Student Life – Loving it!

I am well into my course now – week three. The 4-Summers Master of Music Education program at Northwestern University is a wonderful opportunity for me to formally take on the role of student again. As we always declare ourselves ‘lifelong learners’ in the International Baccalaureate program, this has been a test of my commitment to that mantra. I am happy to report that I am having a great time and learning heaps! The lecturers here are dynamic and very knowledgeable, experts in their fields. And my classmates are all highly motivated and experienced professional music educators. I am learning so much from networking with my colleagues as well as the formal lectures and assessment tasks.

MME Class of 2013 - Photo by Dr Carlos Abril

The social life amongst the students, is very ‘energetic’ to say the least. A ‘quick drink’ after ensemble rehearsal often ends in a 2:30am finish at Nevin’s, the local watering hole here in Evanston. Although I have been feeling ‘young at heart’ working with my much-younger colleagues, I must admit to ‘bailing out’ early a few times during the past week. Discretion the better part of valor!

Nevin's Pub
Gerard & NU Friends

We have six weeks each summer (four times) to cram in as much learning as possible. We are expected to take three course subjects each time and play or sing in a Summer Ensemble. My courses this time are: ‘Advanced Conducting: Before the Downbeat’; ‘Music Theory Review’; and ‘Music Technology’. I am also playing piccolo in the Concert Band.

I have been learning new skills and new ways to look at things (the most interesting aspect, I feel) in all of my subjects. Particularly, I have been impressed with my theory lecturer, Dr Susan Piagentini. She has a powerful knowledge and passion for the subject and teachers us in such a well-organised and thoughtful manner. Each day, we are set homework assignments which she returns immediately at the following class with excellent feedback. She monitors each student’s progress in a non-judgmental way and is the model of a good teacher. I have learnt new theory techniques and can feel my skills improving under her guidance. This will directly benefit my students, I am certain. Wonderful!

The conducting course too is great. Directed by Dr Robert (Bob) Hasty, my friend who conducted the wonderful Mozart Jupiter performance in the Forbidden City Concert Hall (see previous post) in Beijing earlier this year. His expertise in analysing scores (before the downbeat) has been enlightening. I will take a second course in a future summer to deal with the craft of conducting ‘after’ the downbeat. I have found it useful doing the two ‘analysis’ courses in tandem, as the skills studied in both are interchangeable. Both of these lecturers have opened my eyes to a more linear approach to music analysis. I have enjoyed refining my skills of looking for melodic ‘key markers’ and making informed judgements about phrasing, harmony and rhythm.

My third course is a compulsory component in the program, Music Technology. As my readers and colleagues will be aware, I am a lover of technology and particularly its use in music education. To be quite honest, I have been finding the learning tasks very easy in this course. I do see the value of ensuring that all graduates have the skills to confidently use available technology in their classrooms, but thanks to my work at BISS, I really am ahead of the game. We have a wonderful, dynamic and enthusiastic lecturer, Dr Maud Hickey. She has guided us patiently in our learning tasks, such as website publishing on the Northwestern University server. I am very pleased that I have had the chance to learn more about HTML code and video and audio streaming. I spent a few late nights tinkering with these skills. Having previously relied on WordPress templates for my web publishing (this blog), it has been a great chance to discover a few ‘tricks’ for designing and publishing my own pages. Check out my video page designed using iWeb and hosted on my own domain! Also, have a look at my Northwestern homepage designed using HTML and SeaMonkey. Follow the links to see some of the assignments we have done, including streaming audio and audio editing. As I said earlier, I feel have not been stretched with this course, but I have had the chance to refine and share my skills. Another valuable experience from my studies here at Northwestern and a good reflection of our successful use of technology at BISS.

The higher-years students have been warning us not to expect much ‘social’ time in our second year. We are expected to complete the two other compulsory components of the program, Philosophy and Curriculum concurrently in that six week block. This is apparently an onerous task. Well, at least we will have a year of teaching at our respective schools to get our minds ready for the challenge! I might even try to get a head-start on the reading before then.

Enough blogging for now. Back to my Bach Fugues!

