Thursday, 20 February 2014
Student Voice? Student Power.

I have long felt that a school music department is like a mini school that happens to live inside a larger school.  I suppose you could argue that a music department is to a school what the Vatican is to Rome.  Of course, a music department has to ensure that it fits into a whole school ethos and the staff are certainly at the full disposal of the senior leadership team but there is still a lot that feels separate from the rest of the school.

Why music departments are 'other'

Even if a music department isn't in a separate building to the rest of the school, it has it often has its own rooming structure that isn't seen anywhere else.  Yes, a lesson may have been timetabled to take place in a specific classroom but the teacher will often make use of practice rooms, corridor space, cupboards or outside areas to make their lessons all the more musical.  The timetabling of this agreed between music staff ('you take room 1 and the first two practice rooms, I'll take room 2 and the third one.  We can fight over the space under the stairs') and probably completely incompatible with systems employed elsewhere in the school ('you want to have eight pupils in a different room without and adult???').  If you are in a separate building, then this feeling is intensified further.  

Then we have the peripatetic staff.  I always chuckle when people refer to my running a 'small department' by pointing out that I only have one other teacher to manage.  Jaws quite often drop when I highlight how many teachers actually teach in the music department and the intricacies of managing frequent changes in hours, days, rooming and other such measures that are necessitated by having a peripatetic team.  

Let's not forget the sheer isolation of being a music teacher.  'Nipping over to the staffroom for lunch?'  Maybe but only for the length of time that it takes to get my sandwich out of the fridge and check my pigeon hole.  'Can we meet to discuss this at 3.15pm?'  Not really - I have rehearsals.  The sense of 'otherness' is palpable.  

How this otherness impacts our pupils

This 'otherness' is why I have been making a point of creating a music department student voice team.  Effectively, a student council just for the music department.  In the same way that many of our needs as teachers are dramatically different to the rest of the school, I do believe that the pupils have very different needs too.  There is only so much point in having a whole school student council session that discusses the booking system used for practice rooms.  As a result, I have recruited a very wide sample of pupils (some of whom have not traditionally seen themselves as being 'musical') to have  a say in how things are done in the music department.  I've dedicated a portion of my budget to them so that they have the power to solve problems and I've delegated certain aspects of the running of the extra-curricular life of the department to them (the practice room booking system being the first thing I allocated).  They have a very real say in the running of the department and they see it for what it is - a genuine interest in their perspective.  

Giving learners an 'other' voice

It would have been easy for me to put a bunch of controls around this but, beyond my initial choices of members (predominantly choices that surprised staff and students alike), anyone who has shown a genuine interest has been allowed to sign up as a Music Captain.  The diversity of membership (traditional school musicians, 'bedroom producers', disaffected pupils, children who I have given a severe telling off to earlier in the year, children who have only just discovered an interest in music, etc) puts all the control on it that I need - in order to come to an agreement on anything, they are going to need to self-regulate, compromise and identify the real needs of their music department.  The budget I have assigned is big enough to make a very noticeable difference but not so big that they can spend money on every little idea that pops into their head.  This diversity of membership has also proved that I will (quite literally) put my money where my mouth is when it come to taking an interest in every pupil in the school - I would be surprised if any pupil said that they felt they weren't represented and, if they did, then I would just make them a Music Captain.  To quote Tim Berners-Lee, 'this is for everyone'.  

Not only is this music department like its own little school, it's like its own little town council.  I would like to think that this is symptomatic of the ideas expressed by David Price in his fantastic book Open and, I am very hopeful that it will lead to great things for the music department that I couldn't do even if being a head of music was exactly the same as being a headteacher.  I may run a mini school within a school but so do they.

Students shouldn't need a megaphone to be heard
Photography by Ben Sutherland
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Friday, 27 December 2013
Must do better?...

It's surprising how often we hear that there is something wrong with music education. There’s the recent series of OfSTED reports, the ‘I can do better’ campaign from Gary Peck, Rick Wakeman telling us that music simply isn't present in some schools, and a whole host of other observations, investigations and opinions. Add to that the negative attention that education in general has received recently (PISA anyone?) and it’s no wonder that even the briefest glance at my Twitter feed shows a long line of exhausted, upset and angry music teachers.

That same Twitter feed provides a window to some absolutely inspiring music teaching. I look at tweets from the music departments at Benton Park, Monk's Walk, Beaumont and many more and I am confronted with evidence that there are many pupils achieving wonderful things in music. Then there are the tweets from various teachers that show an insight into their teaching and I am inspired. There are teachers out there with incredible ideas, grit to break down barriers and focus to overcome the inevitable bumps in the road. Incredible teaching and incredible learning; it’s out there.

Teachers like these are the ones who take the hardest hit when there is a negative news story, report or comment. They work hard, produce wonderful things, change lives for the better and are then confronted with a narrative that tells them that they are not doing enough. It’s soul destroying to do brilliant work everyday and then hear that they’re not doing good enough. Far too much work goes into doing these things that it’s almost impossible to imagine these teachers doing more.

Peering into the wider world of music teaching

I want to take a moment looking at what it is that makes these teachers so brilliant. They are always looking for new things to do with their pupils. They are always refining what they do and reflect on the successes (or otherwise) of the lessons, events, clubs and initiatives that they are involved with. They speak to colleagues to identify good practice elsewhere in the school. Similarly, they spend time on Twitter or other social media sites learning about what other music teachers are doing so that they can be aware of what is working in other schools. This allows them to be up-to-date with new ideas, new research, new resources, new strategies and a whole host of other new stuff. These teachers are daring to peek over their classroom walls, climb atop their school walls and peer into the wider world of music teaching. What’s more, they have the courage to say what it is that they are doing and freely open it up to comment.

This is where we get a real disconnect between the issues that are raised by the negative media attention and those that need to hear it. The people who need to be told to up their game are not likely to be those searching out new approaches, carefully blogging some reflections on their latest teaching initiative or contributing to a forum discussion about someone else’s new approach. In the same way that a soldier sticking his head above the parapet is likely to get shot, teachers taking the time to be part of the larger education community are likely to hear more of the negative feedback from the powers-that-be and the powers-that-wish-they-were.

It could be argued, therefore, that those of us who blog, tweet, research, debate, discuss and reflect can happily ignore the issues that are raised by the likes of OfSTED. For better or worse, however, I am not advocating that. 

Reflecting on the reflectors

I am aware of many teachers who I have never met and I think that they’re doing absolutely wonderful things. I have met plenty of teachers who impress me every single time they open their mouths. Given time, I could probably create a list of ‘teachers I’d like to hear more from’ and I’m confident that the total number of teachers on that list would have three figures. It’s, frankly, a wonder of the modern age that I can have contact with so many top quality teachers.

I did a quick search of the DfE website today and found that there are 24,328 schools in England. Limit that to just secondary schools and the number is still pretty big; 3,127 of them. Let’s say that I everyone I follow on Twitter (327 people) is a music teacher and that every one of those 3,127 secondary schools employs just one teacher in their music department. That’s still 2,755 teachers who I know nothing about. Now, I’m not the be-all-and-end-all of music education, so let’s look at how many people are followed by Musical Futures (1,553). We’re still missing about half of our music teachers.

