as we added a 2nd violin and viola to create the configuration of a string quartet. Having made these controlled (purposeful) decisions, and deciding for the moment to write diatonically in D Major and homophonically with the rhythm of the cello part, students found it very easy to ‘fill-in’ the inner voices, again using p244 of “How to Write Great Music” as below. Further interesting discussions could be heard around the class as to whether there were ‘better solutions’ of which notes to place in which instrument, which led them to independently discover how to control inner parts by making small (step-wise if possible) movements rather than larger leaps of unwanted intervals.

Still within that same lesson, about two thirds of the class continued to then create a development of their first 8 bars by incorporating scalic motifs and auxiliary and passing notes within their lower 3 parts. There was great excitement and beaming smiles around the room as students realised how straightforward it was to develop their own complex music by having a controlled consideration of melody, harmony and texture.

It is often difficult to comprehend the depth of musical understanding we can reach in any 11-16 lesson, but this new approach to harmony has this term, I feel, pushed the boundaries again. To have progressed from ‘not feeling confident about composing a simple melody’, to feeling confident enough about all of the above to independently compose beautiful music, is absolutely mind-blowing. Often our ‘high expectations’ is not enough. #youngpeopleareawesome

I decided for the moment however, that this level of depth was as far as was helpful to go in their exploration of harmony (for the moment!). Instead, from week 4, I presented a similar challenge but from a completely different angle, ensuring the task was new for everybody and completely out of their comfort zones. To succeed, they had to use the knowledge developed above and their experience of controlling music. They have to prove not only understanding, but ‘confident understanding’ to succeed in this new challenge.

In week 4 we were visited by the amazing Dr Kirsty Devaney (@KirstyDevaney) who has written a brilliant article about her time with us, including some very helpful thoughts on gender in music and technology. We are greatly appreciative of the time we were able to spend together and many of the students she met have been inspired by her time with us.

In that week, the new challenge began with a lead sheet for a song (above). Students had to study the chords in verse 2 and, using Sibelius, compose a 4-part string quartet arrangement for the 8 bars of the verse. This was to be a new timbre to be introduced in verse 2 as a development of texture in the overall production and students were encouraged to listen critically as they tried to develop a warm/rich ‘sound’ for their string parts. The second challenge was more practical, but of equal value in the composing process – they had to export the audio of their string arrangement (so now considering file format, sample rate and bit depth) and discover a secure method to transfer this into GarageBand on their iPad. I had specifically encouraged them to do this as ‘audio’ to challenge their critical listening of making sure the string parts worked before continuing. If they found there were clashes later on from not having control of the process, they would have to go through this extra part again to fix it.

Once into GarageBand, students now had to take a new risk. They had to maintain control of the harmony of their 8 bars, but compose and record parts for piano, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, drum kit and an extra drum kit track to use for fill-ins or cymbal crashes.

Some aspects of musical learning appear simpler to me, but I often learn that my understanding of simplicity or difficulty can be wrong. This was especially true in this situation – students had not realised that all instrumental parts follow the same harmony in the music. I’m not sure at which point in my own musical learning I first discovered this, but thinking about it, I’ve never taught this before. It was particularly poignant to see that even the most able seemed surprised. This discovery opened a door in their learning. It has especially given them more confidence in improvisation or recording when using unfamiliar instruments.

In her observations, Kirsty mentioned a student who had struggled with this task, becoming stuck on the development of the drum kit part. That student returned the next morning and after 3 or 4 minutes of intervention, she was creating music independently again and perhaps even more confidently than before. Often it’s so important to see moments when students ‘get stuck’ as positive. They’re opportunities for greater understanding.

Having now produced an arrangement of their verse including 4-part harmony strings, bass guitar, piano, acoustic guitar and drum kit, students this week were considering structure and texture. These are (with harmony) the most mis-understood elements of music at GCSE. The vocals for the song are still to be recorded and that will happen next half term. For now though students have to repeat the above for the chorus immediately following their ‘verse 2’.

At this point, I’m offering less controlled guidance. Students have to decide how the role of each instrument will remain consistent or develop as they go into the chorus. Which of the 8 instruments they will keep, how they will plan rhythmic changes in each part, will the energy of the music become greater or less? All of these decisions are now their own in these last two weeks. The harmonic progression is more complex in the chorus, with more changes of chord and the pattern or rate of harmonic change is also quite different. Due to an instrumental section after the chorus, that new section is also 11 bars instead of 8, so much more to consider. The video below shows my modelled example I made as they watched in yesterday’s lesson – the section you can hear took 10 minutes to model from blank screen including descriptions of where, why and how.

The song is “Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)” by Hillsong United.

