Free Orchestral Sample Library from Spitfire Audio

I have spent a lot of time trying to find free composition and mixing software for my students. While audio software has never been cheaper (Logic Pro is only around $250 which is a bargain considering I paid over $1000 for it when I first got it… and even then it was worth every cent), I am constantly trying to find good options for students that don’t cost anything.

Earlier in the year I wrote about free composition software highlighting free orchestral sounds from Project Sam, the Spitfire Labs, Waveform by Tracktion and Native Instruments Kontakt Start. These are all excellent solutions for composing on a laptop. But Spitfire have now just released what is probably one of the most amazing deals I’ve ever seen for composition software.

Last year they released their excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra sample library. It was quickly becoming one of the ‘go to’ sample libraries for orchestral music composers. However, it’s price is likely out of the range of high schools and students. So it’s quite exciting that a few weeks ago Spitfire released a version of this for only $49 USD, or you can get it for free if you fill out a survey for them and are prepared to wait two weeks for a download code.

I am able to afford the $49, so I went ahead and got the new “BBC Discover” immediately. Here are my first impressions.

This sample library sounds great! The sounds are the same sounds as found in the more expensive BBCSO Core and Professional library. But you have far fewer articulations, mic positions and general adaptability. Are you going to use these sounds for a professional film score? Short answer, no. But for high school students trying to make film style orchestrations and compositions, it is perfect. In fact, it’s probably better than the expensive versions as it’s a very small download package (around 200Mb instead of many gigabytes of the ‘full’ versions) and the sounds and articulations that are provided are generally all that the average student composer will need. It is not bloated with features you might only use 2% of the time, everything provided is easily accessible and thoroughly useful.

One of the things I love most about this sample library is that Spitfire Audio are supporting it with an amazing page of resources.  When you get a sample library, it can take forever to setup an orchestral template so that it’s actually usable. There are some kind people that share their templates on forums, and websites like Babylon Waves have sprung up with useful articulation files for Logic Pro and other DAW’s that make these overwhelming sample libraries usable.

So it is especially great that Spitfire Audio have created a page of resources that include freely downloadable templates, as well as orchestration tutorial videos to help your students get the most out of the sample library.

It is especially great that The Page contains the DAW sessions used in the videos like the one above are also available for download.

What makes a sample library replicate the real sound of an orchestra is by providing a variety of articulations. The Celli samples (for example) provide four articulations: long, spiccato, pizzicato and tremolo. For the majority of student composers this will provide all the articulations they are likely to need. I know I can’t complain (because the software is essentially free), but I would have loved to have seen legato articulations provided as the ‘long’ articulation can feel a bit clunky when trying to move smoothly between notes. You can overcome this somewhat by overlapping the MIDI notes in your DAW’s piano roll, but they won’t sound as effective as proper legato patches.

You really shouldn’t waste anymore time reading this blog! Head to and either purchase this or apply for a free download. This really is the best free orchestral sample library available and is a must have for any composers that wish to use orchestral instruments in their compositions or songs.

Lessons learned from a week of teaching in COVID19

Over the last week and a half in New Zealand we have been on a nationwide shutdown. All non-essential services, businesses and schools have been shut down, with only supermarkets, pharmacies and the health services remaining functioning in our country.

State schools had their holidays brought forward two weeks but many Independent schools like St Andrew’s College where I teach, have decided to stay open through the rest of term 1 and use online learning.

We are very fortunate in that we have a highly capable and hard working IT support team. They have been spending most of this year working hard to put the infrastructure in place to support teachers to continue to work remotely. As we are a Microsoft Office 365 school (which always means I feel a little awkward considering I’m an Apple Distinguished Educator) we have built our online learning delivery around Microsoft Teams.

I have really enjoyed the portal that Teams has become. We previously used Moodle in our school, and I have to say that Teams is a lot more user friendly and easy to manage. Using Teams (linking in with many teacher’s resources they already had in OneNote) meant that most teachers at StAC have been trained to deliver online lessons in the following way:

  • Teachers are to pre-record a five minute ‘lesson’ using Teams and Microsoft Stream. Teachers send this video to students in advance of the class for them to watch before the lesson.
  • Teachers then meet up with students online through Teams for a ‘class’. The teacher will explain concepts and answer questions, and then supervise students while they spend the rest of that 50-minute lesson working through what the teachers has asked them to do.
  • Teachers can set assignments using Teams where students can do their work and submit online using Teams. Teams is integrated with the anti-plagiarism service TurnItIn to verify student work.

