This past week in guitar we played with Noteflight, an online, cloud-based notation software program (I LOVE cloud based programs). We have been exploring rhythms, and how they are often represented on paper. (I say *often* because rhythmic notation is NOT universal and is just ONE way to visualize beat and sound). Of course, we practiced creating our own rhythms by jamming out in class. I would lay down a pattern and students would fill in the blanks. I actually got this idea years ago when I taught a world drumming class. This is a great way for students to create a pattern, listen to each other, and figure out how their pattern can fit into the greater groove.
Anyway, part two of learning about rhythms was to create a melody using tabs. What we have learned in guitar is that tabs often only give us part of the information. So, if you don’t know how the song goes, or don’t have access to a way to listen to the song, you might be out of luck. That being said, sometimes, and more often now, tabs are accompanied by rhythms, but they aren’t always clear as the notehead is not always shown and the difference between quarter notes and half notes can be confusing. Exhibit A:
You will notice in the second and fourth measures there are only three notes, so by process of elimination, there is a half note in there. And, we see that there is a space after the third note, so that would indicate that it is likely a half note, or a rest. But if you are just starting out, it is a little unclear, so I have the students add a rhythm line so they can see the actual rhythm. Exhibit B:
Much more clear and makes sense to the students as well. It IS a bit cluttered, but for the sake of the visualization, these has helped students visualize and internalize the pulse a bit more.
I should note that while technology can be a great tool, we cannot assume that the students that we work with are digital natives. Yes, they are on their phones and they know how to take amazing selfies, and their texting skills are top notch, but this does not mean they know how to send an email, sign-up for a program, create a log-in name and password. Those are skills that have to be taught. Understanding this, I created a tutorial that students referenced as I went through the sign-up process on my projector. Additionally, when I had students share their creations with me, I showed them step by step how to share and how to send an email. Indeed, I teach high school students, but their backgrounds are so varied that it is not safe to assume they even understand the need for email. In this time I also taught basic email etiquette.
Back to Noteflight and why I use it in class. I think it is an excellent opportunity for students to explore creating their own music. After we get settled in the first day, I just let them explore the program to get familiar with how it works. Like any computer program there are some really great aspects to it, and some clunky aspects to it. For example, in this day of good drive and automatic saving, I have to remind students about ever 10 minutes to hit the save button, otherwise their work wont’ be saved. Additionally, the presence of an “undo” button doesn’t exist, so that provides some frustration as well. But, overall, it is a lovely program.
As you will see in this video, Noteflight is a great way to double check students understanding of note values as well. I had this conversation with Kowsar during class as she was working with trying to align her Tab rhythms with the rhythmic notation. She is a very quiet young lady so I tried my best to repeat what she said.
The other thing to consider when encouraging students to create is that notation can limit what they create. Students brains have the ability to create incredibly complex ideas, but their understanding of what is going on is very limiting with relationship to putting it on paper. Some students may get frustrated with this, but I do my best to try to help them figure out whatever it is they have in their mind. Some students have great ideas that include septuplets or dotted rhythms. Rather than say, “No, we haven’t learned that” I work with them and say, “Wow!! Look at what you created! That is incredible!” And it is incredible.
Additionally, I don’t tell students what sounds good or what doesn’t. That isn’t my job. This is their creation. If they are struggling with finding the next “right note” I first encourage them to noodle around and see if they can come up with something. Then if that isn’t working for them, I might noodle around until they tell me I played something they enjoyed.
The final part of this whole project is that the students will receive a hard copy of their song and practice it and play it for me. While they are working on their creations, I encourage them to play what they have written, to make sure they can play it. I show them the tempo feature which increases or decreases the playback so they can practice along. Noteflight can be a great practice tool as well.
Creating is the bedrock of what we do in all the classes that I facilitate. It is so important to me that students walk away feeling some ownership of what they have done in class. This project elicits these feelings (along with frustration, which goes along with creating) and encourages the students to continue exploring creating on their own.
After several great weeks of groups working together to come up with their own tunes, then sharing their works-in-progress with the rest of the band, we had our first day of co-teaching and co-learning. The first groupt to go was Auguste, Meredith, Sam, and Owen. They created a 12 bar blues that is in in 6/4 and has two measures of 3/2 on the V chord. Pretty damn hip if I do say so myself. And because they were NOT notating their music, I suspect this freedom allowed them to create something a bit more involved.
SO, they started teaching the band the melody the same way that I teach ear-tunes: note by note. They played a note (well, Owen did because he felt the most confident with the tune), and the band would noodle around until they got it. Then the next note, and so on and so forth. The students would get a few notes down and then Owen would play the melody in time and in rhythm, and the band responded. It took about 15 minutes for the band to *roughly* learn the tune, which really is no time at all. We asked Owen to play it by himself so the students could record it on their devices so they can listen to it and practice it at home. By the way, I also learned this tune WITH the students. It's important to be in that same vulnerable place that the students are in to show that we too can make mistakes and it is ok.
