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Performance Vs Technique

Hiatus Over. I return with a video I have been using recently with classes in an attempt to whet their appetites for what is possible when you start to enjoy performing.

Here we see part comedian-part juggler Michael Davis performing his routine with a mastery of comic timing and pitch perfect audience reads, but more importantly performing what is essentially one trick. He gets maximum value from a limited amount of technique. As a juggler my self I can verify.

I’m genuinely fascinated by this performance all the same. Here’s a guy who can hold a crowd juggling just one ball. That’s like getting a round of applause for a G major triad.  It reminds me what learning to play an instrument or sing a song is all about. We do it to entertain.  We can too easily get our pupils hung up on how well they play something or how accurate it sounds. We even Level them against accuracy. We can easily forget that performance is in essence entertainment. We should remember to encourage them all to engage in performance with more than their technical prowess and get them thinking what else they might have to offer.

Teenagers are a self conscious bunch and can be a nightmare to motivate into performance tasks, but I’ve found this resource useful in giving a fresh view of performance. One group of Y9 girls in particular showed a huge improvement with their emotional connection to their own work. They were really into their performance, despite the simplicity of what they were playing.

So remember. Don’t let what you can’t do hold you back from putting on a good show!


RCS #3 …..and we’re off!

This term is going to see a real push in my practice to get pupils more practical in lessons. Poor behaviour and tight school expectations seem to have led me away from my utopian dream of the perfect classroom. So it is with this in mind I plunge back into school and the best opportunity to get some real music made through the Roland Champion Schools program.

And so far so good. The week before the half term break (in which a trip to Canada led to the mini blog hiatus) saw me get my hands dirty for the first time and letting the Y9′s have a go on the Roland equipment now set up in the classroom. I spent the night before setting up the mixer and loop pedal to allow me to model the performance they had been working on with each of the instruments. It was an easy set up with a 24 track mixer, but any mixer with an Aux send (that’s to go to the loop pedal. Confused yet?) would work just as well.

This video was taken by a pupil and has subsequently come in handy as a listening task with the KS3 to show them what they might be doing. The performance shows clearly the role of each instrument and the different parts that are added, it also got the pupils even more eager to give it a go. I look a bit serious and it might have been better with a but of narrative, but I guess that’s the nerves. It’s still a bit scary!

Then the real hard work started as the pupils took to the ‘stage’ and put their still rather under developed ensemble skills to the test. The pupils were focused and working hard but as we got on the instruments and started playing together I could see the drummers starting to struggle. Their instruments could only be heard through main speakers so when everyone was playing at the same time it was impossible for them to hear their own part. This is hard for even a trained musician let alone a y9 pupil. The timing was all over the place so it took a good 1o-15 mins with them alone to get it together.There a number of things that had I realised earlier would have helped. Having individual amps for each instrument is one thing I’m going to try, as is a sectional rehearsal with the drummers alone in their own space would have helped. As it was we had to work through it and to the pupils credit, they kept at it.

So a mixed bag as far as a first session goes, but a huge learning curve for both them and me. Lots of good ideas for how to run this with KS3, so more to follow!




educreations: Yes We Khan!

Let's hope Khan doesn't do an Obama
Great. Just when I was trying to switch off and remove myself from what was the madness of the last few weeks of term, I fell across a new App for my iPad, educreations.   I had plans, distractions, games, loads of things that were going to take my mind off school for at least a week. While catching up on HBO shows, battling the criminal underworld of Gotham City and getting my fingers around some nasty jazz chords, the ideas for educreations just wouldn’t go away.


What I have discovered is an interactive whiteboard that can record annotations with audio and create a video for you. If you haven’t seen or heard of Khan Academy (where have you been!?) check this out. For those who already know this, yeah, that. That’s what educreations does.


