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.

My Reflections on the BBC Digital Detox week at Manor CE Academy, York 27-31 January 2020

At the end of 2019, I was approached by BBC Inside Out to take part in a challenge, which would be filmed and shown on BBC1. They were interested in seeing “how much smart screen technology has got into our lives.”

(written on 31st January)

Preparation and Context

If I was asked to think of a top list of ‘things that have a profound impact on the learning potential of my students’, the opportunity to use technology would come very close to the top. However, it’s difficult to describe this positive effect and only really possible to demonstrate in person. As such, quite a few heads of music, school leaders and education professionals have visited Manor to observe this in the last few years. The music department leads have all gone away encouraged and have now launched similar work in their schools. 

At the end of 2019, I was approached by BBC Inside Out to take part in a challenge, which would be filmed and shown on BBC1. They were interested in seeing “how much smart screen technology has got into our lives.” 

I gave up my @DaveLoweMusic twitter after Christmas and during the week of filming didn’t check, send or reply to emails, didn’t use our @ManorPerfArts twitter (which we use to share information with parents of our 762 Performing Arts students), and didn’t use projectors, Apple Macs, PCs, iPads or phones. 

The aims of the BBC project were limited to the quote above and I wasn’t sure of the intended narrative for their programme, but I was initially sceptical as I felt it likely that it was a way to challenge us to use less technology or to even suggest that we shouldn’t use it at all. 

In AQA’s GCSE Music course, students must submit two performances, totalling a minimum of 4 minutes. For students who are passionate about music, but who have chosen not to learn to play an instrument or prefer not to sing, the course would not be accessible for them. However, the course includes a ‘Production Via Technology’ option for performance, which essentially involves producing a recording of a song from creation of tracks to final mix. 

In the 10 years I’ve been head of music at Manor, we’ve consistently had 250-300 students choosing to take additional studies or ensemble opportunities to develop their technique in their voice or instrument. Now a school community of 1,124 students, that 25%ish is nationally quite high, but I’ve always been challenged that the other 75% are not given an opportunity to continue their musical learning at GCSE-level and have access to the full range of marks. 

In the last few years I’ve developed our key stage 3 course to incorporate some of the ‘Production Via Technology’ type projects as a method for non-musician students to demonstrate their ability. This has also then set the groundwork for them to continue into our GCSE Music Production Via Technology Pathway. 

Music, whether it be singing, listening to, watching, writing or playing has always had a significant and positive impact on the lives of the young people I’ve taught. It enriches them in so many ways. In a recent analysis of highest achieving students, 9 of the top 10 are members of our most advanced choir, not all of them ‘music students’, but all frequently investing in music.

Monday

On the first morning of this week’s project, my Year 9 GCSE Music lesson was filmed for the hour. Preparing for the lesson was a huge challenge. Knowing the impact technology has had on learning in my classroom, I always look forward to any opportunity to share with others. In my own teaching practice, I frequently reflect on my lessons and have many visitors coming to observe me teach. Performance management or subject review observations are the most complex to deliver, as you are trying to demonstrate a range of factors including the progress of the students over time, rather than just what happens during the hour. This is made more complex by the knowledge that if the observer disagrees with your practice or perceives it as sub-standard, it could have a negative operational impact on your department or even the wider school. 

I’ve had lessons filmed before as part of coaching programmes encouraging me to reflect on my own practice. I’ve found that method to be very helpful in my own development, but the BBC filming was different, mainly as it was unclear of what they were hoping to prove by observing my lessons, so therefore I wasn’t certain what I was preparing for.

The year 9 class are studying popular song this term and by the end of term I’ve challenged them to produce their own recording of a song, using only a lead sheet (containing lyrics and chords) and a link to YouTube to be able to understand how the melody sounds. They’re expected to record all the tracks for piano, bass guitar, drum kit, acoustic guitar and voice accurately in pitch, rhythm and with a consistent sense of style. They have to perform all of the instrumental parts, which most do by using the instruments on their iPad GarageBand. All attempt their own voice recording, but may then choose to record another student’s voice to become part of their production. 

