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.

Culture

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.

Collaboration

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Logan:

https://playitstrange.bandcamp.com/track/normandy-logan-mcallister

George and Bella:

https://playitstrange.bandcamp.com/track/holding-on-bella-ford-and-george-white

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 (WordPress.com 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: http://tinyurl.com/STACstudioset

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 https://www.facebook.com/TheHazeBandNZ/

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

Creating Music with Apple Apps

As I write this I’m winging my way to Europe to attend the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute.  One of the workshops I’ll present while I’m there is demonstrating how my students have been using three key Apple Apps as part of their creative workshop.

What I love about what Apple have done is that these apps are all fantastic by themselves.  But when you look at how they work together to support the compositional and production process they create their own ‘ecosystem’ that greatly assist students with creating original music.

Music Memos

Music Memos is the newest app.  It’s basically the Voice Recorder app that as been available for iOS for a long time but configured for musicians with a few neat features.

My students use it on their iPhones and iPads for capturing their rough musical ideas when they’re in practise rooms, on the bus or anywhere that inspiration strikes.

Here is a student of mine using it to record some ideas she had for a verse in a new song.

Music Memos has this amazing ability to not just record audio, but to also analyse the timing of the performance and the harmony used.  It is then able to create a session timeline of bars and beats and provide you with information of the chords that were played.

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It can even provide a virtual band of bass and drums to play along with your performance (of which settings you’re able to configure).

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.48.38 AM

While all this sounds amazing in reality my students haven’t found it hugely accurate with it’s analysis (but this is more the fault of the performers than the app).  With very good performers (like you’ll probably see on YouTube reviews of the App) it works fine but with high schoolers I’ve found the chordal analysis and bass & drums backing very hit and miss.

You will notice in the video that Bella was very intentional about trying to play as in time as possible and strongly outlining the beat – this really helps Music Memo’s with the analysis (but even then, it still got a lot of chords wrong in the analysis).  However, many students struggle to play their parts clearly so the analysis can be rather misleading.

But, this doesn’t diminish how useful Music Memos is in capturing ideas, tagging them with keywords and allowing them to share those ideas with friends.  It really is the perfect digital scrapbook.

However, when the chordal analysis does work it’s amazing as you’re able to import your Music Memos files into GarageBand on iOS or MacOS (including a MIDI realisation of the bass and drums that were added).

GarageBand

Music Memo’s projects are easily able to be opened in GarageBand on the iPad.  This is fantastic as you’re then able to use the amazing ‘Smart Instruments’ to create new chord progressions, accompaniments from a variety of instruments such as keys, bass, drums, strings, etc  For students that don’t play piano or guitar this is a massive support to their songwriting.

However, using iCloud you’re also able to open Music Memos projects into GarageBand on the MacOS.

This is what we did here.  Bella opened her project up so that she could record some MIDI keys and start mucking around with overdubbing vocals, harmony parts, etc  She’s also able to alter the exisiting Music Memos Bass and Drums or she can create new parts using GarageBand’s Drummer tracks.

What is very clever is that GarageBand has created a tempo map of her performance in Music Memos so any loops we drag in to the session will be snapped to the correct timing.

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However, if we wanted it to be all exactly in time we can do this be deleting all the tempo changes in the tempo track at the top of the window.  GarageBand is then able to conform the original Music Memos performance into time using Flex time.

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The best thing about using GarageBand at this stage of the songwriting process is that the student is now able to start playing around with the structure, instrument choice, drum patterns, add vocal harmonies, overdub guitar solos, etc – basically create a polished ‘demo’ of the song and arrangement.

This is of great assistance to the composer and musicians that are going to be collaborating in a recording session.

If you’d like to download Bella’s basic demo and have a go at creating your own arrangement you can do so by clicking here (please don’t share or sample this work – all copyright is retained by Isabella Ford and St Andrew’s College).

If the artist is really happy with the demo then they’re able to open their GarageBand file in Logic and record in a studio environment.  However, for this project we decided to start in Logic from scratch with the musicians.

Logic Pro X

Once Bella had her song sorted out we went into our school studio with musicians for a few hours.  She played them her song live and also played her demo from GarageBand.  They discussed what feel it should have, and how to structure the piece.  The string player (who also did BV’s) thought through possible parts she could add in and discussed with Bella.

They ended up adding in an extended solo section which is not what Bella had originally intended.

Here is the final result:

We recorded into Logic Pro X through an Apogee Symphony interface using preamps from Grace, La Chapell, Focusrite, Radial and API.  Our studio also has very nice acoustics.  Using equipment and a facility of this quality meant that we were able to get very good sound tracks that were easy to make a rough mix of in a couple hours.