This is far from a scientific or rigorous research method (for a start, not everyone following me or Musical Futures is a music teacher in England) but it still suggests that at least half of the nation’s music teachers are not actively engaged in reflective, professional discourse on social media. That is not to say that they are not involved in any reflective, professional discourse - it’s just not apparent on social media. 

A selection bias

I would venture to suggest that most (if not all) of the teachers who do have an involvement in online discourse and reflection are likely to be doing at least a ‘Good’ job in the classroom. They are likely to be the teachers who have a ‘big picture’ perspective of their work and invest an awful lot of time in being the best teacher that they possibly can be. In short, they are not really the teachers that the negative media attention is aimed at. They are, however, the teachers who are most likely to be aware of the media attention and to be heard responding to it.

Effectively, we are left with a selection bias. Things are being said about the teaching profession and music education in particular. These statements are most audible in the sphere of social media. These statements are most likely responded to by those who are investing their time in reflecting on their own practice. In essence, the teachers who need to hear these things are the ones least likely to hear it. A vicious circle emerges where many teachers need to be more reflective but the call for this increased reflection is only heard by the ones already doing the reflection. This results in a backlash as the hard working teachers feel attacked. This causes people outside of the profession to feel that teachers can’t take hearing ‘hard truths’. The circle starts again.

Now, this is all very easy for me to say. After all, the very fact that I'm writing this blog would suggest that I put myself in the bracket of the ‘reflective practitioner’. I am certainly not trying to paint myself in a holier-than-thou light, I just want to suggest that the likes of OfSTED may actually have a fair case when it comes to saying that music education can do better. The nature of OfSTED’s role means that it will see the work of teachers who are both involved in reflective work and those who are not. They see the teachers who most of us cannot (because we’re tucked away in the classroom). Equally, they must, surely, see some of the worst practice in the nation.

There is even a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that music education could be better. I have met many teachers with stories of colleagues who they think aren't doing a good enough job. I have met many teachers who feel that they are fixing a mess left by their predecessor. I am, therefore, confident to say that there is some poor and even ‘Inadequate’ teaching out there. 

Heads in the sand?

So, why does it sometimes feel that we are reluctant to hear it? I recall the following quote from Jonathan Savage regarding ‘Wider Still, and Wider’,

Jonathan is not alone in taking such a stand and I reluctant to single him out (Jonathan, please don’t feel that this is a personal attack, far from it). That said, his quote feels like a representation of the reaction many of us have when we hear statements that tell us that only half of music lessons are good enough. Like so many people who respond angrily to such reports, Jonathan is very much involved in reflection (perhaps one of the most prolific bloggers in English music education).

As individual teachers, departments, hubs, organisations, movements or tweeters we may be doing a fantastic job. I'm sure that the number of fantastic music teachers is huge. I'm sure that the number of teachers who could be better is also pretty sizeable. 

A course of action

What can we do about it? It’s very tempting to say ‘not a lot’. Earlier, I described a vicious circle and there is a certain inevitability to that. The main thing that we can do to break it, however, is the angry reaction. The part that gives the impression that we are sticking our heads in the sand. We can forward negative reports in the media to colleagues to ensure that it reaches the people who wouldn't normally hear it. When we forward this information, we can do so in a manner that isn't defensive or dismissive. We can share our practice with colleagues and forward them links to some of the positive things that we find in our online reflection. Hopefully, such efforts will eventually lead to the entire profession not needing to hear the call that we ‘must do better’.

I do, however, see one small problem with my solution and it is the same problem that this entire blog entry has been dedicated to. The people who are reading this are probably the ones who already do this sort of thing...

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Tuesday, 17 December 2013
The notation debate

I would imagine that most people reading this blog have already noticed that there is quite a discussion in the British music education community about the use of notation in music lessons. This has its origins in the recent OfSTED report ‘What hubs must do’, which has caused no small amount of uproar. I have been a little surprised by the reaction to this report and have been carefully but quietly reading all of the responses I have found in blogs, forums and tweets to be sure that I haven’t missed some central issue that puts me on a different train of thought to many others. In particular, the reaction to the statements that notation should be part of musical learning has surprised me and I wanted to address that here.

Our relationships with notation

It has interested me how most of the responses that I have read included a brief background of the author’s relationship to notation. In particular, I found it interesting to read about the backgrounds of two people who I genuinely admire and respect. Anna Gower’s blog entry tells us how she is a classically trained musician with a background that had a notation heavy emphasis and how this contrasts so drastically with her approach in the classroom. David Price outlines his experience as a gigging musician and how vital his aural learning skills were in this environment, which he then relates to the point that so many people have made. This point is that you do not need notation to become a fantastic musician and that you can reach great heights without it. I couldn’t agree more with both Anna and David on this count, there is no need for notation to develop as a musician and I would debate endlessly to defend that point.

It seems to me that people have a deeply personal relationship with notation, whether that be a relationship of absolute co-dependence (‘I can’t make music without notation and music doesn’t exist without the notation’) or a relationship that resembles a bitter divorce (‘Everyone told me that we needed to be together but I was never happy’). Either way (and the many ways in between), it leaves people with a very emotive argument that seems to allow emotions to run high. To that end (and partly just to jump on the bandwagon!), I think it’s quite important that I start my response by talking about my history with notation.

My relationship with notation

If I had to describe my relationship with notation in one word and with the same ‘love affair’ metaphor, then I would have to say that it has always (and continues to be) somewhat promiscuous.

I started my musical life relatively late. In fact, I genuinely could not abide listening to music until I was eleven years old and heard Chuck Berry singing Johnny B Goode during a family holiday to France. From that moment, I was hooked on rock and roll music as a listener. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I started to be interested in making music and started teaching myself guitar using the Three Chord Songbook and a nylon string acoustic guitar given to me by a nun. The notation in this book was as simple as possible, featuring just the letter name of each chord change above the lyrics. The chord symbol was in bold and, at the start of the book, there were fretboard diagrams that showed me how to play each of the three chords (G, C and D7).

I soon encouraged myself to break free of the three chord trick and found myself using The Compleat Beatles songbook as a resource. In terms of notation, this was a much more complicated affair. At the top of each song was a collection of fretboard diagrams for all of the chords that were used in the song. Underneath this was a lead sheet featuring the voice part in treble clef and the letter names of each chord above it. At the bottom of the page were the lyrics written in full with the chord symbols in the right place on the lyrics but, helpfully, slashes to represent how many beats were between each chord. I freely admit that I made absolutely no use of the standard notation in here but, instead, learnt a huge variety of chord shapes and learnt about lots of standard chord progressions.

After this, I took to using Harvey Vinson’s Rhythm Guitar. This focused on teaching more chord shapes and explained how to read rhythm notation using a variety of counting strategies that I wish I had learnt at school. Counting quavers as ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and’, etc really helped me. I became proficient at reading rhythms very quickly as a result of using this book. In terms of pitch notation, it was still mostly chord symbols but, in a few places, it used a system for identifying brief single note phrases. This system involved writing the letter name of the string underneath the rhythmic notation and then having the fret number in a circle underneath the apporpriate rhythms. e.g to play a descending G, F#, E, it would have looked like this:

E (3) (2) (0)

This system worked very well for me and I still attribute Vinson’s book as the reason for a lot of my later successes as a musician. Inevitably, however, I soon discovered TAB books. Specifically Oasis an Manic Street Preachers TAB books. A notation system focused on where my finger should be rather than the note I was playing was very much in sync with the method from Vinson’s book and made an awful lot of sense in my mind. I lapped up every TAB book I could get my hands on and used them to really get a handle on lead guitar playing. Perhaps because of the rhythmic notation from Vinson, the books that I enjoyed the most were the ones that included the rhythm slashes above the TAB numbers as I could pretty much sight read anything in this situation. If it doubled up the TAB and the standard notation for the guitar part, then I used the TAB for the pitch and the standard notation for the rhythm.

