Tag Archives: Pedagogy

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.


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


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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ASME Conference, Day Four

July 22, 2011


All you had to do was look at everyone’s faces to know that this was the last day of the conference. People were drifting around in a kind of exhausted daze, including me. Thankfully the workshop selection was nice and light: only two hours.

I only did one workshop session that day, with Katie Wardrobe. She showed us some very cool stuff for teaching composition with technology. She had some short (fourteen seconds) films which students can use for adding sound effects and music. I’m in the first stages of a soundtracks unit for my junior music classes, so these will come in very handy.

There was a panel discussion entitled, “Finding one’s way from Secondary to Tertiary Music Education and Training”, which sounded very interesting, but I only caught a few minutes of it. Then there was the closing ceremony, where we were treated to a performance by TSS Drumline. I’ve seen the film before, but I’d never seen a real live drumline group up close, so I was most impressed. We were drummed out to lunch (where Jenny Craig once again went by the wayside) and they kept playing for us while we ate gorgeous food. A perfect way to end a conference!

I spoke with Andrew Reid, one of the organisers of ASME 2011, a couple of weeks before the conference started. He was sweating, wondering if it would be any good, wondering of people would turn up. He needn’t have worried. He and the other organisers did a fantastic job. Two thumbs up from me!

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ASME Conference, Day Three (That’s right, I’m back!)

July 21, 2011


My apologies to everyone for not getting this out earlier. Life took a turn for the busier just after the conference, and then the new term started. I’m just about back on board now, so here’s the rest of the ASME conference that you’ve all been waiting for with baited breath!

On day three, my first workshop was with Allan Melville, about creating and using electronic resources in the secondary music classroom. I was rather thrilled about this particular one, because I’m a subscriber of his fantastic website, e-learning resources, and Allan and I had spoken on the phone many times prior to this. (If you haven’t yet checked out his website, you really should. It’s awesome.)

I wrote a previous post on this resource, which goes into more detail about all the stuff that’s contained there.

The next workshop, held by Kelly Parkes from Virginia Tech in the US, was a very small and intimate gathering of three or four university lecturers plus myself. The topic was “Supporting and Assessing New Types of Reflective Practice in Music Student Teachers”.

It turned out to be targeted more towards the tertiary instructors, but I still found it useful from a secondary point of view. I’m a big fan of professional reflection, as some of you will know, and I was interested in finding some good ideas for encouraging a thorough reflective process in my student teachers.

I’ve mentored two pre-service teachers so far, and what I’ve found is that mentoring does wonders for my own professional practice as well (but that’s another blog post). Future pre-service teachers may find me a little more demanding after this workshop. I hope so. (*Evil laugh*)

I was particularly interested in the idea of a video diary, where the pre-service teacher is video-taped while teaching, several times over an extended period. Written reflections focus on their teaching practice at that particular moment, and its development over time.

Kelly talked about different levels of depth in reflection, and the importance of guiding the pre-service teacher to say more than just “this is what I did today”, but to actually think about why they decided to use a particular strategy, how well it worked, what could be done to make something work better next time.

The afternoon’s keynote speaker was Laura Hassler, and she delivered a beautiful – at times heart-wrenching – talk about how music can be used to heal and make peace in war-torn countries such as Bosnia. She talked about Musicians Without Borders, an organisation which uses music to do just that.

They travel in small groups on a “music bus”, and bring music to towns and villages where the ravages of war have sometimes affected the people so deeply that they no longer sing. Musicians Without Borders works with the people to help them find their musical voices once more, and in doing so, find healing.

One short film that stuck with me was about their work with the women of Srebrenica, whose lives were torn apart in 1995 when more than 8000 men and boys were massacred during the Bosnian war. The grief and pain on their faces was so deep that I found myself in tears just looking at them. I was in tears again when I saw them smiling, singing, clapping and dancing together, after Lord knows how many weeks and months of musical workshops it would have taken for them to reach that point.

I’ve always known that music has the power to do amazing things, but it was that keynote which really brought that fact home to me.

The Jacinth Oliver Address was given by John Curro, during which he dealt with the rather thorny topic of universities and their handling of specialist music degrees. He argued that far too much time has been taken away from the practical development of students as elite musicians, and given to research and university administration.

I brought this up in conversation at the conference dinner that evening, where I was seated with another university professor from Singapore. He told me that he got into “a heated discussion” about this during the afternoon, so this is obviously a subject of ongoing debate in tertiary circles.

My last workshop of the day was held by Ruth Bonetti, on assertive communication with…how does one say it?…difficult parents. You know, the ones who question why we didn’t award their child an “A” when the child is, after all, a genius.

I swear that Ruth could be a drama teacher (in fact, she probably is). She had the wigs and costumes all ready for us, so we could role-play the “interview with the difficult parent”, if we wished. As it turned out, we were all a bit too reticent for that.