Four Summer Master of Music Education – Northwestern University Chicago

I am writing this post from Chicago, where I have just arrived after a tiring day of travel from Beijing yesterday. Still wearing the same stinky clothes (including trousers stained with tomato juice spilt by a rather large fellow air traveller who encroached into my seat all the way from Seattle) since my bag was not on the same flight as me. My first night was spent at a budget hotel near O’Hare airport. Pretty average sort of place after China, I have to say. I notice how dingy the hallways are, with their warn carpets and broken light fittings. Included with the tariff is an ‘express breakfast’ which is a table in the lobby with coffee and chocolate covered (disgusting) doughnuts.

I am looking forward to getting my bag delivered this morning so I can make my way to Northwestern University in fresh clothes and get settled in to my student digs. This will be my home for six weeks as I get started on the first of my four summers. I am very excited about the coming learning challenges and networking with my distinguished classmates.

Digital Portfolios

Here is a graphic diagram of what I asked my students to include in the Music area of their ePortfolios. We held student led conferences on 21 April at Beijing BISS International School and some students were using digital portfolios for the first time. Not everyone completed every sample and reflection in time for their presentations, but many did. It was a very good start and we will improve our systems for next year. The key is to keep updating portfolios ‘as-you-go’ rather than having a big rush once a year. Well done BISS for another digital innovation with our students.

For a more detailed reflection about digital portfolios at BISS, go to our learn.reflect blog.

Canon – Great For Beginning Composers

I would like to share a little project idea with you all, because I think it has worked so beautifully with my young grade 6 MYP Music students at Beijing BISS International School. We have just come to the end of a unit called ‘Structures’ where the students learnt about binary, ternary, rondo, theme & variations etc. Our unit question was: ‘What patterns can I find in the architecture of music?’ We are using composition more and more in my classes and for the first time, I used Noteflight online tools with my younger students to compose simple rounds. I did this project last year using manuscript paper and I have noticed how much more successful it has been now that we have gone to the digital medium.

After explaining how a canon or round works – we listened to quite a few examples and sang some as well – we set about composing four-bar melodies based on C major triad only. Each bar had to use mainly C, E and G but they could use passing notes etc. This of course led to more learning about strong beats, non-chordal notes etc. The students were encouraged to use interesting rhythms and to make each bar different to each other bar. When they had created their melodies, all they had to do was set up three new staves above their melody line in Noteflight. Then they simply cut-and-pasted their melody into the other parts, starting one bar later each time. Super easy, but the results sounded great. The kids loved the sound of their pieces, because they could hear the beautiful interplay of the voices in canon.

This project is the perfect example of how digital composition tools engage students better than just using manuscript. I know, they did not get the practise of writing by hand, but they were thrilled to hear how their pieces sounded.

Now, we have of course kept going with the idea and they have composed a number of rounds, each time becoming more complex. They have moved on to using two chords in a pattern of C – G – C – G and their voices come in after two-bars to keep the chord framework lined up. Even though the structure is very simple, the sound of the resulting pieces is pleasant and the students are amazed at how good their canons sound. Through this process, they have learnt about: structure; harmony; triads; rhythm; timbre; contrary motion and melody writing. They learnt a lot more from this activity than they would have if I had just instructed them on theory (as I did with the previous year). This group, remember is only in Grade 6 (11 year olds).

I had some visitors to my class a few weeks ago (prospective customers for the school) when my students were all busy on this task and I could tell that they were surprised by the work the kids were producing. One adult asked in a disbelieving voice, ‘She composed that? By herself?’ – I was able to answer very proudly, ‘Yes’

Here are some examples of the students’ canons. You can see that they did not always follow the chord structure exactly, but the results were still great. They were able to learn from their mistakes and refine their work. What a great job they did. The final example is one I did with them in class.