I have finally given a day to getting to grips with this and seeing what I could come up with for next term. And here they are…


All the backgrounds were designed on Prezi, so I can have the lesson there as backup. To get the images I took a screen shot on the iPad Prezi App (this has been an increasingly useful technique) and then just drop them straight in. Perfect if like me you struggle with hand writing and spelling!
All videos are shared on a cloud so, in the same way as Prezi, a community is forming where videos can be shared. I emailed some feedback and questions to Eductrations, and they answered all questions straight away. I was even directed to the feedback page where votes are taken to prioritise what issue they tackle first. A useful feature for such a new App, very democratic.
As soon as I’m back in school, I’ll be able to find out how this is going to work in a practical setting. In the mean time, my planning has just got a lot more interesting!




Boy’s don’t sing? My problem with Gareth Malone

I came across this video and can vaguely remember this program airing. I have sinse seen other attempts by Gareth Malone  to reinvigorate interest in singing through rather bland and shortsighted initiatives. I saw that he recently won tv awards for his most recent show and thought it was about time a shed some light on these straight ‘for telly’ attempts to rekindle the old choir.

Firstly is the rather poposterous title, ‘boy’s don’t sing’. What nonsense. They may not come to your quaint choir rehearsals Gareth, but that should not be the yard stick by which all ‘singing’ is measured.  Have you ever seen a goup of boys together in their comfort zone? They sing all the time. What they don’t do so often is join clubs, take lessons or join choirs. Gareth seems to have simply fabricated a nonexistent issue to support his own agenda, and give him a reason to get green lighted from the BBC. Boys tend not to join choirs because it doesn’t reflect their own view of what singing is or should be.

'Here we go!' He mouths in a slightly sinister manner before charging through 'Stand by me' at an insane tempo

I agree that it would be superb to get more singing groups in school, and help give pupils the confidence to sing, perform and create, but this apathy towards it is by no means exclusive to boys. Girls are just as self conscious, shy, or disinterested, but as they don’t go through the change of having their voice break and having to relearn vocal control all over again.

And what is Gareth’s secret weapon to address this ‘epidemic’? Send in the Beeb with a bunch of cameras, a choir leader, a ton of time and resources, ad full symphony orchestra and a packed out Albert Hall. The point of all this being being what exactly?

This would be much like an attempt to get more girls into football by getting them a professional manager, full training facility, round the clock fitness team and a game at Wembley stadium. It would make great telly, but as for any enduring contribution to female football, it would be a complete farce. Just a colossal Waist of time and money.

The issue with this type of program is they totally over look the real issue, and take for granted all the real work that goes into teaching and engaging young people in music. If this was done within regular school hours or after school club with the usual school hall performance at the end of term, then I would respect this. But this is just another misjudged approach from a music traditionalist that misses all the targets good music education is aiming for.

Boys WILL and DO sing. If they don’t they should still be encouraged to experience music through the rest of the spectrum, and possibly get even get more from it.

What are we expected to learn from this? What is the message? That if you want to get boys to sing you can,  just get the good ol’ beeb involved and a healthy budget. Gareth seems to be positioning himself to do for Music Ed what Jamie Oliver did for school meals. At least Jamie showed how school canteens could feesably make the changes they needed. What Gareth has done here is the equivalent of bringing in mitchelin star chefs and top quality ingredients and saying school dinners can be healthy and tasty. In doing this, Mr Malone has completely undermined the work that classroom music teachers accross the country do every single day.

If you want to see what getting young people involved in music looks like, go and see a Musical Futures style classroom in action, and tell me then that ‘Boy’s Don’t Song’!


How Musical Futures (and an iPhone) saved my week

As first weeks back after holiday’s go, this has been a whopper. Adjusting back to the rigors of actual work after a week of self indulgence and slobbery is always difficult, and this week I fell foul of that most dangerous of teaching pitfalls, complacency. This is  a story of redemption, however, so I will not delve into the reasons or excuses why I was complacent (I will carry the shame of this reflection alone) but suffice to say I over estimated my pupils and underestimated the importance of planning.

