Category Archives: musings

general thinking space!

Play with

If you were to give a toy car to a small child, what would they do with it?

img_2342Perhaps the doors open, and the bonnet? But if you open them too far, they snap off and then you can’t put them back on again! Maybe the plastic seats inside rattle a bit if you shake it. If you’re really lucky, the tyres are rubber rather than plastic, and you can take them off and chew them! And if you break the wheels, the metal axles can bend, and they’re sharp too. The paintwork chips if you drop it lots, and you can make all sorts of exciting dents in the dining room table if you bang it hard enough.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot – you can drive it along the floor too!

We can learn an immense amount from watching the way that young children play. Whilst we [wise grown-ups] generally use objects for the purpose for which they were designed, children don’t always do that. In short, they investigate. They aren’t constrained by convention or by good manners. Any sensible adult knows that a banana is for eating, but a toddler won’t think twice about squashing it and plastering their face and hair with it! Creative play is how they learn about the world.

Why should this be any different when it comes to learning to play a piece of music? We [wise teachers] know how the music goes and how the instrument works, but rather than teach our pupils how to play it, I think we need to encourage them to play with it. To take it apart, chew bits of it and then try to put it back together again!

I suspect that it’s all too common for a teacher to ask a pupil what they’ve practised this week, only to discover that what the pupil has actually done is just play. In this context, playing is not a good thing. It suggests a lack of purposeful engagement with the process, and a rather hopeful stance that simply by playing we will get better. On the other hand, the word practice is rarely a word which fills our students’ hearts with joy either! [Whilst writing this, I have just stumbled on this excellent article by Roberta Wolff, which encourages us to have a rethink about the word practice. It is well worth a read.]

In response, I’d like to offer the alternative, to play with. Whereas to play and to practice, in a musical context, both tend to imply that things need to be correct, to play with suggests almost the opposite. Just as there are no rules for a child at play, to play with a piece of music suggests that the pupil is free to make their own investigations without being so concerned about things such as right and wrong. Of course, if we are careful in our teaching we will always have things set up in a way where they will find what we want them to find!

Telling is not teaching, and the best learning comes from exploring the very limits of our experience and understanding. To finish, a short account of Evelyn Glennie’s first percussion lessons: “He sent me home with a snare drum, but no stand and no sticks. I started tapping it and pinching it and scraping it, and the next week he asked how I’d got on. I said I didn’t know. He said: “Now create the sound of a storm. Now create the sound of a whisper.” Suddenly I had this picture I had to put into sound. This opened up my world. It was the best lesson I ever had. After that it was just constant exploration.”

 

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Practice: New tools

I have just stumbled across an old blog post on practice. There are many reasons why our pupils don’t practise – busy school lives and mobile phones being the ones which spring quickly to mind – but I still believe that the biggest problem is when practice feels like a waste of time because it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

I often find myself explaining to a pupil that the practice technique which they used when they first started out – the “play it over a few times and it will get better” method – just doesn’t work any more. It was fine when their pieces were maybe a single line consisting of a few crotchets and minims, but now that they are playing music which is more complex, the “have another go” approach is simply no longer effective by itself. They need more tools.

“How are you going to practise this bit?” is a question which I ask in every lesson, often more than once. Not an instruction, “practice this bit.” It’s a question – “how?” Not delivered in a way which demands a correct answer, but rather an invitation to share ideas, together. Perhaps it’s “what could we do here?” – we need them to know that we’re just as interested in solving the problem. What we are not doing is putting our pupil on the spot and insisting that they give us a correct answer; that’s not going to help!

The difference between an instruction and a question at this point is critical, and has the potential to change the entire teaching/learning environment there and then. Because we are about to get a glimpse inside our pupil’s head, and see exactly what tools they have at their disposal.