However, the biggest reason why this song sounds great is not because of the quality of our equipment, or the skill of the musicians (of course these things are essential).  It was the effective creation process that these three Apple Apps helped with.  Through capturing ideas in practise rooms with Music Memos, to crafting an effective arrangement  and ‘demo’ in GarageBand, and finishing with recording a live band of skilled musicians into Logic Pro X.

This workflow is what has been key to the success of this song.  And to prove this isn’t an isolated case here are some of the other songs produced by my students in this manner.

 

Strategy for growing Music Tech skills in Music students

At my school, St Andrew’s College, we’ve got one of the best Music Technology programmes in New Zealand.  We have a world class studio.  Students are making albums in which they compose, perform and record all their own material.  But the thing is… I’ve just had the insight that I’ve never really had a strategy for growing music technology skills in my students from years 9-13… it’s all just kind of happened.

This week I’m running workshops for teachers in how to create a music technology programme and it’s through the course of the first day that it’s dawned on me.  I’ve got a pretty good course running, but it could be so much better if I am more intentional about what I want to see produce by students at each year level.

Currently this is what I’m running at each year level:

Year 9

All students in our school do ‘core’ music for two periods a week.  In the past they’ve made loop based compositions with Mixcraft and Soundation but this year I’ve moved on to using the excellent Soundtrap.com.

With loop based composition it has just been about exposing students to the basics of how a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) works and to focus on their compositional skills of developing structure and texture.

Recently (as in… last week) I got these students (who are not ‘music’ students, most of them don’t play instruments) to plug in MIDI keyboards to their computers and to run Soundtrap.com while doing classroom performance.  Here is the result of what they came up with:

The next step is to get them composing using loops and making melodies with keyboards utilising the pentatonic scale.  Or, I could get them to make drum beats using loops or the built in sampler on Soundtrap, compose their melodies on glockenspiels or Xylophones (or other instruments if they play them) and to then record in their compositions to Soundtrap using their laptop microphone.

I’m rather excited now, I can’t wait to get into next term and try it!

Year 10

In year 10 students can choose to take ‘Option’ Music.  In this course students are involved with writing songs and recording them using MIDI keyboards and microphones with Garageband.  This course last year was the most successful course I’ve run and as a result this year we now have our largest year 11 class St Andrew’s College has ever had.

I wrote a blog about this in depth last year.  But here is a clip of students creating in the studio.

Year 11

In the year 11 course I have given students the option to do composition in a DAW, not just by using Sibelius as I have traditionally done.  This is hugely exciting as I’m seeing an amazing level of creativity.  The NZ Music Commission has been hugely helpful with their composers in residence scheme and the tutor they’ve provided us has been excellent.

Here is an example of what a student has composed.  This is from a student who plays Oboe to around grade 5 level so it was a huge surprise to me to find out she had this in her!

At year 11 students also learn the basics of putting together PA and recording systems, what microphones are good for which situations and how to run sound for a lunchtime concert.  The focus has traditionally been on just what the equipment does and how to connect it.

Students complete Unit Standards 27656 and 26687.  Generally they’re using Studio One Prime, Pro Tools First or Garageband.

Year 12

In year 12 students complete Unit Standards 27658 and 27703 so they get a good grip on how to mix and how to use Parametic EQ, Compression, Delays & Reverb.  They take tracks recorded by other people from websites like shakingthrough.com and mix them.

Because of the requirements of the Unit Standards they can’t use beginner software like Garageband or Soundtrap so they move up to Pro Tools (or Pro Tools First), Logic or Reaper.

Year 13

This is when it all comes together and students engage in Project Based Learning, often to make an album of material they have composed and performed.  An excellent example is from one of my students last year who made a whole album.

In terms of assessment students complete Unit Standards 23730 and 28007.

Reflection

When I look at what my students are producing I’ve got a huge sense of pride.  But, I get the sense that if I provided them with more clarity around expectations of what they’ll be producing each year, they’ll be producing albums in year 13 that will truely be mind blowing.