Ruth took us through some strategies and choice phrases one could use to politely suggest that the child actually needs to do some practice during the week to achieve an “A”, or that jumping from grade three to grade five might not perhaps be such a great idea.  She delivered these lines with a big, toothy smile and a voice which reminded me of Hyacinth from “Keeping Up Appearances”. Delightfully hilarious!

That evening, we had the conference dinner, which I’ve mentioned. The food was wonderful – my Jenny Craig diet went decidedly out the window. We were also treated to some very fine performances from Best of Brass, the Blenders, and the Canterbury College Cantabile Choir.

Whew! That was day three. Day four will (I promise!) be posted tomorrow. In fact, I’m going away to write it up now.

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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


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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Two months since MTEC 2011: An Update

June 11, 2011


Two months ago, I attended MTEC 2011 in Sydney. Two months later, so many things have changed for me professionally, that I barely recognise myself. So I’m taking a moment to pause and reflect on all the changes, and how well they’re working so far.

The first thing, and probably the biggest thing, has really been this blog. Not only has it been a great way for me to reflect on my teaching practice and gather up a whole stack of teaching resources into one place, it has enabled me to get in touch with other music teachers and share it all with them.

That networking has worked wonders for my whole outlook on teaching, which I found quite lonely before. Being the only classroom music teacher in a smaller rural school, it’s easy to feel a bit cut off from everyone else in my field. I no longer feel that way.

In terms of resources, MuseScoreand O-Generator have both been installed over the whole school network. The students have responded very positively to the new software on the whole. My first composition assessment task for O-Generator (which my year 8s especially are finding “totally sick” – I think that means good) has just been completed this week.

MuseScore has been wonderful for teaching music theory, and a small number of students are engaging with it quite enthusiastically and using it to compose, even preferring it to O-Generator. We’re all wondering how I’d never heard of it before two months ago.

I finally have a full midi station set up in our classroom, with Pro Tools, M-Box, and an Avid KeyStudio. This PC also has Sibelius 5, Acid Music Studio, O-Generator and MuseScore all installed. Acid seems to be the most popular choice at the moment with the students so far.

Acid Xpress has experienced a few technical snags and we haven’t managed to install that one on the school laptops yet, but we’re working on it. If only we could get this one past the networking glitch, we’d be home and hosed.

There’s also some starter hiccups going on with Pro Tools: the keyboard will talk to the M-Box, the M-box will talk to the PC, the PC will talk to Pro Tools, but Pro Tools won’t talk to the speakers or headphones, so no sound comes out, even though everything else seems to be working. Hmmm.

Jing has been a useful little tool. I found out about this in one of Katie Wardrobe’s workshops on making video tutorials. Jing is a great software application for capturing images and screen shots, and making little 5-minute screen-capture films, very handy for “how-to” videos. I haven’t made any of those yet, but I have been able to make a “how-to” worksheet in next to no time, using image-capture.

Creative Commons has been a focal point in my teaching over the last two months. My 9s and 10s are just finishing up a composition task, part of which includes licensing their work under Creative Commons. I am also endeavouring to increase my students’ awareness of fair use and best practice as far as copyright is concerned.

I haven’t yet been using ipods as much as I would like, mainly due to a policy which restricts their use by students during the course of the school day. I’m working on that one. In the meantime, I use my ipad a fair bit in my senior class, most often for YouTube.

Two things I was already using proficiently before the conference, were an interactive whiteboard (not Smartboard or Prometheus, unfortunately) and an online virtual classroom (VCR) for my senior class. With the addition of resources since the conference, I’ve been able to get the students actively involved in using the IWB, and I’m looking at ways to extend the VCR to include my junior students as well.

The main thing which has restricted the VCR to my seniors so far has been the time it takes to set one up and manage it thereafter. I’m hoping that the added resources, plus practice, will shorten the time factor and increase my ability to run a set of VCRs more efficiently.

One of my quirks is that I tend to go through phases of intense concentration on a particular thing, for days at a time. My latest “thing” has been Acrobat X, and I’ve been spending long hours making interactive pdfs in the last week or two.

So far, I’ve made the reflection tools I mentioned in my last post, and some lesson and unit planners. These incorporate Essential Learnings and the Senior Music Syllabus (2004) from the Queensland Studies Authority, and the Dimensions of Learning framework developed by Robert Marzano et al. I’ve uploaded them on box.net for interested Qld music teachers and pre-service teachers (and anyone else who wants them) to download if you like. You can find the link under “Professional Practice – Planning Tools” on my Resources page.

The biggest change for me since the conference by far, has been my self-confidence. Daily online contact with other teachers in my field, constant new discoveries in resources and teaching strategies, and regular reflection through blogging, have literally helped me become a different teacher.

Last year I was studying with a view to leaving the profession. Now I’m thinking of redirecting my studies to further my teaching qualifications. I’m excited about teaching again and more confident in my abilities to make a real contribution. All of that has been thanks to the MTEC 2011 conference and all the contacts I have made since then. That, dear reader, includes you.

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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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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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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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