VIPs in Music

Most surprisingly, students continued to develop their music work when they arrived home and continued to ask me questions until 8pm on Friday night and then again this morning. That doesn’t normally happen!!

In last week’s #PTProject2021 article I mentioned the importance of independence in a student’s approach to learning.

On Monday (8th March 2021) we returned to face-to-face school lessons for all students, having been at home in remote learning for UK Covid Lockdown 3 since the 5th January.

I’d learned so much, and been so inspired by the incredible developments my year 9-11 GCSE students had made in remote learning. I fell swiftly back down to earth in the first KS3 lesson on Monday morning. It was carnage! Not behaviourally, although this particular group can be challenging. But the learning environment was a mixture of students who (for many reasons) hadn’t found or been able to access the remote work I’d set in the previous 2 weeks since half term, or they had become completely dependent on the adults in their life during lockdown. There was a lot of noise, a lot of panic, worry, frustration and very little learning could happen. It made me realise, these kids needs greater encouragement and a ‘reset’ to their approach of school life. In context, this was their first lesson since returning.

Mr Lowe feeling completely inspired following a day as a VIP at the sound stages and back lot at Universal Studios Hollywood – awesome!

After much thought over Monday night, on Tuesday morning I taught another similar group, also year 8 (31 students, aged 12-13). I opened the lesson with this question… “What is a VIP?” This instantly got the students’ attention, all of them! They visibly began to imagine and confidently told me it was a Very Important Person, which I reminded them that is something each are to me as I teach them. However I’d decided to create a status in the lessons to name students as VIPs, which as with the term known to them would come with lots of perks or benefits. I asked them what else the ‘I’ could stand for that could be relevant to me as a teacher. Their answers were brilliant; instrumental, irritating, ignorant… but eventually they reached the correct answer… INDEPENDENT!!

We discussed how they did depend on adults at the moment for home, food, clothing etc.. but in the future, they would be independent and organise these things for themselves. Independence we found was a bit like feeling a sense of confident freedom and I explained that this very much how an ‘independent learner’ feels.

The most helpful starting point for ‘how to be independent’, can only be determined by the student. They have to choose to ‘have a go’. Then if they are missing specific information or understanding, they of course can ask at any time, but it’s far more positive to say “Can you give me some advice to help me to play this rhythm in time?”, as opposed to “I can’t do it”. The confidence then begins to grow.

My agreement was that students who hadn’t started yet at all, or had done the first analysis wrongly would do the first task with me. If they got it perfect, which did require some questioning on their part, they would receive a merit. All students who had completed at least one task remotely (independently) in the previous 2 weeks were immediately given the VIP status and given the challenge that if they could solve the next part of the project independently, they would receive 3 music merits. They weren’t completely left with no help as I’d prerecorded my teaching and modelling to my on-demand YouTube channel. This announcement was met with great happiness and then silent determination across the class as they went straight to work without prompting. As I started to teach those needing the most encouragement, I explained that if they could have determination in their learning it was possible to complete the initial task I was helping with and earn the VIP status in time to also achieve the more advanced challenge. Two students made this amazing progress within the hour.

The environment was incredible. Every student on task; listening, reading, inventing, exploring, recording, editing, questioning, calm and so many were successful.

I ran the VIPs approach with Year 7 yesterday. On a Friday I teach 4 hours back-to-back of year 7. (120 students aged 11-12). If anything, the outcomes were even better for the morning classes. I’ll need to add more support for some in the afternoon, but I also have to remember Friday afternoon is always tough – it’s their 24th and 25th lessons of the week and they’re very tired by then, especially in this first week back after lockdown.

My promise to the students at the ends of the classes was to mark their work before I went to sleep on each day. It took until 7.30pm last night to mark the latest work by the 120, and the year 8s I also taught yesterday, but the progress and enjoyment was incredible. Most surprisingly, students continued to develop their music work when they arrived home and continued to ask me questions until 8pm on Friday night and then again this morning. That doesn’t normally happen!!