Apple Education Leadership Summit – Prague 2010

Gerard in Prague
I have just returned from an inspiring weekend in Prague, attending the Apple Education Leadership Summit. Apart from thoroughly enjoying the beautiful city (a photographer’s dream), with its gently curving cobble-stoned streets, it charmingly painted shop fronts, it’s gilded and gargoyled public buildings (the Smetana Concert Hall), its tasty street food (flame cooked sausages with the best mustard I’ve ever tasted and sauerkraut on fresh bread), the Moldau River with its arched bridges, palaces, cathedrals and of course the Czech beer.
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Apart from all this, which made for a brilliant weekend, I was inspired by the passion and ideas of my fellow educators. The unofficial theme for the weekend was Challenge Based Learning. And everyone present seemed to be on the same journey towards embracing technology at the centre of their plans for smart learning strategies at their schools. From what I saw, there is no doubt that students in the 21st century are hungry for opportunities to direct their own learning using digital, mobile tools. They certainly will not wait for their teachers to invite them or ‘show them’. As the final speaker, John Couch said, the students of today can no longer even be described as ‘digital natives’ they are just ‘digital’.
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Challenge Based Learning is the logical progression from Project Based Learning. The key to understanding the change in thinking, is that PBL is still largely controlled by the teacher, whereas CBL is driven by the students themselves. Teachers in the 21st century will have to get used to letting go of their traditional role of ‘master’ and ‘expert’. Instead, we will find our place as motivators, guides and co-learners. Yes, the teacher will become the student.

A few of us tried to involve people outside the Summit through some of the presentations, by joining a ‘back-channel’ using Twitter. I enjoyed catching a few excellent quotes and links and sending them out to a small but growing online group following the hashtag #AELS10. Have a look at the transcript of tweets from the weekend for some inspiration.

A highlight of the Summit was the inspiring presentation of Itay Talgam, musician and conductor and final keynote speaker. In his years as a conductor, he has observed and analysed the interaction between conductors of renown with their orchestras and audiences. He uses their conducting styles as metaphor for leadership to help us become aware of the way we lead others in our own communities.

All in all, a wonderful weekend, full of people passionate about education, ideas and technology.

Composing? – Start with an Idea

I’ve been thinking about composing lately. Not just doing composing, but how to be effective and compose something good. I have realised that often, the only thing that separates the ‘professional’ composer from the rest of us, is the fact that they actually capture their ideas and write them down. They produce something rather than just wishing for it. Of course there is the element of talent and skill, but let’s focus on the ‘getting started’ aspect of creating.

How often have you been part of a conversation around the dinner table, when discussing some piece of artwork -perhaps a controversial winner of a prize, say the Archibald Prize. Somebody always pipes up with, ‘I could have painted that!’ or ‘My three year old could have painted that!’ or worse ‘My dog could…..’. Sound familiar? It is usually meant to project some sort of superior, good taste from the speaker (which quite often backfires of course). It could also be an example of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – a well-known Australian phrase meaning we should cut ‘the tall poppy’ down to the size of all the other average-sized poppies. In other words, if anyone excels, especially in an artistic pursuit, the community wants to pull them back to the collective mediocrity of the accepted popular aesthetic standard. I am getting side-tracked, but here is the point I would like to make to that outspoken dinner party critic – if you think you could have done better, why didn’t you?

The attitudes reflected by our ‘chardonnay expert’ above, and the others around the table who nodded in agreement, may also be partly responsible for the fear which prevents us from taking a risk when creating, particularly when it comes to composing music.

So here is my thinking. Forget about producing a Mozart-like masterpiece, especially when you are starting out. Just start with an idea, but get it down (paper or digital).

I have been working with my music students on this way of thinking lately and I can see some good results already. Let’s make a list of possible composing ‘ideas’.

  • A melodic idea. It could be just an interval that you like. I developed a nice tune once from the idea of an ascending Major 7th. I thought it could be quite expressive used later in a song. You don’t need the whole tune, just a fragment – something you hummed in the shower or on the bus. If you like it, write it down. You might come back to it and make something of it.
  • A rhythmic idea. Think of ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck. It’s all about the timing and the syncopated ostinato (repeating) rhythm ‘ba-dum, ba-dum, dum dum’.  Even a little piece of a scale with a dotted rhythm is more interesting than one with straight crotchets (quarter notes). If you group eight quavers (eighth notes) into 3+3+2 you get a very nice syncopated rhythm which could lead to something.
  • A chord or progression. Maybe you like the way two or three chords work together. Write it down. A few years ago, Savage Garden wrote a multi-million dollar song  ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ which is just built on a pattern of three triads (3 note chords) C major, G major, F major, back to G major. So simple, but what a great song! Of course, the way they put the melody together, the instrumentation and production was very clever and sophisticated BUT the first idea was very simple.
  • Words and lyrics. Maybe you think like a poet and words come first. If you have a nice line, try working it into a rhythm, then a melody, then finally you might add harmony. Now you have a song!