While there are many variations to this, that is basically what StAC teachers are trying to deliver, in a perfect world. Some of the issues that have cropped up this week though are students having issues with wifi/internet access at home, teachers spending the whole 50-minute period talking at students and not giving them work time (leading to students becoming stressed about the amount of work they have to do), teacher confidence and experience delivering in a new format, and students not having their webcams turned on and not paying attention to the lesson.

While I should stress these are some issues, overwhelmingly the response from students, parents and teachers this week is that our first week and a half of online learning has been a huge success. Our Rector described the staff’s willingness to continue to deliver quality lessons in this way as a highlight of her career.

However, to deliver quality lessons in music I have used Teams extensively, but deviated with some other processes and software. Here are some of the things I’ve learned this week which hopefully can help other music teachers in NZ and the world who may be just starting out with delivering online lessons.

Zoom vs Teams


As mentioned above, our school are using Teams to deliver video conferencing needs for online lessons. However, the downside of Teams is that it only lets you have four people on the screen at once, and you can’t share audio from laptops if you are Mac users. As most of my music students use Apple Mac’s (after all, Mac are clearly the industry standard when it comes to music creative professionals) this created serious problems for when we were doing class sharing of compositions.

The end of term is a very important time for my classes in sharing and celebrating their work with each other. See a previous blog post where I discuss how this is the #1 tip I have for raising the quality of student compositions and songs. For us to make this happen we had to move over to Zoom. I advised my school IT team about it, and while they want everyone at the school to stay on the same platform for simplicity and security reasons, they could see how important this was for us.

We would start our lesson in Teams (the Teams calendar is how we join lessons that are scheduled in student timetables), and I would post a link in our Teams chat for students to link over to Zoom. The first time I did this with each class it took less than 10 minutes for all students to successfully move over to Zoom. Most students, who had no prior experience with Zoom, completed the task within 90 seconds.

Initially the link I setup for students required them to install the Zoom software on their laptops. Once students had the software they could join Zoom meetings by just clicking on the link I sent them. However, later in the week I came across a setting in Zoom which means the meeting will open in Zoom in a browser with no requirement to download the software, so this might be a better option for teachers looking to use Zoom with classes for the first time.

I won’t go further into how to use Zoom here, including locking lessons and using the waiting room function so that trolls can’t join it, as you can search the internet for lots of articles about using it safely.

The other thing I really love about Zoom is that I can see the whole class on the screen at once, instead of just four people that Teams has. Our school IT have required that students join video conferencing sessions with their webcam turned off by default (for privacy and safety reasons), but once I’ve told students to make sure they look appropriate (i.e. not in their PJs!) they should turn on their webcams. It is MUCH easier to teach students when I can see their reactions.

My main caution I have about getting students to share their work on Zoom is that it is a bit tricky to setup for some students. The #1 issue is the students forgot to click the box about sharing computer audio when they started sharing, and the #2 issue was figuring out how to get their music software to send audio to Zoom. Some students managed to get this happening quickly, but others couldn’t get it working at all. So while I will still use Zoom for students sharing their work with the class (it’s great for students to see how their GarageBand session looks and is arranged) at the end of the week I had students send me their recordings via Dropbox and I played everything for the class from my laptop.

Dropbox File Requests


Our school is now mostly using Teams for requesting assignments from students. However, I have found many issues with this process I won’t go into here, but the most major one is that the file size limit of this feature is too small for student recording projects.

Well before our school became an Office 365 school I have been using Dropbox in a variety of ways. But one of the best features, is that any folder I have on my laptop (in the Dropbox folder) lets me right click it and generate a link which students can use to upload work to that folder, of any file size.

This has made it very easy for students to send me evidence of their work they have completed at the end of the day or the week. I have asked them take pictures or make a video on their phone of their workbooks and upload those. They have also uploaded videos of them performing their songs they’ve written, or sent me MP3’s of the beats they’ve made.