My expectations of them are astronomical, especially for 13-14 year old students. However, the outcome of the project is significant, allowing them to apply their understanding of the popular song components and have a true sense of achievement that they’ve been able to create something that is industry-comparable. I find the earlier they can achieve a high standard in production values in their work, the better, as this contributes to future development of their own expectations in producing high quality work. 

There are some relatively simple concepts in a popular song. The structure of the song consists of 3 or 4 different short sections, some of which are repeated (like the chorus), and the pattern of chords in a verse for example, is often made up of only 2 or 3 chords. A concept that my students are often surprised about is when they discover each instrument plays the same chord (or a note from that chord) at the same time. As a practicing musician of many years this seems so simple, but I can’t remember when I first realised this to be the case. It is a critical factor in their learning to hear this before students can confidently listen to how the harmony works in a piece of music. 

In fact, popular songs are often not complex. They consist of several simple ideas put together, but the control of each musical element, of audio content, and of overall mix is vital for a successful outcome. This control is key in both product creation and understanding.

The BBC had asked me to teach my Monday year 9 lesson using no technology whatsoever. I chose the objective for the lesson “To understand the use and purpose of a drum kit part when composing a popular song.” 

The lesson began by asking students to identify 8 components of a drum kit. Most struggled with this, but once they’d labelled the worksheet (I’d created using my iPad) they were able to use the language confidently in the lesson. We then continued to learn a simple pop groove all together, using body percussion so everyone could take part. Focus was excellent, and most could master the co-ordination quickly. As a few students came up to the drum kit at the front, all watched to see what happened and all participants were able to find some success in playing the real drum kit. I was particularly impressed by the amount of progress made by non-musician students in the group and how much the experience clearly meant to them. We continued in the lesson to discuss how the drummer should think about tempo and dynamics during a performance, and all students moved on to compose a variation of the original groove, following their thought that simple repetition could become monotonous. To challenge the two drum students in the room, I invited them to demonstrate advanced considerations in song writing, such as using cymbal crashes to emphasise chord changes, matching rhythms played by other instruments in the band, using regular quaver rhythms to build energy and performing fill-ins to announce a new phrase or section. I was pleased that this part of the lesson remained relevant to the whole class, while pushing the more experienced drum students to advance further. Some of the lower-ability or non-musicians within the group appeared to zone-out by this time, however, when I asked them about this later, they suggested their focus was kept throughout. It made me wonder whether I really can tell if a student is concentrating by their facial expressions. 

A very successful lesson, but I wasn’t prepared for what followed next. BBC news presenter Amy Garcia asked to address the group. She asked the students if they’d enjoyed the lesson, which was greeted with a resounding ‘yes’ from all. Amy continued to ask how many of them would like to do this more often, instead of lessons using their iPads. Of the 18 students present, 16 said they preferred ‘without iPads’. I was completely shocked by this response and felt gutted. I’d spent so much time developing this type of work for them and have seen so many successes, I’d never thought this outcome could be a possibility. I didn’t understand and found it difficult to believe, a shock also shared by other teachers in the academy who I went to share this with immediately after the lesson.

Tuesday

The students’ feedback from the Monday lesson triggered many deep conversations with students and staff. Unable to ask advice of other music education specialists, due to my detox from email, twitter and the like, I spent much of Tuesday trying to understand the response through internal discussions. On Tuesday morning, my year 11s and I were analysing the music of Aaron Copland, which required the brief use of Spotify as I didn’t have the music on CD or cassette tape. (It had been agreed prior to the project that technology could be used if needed with Y11s as it was their final term before examination). I asked these older students if I was just way off-beam, and just wrong in my perception that students enjoyed using tech in their learning. To my great relief, they confirmed that I wasn’t wrong. They responded with great passion, asking how it would be possible to complete coursework as they wanted, or to revise using the audio app we use. One student was so passionate that he leapt from his chair, and proceeded to stamp his feet as he shouted his thoughts about how some people were making suggestions that would ruin his chances. 

As much as this made me feel better, I was still considering the year 9s, whom I am so fortunate to have a brilliant working relationship with. I didn’t believe those students voted as they did to impress the presenter, as was suggested by one colleague. 

