Archive | May, 2011

Lesson Planning: Using MuseScore to Teach Theory

May 31, 2011


My year junior students had a look at MuseScore for the first time yesterday. It’s a really useful tool for reinforcing all the basic music theory concepts we’ve been looking at lately. My seniors were introduced to it today, and used it for a simple orchestration exercise to get the hang of the program.

I’m thinking of revamping my theory lessons so that the majority of them can take place using MuseScore, and perhaps Acid Xpress (a particularly good tool for visualising musical structure, I’ve found). It would be wonderful if I could have a midi lab, with all the computers set up with a keyboard, instead of having to remove students from the normal music classroom for theory lessons. That’s my long-term goal.

In the meantime, my brain is ticking over, and I’m coming up with a list of lesson plans, homework assignments, and classroom activities that I’d like to prepare with MuseScore. It would also be a great relief-supply tool for occasions when I happen to be away.

Does anyone know if there’s an online bank of MuseScore activities for theory and composition which might be up and running somewhere?

In other news, I spoke to one of the deputies yesterday about year 9/10 music, and I was told that there’s no need to worry on that front, which is a relief. My focus now is encouraging as many as possible to join senior music next year, which is traditionally a very small class.

Ben Smith from the Music Teachers’ Network has also introduced me to the Musical Futures approach, which I’d not encountered before this week, so I will be investigating that direction enthusiastically. I’ve had a look around the website today, and it looks fantastic!

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This article by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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When the all the whiz-bang technology lets you down…

May 26, 2011


"OMG!!! FRUSTRATED!!" by Jonathan Robison

You’ve planned your lesson perfectly, made all the right preparations, and then suddenly…

…the power goes out.

…or the data projector overheats.

…or the computer crashes.

It’ll happen sooner or later, most likely sooner. I had all my ducks in a row: assignment sheets printed off, spare earphones handy, research space allocated, notebooks organised. All my students sat with their laptops in front of them, ready to get into their composition assignment – the first one I’d ever set where the use of music creation software was a central requirement.

One by one, my students raised their hands and told me they couldn’t log on. We tried everything I could think of before I gave up and called for the computer tech, but he was busy in another computer lab trying to solve exactly the same problem. One false circuit in something, somewhere, had brought down the whole network.

Resigned, I got my students to pack the notebooks away into the recharge trolley and head back over to the classroom.

Rule No.1: when planning a technology lesson, always have a Plan B.

Rule No.2: memorise Rule No.1.

Since I have access to the musical instruments and a stock of practical lessons up my sleeve, technical hiccups like this aren’t a major drama.

I do feel for those colleagues whose subject matter absolutely depends upon a working computer, like IT Studies and the like. It must be incredibly frustrating when the network isn’t functioning, and I wonder how they manage it. How many Plan B’s can you have for a subject like that?

Those reticent about technology would seem to have a point: why go to all the trouble of decking ourselves out in all this whiz-bang technology when a: talk and chalk does just fine, and b: we can’t rely on all those gadgets and gizmos to work?

However, as Chris Betcher points out, staying up-to-date with technology and use it as fully as possible in the classroom is all part of the job, pretty much whether we like it or not.

Our students see all this technology around them every day: they should be able to expect that their teachers know how to utilise it. Age and the idea that they are “digital natives” whereas we ourselves may not be, doesn’t really make a difference: they go through exactly the same process of learning how to use something as we do. If they do it younger, so what?

Failing technology isn’t an excuse to neglect it: it’s a reason to make sure it gets continual improvement, and to invest in quality professional development so teachers have more strategies and technical know-how for when things go haywire.

In the meantime, have a Plan B. Always.

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This article by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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I learned something today…

May 25, 2011


"Metronome Blue" by mandykoh

I like listening to music when I do my afternoon walk. If there’s one thing that bugs me, it’s finding a song with a really good walking beat, only to have it followed with another that slows right down, or speeds right up.

It’s the little things.

It gets really annoying when I spend a whole 50-minute walk changing up and down like this. (Okay, so I’m a bit anal when it comes to music for waking.)

So I got a whole stack of songs I like “walking along” to, put them all on an iTunes list, and downloaded a metronome onto my iphone. I cut out any songs that went below 122 beats per minute, or above 130.

Then I rearranged the song order, starting from 122 bpm, working up slowly to 130, and then back down to 122. (I did say I was anal.)