I had spent time over the half term going through the Musical Futures Resource Pack and found some excellent ideas in Tim Steiner’s work. The material on the DVD that accompanies the resources is very useful for showing what this work should look like in a classroom, and watching Tim conduct the group and lead them through the piece was all the more inspiring given the issues I covered in my last post. I have been using the whole class workshop model with my Y8′s this week to finish off their ‘Hu-Ta-Nay’ track. It has lead to some good results and by working with some of the warm up ideas shown in the Musical Futures resources, a high level of performance and understanding was achieved.

Then came my Y9 Btec lot and I really dropped the ball on this one. I had set them a load of research homework designed to set them up with the resources to move on with their group work. this is where my complacency became apparent. I had assumed too much and planned to little, and as a result I had the worst lesson with them all year. I left the lesson feeling hugely disappointed in myself and them, but determined to get us all back on track in the following lesson.

To achieve this feat I turned to MF’s Classroom Workshop material and knew that if this worked I would not only have my retribution, but they would have a new insight into group music making.

How did the iPhone help? Well, I have been struggling with finding the right guitar resources for this kind of activity.Google image searches always come up with some pretty ugly looking charts, and being someone who likes nice looking resources, it was clearly going to take some time.  I remembered the guitar tool kit app I had on my phone which can be set to show nicely any chord or scale on the fingerboard. I simply grabbed a screenshot of the notes and chords separately, emailed them to myself. Copy & Paste. Print. Done. Genius!

I also have a Prezi that I used that helped me build up from just using Riffs using D, to get to the full Dm chord.

Once it was clear that the task had taken off and the group were successfully working through a conducted performance, it would have been a crime to not get a recording of it for assessment in a later lesson. It’s also an important addition to the class blog I am trying to set up for the group, so again I grabbed for the iPhone, switched it to camera, and got one for the pupils to record the performance.

Here it is!


The Task Rap

I have been looking back over my posts and have realised I have not included my first exploration into modeling a task by making videos. It has cheep production values, it’s poorly edited, badly recorded and appalling performances from the leads, but it is my first effort, and it will always hold that special place that film makers have in their hearts for their first celluloid offering.

I made this last year in an effort to get the pupils working better in groups. I had been towing the department line of schemes of work loosely, and had been having little success with the usual ‘keyboard skills’ or ‘instruments of Samba’. I wanted to energise the pupils and get them more enthusiastic about being creative in lessons. It dawned on me that when modelling a task, we should be doing more as teachers to put ourselves in the same position as the pupils.

Pupils can hold themselves back in music by constantly telling themselves they ‘Can’t’ do something. They can’t sing, they can’t learn the chords, they can’t beatbox or rap.

‘Well’, I thought, ‘I’ll show them’.

As a teacher it is widely assumed that I ‘Can’t’ rap. This is, of course, nonsense as I am more than capable of stringing words together to make sentences, and if necessary deliver them with a rhythmic feel. So I can rap, but what I can’t do is rap like a rapper. I just don’t have the voice, accent or attitude to make my rapping ‘authentic’, but there is a clear distinction between that and ‘Can’t’.

So I set out to prove this and this is the result. I was delighted by the response this got in school. Word actually got out around the place that I had done this, and over a few days it had received nearly 100 hits on youtube from pupils checking it out. Even the ones I don’t teach. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this, but it showed that it had an impact. What I had managed to do was take being bad at something and use it to inspire the pupils. It made them feel like they could do the same. This is after all what the point of modeling a task is, right?



BeatBox Beltas

Its been a good 6 weeks of teaching now, so it is surely time I took a step back and have a look at the carnage that has been my teaching up until now. I can feel the struggle against the sucking quicksand of Use of Data, Quality Assurance and marking, putting Teaching and Learning further and further down the priority list.

So I was caught completely off guard when I had a group of y7 litterally blow me away today. This is a first time this has happened to me  and I am now working at trying to figure out how it happened. I think… I THINK it has been the Beat Boxing.

I have ran 2 lessons in a workshop fashion looking at the basic ‘beatbox Drum Kit’. This is an excercise I got from the Beatbox convention I attended last year at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. By starting with the words ‘Bass’, ‘Clap’ and ‘Tap’, you shorten them down, take away the vocal sound, and you are left with the percussive bare bones of the beatbox drum kit. These reflect the Bass Drum, Snare and HiHat sounds.  Check out my Prezi here for the outline of the lesson.