Often the first response is that they’ll play it over a few times and hope it will get better. Notice the hope – the lack of assurance might be a hint at their underlying fear that it might not make a difference…

Ok, and what else could you try? Scarily, some students are already out of ideas, but most will come out with well, I could play it slowly. Excellent, and how does that help? If your student now draws a blank, don’t panic – this first venture into their practice world has already been extremely worthwhile! But we’ll need to ask ourselves, how on earth are they going to use their own time constructively if this is all that they have at their disposal – to play it a few times, perhaps slowly, and hope it gets better? And just as significantly, why bother? It won’t take them long to work out that practice makes little or no difference, so where is the incentive for them?

Perhaps their current tool kit consists of things which they have been told will work – repetition and slowly – but they’ve never even considered why they work. And now these techniques don’t seem to work, so maybe it’s me, maybe I’m just no good. Again, with such a bleak outlook, why bother?

We need to persuade them to be just a little bit more inquisitive. So here goes, a gentle nudge – come on, why does playing slowly help? …. Because it gives me more time to think about what’s coming next? Hooray!

It may be that, with this pupil, you’ve done enough tough questioning for one lesson! That single answer has opened a door and will allow you to discuss the merits of having enough thinking time to play fluently, and to explain why slow practice can be good, rather than just state that it is good. We have given them one small but achievable new strategy – in this instance just a hint at the idea that thinking ahead can be useful.

 

Above all, we need to talk about practice in our lessons. A lot.
How was your practice this week?
Has it made a difference?
Why don’t you think that worked?
What else could you try?
How are you going to practise this bit this week?
All of these are questions which both the teacher and the pupil need the answers to. The teacher, so that we can guide them towards ever better strategies, and our pupils, so that they are building an increasingly effective set of practice skills which will, in time, equip them with everything they need to succeed. Practice will become a series of challenges which they know they can overcome, and above all, they will be able to see that their efforts make a difference.

I believe that, other factors aside, there is a direct correlation between knowing that practice is effective, and time spent doing it. Worth thinking about!

Gentle encouragement

A tale in two parts:

Our informal concerts at Monkton are just that – informal, a safe space for our pupils to venture into the realms of performing to a small audience.

Lunchtime Concert pupils 2In a world which is increasingly obsessed with perfection, it can be difficult for our young people to step up. Recently I asked a pupil whether he would play in a lunchtime concert, and his response was a very firm ‘No, I can’t’. When I enquired a little further, he was absolutely adamant that he is not good enough. I could see that he was clearly troubled, so I quickly withdrew the invitation – ‘don’t worry, nobody’s going to make you play in a concert if you don’t want to’.

I caught up with him again in his saxophone lesson a few days later. He’s a great lad – in the past few months he has ‘discovered’ practice, and that it works! Since then he has made really significant progress, and he has started going along to Concert Band too. A real success story.

I pointed out to to him that it is his teacher’s job to sort out problems – squeaky notes, dodgy rhythm etc. But that the average listener would quite simply respond with ‘Hey, I didn’t know you could play the sax, that was great.’ I reiterated that nobody is going to force him to play in a concert; finding your own voice means deciding for yourself that you want to do something, and I have all too often seen the disastrous results of a child being forced to perform in a concert. Why would you do that to someone? However, I did tell him that it was my hope that at some point he would find the courage within himself, and push himself up onto that stage. Even if it took another two years for him to get to that point…

He came to find me five minutes later to say that he wanted to play in the next concert! What a star – that will have taken him real courage.

Part two:

Last week I was guest adjudicator at a prep school music competition. The first class was a song class and unfortunately one girl (aged 11/12?) forgot her words mid-song. I’m pretty sure that half of the audience of parents were quietly singing along with the solo piano to help her to pick up the words again, me included! Despite welling up, she maintained her composure until the end, but my heart went out to her – such a traumatic experience.

The next class was the woodwind class,  and the same girl played her flute beautifully. Nice recovery. And in the final class of the morning, I’m pretty sure that she was a part of as many as four ensemble items, and ended up winning the class, and deservedly so! I guess her day turned out okay after all!

I was bowled over by this little girl’s resilience. Her final performance was so engaging, and she had clearly heeded my advice in that first class of the morning, despite being so upset. Surely a star of the future, if not in singing then in life!