I shared with the students that this is a really messy, uncomfortable, and chaotic chaos, but that this is LEARNING and they are doing some pretty incredible work with this project. The rhythm section is already working on a pretty great intro for this tune to make it more interesting beyond the head chart. There are three other groups so there will be a total of four originals by the bands on our Jazz Central concert. I am not sure that I know of any other jazz band that has done something like this before.
I am still trying to figure how how we might go about notating this. When we I taught the band “Equinox” this past spring, it was all by ear, including the chord changes, and they performed it without music. I *think* we could do something similar-where they create their own lead sheets, but I am not sure yet. I will have to ask them what they think they might need. (Yes, I do ask the students their opinions and what they think might work best for them.)
I offer another look into the classroom in this video. Does it sound amazing? Well, as a proud teacher who watched this unfold in about 15 minutes, I would say so, but I am biased.
November 30th update: Wouldn't you know it-we played through the tune today and it sounded even better than this video. So what that tells me is that they either listened to the tune, listened and practiced, or it incubated over the past 24 hours and some lightbulbs went off :) Yay learning!
This is an excerpt from my written comprehensive exams that I completed in the Spring of 2016.
Creativity in music education has been a hotly contested issue. Those who teach performance based classes such as band, choir, and orchestra often argue that within those ensembles, students are creating. They are creating music with their peers in a collaborative manner that produces a final product. Some educators and researchers may disagree and suggest that students and teachers in these ensembles are not creating, but rather, re-creating music. Musical decisions have been already been created by the original composer and it is the ensemble’s duty, often at the discretion of the ensemble director, to ‘realize’ those musical directions that are on the page. So, based on this generalized description, it is hard to argue that large ensembles are truly embodying the process of “creating”.
It might be wise to consider the words “creating” and “creativity” and if there is a difference between the two. “Creating” may be best defined as the act of doing, whereas “creativity” may be best understood as the thought process that initiates “creating.” So there may be “creativity” in place but perhaps the act of “creating” has not occurred. Within this debate comes in “composing”, another word that creates angst among music educators for a myriad of reasons. (Dr. Sandra Stauffer has greatly influenced my thinking on this term and rather than use "compose" in my own classrooms, I use "create" and will refer to this term versus composition.) With a push from the National Standards for educators to embrace "composing" in their ensemble classes to further students creative and creating potential, it is no wonder our profession is having the sometimes heated conversations that we are having. To some educators, playing in ensemble, as described above, is a perfectly acceptable form of creating. However, we must look deeper to the student’s individual needs to perhaps have a better understanding as to why encouraging students to compose, actively engaging the creativity process to participate in the act of creating, might be incredibly beneficial to the student as a musical being.
Research related to creating in the classroom is mostly regulated to experiences of elementary students. Something happens when students enter a large group experience and no longer have the opportunity to create. The little research on creating in secondary ensembles attempts to understand how students create in quantifiable terms (Menard, 2015). While this is useful, especially measuring comfort levels of students attitudes towards composing via a pre-test and post-test and their ability levels, I believe this potentially undermines the greater affect of the process.
Research suggests that secondary educators are resistant to creating for a variety of reason that include: time, attitude towards composing, fear of quality and lack of preparation to teach composition (Hickey 2010, Menard, 2015). Many educators fear that devoting time to creating in the performance-based classroom will take time away from performances. With this time element is an attitude that creating does not belong in the large group ensemble experience. In a past conversation with a previous colleague, I recall sharing a great experience that I had with my bands as we negotiated a creating project within the confines of the space that was afforded to us, and the colleague responded with “band should be band, if kids want to compose, they should take music theory or a composition class..” While anecdotal in nature, this opinion is not entirely uncommon and raises a whole host of issues regarding the ways in which we teach creating and who has access to those experiences. Because performance-based classes are grounded in the "traditional' expectation of high quality performances, there is a fear among educators that a lack of quality in the student compositions may be reflective in the teacher’s inability or lack of training in composition. This raises another issue in regards to teacher preparation and how colleges and universities are including creating in their studies (Stringham, 2016).
While these issues and challenges are very real and cause for concern, perhaps we can take a look at what our elementary counterparts are doing to include creating in their classrooms as a way to reinforce musical concepts. Hickey (2010) suggests that every new concept that is being taught can be reinforced through creating. This is where the word “composing” starts to raise fear in music educators. There is a mis-guided belief that in order to teach "composition" we must start with theory and our students should be creating four part chorales. In reality, creating a short rhythmic motif is a form of creation. Stringham (2016) suggests that for more advanced students, using the current repertoire in their folders as a basis for creating will foster additional understanding of musical ideas but also encourage student’s to create their own understanding of music.