Music Rehearsals

We quickly discovered we can’t rehearse together on Zoom as the lag is just too much for us to be able to play in time. So what we did with our Big Band was to get them to record their part at home along to a metronome click and they sent me an mp3. I then mixed the tracks together into a rough form so that we could then do a ‘rehearsal’ where we analysed how everyone was playing. This was great for the students as they were able to see (and hear in isolation through soloing tracks):

  • Who is always playing in front of the beat and rushing
  • Who is consistently behind the beat
  • That the bass player wasn’t keeping his sound even on every note
  • That the guitarist and the drummer’s ride cymbal are staying solid and in time with each other.
  • That some musicians could play the starts and ends of phrases well, but went to mush in the middle of each phrase.

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 10.02.26 AM

No doubt this analysis and ‘exposure’ is hard for teenage musicians to hear, but they are definitely more aware of the areas they need to work on to create a cohesive ensemble sound.

You can hear their performance of “Groovin High” here.

(I’ll happily post a new recording later in the year once they are performing it a lot better!).

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For my year 10 option music class we took their group performances they had been preparing, and got them to do a similar task to the Jazz Big Band. But instead we used and the collaboration features.

I pre-loaded a recording into Soundtrap for them to play along to, and they each logged into from home and recorded their part. Using the chat feature in Soundtrap they could stay in contact with each other and discuss the challenges and difficulties. However, it has proven to keep them engaged with each other, and still working on their practical performance part of the course.

Learning Ideas Resources

You know I couldn’t leave these out…

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 10.48.31 AMI have worked through countless weekends, holidays, and early mornings over the last 15 years to produce these resources, and in the last five years have been producing and converting all of our resources to the ‘Flipped Classroom’ format. As a result, adapting to online learning has been rather painless.

learning ideas logoI have all lessons for a course (such as Recording or MIDI, Score reading, Songwriting, etc) pre-recorded, with workbooks setup for students. I haven’t had to pre-record any lessons this week, I’ve just met up with students and told them which part of the workbook they should be working on, which has it’s own lesson videos. With all my students on personalised courses, this is kind of what I’m used to doing on a daily basis anyway. For some students that need further help, or extension, I then spend that online ‘lesson’ with them helping them out.

So, if you’re looking for the easiest way possible of running classes online, please look through our resources at

I’m keen to hear what your top tips for online learning have been. So, please comment below.

Thanks for reading 🙂


Free composition software to keep you going through COVID19

A lot of teachers in New Zealand and around the world this past week are grappling with how to deliver courses online. At Learning Ideas we have a lot of resources for Songwriting, Music Technology, Ear Training and Music Theory that are ‘flipped’ resources, they have videos and workbooks that show your students much of what they need to know on a certain topic.

However, when it comes to composing at home there are now some amazing tools for students. Ableton Live, Logic Pro and others are offering free 90 day licences for fully functional ‘pro’ software so it’s worth looking into those options.  The Verge have collated a lot of the free and trial options here. Well worth a read.

However, I’m more interested in what options are out there for students and teachers beyond the 90 days. Fortunately, there are now lots of amazing recording and composition tools available for free. So, if you like free stuff that’s awesome quality, here is my pick of the best free software available.

Project Sam The Free Orchestra

The Free Orchestra

Project Sam is one of my favourite Orchestral and Jazz sample libraries. I use their sounds in my film composition work all the time. Their full sample libraries are very expensive (although they do offer educational discounts) so this is exciting news that they have released some of their best sounds for free.

Spitfire Audio Labs


My other favourite orchestral sample library company is Spitfire Audio. They release a lot of their best sounds for free in dedicated players. Super high quality, and sound amazing. Head over to their Labs website to download them.

Native Instruments Komplete Start


No other company offers (in my opinion) the range of virtual instruments, effects and sample libraries that Native Instruments does. For anyone that can afford it, I highly recommend purchasing their Komplete library… but for students that probably can’t afford it, you get an amazing range of instruments and sample libraries from their Komplete Start library.

Waveform by Tracktion


All those sample libraries and virtual instruments are great, but they’re useless without a Digital Audio Workstation to play them in. As mentioned above, Ableton and Logic are for 90 days, but students might like to try this free DAW instead. There is the ‘free to evaluate’ software Reaper (which is incredible and definitely considered ‘pro’ software), but that is quite hard for a lot of people to get their head around when it comes to MIDI instruments. Waveform Free by contrast, seems very easy to setup and it has many wonderful getting started tutorials on YouTube.

Other options?