Then followed another profound learning point in my week, a conversation in passing with a support colleague I’ve now worked closely with for quite a few years. He challenged me to remember what it felt like when I was at school. My schooling, being in the 1980s and 90s, involved early use of computer-based technology, but that use was rare and a novelty. He challenged me to consider that young people are completely surrounded by screen-based technology and (for year 9s born in 2005/06) they have never experienced life without it. For this reason alone, their experience of life is significantly different to mine. The novelty that I’d felt of using the technology could be more comparable to the currently younger generation of having situations that don’t use the technology. 

Wednesday

The cameras returned on Wednesday morning to film a repeat of Monday’s lesson, this time with my year 9 Production Via Technology class. The lesson was enjoyed again, although students appeared not quite so focused as I’d seen on Monday. At the end of the lesson, two boys were interviewed about their experience and both said how positive it was to play the real instrument, although only one had actually played it during the lesson. I was less surprised this time and reassured by the idea of it being a ‘novelty lesson’ as suggested on Tuesday. 

On Wednesday however, I was floored for a second time, this situation causing me so much deep thought that I was unable to sleep on Wednesday night. Year 10 GCSE music students are just beginning their work on a major composition project. They’re focusing on the development of melody this week and as such, the task was to compose an 8-bar melody. This class began the task on Tuesday, with the challenge to compose a melody initially with just manuscript paper and a pencil and rubber and no device or instrument to create sound other than their voice. In the Wednesday lesson, they could use one of 3 pianos in the department or 2 guitars, but couldn’t use computers or iPads. One student became very upset. They described not being confident enough with finding notes on a piano quickly in order to compose, not having access to their instrument (guitar) as they were being used by others and so much wanting to hear to know if it was the melody hoped for. This deeply challenged me as that student was fully aware of their learning and the help they needed. They were working independently, but had become deeply discouraged by the restriction of this week’s detox project. After a night of deep thinking, and feeling a sense of sadness for the student, I decided that, despite the clear benefits of me being involved in the experiment, that this negative-impact in the student’s well-being and hinderance of their development was significant and needed to be avoided in the future.  

A further negative moment on Wednesday was a second complaint of the week from one of the administration team. Communication is everything in how schools function, and due to me not using email and another internal app, I’d created extra work for another member of staff. 

Thursday

On Thursday morning I taught the year 10 Production Via Technology class, who are also studying melody writing. In response to some earlier student feedback, I’d developed a new tool to help students to find a starting point in composition (an aspect that many students find challenging). Following the events of Wednesday, I allowed all students to use their technology except for one, who had signed up to the digital detox himself. I felt I needed to do this, to ensure he could be allowed to complete his BBC challenge. He was visibly very annoyed, especially as other students had a different opportunity. As the lesson got started, the detox student was able to use paper to take notes of his musical choices (tempo, key, scale notes, range etc.) As a guitar student, he was then able to develop ideas and represent them on paper, though not in notation or TAB. The second task was to create a drum kit groove to complement the melody. He did this by drawing a grid similar to the one he’d used previously on GarageBand. He attempted to play the pattern on the real drum kit, but found it difficult and also couldn’t play his guitar and drum parts together. By this time all other students in the room had developed ideas and he found this frustrating too, especially as by now, some had added a harmony part. This was a vital learning point of the week. It proved that (of course) it is possible to create original music without technology, but that there is a limit, that otherwise technology can enhance. 

Also on Thursday, I taught a simplified version of the drum kit lesson with year 7. Partway through, a group of boys switched-off and moved to sit together and talk. On this occasion I chose to allow this, then reassuring them that they weren’t ‘in trouble’ asked what made them make this choice, rather than to take part with everyone else. They were so surprised that I’d shown this interest in them, rather than sanctioning it as poor behaviour and it triggered a further fascinating discussion. They shared of how interesting they found the drum kit work, but that after the first one or two individuals had been to the front to ‘have a go’, there wasn’t anything additional for them to learn as the same information was just being repeated for each participant. They made the choice to interact with each other, rather than sitting and appearing bored. They chose to move themselves away from the group so as not to interrupt the lesson. I wonder how many teachers have this type of conversation with their young people. 