I tested out my new list today for the first time. It worked wonderfully.

What I’ve learned is this: after 50 mins of walking at 122 bpm+, your legs get sore.

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This article by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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What Teachers Make…

May 24, 2011


A brilliant piece of slam poetry by Taylor Mali:

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No, you’re not seeing things. I really have changed my blog name…back.

May 23, 2011


So, I was all excited about having “Music Triple C’ as my new name for my new-look, new-feel blog.

But I should have done some research first. Triple C is actually the name of a hip hop group. Now, granted, it struck me as kind of a happy coincidence at first, but it actually makes my blog not quite as Google-savvy, as far as search engines go.

Also, reading a bit further into blog naming, I read that it is better to have the name of your blog describe what your blog is really about. So, Music Teach.n.Tech it is. Permanently. Forever and ever. Amen.

The three Cs are staying, though. I’m still about creativity, connectivity, and collegiality, and I think they make a nice little philosophy slogan together. So my header stays as it is.

So, I apologize for any confusion, and I thank you for your patience. Call it the indecision of a new blogster just getting off the ground in my first month (well, my second one now). No changes to either name, site, or address next month, I promise.

Btw: while it would be good to update your links (again), all original links to will still make it here in the meantime, as I haven’t deleted that domain, just in case.

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Incorporating Creative Commons into Composition Assessment

May 23, 2011


My junior students have been doing a songwriting unit this term. Also, a number of them have talked to me about stuff that they or their friends have been uploading to websites like YouTube.

I’ve only really been thinking with any real depth about Creative Commons licensing since I started this blog, and following other blogs whose owners talk about it all the time.

It has now occurred to me to wonder how much my students know about protecting their own intellectual property, in terms of songs and other arts works that they produce. So I’m thinking of incorporating this into their assignment work.

What I’m planning to do is have a lesson devoted to Creative Commons licensing, showing them the website and all the different options. They will then be required to go to the website themselves, license their composition, and document the license correctly on their work before they hand it in.

The only thing I’m not entirely sure about and will need to clarify is whether this will conflict with the intellectual property rights held by the school. My employer claims copyright for all sorts of things, including arts works created by the students for the purposes of assessment.

But what if my students write a really great song, and then want to go ahead and record that song years down the track and release it commercially? It seems reasonable to me that any songs they write would be considered their own work.

In the meantime, it also seems reasonable that, since they are already producing songs and music videos in their own time for public consumption, they should be aware of ways they can protect their copyright while still allowing free distribution of their work. In these days of self-publishing and YouTube, this issue is more relevant than ever.

So I’m thinking of incorporating this latest addition to my compositions assessments, particularly for my senior students, as a way of increasing their awareness of copyright and licensing of arts works – not just their own but everyone’s.

Does anyone else do this with their students already?

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Incorporating Creative Commons into Composition Assessment by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Learning Management, Learning Design

May 21, 2011


There’s a term for teachers which has been in vogue for a while: learning managers. At the Central Queensland University, for example, you can get a Bachelor of Learning Management, which is a standard education degree.

I have to say I’ve never really warmed to the term very much. I get the philosophy behind the terminology, being about “student-centred” rather than “teacher-centred” classroom strategies and such, but it just doesn’t do anything for me. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m not the “manager” type.

My Head of Department is a natural-born manager. Organisation is in her blood. The more things she has to organise, the happier she is.

I must be the bane of her existence because one of my favourite sayings is a quote by Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

I’m more the artsy, intuitive type: I’m idealistic, impractical, have a bedroom messy enough to rival any teenager’s, and cannot spell the word “deadline” without using a dictionary.

A weird side-effect is that, since I know what I’m like with deadlines, I never set an assignment and then just assume that my students will just go ahead and hand it in on time. So I nag and harp on at them about their deadlines probably twice as much as other personality types who take organisation for granted.

About a week ago, I came across an alternative term: learning designer. I don’t remember where I saw it, but it fires my imagination in a way that learning manager just doesn’t.

While learning manager sounds highly efficient and practical, learning designer appeals to that creative, mess-making impulse in me that wants to get in there, build something, and come out with my face and clothing covered in paint.

Learning designer makes me want to build an artist’s studio for lesson planning.

If I take my planning and apply to it the idea of learning design, suddenly I feel like I’m planning a painting, sculpture, or composition. To paint a good picture or compose a good musical work, you need a clear sense of structure, balance, and motif. So, messy though the process might be, the result wouldn’t be messy: just the opposite.