The concern of time is a huge issue for music educators, especially in high school ensembles where it seems, especially in the band world, there are performances that occur monthly, if not weekly, depending on how the basketball team is doing. However, how might music educators incorporate students’ compositions into a performance? Taking the lead of colleagues at a local high school in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, I would encourage music educators to think about how they might create a unit on composition that reinforces a particular theme for the concert. For example, this particular music team (Nora Tycast and Brian Lukkasson) chooses a theme each spring; one year it was poetry, another year it was film music. Using this theme, students picked a silent film, or a piece of poetry and wrote music to accompany the film or represent the poetry. These were collaborative groups that students worked together in for two months. All of the creations were a part of the concert. The unit was embedded within the rehearsal structure so that ample time was given on music prep but also creating. When asked how this unit affected the overall performance of the ensemble, the directors both agreed that it only enhanced the experience because students became more aware of compositional decisions made by composers of the music they were playing, but it also encouraged the students to take musical risks. The directors prepared one or two fewer ensemble pieces so that the students would not feel overwhelmed by the whole process.
Allowing for these experiences encourages students to become more independent musicians. Through creating their own music, students think critically about musicial decisions and have specific reasons for the decisions they made rather than “that’s what’s on the paper”. Additionally for students who are in the large ensemble, but are more ‘section’ players versus ‘lead’ players, this allows opportunities for these students to perhaps develop a more personal musical identity. Finally, through creating music, rather than re-creating, students have the opportunity for a different musicking experience that may potentially carry with them when their large ensemble experience ends.
So, what am I doing?
We at the midpoint for the quarter and beginning band is well on our way into making musical decisions. Like I mentioned with the Hickey (2012), I use creating as a way to reinforce any sort of new concept. This entry from last year describes a bit more about what we do at the beginning of year. We are now into reading "traditional" notation. The students are doing really well and I think we are enjoying ourselves. Every couple of weeks we have "playchecks" that help inform the student and myself of how they have progressed and what they need to work on in the upcoming week. These are nice little check-ins that allow a little one on one time with the students, something that is often lost in a "large" group setting.
This upcoming week students are creating their own playchecks. Doing this allows for several observations: what is the student's understanding of what we are actually "learning". Do they really understand rhythm, or are they just using their ears? By creating their own melodies, they are demonstrating their understanding of rhythm and structure. By writing their own notes, they are demonstrating that they have an awareness of what notes their instrument can play. Then, they play their creation for me. Sometimes, not always, what they have written doesn't always translate to their instrument and that is OK! We talk, as a class, how sometimes the visual and the physical don't quite line up-that it might take our muscles (facial) to catch up to our visual. Again, it is OK! I try to not stress to much about their abilities to read music right away. I want them to have fun (what a concept, right) and encouraging them to write something that they can show off for me, encourages that. After all, isn't the whole point of participating in a communal activity such as music to have fun?
The last few weeks of the semester are approaching. My beginning band has dwindled down to a hearty ten musicians (eleven have moved over to concert band!) We have been focusing a lot on creating and arranging songs. Two weeks ago we started a pop cover tune, where small groups of students picked a pop tune, learned it by ear and then taught it to the rest of the class in a formal "teaching episode" (throw back to my TA days at ASU!!). That was a lot of fun-most of the groups just learned the hook or chorus of a tune, but they all learned it by ear and it was really fun watching them lead the group in the learning process!
This week we are focusing on arranging songs from our method book. We talked last week about melody, harmony, texture...you know, all the good things. We practiced some examples in the book and had some great discussions how to arrange. We didn't really talk about chordal theory or natural chord progressions-that isn't particularly useful at this point. But, what we did talk about is the excitement of creating and hearing it performed. So that is what we are working on this week! Each student has selected a song and is arranging it for our little band using NoteFlight. On Friday I did a little demo demonstrating the different ways in which we can arrange songs and how to manuevar the program. I was still learning at this point and had some technical difficulties (and of course, I was getting observed by my mentor...) but I think I figured it out enough to write out some concise instructions for the students. Today we went into the lab and I let the students loose! They really dug in and I am SO excited to see where these projects end up. On Friday we will be playing through the arrangements! I will share what the students come up with, but for now, here is the "worksheet" that the students are using to get them through the first couple of days.
