Tag Archives: reflection

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

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

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

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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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Professional Reflection = Professional Development

June 4, 2011


Probably the most useful tool for professional development, I have found, is reflection. This is one of the reasons why I find blogging to be such a rewarding exercise, as I’ve pointed out in a previous post: 10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet.

In my first couple of years as a teacher, I made a professional practice journal, which incorporated a set of structured reflection tools to help me organise my thinking (which needed all the organisation help it could get).

I found these tools to be extremely useful, so I have now reformatted them and uploaded them to share.

There are four different forms in this set, which you can download as interactive pdf files. (Thankyou to Anne Wisdom from MTEC 2011 for teaching me how to do that!) You can fill in the fields and save under the date or whatever name you like.

All the reflection tools in the set are published under a Creative Commons NonCommercial Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.

1: Professional Practice 1 – Reflection

This is a very simple reflection tool for the end of an ordinary class lesson. There are three sections which ask about teaching and behaviour management strategies: what worked, what didn’t, and changes to make.

There’s a list down the bottom called “Professional and Interpersonal Goals”. It was created so I could keep to the forefront of my mind a number of little things which I was consistently having trouble with: things like raising my voice (which I was doing much too often), following through on behaviour management, refraining from getting into arguments with students, and trusting myself.

That list now contains a set of blank fields for you to fill out as you like, each with a checkbox to indicate whether that goal was achieved or not during the lesson.

2. Professional Practice 2 – What the hell was THAT?!!

We all have occasional lessons where everything just falls apart. This reflection tool was created after one of those lessons, where I wanted to analyse what happened in real depth so I could get to the bottom of what went wrong.

The sections are as follows:

  • What happened
  • Strategies I attempted
  • Did they work? (Yes/No/Sort of)
  • What I need to do or change
  • General Comments

There’s also a section down the bottom for a more detailed evaluation of “Professional and Interpersonal Goals” as listed on the original Reflection form. This was made so I could see whether any of those niggling issues may have been a contributing factor in the event of a lesson going wrong, by making me grade how well I achieved each goal on an A-E scale.

3. Professional Practice 3 – Think I might be in for a difficult day?

I can’t tell you how many times this one saved my neck. I’m not a morning person so my brain takes a long time to wake up. This reflection tool is for the times when I’m worried that it won’t.

Whether it’s because I didn’t sleep properly the night before, had a bad lesson the day before, have a difficult class coming up, or a conflict with a student or colleague on my mind, or even that I just haven’t had time to have my coffee yet, this form has helped me on numerous occasions when I found the thought of the day ahead just a bit too overwhelming.

On a more personal note, this reflection tool was created in the midst of a long and painful struggle with depression and anxiety, which I faced every day for many years. It really helped me to “get out of my head” and focus specifically on the practical tasks of the day.

It includes the following sections:

  • How I’m feeling right now
    • This makes me precisely identify my physical, emotional, and mental state: tired, angry, stressed out, ill, or whatever.
  • What’s on my mind right now
    • This gives me a chance to get whatever is going on “off my chest”. Writing it down also has a way of making the issue smaller and bringing it into perspective.
  • Is there anything concerning me specifically about today?
    • This focuses my attention to the current day ahead, as well as any worries or concerns about what might be coming up
  • Classes for today
    • After getting concerns and worries off my chest, this brings my mind to practical matters, by making me list all the sessions immediately ahead.
  • Tasks, strategies and goals to get through the day
    • A list of everything that needs to be done that day, with checkboxes for ticking them off.

If you also struggle with anxiety and depression, I know what it is that you face every day, and I can tell you that you are not alone. My heart goes out to you, and I really hope that this reflection tool can be of some help.

4. Professional Practice 4 – Teaching and Behaviour Management Strategies Quick List

Filling out the Reflection form day after day helped me to get a comprehensive list of effective and ineffective teaching and behaviour management strategies. This table is a tool for getting all those strategies listed in one place for easy reference.

Final Comments

I really recommend these reflection tools for pre-service and early-career teachers, since they were created when I was in that stage myself, and I shaped them specifically to situations I was meeting at the time. However, they are also a good honing tool for me even today, so I can recommend them to more experienced teachers as well.

When I first created them, I used them after every single lesson for about a fortnight. After a while, I found that I only needed to fill them out once a day, and then a little later once a week, as reflection became more automatic.

Generally, my pattern nowadays is a doing a detailed reflection a couple of times a fortnight or once or twice a month. Every so often I have a “reflection blitz” where I might have a week of going through every lesson again, just to refocus, which is also useful. There’s really no set pattern: you can use them in whatever way works for you.

To download the Reflection Tools, click here to go to box.net, where they are hosted. I will also be adding them to my Resources page.

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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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