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.
Organized chaos occurs on a daily basis in the South High guitar rooms. If you were to come into my room, you might find students working in pairs, groups of 3-4, or by themselves. You might find me working with individuals, mediating groups, or just sitting back and observing the learning that is occurring. Once in a while I may need to re-direct students to the task, but the generally rule of thumb is 80-20. Meaning, 80% of the time the students are on task, focused, and engaging in learning. 80% is a solid number and I think most them achieve that.
Today, I was inspired by the 6th hour class to start writing this blog. I am literally writing this entry while they are working in groups to put together a song. We have been working on "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons. Yesterday they listened to the song, and, as individuals, came up with their own strumming patterns. Volunteers from each class shared their patterns and we learned them from the students. I came up with an easy bass line. Today, they are working in groups to put the patterns together so they make a cohesive whole. So, one person is playing a bass line and others are creating or re-creating the strumming patterns we learned. I am watching students take on leadership roles in their groups, and other contribute their ideas. I am watching two young men work together. One young man who has struggled to find his place in class mentor another young man who has missed so much class that I barely know him. The mentor is an excellent teacher!! I am watching four girls who speak four different languages work together to figure out the song. It is really incredible. I am just sitting back and observing and watching the learning take place.
What happens when we get out of the way and let students experiment? There are eighteen different students in this class, eighteen different musical backgrounds, and eighteen different learning styles. These students are sometimes much better teachers than we will ever be, and it is important to let them take on that role.
"Remember focus on the music. Listen to what you are playing."-WOW. That just came from a student who has never had any "formal" music training. That's amazing. That is beautiful and so encouraging. I am going to steal that from him.
Is it program numbers? Awards? Festival ratings? Awards you receive from various advocacy groups touting your program's numbers, awards, festival ratings? It seems that this is what we (the music education profession) deems to be "successful" in K-12 music education. I recently read an article that suggested what successful guitar programs teach their students. That sentence in itself seems problematic to me. Are the programs teaching? In all of this, where are the students? What role do the students play in all of this?
I have found that highly successful guitar classes and programs will cover similar fundamental performance techniques and employ a lot of notated music reading (solo & ensemble) to push and challenge students.
This begs the question, what does "successful" even mean? A quick search for the definition reveals the following definitions:
1)the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals;
2) the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like;
3) a performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors;
4) a person or thing that has had success, as measured by attainment of goals, wealth, etc.
It seems to me that in general that our profession tends to promote success as defined by a mash-up of these definitions. As educators, we have goals for our students and hopefully, we share these goals and involve the students in the goal-making. Ideally, the goals should come from the students first and we help them get there. But if this is what it means to see success, for the students to succeed, why are we not reading about their accomplishments? Why am I reading more about the teachers' accomplishments? This is not to dismiss the hard work that teachers do, we work our asses off, no doubt about that. But why? Do we work our butts off to receive awards, or do we work our butts off to watch the students struggle with a musical problem, only to work through the problem themselves and possibly others, and come out with a better understanding on the other side?
So, back to the quote that I posted. The program that was highlighted in this article is VERY different than the 'program' at South High. The program highlighted comes from a performance driven program, which is 100% ok and has lots of benefits for students. However, as someone who facilitates guitar experiences in my class, I wonder what the consequences are with a statement that suggests that if one does not employ these techniques for teaching guitar, is that program "less successful"? I doubt that is what the author intended, but it caused me some panic as to how I facilitate guitar experiences at South. We don't do anything that the article suggests, but I feel that the experiences that the students have with guitar are just as important and can encourage music making beyond the classroom. But we don't focus on traditional notation. While we do spend about a week with basic theory, the majority of what we do in class is what I would like to consider "functional guitar". I consider the class to be a successful experience if, by the end of the semester, the students have a better understanding of guitar through multiple experiences that include creative projects such as song writing and cover projects. Through those experiences they will learn the beauty of music making with others, but also develop some sort of vocabulary that will allow them to communicate musically through playing guitar.