So, what would an overall high school music course music technology plan look like?  I’ll let you know when I write the next blog 🙂

 

Teacher training – Music Technology

For New Zealand High School teachers here are the details of some Professional Development workshops I’m running.  Please register your interest by emailing sales@learningideas.co.nz

Tuesday 12 April – Incorporating Music Technology into your Music Department
Cost: free (this day is funded by the Heads of Independent Secondary Schools Trust so is only available to teachers from Independent Schools)
Time: 10-4pm
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Course structure for Achievement and Unit Standards
  • Project Based Learning
  • Equipment and skills required to teaching Performing Arts Technology and Music Technology Unit Standards
  • Collaborative Composition using technology
  • Open forum time for teachers to discuss challenges and successes of teaching in an Independent School environment
  • Apple Distinguished Educator Programme
Wednesday 13 April – A beginners guide day for teachers new to teaching Music Technology.
Cost: $150.00 + GST
Time: 10-3pm
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Overview of gear required for teaching music technology – basic studio setup
  • Overview of 27656 (MUSTEC 1)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 26687 (SOND 1)
  • Producing Notation from Audio & MIDI including a demo of the new features of Melodyne 4 (if time)
Please bring your laptop and a MIDI keyboard (although I have plenty if you to use if it’s inconvenient for you to bring your own).
To prepare for this day please download and install the free software Pro Tools First from: http://apps.avid.com/ProToolsFirst/
Please note, this may take some time so please aim to install it a few days in advance of the workshop, not the night before ;-).  Please also watch the getting started videos further down on that page (this will take no more than an hour).  You also need to download the free Xpand 2 plugin/software instrument through the Avid Marketplace (from within Pro Tools First) but we are able to do this at the workshop.
Thursday 14 April – An advanced day focusing on best practice for teaching and assessment of level 3 Performing Arts Technology Unit Standards.
Cost: $195.00 + GST
Time: 10-3pm (with time for questions and discussion until 5pm).
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 27703 (SOND 2)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 28007 (SOND 3) – as part of this we will record and mix a live student band and walking through the assessment process.
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 27658 (MUSTEC 3)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 23730 (new v4 for 2016)
  • Course Design for year 13 – Project Based Learning (if time)

Collaborative Composition in Music – Project Based Learning

Over the last five weeks I’ve been trying a new way of running collaborative composition in my year 10 Option Music class.

This year I’ve been blessed to have a large class of highly motivated and talented students, so they were the perfect class to take a risk and jump into what is for me a new way of teaching composition.

The basic summary of what we did is that I divided the class into five groups.  In the first week each group had to start writing and recording a song (in a rough demo format).  In the 2nd week the groups swapped songs and continued on with what another group had started the previous week.  We did this for five weeks so that in the end, every group had been involved in the composition process on each of the five songs.

Initially the students were very nervous about this process as I’d done very little in terms of how to actually write songs.  However, that didn’t worry me as within each group of five members I knew that there were people with various strengths that when combined would make the process go smoothly.

Prior to this we had done a little work on what makes a good chord progression (mainly analysing four chord songs) and an effective melody but within the context of their own personal compositions, which they recorded/sequenced in either Garageband (Mac users) or Studio One Free (Windows users).  It wasn’t much, but it proved to be enough to get the students on the way with the process.  What was critical to the process though (which I didn’t realise until we got a few weeks into the process) was that a strong knowledge of how to use technology and specifically MIDI keyboards/guitars with software sequencers made all the difference to the success of students being able to pass on their work to the next group (only a few students in the class had strong notation/theory skills so technology bridged the gap very effectively).

Here is a little video where I show one of the songs and how each group contributed towards it week by week:

And here some of the songs created by the students (please keep in mind that these are only supposed to be at ‘demo’ quality… we still intend to record them properly at a later date):

This whole process has been an incredibly empowering experience for the students and is a great demonstration of the high end of the SAMR model:

SAMR

Software like Garageband and Studio One has enabled students to achieved a huge amount in a very short time and made it possible for this separate group collaborative thing to happen.  Students that recorded audio onto iPhones or wrote down music with traditional notation were no where near as effective in the sharing of their music with others.  By far the best way for this process to succeed was for students to compose using MIDI for the instruments and microphones/audio for the vocals… all along with a click so the music could be easily edited and rearranged by different groups.

Here are a couple of short videos watching students in action as they were creating their songs:

For other teachers who are wanting to run this sort of unit I’ve found that the following will make the process go very well:

  • Ensure that each group has at least one person who plays the following instruments: piano, guitar, drums, voice.  Often drummers don’t have a huge amount to do in the first week or two but as the weeks went by I discovered they were increasingly taking charge of the projects… running the technology (i.e. the computer DAW/sequencer)… which was critical when it came to restructuring ideas previous groups had come up with into coherent song structure of intros, verses, choruses, etc
  • Try and have a computer with a MIDI keyboard and a microphone setup in each room.  If you are using student laptops instead make sure you have a dedicated USB drive that holds the files that they work off… minimise copying of files between computers.  We ended up a losing a complete work from one room that students were working in as they mistakingly copied the wrong files then deleted the proper one.  The most successful songs were those that came out of rooms that had dedicated computers that students used each week.
  • Use the note pad facilities of your DAW (like Garageband or Logic) for writing down chord progressions, lyrics, ideas, etc  Don’t have things on scraps of paper as they may get lost.  Keeping everything with the DAW file is an elegant solution for keeping everything in the same place.
  • Don’t record piano/guitar ideas as audio… try to record them as MIDI.  This will enable successive groups to edit what was recorded.  If it’s audio, they’re stuck with it and are unable to improve upon it.

