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 🙂

Project Based Learning in music – part 2

This year with my year 13 music students we are deciding to make a point of not focusing on assessment as being the driver of learning in class (as it should never be but is rarely the case in most NZ schools).  Therefore we are deciding to focus on projects our students can complete through the year.  Projects such as making an album, composing for student films, making music videos. You can see details of my holiday planning for this course here.

We are now nearing the end of term one, and what a busy term its been.  But what is hugely satisfying is that the majority of my class are loving the projects they’re working on and making great progress.  It should be noted that not all students in year 13 music have decided to have a project as a major focus.  They’re quite happy completing the tasks and learning as required by NCEA and that’s great. So, what has this PBL thing looked like this year?  Well, a bit like this:


We started the year spending quite a bit of time searching for inspiration and listing the interests and skill sets of the students.  I’m very big on collaboration and I want the students to help each other out as much as possible.  To keep our ideas and skills at the forefront of what we do we created an Inspiration Wall where students pin up interesting musical related images and text as well as list their outline of their project.

Students have also setup WordPress blogs where they keep a diary of what they’ve found interesting in class and on field trips. Every time we do something in class, or they do some work, they’re expected to document their progress on their blogs. You can see some of them here:

https://jamesmurraymusic.wordpress.com

https://blipblipbang.wordpress.com

https://gusellerm.wordpress.com

https://maxmusic42.wordpress.com

Reading through the blogs you can see we’ve done a few things to focus the students on the craft they need to develop to realise the art they want to produce.  These have been:

  • Guest presenter – Luke Di Somma (local conductor, producer, arranger, composer, MD, etc).  The students were very inspired by chatting to Luke and he dealt with issues such as: where he finds creativity, how he manages his ‘business’, what motivates him, what is required to ‘make it’ in the music industry, etc
  • Visit to local studios and tertiary providers – as recording and technology is a big part of the students’ projects we visited MAINZ and had a great presentation from Ivan Shevchuk.
  • Watching music production tutorials from AVID doing our own mix of the tracks shown in the video.

For the rest of the term we’ve been largely focusing on getting the first part of their projects completed.  This has involved teaching them about how to use our recording equipment and how to mix.  There has been a lot of one-on-one instruction about crafting their compositions and arrangements.  At this stage, we’re just trying to record demo’s of everything as it’s unrealistic of them to produce good quality recordings in term 1 when they have so much learning to do around music production.  It will mean a lot of recording and mixing in term 3 and 4 so we’ll see how we go…

To assist with their learning about recording and mixing we’re going to start a course in mixing through Weathervane music.  Their Instructors Toolkit looks like it could be a great syllabus to work into our music course to advance their music production skills.  I’ll do a separate blog on this once I start using it with my students.

Where to from here…

Well, we’ll need to refocus on what it means to be creative and to make great Art.  We’ve spent quite a while focusing on their craft and finishing the first aspect of their projects, so we need to redress the balance and get focusing on what they are trying to achieve with their project by the end of the year. We’ll get more industry professionals in to talk to us and will visit local producers who can demonstrate their workflow and assist with the discussion around where to find inspiration. Students need to do a stocktake of all they’ve accomplished this term and now that they know what they’re in for need to come up with specific goals that must be achieved in term 2.

We’ll also be joining with the year 13 media class to provide the music for their original short films they’re creating.  This is very exciting and as we’re well setup at St. Andrew’s College with movie composition tools and equipment I’m expecting to see some very professional looking/sounding films in the StAC Film Festival this year.

Project Based Learning in Music

This year my year 13 music class is going to focus less on assessment and more on developing the craft to produce great art.

The focus for my students will be on choosing a project that will be the focus of their year’s work… Project Based Learning. They will come up with a project that interests them but it may be something like:

  • Making an EP or CD
  • Recording a series of concerts and posting them to YouTube
  • Composing and recording the music for a film in the 48 hour film festival.
  • Or anything else they can think of.

As I go through the year I’m going to document the progress of my students so other teachers will be able to see the process in action and decide if this method of teaching and learning is right for their students.

Summertime preplanning

Over the last 12 years I’ve been running a business (www.learningideas.co.nz) in which I develop resources specifically for the NZ music education system. All of these resources I’ve developed with little input from others, and while I’m very happy with what I’ve produced (as are most of my customers) I’ve always seen areas where they could be improved. It’s occurred to me many times that if I collaborated more with others, then my resources would be of far higher quality.