If I may be so bold as to share a very cool experience that the Guitar 2 students had last week. We went to a recording studio at McNally Smith College of Music and the students spent all day recording covers and originals that will eventually be uploaded to Bandcamp where they will be available for a sliding scale donation. All proceeds will be going to a relief fund for victims of recent natural disasters. The students did ALL the work. I just sat back for 8 hours and watched them collaborate, work together, problem solve, and make music. It was incredible. Not once did they ask me for help. Today we got the tracks from the studio and the students started mixing their tracks in Garageband. The only thing I really needed to do was show them how to open a zip file. From there they just started experimenting with the program to learn how it works. I had thought about creating a tutorial, but there are enough students in the class that have worked with Garageband that I was confident they could work with each other. And they did. Again. Without me. Is that success? I don't know. I *think* it is. The album itself is not the success. It is what the students have experienced in the past month to put that album together that makes it a "success".
Perhaps it is my own selfish desires to relive my teenage years (really? who REALLY wants to go through that mess??). But yesterday, something incredible happened in the "Music in America: Hip Hop, Rock, and Beyond" (M.I.A) class that I facilitate. But to put things in context, allow me to back up a bit...
Last year I envisioned a class that focused less on learning how to play an instrument and performing/creating and more about the discussion of music and how society and music are extremely intertwined. Not every student has a interest in learning instruments, OR, they are music junkies and love just talking about music. I wanted to facilitate a class that would appeal to these students. I considered the student population that I work with and how I might be able to address these varied interests, so I created this class. (The title is not mine....that was the "teaching and learning" department). Anyhoo...this semester has been very interesting for a variety of reasons. About half the class signed up to be in the class and has been incredibly engaged with discussions, projects, readings....etc. The other half of the class was "put" in the the class to "fill spots" and because "they needed a place to go". In other words, we don't have enough electives during this particular hour for students. SO, that has been challenging at times. At the beginning of the semester I had to advocate for several students because they were absolutely Level 1 ELL students, meaning they had no English skills. This class was completely inappropriate for them, BUT I got them into guitar and we are happily strumming along together. Some students still struggle with the readings as they are still learning the language, and they aren't able to "read between the lines" in terms of the lyrical content, but that is ok. They are working on their language skills and that is important too. I have learned how to adapt reading guides and create EL tests that require more basic skills versus critical thinking skills.
So, at times it has been frustrating and I have, on several occasions, found myself lamenting about the seeming "divide" between engaged and non-engaged students to my colleagues. My office-mate and choir colleague offered some words that have resonated with me and have helped me negotiate this feeling of failure. She suggested that so often we are concerned with incorporating students' cultures into our classroom that we miss that we are also teaching about our own culture as well, AND THAT THIS IS OK!!! This is especially ok with music. Students who are new to our country are trying to figure out what it means to be a teen in this world and there are new phrases and new sounds and what better way to experience that through music? Now...that is not to say that I have not utilized their expertise on Somali music or Ecuadorian music. I am not familiar with their music, so they have certainly educated us in the ways in which music is used in their cultures and what it means to them as young men and women. But to what my colleague was saying, even if the students were not "actively participating" in the experience doesn't mean they weren't gaining something from it The learning might just look different.
So, on to yesterday. We have been working our way through this "Seattle Sound" unit and of course we studied Nirvana. Guitar is an important part of this music and in American culture, so why not learn how to play a tune? I broke the class up into three groups. I worked with students who had never played guitar (and for some, never had touched an instrument before) and taught them a simple bass line. There are some students who were comfortable and well-versed in power chords/barre chords and they worked with the other students. It was amazing. Karen Howard, from the University of St. Thomas was in my classroom observing and caught it all on video. I told her before hand "I have no idea how this is going to go. It could be awesome or it could completely flop." It was beyond my wildest imagination. Seriously. Watch the whole thing. This was 100% unplanned. To quote a student: "We aren't supposed to do this in school, but we just did."
It's been a while. I started this post on March 2nd. Something must have happened that day or week to cause me to pause and consider my role as an educator. What is the role of music education in students' lives? What is the role of music education in MY life? Recently it has been so much bigger than the content that we are often so concerned with "passing on" to the students with whom we work. These students have taught me A LOT this year. I have grown more in the past two years as an educator as a result of the experiences that the students have brought into the classroom. It has been a humbling, and truly rewarding experience.
