Ear Training for “tech” kids

I have to start with an apology for this ‘click-baity’ title. As much as possible I don’t try to differentiate my students between those that are ‘techy’ and those that are not. Or even worse… the tech vs classical kids. I truly believe that incorporating a variety of tools such as recording software, MIDI sequencing, sample libraries, etc can be useful for ALL students, no matter the genre they want to specialise in.

That being said, in our current (and soon to disappear) high school assessment system the students that have not been strong music notation readers have been at a massive disadvantage and have not adequately had their aural skills improved. The dwindling numbers of students sitting the level 1-3 aural exams demonstrates that teachers are not seeing the point in getting students to sit the exam if reading music is not part of their daily practice as musicians. The orchestra or jazz band kid has a massive advantage over the singer/songwriter or rock kid who is too busy reciting “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” in their head while trying to work out the direction of a melody.

So, what should we be doing for those students who are not the ‘notation reading’ students? Here are a few tools that you might find useful to help students develop their ear in identifying pitches, tone and timbre.

Syntorial – https://www.syntorial.com

This is a great tool which teaches you about synthesis. It breaks down all the parts of a synthesizer and shows you how they generate and manipulate sound bit by bit. But the clever part of this training programme is that after it introduces a new part of a synth, it tests you on how to use it in an ear test where you must match the given sound with sounds that you manipulate.

So not only are students learning how a synthesizer works (which means this is fantastic for doing Level 3 Unit Standard 32304 – Operate a Music Sequencing Application) they are also making their ear more sensitive to changes in timbre (after all, timbre is a musical element just as important as melody, harmony, or rhythm… isn’t it?).

This obviously has great benefits for students who are composing in genres that use synthesisers (which is pretty much all modern ‘commercial’ related genres) but I also find this great for students completing Achievement Standard 91422 – Analyse a Substantial Music Work. I don’t have all the class study the same set work, instead they choose their own works to study. For those analysing something in a modern genre it is a requirement for them to recreate the sounds, which means finding ways to recreate the synth sounds using the software instruments available in our DAW’s such as GarageBand and Logic Pro. Syntorial, is a fantastic tool for helping them understand how to adjust the parameters of a synth to match the sounds from the recordings their analysing. And it helps them to do it all by ear.

Syntorial does cost money, but the first 40 or so lessons are free, which is all I’ve ever used with my students.

Quiztones – https://theproaudiofiles.com/quiztones/

There are a few apps available for iOS, Android and Mac/PC but this is my favourite. When trying to mix a song we try and blend the tone of various instruments to make sure we don’t get a build-up of too many frequencies making something sound ‘boxy’, or ‘muddy’, or ‘harsh’ or ‘sibilant’. The ability to quickly recognise those frequencies, assign a number to them (such as a ‘honking’ sound being between 500-1000 Hz) and then pull those frequencies out with an EQ is an essential skill for a good sound mixer (or basically anyone who is composing and producing their own music).

Ten minutes a day with Quiztones and students will be amazed at how quickly their ear skills improve making them more aware of which instruments sound good together and those that aren’t.

Soundgym – https://www.soundgym.co/

For the student that is serious about becoming a sound engineer probably my favourite tool is this website. It’s not cheap, but the variety of tools you can use to help learn how to be better at EQ’ing, hearing compression, identifying balance and panning issues, etc is brilliant. The daily workout takes around 10 minutes and is basically all you need to do over a period of time to develop ‘golden ears’ for sound mixing.

A popular alternative that is worth looking into (but I haven’t used personally) is https://www.trainyourears.com

As we go through the changes for a new assessment system and we ‘reinvent’ how we teach and assess aural skills, these tools may be of great assistance to high school teachers and may be more engaging for some students than the ‘traditional’ methods.

The Best Free Recording and Mixing Software

As I write this New Zealand has been plunged into another mini lockdown. Auckland schools are closed for seven days, and the rest of the country is back to gatherings of no more than 100 people. While these lockdowns are frustrating, I believe most New Zealanders are willing to go through these short and sharp periods of inconvenience as it has shown to be effective at stamping out the virus in the community. I think 25,000+ people at the recent music festival “Electric Avenue” will attest to that. What other country is able to hold summer music festivals in 2021?

But because we have these times of uncertainty hanging over us, teachers and students are needing to find ways of continuing their learning and skill development without the resources of their music departments. During the nationwide level 3 and 4 lockdown in 2020 I found the following software to be really great at enabling students to continue composing and mixing from home. Everything listed below is free to download and works on Windows and Mac computers. Chromebooks are not an option for audio recording and mixing beyond the basic websites like Soundtrap and Bandlab. Just like you can’t edit video properly through a website, you can’t do higher end audio recording and mixing through the options available on Chromebooks.

In addition to the options below please see my recent blogs on free Orchestral sound libraries and free composition software.


I wish that Pro Tools First, the free version of the industry standard recording software was good, but it just seems so buggy and unreliable. And, just like they did with good old Pro Tools Free for Windows 98, AVID seem to have stopped providing any updates for it. Instead, the best option for a professional level recording platform is Reaper.

Reaper isn’t strictly free, but it has a fully functioning evaluation period, that never expires! So, if you try it and like it, I do encourage you to purchase an education licence (for a very small price) as I have. Reaper is generally considered to be a top tier Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) just like Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, Studio One and Reason. It is well supported by a very enthusiastic community and excellent tutorials on their own website. Students and teachers really can learn everything they need to know about it from YouTube.

Mixing plugins

All of the audio mixing plugins, such as EQs, compressors, delay and reverb that come with Reaper are all very good. But to be honest, they’re not very pretty and inspiring to work with. Instead here are some great options of mixing plugins that work inside Reaper once you’ve installed them on your computer.

TDR Slick EQ – while this may not be a fully parametric EQ, it sounds great and is easy to use. And when students are new to mixing, ease of use if the most important thing.

TDR Nova – this is a dynamic EQ, so might be a bit beyond the beginner user, but it looks amazing and sounds even better. It’s free so why not download it and give it a try?

TDR Kotelnikov Compressor – this is a beautiful sounding compressor which looks great as well.

Klanghelm MJUC Jr compressor – if the Kotelnikov is intimidating to use, here is a much simpler compressor to start working with. This is modelling on the classic LA2A style of compression where you only have two or three controls. These can be especially useful on evening out the dynamic changes in a vocal performance.

Valhalla Supermassive Delay – it’s amazing that this is free. Valhalla make some of the best reverbs and delays so it is wonderful they have released this excellent delay.

TAL Reverbs – Finding a good reverb is a bit tougher. The Valhalla Supermassive could act as a reverb in a pinch but really it might be worth investing in the Valhalla Reverb. I’d start with the Vintage Verb which is excellent and very reasonably priced. However for free options TAL offer a few different reverbs and I recommend getting them all. To start with go for TAL – Reverb 4.

Saturation and distortion – when recording on purely digital systems it can be harder making your tracks ‘glue’ together in a balanced way when compared to mixing on old analog systems using tape. Something that can really help make your mixes sound warmer and work well together is to provide very subtle distortion, known as saturation. This is what naturally happens when you increase the gain or input on an analog mixing console, and when you record onto tape. We can emulate this in the digital realm using saturation plugins. There are many excellent options now, but an excellent free one is the Klanghelm IVGI. A word of warning, don’t over do this! If you hear a big noticeable difference when you put this on a track and raise it’s levels then you’ve probably used too much. Put it on each of your tracks but in barely perceptible amounts. The combination of putting this on 12 or more tracks in you mix will have the overall effect of making everything ‘fit’ a bit better, and sound warmer.

If you want to explore other options for free effects and software instruments Landr have put together a great blog which is well worth reading. However, at over 200 options it’s a little overwhelming. What I’ve listed above has worked well for me and my students.

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 Spitfireaudio.com 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!).


Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 10.04.29 AM

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 Soundtrap.com and the collaboration features.

I pre-loaded a recording into Soundtrap for them to play along to, and they each logged into Soundtrap.com 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 https://www.learningideas.org/shop

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 Soundtrap.com 🙂

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:


ADE Institute 2016

In July I was very fortunate to attend and present at the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute in Berlin.  This was a gathering of just under 400 teachers from around the world who actively push the boundaries to develop innovative teaching techniques.

This is my second Institute and like the first, it was one of the most inspirational weeks of my teaching career.  I’m very grateful for St Andrew’s College who paid for my airfares to attend this week of professional development.

The ADE Institute runs from a Sunday evening through to Thursday night.  This year it was just for ADE alumni, no new people were accepted to the programme.  In 2017 there will be regional Institutes for Europe/Africa, Asia/Pacific and the Americas which new people can apply to be part of (keep an eye on ade.apple.com early in 2017 for applications).