Also, to assess where students are at each day, I am having them complete a quick exit ticket using Google Forms. I <heart> google forms. Here is an example of today's question:
A lot of what we do in the South High guitar room is based on inidvidual or group creating. We create our own lyrics, we create our own melodies, we create arrangements of songs. This week, we are taking pre-existing poems that students picked out and writing the music that will eventually turn the poetry into a song. The students were very thoughtful in the poems that they picked out and we tried to have a variety of books that students could choose from including African-American poets, female poets, Native American poets, Latino/a poets and Somali poets-which basically represents the students that come into this classroom. We wanted to have a variety of resources and eras for students to choose their poetry.
Students have learned a variety of chords and songs throughout this semester and how they work within the context of a pre-existing song. Now they are in charge of making the musical decisions about what chords to use, what strumming patterns to incorporate and the melodic flow to their song. We haven't necessarily studied these concepts in depth, but students have a basic understanding of what these are as individual components and we can discuss what a melody is, but this is a great way for students to demonstrate their understanding of melody. They are not being asked to notate it, but they will be asked to express their lyrics in some way-that can be through singing or rapping (which is a form of rhythmic melody).
As a teacher, I really enjoy how this class has unfolded this semester. The students have embraced a project-based learning approach rather than being told what to do all the time. However, rather than me sharing what I have noticed, I thought I would allow a couple students to express some of what they have learned in the class. (Excuse the loud interviewer......)
Creating access points for music education is something that South HS is pretty good at. We have a beginner band and a beginner string orchestra that meet everyday for 55 minutes. That's amazing in the high school world! It makes sense....there are beginning language courses, arts courses, remedial math and language courses, and there is usually an entry point for choir, so why not our instrumental classes. Our beginning class meet the same time as the "youngest" concert band (Concert Band) so that when students are ready, they can just move to Concert Band. There is a great group of students in beginning band....25 to be precise. Twenty-five beginning band students in high school! The challenge is to keep them engage while dealing with the intricacies of individual instrumental needs.
I think I may have figured out how to do this....finally. Now, some folks may argue up and down about this, but until someone has figured out a better way to teach transposition to beginners, while reading standardized notation, rhythms, which end is up on an instrument...and all that goes along with something new, I think I will keep doing this. Not to mention, this is much easier for those students who are also learning how to speak English. This is part of the scaffolding process that will lead into reading standard notation, which will occur next week.
Last week the students started playing their instruments. Rather than teaching them notes and rhythms first (ie, theory) we started playing first. I taught the first three notes of each instruments B-flat major scale to each group, but I didn't assign note names, just 1, 2, 3. We played around with different melodies, the students even created their own melodies (no rhythms yet). Then we added in rhythms. The numbers underneath the rhythms represent the notes. Each student, regardless of their instrument, received this same paper because I taught them the transposed notes, but as numbers. For the most part, these melodies were recognizable to the students, so they were able to attach the rhythm with what they were playing. The best part about this is that the students were playing together and experiencing success as individuals and as a group-SO important in beginning band. I also have a "rhythm" deck, so students combined different rhythms and we played through them together. Lots of opportunity for students to create, thus reinforcing what we were learning in class.
Next week students will be delving into standard notation. I intend to discuss both clefs with the students, so that they understand how they both work. Then I will hand out sheets of music that have the first six notes of the B-flat scale (number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 to the students) and we will then connect the number with the actual note. I think it will work. I HOPE it will work!
For some reason, I feel really good about my lesson planning this year. Well, I should start off by commenting that this past week was the BEST first week of school I have ever had. Things got frantic at times, but overall, it was awesome! Great classes: students are enthusiastic and incredibly kind which makes the job so much easier. But I also wonder if part of it had to do with my planning.
For many years I planned rehearsals and working towards achieving a certain sound with the groups. I do not want to dismiss that part of my life nor diminish that at all. There is tremendous work being done by music educators who work with performing groups, but I think I finally (FINALLY, after 13 years) figured out how to plan for learning. So, I am a pretty slow learner. I always have been, but my job has really transformed how I approach learning and teaching. My classes focus on learning and the sound eventually comes along with that. It makes so much sense to me and I wish I would have seen the writing on the wall so many years ago. Of course, my students learned when I was in the band classroom, but this feels different to me. I often wonder if is because there is a lack of pressure to perform at a certain level. Allowing the students to experiment with sound and creating their own music has fostered some pretty incredible learning, even within the first week of school. Last week in the guitar classes, we learned a simple melody, the chords that went along with the melody, how to de-code tab and create our own songs, all within the first four days of having a guitar in our hands. The students weren't upset that they weren't learning how to shred their favorite solo, but they were amazed at how much they learned. I was amazed at how much we learned, and we get to do it again this week!
It is likely that anyone reading this is thinking, "Seriously, Sarah, this is nothing new. You have been teaching for 14 years and you are now just figuring out how to plan for learning??" Well, this is my blog and I am still learning the ropes as well :) Considering that, I wonder how discovery and planning to learn might look like in different classrooms. Care to share?