The most important qualities I hope to develop in my students are a spirit of innovation and collaboration. I see these as far more important than developing any specific musical knowledge or skills. Therefore, it makes great sense that as I seek to develop a PBL course for my students I collaborate with someone highly skilled, and in doing so become a good model for my students.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have the highly knowledgeable, skilled and experienced Ginnie Thorner (@ginippi) help with me the development of this course.

This is my first piece of advice to other teachers wanting to develop a PBL course for their students. Find someone in your school who is like-minded and is willing to kick around ideas.

Where I’ve got so far…

The biggest concern I have with PBL is making sure that my students are motivated and focused right throughout the year, particularly during their busy periods in term 3 and 4. So to make sure they are inspired, choose their project well and come up with a realistic and effective timeline of work for the year I need to make sure I plan the first 2-3 weeks very carefully.

The following are what we are going to attempt at the start of the year before they start working on their projects:

  • Organise ‘creative’ industry professionals to come in and talk to the students – it doesn’t really matter what part of the music industry these people will come from. What is important is they are actively working in the industry and can share with my students about their successes and failures, challenges and where they get their inspiration.
  • Visit local theatres, studios and galleries – take the students on a field trip into the city where art (not necessarily just music) is being created. Try to expand their horizons for the possibility of what they can do for their project.
  • Have each student setup a blog – for every visitor and field trip students will need to document their reflections. They will be required to write in their blog every week, providing evidence of their learning and progress.  At our school this year we are increasing our use of Microsoft OneNote and Evernote so these may be good alternatives to maintaining a blog.
  • Create an ‘Inspiration Wall’ – we’ll setup a physical wall in our classroom where students are required to post anything they find inspiration from. It could be magazine articles, posters, art, etc. We may also setup an online version on our class Moodle page for sharing YouTube clips. Students will also post what they are up to, what they are trying to do, what their challenges are, etc. It’s really important students inspire each other and know where each other is at so they can collaborate and assist each other.
  • Setup a timeline for reviews and progress reports – at this stage we’re setting up eight dates throughout the year that students must report back to me about their progress. In preparation for their interviews they need to do blog posts along the following lines (thanks @ginippi for this list):

Post 1 – My plan. What I think I might do.

                       Why did you choose this?

                       What is most exciting about this project?

                       What are you looking forward to?

Post 2 – Progress after 4 weeks

                       First steps.

What have you done?

What needs to be done?

Has the project idea changed / why or why not.

                       One person that has inspired me ….

Post 3 – These holidays I am going to …

                       OR… I am so brilliant – look what I have done.

Post 4 – Half way there.

                       My most urgent task is to …

                       What I am finding frustrating is

                       At check in I agreed to 

Post 5 – One term to go….

                       These holidays I will …

                       Why did I agree to this?

                       The person who I am grateful to is…    

Post 6 – What I did in my holidays

Post 7  Nearly there. So much to do.

                       Biggest concerns / pressures at the moment

Post 8  I am most proud of

                       What I hope the “audience” notice

                       My best advice to someone doing this is …

                       What have I learnt about: music, creative projects, myself as a contributor to the work, etc

  • Setup a course of learning about recording and mixing – as the majority of this particular class will be wanting to use technology in some way I will be getting them to complete a mixing course from Weathervane Music (in addition to using my own workbooks from learningideas.co.nz)

What next?

I’m now a week or so away from seeing students. I’m aware of making sure I don’t ‘over-plan’ as I know that once I start working with students things will change (although this could be me being lazy!). I think this will need to be a fluid process and I need to be adaptable to student and project requirements.

Hopefully for my next blog on this topic I’ll be able to report back about what projects students have chosen and how our planning for the year is going.

How to mix… for high school teachers (a starting point)

There are many guides to mixing all over the internet, YouTube, Amazon, etc – it can all be a little overwhelming if you’re a high school teacher wanting to do music technology/recording/mixing with your students.  Where do you start?

Studio One screen shot

Well, if you have the time, in my opinion the best resource is the book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior.  Of course there are many video tutorials on recording and mixing from Groove3.com and Askvideo.com as well as free guides on YouTube.  But I’m going to assume you don’t have the time to dig deeply into those excellent resources and want to do something with your students fast.

I’m not going to go into an overall picture of how to mix or get too deep, here is something I do with my year 10 and 11 students (14-15 year olds) that gets them going.

