Our Many Possible Musical Selves

It’s week 2 of #MFLearn19 and I’m listening to Dr Gwen Moore and her thoughts about the musical futures approach to informal learning and learning by ear. I’m also reading her article about ‘our many possible musical selves’. Just like Gwen begins this week’s presentation with who she is as a musician and teacher, that seems like a very good place for me to start my reflection too.

The big picture is that I am notation reading musician that has taught (and is still teaching) herself to learn by ear. Both approaches definitely have value in the music curriculum. Lucy Green in her research into ‘How Popular Musicians Learn’ indicates that even those who learn my ear initially go on to seek out some understanding of notation and when the Jazz great Louis Armstrong was asked was asked if he could read music he is said to have replied “yes, but not enough to hurt my playing”. So let me go back to the beginning and look at my own musical self and how that has snowballed over time.

In the list of instruments that get a bad wrap, the recorder is way up there at the top of the list and in this age of digital technology, there are even You Tube channels dedicated to just how s***** the recorder can be. And yet, it is that very instrument and its presence in primary school classrooms that I have to thank for creating my musical self. Aged 5, with no other instruments at home, I was presented with a descant recorder. The sounds, the rhythms (too, te, ti) and how those corresponded to the dots on the stave made sense to me and I picked up material quickly. My teacher, trained in the Kodaly method, moved me to treble recorder, which requires different fingering, and gave me harmony lines (notated) to play in the classroom ensemble. I went on to learn piano, violin and oboe to a high standard but unlike others who would drop the recorder for ‘better options’ I kept it as my number one instrument completing a performance diploma, competing in festivals, securing the coveted title of ‘Rotherham Young Musician of the Year Finalist’ (I was in the local newspaper, but didn’t let the celebrity go to me head..) and chose the instrument as my first study at university playing my chosen concerto with pride alongside the other ‘proper’ instrumentalists.

As I’d learnt to read notation so early, I don’t actually know what it’s like not to be able to read western musical notation. I took Grade 5 ABRSM theory aged 9 and sight reading has always been a strength. From the age of 15 I made my pocket money playing the piano accompaniment for younger students taking their music exams as I could pick up the music quickly. If I had to memorise music for a performance (gah, this is still my biggest challenge) I would see the notation playing in my mind which then seemed to prompt what my fingers needed to do. Unless I was singing, which leads me to my next thought.

In my memory, it felt like we sang all the time in primary school. Nothing was notated or written down for that, it was just Mr Shaw and his guitar teaching us a vast array of songs by ear. There were the melodies that turned into rounds and a whole range of accompaniment riffs (‘and what became of the monkey, monkey, monkey..’) and I guess my earliest experience of the mashup when ‘you can’t your muck in our dustbin’ was fused with ‘fish and chips and viniger’ and ‘counting bottles of pop’ over Mr Shaw’s guitar vamps. Sometimes Mr Smith would rock in with his piano playing and the ultimate excitement (for me at least) being let loose with the percussion box (I still love an egg shaker). It was singing that got me through the A-Level Aural paper as in order to notate what I heard I had to be able to sing it. I’d keep singing the passage back to myself, long after that section of the listening paper had passed, calculating the intervals until it was correct on the manuscript paper.

It’s this ‘if you can sing it you can play it’ mantra that my students hear most from me in the classroom. My Y8’s and I are remixing and mashing in our current unit of inquiry. The inquiry is launched with this awesome ‘Everything is a Remix’ documentary. I then pull out a brilliant Musical Futures Playalong, this trimester it was ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’ by the Weekend. Students play guitar, uke, bass, piano and sing the melody part. We improvise around the chord pattern as a whole class (voice plays a big part here) and then in small groups the students remix the track for live performance. Body percussion, junk percussion, rap, their own instruments (Violin, Marimba, Thai flute, Double Bass, Saxophone) all get chucked at the task in a wonderful cacophony of sound. Some work out how to play the melody by ear (singing it back to themselves as they search for notes), some just search up the notes for the melody and read it from their computers. I then introduce the idea of mashing other songs with our original chord pattern. For ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’ I went with ‘Problem’ by Arianna Grande. ‘Don’t Stop the Feeling’ by Justin Timberlake and ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ by Coldplay . I do this vocally with no sheet music but then as the students move into groups for performance rehearsal, I have notation handouts for those that want to read. I give my students the choice of how they want to handle all the material and which instruments they want to use. I pose the question, do you know another song that might mash that I haven’t thought of?

In the next phase of this Remix and Mash inquiry my students choose their own song to analyse, remix and mash with the finished product being a garageband composition accompanied by a creative process journal. We’re in the depths of this process now. Yesterday a whole range of stuff was going on in my classroom. One student is converting a YouTube karaoke track for J Cole’s ‘Middle Child’ into an MP3 to drop into garageband. We’ve had the conversation about why the original lyric is inappropriate to recreate school. But it’s the beat and brass hook (I helped him with that vocabulary) that the student really likes so he’s going to write an original rap about being a Middle School Kid (can you see the link there, middle child original, middle school remix..) and see if he can mash a new melody. My Grade 7 classically trained pianist is blasting through Alan Walker’s ‘Faded’ from the notation she’s found and is reading with ease. She’s going take the opening melody and layer it with an urban drum loop she’s dropped in from the garageband loop section. I’ve posed the question whether there’s anything in her piano playing back catalogue in the same key that might mash. Another student is singing the melody from Marshmellow’s ‘Happier’ to himself and trying to work out the notes on the keyboard. “I want to challenge myself Ms Danielle” he’s told me. I’m not sure at the moment whether he’ll get there (he’s a brilliant drummer so the rhythm is not a problem) but I’ve left him with a keyboard diagram as he knows the melody starts on a B but he’s not sure where that note is. Another is playing in uke chords live, another is singing in the melody and there’s always one in every class who is just clicking through all the garageband loops and bouncing their head. In 4 lessons time I’ll have 20 submissions to listen to and assess using MYP criteria for creative thinking. There will be some awesome pieces, there will be some pieces that are still messy (despite my best attempts to explain phrasing and structuring) but every kid will have been engaged and every kid will have been musical. We’ll round off the unit as a class band of 20 on stage in the Y8 showcase performing our ultimate mashup. Happy Days.

Y8 Mashup Performance March 2017. Look at those smiles!

One thought on “Our Many Possible Musical Selves

  1. I’m in awe of how patient you are with the students and all the different levels of thinking that you engage them within in the Remix/ Mashup unit (fellow readers- Danielle and I teach at the same school). That’s been the biggest challenge to me as a teacher over the years- supporting such a range of backgrounds and guiding students to methods to help themselves. Notation is such a huge help to me, I struggle to cut it from my teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

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