There are so many free options for technology and composition. The ones I’ve mentioned above are my favourite, but why do you write in the comments anything you think I’ve left out.  Yes, I know I’ve left off 🙂

Mixing a large scale production

Last term our senior musical was “Parade” by Jason Robert Brown. This was an exceptionally complex show, so we wanted to make a good recording of it for our archival purposes (we are unable to share the video for copyright reasons).

The live sound desk in our theatre is a Midas M32, which enables us to plug a laptop in via USB and record all 32 channels on the desk to separate tracks in Logic Pro, so we can do a better mix of it for video later. We had 23 radio mics and 9 channels for the band.

Watch this video to see my overview before reading my workflow below.

Mixing a school production

My workflow for working with a Logic project of this size is to do the following:

  • Colour code all tracks – lead parts go in yellow, girls ensemble in pink and boys ensemble in blue.
  • Create a basic mix for the band – balance faders, corrective EQ, compression if necessary. I won’t do any reverb on them as there is so much leakage from other mics, and the room mic I have at the back reverb is possibly unnecessary.
  • I will create aux channels – one for the boys and one for the girls. This allows me to control the overall volume of the girls with one fader and the boys with a different fader.
  • Do a basic mix for each vocal mic. This will usually involve a high pass filter to get rid of all low frequency leakage into the mics from the band. Then apply corrective EQ to get rid of any nasty frequencies (usually honky mid frequencies). I will then place mild compression on each vocal mic to reduce dynamic differences, making the voices easier to balance and making their words clearer and easier to understand. At this stage I am often mixing each vocal mic in solo. This is often discouraged in most mixing scenarios but here it’s necessary to clean up the sound of each vocal mic. We can do further fine tuning of the tracks later.
  • I will create aux channel strips for reverb and delay, which means I can route any signal to those tracks to create ambience (if necessary).
  • I will then work on a song where the full ensemble is singing (usually the finale) to create a basic full ensemble mix. This involves balancing faders, and then maybe some fine tuning of the EQ on some voices to make them blend. I am a big fan of putting a large amount of compression on the aux bus of these groups of singers – it really does ‘glue’ the sound of an ensemble ‘choral’ sound together.
  • Now, at this point it’s where I get tricky. For each of the important characters I will then duplicate their tracks twice. One of the duplicates I’ll mix it for how they sound when lead singing (usually a bit more reverb) and for the second duplicate I’ll mix it for when they are speaking dialogue (probably no reverb at all). The point of having separate tracks for the separate ‘roles’ of each character is to reduce the need for automation of volume and effects. This way, I can just chop up their regions in the arrange window and drag them to the appropriate track and in theory, they should sound appropriate.

And that’s basically it. With regards to actual mixing, I spend a comparatively small amount of time doing that. Instead, I spend a long time editing – deleting the unused regions (i.e. when people are backstage but their track has recorded everything they said) and then chopping up the main characters and copying them to their ensemble, lead or dialogue tracks.

Watch the video above, and you’ll see how I do it.  Feel free to send me comments about how you think this process could be further refined.

My #1 tip for improving student compositions

web banner mic shutterstock_664134517.jpgHave students play their compositions in front of the rest of the class.

And make the students all comment on each other’s work with something they like, and something they recommend doing to take it to the next level (comments must be specific and referred to the elements of music, no ‘wishy washy’ comments allowed).

There… simple (feel free to stop reading now and do this. But if you want to know why it’s my #1 tip please keep reading).

Since I’ve started making students share their music to the rest of the class I’ve noticed the following things happen:

  • The quality of music in term 2 increases a huge amount compared to term 1.
  • Students who were not putting much effort into their composing suddenly realise they’re behind others in the class and work harder so as not to embarrass themselves
  • If one student does something pretty clever (such as the creation of a hook in a song, or their use of reverb in GarageBand, or a chord progression on the guitar, etc) the other students get to see it in action, and are free to borrow that idea for their works.
  • When many students provide similar feedback to the composer the composer then gets to see how their works are being perceived by their ‘audience’, and can refine their works accordingly.


For this to work, you must have set some clear expectations around the culture of your classroom. Students need to understand that they must always be prepared to share their work, no matter what stage they are at. The song will never be ‘perfect’, it will never be complete, there are always things to improve. So students should be ready to share their work, even though it’s incomplete and they may not be too happy with it.

When classmates comment on the work the comments must ALWAYS be helpful and constructive. No criticisms or negative language. If there is something that someone doesn’t like, they need to frame it in a way of identifying an issue, and what they would do to solve the issue or improve the work.