  1. If you don’t have a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) then download Studio One Free from Presonus – it’s Mac and PC compatible (see my previous blog as to why I like this DAW).
  2. Watch this guide I’ve done about how to download and install it:
    http://youtu.be/kn6hTLC_aUs
  3. Download some multi-track audio files from the excellent Shaking Through website (direct link to “Hop Along” is below – one of my favourite episodes):
    http://weathervanemusic.org/shakingthrough/episodes/hopalongNote, you’ll need to create a free membership to download files (highly recommended).  Other excellent files you can download straight away are available from Mike Senior’s excellent website.If you’d like something more ‘orchestral’ in nature you can download these files composed by a student of mine (you can hear our final mix of it here).
  4. Drag and drop the audio files into Studio One or other DAW.  First bring up the most important instrument (probably the lead vocals) to 0dB (or unity gain).  Then balance all other tracks in proportion so that you have a rough balance.  If you’ve chosen the Hop Along track then you’ll probably do it in the order of: drums, bass, guitars, keys, BV’s, any other stuff.
    Studio One faders
  5. Pan the tracks.  Leave the most important track (vocals) down the middle along with the kick drum, snare drum and bass guitar.  Pan everything else to varying degrees left and right.
    Studio One panning
  6. You’ll now have a rough balance but things won’t quite be sitting nicely.  Now put a ‘channel strip’ (or EQ if using another DAW) plugin on each track.  You now need to cut and boost various frequency bands to take away the parts of the instrument sounds that are not important (such as mid range on a kick drum).  Try stick to just cutting frequencies, don’t boost (as sometimes making something louder makes you think it’s better when it’s really not).  By cutting ‘unnecessary’ sounds from some instruments you create space for other instruments to ‘breathe’.  A good example is to cut mid-low frequencies from the kick drum to stop it from ‘competing’ with the bass guitar for the low end.
    Studio One Channel strip
  7. As you adjust EQ don’t be afraid to go back and change your fader settings on the mixer or alter your panning.

Here is a quick video demonstrating all of the above:

That’s it.  Have your students do this with a bunch of different tracks from Shakingthough.com or Mike Senior’s excellent website.

Those of you that know a lot about mixing will be (rightly) asking… “but what about compression, reverb, gating, special FX, etc, etc?”.  Yes, those are important, but for teachers and students who are starting out mixing I think it’s best to leave it to what I’ve described above and for them to do at least 4-6 weeks on a few different sessions so they fully understand balancing faders, panning and EQ.

I’ve deliberately avoided any theory around EQ, parametric EQ’s, filters, bandwidth and other EQ technical things.  That can come later (and it’s all very important).  For now, just use your ears, and have the class compare their mixes.  Some students will be much better than others… use the strengths of those students to teach the others.

If you would like more detail around the theory of EQ’ing (which is necessary for NZ students doing Unit Standards 27703 and 28007) you can order the relevant workbooks from Learning Ideas Ltd.

Thanks,

Duncan

Effective teaching of composition

I was reading this really interesting blog the other day by Suzie Boss which looks at the research of the New Zealand education researcher and professor John Hattie and how his findings could influence Project Based Learning (this blog is well worth a read, follow the link).

There is a really interesting section of the blog:

But when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of project-based learning (PBL), Hattie has me scratching my head. Part of the challenge is that he doesn’t focus specifically on PBL, and certainly not on PBL that is designed with an emphasis on high-quality teaching and learning. Problem-based learning winds up near the bottom of teaching effects (0.15). Inquiry-based teaching ranks a little higher (0.31), but still below the hinge point. Meanwhile, Piagetian programs, emphasizing challenges that cause learners to apply higher-order thinking and learn collaboratively (sounding similar, at least in spirit, to PBL) rank near the top (1.28).

What’s more, many of the essential components of PBL turn out to be highly effective. Formative assessment, critical for project success, comes in at 0.90. Feedback, another key to PBL, has an effect size of 0.73. Challenge and practice at the right level: 0.60. Valuing error and creating trust: 0.72. It’s hard to imagine a PBL classroom where those factors are not present.

When Hattie himself synthesizes what matters most for learning, he describes an effective classroom in language that is completely consistent with a PBL environment:

Visible teaching and learning occurs when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, students, peers) participating in the act of learning.

I imagine I’m probably like a lot of teachers (especially music teachers) in that every minute of every day is filled up with teaching, meetings, running co-curricular groups, developing resources, marking… (hands up if you’re one of those teachers to barely knows what the staff room looks like at lunchtime?).  The last thing I get time for is to look at educational theory, pedagogical techniques, etc.  Any PD I do is usually specifically musically related, rather than on a broader educational level.

