Teaching for Engagement

‘Teaching for Engagement’ is a phrase I’ve taken directly from Emily Wilson, this week’s guest presenter #MFLearn19. I loved the ‘Reggae Jam Classroom Snapshot’ she shared as part of her PHD research as I’m a proper nosey parker who enjoys hearing about (and learning from) the nitty gritty of other people’s music rooms. For me, music teaching is always an integration of performing, composing and listening. I’ve been fortunate to build my curriculum over 17 years in 4 different countries with a huge variety of students, a huge range of resources and some awesome colleagues in a range of subject areas. In the video Emily says that “when improvising and composing, students showed a high level of engagement” and it made me think that many of my most memorable and joyous moments in my music teaching career to date, have come from creating original music with my students.

I wouldn’t naturally term myself a ‘composer’. I busted out 3 original pieces for my own GCSE music paper back in 1994/5. There was a piece for 2 violins and cello inspired by ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ which I was playing with the local youth orchestra, an Oboe Sonata inspired by ‘Scarborough Fair’ and a solo piano piece inspired by Satie (I still adore Satie). I wrote these individually with pencil, eraser, manuscript paper and my own instrumental know how. With no music technology available, we could only compose for the instruments people could actually play for us in class. We didn’t even have a multi track recorder! I found the whole process quite difficult (in comparison with performing and listening analysis) and didn’t think my ideas were up to much. There wasn’t any whole class improvisation to build composition ideas nor were there any set briefs from the exam board to guide us in a certain direction. I was just left to get on with it, using what I already knew, whilst the teacher worked with the more challenging members of my state school class. A – Level music was about compositional techniques – Bach Chorale, String Quartet and 12 Tone Serialism – taught in a very dry manner. Then at University, because I was also studying French, the composition option block was closed to me. It never occured to me to just write my own music for fun as I was actually very happy playing other people’s.

It was teacher training that closed, what I perceived to be, my composition gap. John Paynter and Peter Aston’s ‘Sound and Silence’ was referenced by many of the writers in our ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ set reading text. There was brilliant interactive session with the education consultant from The London Sinfonia, using classroom instruments to compose around William Walton’s  ‘Long Steel Grass’ but most importantly, a new friend who had majored in composition at a leading conservatoire, needed a violinist to work with her on a new piece in a music studio. I turned up expecting to be presented with my part but instead my friend just scribbled the notes for Indian Rag Bhairav (morning raga) on a piece of manuscript, pushed me through the studio door and then gave instructions through the headphones “ascend 2 octaves, now come down again, use more vibrato, try repeating the top 3 notes over and over, imagine just waking up in the morning and play a flourish”. It was utterly bonkers. And utterly engaging.

‘Being a bit bonkers’ isn’t such a bad way to make your music teaching memorable as I’ve found in my teaching career to date. My blogs are already littered with the creative composition tasks I’ve done with students in the realms of Hip Hop and popular music. I’ve taught GCSE and A-level composition and examined for both of those specifications (grading composition is fodder for a whole other blog post). But I want to share the joy that comes from writing original show music with students.

At the American International School of Mozambique, the utterly inspiring Colleen Fletcher and I decided that we’d stage a modern version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ using all students in our Y9-11 performing arts classes. In Music I looked at how Romeo and Juliet had been depicted in compositions through the ages and we began to think, how can we create our own depiction using our own instrumental skills and the resources we have available? And so it was that each class had a STOMP inspired number, using the scaffolding set, which we devised through whole class workshopping and improvisation. My Y11 hip hop word artists chose and created backing tracks to set Shakespeare’s text. A talented Y10 saxophonist wrote an original piece to accompany the balcony scene. The ballroom scene was an absolute riot of rock songs written by the group themselves and I combined choir and hip hop crew to create an exquisite piece for the heart wrenching ending leaving not one dry eye in the house. Spurred on by this success, the following year we wrote an entirely original show called ‘Africa’s Story’ with all the students in Y7-11. Drumming, Gum Boot Dancing, Marimba Ensemble, animal vocal calls, solo songs – it was all devised with the students in class. Everyone acted, everyone danced and everyone took their turn in the orchestra pit. It was awesome.

In London, with wonderful Head of Drama Rhian Davies Jones on board, it was always my Y10 music class in which I would set the real world composition task of writing for the school production. For the play ‘Oliver’ the students worked in groups of 4 to write leitmotifs for the main characters which we then inter-weaved together during rehearsals, editing and adapting as needed to match the stage action. For ‘The Grim Tales’, each group had a tale to bring to life musically. One student wrote a recorder part especially for me that worked brilliantly with his tabla.

Here in Bangkok, I’ve updated ‘Guys and Dolls’ with student arrangers. DJ deck scratching worked a treat in that score. I also worked a folk inspired original score with students for ‘Twelfth Night’ using Bali pan, violin, uke, double bass, guitar, body percussion and voice. We wrapped on that just 3 weeks ago.

There will always be many ‘seat of the pants’ moments when you write show music with students, and my husband awaits the inevitable moment each year when I sob on his shoulder saying ‘it’s a mess and we’re on stage in 2 week’s time!’. But as Clara Schumann said,  “There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it”. The students are always immensely proud of what they can achieve and their parents/carers are always blown away.

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!