‘Music VIPs’ has been a amazing tool for this week – it will definitely feature in all my KS3 work from now on. 👍

This is the Year 7 project I’m teaching as we transition from remote learning.

This is the Year 8 project.

On the original set from the TV series “Friends” (Warner Bros. Deluxe VIP Tour)
Surrounded by the original work of so much film history and amazing creativity – in the vault when visiting as a VIP guest to Paramount Pictures – incredible privilege!
Mr Lowe at Sony Pictures

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 🙂

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.

GCSE iPad Music – a game-changer for Music Education

In September 2018 we began our new “GCSE Music Production Via Technology” course. Students are still entered for AQA GCSE Music 8271 in the same way as our traditional course, but they learn and study music in a completely different way. The difference in teaching on this new course is fascinating and has required me to be more open-minded than ever in my approach to planning.

Already the amount of progress for the tech students has been vast. There is greater control in performance, further understanding of details in notation and more confidence in composition than expected at this stage.

The cohort is predominantly made up of students who don’t play an instrument, but who are passionate about music. There are also two electric guitarists, a classical guitarist and a pianist.

It has been possible for technology or DJing to be used within the AQA GCSE course for quite a few years, but few schools take that option. We haven’t chosen that route ourselves before due to the extra expense of having to buy equipment and to pay extra teachers with specific knowledge. It also seemed in the past that it would be difficult for students to access the full range of marks as there was little information published about that type of assessment.

At the start of 2018, a meeting with a principal music examiner and several other heads of music in London changed everything. We discovered that there was now sufficient focus for technology in the GCSE Music (examination from 2018) to enable all learners to access to full range of marks. Furthermore, there was sufficient rigour in the mark scheme to demand a very high quality product to achieve the top marks, just as in the traditional course.

As they learned of my meeting, there was just enough time for three of my traditional 2018 exam cohort to opt for ‘Performance Via Technology’ as their ensemble performances. The work of those three young men has established an amazing new approach to understanding music in our department. They didn’t all achieve the top mark for PvT, but their understanding of the music was greatly deepened and this period of learning was fundamental in them being able to achieve their two ‘9’s and ‘8’ overall.

Most excitingly, this new pathway for GCSE Music has emerged at a time when portable technology and free music apps have developed sufficiently to allow the user to create a musical product with the required level of control of each element. Already in this first term, we’ve found that students are far more creative as they can make their music whenever and wherever they like. They are no longer having to wait for the class time or extra curricular club in the music room. They can compose music anywhere and at any time. Once they’ve created something, they post it securely to me using Showbie and I can listen and instantly give feedback, which creates a great sense of momentum for them in their learning.

The KS3 national curriculum requirements to perform, listen, review and evaluate, are intrinsically linked to everything students will do to create a quality music product. In fact, more than ever, each individual student now has a personal, instantly accessible resource to learn with. We’ve begun to re-write our KS3 curriculum as the iPad technology is having such a profound, positive effect on learning. For example, many students find ‘texture’ and ‘structure’ difficult concepts to understand. In one year 7 lesson in December, all students composed and recorded an 8-bar, 5-part, rhythmic ostinato from scratch. All developed their work by editing textural and structural aspects. In the same lesson, students mixed-down their piece and uploaded to Showbie allowing us to collectively listen and evaluate the outcomes of each one. There was no homework set from that lesson, but some students chose to continue their development and re-posted new work later that evening. This is how music education should be!

For students (and teachers) with instrumental skills, it’s possible to connect a USB keyboard/piano to the iPad and it’s now possible to record with zero-latency. In fact, I was without an accompanist in our ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ at York Minster earlier this month so pre-recorded the piano part for the recessional to allow me to conduct. I recorded the piano into GarageBand on the iPad, which then even had sufficient control of EQ to adjust the frequency response as was needed for the Minster acoustics.