In theory, anyway.

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Learning Management, Learning Design by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Teaching students how to finish a performance

May 19, 2011


My senior students have been rehearsing for an upcoming performance assessment during the past few weeks. One issue that frequently turns up is how to finish.

Specifically, it’s how to maintain that split-second of silent focus, through which a performer communicates to the audience one of two things: either, “it’s over, clap now,” or, “I’m not finished yet, stop clapping!”

You will never, ever see a professional performer get up on stage and do his or her thing, and then say,”…and that’s it.”

When my students are up doing their rehearsal runs, they will often finish their performances with that annoying little phrase.

Maybe it’s all those years of having to get up and do oral presentations in class for other subjects, all the way back to “show and tell” in our very first years of school. I remember how every one of us used to end with, “and that’s it,” whenever we had to be out in front of everyone, addressing the class for some purpose or other. It becomes a habit.

Or maybe it’s the fact that doing nothing is one of the most difficult things to do on stage. It’s hard to just stand there and be stared at by a bunch of people. One feels a need to fill the silence with something. It’s a specific performance skill, to be able to stand there, confidently and quietly, and just wait for the applause.

The only time in school when I was consistently, actively taught how to finish a performance, was in the rehearsals for school band and choir. That was fine for those of us who were in those groups, but it didn’t help the students who weren’t.

As it happens, none of my current senior students are “band geeks”. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a guitar player which acts as a drawcard for so many metal-heads to my subject area, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, although I’ve got plenty of band players in the junior cohort, my current seniors are mostly the types who wouldn’t want to be seen dead playing in the school band.

Interestingly enough, however, those who aren’t in the traditional school ensemble, do tend to be in their own little rock bands. A few of them get gigs. A number of them have played at the school social. (Yes, I do get them to perform their stuff for assessment.) I’ll be willing to bet my right arm that when they’re up there on stage, never once have they finished with, “and that’s it.”

Yet they do this over and over again in class.

So I’m on a mission: to eradicate “and that’s it” from the mouths of every one of my students, for good.

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Teaching students how to finish a performance by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet

May 19, 2011


I’ve been blogging and tweeting in the Music Education world for a month now, and doing so has dramatically changed my whole perspective about many aspects of my work. I now consider blogging and tweeting to be essential professional tools. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Networking

This is the most obvious reason, and for me, it’s a big one. I’m the only general classroom music teacher at my school, which is in a rural area, and it’s all too easy to be isolated from others in the same field. If you’re a cave-dwelling hermit crab like me, it’s even easier. Twitter has enabled me to stay in touch with other music teachers from all over the world on a daily basis. Following their blogs has introduced me to a lot of new ideas in a very little time.

2. The Global Staffroom

This extends from the first reason. In a really weird way, I no longer feel like my staffroom is limited to the four walls around me at school. My horizons have widened, and now I feel like the music teacher in Iceland I spoke with yesterday is just over there by the window.

The global staffroom shifts your perspective. Suddenly, the small daily-grind-type problems and challenges you face every day are not the only ones that exist, nor are they even the biggest ones. Suddenly there are more people around who can help you if you get stuck, like the colleague just across the room in Iceland, or the one two desks away in Arizona.

This may also be especially helpful if you happen to be in what I call a “toxic staffroom”. It’s a sad fact that workplace bullying does exist in the teaching profession, and if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in that situation, seeking support through online networking (even if you do so anonymously) can be a great first step to dealing with the problem.

P.S.: There are a couple of links to sites which deal with workplace bullying on my “Cyberbullying” page.

3. A Different Drum

If the other teachers at your own school are the only ones you ever see or speak to for an extended period of time, it can be impossible to avoid getting “bogged down” in the culture of that particular location. There’s a collective dynamic which means that people think a certain way, act a certain way, work a certain way, and it can be difficult to walk to the beat of your own drum.

This has been the case in both the best schools and the worst schools I’ve ever worked in, the supportive ones and the not-so-supportive ones. It’s neither good or bad; it’s just a thing that happens when people work together in the same place for a long time.

Blogging and tweeting have had a profound effect on the way that I think with regards to this. It has enabled me to stand outside the status quo and look in, more objectively. The daily contact with other colleagues worldwide, keeps me constantly exposed to different points of view and ways of working.