‘Hip Hop Hippie’: The opportunities and challenges hip hop presents in the Music Classroom. #MFLearn19

I am one of those teachers who has embraced hip hop in the classroom and was therefore super excited to engage with Ethan Hein’s presentation as part of #MFLearn19. I’m definitely not a native to the music. Whereas Hein at least grew up in Brooklyn alongside the birth of hip hop music, I stand before my students a white, classically trained musician from the north of England. Many a student has shaken their head despairingly at my attempts to ‘spit some rhymes’ and at my jokes about there being nothing quite so ‘gangsta’ as virtuosic recorder playing. But I grew up watching ‘Top of the Pops’ every week on the BBC and listening to the Top 40 countdown religiously each Sunday which presented me with a real diversity of listening material. Run DMC, Salt and Peppa, The Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes and Nas were all featured. At the school disco we knew the words to Will Smith’s ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’, ‘Ice Ice Baby’, MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ and House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. I also listened to Classic FM, created dance routines to my parent’s Abba records and the first cassette I bought with my own money was Guns and Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ so I guess I’ve always been eclectic in my tastes.

I was fortunate to come across teachers unafraid to use hip hop early on in my music teaching career. It was in 2001 during teacher training in the Cambridgeshire countryside that one of my mentors used ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill gang in her Y9 music class. She’d also created a little booklet of graffiti art and we watched a Newsround program on breakdancing. There was no music technology suite in the school (definitely no garageband) for us to compose with, just all the beats you’d find programmed into a casio keyboard and the ‘About Me’ poems the students had written in English class. We added chord patterns and other sound effects we could find on the keyboard. Hein says in his video that ‘100% of kids can rap’. They can. It was fun.

During my first teaching gig in West London we had an old set of computers running Cubase. There we were using Coolio’s ‘C U When u Get There’, with its Pachelbel ground bass as the starting point for composition. I asked students to write and rap their own original verse about life in West London. We talked about school appropriate language and I laid down the ground rules. I have no doubt there were more colourful versions performed outside of school (or behind my back in the practice rooms) but the ones they delivered in class were clean(ish) and rapped way better than I could. It was the kids here who introduced me to The Streets and Dizzie Rascal. Hein has a slide in his phd presentation that talks about Hip Hop’s ‘scavenger ethos’. In this school we also used Punjabi MC’s ‘Mudian to Bach Ke’ with its sampled bassline from 80s television show ‘Knight Rider’ (also sampled by Busta Rhymes in ‘Fire it Up’) as a starting point for composition. The tabla and dhol teacher bought his kit in to drum live for us in class whilst we experimented with rap vocals. It was fun.

In Mozambique I had a group of students who wanted to set up an after school group called ‘Word Art’ where kids could come together and write original verse (in a wide range of languages) to rap over whatever backing we could muster from our haphazard collection of instruments. Hein talks in the video about hip hop being created via trial and error. I had an apple mac at home with an early version of garageband so I’d throw some samples together, download the tracks to my ipod and play them for the kids during the session (they were pretty brutal with their feedback). The rap group joined a rock band and my 40 strong cast of STOMPers to provide the soundtrack to our production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It was fun.

On my return to London I was thrilled to discover that the rapper Akala had established The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. Hip Hop dance was also huge with shows like ‘Into The Hoods’ drawing sellout audiences. In my school here (an all boys state school) I was really focussed on having the boys use their voices (all that community singing I’d experienced living in Africa where singing was just part and parcel of everyday life). Rap was an obvious way in and then we all went a bit beatbox (and body percussive) mad. This guy was our starting point and then the students would throw in samples from any song they knew the melody to. Hein in his video talks about ‘keeping it fresh’. I did and it was fun.

My stint in The Netherlands and my foray into the world of baby and toddler music, although heavy in the sheer joy of how tiny people interact with music, were light in terms of hip hop references. So I shall skip forward to the present day in Bangkok where @alisonmusicblog and I have been working Hip Hop with Y9. Here’s an insight. In a nutshell, the kids explore how hip hop emerged, discuss concerns that this culture can raise, sample music they choose themselves and write original rap lyrics about what’s it like to be a teenager in Bangkok (thank you Ethan Hein for the term ‘ speak your own reality’). One of my girl duos took to the stage on International Women’s Day with their original take on girlhood with samples taken from Billie Ellish (Bury a Friend), BTS (DNA) and Black Eyed Peas (Where is the love). ‘Hip Hop Evolution’ on Netflix is brilliant as is ‘The Get Down’. Personally I’m hugely influenced by the work of Kate Tempest . I’m still having fun.

“My whole thing is to inspire, to better people, to better myself forever in this thing we call rap, this thing we call hip hop” Kendrick Lemar.

A drum roll please for my first blog……

EARCOS 2019. Getting Ready to ‘Play the Dance and Move the Rhythm’ with Kofi Gbolonyo.

Blogging is an idea I’ve toyed with on and off for a long while. In fact, my husband reminded me that in those pre-Facebook and pre Twitter days he set up a blog during our first overseas posting to Mozambique. My contribution to the  blog was to share the text from my email diary, the fortnightly messages in which I’d regale family and friends with the trials and tribulations of a 20 something Brit adapting to life in sub saharan Africa, trying to master Portuguese whilst building a secondary school music department from scratch in a country where supplies were very limited and power cuts part and parcel of everyday life. My husband would then add photos and write sensible dialogue about big important issues. Alas, that blog ended as we left Maputo and is now deeply buried in the websphere never to be found again.

Fast forward 4 house moves, 3 countries, 2 kids and 2 more languages and here I am in 2019 trying to get to grips with WordPress so I can share some thoughts about my 17 years of teaching and learning in the world of music education and most importantly, learn from others as passionate as me about making music accessible for everyone. I was launched into the world of classroom music teaching by the legendary John Finney at Cambridge University and still draw plenty of inspiration from his wise and thought provoking blog posts. I’ve taken a Musical Futures approach to teaching and learning from before I even realised it had a name and that others were on this path too (the going was tough in my first London Secondary School and I needed to think outside the box if I was going to survive). #MFLearn19? Let’s do this!