Soon after this, I found myself studying A-Level Music and freely conceded that it was time for me to get comfortable reading standard notation. I spent quite a bit of time getting familiar with reading treble clef but, if I’m honest, I spent most of Year 12 (as it’s called now) ‘working out’ the bass clef rather than reading it as I should. By the end of the course, I was a reasonably confident reader but still craved TAB if it came to sight reading.

Today, I feel that this background in music reading often gives me an advantage. I’m comfortable with pretty much any system that you can put in front of me. Chord symbols, roman numerals, rhythm, TAB, dots? Yep, you’ve got it. In truth, it probably wouldn’t take you long to find someone who can read any of these systems better/faster than me but I am content that I’m strong enough with each to do whatever job is necessary.

Along this journey, I’ve also made great use of aural learning and, again, I would venture to say that I’ve become pretty good at that too. In fact, my ideal musical learning environment would be to learn music where I have:

  • standard notation
  • chord symbols
  • guitar tablature (if playing guitar…)
  • a recording of the piece

Confronted with this variety of resources, I would certainly make use of all four systems and would probably find myself simultaneously using all three notation systems while playing along to the recording. Since I now find myself using four systems all at the same time, I think it’s best to stay well away from the ‘love affair’ metaphor…

How I feel about teaching notation

With this pretty much all-encompassing approach to notation and aural learning, I would like to suggest that I am relatively unbiased when it comes to my feelings about how and if notation should be taught in the classroom. I am not suggesting and would not suggest that anyone else who has written about this notation debate is biased from their background, I am simply putting forward that I do not feel that my background gives me reason to be biased.

What I think my experiences with notation and my experience of teaching notation has taught me is that it is pretty useful as a skill. Haven’t got a recording? Read the dots. Figured out every part of except that tricky, fast paced section? Read the dots. The rhythm guitar part obscured in the mix? Read the dots (or chord symbol or TAB). It simply doesn’t hurt to have some form of notation about. Is it essential? No. Does it make life easier when you’ve taken the time to develop this skill to even a basic level? Absolutely.

Similarly, aural learning skills are high on my agenda. Haven’t got sheet music? Listen to the recording. Can’t quite interpret the rhythm? Listen to the recording. Finding it difficult to interpret the spirit of the notation? Listen to the recording. Even with pieces that are being recorded for the first time, it’s common enough for the most seasoned of performers to play the dots to the composer and ask if they’ve interpreted it right - in many respects, checking it against the ‘recording’ in the composer’s head.

So, which should we teach? Notation or aural skills

The answer in my mind is a resounding ‘both’. I have no interest in teaching kids just one way of doing things.

That said, I don’t want to sit the whole class down and teach them that ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Football’ (please don’t give me football, I beg you). Nor do I want to give pupils notation for every activity. I just want them to have a basic understanding.

I also have a lot of time for Bill Martin’s approach that he has named ‘Ears and Eyes’. I have been taking some of the spirit of this approach into my Year 7 lessons this year and it’s working better than any other approach to teaching notation I’ve tried. I am not trying to teach them that ‘this note is a G’. I’m just teaching them that when they see that note they play a G. It works. It’s straightforward. It’s effective. Notation lessons don’t have to be arduous and boring because we don’t need lessons that are dedicated to teaching notation, I just want it included as one of the things that are received by the pupils because it’s relevant to them at the time of learning.

So, do I take issue with OfSTED saying that we should ensure that notation is included in our lessons? No. Do I want notation in every lesson? No. Will teaching notation bore the pupils? No.

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Saturday, 16 November 2013
The Music Show

As I write this, I'm on a train back from The Music Show in Manchester, where I was pleased to do a brief talk on using limited music technology resources with large classes. I couldn't make the first day of the two day event but I've come back from today having really enjoyed myself and I'm reminded how small the world of music education can be.  I knew that I would be bumping into David Ashworth having seen a tweet a couple of months back but I was delighted to also see David Ashworth, James Garnett, Kevin Rodgers, Lizzie Moore, Simon Lock, John Mander, Simon Foxall and Jim Frankel (apologies for anyone that I've missed from this list). I hadn't realised until a few days before that the Music Mark conference was taking place in the same building at the same time, so lots of music education types were there alongside the swarms of retailers, service providers and publishers.  It was a real pleasure to see the latest and greatest things that are available to music educators and I thought I would mention a couple that stood out to me.  

No one had paid or asked me to write the below and I apologise to anyone who had a great product that I haven't mentioned.  

Music First
I had been aware that Music First had formed as a grouping of various cloud music applications but I didn't realise how far these products have been developed.  I'm already a big fan of Focus on Sound and it was good to have a chat with its creator, Simon Foxall after all the emails that I've exchanged with him.  I was delighted to find that Noteflight now works in HTML5, making it a viable product for use on mobile devices and really opening up some great possibilities for schools.  Soundation is another product that I've had half an eye on but the ability to control a software instrument in a cloud app with a MIDI controller with barely noticeable latency is just extraordinary. There are some very exciting things being developed when it comes to cloud music making and I hope that having a passionate team like Music First leads to an integrated database, allowing pupils to access any of the apps using just one username/password (assuming that their teachers have paid for it, of course!). I will certainly keep watching what comes next.  

Rhinegold Education
Admittedly, I've got a bit of a vested interest in this company considering that I've just contributed a chapter to their upcoming Teaching Music textbook but I was really impressed with the improved reader app that Lizzie More demonstrated to me.  I was privileged to have access to a pre-publication version and it was great to see that all of the bugs have been well and truly ironed out.  Pages turns are smooth, notes are synced across devices, music examples and videos play back smoothly.  A great product that is sure to meet the high standards that consumers have come to expect from a mobile app. 

There was plenty more that I could talk about but, for me, these were the two stand out features of the show.  Well done to the teams at both Rhinegold Education and Music First. On a weekend following a damning OfSTED report, it is reassuring to know that there are people working hard to bring us products that have the potential to make a real difference.  

The 'zone' where I delivered my presentation.  

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Saturday, 2 November 2013
When OfSTED came to visit: 2 things I did and 6 things I didn't do

It's three weeks into my new job and I find myself enjoying one of those rare lunchtimes where things are quiet enough for me to be able to sit in front of a computer and check my emails. Scanning down the list, I see an email from the headteacher.  Now, any email from the headteacher will always stand out but one that has 'OfSTED' in the subject line does so even more. I open it up and my suspicions are confirmed; the school will be inspected the following day (and on the day after that). I have always made it a personal rule not to panic about inspections or observations as I would much rather be damned for what I actually do than allow the kids see me pull out 'an OfSTED lesson'; I honestly believe that any such attempt would have me 'caught out' in moments.  I've reached the point where I have an 'open door' policy and happily let anyone watch my lessons, with or without notice.