There is a student who is a selective mute who was in guitar last year and last spring, but needs to fulfill credits in other classes. He regularly checks in with me to show me some of he music that he is writing and it is inspiring. This is all music he has created, without any help from me. I suppose the one thing that I did do was create a space for him to feel comfortable, without the need to talk. It causes me to pause what it means to choose to not speak, for whatever reason, and find communication only through written word, music, and visual arts.
A student came to me at the beginning of second semester to thank me for teaching her guitar. She came to class very reserved, careful to speak in front of her peers. However, she performed solo guitar and singing at the school talent show. She share with me had it not been for my class, the encouragement, I provided, as well as a space to create and be ok with mistakes, that she never would have tried out for the talent show. That was amazing to me.
What is the role of music in our lives? How are we encouraging students to bring their music in the classrooms and share with us their culture? How are we embracing this to the fullest, by putting away our preconceived notions of what music education *should* be versus what it *could* be.
In my hip hop/rock/whatever class we are working through a unit on Grunge music. OF COURSE we are going to be learning about Nirvana. Guitar is a super important part of music, so why not try it out for a few days?? I suck at bar chords, but I have students who are great at it, so why not pass over the role of 'teacher" or facilitator to the students? That's the plan and they are looking forward to sharing their understanding of guitar with students who may have never played an instrument before. I think it will be fun. Twenty-five acoustic guitars rocking out to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? Why not?!
And why not? Really, What is the worse thing that could happen? We sound crappy? Well, that is ok. We learn from the experience? Even better? Perhaps some kiddos think, "hey, this is neat, I want to learn more guitar". #whatifmusiced
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......)
I am the first to admit-I am not a guitarist by any standard. It's a good thing that in my interview my beautiful colleagues didn't ask me to play or inquire about my guitar studies, because there are none. They were more interested in working with someone who wanted to build up the program.
I am sure that I would be able to share much more with my students had I taken lessons or was able to play some amazing licks on guitar, but as it stands, my guitar skills are not impressive compared to some of my friends and colleagues. That being said, my "informal" training has actual been a benefit to my teaching, at least I think it has been a benefit. Guitar seems to be a very community based instrument-one that you can play and sort-of have a conversation, or sing silly lyrics, or serious lyrics. It takes some concentration (students are understanding this as we learn about shifting chords and strumming patterns) but overall, it is an instrument that can really bring people together.
My approach to guitar is completely different than my approach to guitar last year. This year we are more about community. We start each morning off with a conversation, we sit in a circle (this is more due to the size of the room, but also so I can sit with the students, rather than be at the front of the room) and we work together. There is a lot of independent or small group time to practice, but most days we end the day jamming.
This week and next week, our focus has been on how music brings people together. We start each week with a quote and we have a discussion about the quote. We then have a chalkboard question which is a question (on a chalkboard in the hallway) that the students answer. This week's quote was:
Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.
We discussed at length the elements of music and how they bring order of what could seemingly be chaos. But we also talked about how music can bring a sense of calm to a life of chaos. So the chalkboard question was:
The whole purpose of this was to set up a conversation about Bob Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind", which we worked on this week. On Monday we didn't even get our guitars out. We listened to the 1963 recording of Dylan singing the song, then had a group discussion about what was going on in the world at the time and what is going on in the world today. Then students engaged in a silent discussion activity regarding the lyrics.
Students were extremely thoughtful in their responses. At the end of the second round (some classes did a third round of exchanges) each group got their original paper back, discussed the additions made and shared some of the responses. This is a great activity for all students, but especially those students who aren't as comfortable sharing their thoughts through their voice. It was a super healthy conversation and something that our students desire. One interesting observation, which is a sign of the times, many students were concerned about Dylan's use of the word "man" in the lines: "How many roads must a man walk down, before he is called a man?" There was a big discussion of gender and masculinity. I pushed back a bit, encouraging the students to think as if they were in 1963 and what "man" may have meant then as opposed to the gender-norm conversations that are surrounding us today (which are good conversations as well!). It was an interesting shift in perspectives and one I was proud of my students for recognizing!
The end product was our "gallery" of our discussions. These will remain for the next week as we start our song writing project: revising Dylan's lyrics to ask questions about events happening today. Same chords, same melody, maybe some of the same questions....but with new words. VERY excited to see what happens!
Blowin' in the Wind-Bob Dylan
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind