Holistic Learning in the Music Classroom

Flea is the Bass Guitarist for the ‘Red Hot Chilli Peppers’

Anna Gower is the guest speaker for week 4 of #MFLearn19 discussing the ‘haphazard’ an ‘chaotic’ nature of holistic learning in the music room as students all take different journeys to reach their goals. She asks, do we really need to spend time differentiating materials ahead of time?

I’ve long been an admirer of Jane Werry and the insights she shares into her classroom via twitter and Music Teacher magazine. Anything I can say, Jane Werry can say it better and she’s summarised it perfectly when she states “Differentiation is what teachers do to enable all students to make progress” and we can do this by task, grouping, resource, pace, outcome, dialogue and support.

Let’s return to my Y8 Remix and Mash unit that I described elements of in a previous blog and take a look at what happened differentiation wise in the space of one 70 minute lesson this week. The background is that students have completed their individual remix and mashup task on garageband and process journals have been submitted. We now have 3 lessons to revisit, revise and rehearse our whole class mashup performance before we take to the stage next Monday for the Y8 showcase.

Before the lesson starts I’ve rewatched the videos of their small group remix and mash performances that they played 8 weeks ago. Here they’d chosen their own instrument, their own band mates and what they would do with the same material I’d provided for each group. Time is of the essence in this showcase and so I’ve decided that I’m going to blend the smaller groups into two groups of 10. The group performances will segue into one another to create one ultimate 6 minute mash. I’ve chosen the groups based on the tracks they’d chosen to mash, the instrumental mix, skill range and personality balance. I need each group of 10 to function when I’m not in the room with them and so I have a rough idea of who might make themselves student director. I set two main spaces for each group and have another 3 break out spaces available.

The lesson starts with the students watching their performance videos. There’s lots of laughter as they see themselves on the screen. I explain that we have 3 lessons to get a mashup performance ready for the stage (there’s a few gasps). I present my 2 groups of 10 plan and the logic behind it. They are on board with that. I now plant the seed that the groups should try and mash in some melodies from their individual remix projects and that might require some key changing. I allocate spaces, set a time limit and push go.

Immediate burst of noise as the students work out which room they are heading into. I hear one kid exclaim “which group am I in?!” and before I have a chance to respond another voice pipes up “she’s written it on the board you bozo and it clearly says you’re in the Mozart room”. Instruments crank up and twiddling begins as students try to remember their parts. Some students are watching the video on their laptops, some ask me for the lead sheets we used previously and one beginner pianist asks the advanced pianist in his group to stick some stickers on the keys to remind him where the notes are. A beginner bass player asks me to check the tuning on the guitar because it doesn’t sound right. I check. The tuning is correct, could he show me the pattern he’s playing? Turns out he’s a fret out. I slide his hand down and he’s good to go. One student who’d played uke in the original video asks if he can switch to marimba, I say that’s fine and leave him to work out what he wants to play (he must have a idea if he wants to switch). When I return 10 minutes later, he’s worked out how to play ‘Billie Jean’ (his remix song) in the right key and is playing it with the drummer and pianist. Result! First extra mash song is decided. “, Oh, oh oh!” i hear from another student in the room, if he’s playing that I could try my song. “Go on then”. I hush the group. I get the drummer to play his beat (it sounds like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition) and then get the piano and bass to add the chord pattern. The student sets off with ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. It sounds terrible, the student laughs and we laugh with him. I ask the group “what could he try?” The student who’s already worked out Billie Jean tells him to start on an A. I suggest that he heads off into another practice space to work it out and to remember to play the chords with his left hand to check the harmony. I go next door to see how the other group is getting along, When I return 10 minutes later, Boulevard of Broken Dreams is being played with the backing. Result! Second extra mash song is decided. The class character (there’s at least one in every class) starts singing ‘Mbube’ loudy and out of tune into the microphone. “Bingo” I shout. “Sing a bit lower and that will mash too”. I’m leaving you to work out a suitable backing for your vocal.

In the second group (which I knew would be functioning perfectly well without me) they’ve managed to blend their two performances together using my original mash songs. It’s sounding good and I exclaim how impressed I am with their collaboration skills. I ask the ukulele player whether she could sing as well as play, maybe a harmony line over the main melody? I also say that I have an inkling that the marimba players individual remix choice would probably mash if she changes the key. A small group gather around the marimba to work it out together whilst I head over to the bass player to see if we could add some 3rds into his playing now that the root notes are so confident. I show him the first chord and leave him to work out the others. There’s a shout of ‘“yes, that works!’ from the marimba. Result! We have a fourth extra mash song added. The drummer (self taught through classroom room music last year and this year) wants to add a new beat. I grab the advanced drummer from the other group and send them off into a practice room for a bit of peer teaching. I point to the clock and tell them what time to return to their own groups.

With 15 minutes of the lesson left I bring both groups together to listen to what we have in the our groups of 10. I record the performances. There’s plenty of nods to indicate ‘that doesn’t sound too shabby at all’. Equally, we have some rogue notes and a ‘seat of the pants moment’ which will definitely need fixing up next lesson. We also need to work out how to get one group off the stage and the other on without any break in the music. There’s a comical suggestion from one of the class characters. We all laugh and then I say thank you we’re done for today.

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