As far as I’m concerned, this can only benefit both me and and the school I work in, because it allows me to be a real contributor in ways I couldn’t before. I can bring new ideas to the table and add positive energy to the process of growth and change, because that energy is coming in from outside, from the global staffroom.

4. Professional Development

That kind of ongoing exposure to new ideas has meant that I’ve been able to undertake at least an hour or two of professional development almost every single day since I started networking online.

Five minutes on Twitter is all it takes to find dozens of blog posts, articles and news on whatever field happens to interest you. You can also participate in ongoing discussions with colleagues from all over the world in professional network forums like MusicPLN.

5. Reflection

Writing your reflections in a diary enables you to see and record new insights about your professional practice. Writing them in a blog enables you to share them with other like-minded professionals at the same time. This opens the door for them to give you feedback, and also for both you and they to learn from your experiences.

6. Communication

The blog is a public platform, and you are essentially writing for an audience. To blog well, you need to get your ideas across as clearly and succinctly as possible, to engage your readers and keep them interested. The process of writing your thoughts and ideas every day, in such a way that it gets across easily, increases your ability to communicate with others both online and off.

Your blog may also become a vehicle for presenting your thoughts and ideas not only to your online contacts, but also to colleagues closer to home, as well as to students, parents, and members of the public.

7. Motivation

I went to the MTEC conference in January of 2009, and it was brilliant. I arrived at school that year, brimming over with new ideas about how I was going to incorporate music technology into my classroom, enthusiastic about getting into teaching, and excited about sharing what I’d learned with my students and colleagues.

But then the budget was too short, the marking piled up, the paperwork and administrivia took on their usual overarching importance, and my ideas and my motivation went by the wayside. Very little changed for my students that year.

I went to MTEC 2011 jut over a month ago, and was inspired by James Humberstone to start a music teaching blog. I also joined Twitter. Since then, O-Generator has been installed on the school computers, my students have had their first computer-lab lessons ever for composition, I’ve seen to the installation of Pro Tools and Acid Music Studio on the classroom computer and now it’s being used nearly every lesson, instead of just sitting there.

Tomorrow I’m going to be running a demonstration to our beginning teachers on how to use the IWB and Interwrite Workspace software, I’ve just written my first year 8 music assignment which requires using music software to compose, and I’m planning lessons on music apps for ipad and iphone/ipod touch. My students have also been looking at Aviary Roc and SoundJunction, and their homework has been to check out YouTube videos on O-Generator and other music stuff.

I’ve begun to occasionally use the school email as another professional networking tool, emailing links to interesting sites and articles I’ve found to the rest of the staff, like the one on Spaced Learning.

I have been motivated every day since the conference to make these changes, and my momentum hasn’t slowed. The reason is because of this blog and my Twitter networking. It’s almost like MTEC 2011 hasn’t actually finished yet. Being around motivated people all the time is infectious, and when you come into contact with them every day through online activity, it has a way of keeping you going, and of giving you the determination to find solutions to problems which have gotten in the way before.

8. Passion

I have not always found my job fulfilling or rewarding. There have been a couple of difficult phases where my heart has been all but kicked out of teaching. Now, I find my passion as a teacher being brought back to life. I’m coming into my own in self-confidence, and rediscovering why I joined this profession in the first place.

The reason is again because of the ongoing contact I have with colleagues online. I love the exchange of ideas, the dialogue between like minds and not-so-like minds, the constant awareness of different insights. That kind of interaction with ideas always recharges my batteries and fires me up like nothing else can. With online networking, I can have that interaction as often as I like.

9. Sharing Your Expertise

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pre-service teacher or someone who’s been teaching for decades. You can always learn something new from someone, and someone else can always learn from you. You have something to contribute to the professional community. Go for it!

10. Support

If you network wisely, you can have dozens, if not hundreds, of like-minded, sympathetic colleagues in your list of contacts. When you’re in a bind, someone, somewhere, can help you out. If someone else is having difficulty, maybe you’re the person with just the knowledge they need, just the right link or website, or maybe just the right words of wisdom after a rough day in the classroom.

Sometimes teaching can be a really lonely job. It can be a relief to read a blog post about someone else’s struggles with a difficult class or an unfamiliar subject area, and know that you’re not the only one going through it. It can be liberating to find that there’s a totally different way of seeing a situation that’s been bugging you for months. It’s exciting to find new ways of thinking and new ways of working, new solutions to old problems.