My initial thought on beginning this work was that technology would make music accessible to students without an instrument. In reality, it’s far more exciting than that! It’s inspiring instrumentalists and vocalists to play and sing more, it’s inspiring students without an instrument to learn to play instruments and it’s creating a way that every single individual young person can understand and make music. That is awesome!

More to follow…

The real-world truth about… GCSE Music Composition (How to start)

Most GCSE Music students feel stressed as they begin their composition work. This stress is often nothing to do with music whatsoever and therefore very unhelpful for our young musicians. The stress is usually rooted in expectation about grades, either their own or that felt from a parent or teacher. Without experience of composing before, they have no idea of what to aim for, no concept of a ‘finished product’ or understanding of what it takes to get there. Perhaps most frustratingly, they have no thought of writing music with a context or purpose. They just make sounds, or they don’t make anything. They cannot evaluate their sounds as they’ve nothing to compare it to, not understanding what they’re aiming for. Often the ‘purpose’ is derived later on to tick a box on an exam paper, rather than being a fully explored concept. There are many misconceptions that do nothing but create anxiety and confusion.

I’ve drawn the two images above to describe what I see from students if they begin to compose without a clear purpose. Notice that both are titled “untitled”, proving a lack of consideration of the purpose and making use of the default software file-naming system. There is no less-inspiring title to read when marking a piece of music. The ‘draft 1’ image depicts a student who has sat down in front of Sibelius and decided that they will use every different note duration, every mark, dot and squiggle they can find. Their perception of the construction of music is based on complexity, not understanding. Students creating this type of outcome are also not likely to have listened to their work. The ‘draft 2’ image depicts a student who is overwhelmed by the thought of their music not being ‘good enough’, although it’s also a common 2nd attempt, when the student writing ‘draft 1’ finally listens to their music to discover a wall of stressful noise and chaos. Within ‘draft 1’ there are some great ideas, unfortunately hidden by excessive and un-necessary additions.

Using technology to create music is wonderful. It gives our young musicians the instant opportunity to write an idea, listen to it and simply decide whether to keep or delete. However control is everything. I remember once discussing ADR techniques with Nick Lowe (no relation), who had recorded and edited dialogue on some of the Harry Potter films. His role was to re-record and re-sync aspects of the actors lines that weren’t sufficiently clear from the recordings made during filming. In every re-recording he described having to listen so carefully (or critically) to ensure the quality was as good as it could be. At this point in post-production, the vast sound design and orchestral music was yet to be added, so it was possible to hear and fix any problems. If anything was wrong later, it would be very difficult to resolve once the other 200 tracks of sound were laid together. Students need to think similarly when they compose.

Music composition is a wonderful thing to do and quite unbelievable that something of such joy can be related to a school examination given the current challenges in education. The freedom to be creative and explore, invent and build something for others to enjoy is so unique. The exam boards have helped too by developing their courses to invite students to write in any style or genre and for any combination of instruments. What an amazing opportunity!!

However, control is everything. Students should first listen… Listen to as much music as they can, in many styles, from many cultures, in films, theatre, television, video games, supermarket tannoys, sporting venues etc. The role of the music teacher is very much to be ready to help them to understand the music they’ve discovered. Good questions for students to ask could be… “Why does this music sound exciting?”, “Why does this melody make me feel sad?”, “Why did the music make me jump at that moment?”. All answers should be given using the elements of music to encourage them to adopt this language.

Students need support and encouragement in understanding and using every element in context with a purpose. A few years ago at a round table discussion with other heads of music in York, we agreed that the single most fundamental aspect to be successful in composition was melody. That is, without a successfully written melody, the music will struggle to connect to its chosen audience.

The challenge we face as teachers is how we can support and encourage students in composition without being prescriptive or restricting their own creativity. I try to set small tasks or challenges in preparation for composition, but not relating to their final piece. Often students respond much more positively if they are controlling, or focused on, one element, like melody, rather than considering all together. I encourage my students to reflect on and describe the musical qualities they create in each task. Once they have many small experiences and have begun to understand how to control musical ideas with a purpose, finding an inspirational starting point is quite straightforward.