And the people receiving the constructive feedback need to remember that there is nothing personal about the comments. They are talking about the work, not them as people or them as composers and songwriters.


One of the delightful side effects of this process, is that students go to each other and offer their assistance.

I recently had a student the composed and produced an amazing song in Logic, but she lacked the ability to programme a good drum part, and as a result the track never really had the emphasis that it needed in the chorus sections.

However, a few days later she resubmitted her song to me and it had an amazing drum part. One of the boys in the class went and helped her out and make a track with her. This is how the music industry works and I couldn’t be happier!

Ignore NCEA

Seriously, I mean it. Don’t teach to assessment!

Every student needs to make their songs and compositions better, but not because NCEA says so. This means your weak students are focusing on developing their compositional skills, and your super advanced students aren’t limiting themselves to NCEA or curriculum levels, but are pushing themselves to be the best they can be.

My students aren’t allowed to ask, “what do I need to do to get excellence”. For me the question is irrelevant. I challenge them to produce something they can put on Soundcloud or Spotify and be proud of. It needs to be in keeping with the genre they are composing in.


I usually dedicated 3-4 periods each term to this process. And since then my student compositions have never been better.

MENZA Keynote Presentation

I feel very honoured to be one of the keynote presenters at the Music Education New Zealand conference in October.

How do I create personalised programmes?

How do students have intrinsic motivation so that they work hard for the love of music, not for assessment credits?

What are the best technology and tools for my musical environment?

How do we make sure all genres are equally valued?

How do I make sure I have an equal representation of genders in my music groups?

These are just some of the questions I have been asking myself over the last few years. And this is the topic of my presentation… “Asking better questions“.

Through questioning my biases, my school traditions and values, my pedagogy and many other things, I’ve seen my department grow and students find their creative ‘place’.

In my talk I’ll go over how I’ve developed my philosophy of learning, and the impact this is having on my students.

My philosophy summed up

If you are coming to the MENZA conference, then why not stick around an extra day and come to my full day workshop on Composition and Technology? You will have the chance to see in depth the tasks and software I use for my ‘commercial’ music students from years 9-13, you’ll learn about how I teach mixing (distilling years of reading and research down to seven simple steps) and you can see how I’ve setup my department.

You can find out more information and register here.

The importance of being creative

Music teachers are busy.  I don’t need to go into all the reasons why… just take my word for it! So it is a shame that music teachers, who should be engaging with their creative sides as much as possible, are often so caught up with admin and managing a large number of classes and a whole co-curricular programme.

I have felt the pressure of the job, and have neglected my own creativity.  While I regularly perform on my instruments with my students, I have found it very hard to spend anytime composing.

So, this year I’ve decided to do something about it and engaged in a Film Composition course through Berklee University.

This has been a 12-week course in which you analyse different genres of film music composition such as love themes, high intensity action, supernatural/grandeur, sad themes, etc

In addition to analysis, completion of short pre-tasks and quizzes on music theory you have to compose music for a 2-3 minute film clip each week.

In a busy work life at school this has been tough.  But, it’s been awesome. I’ve found the following benefits:

  • My students hugely respect that I take my own learning and growth seriously
  • My students appreciate that I’m not asking them to do anything in a week that I’m not prepared to do myself
  • I have been forced to put admin aside to focus on creativity
  • I have gained confidence to share my own work
  • I am better able to demonstrate to my students the creative process involved with composition
  • I now have a bunch of great templates in Logic Pro which I can share with my students as they do their own film composition tasks
  • I have massively improved my MIDI sequencing chops in Logic Pro
  • I have finally got my head around some of the amazing possibilities of what you can do with my sample libraries

Tools/software used

Composing a new piece of music that sounds great for 12 weeks in a row is tough.  However, I’ve been fortunate to have the following tools and software at my disposal:

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol


Native Instruments Komplete 11


Project Sam Symphobia 1 & 2 and Lumina Sample libraries


Spitfire Audio Orchestra collection


Roli controller and it’s Equator Synth


Demo Reel

Well, I suppose you want to hear a bit of what I’ve done.  Here is my demo reel from the course.  I’ve included short excerpts from five of my 12 compositions in the following genres:

  1. Love theme – Sense & Sensibility ‘kiss’ scene
  2. Action – trailer for Troy
  3. Fantasy – from Once Upon A Time
  4. Suspense – Iron Man (when Tony Stark is captured)
  5. Action/suspense – 2012 deleted scene

The clips don’t make sense all the time with the dialogue and SFX removed (as well as being unable to see the pictures I was composing to) but it gives a good impression of what I’ve been up to.