That said, having only been in post for less than a month, I was a little on the anxious side.  All the things I was planning to do and they were watching me now!  I am, however, pleased to say that I taught my lesson in the same manner that I would have done if no one had turned up and with no more planning.  This was enough to have the inspector tell me that the lesson was classed as 'Outstanding'.

This post is not intended as 'look at me, I'm amazing'. Nor is this post intended as 'this is how to get an Outstanding'. My genuine intention is to list the two things that I thought were really important during the observation, which I'll go into some detail about.  I also wanted to be clear about six 'OfSTEDisms' that I often hear as being vital but were conspicuous by their absence in my lesson.  Please, do not take this as a 'guide to getting an Outstanding', I don't believe that there's any magic recipe for that but I do believe that tackling some of the myths that teachers (particularly music teachers) have to deal with when it comes to lesson observations.

Lesson context

This was a Year 7 lesson in an all-boys school. Music is taught on a six week rotation with other arts subjects. The pay-off for the rotation is that learners have four (50min) lessons of music each week. I have designed Year 7 in a way that has one teacher delivering a SoW for three of those lessons and I deliver a separate SoW in the fourth lesson. The SoW that I teach prepares pupils for the skills that they will need in the third unit of each rotation. This was my third lesson with the class and the second lesson where they were allowed to use our practice rooms. Anything that I mention having been taught/learnt in the past was done so before I knew that OfSTED would be in.

I did... make it musical

OfSTED's recent reports about music education have been clear - music lessons should be musical. That means actually having pupils involved in creating musical sound. Being a Musical Futures Champion Teacher, this is pretty much the way I work anyway so I was delighted when 'Making More of Music' and 'Wider Still, and Wider' were published providing the voice of the inspectorate to reinforce the value of practical music making.

The class that I was observed with was learning how to play chords of C Major and F Major and were doing so using two rhythms that we had learnt to clap in the previous lesson. The rhythms had been well internalised through body percussion work and the notes CEG and FAC had been internalised through a singing activity.

In using keyboards, pupils had been given just two pieces of information:
(a) how to find C, which was learnt through a rhythmical chant (taught at the start of this lesson)
(b) that there are only seven 'letters' in the musical alphabet, which was learnt by singing the 'alphabet song' up to G, stopping abruptly, putting on a silly voice saying "that's it, start again!" (taught at the end of last lesson and recapped today)

This meant that when pupils were in practice rooms, they could do at least one if not all of the following:

  • clap the two rhythms
  • find C on the keyboard and play it to the rhythms
  • sing the other notes that they needed to use
  • find the other notes on the keyboard
  • play the chords as block chords or arpeggios
  • play the chords with one of the two rhythms
  • do so in time with the rest of their group
  • do so with attention to dynamics, choice of octave, choice of arpeggio or block chord, choice of timbre, etc

Every pupil, therefore, was able to work on something that was clearly musical and do so with varying levels of skill. Those who were able to do everything that I asked were able to focus on the quality of their performance through attention to detail.

In short, it was obvious that this was a music lesson - you could hear that it was! Each pupil was able to demonstrate musical understanding through his ability to make music and was clear of how to progress, making use of the internalised resources, peers and me as they saw fit.

I did... speak to the inspector

Throughout my career, I have always made it a point to speak with any observer. My opening line is always "Can I give you some context about the lesson?", which puts me in a position to talk about how this lesson fits in with the current unit and the larger scheme of work. It also allows me to demonstrate my knowledge of the class by speaking about individual needs and how they are being met.

On this occasion, I spoke about how the pupils had learnt the clapping in a previous lesson and that this was only their second lesson using practice rooms. This let me highlight my 'hidden objective' for the lesson, which was to get them used to having so much responsibility for their own learning and the development of mutual trust for when they are working in a different room to me.

I also made a point of finding the inspector when I saw that a group had made noticeable progress. I literally walked up to her and said "Could I just bring you to a group to highlight the progress that they have made?" She looked delighted and followed me to the practice room, where the group demonstrated what they had just shown me and I gave them some additional feedback. I then left her to her own devices while I carried on with my lesson. A lot if INSET and discussion in recent years has highlighted that evidence of progress is a big one during observations these days but why bring the class back to the room, disrupt their learning and then get back to work when it's so much easier to bring the inspector to the evidence?

I was also able to speak to the inspector about the data that I had and how it was acquired. I showed her my class spreadsheet and highlighted specific columns. I mentioned that target grades were based on FFT data, that my record of prior musical experience was from a previous homework, that a plus or minus was a formative record of how they did/didn't meet my expectations and that the assessment grade was from the other teacher's lesson (following the 'parallel' scheme of work). I highlighted that we had only just received our Pupil Premium data because it was so early in the year and explained that it wasn't in my spreadsheet yet but I gave her access to the database where it was kept. She was very happy with all of this and said not to worry about the pupil premium data being in a separate place. She asked how she could figure out where individual pupils were and I highlighted the column that said which practice room each child was working in.

Having a dialogue with the inspector allowed her an insight into my approach to teaching, monitoring and assessing the class and, again, put the evidence right in front of her. There was nothing here that I wouldn't have had if OfSTED weren't coming in and I would like to think that was obvious from the inspector's discussions with me and the pupils.

I should highlight that some teachers that I have spoken to have recoiled in horror at the suggestion that a teacher should speak to any observer.  Some have even been explicitly told by senior leaders or teacher trainers that they should never do so.  I have always spoken to observers and have never found their reaction to be adverse.  I honestly can't see the harm as long as you ensure that the conversation doesn't detract from the quality of teaching and learning in the lesson.  

I did not...

As promised, here is the list of six things that I didn't do during the lesson (or in my preparation).  Obviously, if your school has a policy that these things should be done, then there is a need to play the game.  I just want to highlight that they are not necessary for a lesson to be deemed as 'Outstanding' in an OfSTED observation.

I did not:

  1. write learning objectives on the board, state them as 'learning objectives', get the kids to write learning objectives anywhere
  2. have any written work in the lesson, the kids had neither books nor worksheets
  3. have any mini-plenaries
  4. write a lesson plan
  5. have a seating plan (I made a note of which pupils chose which practice room but this column of the spreadsheet changes each lesson)
  6. tell the pupils what their target levels are (preferring to relentlessly focus on improving what they were doing)

Anyone else?

I am very keen to hear back from any other (music) teachers who have recently been observed by OfSTED.  Was your approach similar of do you have a different way of getting through inspection time?  I would also like to hear how this marries up with school (and music dept) policies - would you be 'allowed' to teach a lesson like this?  Input here or via Twitter (@johnskelleher) would be very welcome.  

This image is included as being representative of the subject matter discussed.  It does not represent official endorsement by OfSTED or any other organisation.  

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Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Not new, just different...

A brief moment of quiet in the music department.  The kids have gone home.  The teachers have gone home.  The cleaner is here, somewhere, but he is so much quieter than the pupils that I am immune to the odd bit of dusting or hoovering.  As the quiet sinks in, I have to ask myself how this first week has been and, as my mind darts through all the things that have happened in eight days back at work, I suddenly realise just how busy I have been.  Not only has this been the start of a new year but it has been the start of a new job at a new school and I can only conclude that there's an awful lot of work that we do that we don't even realise we're doing.