As part of their performance  task, I had let them form their own groups and asked them to put together their own beatbox loop. A few groups asked if they could rap or sing. Not a problem I said, as long as you are all in time with each other.

This video from the previous lesson got pupils demonstrating their listening skills by listing the instruments, sound effects and styles of music they here. I would play first without the video, so they can just listen, then show them that in fact, this is all made by the mouth. A good trick when dealing with the question…

“When do we get on the instruments?”

“Where we’re going, we don’t need….Instruments”

A group of only 2 boys started, I put a mic in front of them to up the stakes, but foolishly hadn’t taken the time to set this up for full recording. What I failed to capture was these 2 flow in and out of different tracks, all with raps, beats and even some choreography as they finished with a ‘House Party’ style back-to-back pose.

The next group of 4 boys gave me the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air in 3 parts, then a group of 4 girls took to the stage. they delivered, with all the confidence of  kids that just knew they had nailed it, and sang Lean on Me by Bill Withers. Being a huge fan of Bill, and the classic joke (How do you turn a duck into a soul singer? But it in the oven until his…) I have to say it got me. Right there.

Their efforts have earned them the first bricks on our Wall Of Greatness, ‘where great work is honoured and revered’.

What I have seen is hugely encouraging for moving further into a Musical Futures style of learning for the rest of the year.

Another useful website is INCREDIBOX.  a great fun tool for showing off the possibilities of vocal work.


Clap your hands, say yeah!

I am taking things very slowly with my Year 7′s this year. We have had three weeks of lessons that have been slowly increasing in practical, and not]w the questions are coming.

‘when will we play instruments?’

My honest answer to this is I don’t know. I have two issues with instrumental work with my Y7′s. One is conduct. When letting them go off to practice, I am pretty sure that about 50% will not do a thing. They won’t understand the task, won’t understand the instrument, or won’t have the skills to work through the challenges that learning an instrument poses. The second is ability. Without the grounding in counting, playing in time and musical communication, time spent on a keyboard is going to be wasted as they will most likely struggle with fitting this into the larger context of a group performance.

To overcome this, I am focusing tasks on vocal work such as beatboxing (Check out my PREZI here and also Clapping. I think we often stigmatise clapping as an overly simple method of engaging in music. We associate it with out earliest musical experiences, and so going back to it from Y7 may strike some as a backwards step. I would like to argue that this is not the case, and is still a wide and rich method of making interesting music. For pupils who may struggle with the more complex or technical methods, clapping can still add a huge amount to a piece of music. There is also technique to develop as shown in this clip.

This flamenco technique can easily be adapted to show pupils how to use the back beat with the high clap, and bass sounds with the lower. It can also help them have two parts going and distinguish the two easier.

That’s good to start with, but honestly, how far can you take this? Can we seriously expect them to use clapping as a legitimate backing or rhythmic foundation for their performance or group work?

Well, as we can see in this video, clapping can be pushed to some incredible levels of rhythmic support. It still baffles me how this can be maintained, and I have been a percussionist for nearly 20 years! the focus and musical understanding to make this work is of the highest caliber.

Getting pupils to value this skill and develop it will give them a tool that will allow them to fit into pretty much any musical making situation. The energy that clapping the 2′s and 4′s can create can be a valuable addition to any live performance.

Then if you have anyone really take to it, they can start working on this.


The Counting Test. Can you keep time?

I downloaded this new app yesterday and it blew my mind. I had considered making video’s like this in the past but the editing time would have been epic for such a simple and short task. Now I can shoot, record and upload in about 10 mins, and this is only the start.

These are a couple of trial ones, literally thrown together in order to try it out with my Y7′s this week. The pupils I teach are quite low ability so getting them to count and keep time was a struggle last year. I am hoping this will help illustrate how we use counting in music to hear, learn and perform rhythms.

This is the nice easy one to start….



And a slightly harder one.

As always, feel free to try these out yourselves. Any feedback is very welcome!