Title Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash

Inventiveness & Creativity

Having launched the new iPad Music competition last Sunday, I’ve spent the week discussing the concepts of inventiveness and creativity with my students. I chose these two words as they explain a meaning of “exceptionally creative”, which is given in the top-band on the mark scheme for AQA GCSE Music Composition. A student who is inventive is on their way to achieving a top grade in music composition.

But what does inventive mean? It must be a complex thing to understanding, being in the top-band?

Actually no. We’ve found that it’s not complex at all. In fact, it’s one of the easiest concepts to understand. However the difference between invention and ‘lack of invention’ is so fundamental in music creation that it’s an important consideration from the moment you begin. It’s not, as some possibilities in composition, something you can add later to get extra credit.

My year 7s were most excited when thinking about invention. They began to imagine inventors and the things they had invented. Having thought for a moment the concept was so clear to them. Inventiveness is, as one great answer, “creating something new, something unique that is unlike other things”.

But invention in music is not just what you make. It is defined by your approach to making it. I gave students this week the idea of approaching a box of Lego bricks. If I took 5 bricks out of the box, stuck them together, put them on the table in front of me and told people that it was finished, I have not been inventive. I had just ‘picked up some plastic bricks and stuck them together’. This act of choosing bricks and putting them together is important, just like in music we choose notes and put them together in a melody. But to then be inventive, we should pick up the shape we’ve created, look at it from different angles, imagine creatively what it could represent for us, imagine how we could make it into something else (“like a spaceship” was one answer this week). We should decide whether or not we like it. If we like nothing about it, just break it up and try a new idea or begin to develop it to see if it improves, but being cautious not to lose control and become frustrated. Being creative and inventive in music takes patience but is a joyful experience. When you discover an idea that you enjoy or inspires you, then you can start to dream about what that could become.

I mark many GCSE Music compositions every year. Inventiveness is sadly not frequently heard in a great number of pieces, but I’m sharing this in my blog in the hope that I can encourage students and teachers to approach this differently. So if you’re reading this in that context, think about this. What range of marks are you aiming for?

If it’s 1-24 out of the possible 36, in any style, you can write a simple melodic idea, that makes musical sense, make sure your harmony works. Higher marks in that range might be given if it’s in a structure so different sections ensure it’s not all the same all the way through.

Once you’ve got something that ‘works’ develop its complexity to prove your understanding of other musical concepts and devices (now getting you a mark of 25-31 if successful). However to get beyond 31/36, you must be inventive from ‘day 1’, having ambition to develop something amazing and spending often many hours shaping your initial ideas. Hopefully everybody should begin by aspiring to this, no matter their starting ability.

[a word of caution: this advice is my personal advice and is not a formal line from the exam board. The standard of how grades are awarded is set year-by-year by the board]

For my own students I’ve condensed the examination mark scheme to fit on one page (as shown in the title picture), making it easy for them to understand the standard of their work. I’ve found the examples of the types of musical devices shown to be useful for my students as they think of how they might develop their work. The gold boxes are what I perceive to be ‘GCSE pass’ standard work. As the gold area becomes richer/darker the mark increases. As much as I discourage students from learning-to-the-exam, in this case it challenges them to think more deeply about their music and creates a helpful point of discussion amongst the cohort.

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

A Practical Model to Grow Confidence in Music for Young People Aged 11-16

Over the last 8 years in my current school, I’ve been continually looking for ways to improve the experience of my music students. Every one of them is unique, no matter ability, demographic or experience of life. A one-size-fits-all model would have failed within minutes so I’ve developed a flexible, customisable model for every individual and, so far, for every situation we’ve encountered, I have seem positive outcomes.

The fundamental purpose is to help every young person to have everything they need to develop in music ‘to the max’ and to prepare them for their musical life into the future. Measurable aspects, such as examinations, are a helpful inclusion but they’re only part of the bigger picture of each individual’s experience.

The Starting Point

The starting point of the 230 or so students that join my school every year varies greatly. There are 230 starting points. It is counter-productive at this stage to produce a starting ‘grade’ and often this can be a discouragement for the young people. A few have been learning to play an instrument at KS2, but many haven’t and there has been variety in the quality of tuition received. As students begin to explore music, it is often for the first time with us and some haven’t come across even simple musical aspects like pulse or rhythm. A few have done a weekly singing activity. Equally I always have some young people who have already developed a sense of musicianship.

Musically Understanding the Starting Point

I’ve always run a baseline test to understand:

– if students are able to recognise musical changes by listening

– if students are aware of musical instruments, how they’re played and to which families of the orchestra they belong

– if students know the meaning of musical terms like pitch, dynamics, texture and tempo

– if students can recognise shapes and patterns in notation

– if students can read musical notes on the treble and bass clef staves

– if students are aware of more complex language such as Italian terms

The average score is 24/50. The lowest score ever achieved is 4/50 and the highest 50/50, achieved this year by a percussion student. He was the first to achieve the top mark in 4 years.