A successful high school composition programme

Teaching composition to New Zealand high school students has changed hugely over the last 10-15 years.  Around 2005 many schools across the country embraced the Sibelius (or Encore) notation application as a way of notating student compositions.

However, this quite quickly became what students considered to be composition.  They couldn’t really ‘do’ composition apart from Sibelius.  And it meant that those from orchestral/classical backgrounds had a huge advantage over non-music readers when it came to composition.  If everything had to be notated all the time, then the success of a student’s composition was directly related to how well they could understand and use notation.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m a firm believer that all musicians should have at least a working knowledge of notation and score conventions.  It is how we communicate in many contexts.  But, if a student is not using notation regularly as part of their performance practice (for instance, if they’re a singer/songwriter or they play metal electric guitar) then no matter how much we try to force music theory down their throat, they are not going to embrace it and find a use for it.

As an electric bass player who developed a love for jazz I was able to see the point of theory and harmony and embraced it because it made me a better improviser and meant I could play in Big Bands.  But if other musicians can’t find the ‘why’ for notation, then we shouldn’t force it on them.

But anyway, I digress from what this blog is supposed to be about…

In the ‘old’ days (I’m talking from around 2005-2012) we were able to use applications like Guitar Pro to assist guitarists to ‘compose’ (notate) their pieces but this was largely pointless.  A guitarist of a rock or metal genre song (for example) doesn’t really expect other guitarists to learn the piece from notation/TAB.  Most of the time they learn it by ear.  Students were just doing it because a teacher told them to (who were often doing it because they thought NCEA told them to).

However, with the advent of free software like GarageBand, and the huge reduction in price of Logic Pro, world class recording software is within reach of the average BYOD high school student.  This now means that students can compose on instruments (I know… amazing! lol).  Students can record their ideas into Music Memos, GarageBand, Logic or other software and then develop their ideas into cohesive and convincing pieces of music – without the requirement to notate their pieces.

The synths, samplers and effects plugins in the software can be used to spark creativity.  DAW’s haven’t become a substitute for Sibelius – they have enabled students to go deeper in their musical composition and production.

Workshopping ideas with guitar and recording into Garageband on their laptop

So how do we teach composition with a DAW?

I’ll discuss how I teach composition to NCEA classes (students with at least 2-3 years experience on an instrument).

  • No unit plans or formal class teaching – students just start.  All students with at least 2-3 years experience are able to find a basic musical idea.  They can use their DAW to record this idea (along with a click or a looped sample), develop their own beat to go with it (depending on the genre) and add harmony.
  • As long as they are getting constant feedback from a teacher all students manage to come up with an idea and then start to develop that idea through repetition, sequence, altering the texture/timbre, harmonic accompaniment, etc.
  • Every week all the students have to play where they are up to to the rest of the class.  This fosters a sense of competition (for those students that respond well to this) but it also means they have public deadlines they have to stick to.  They become accountable to each other.  Students are given the responsibility to feedback to each other with positive and negative feedback.  This also forces students to think critically and give quality feedback within the context of talking about the musical elements.
  • Analysis – students don’t know what they don’t know.  And to figure out what makes a good piece of music in a certain genre they need to do plenty of quality analysis.  I get them to listen to pieces of music and comment on the structure, melody, harmony, use of instruments, texture, etc

This process may sound messy but it’s great to own that with the students.  To be a teacher that is constantly adapting and responding to individual and unique student need means I never get bored! It means my students are also constantly teaching me as well.

But it means as a teacher I need to be adaptable.  Sometimes to move some students forward I may need to do a few lessons on harmony, or Bach choral voice leading to assist with their writing for strings, or how to construct a beat in electronic genres, or how to use the arpeggiator functions of synths… but this means I can grow with the students and use these ideas to influence my own composition.


The result?

The result is that my students find their ‘why’.  They grow, and are proud to share their growth.  My ‘classical’ students still do well and move on to University composition study, but now the music department has grown through the addition of the electronic composers, the singer/songwriters, the rock guitarists.  They all respect each other and learn from each other.