I could keep giving examples of how simple ideas can be grown into something great (or maybe just good or OK). The point is, let’s keep those ‘ideas’ that pop into our brains. Jot them down in Noteflight or on your lunch napkin.They might turn into something and just remember – a BAD tune is still better than NO tune.

Mozart’s Jupiter & the Forbidden Requiem

Mozart Jupiter Symphony rehearsal

Mozart Jupiter Orchestra - Forbidden City Concert Hall

I have been participating this week in a marvellous four days of music making and learning. The International Schools Choral Music Society gathered together the resources of about 400 students, music teachers and professional musicians from all over the world. We were hosted by Dulwich College, Beijing and co-ordinated and led by Festival Director and Head of Music at Dulwich, the indomitable Shane O’Shea. Three special guests shared their passion for music and expertise with the students and teachers leading workshops, lectures, masterclasses, conducting, coaching, cajoling us all to produce our best.

Pianist, Dr David Curtin (Lock Haven University, Pennsylvania, USA) played a wonderful recital celebrating the works of Chopin. His sparkling technique and musicianship inspired the IB music students who attended his piano masterclasses and his cheerful personality and sense of humour added a valuable dimension to the week. My two IB students from BISS, Maggie Liu and Harry Zhang played and participated in masterclass with Dr Curtin.

Composer, musicologist and music scholar, Dr Martin Adams (Senior Lecturer and Head of Music at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland) inspired students and staff with his passion and enthusiasm for music during his lectures focussing on the International Baccalaureate set works. Students and teachers gained a little of his insights and depth of thinking by having the opportunity to chat informally and attend his great lectures.

Dr Robert Hasty, Associate Director of Orchestras at Northwestern University (Chicago, USA) – coached and conducted the Festival Orchestra in a stunning performance of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play flute in the symphony alongside the fine young international students and local musicians from the China conservatories. Under Dr Hasty’s patient guidance, particularly the string players made dramatic improvements during the three days of preparation and became a very fine orchestra in a very short time. Dr Hasty also led conducting masterclasses aimed at music teachers (including myself) and students. We all benefited enormously from his clear, logical explanations and fine conducting technique. It was a real privilege working with and learning from such a excellent musician.

As I have said, the culmination of all the hard work was the performance in the Forbidden City Concert Hall of Mozart’s epic Symphony 41 in C Major ‘Jupiter’ and his monumental Requiem. What an experience for us all to put on a concert like this in such a special location as Beijing’s Forbidden City. The requiem choir had about 300 singers on stage, with students and teachers from 19 International Schools as well as the visiting professors participating. Conducted by Festival Director Shane O’Shea, the sound of the choir was rich and beautiful. It is so unusual to witness a choral performance where the power of the voices easily matched that of the orchestra. The precision of the singing in the chorus was truly remarkable, with clarity of articulation, phrasing and diction enabling the difficult Latin text to be clearly heard throughout. The energy and power of the choir was tempered by the tight ensemble work achieved through detailed sectional practises.The hard work of all the schools and their music staff culminated in a thrilling and impressively accurate performance. I am so proud to have been involved and look forward to making an annual pilgrimage with my students to future Festivals.

Music Notation – Do we really need a pencil?

I have given a lot of thought recently to the pros and cons of the different modes of writing standard music notation to create musical scores. My question is increasingly, why do my students need to be able to write music notation with a pencil and paper? The same question, theoretically, can be asked about handwriting in general. Is the skill of calligraphy or physically inscribing notation a truly necessary skill for music students to learn in the 21st century?

To be honest, I am not adamant that my students should not bother learning to ‘draw’ notation, but I am definitely heading in that direction. Let’s list some pros for keeping up the manual skills of drawing notation.

  • Students may become more aware of conventions of notation, such as note head shapes and sizes, the correct side for note stems etc.
  • Students improve fine-motor control and ‘penmanship’
  • Students can notate music without a computer (but they will need paper manuscript, pen, pencil, eraser)
  • Students may feel a sense of satisfaction with producing an artifact ‘by hand’.

Now, lets list the benefits of using digital notation. My students use Sibelius as a powerful music publishing desktop package. They also use Noteflight which is a web 2.0 tool.