However, over the last two years I’ve also run a baseline performance task. Students are given a piano, some letter-named notes and 20 minutes to prepare a performance of a well-known 8-bar melody. Each student performs and these are recorded on video. This task would be fascinating for those interested in music education research. In many ways this type of test is a much more accurate measure of musical awareness, as there are no multiple choice answers to guess. The first observation is proof that a student’s musical ability is not equivalent to a result in a year 6 Maths or English test. Each student gives their best performance based on their individual experience. Each performance, and particularly how each student approaches their playing in the 230 videos, is different.

The End Point

For a student attending an 11-16 school, the end point is often seen as the grades they leave with as a GCSE student. There is a bigger picture here though, and to constantly create the highest expectations, I challenge my students to think at a standard beyond the GCSE syllabus. Ultimately I’d like my students to have a rich and developed understanding of music, that enables them to confidently perform and compose music, constantly developing their own craft and creatively collaborating with others.

A Flexible Customisable Model to Develop Confidence in Music for Students Aged 11-16

Having established the starting and end points, it’s then been possible to develop a bespoke experience for each individual student, based on the types of needs they have in common. This model has helped us to develop the students’ experience in our school. It could easily be used in other schools as there’s sufficient flexibility and little cost to embed.

How does it work?

Consider the 4 concentric circles as below.

The centre (1) represents each individual student. They each have to be at the centre of our thinking. Always. It should challenge us to always consider whether an aspect of their experience is genuinely ‘creative, helpful and inspiring’ or ‘tedious, un-necessary and destructive’.

The next circle (2) represents all the opportunities that a music student must have in order for them to develop. Each opportunity around the circle can be customised based on each student’s needs, interests and ambitions. The opportunities are not ‘on’ or ‘off’, the more of each opportunity the better for the student’s overall development, but recognising that (often due to time or funding), some students will have a different balance to others. This should not be a ‘have’ and ‘have not’, all should ‘have’, but there will be differences in the amount of involvement, often down to the individual’s choice or ambition. As a head of music, I can have an impact on helping to improve all of these areas, even though other agencies and organisations have the responsibility to manage them. Some areas seem obvious, but I find that quite regularly some stakeholders are not aware of their required responsibility. Open and honest, proactive and positive communication between all stakeholders is vital. Focusing on and improving each of these opportunities for all learners has been key in helping them to develop and build confidence in music.

The next circle (3) represents the products and experiences that all music students should focus on. These are easy for stakeholders to organise at minimal or no cost but are the things that students are inspired by and use to develop their understanding of music through application.

Finally the outer circle (4), the outcome at the end of Year 11, following the completion of products and experiences. Not the end, but the beginning of the next period of musical learning and development.

This is our current model.

There’s probably room for several more blog entries to describe the impact of each ‘opportunity’. In practice each area is vast and contributes to a rich, varied music education. Key aspects to mention initially though:

1. It has very much felt in the last few years, that the accountability of outcomes has rested more with teachers and schools. This model is design to not consider any stakeholders as have more importance or accountability than others. Thus, products, experiences and outcomes are written around the circles to represent the joint impact all stakeholders must have. The role of the student themselves and how they each choose to approach their learning is just as important as every other aspect.

2. We became an academy around the same time as arts fundings was reduced, which locally fragmented the services in place to offer instrumental tuition. We decided, following discussions with peripatetic tutors, students and parents, to run our own tuition programme. Tutors are contracted directly to our department to deliver high quality lessons. Within their contract we ask each tutor to have a passion to develop the confidence and interest in their instrument by them leading a relevant ensemble. This helps to grow a strong music team of like-minded professionals. All lessons, with all tutors for all instruments cost the same. Students can choose to share their lessons in 2s or 3s, in which case the cost is shared, but most students are taught individually or in pairs. They are paid directly our parents. When affordability is an issue for parents, there are funding opportunities through YorkMusicHub. Some members of our staff or others in the community have also supported students in the past by paying for lessons. We currently offer lessons in: piano, keyboard, drum kit, percussion, bass guitar, music theory, classical guitar, brass, woodwind, electric guitar, popular acoustic guitar, voice, upper strings, cello, double bass and harp.

3. In addition to the included students’ perceptions of their ideal music teacher, students need me to be constantly developing a relevant curriculum. At our school every student has an iPad. We use the app Showbie as a method for students to upload videos of their performances or scores and recordings of compositions. In this way, I can provide a more fluid and instant method of feedback, which encourages them to be always reflecting, questioning and developing.

4. The model is for all students aged 11-16.

We find this model to work very well. Naturally there will always be things for us to improve, but the flexibility and collective responsibility the model creates, inspires our young people greatly. If you’re reading this as a department, school or education leader, please try it if you’re not doing so already and let me know if you need help or more information.