The structure of the Institute can be summed up in this (rather blurry) image:

ADE 2016 summary

ADE Central

One of the best parts at the conference centre/hotel was the ADE Central.  This was a large lounge where you had time to work on your projects, collaborate, play with STEM toys like Bloxels, Spheros and VR.  Most importantly, it was a great place to meet other teachers over a drink and discover common interests.

Apple Sessions

This year there were some fascinating presentations from Apple staff.  Once again, John Danty (Head of Logic & Garageband) was another highlight with his demonstration of the new features in Garageband on the iPad.

It was also great to see Final Cut Pro get more exposure as many educators I know regularly use it and think it’s a fantastic video editing application for high school teachers.

And of course, these sessions are where a lot of the scene is set for our projects, where info about Apple updates and educational initiatives are shared and where all our conference admin takes place.


This year ADE was structured so that we had much less time having full Apple Sessions in the ballroom.  Instead, there were multiple workshops on a variety of topics.  I attended workshops on Advanced Editing with Final Cut Pro, Advanced Keynote and how to deliver fantastic presentations.

The last session was particularly valuable.  Not just for the workshops that I run with teachers, but some very good strategies and techniques were shared for presenting to high schoolers as well.


Expert Labs

Apple were very generous by flying out many of their team leaders for various software development teams.  They are very talented, smart and accessible and the smaller (in some cases one-on-one) sessions they ran were perfect for teachers trying to find answers to problems they’ve had, or for getting more information on what was shown in Workshops and Apple Sessions.

I had a great time catching up with John Danty who hosted me (along with Matt Baier) at Cupertino last year.  It was inspirational to see that John, as busy as he is, has just released an album.  If he has time to be creative, then I certainly can’t use school as an excuse not to invest time into practising my instrument!

ADE Showcases

For many, including me, this is the highlight of ADE.  This is where teachers have three minutes to present something to the conference about innovative teaching techniques they’ve been using with their students.  Ten teachers per session are selected.  There is a pretty rigorous application and development process before you’re allowed to get up at an ADE Institute and present, but I was fortunate enough to present about my department and how I’ve changed the culture of St Andrew’s College music to enable growth.

Preparing for this presentation made me do a lot of inquiry around whats made my department successful, and it has been really great for giving me a framework for further innovation in the department for 2017.


Project Teams

This is where the long term benefits of ADE come from.  It’s where you get into a small team of educators from around at the world and you work on a major project together.

This year I’m working on developing a website with tools for junior high school teachers who are wanting to deliver cross-curricular programmes.

Spotlight Sessions

Another new initiative at ADE 2016.  This is where teachers have a chance to run workshops on various pieces of software, teaching techniques or anything which they think will benefit the community.

I ran a workshop on showing how the three Apple music apps, Music Memos, GarageBand and Logic Pro work together as part of the musical composition process.  I blogged on this before and you can read a summary here.

Berlin Off-Site

One of the coolest things we did was essentially have the day in the middle of Berlin to explore.  Apple dropped us off at the Brandenburg Gate with a Museum Pass, sightseeing bus passes, metro cards, lunch vouchers, maps and guide books, and essentially told us to explore for a few hours.  We just had to make sure we took lots of photos to share to our collaborative Photo Streams.

We then met back up at the Apple Store for an amazing presentation by the makers of the Eye-Em app and a well known Berlin Photographer.

So what?

From the photos, you can see I had a really nice time.  I got a good tan and it was great to get away from a NZ winter for a couple of weeks.  But what difference has this made to my teaching?

Well, the real benefit is not in any resources I develop as part of the project team, or the information I learned about how to use Final Cut Pro more efficiently for editing school music videos, or even the chance to present to 400 of the worlds top educators.

The real benefit for me is in the relationships I’ve developed and friends I’ve made with people who are at the top of their game in their schools and communities from all over the world.  Every single person I met is an innovator.  They all love to see kids grow and meet their potential.  Every person I met doesn’t only see teaching as a worthwhile vocation, they live education.  Like me, they spend their weekends, evenings and holiday time thinking about their classes, developing resources, looking for opportunities to up-skill, looking for ways to better serve their students.  Teaching is their vocation, but it’s also their calling and their hobby.

And to be surrounded by people like that is heaven.  It’s inspiring.  It means I come back to St Andrew’s College and my networks of NZ Music Teachers with new ideas but also with a renewed passion to see music education in New Zealand produce the finest young musicians, composers and educators in the world.