  • Digital notation is always neat and tidy.
  • Students produce much more creative compositions because they can use immediate feedback to make improvements on the fly.
  • Digital notation can be played back accurately and immediately without the need for highly skilled performers.
  • It can be linked to midi instruments to ‘play in’ notation.
  • Printed parts can be generated instantly.
  • Entire scores can be edited easily without the need to re-write or transcribe what has already been done – for example, transposed into different keys or  instrumentation changed. Bars can be added or deleted without ‘messing up’ the whole.
  • Digital notation can be embedded into web pages such as wikis and blogs

In the last year, I have embraced digital notation and online composition tools with all of my middle years and IB Diploma students. This has been a conscious change from using paper manuscript and paper workbooks and we have now gone completely paperless. I have noticed a marked improvement in the general level of engagement of my students in composition tasks. And the best thing, is that their work across the board is more creative and complex. I am convinced that the main feature which has led them to better musical creations, is the ability digital tools offer to experiment, test ideas and work by trial and error. I can see that students are missing out on the manual skills of using pencil or pen, but I believe the benefits to their musical learning outweigh this. I can honestly say that many of my students will probably never get around to ‘drawing’ a treble clef now, as there is too much composing to be done. I would feel it was a waste of their time in most cases.

The other thing we are finding now, is that students are putting their work on display more actively. Each student has their own area in a shared class music wiki. They embed their scores and write reflections and are able to share their creations with each other and a wider audience.

We have to ask ourselves if it is really that important for students in the 21st century to be learning the same skills learnt by their parents. Or does their access to stunning new learning tools and digital environments lead them naturally towards a better and more effective way of doing things? If we insist on teaching the old skills, we should have good reasons for doing so, especially if it takes time away from students who would otherwise be constructing their own learning through creative experimentation.

Digital Tools & The Old Guard

I am a musician and a teacher whose career has been weighted towards hands-on practical skills, such as playing an instrument, reading music notation, working with others in ensembles, improvising, composing, arranging. These skills could be considered ‘old school’ and as such carry with them a sort of nostalgia because they traditionally did not have much to do with technology (in the past that is). I have been noticing of late, a great deal of resistance to incorporating new technology into teaching. The ‘old guard’ has been grumbling! The mantra of “I do it a different way” or “I don’t have time to put everything on the computer” – “I’m too busy teaching my subject”. There seems to be a division amongst teachers into two distinct camps – the ‘old guard’ who rely on pen and paper and a good dose of ‘fact delivery’; and the ‘techy teachers’ who embrace the new tools available to us as just that, tools.

I can certainly empathise with busy teachers, since I am one myself. But, I truly believe, that we need to just get on with it! And we need to get on with it quickly, because the new technology does not stay new for very long. We don’t have time to go ‘softly’ on this.

There is an ongoing tension between the two camps, which is understandable. Often, the experienced teacher has been delivering their brand of lessons for a long time, and they have a safe confidence in the pattern of their work. Learning to use this or that bit of new software or web 2.0 tool doesn’t seem worth the effort to them. After all, what if they do not become ‘expert’ enough in the use of the technology to be able to ‘teach’ the kids how to do it? This is the fear I have heard expressed quite openly recently.

There are three points of awareness which I believe can be the catalyst for change in the ‘old guard’.

  1. We do not have to ‘teach’ kids how to work the technology. We can ‘learn’ it with them together.
  2. Technology provides us with TOOLS. We should be focussing on WHAT we write, compose, create rather than the technology itself. Kids will find out how to operate applications for themselves (once we get them started), but they need our guidance and experience to scaffold their creativity, collaborative skills, subject specific knowledge and citizenship.
  3. The big one – the WHY. Technology in the 21st Century is all about connectivity and networking. As soon as students work online, they start to share and learn from everybody else in their network – big or small. A reflection written in a wiki or blog can be looked at and commented on by classmates or anyone else who is ‘connected’. A reflection in a paper journal is usually seen only by the teacher, sometimes by a parent. It ends up in the school bag or in a pile on the teacher’s desk to be graded and admired by just one person.

So, I consider myself a hands-on sort of person. I love physical tools, by the way. Knocking in a nail or using a hand saw or plane are some of life’s greatest pleasures to me, not to mention playing the flute or cello. But, I am also loving my digital tools, especially in my teaching. Reading other peoples’ blogs about education, politics, music, ideas is just fantastic. Twitter gives me daily access to so much knowledge and thinking, that I just can’t believe I waited so long to sign up!

We just need to be open to change and be aware that our students need to connect with more voices than just our own.