So this is why I like summer holidays so much, it gives me time to look at blogs, read some Hattie, and reflect on my teaching practice.  Reading the above part of Suzie’s blog made me realise why I’m turning out to be such an effective teacher of musical composition.

I’m not trained in composition, I don’t like to compose myself, it isn’t something I was ever interested in doing as part of my study and I certainly don’t feel the need to inflict my deep angst on the world in a musical format.  But over the last five or so years my students have been showing a huge level of ‘value added’ with their results.  My good students who are passionate about composition produce great art, but I’m most pleased with those who maybe don’t have great background knowledge but end up showing a huge improvement.

Without intending to, I’ve employed many of the above methods quoted above, specifically:

  • A huge amount of formative assessment – when students have a composition due to hand in at the end of the term they must hand in their drafts at least three times over the preceding four weeks.
  • Feedback – every time students hand in a draft I give them written feedback via email and through annotating their scores (if applicable). I will try to follow this up with one-on-one verbal feedback but I find this is not very effective – too often students don’t take in what I say to them and repeat the same mistakes.  Written feedback provides them with the information that helps them make the most improvement in successive drafts and submissions.
  • Challenge and practice at the right level – even though I haven’t specifically intended to run a project based learning course (until 2015) I’ve kind of already been doing this with composition.  I provide the students many options for the basis of their composition (such as compose for film, compose for a special occasion, compose in response to an artwork, etc – and for each of these I provide multiple films, special occasions, artworks, etc).  What I find is that with these parameters students are able to jump into composing at the level they’re happy with.  I have some very advanced students who compose for full orchestra (one student this year composed a full two hour long musical – and it was really good!), some students are more comfortable composing for singer/songwriters while others compose electronic works with Apple Logic.  Everyone is working within their areas of interest and these then develop into strengths.
  • Valuing error and creating trust – this is very important to the creative process of composition.  And it features hugely in my feedback.  I try to find a balance between encouragement and correcting basic errors (mostly encouraging as composition is a very sensitive and emotionally ‘risky’ thing for students to do) but I always try to emphasise that they must ‘put themselves out there’ and take risks.  That is the only way great art will result.  This sums it up (thanks @ginippi for the image):
    10877618_10204176690032199_1572360879_n

The only other important thing that I do that isn’t mentioned (but there is probably a special Hattie term for it anyway) is modelling the creative process.  While I don’t compose great art, I do understand the compositional process and can model many ways of composing.  Showing students how to start is hugely important.  Giving them a toolbox based on practical demonstration works well.  Textbooks and handouts? – next to useless.

I’ve often felt that maybe I’m not doing a very good job with composition as I’m not presenting a formalised method each year that has me explaining concepts from the from of the class – i.e. chalk and talk.  But when I look at my NCEA results of my students and listen to their recordings I realise that isn’t the case.

As this is supposed to be a technology blog I’d better quickly mention how my students go about submitting their drafts for formative assessment.

  1. Students email me their Sibelius files (if their composition is a traditionally notation based composition) and provide a print out so I can annotate it (I used to do all printing or just write comments referencing bar numbers but I didn’t find this effective – plus printing takes up too much of my time).  If they are working on Logic or Studio One they can email me Dropbox links of their DAW session and bounced MP3’s.
  2. With the second to last draft submission I will ask students to do their own analysis of their composition.  They use Screenflow to ‘talk through’ their composition explaining why they have done what they’ve done.  As much as possible I encourage them to analyse within the context of the musical elements (timbre, form, texture, melody, harmony, etc).  By doing their own analysis of their composition its amazing how many things they’re able to fix up before I give them feedback.  This self-reflection is critical.
  3. I email back students comments and will annotate their scores if applicable.  This has to happen with 48 hours for effective learning to happen and to see a change in the draft that is due the following week.  Therefore I have to schedule into my timetable a period of marking each week and make sure nothing gets in the way of it.
  4. For the final submission I make sure I scan the annotated scores and keep a copy for internal and external moderation of my marking.  It’s really important students get their work back to help them improve for future years of study.

If you want to hear some of my students work, the musical I mentioned above (“Suspect”) is now available on iTunes.

suspect banner

The Seven Sharp programme from TV1 did a really interesting article that you can view by clicking here.

I know people may have suggestions for improvement around student submissions other than email & Dropbox (Moodle, Google Hangout, One Note, etc?) so please comment below if you think it can be done better.

Thanks,

Duncan 🙂