Tag Archives: Analysing Music

Teaching students to read music notation: Some strategies

August 5, 2011

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For some reason, I always struggled with teaching students how to read music notation. I think one of the reasons is because there’s usually a huge knowledge gap between beginning students and those who have been doing music for a while. Since junior students (years 8-10) choose new electives every semester, that gap gets wider and wider every six months.

But I seem to have gotten the hang of this sticking point lately, and now all of my juniors – pretty much without exception – are making a decent go of reading music during each lesson. They’ve also learned more theory concepts in the last two weeks, than any of my students in the last six months. That’s not a reflection on the students at all: it’s an indication of how much my own teaching strategies have changed.

So I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’ve been using.

1. STAFF WARS

A big shout-out to Katie Wardrobe for showing me this one. All my classes, from year 8 to year 12, have played this at least once or twice a week since I was introduced to it. It’s fantastic for sight-reading and learning notation. In fact, I even went so far as to set it for homework for my year 8 students last week! I’ve shown it to parents and guests as well.

We had a group of Japanese students visit our school last week, and they joined my senior class. We played STAFF WARS with them, and we had to write the Japanese symbols for the note names underneath the English ones, as they couldn’t read our writing. They loved the game, and everyone was in stitches.

2. “My Personal Soundtrack”

At the beginning of term, about four weeks ago, I got all my students to do some kind of variation of this one. It’s my way of making sure that at least part of the studied repertoire (if not most or all of it) includes music that they are actually interested in and want to learn.

Two separate year levels, by coincidence, are studying some form of film soundtrack-related unit, so I got them to write me a list of their favourite theme songs from movies, television, and computer games.

My seniors are studying world music, so I got them to pick the genres. Celtic, Jamaican, Indian, and Mexican were the ones they chose for this term.

My year tens are in a transition year, preparing for senior music. I got them to fill out a list which I called “My Personal Soundtrack”. This is a type of list I’ve seen in a few different books and websites here and there, and I made my own variation of it:

“My Personal Soundtrack”:

    1. My all-time favourite song
    2. My least favourite song
    3. A song that reminds me of someone
    4. A song that reminds me of a certain place
    5. A song that reminds me of a certain event
    6. A song that describes me
    7. A song that describes someone I know
    8. A song that I would dedicate to my boyfriend/girlfriend
    9. A song that I would dedicate to my ex
    10. A song that I liked when I was little
    11. A song that I like but would be too shamed out to admit it
    12. A song that no one would expect me to like
    13. A song that I find depressing
    14. A song that makes me laugh
    15. A song that I could listen to over and over and never get tired of hearing
    16. A song that I’ve heard way too often and don’t care if I never hear again
    17. A song that I can play
    18. A song that I wish I could play
    19. A song that I used to hate but now love
    20. A song that I used to love but now hate

Students were able to fill out as many or as few as they wished, and keep it anonymous if they wanted to. Obviously I won’t use every song they suggested, but it has given me a really good selection to choose from so things can stay interesting.

3. A new theme every day

This is the main sight-reading exercise I’ve been using lately. I’ve taken to transcribing 4-8 bars of a new song or theme for every lesson, so I’ve always got something new to add to their repertoire. We start by listening to a recording of the theme or song, and doing a bit of analysis. Then I hand out the musical excerpt and project a copy of it up on the IWB.

We revise learned notation and go over any new symbols and concepts together as a class, they take a few minutes to write down the note names (if they need to), and then they go away and try to play it on a keyboard. Usually, most if not all students will make a good attempt at it on their own or in pairs before asking me for help.

The advantage is that, since there’s a new excerpt to learn every single day, students seem to get less bored, and those who prefer familiarity can practise the ones they’ve already seen as well. It’s out of the repertoire they’ve picked, so they’re more likely to be interested. They’re playing the instruments right after analysing the notation, so it’s as practical as I can make it.

I’ve found that the guitar enthusiasts, after a few minutes playing with the keyboards, will pick up guitars and try to work out the theme by ear. Occasionally I’ve written out the TAB for them as well, and I’ll be showing them how to convert from notation to TAB and back, later in the unit.

At the end of the term, each student will be asked to play three excerpts, and maybe I’ll throw in a bit of sight-reading as well.

That pretty much sums up how I’ve been teaching notation reading lately. We haven’t gone too much into writing it as yet, but that will start soon. If you can add some more suggestions below in the comments, that would be great – maybe we can even get a bit of a “strategy list” going!