In essence, this job isn't much different to the last one.  I was Head of Music at a school in Slough but now I am Director of Music at a school in London.  The change of title doesn't change the role and the change of the location doesn't change the fact that this is still a school.  That said, things are done differently.  I'm not talking about big things like 'we would never do that' or far reaching policies.  Mostly it's the little things that are different.  The form used to order resources - different.  The number of periods in a day - different.  Which doors can be locked and which can be left open - different.  Small things that I'm already well adjusted to but have thrown me for a few moments throughout the last week.  Learning to do the same thing differently takes time.  Learning to do lots of old things differently takes lots of time.

I'm not the only one having to learn to do something I've done for ages in a new way.  I have introduced the school to Musical Futures principles and all of our Key Stage 3 teaching could happily be described as 'MuFu'.  Watching staff members adjust to this is just like watching me get the hand of administering peripatetic lessons here - adapting to the differences.  It takes time to get your head around the differences and then takes more time to allow those differences to become habit.  In the same way that I have accidentally dialled the number of my old school's front office rather than the new school's reception, it is natural that teachers will mix and match old with new in their lessons.  This is great.  Something new will grow out of that and I can't wait to see what it turns out to be.

It also has me thinking about my own teaching.  I am asking myself why I am doing things that have been successful in the past and it is resulting in me improving my practice.  I always knew that I would have to adapt my teaching to suit a new environment but it certainly doesn't hurt to improve things that don't need adapting.  The clich├ęd term 'reflective practitioner' comes to mind but, for all it's weary buzzwordiness, it is still a concept that I believe is vital.  I don't want to get too comfortable in my teaching, I want to question it and move forward.  That's the best thing for the pupils and it has the not insignificant benefit of keeping the job interesting for me.

Anyway, enough philosophising, I've got to figure out where the stationary is kept...

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Sunday, 5 May 2013
Teacher and Musician? Sometimes you have to prove it...

On Tuesday, 30th April 2013, I had an interview for the Director of Music position at Wimbledon College and I'm delighted to say that my application was successful. To say that it was just an interview, however, would be an understatement. I doubt that any teacher would be surprised to hear that I had to teach a lesson before the interview but the other elements of the day may surprise a few people. I should start by clarifying that Wimbledon College is an all boys, comprehensive (state) school. The reason that I feel compelled to blog about the experience is that it really did give me the opportunity to show that I am a musician as much as a teacher.

When I received the invitation to interview I was surprised to see that I was asked to conduct the school choir singing 'O quam gloriosum' by Victoria, which they had "not sung recently". I'm perfectly happy to conduct a choir but it was the first time I had ever been asked to do so for an interview. It was, effectively, an opportunity to show the following musical and teaching skills:

  • a variety of conducting techniques (changing technique to suit the passage)
  • musical analysis (explaining to pupils the relationship between their parts and the composer's intentions)
  • 'note bashing' and diagnostic teaching (helping pupils to learn their parts but varying my teaching strategy in reaction to the quality of their musical response)
  • developing professional relationships (allowing all of our personalities to be exposed by the musical processes at hand)
  • creating a structured rehearsal (delivering warm ups, note bashing, diagnostic rehearsing and a run through takes a lot of structure in a twenty minute session!)
Although I've never experienced this before in an interview process, it's certainly something that I'd consider introducing next time the opportunity to interview for a new teacher comes along. There are certain elements of teaching that are hard to spot in a classroom observation with unfamiliar pupils that are more clearly evident when engaging in such a musical activity.

The other part of the day that I wasn't expecting came in the form of an audition. I was asked to perform a piece on an instrument of my choice (electric guitar) for an audience of two. Considering that I've never taken a graded exam on an instrument and that I can't remember doing an examination recital since I was in sixth form, this gave me an opportunity to be reminded of what we often ask the pupils to do (and why I'm so keen on qualifications that replicate 'real world' performing experiences). Again, however, it gave me an opportunity to demonstrate skills that are hard to get across in a 'one off' lesson with an unfamiliar class:

  • choosing appropriate repertoire (playing a technically demanding piece that is within my comfort zone but can be performed without accompaniment)
  • ability to engage with an adult audience when introducing a piece (introducing myself, the piece and some musical/historical/social context)
  • the ability to think on the spot (I was asked to perform another piece and if I could improvise)
  • my understanding of the role of my instrument in lessons (explaining how I approach the teaching of electric guitar in lessons)
  • how I see myself as a musician (the extent to which I musically engaged with the piece and how I explained my musical decisions)
This blog was started on the basis that I believe classroom musicians should be both 'teacher and musician' but I had never considered auditioning a candidate before. Of course, I would have loved the opportunity to show my composing, sound engineering and music business skills but, since performing is such an integral part of what we expect from our pupils, I see a genuine value in hearing this side of a musician's identity.

Would I recommend this process for the appointment of all classroom music teachers? No, each school needs to ask what they need from their selection process. Do I think that this experience gave me a chance to show myself at my best? Absolutely. For anyone who sees musicianship as a central part of what happens in the music classroom, I strongly encourage you not to be frightened of any interview where you get the opportunity to show your musicianship. It's a chance to show yourself for the teacher and musician that you truly are.



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Monday, 28 January 2013
no image

It's been just over a week since I attended the Musical Futures Champion Conference and my mind is still buzzing with ideas and opportunities for my department.  Some I've put into place already and others are being nursed into maturity before I unleash them after half term.  Two days of awe inspiring CPD gives you far too much to deal with in one go but my lessons have already improved even if it's just because of the extra burst of enthusiasm that I've taken away with me.  This blog post is intended to quickly outline what I've already started doing thanks to this conference.  So, here goes...

Six Imperatives

The first thing that I brought into my department was David Price's six imperatives of social learning.  He outlined these as being:

  1. Do it yourself (autonomy)
  2. Do it now (immediacy)
  3. Do it with friends (collegiality)
  4. Do unto others (generosity)
  5. Do it for fun (playfulness)
  6. Do it for the world to see (high visibility)
Now, I'll confess, I've read about this from David before but it really struck a chord with me.  I've had these principles turned into six posters that are stuck on the walls of my classroom and I've briefed each child on my interpretation of what they mean.  Essentially, taking control of your own learning with a collaborative and positive mindset.  A sense of urgency for learning and making sure that you let everyone know what you're doing.  The impact has been noticeable.  I've been making sure that each of my lessons ends with a blog post including something from the lesson (SoundCloud recording, PDF, video, etc).  Pupils know that someone in the class will have to share something and that it'll appear on the blog and the departmental Twitter feed.  This lends to the urgency of 'do it now' and, for many, the joy of 'do it for fun'.  If this was all I'd taken away from #mufu2013, then the journey would have been worth it.  

Vocal Warmups

I confess, I've been an idiot recently.  I've been doing a huge drive for singing in the classroom but had managed to completely neglect my arsenal of warmup activities.  I have no idea how this happened - I'm just thick.  It was great to be introduced to all sorts of warmup activities, some familiar and some new.  You can see what we did here but the one I am enjoying the most is the plasticine man - any chance to say 'splat' as part of a planned lesson is great.  