A couple of students that may not have done well in the ‘Sibelius’ era but have ended up producing fantastic compositions (and have been recognised by Play It Strange) can be heard here.


George and Bella:

Project Based Learning in Music for 2017

There is currently massive change going on in the music industry and in music education.  With new degrees like those offered by Massey University in Wellington, and with new initiatives in cross-curricular arts courses like what Victoria University are offering, school music programmes need to adapt to better prepare their students.  We need to focus less on assessment and more on student learning.

One way I’ve found to put the focus back on learning, and developing music courses that are good for the students (but may only be partly assessed by NCEA) is to incorporate Project Based Learning (PBL).

In New Zealand so many of our programmes of teaching (in any subject) are centred around Achievement Standards.  We look at the assessment, and design courses around teaching to the assessment.  Of course, all good practitioners know this is not the way to do it!  But it’s easier said than done when we have pressure from school management with NCEA targets and magazines like North and South and Metro comparing schools’ achievement data.

There is plenty about PBL on the internet, and websites like Edutopia are full of great articles and advice about incorporating PBL.  But there is surprisingly little out there about how to do it within the context of a high school music course.

PBL has transformed my music programme.  It gives students a focus, it motivates them, it develops personal as well as collaborative skills and at the end they don’t just have credits against their name on a piece of paper, they have something tangible they can show to others and be proud of.

Here are some tips I’ve found for a successful PBL programme:

  1. Make sure students take the time to think through what they love most about music, and what interests them most about the music industry. Any projects that they can come up with (as opposed to be suggested to them by the teacher) will have greater ‘buy in’.    Students have ownership of what they are doing.
  2. Provide marker points through the year where students have to submit drafts and demonstrate progress. At regular intervals students need to write up their progress on a public blog ( is a great website for public blogs).  Making it public makes them accountable.  If they know other people are following their progress, it will provide extra incentive for them to get the work done.  It also allows time for them to do reflection on their progress, which is crucial.
  3. Creating music for a purpose, for an audience adds greater motivation than doing this for and a single assessment. Lock in dates for the events they’re organising, or delivery of their project at the start of the year and get them to use a calendar. It may also be valuable getting a wall calendar up in your class with the events and assessment dates written in.  Start each week with a catch up and reminder about how far away important dates are.

Here are some of the projects that my students are working on at the moment:

Chamber Music Night – The ‘classical’ students are composing music for chamber trios to be performed on a Chamber Music Night.  This night is our annual lead up concert to the National Chamber Music Competition so it provides a great opportunity for students to perform their new compositions.  Students are responsible for making promotional posters/websites/social media presence.  They are to organise catering and ticketing.  They are to organise presenters and develop a programme.  They are also going to setup a recording system and record the night for mixing at a later stage.  And because we can’t ignore the NCEA aspect to it they will be getting these credits (I’ll show examples of level 2 Standards):

  • Composition – 6 credits
  • Performance (group) – 4 credits
  • 27703 (mixing) – 4 credits
  • 27658 (sequencing & notation), for mock ups of their composition – 4 credits
  • Total: 18 credits – if they also do Solo Performance at another stage plus an external Standard or two (like Score Reading & Aural) they will have a very full course.


Singer/Songwriter Night – Each year as part of our Winter Music Festival we run a night for songwriters.  It is a similar deal to the Chamber Music night in but it will be a different group of students organising it – most likely those that see themselves as songwriters instead of classical musicians.  You can see what they did in last year’s concert here:

Rock Night – Same deal as above but on a different night leading up to the Smokefree Rockquest.

EDM Night – For those students that want to compose in electronic genres, or perform with devices like Ableton Push, this year we are offering a project based around organsing an EDM night.  What is interesting about this though is that they are going to collaborate with dancers in the school who will choreograph to the music.  This will be a back and forth relationship as students adapt their music to better fit the dance, and vice versa.  The final performance will take place outside, with a PA system and light show/projection system.

Once again, multiple Achievement Standards will be able to be assessed, but not just from music, but other Performing Arts domains.

When students get to year 13 they often want to focus on their own projects, such as making an album.  Here is an album that one of my recent graduates produced while at school for his major project

Offering courses in PBL has reinvigorated our department.  Students are very excited about the opportunities, are highly motivated, and are then very proud to share what they’ve produced with our school community and their families.  It also provides regular exposure for our music department, which works great when it comes time to request an increase in budgets to buy more recording equipment and instruments! J