I also find it really affirming as a professional, when I can help others out, when I can contribute to the discussion, and when it turns out that yes, I really do know what I’m doing. That kind of feedback only comes from having a good professional network.

Final Thoughts

The job of teaching doesn’t just start at nine and finish at three. If we could all clock in our “overtime” and get paid for it, we’d be earning two or three times as much as we do now. It’s not like teaching leaves us with a whole lot of time on our hands. I have particular admiration for those who manage to also be parents at the same time. I just shake my head and wonder how you guys do it.

Under those circumstances, the idea of starting a blog and finding the time to maintain it can be daunting, and maybe it’s just not for you. But it is very well worth taking a few minutes out of the day or the week to have a look at some of the blogs that are out there. I’ve got a library of links to get you started. I also cannot recommend highly enough, creating a professional account for Twitter and getting in touch with colleagues worldwide.

Participating in the online conversation about music teaching has been more fruitful for me in the last month than years of trying to reinvent the wheel on my own. In the long run, online networking can actually save a whole lot more time than it takes.

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10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Putting musical knowledge into long-term memory through spaced learning

May 11, 2011


Spaced learning” is a teaching strategy based on recent research about how the brain creates long-term memory at the cellular level.

I first read about spaced learning two days ago, and experimented with it yesterday in my year 8 Music class. The result was one of the most successful and engaging theory lessons we’ve had for a long time, and the students wanted more of it.

It can be applied to any subject, and one of the best things about it is that you don’t need anything that you don’t already have. You don’t need to buy new tech hardware, download software, create new resources, or make even so much as one new handout, although you can if you really want to.

Spaced learning works like this: you present the lesson content to your class three times. Between each presentation, there is a ten-minute gap, during which the students do some kind of activity which is totally unrelated to the lesson content they’ve just seen.

That ten-minute gap is key, because it does two things. Firstly, it “rests” the neural pathways in the brain which have just begun to form after having been exposed to new knowledge. Secondly, it creates a mechanism whereby that new knowledge is repeated, which demonstrates to the brain that this new content is important (another key) and therefore strengthens the neural pathways.

This process of resting and strengthening happens twice in a lesson, creating long-term memory. It works rather like building a muscle through weight-lifting in the gym, except the brain doesn’t hurt as much the next day.

I did a lesson yesterday on grunge music, where I used a PowerPoint presentation that I already had. Here’s what we did:

  • First Presentation:
    • I showed the PowerPoint, reading the slides out loud (which I will always do to accommodate both aural and visual learners), while my class sat quietly and just absorbed the information.
    • Tip: it’s important at this first stage that students don’t copy anything or ask questions, but just tune into the content and actively listen.
  • Gap One:
    • The idea for a gap activity is to get students to do something hands-on or that requires physical coordination and/or use of fine-motor skills. In music, that’s easy. I just sent them away to do prac for 10 minutes. They’re a self-directed group so I didn’t have to do much in the way of setting tasks, but some alternatives here might be to set one or more of the following:
      • practising scales on the keyboard, chords on the guitar, or rhythms on the drum kit;
      • singing/playing songs;
      • rehearsing for an upcoming performance;
      • ten minutes of instrumental practice.
  • Second Presentation:
    • This time the class needed to start recalling information and being a bit more interactive. I used the same PowerPoint presentation as before, but with some of the main words and concepts blanked out (I sneaked that in while they were doing prac). We read the presentation again, except now they had to put their hands up and recall the concepts I’d hidden.
    • Tip: the temptation here is for individual students to call out, so you need to remind then not to do so before you start.
  • Gap Two:
    • Another 10-minute prac session. Other alternatives for different subject areas might be games like silent-ball, simon-says, or making something out of plasticine.
  • Third Presentation:
    • Before showing the PowerPoint for the third time, I had the students do a think-pair-share activity, spending five minutes writing down as many points as they could remember from the presentation. I had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana playing while they were writing. Then random pairs shared points with the rest of the class group.
    • We read through the presentation again, this time with whole blocks of text blanked out, which they had to fill in verbally as before.
    • Tip: the concepts they most need to remember are the ones you blank out and make them recall.
  • Homework:
    • Students have to write a paragraph, in full sentences, about grunge music.

This lesson has laid some groundwork, from which I can further develop their knowledge of grunge music by analysing repertoire, researching certain artists, and learning to play riffs and songs.

