Six Weeks of #MFlearn19

I’d fully intended my last blog post for this course to be full of deep and meaningful insights into how I see the future of music education that would spark brilliant conversations with great thinkers in the realm of music teaching. However, I’ve been packing up life in Thailand, waving goodbye to NIST International School (where I’ve had an absolute blast of a music teaching time), directing my community choir for a final time as well as turning 40 with a whole host of amazing celebrations and leaving parties. I am now sat in an empty house typing on an unfamiliar laptop where I can’t even activate the hashtag key whilst my two boys (now on the world’s longest ever summer holiday as we transfer school systems) are doing everything in their power to thwart my thinking as my own brain thinks about fitting stuff in suitcases, flights and what awaits with our new life at the other end. Gah! 

What I can say is that I have thoroughly enjoyed taking some time to engage my music teaching brain via #MFlearn19 and really think about what I do in the classroom and why I do it, alongside colleagues from all over the world.  Thank you all! Martin Emo and his thoughts on the ‘digital musician’ highlights an area where I really want to grow my own expertise. I believe that an engaging secondary music classroom harnesses the power of music technology. My 40th birthday present is an Ableton Push and with the 4 month sabbatical I’m taking from the classroom, I’m going to up skill myself with this ‘musical instrument’ through both trial and error and the magic of the YouTube tutorial. 

James Humberstone didn’t pull any punches when he said “Music education is doing really well in spite of us teachers”. Ouf. But it’s good to know that kids want to have music in their lives and place it equal first in what they like to do. I agree with him that technology has democratised music making and students today are playing and making music in an environment that is a world away from the one we had growing up. As a teacher I find that really exciting and am in the category of people that like to learn something new every day. 

In my introductory blog I said that I’d taken a Musical Futures approach to teaching and learning before I knew it had a name and that others were on the same path too. As Lucy Green and Anna Gower were carrying out the first trials informal learning trials, I was in my West London classroom writing chord charts, note names, lyrics and bits of notation for the latest chart hits in different coloured markers on my white board and then running along it pointing with my pen as students played along on whatever we had (#beforetheplaylong). The same kids were teaching me a thing or two about rapping and in turn I was opening the door to other wide and varied soundscapes – the film scores of John Williams, Indonesian Gamelan, Satie’s quirkiness, the heyday of Brit pop and just how badass virtuosic recorder playing can be. 

I’ve now packed up my life in Bangkok (including all my musical futures inspired know how) and am ready to embark on the next adventure, taking my third culture kids ‘home’ to London. New school, new team, new students and a whole host of music making possibilities. Bring it on! 

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.

In at the deep end: sink or swim? #MFLearn19

I have so many thoughts on student choice, student voice and (insert dramatic music) ‘group work!‘ that I’ve gathered through 17 years of teaching in an array of different environments ranging from the ‘very, very challenging’ to the ‘pinch me is this really teaching?’ that it’s hard to know where to begin. But begin I shall.

I’m going to say it out loud, the biggest hurdle to embracing informal learning as a teacher is the fear of  losing control and being faced with a class ‘mucking around’ (and let’s face it, in music that mucking around can be louder than any other subject area) just when senior management are on a walk round to ensure that behaviour expectations are being met across the school (facepalm). We all know, because we’ve been there, that any teacher starting out on their chosen career path has to work their butt off to learn how to manage and inspire class after class of unique individuals whilst ensuring that they learn something along the way. I thank Sue Cowley and her  ‘Getting the Buggers to Behave’ for continually providing food for thought during my teaching career (Tip No.100: Even in your worst lesson, nobody died). It therefore seems like a leap of faith to relinquish your hard won control and sense of order to explore something more ‘chaotic’.

When it comes to Musical Futures informal ‘In at the deep end’ approach to learning you’re not just going to meet a class for the first time and declare ‘hey guys, grab some instruments, find your friends and go play any piece of music you like in any space you can find!’. You’re going to dig some skill foundations into your curriculum, lay some lovely strong ground work in terms of using space and equipment and scaffold some learning experiences whilst getting to really know your students before letting rip. You’ll also think about building collaboration skills.

Collaboration is inherent in the Arts. I like the fact that Tom Sherrington says ‘in the Arts it’s not a question of whether to do group work but how much freedom to give groups’. This leads me into my thinking about students choosing their own groups, a key facet of Lucy Green’s research and which Anna Marragudi uses as the starting point for her own phd research which she’s shared with us this week . My own quest to be an expert group work facilitator is a continual work in progress as I move schools around the globe and find myself in very different teaching and cultural environments. I believe strongly in students having a voice (Tip No.80: You can’t build trust without handing over responsibility) and outlined below is my own approach to letting them have one (spoiler alert, it’s not new or ground breaking).

For me, preparation for informal learning will always begin with whole class teacher led workshopping, questioning, explaining, and modelling. I get to know my students, they get to know me and expectations for learning and handling of equipment are firmly established. As my old university tutor John Finney says, if students are to participate then the rules of the game need to be understood by everyone.

When the students first head into group work they do so with a short, very specific performance/composition task with clearly demarcated roles (Tip No.91: Targets and deadlines are a wonderful way to focus the mind). I’ll use random grouping, such as numbering off and then putting like numbers together, and then observe how students interact with the group they have ended up in. How is the conversation flowing? Who’s taking charge? Who’s sitting back? Which instruments have people gravitated towards? Who’s happy in the group? Who is overwhelmed? Who’s trying to throw in some sticks of dynamite to burst the work asunder? At the end of the group work session I have students reflect (have their say) on how this grouping panned about: How did you feel? Was your voice heard in the group? What was surprising? Ok, this group was ‘disastrous’ but what can we do differently?

There will usually be 4 or 5 students in a group. In my experience, this is usually what practice spaces and equipment allows in music departments. More than 5 in a group and that is when I notice the free riding/Ringelmann effect/Hagan’s cogs and logs kicking in.

In the next phase of group working students choose a friend and then I’ll match one friendship pair with another using all the knowledge I gained from observing previously. What skills do these students have to share with one another? (Tip No.89: Harness the power of positive peer pressure. Help children learn to support each other). There will now be more room for creativity in the task with a freer choice of instruments and possibly their own choice of music (depending on the unit) so I can see which direction the students want to head in with my starting points. I’ll observe the groups working and ask myself “do I need to carry out more direct instruction or have the students ‘got it’?

In the final phase of group working, with plenty of skills and a deeper understanding of who is who in their music class, students can now choose whoever they want to work with to complete the summative task. The group can be as small as a pair but no bigger than 5. Generally students seem to have a good idea about who they feel comfortable with and the process is smooth. However, if I have some exclusion problems I’ll intervene swiftly to find an acceptable solution to all parties.

Helping students to collaborate and work in groups can be exhilarating as you watch things come together, see the students take pride in their work and with any luck observe a creative direction you hadn’t quite foreseen. But there’s no denying that it’s b**** exhausting! Setting the spaces, sorting the equipment, rotating around the practice rooms, helping to mediate ‘artistic differences’ before the s*** hits the fan, being the ever seeing eye and confirming the belief in your students that yes, you do indeed have eyes in the back of your head and they can see through walls! It’s much, much harder than teaching one circle of students in one room who all have their eyes on you. But the final thought I finish with is that research tells us that the most valuable skills in the workplace (now and in the future) are communication, collaboration, self management, creative and critical thinking. All of that you’ll find in my Music classroom, day in and day out. No need to thank me, it’s my pleasure (most of the time).