Using voice in band skills lessons

I've been doing band skills lessons for a few years now and they're always a lot of fun but we were introduced to some of the Musical Futures Singing Pilot work and one great idea was to take a song and sing all the parts (guitar, keys, bass, etc with your voice).  I've taken this idea and integrated it into my band skills lessons, with some promising results.  We'll see what impact it has on the actual instrumental work but I do believe that pupils understand the parts better than they usually do.  

Next steps

There's so much more that I'm going to be integrating into the dept (especially with workshopping) but what I've seen from just one week has been fantastic.  Thank you, Musical Futures, for what was easily the best INSET I've ever had.  
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Sunday, 27 May 2012
Class Blogs

Oh, how I love to keep a class blog. Oh, how I frustrate myself by not keeping my class blogs up to date.

It shouldn't be difficult - I have apps on my phone, my tablet and laptop to make sure that I have no excuse. I also tell myself that I should be able to use the time that the kids are packing up to write my entry. So, why doesn't it happen?

The first answer that I shall provide is that it is my own laziness. With all the things that go on in a school, blogging about the lesson I've just taught goes to the bottom of my priority list. I take one look at my to do list and I just can't justify putting the class blog right at the top of the list. At the start of the year, I manage to do it. Every class has a blog that is bang up to date and it's a really useful resource. Then something happens - probably reports. One set of reports come along and I devote all my writing energy to them; the blogs fall by the wayside. No problem, I'll pick it up after report season. I don't. There was probably a concert to organise, music to arrange or work to mark that pushes them onto yet another backburner. This became even worse when I started to use Evernote to keep a track of my own thoughts about a lesson (including things that I probably wouldn't want the kids to see - "Keep an eye on Sally's behaviour next week, she's overly chatty with Cassie."), keeping the class blog no longer proved useful to me.

This then creates another problem and it's the one that brings about a nasty viscous circle that keeps me in the realm of 'no blogging'. The fact that I missed a few blog entries causes the majority of kids to stop checking it. I see that they're not checking it and the evil little devil sitting on my shoulder says "Why bother updating 8ABC's blog? They won't read it anyway. Your time is better spent planning that BTEC lesson.". So, I plan a lesson and, before long, the blog is a forgotten white elephant on the department website.

As I'm busily redesigning KS3, I think it's important that I carefully reconsider my use of class blogs. There are many options that present themselves to me and the one that I'm most tempted by is that used by Beaumont School's Music Department. They keep a single blog for the whole department and it seems to work well. We already keep a department website but this would allow us to combine the best of both worlds - resources on a website and information on a blog.

Who out there keeps a blog for the kids? What are your thoughts? Do you suffer from the same laziness as me or do you have a routine that keeps you going?

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Sunday, 15 April 2012
Classroom Layouts continued...

I spent Friday rearranging the equipment in my department as per the plans that I laid out in my last blog post.  By and large, everything was the same as my plans, except that I had forgotten about there being no plug sockets by the door, so I had to move the location of two stations.  I also found myself putting the piano by the door, which gives a lot more space in the middle of the room.  The final layout looks like this...

Facing the wall

I've always found it confusing when I see classrooms with keyboards around the edge of the room so that each pupil is facing the wall.  One of my first actions when I started at this school was to get rid of that.  On Friday, however, I found myself moving the stations so that almost all of them were against the wall.  It created a lot more space in the middle of the room and ensures that I will always be able to see what's on the computer screen.   The reason that I don't think this is a problem, is that the workstation model itself allows pupils to work effectively in small groups.  The extra space in the room makes this easier to do.  

Having a second classroom that is dedicated to workshopping more than makes up for any shortcomings of the 'facing the wall' issue in my mind.  The pupils can be moved to whichever classroom is most appropriate for the work they will be completing. 

Preparing the pupils for change

It's all very well and good to plan out a new classroom layout and to have a clear idea in my head as to how it will work but the pupils are the ones that need to make it happen.  I'm eager that all classes get the same information regardless of which teacher they have,  what I remember to say or how many coffees I've had.  To that end, I created a video that explains what's changed and the behaviour I expect from the pupils and I hope that it's relatively amusing too...  

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Sunday, 8 April 2012
Designing a New KS3 SoW: Part 3 - Classroom Layouts

Reflecting on the teaching and learning that's taken place in my Music Department over the last few years, I have to conclude that we have become very strong at delivering the informal learning model from Musical Futures.  We've also done a great job of integrating the classroom workshopping elements of the non-formal teaching model.  The success of the former has largely been down to our workstation setup that we created, which combines typical rock band instruments, a Mac, a mixer and a headphone splitter to create a suite of 'virtual practice rooms'.  This has been a really successful model and I've demonstrated it to other music teachers numerous times, perhaps most notably at Play, Learn, Live in 2011. 

As I was pondering the eighth of my KS3 SoW Design Tenets ("If it can be delivered using informal learning and non-formal teaching, then it should be delivered using informal learning and non-formal teaching"), I reflected on how much less we've made use of the Band Instrumental Skills work than we used to.  When I asked myself why this was the case, I realised that it was because it is a lot of hassle for us to rejig the layout of the room to suit this approach.  This is especially true with the drum kits, it's virtually impossible to move everything for a band skills lesson Period 1 and then get it ready for an informal learning lesson Period 2.  Many discussions that we've had in the Music Department have highlighted that we will be using the instrumental skills methods a lot more and, therefore, something needed to change. 

How popular musicians learn

Casually re-reading some of How Popular Musicians Learn, without really thinking about the above, I found myself reflecting on the importance of some of the very early 'bands' that people get in.  I'm sure that I'm not the only person who was in a band with three singer/guitarists and nothing else!  Although this leaves a seemingly eternal desire to have people playing bass, keys and drums, it also allows for an incredible amount of peer learning.  The opportunity to learn new chords, licks and techniques from someone who then wanted to learn something from you was invaluable.  

When you make the transition from these 'everyone plays the same instrument bands' to a 'real' band, the type of learning changes and you become the ensemble's expert on your instrument.  In many respects, the band skills element of non-formal teaching reflects these early 'bedroom bands', while the informal learning approach better reflects the 'garage bands'.  I feel that our pupils currently have more to learn form the 'bedroom band' setup and, as a result, our existing classroom layout would prove wholly inadequate.  

Our current layout

Before explaining what we will be using in future, it's probably important to show what we have now.  The first thing that most teachers say when they see our workstations is that they must have been expensive to create.  In many respects, the answer is 'yep, they cost a bomb' but they weren't created overnight.  The original version of the workstation mostly used components that were in the school when I arrived, plus a mixer and headphone splitter.  They were just three keyboards connected together to allow ensemble playing.  Eventually, I found the funds to add a computer and electric guitar to some of the stations.  These 'version 2' stations looked like this (please excuse the quality of the photo)...

I was never happy with the keyboard dominated version of the station, so I kept trying to find ways to add drum kits and a bass.  When I found instruments that were cheap enough, I bought them in and created workstations that looked more like this (note that the guitar and bass are out of shot)...

These stations work brilliantly and have been the cornerstone of many of our lessons.  If anyone wants to duplicate them, I've created a simple connections diagram below.  If you have any questions, feel free to tweet or email me. 

What next?

Our next step is straightforward, we need to adapt the workstations to emphasise the learning of the same instrument.  I don't want to adversely effect the workflow of our existing KS4 and KS5 classes, who depend on the mic, MIDI keyboard and the ability to quickly add additional instruments to the station, so these characteristics need to stay in place.  I also want to keep one workstation available with every instrument permanently attached (allowing us to quickly record a conventional band when necessary).  We will, therefore, keep one workstation for this purpose and call it the 'ensemble workstation' using our best audio interface (with eight inputs).  