Spaced learning is a great tool for establishing important concepts at the introductory phase of a unit, and for preparing for assessment in the revision phase. I find that it’s also a wonderful tool for lesson planning, because it forces me to focus the content into a very small, concentrated bundle. It also heightens student concentration and engagement during the lesson itself.

For further information, I really recommend visiting the website of Monkseaton High School, where I first found out about spaced learning. They have a lot of resources, and even a series of short videos showing the strategy in action.


  1. Gittner, A. (2010) Science GCSE in 60 Minutes!
  2. Monkseaton High School: “What is Spaced Learning?”
  3. Wikipedia (2010). “Spaced Learning”. Retrieved May 10, 2010.

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Putting musical knowledge into long-term memory through spaced learning by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Stretching My Resources

May 5, 2011


In my classroom, I have my laptop, an interactive whiteboard (using Interwrite Workspace software, a little different to the Smartboards we saw at MTEC 2011), and one other computer for staff and student use.  There are computer labs at the school as well as trolleys with class sets of laptops for the library, but no dedicated music tech lab as such. Since the recent holidays, I also now have an iPad.

As well as the site licence for O-Generator, I’m also making a list of other software, like Acid Xpress and Musescore, to be installed. Once these are done, I can start running some composition lessons in the labs.

In the meantime, I’m finding ways to stretch the resources that I have in the classroom. The IWB is a very recent addition, and I’m really pleased with the stuff I can do with it. I’ve installed O-Generator, ProTools, and Sing and See on my laptop, and Acid Music Studio on the classroom computer so far (with O-Generator and ProTools next on the list).

For the last couple of days, I’ve been splitting my classes into several small groups, and have had a rotation arrangement going. While one pair uses O-Generator on the IWB, another pair explores Acid Music Studio on the computer, and every so often they swap so that other students can try them out.

In the meantime, those not using music software practise keyboard skills, guitar, or drums. There are two smaller rooms which adjoin the main classroom, one of which is affectionately called “the soundproof room”, even though students playing in it can sometimes be heard a block or two away. One room has a piano, the other, a drum kit. I also have several smaller keyboards that students can play individually, and a number of acoustic guitars.

Some afterthoughts:

The students are really enjoying the new software, although I look forward to being able to run full lab lessons so that they can all individually play around with it. The downside is, they won’t have musical instruments with them while they’re in the labs. Dedicated composition lessons on computers will be kept very separate from normal instrumental prac at the moment. For most, I imagine that won’t be a problem, although I wonder how well that will work for those who want to combine both, especially the senior students.

The small-group arrangement with a bunch of various activities is a really good strategy for differentiated instruction and self-paced, student-centred learning. Students can show off what they can do, and teach each other what they know. When it works, it can work extremely well. I’ve had whole 70-minute lessons where I don’t have to do anything: I just let them get into their groups, and they teach each other and make music together. These are the most magical lessons for me to watch, in my experience. But not all classes work this way. I’ve also had classes where I try to let them take control of their own music-making and music learning, and for one reason or another, it doesn’t seem to work. I still have yet to figure out why.

Setting learning goals and having an overall focus is important for these small-group sessions. Sometimes, I find that I don’t need to set the goal myself: if the student is motivated enough and clear about what he or she wants to achieve, then the goal-setting is already done. For others who are not as motivated or as clearly focused, some form of goal-setting is needed to give them some direction.

Also, the overall long-term objective for that unit, term, or semester needs to be clear, at least in my own mind, so I know where I’m steering the boat, so to speak. Individual and small-group goals need to be connected somehow to that overall goal.

The other thing is student engagement. While most are occupied with making music, there are some who aren’t, who just sit back and listen. While I think it’s important to have that group dynamic where students can simply listen to each other, it can be easy for some to be tempted just to be lazy.

I have a variety of individual activities ready for students who would otherwise try to fade into the wallpaper. These include progressive manuals for guitar, piano, and drums, a few song books, a guitar chord chart, a guitar manual devoted to fingerpicking patterns, and other similar resources from which the students can pick and choose. The addition of O-Generator and Acid Music are the most recent additions.

I still get a bit nervous sometimes with this kind of activity, I have to confess. I tend to be  a lot more comfortable when I have the reigns. But the nature of music, is that students need to have that freedom just to explore and to make a lot of noise in the process of learning. It’s not a “quiet” field of study! You know there’s work going on when your ears are ringing at the end of it.