For me this process has been such an eye opener.  The students surprised themselves with what they could come up with.  The loved the process (they always arrived early from lunch so they could start as quickly as they could) and they grew so much as the weeks went by.

I will be making sure that this way of composing will be incorporated to NCEA composition at our school.  It will grow the numbers of students taking music and will help to break down the perception that you must be an orchestral musician who has been learning since you’re seven years old to be able to succeed in NCEA (even after five years at my school I’m still trying to destroy this myth!).

But overall… it was a heck of a lot of fun.  And that is what teaching and learning should be… shouldn’t it?

Project Based Learning in music – part 3

One thing I get asked a lot on courses I run is about how I structure my NCEA music classes.  If a typical NCEA subject consists of 22-24 credits some teachers are a little incredulous when they hear I offer 53 credits at level 2 and 64 credits at level 3.

The first thing I point out is that it’s not as bad as it sounds as students don’t take all those credits (although I have had one student that did… but he was a rare sort of student as he went on to get NZ’s top Music Scholarship mark in 2013) and even if they are taking around 38-44 credits, up to 16 of those credits could be performance ‘standards’, which we don’t spend any class time on (they do all their learning for this with their instrumental teacher and assessment takes place in concerts).

However, with the majority of my year 13 students doing Project Based Learning this year the whole NCEA credit thing and course structure has become a little more complicated.  In some ways it’s not… in that they’ve chosen the sort of project they want to do (such making an album, or composing for film projects produced by the Year 13 Media/Film class) and the available NCEA Standards should take care of themselves.  But with a dozen or so students all doing different projects, assessment within the NCEA structure can be hard to keep on top of and regularly fills my sleepless nights with worry!

I’ve got one student who as a result of her student leadership position in the school is struggling to keep on top of her workload.  We are now almost halfway through the 2nd term of school (only 4-5 weeks away from halfway point in the year) and I haven’t seen any substantial work from her yet.  It’s clear that she is going to struggle to complete her task of producing a singer/songwriter type album by November unless we find something to motivate.

So this week, we’ve done a review – something I’m finding hugely necessary to keep the students on top of workload and to keep them focused (I’m trying to sit down with each student at least once every two weeks).

What we have done this week with this student is what I believe is the secret to offering lots of NCEA credits – assessing multiple standards from few tasks.  Let’s be clear, it’s not double dipping, it’s about designing smart tasks that have multiple aspects to the work flow that can fit in with the requirements of multiple standards at once.  What I’m finding with PBL is that the tasks need to be personalised to the individual student.  This is the task we’ve designed for her:

  • She has recently developed a real interest in Gospel Music (as a result of what she’s singing in the school choir) and wants to do a research project on it.  She hasn’t narrowed her line of inquiry yet but it’ll be something along the lines of looking at the importance of Gospel music to African-American slaves on the cotton fields and how their harmonies developed… through to how Gospel music continues to influence the harmonies/style of modern R’n’B styles of music.
  • She will do her research and present it but a major part of the presentation will be arranging a piece of music in a Gospel style, using the knowledge that she will develop through her research.  She will produce notation of her arrangement which she’ll annotate for the purposes of the research presentation.  She may even produce two arrangements of two different types of Gospel arrangements with different instrumentation.
  • She will also produce a recording/sequence of her piece of music using knowledge she’s developed using Presonus Studio One and/or Reaper.
  • If we take this further, she may even perform one or two of her arrangements in a performance evening for solo or group performance (but this is less likely as she has plenty of material to use from her singing lessons).

So, from this one task which she is hugely motivated to achieve will result in the following NCEA credits:

  • 3.10 Research standard – 6 credits
  • 3.9 Arranging standard – 4 credits
  • 23730 sequencing and notation standard – 8 credits
  • TOTAL – 18 credits

If you add her solo and group performance Standards of 12 credits she has a course of 30 credits, which is plenty!  If she was doing the 28007 (SOND 3) recording standard, which could easily be incorporated if she had the time to do the learning for it, she would have another 6 credits.

If you’d like to follow her progress as she works through this project you can follow her blog here:

https://musicnotes97.wordpress.com

Thanks, Duncan 🙂