The new workstations will have five of the same instrument attached, plus the MIDI controller keyboard and mic.  The wiring diagram for each is presented below. 

Instrument workstations

 Ensemble workstation

We already have one workstation using multiple inputs of an audio interface and this will remain unchanged.  Its wiring diagram is below.  


This new configuration will only require five workstations compared to our existing six.  This gives us the luxury of an additional Mac, mixer, mic, etc that can be used for a variety of purposes.  We already have two macs that are used as flexible stations with a focus on individual work and, as a result, we can convert the old workstation into an additional 'flexi-station', which would look like this. 

Classroom layout

I must admit that I'm slightly concerned that this new setup won't fit in the classroom.  We have a grand piano in the middle of the room already and that takes up quite a bit of room.  I'm thinking that the easiest solution is to lay out the stations as far from each other as possible around the outside of the room, giving us the ability to take up some space in the middle as required. 

What about the rest of the department?

This year, we finally managed to gain a second classroom that is used mostly by the Music Department.  For security reasons, we cannot keep computers in there, so we largely use this as a room for rehearsing ensembles and classroom workshopping.  It works perfectly for this and I have no desire to change this role.  

We also have two practice rooms and, at present, these are used mostly for band rehearsals.  We are, however, noticing a dramatic increase in pupils taking up instrumental lessons, so I intend to make the rooms better suited to this purpose.  Pupils also like to use these rooms as vocal booths when they are recording 'polished' versions of their work, so I'd like to retain the Mac and mic that is in each one.  

Has anyone else done this?

I'd love to know if anyone else out there has designed this sort of setup and, if so, I'd really appreciate being able to discuss it.  Anyone else that has observations, do please feel free to contact me about it - I'm not closed to the idea that I'm doing something stupid!
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Friday, 6 April 2012
Building a New KS3 Scheme of Work (Part 2 - Design Tenets)

I was watching a fascinating video the other day about how the Microsoft Office design team invented the ribbon interface, which has been the main part of their user interface since Office 2007. Now, I have to confess that I'm not the biggest Microsoft fan but I can't deny that I was impressed with the way in which they approached such a dramatic redesign of something that everyone was already so familiar with. The system is so effective that it's even been licensed to third parties, with Sibelius 7 being the most notable example for music educators. 

One of the things that the Microsoft design team kept coming back to was their 'design tenets', which they made sure everyone in their team could recite. Mock up drawings even included the design tenets as the document being edited so that the team never forgot about them.  Every decision they made about their interface had to meet the criteria set out in the tenets, anything that didn't was thrown out. 

Anyone that has read my blog about my new assessment system, will know that I am attempting a pretty big redesign of my own. I'm currently trying to create a new Key Stage 3 Scheme of Work that is a drastic improvement on our already successful system and I knew that I'd scribbled out a few goals early on.  I've also been referring back to them every time a decision has to be made about including something in the new SoW.  Realistically, they've been my own SoW Design Tenets.  So, here they are...

The Teacher and Musician 'SoW Design Tenets'...
  1. Assessment must be simple, consistent and transparent.
  2. Pupils should still work in groups but they should have individual outcomes.
  3. A pupil's age is not as important as her ability and understanding.
  4. The SoW should encourage pupils to study music after Year 9.
  5. The SoW should be fun for pupils and teachers.
  6. Opportunities for external qualifications to be awarded should be highlighted wherever possible.
  7. There should be a clear relationship between the work at KS3 and what they will do at KS4.  
  8. If it can be delivered using informal learning and non-formal teaching, then it should be delivered using informal learning and non-formal teaching. 
  9. If the work isn't musical, then it belongs in someone else's lesson.  


How does your SoW hold up against these tenets?  Would you want your SoW to be measured against this criteria?  Am I insane to focus on this over other possible approaches?  Your thoughts are very welcome. 

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Tuesday, 3 April 2012
Universities Designing A-Level Courses

Today's news has had a big focus on the Department for Education's suggestion that the content of A-Level courses should be decided or, at least, approved by universities.  In particular, the DfE has suggested that this should be the Russell Group universities.  Schools would then be recommended (since most will be academies by then, they can't be required) to only offer A-Levels that have been approved by these universities.  There's already been a lot of discussion on this topic in the news but the most striking problem to me hasn't been covered in anything that I've read.  My point is simple, how can an incredibly diverse range of university courses be reflected in the few A-Level courses that pupils take?

For obvious reasons, I'm going to focus on Music degree courses.  A quick search of the UCAS website for music based courses comes up with this list.  That's 41 different degree titles.  Out of curiosity, I then click on the one that said just 'Music' and saw this.  Yep, you read it right - 952 courses!  Now, I'm not going to go through the other forty courses and count up the number of degrees that come up (and I'm sure there would be a fair bit of duplication if I did) but I think the point is clear - there's a huge variety of courses on offer and every one of them has its unique elements.

UCAS also tells us that there are more than 300 institutions in its database.  The Russell Group comprises 20 universities.  With this in mind, isn't Mr Gove's plan to 'better prepare' students for university study somewhat flawed?  Does Mr Gove honestly believe that an A-Level designed by the Russell Group will prepare students for this myriad of qualifications better than the existing range of A-Levels?

Please do not get me wrong, I am not claiming that the existing A-Levels are perfect.  In fact, my opinion of the traditional qualifications is already on record.  I just don't believe that the approach being suggested today is going to achieve the goal that has been set.  Nor would it be sensible to get each group of universities (or individual university) to design A-Level courses - a 'pick this A-Level if you want to study at our institution' system would ultimately end up limiting students' options.

I'm not even going to start on some of the more obvious points on this topic (e.g. what about pupils that aren't going to study at university?) as I know that others have already started to address this.  I'm just hoping that this initiative doesn't homogenise FE qualifications even more than they already have been.  Vocational qualifications are being undermined, we only have a limited number of exam boards for A-Level and, even then, Edexcel seems to have been adopted as 'the most serious' course (one day, I may even blog my rant about the Edexcel Anthology concept).  Do we really need an initiative that could take away what little diversity we already have at Key Stage 5? 

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Sunday, 25 March 2012
Non-Formal Workshops

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to lead a workshop and be part of the discussion panel at NAME's 'Becoming a Music Teacher: The Musician as Teacher' event at the University of Reading.  This was a great day with lots of prospective music educators getting a glimpse of the world that they're letting themselves in for.  My thanks go to James Garnett for inviting me along.

Here are the recordings from the two workshops.  In both, we used the same technique of workshopping Jessie J's 'Price Tag' and then changing everything except the chord progression.

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Sunday, 4 March 2012
Trinity Rock & Pop Workshops

I know that I've already posted about Trinity Rock & Pop a couple of times but, at the end of my last blog entry, I noted that I would be attending one of their workshop sessions.  I attended the session at Chamberlain Music in Haslemere on 2nd March 2012.  First up, I have to give credit to all of the staff at Chamberlain Music, who were very helpful and remarkably friendly on what must have been a long day for them.  Credit also needs to go to the representatives from Trinity Rock & Pop, David Bobby and George Double, who were incredibly approachable and honest in their approach to the whole session.  