A key benefit I’ve found in delivering music lessons with every student having a device is the opportunity for every student to remain engaged and able to apply their musical learning instantly, without having to wait for others. If I had a class of 5 students, it would be more straightforward for students to be involved together throughout the lesson, but this is far more challenging with a class of 30+ students and therefore the use of technology makes it possible to offer the same level of opportunity to all students at the same time. I’ve found this method promotes independent learning as well as collaboration and discussion between students as they discover new ideas individually and want to share them together. Until this year 7 lesson, I’ve not had evidence of the opposite of this, so this was greatly encouraging. It also highlighted the differences in the required levels of engagement between different key stages.

With the final day of the experiment approaching, I felt it important to share that I’d chosen to not complete the full 5-day detox and resumed my use of email and twitter. 

Friday & Final Comments

As I approached the filming of final comments with Amy Garcia today, I started to draw together my thoughts from the week. It has been a week of profound challenge and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned as I continue to develop things into the future.

In response to the original BBC question, it is clear that smart screen technology is significantly embedded into our lives. There is a risk that it can be over-used, and this is something I’ll certainly be more aware of moving forwards. I’ve known of positive opportunities technology can create for a long time, but this week has helped me to understand why. For some students, access to music education would be more difficult or impossible without it, especially in composition. For all students, it’s possible to learn about music with or without technology, but technology enhances the possibilities of music creation, for example allowing us to create and listen to many new ideas at the same time. So the technology for us is an extension for learning.

Following further discussion with students about why many students preferred lessons without iPads, it was completely legitimate that they’d enjoyed exploring the use of a new real instrument, and I must now look to find ways to create that type of experience within each project. However, we’ve also discovered that a key consideration for our young people is accountability. In a lesson using iPads, all are expected to partake immediately, and there has to be an outcome. They can’t simply sit at the back and relax. Students are forced to be responsible for their learning and to prove their understanding. Whereas this is positive from an ‘always proving progress’ standpoint, it does highlight the desire our young people have to just experience new ideas and have the space to allow knowledge to develop (without having the pressure to prove anything). Often as a teaching professional, I can relate to that pressure of a sense of always needing to meet accountability targets. I wonder if education policy makers consider this. I will certainly be more aware of this going forwards as I think about how I do more to support students as they develop their individual musical understanding. My lessons are enhanced by the best and timely use of the technology available. That ‘best use’ must have a defined purpose and come with additional support for students for its use, together with real-world musical experiences to ensure they can each have every opportunity to flourish. A balance of real-world and technology-based work is important.

It was a shame the BBC didn’t film any of the lessons involving the technology to be able to compare, although maybe that will be another opportunity for the future. I am deeply grateful to Amy Garcia and Mat Heywood for the opportunity to work together this week and for the time they’ve invested in music education. Many thanks to you both.

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.

MusicIn60

What could you make in 60 minutes? Be inventive. Be creative. Try it!

I’m exploring what’s possible with an iPad and 60 Minutes #MusicIn60 #JustBeCreative #MusicIsForEverybody #CreateWithoutFear #Challenge #MusicEducation

The best way to demonstrate our passion is to create.

Listen to Opus 1 here

Listen to Opus 2 here

Listen to Opus 3 here

Enter Competition here

More to follow…

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.

Competition Time: iPad Music 2019

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

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

Both melodies copyright protected. 2015. All rights reserved.

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Competition 2019

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

Brief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This competition has now closed.

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Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Harmony – The Hot Chocolate for Your Marshmallows

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

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

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

The students answered:

“It’s just different notes played together”

“It creates a more complex texture”

“It makes the music sound richer or fuller”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– E Minor (E G B)

– G Major (G B D)

– C# Dim. (C# E G)

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

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

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

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

How did he write the melody?

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

How did you write the harmony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Stefen Tan on Unsplash

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.

Year 8 “Production” Launched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title Photo by Mitchell Leach on Unsplash