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Exploring a Practical Approach to Teaching Music Theory

July 29, 2011

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First, a small update. My year 9 and 10 classes, such a challenge for me last semester, have changed. I now have an almost entirely new set of students, and these ones seem to be much more motivated so far. I’m also seeing some year 10s who have the potential to do particularly well in senior music. My year 8s have also changed. Most of the girls have gone, except for two, and a raft of new boys have come in. I still wonder if this is because I teach guitar.

Something I took with me from the recent ASME conference was the desire to take a much more practical approach to teaching music theory than I have been doing so far. I formed a goal to use the traditional pen-and-paper theory lesson as little as I possibly could in the coming semester, and to utilise practical activities and music composition software as much as possible.

I’ve been doing a number of things, like getting out all the percussion gear I can find and letting the students do group improvisation. In this activity, I also make them reflect every so often on how well they are playing as a group, and ask them to suggest ways to improve, which we then try out.

Another one has been simply to send them off in various directions with various instruments, and get them to figure out how to play songs, much like any kid would do in his or her room with a guitar. This one takes a bit of monitoring: some students are very able at this and need to be challenged further. Others need some basic skill-building before they can proceed. There’s a lot of moving around for me during this exercise.

I have so far found that my year eights – this particular group, at least – need to be kept on a rather tight leash. They don’t seem to have the maturity yet to play well together in an entire-group ensemble with percussion. In more individuated prac tasks, the engagement is variable and the attention span fairly short. It doesn’t take long before they start fooling around and getting hyperactive. I’ve had to reduce the prac a little bit and put them back behind their desks for periods of time.

The year 9s are a little better at focusing, and the year 10s better still. I have more confidence leading a whole-class prac, knowing that while there may be some problems, it will just take a little time for them to learn to focus together. It just takes practice.

My seniors are also quite good, but they much prefer individual prac to whole-group activities. That’s okay, as I generally try to encourage them to be as independent and self-directing as possible by this stage, especially in year 12.

Every class, right up to my seniors, has been introduced to STAFF WARS. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, you really should. This has been my main method for getting them to learn the treble and bass clef notes so far. We haven’t gotten around to handwriting much yet, but that will happen.

I’ve asked every class to write down a list of songs that they would like me to incorporate into the repertoire we study. This becomes the basis for my planning. I’m compiling a handout of little excerpts of various songs they’ve chosen. They’ll be shown how to identify the notes, and how to find the notes on keyboard and guitar. From the beginning, they’ll be learning to read music through playing the songs they’ve chosen, as well as others I might introduce to them on the way.

That pretty much sums up the main approach I plan to explore in the coming weeks. There will be lessons for writing, listening, and analysing, but I want to see how I can utilise practical methods for learning as much theory as possible. I’ll let you know every so often how this experiment is going.

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Day Two of the ASME Conference

July 3, 2011

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Another massive and awesome day at the ASME Conference. I saw quite a lot today, and I probably won’t get it all down in one sitting. There are a few things that I’ll need to sit down with for a while and mentally digest before I can write too much, but here are some brief brushstrokes:

George Spartels of “Play School” fame presented the keynote address for this morning’s session of the conference. His title question: If we take music out of the equation of children and their education, then how grounded, drab, and even unsustainable would learning be?

He talked about how music is absolutely basic to human development, right from the earliest days of childhood. Something he said which immediately stuck in my mind was,”children are not an inferior audience”. Young children have a highly sophisticated (and critical) faculty for listening, and it’s actually much harder to write a song for children than a song for adults.

He talked about how the script of an episode of Play School would be figured out in minute detail, how arguments went back and forth around the table for hours at a stretch over the selection of phrases, or even the choice of a single word. This was all out of a huge awareness of just how much children pick up in the course of an episode…and what they pick up may not be entirely what you’d expect.

Example: George showed us a clip of a song he wrote about surfing, where he was pretending to surf on his desk before going out onto the beach with an actual surfboard. He was trying to get across the message of fitness and of getting outdoors. What many children picked up was: the action of surfing is done by standing on a desk. George had nightmares of injured children and lawsuits after finding that out.

He spoke about the essential importance of music in an episode of Play School. I have fond memories of Warren’s piano playing, how it wove in and out constantly, how it could make me laugh, calm me down, or tell me, “there’s a song coming”.

George talked about the emotional cues communicated by music, which wouldn’t necessarily be conveyed in a script or a visual image. He described how music could be used to convey to a child: this is a safe place to imagine whatever you like, however bizarre or out of the box.

His keynote ended as only a Play School presenter’s keynote can: by all three hundred conference delegates standing up and singing “I’m a Little Teapot”, with actions.

After the keynote, I went to a workshop held by Ros McMillan, about engaging junior secondary students in musical activities. She showed us some interesting and fun ways to create rhythmic rounds on the spur of the moment, and gave us a number of ideas for using just one song in a variety of different lessons.

Something Ros emphasised was the idea of connecting her units to something wider than simply musical content, like “The Environment”, or “Relationships” for example, and embedding musical ideas within those contexts.

I saw two presentations by Geoffrey Lowe, the first of which was very effectively entitled, “This Sucks!” It was all about why so many students drop out of music at school, considering some form of music engagement (listening, playing, creating) is probably the single most widely preferred leisure activity among children and teens, over and above TV, computer games, or sport.

This was so popular that people had to bring in extra chairs, and it was very nearly standing room only. Geoff’s main premise was that kids prefer prac-based, contextual-based music learning, and hate theory and aural skills training when they’re delivered out of context (ie: when they can’t hear it, or use it to play or create something).

They also have very clear ideas about the kinds of music they do and don’t like, and familiar is preferred, so that brings up the (for some) delicate question of popular music in the curriculum.

Basically, Geoff’s presentation invited music teachers to reflect on their practice and ask, “am I doing something here which may be contributing to the cause of students leaving?”

I also attended a workshop on Musical Futures by Ken Owen. I’ve heard quite a bit about Musical Futures lately, mainly from the Music Teachers’ Network, so I wanted to hear more about this one.

I got to have my very first go at using a jam hub, which was exciting (when it worked properly). I also felt a bit affirmed: much of the Musical Futures approach is similar to the approach I try to take in my classes, at least some of the time: informal, prac-based, student-directed learning.

There are some drawbacks, though: it doesn’t always work. But I want to find out more about Musical Futures and see how I can refine my practice. It’s certainly a very good tool, and one that I would love to embrace more fully.

I finished my day with a workshop focused on ACARA, the coming national Arts curriculum, held by Andrew Reid and Jay McPherson. This is a rather thorny topic, with lots of rumours floating around about it. This workshop was first of all an exercise in straightening out fact from fiction, and myth from reality.

They also discussed the recent draft (or “Shape” paper, if I remember rightly) and ASME’s not-so-enthusiastic reaction to it, for a variety of reasons.

What I mainly got out of that one was: no one really knows when it’s coming, and no one really knows what’s on it. So don’t worry about it…for now.

They were the workshops. I should also mention the stunning performances I heard from the AB Paterson Chamber Choir and Brisbane Birralee Voices during the breaks. There was also the Gold Coast City Wind Orchestra, and Trinity Lutheran College Revelation, a rock group, both of which were also very impressive.

Whew! That was a long one. Sorry for the overlong read. I just wanted to make sure I got everything mentioned at least briefly. Tomorrow I won’t be posting, as the conference dinner will be held in the evening. Tuesday I’ll be heading to Brisbane to visit family after the closing ceremony, before flying back home on Wednesday. My next post on the conference will hopefully be either Wednesday or Thursday.

Till then!

🙂

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ASME Conference: Day One

July 2, 2011

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It’s official: I’m addicted to conferences. I attended Day One of the ASME (Australian Society for Music Education) conference at the Gold Coast Convention Centre today. I’m knackered, but I really want to get this written before I see too much more cool stuff, otherwise I’ll never get it all down.

Unfortunately, I missed the opening ceremony. Having not slept very well the night before, two alarms were insufficient to wake me up on time, and I slept in. Way in. I was most miffed and thoroughly unimpressed with myself.

However, I did get there in time to catch the latter half of Robert Duke’s keynote speech: “Strategic Confusion and the Joys of Learning”, which was very informative as well as highly entertaining.

Robert’s basic philosophy is this: if you’re comfortable, you’re not learning much. If students are getting everything done for them, having everything clarified immediately without first having to be a bit confused and do some searching for answers, they’re learning very little. Robert spoke about how he seeks to embed what he calls “strategic confusion” into his lessons to enhance the learning process.

According to research, the process of learning (on a physical, neurological level) is a process of error correction. Students have to have the opportunities to perceive their own errors in their own musical behaviour (eg: holding a violin bow the wrong way) and correct it themselves, instead of always having the teacher correct it for them (ie: making them too comfortable).

Finally, Robert’s other main point: teachers are learners as well.

The three sessions I attended today after the keynote were held by Katie Wardrobe, Stefanovych Roberts, and Antony Hubmayer.

Katie Wardrobe took us through a selection of software programs and games for teaching various aspects of music in her talk, “Music Technology Resources on a Shoestring”. The best part about most of these is that they’re free. The ones that aren’t, require only a small subscription fee.

Katie will be putting her notes and links on her website, so I won’t steal her thunder by putting it all here. But I must tell you about one thing which I just thought was the coolest of the cool: a “space invaders”style game called STAFF WARS. You can download it here.

Basically, musical notes come floating along a giant staff at the top of the screen, and the player has to name the note correctly before it crashes into the clef (treble, bass, or alto). When the player hits the right note name, a little spaceship at the bottom of the screen shoots the note. The game starts off slow, and gets faster as you go on. There are heaps of other games Katie showed us as well, but that was my favourite.

Stefanovych Roberts presented a doctoral paper on Metacognition on Music Performance: Theoretical frameworks within an Assessment for Learning paradigm. This presentation focused mainly on the importance of feedback for the student during the learning process, and he mentioned three types (coined by Hattie, if I remember right): feed up (where am I going?), feed back (how am I going?), and feed forward (where do I go next?).

He also spoke about the importance of formative assessment as a valuable tool for developing the student’s musical metacogition, and how there seem to be relatively few opportunities for that formative assessment process to occur within the secondary school environment.

The last seminar I attended today was by Antony Hubmayer: “Riding the wave of pedagogy: Designing learning experiences that deepen musical understanding without drowning the learner”. His presentation really resonated with my ideas about being a “learning designer” when he talked about “designing musical learning experiences” within a constructivist framework.

He showed us his “Learning Experience Framework”, a simple chart by which he plans his units, and then showed us some different examples of the framework in action. One was in the form of a student-created reflection video about the experience of teaching a younger class cohort how to play a song on the ukelele and perform in an ensemble. Another was for a choral group, and we viewed their eisteddfod performance.

Antony’s website is here, and I would imagine his presentation will be made available there sometime down the track, as his other ones have been.

Lack of sleep finally caught up with me after that session, and I had to go back to my hotel room to rest my brain, which by then was feeling a bit fried. I did manage to pick up a few good books on the way out though. (Books know my name. I always hear them calling me, and I am helpless to resist.)

Hopefully I will sleep a bit better tonight, and I can get there on time tomorrow.

Till then!

🙂

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Teaching senior students how to write a musical analysis

April 24, 2011

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Of the three musical assessment areas – performing, composing, and analysing repertoire – it’s the last one which invariably takes up the most lesson time, and the one which my students seem to have the most trouble with.  My analysis assessments generally involve an extended written task or a formal exam, where they have to write an essay of several hundred to a thousand words.  In order to let them analyse a work in as much detail as possible, I will generally give them only one question in the exam, or a choice between two or three in an extended written task.  Where possible, they will be provided with both a score and a sound recording of a musical work, and the question they must answer will require them to gather evidence primarily, if not solely, from those resources.

The problems which need to be overcome in teaching musical analysis don’t just involve teaching musical literacy – reading a score, identifying the musical elements, comparing and contrasting compositional devices, etc – but also English literacy: forming a main idea, listing dot points, constructing sentences and paragraphs, writing an essay.  Furthermore, the senior music student is required to demonstrate higher order thinking skills: using evidence to support a hypothesis, justifying a position, comparing and contrasting.  I’m constantly searching for more efficient and effective ways to teach all of these things, and yet still have time to get around to performing and composing.

One of the resources I created in this endeavour is a powerpoint presentation, which looks at the first four bars of “Et In Terra Pax” from Vivaldi’sGloria, and aims to show just how much information can be pulled out of that one tiny section of music:

The presentation has several objectives: firstly, it aims to help students take the elements of music, and pull out as much information as possible from the score about each one of them, one at a time.  Secondly, it shows them how to articulate that information as clearly and concisely as possible, first in dot points, and slowly working up to full paragraphs.  A third aim is to teach them how to look for evidence in the score and apply it to critical thinking questions.

The method for all this involves giving lots of visual cues and verbal hints at first, and slowly backing off until the students are getting no help at all and they’re on their own.  A sequence of animations take the students through each of the elements in detail.  They also aim to encourage students to look at the score and try to answer the questions, before being given any answers.

On my “Resources and Lesson Plans” page, you will find a download link for the powerpoint presentation, plus a student handout, teacher’s notes, and a “read me first” document which gives a few hints about running the slideshow.  Feel free to download all of these so you can use them in your own classes, if you wish.  You will also need to obtain a sound-recording of the piece to go with the rest of the materials.  It’s quite a long presentation, and will take several lessons to cover in detail.

I’ve made a short film which demonstrates the slideshow, so you can see what’s there.  Since I used Jing to make it, I had a five-minute time limit, so some of the slides go through quite rapidly, but the animations are designed so that you have manual control and can run them as quickly or as slowly as you think necessary.  To find the whole set of resources, go here and click on “Vivaldi Analysis”.  To see the five-minute runthrough of the content of the slideshow, click on the video link below:

Vivaldi Analysis Demo

You may wish to use PowerPoint to cut out some of the slides, and that’s fine.  What I don’t advise it editing the animations within each slide.  Fiddle around with them too much, and you may never find your way out again.  Believe me, I know.

If you do use this resource in your class, please get back to me and let me know how it went.  Some feedback on how it could be improved would be especially helpful, and I will do my best to apply it to any future presentations I make and share with you guys.  Enjoy!

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How to cope when your music class is full of “screamo” (sorry, post-hardcore) fans…

April 19, 2011

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I’m not kidding. That’s exactly what I had last year, and poor classically-trained me had a tough time getting them to listen to Vivaldi.

So in the interests of cultural exchange, I asked my students to write me a whole big list of songs they liked, and I agreed to get hold of them and find ways to incorporate them into our senior music unit. That weekend, instead of listening to Bach, Mozart, and Prokofiev, I was studying the musical works of Bullet For My ValentineParkway DriveEnter Shikari, and The Amity Affliction.

Once I got my ears around the fact that their songs often use the voice as a (deliberately) non-pitched instrument, I discovered that some of them aren’t all that bad. “I Hate Hartley” by The Amity Affliction is now one of my favourite songs. The following week, I used it for a couple of musical analysis lessons, where it became quite a good learning tool for discussing timbre and pitch (or lack thereof). I also learned to never, ever refer to these songs as just “screamo” (“It’s post-hardcore, Miss!”). It’s also about a dozen other musical genres.

If this kind of music really isn’t your cup of tea, but it’s what your students are listening to, the way to get around it is to treat the “screamo” voice as just another type of instrument with its own distinctive timbre. Then read the lyrics of the song (you’ll need to: it’s next to impossible to understand a screamer otherwise) and see how the “scream” brings out their meaning. What meaning would be expressed if the lyrics were delivered differently? Sung in the usual way? In another dynamic? By a higher or lower voice?

As it happens, in a song like “I Hate Hartley”, not only is there both a screamer and a singer, there’s also what sounds like a whole football crowd, and the way that all three types of vocal execution interact with the lyrics becomes an engaging discussion about musical expression and interpretation. The song is also quite interesting and complex in other areas as well, particularly structure, dynamics, and texture. The way it uses the musical elements to express both anger and despair as well as determination and hope could make for a pretty interesting analysis essay. Check it out…if your eardrums can handle it.

Having said all this, I don’t advocate dropping Vivaldi & Co. from the senior music class altogether and just concentrating on “stuff the kids listen to”. As a music teacher, it’s part of my job to take them out of their comfort zone and introduce them to other genres and eras. But I’m all for using “their music” as a teaching/learning tool, and maybe even incorporating both at the same time. One idea I have is to take the chord progression and/or bassline from the second movement of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor (for example), uploading it as a soundfile in whatever sequencing software I can get onto our new laptops, and getting my students to compose around it, letting them be as “post-hardcore” as they like if that’s what floats their bubble.

Then after they’ve done that, I’ll show them the original piece and see whether their understanding and appreciation of it has been influenced by their own work, and to what degree. It will also be very interesting to compare all the different compositions they’ve created. I look forward to the experiment. I also have a student who’s a very good bass player, and I fully intend to have him pinching basslines from Bach before the year is out.

The only thing one needs to be cautious about with the post-hardcore and similar genres, is that a lot of their songs tend to use explicit language and themes, but there are a number of others which are quite useable in class. I would tend not to use them for my junior classes, but they’re great for seniors.

I will say that listening to post-hardcore and using it to teach, has stretched my horizons and widened my repertoire scope dramatically. This learning curve hasn’t happened without any payback, however. There was one other student in that class who was not part of the post-hardcore metal-head group, and she also had some input into our listening list. The week after shredding our eardrums with The Amity Affliction, those same students were analysing Beyoncé. Revenge is sweet.

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How to cope when your music class is full of “screamo” (sorry, post-hardcore) fans… by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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