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Stretching My Resources by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Music Technology and Staying Focused

May 1, 2011


Lately I’ve been thinking very deeply about music technology, and ways to go about integrating more of it into my teaching-learning environment and practice.

However, I caught myself wondering yesterday: am I forgetting the most important bit…namely, the music?  That gave me pause, and I had to stop and think for a while about what pedagogical goals I want to achieve with the technologies I want to bring in.

I consistently have trouble bringing my students to mastery of some of the musical basics, like how to read notation and use it to compose, for example.  It’s something that I wrestle with constantly.  Part of the reason is because up to the end of year 10, students at my school can choose different electives every semester.  Every time a new semester begins, I have a few students who have been with me from the beginning, and a few who are absolute beginners.  With each passing semester, the knowledge gap within a music class becomes progressively wider, and the required differentiation strategies become more and more varied.  That also means that until year 11, it’s extremely difficult to put a developmental music program in place.

Another reason why I find it difficult may be because the things I find easiest to do are often the things I find hardest to teach.  The blessing becomes a curse because I have no real concept of “not getting it”.  Aural dictation, for example.  I can hear a melody inside or outside of my head and write it down pretty much immediately.  I can also remember tunes I heard when I was six years old and haven’t heard since (I’m now in my mid-30s).  I’m a synesthete, which means I see sound as well as hear it.  Melodic lines, chord progressions, instrumental timbres, letters and words, and people’s voices all have colour, shape and texture, and sometimes (in rare cases) even temperature and taste.  Every time I hear “Steer” by Missy Higgins, I get a sensation and a taste of a very icy cold orange drink in my mouth, a bit like Tang.  I have no idea why or how I do any of that.

Consequently, teaching aural skills is a real pain in the neck.  I am forever going either too fast or too slow for my students, and I haven’t yet hit the right balance.

Maths, on the other hand, I find very easy to teach.  I used to fail maths at school, so I know exactly what it’s like to “not get it”, and to have to work through the process of coming to understand it.  I’ve just finished teaching year 9 algebra this term.  When I was in year 9, I was hopeless at algebra. These days I get it, and I also get why I get it, which makes it easier for me to explain the process to my students and see why they might be having a hard time.

Every semester that I’ve been teaching music (which is now about eight years full time), I’ve put a new set of strategies in place to overcome these challenges.  I don’t think I’ve yet had a semester where I’ve been able to look back and say, “I successfully taught all that I set out to teach”.  There are times when I really don’t believe that I’m a particularly good music teacher.  Oh, I think I’m good at teaching some things, and I think that I’m a pretty good teacher in general.  But there’s something about being a good music teacher, which I constantly aspire to reach, and never seem to attain.

I would like to have my students graduate from my subject, not just able to read and write notation, but to have a greater ability to listen deeply to any music, from whatever genre or era, and articulate what they’re hearing.  I would like my graduating students to have a working knowledge of music history and musical genres, and be able to apply elements from any of them into their own compositions if they choose.  I would like my students to be able both to compose and critique their compositional processes and outcomes, and to perform and critique their performances.  I would like them to graduate, knowing the career opportunities available in the music industry and profession, and having the skills to take those paths.

Yet I am aware: even though some things about music may have come easily to me, so many other things, like formal musical analysis and composition techniques, I never really understood until I was in my 30s.  There are aspects of the arts which really cannot be appreciated until a person has reached a certain level of mental and emotional maturity, and to ask a high-school student to do so would be unreasonable.  But then, there are other times when I really ought to have more faith in my students’ abilities to take things on board.  It’s not always easy to decide whether or not I’m asking them to bite off more than they can chew.

I am also aware that so little of what my students can do with music actually comes from me.  It comes from they themselves as “vernacular musicians” (in the words of Dr Robert Woody), their own explorations in their own garages, on their own instruments.  All I can really do is try not to kill their enthusiasm for what they’re already doing.  When it comes to achieving all those lofty goals I listed above, I’m always aware of how little I end up attaining.  So I try to find another way and hope it works the next time around.

Now, with all these music technologies that I want to learn to use and have my students learn to use, I find that I have to take a moment to collect myself every so often and remember what it’s all for.  It’s not just the technology that I want to teach: it’s the music.  That, for me, is much harder.

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Music Technology and Staying Focused by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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