Before the session

Regular readers will be aware that I'm currently redesigning my Key Stage 3 Scheme of Work with a focus on using traditional music performance grades as part of the scheme of assessment, so it will probably come as no surprise that I was eager to learn more about this new set of exams and the resources that would be published to accompany them.  It was particularly interesting to me that Trinity Rock & Pop is focused on using well known pieces of popular music that include vocal tracks in the backing track CD.  Anyone that has ever taken the (fantastic) RockSchool graded exams will know that the material used has been specially composed for the examination and doesn't include a vocal part.  This is with the exception of their vocal grades, which take the same approach as Trinity Rock & Pop (using existing material).  These pieces are perfectly suited to the difficulty level required for each grade and covers the specifics of each style without the learner having to trudge through lots of repeated material due to the repetitive structure of many pieces of popular music.  

When I first discovered that Trinity had abandoned this in favour of using established repertoire, I was a little concerned that candidates would find themselves playing the same four bar chord progression over and over until they got to a guitar/keys/bass/drums solo.  Although this would represent much of the reality involved in playing one of these instruments in the real world (chord, chord, chord, chord, fill, chord, chord...), I wasn't entirely convinced that it was appropriate for a graded exam.  

That said, I thought that the use of this material would be a big motivating factor for many pupils because they recognise the piece or even just the simple fact that they like playing songs rather than instrumentals.  I have many pupils in my school that would be excited to play their part along to a CD that includes a singer.  As a result, I was eager to see more of what was on offer but I certainly wasn't ready to part with (the school's) cash.  


One of the first things that jumped out at me when David Bobby played us the first song and put the sheet music on the projector was that my concerns about lots of unnecessary repetition were pretty much put to bed.  The pieces that the candidates will perform are not straight transcriptions of the original recording but are an arrangement that is designed to sound like the record but present it in a manner that is suitable for the grade in both challenge and structure.  Most of the early grade pieces are just one page long (two for keyboards - curse that extra hand) and include both some work that is accompaniment and some that is focused on the instrument itself.  My main fear was instantly put to rest here and it also provided a better explanation for the Trinity/RockSchool vocal grade discrepancies than Nicholas Keyworth provided me with last week.  

It's also worth noting that some of the keyboard arrangements, especially at the lower grades, don't include a voice track on the accompanying CD so as to allow the candidate to take on the lead line, providing more of a challenge.  When entering three pieces for the exam, it is likely that the candidate would mix both accompaniment and lead roles, which seems quite sensible to me as 'real world training'.  

Looking at the arrangements for various instruments, it seemed to me that Trinity's staff have done a good job of matching existing repertoire to each grade in a manner that is consistent with other exam boards.  

What, no scales?

A feature of the exam that is likely to stand out is that there is no specific part of the exam where candidates will perform scales or arpeggios.  Instead, there is a 'Technical Focus Song' for each grade, which must be included in the performance.  This gives the examiner the opportunity to check that the candidates have genuinely mastered certain elements of playing their instrument and these are explicitly stated in the guidance for each of these pieces.  The emphasis here tends to be on playing techniques and not on music theory concepts such as scales, etc.  Part of me likes this idea and, in the higher graded examples that we were shown, it appears to work quite well (which gave me food for thought in terms of adding this to what I do in the classroom).  On reflection, however, I feel that some of the lower graded pieces are looking at techniques that, whilst vital, could be assessed in any piece and that it wouldn't always be possible to check that candidates have mastery of the expectations that a specific grade would usually imply.  As a result, at this stage I'd be happy to consider a Trinity Rock & Pop grade a good measure of someone's playing ability but I wouldn't be so certain of how secure their theory knowledge is. 

What I did like was the alternative to sight reading that is provided.  Candidates can choose to improvise over a chord progression (very similar to RockSchool) or can choose to do a 'Playback' piece.  This seemed like a great little idea to me.  The examiner will present the candidate with a score and give them thirty seconds to read it, this score has a musical phrase followed by an equal number of blank bars.  The idea is that the candidate will hear the musical phrase and must then play this phrase back straightaway.  Slightly unusually, this is completed over a backing track that doesn't stop between each play.  The candidate gets one unassessed attempt and then the track starts again and the examiner pays attention.  The reason that this appeals to me is that the reality of being a session player these days rarely involves playing a piece straight from the dots.  You will probably hear a MIDI version of your part, whilst reading any score that you've been presented with and then it's time to play.  Within the confines of an exam, this is probably as close to that experience as you're going to get.  

Using these resources in school

By the time we got to the break, I was sufficiently impressed with the resources that were presented that I purchased all of the books that have been published (that's grades initial, one and two for voice, guitar, keys, bass and drum kit).  This wasn't just motivated by my new KS3 SoW but also by how useful these pieces would be at KS4.  It's often a nightmare for anyone teaching GCSE Music to find suitable pieces for rock & pop instruments that take care of both the solo and ensemble requirements of the exam board but here is a whole host of material that provides you with pieces that are perfect for GCSE ensemble performances.  So, a well stocked Music Department could make use of a RockSchool piece for solo performance and a Trinity Rock & Pop piece for ensemble - job done.  No more spending your weekend transcribing the part that a bass player is doing (Ever tried finding bass scores for popular songs anywhere else?  Goodbye social life.).  No more cutting up or Sibelius-ing a guitar score so that it doesn't include that ridiculously difficult guitar solo.  No more educated(?) guessing of what AQA/Edexcel/OCR/WJEC will consider the difficulty level to be.  The use of material from both exam boards is quite simply a gift (okay, a gift that I spent over £160 on... but a gift nonetheless).  

Not teaching GCSE?  No worries, I think that's an excellent choice!  Performance  BTEC or RSL Music Practitioner candidates now have a whole host of options to choose from when performing (combine ABRSM, Trinity, RockSchool, LCM and Trinity Rock & Pop - could you really ask for more).  Even better, David Bobby assured us that this repertoire would be continually expanding using the board's new download store, which gives you sheet music, tips, a demo track and a backing track for £2.99 a song.  There's just no competition to that in terms of quality and pricing; you'd be lucky to find just the dots for that. Okay, some of the song choices are a little bit twee, especially early on ('I Am the Music Man' instantly comes to mind), but there's some very recent stuff in there too ('Dollar', 'Price Tag', etc). 

This really is a great opportunity for schools to make use of some fantastic resources even if you never put any of your pupils in for the graded exam itself.  If you do decide to put a reasonable number of pupils in for the exam, then Trinity will be willing to send an examiner to you (on request, they'll even send an examiner trained for both their traditional exams and Rock & Pop).  I'm not certain if I'll end up going down this route but I'll certainly be keeping an eye on the publications.  

Moving forward...

So, now I'm here with a bunch of resources that need to be integrated into my department's work and the new framework that I'm busily setting up.  It's been a big relief to see that this material has been published as I'm doing this, which is allowing me to keep a larger element of pupil choice than I thought may be the case.  Since resources have only been published up to grade 2 (apparently grade 3 is done but there was some delay dispatching), I'll be keeping my eye on the publication datesso that I can have everything up to at least grade 5 (see here for why). Has anyone else looked into these courses and come to similar/vastly different conclusions?  I'd be really interested to hear from you if you have.

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