Finding courage

I remember a piano pupil, many years ago now, who wouldn’t sing in her lessons. I tried week after week, ever so gently, to try to persuade her to sing even the quietest of notes, but the more I tried the more of an ordeal it became for her. She came close several times, and I do believe that she wanted to – but in the end she just couldn’t bring herself to make a sound. Like getting to the end of the diving board but ultimately lacking the courage to take the plunge…diving2

Due to the whole of year 9 being away on a trip, only five year 10 girls came along to the Choir who won’t sing rehearsal last week, a group of five good friends. All exhibited the very same tendency described above, something which I have seen countless times in girls ever since. When I asked one of them to sing, her first response was to turn to her friend and say ‘No, you go first.’ No, you go first.‘ And so on. Eventually, one of them managed to sing back a note: it was almost inaudible, but a triumph nonetheless. Each in turn summoned up the courage, except for the one who was quite clear that she couldn’t sing – at which point one of the others produced a video on her phone of the girl singing along with her friends, full voice, to a pop song! Her cover blown, and with assurance from me that this was evidence that she could sing, she too sang a very quiet note back to me. Success!

Fifteen minutes later they were all singing Somewhere over the rainbow at the tops of their voices, faces about three inches from each other, and loving every moment of it. Perhaps they’d forgotten that I was there. Or perhaps they’d jumped off the diving board and realised that actually this was really good fun after all.

These girls love to sing together. But ask them to sing to each other and everything changes. Singing together draws us closer, but singing alone instantly invites judgement from others, and that is a scary place for the huge majority of teenage girls – even, it seems, amongst good friends. This choir isn’t really about the singing, because I know, and they know, that they can sing. It’s about finding the courage to be an individual when life is saying it’s safer to keep your head down.

One of the two pupils in my original tone deaf project, when I asked her why she wanted to be able to sing, said this: I reckon if I can sing in front of someone, I can do anything. My hope is that in time the choir will become a place where more girls can realise this particular dream. In the meantime, Alex, here are five more!

Singing update: we’re making progress

It’s been ages since I’ve posted a blog here. Why? Well, partly I guess because as a music department develops, there will be times when it is just a question of allowing time for things to bed down and become established. There has been a lot of change, and looking back, the past year has been a great time as we have watched so many things taking shape. And also, it’s just been ridiculously busy and there is only so much that one can do….!

Always a worry at the beginning of the new academic year is what state the whole school singing will be in. Our outgoing year 13 gave a great lead in this regard, not least in supporting the Choir who can’t sing in great numbers. Singing in Chapel at the end of last term reached a seven year high, and fortunately the year below have realised what a fine legacy we have built up, and they have managed to maintain the energy into this new year.

And so to House Music last Saturday. For the first time, all four boys houses put forward a House Choir of real quality; all choirs in at least three parts, sung sensitively and with evident enjoyment by the most unlikely of boys across the school. Something has happened here – it really is perfectly acceptable for pupils to sing, and to take pride in singing at Monkton.

farm-hm

Needless to say, the girls’ choirs in House Music were excellent. So then, why is it that in Chapel the boys sing with commitment and enthusiasm, whilst on the whole the girls don’t?

Part of the reason, I fear, is due to me having spent the best part of five years focusing on boys’ singing! The starting point was that boys can’t sing, or don’t know how to sing, and I really do think that through the Choir who can’t sing we have gone a long way to disapproving that in a way which is very clear for the whole school to see. The boys’ choirs in House Music have shown that ordinary, not particularly musical boys can sing, and sing well, and the majority have come to the conclusion that they can too. And they’ve proved themselves right. In fact, no boy at Monkton really has a leg to stand on in arguing against this case now.

This positive attitude to singing  is spreading fast this term. In our year 9 classes we have already – in week five – broken through the traditional non-singing attitude of young teenagers. They are new into the school, but having experienced House Music first hand they already seem quite happy to assume that singing is fine, and they’re getting on with it, boys and girls together in class. Here comes the sun [complete with ukuleles!] And it doesn’t end there: today the entire play cast for this term’s senior production came together to learn a vocal arrangement in four part harmony. Nobody tried to sell me the ‘I can’t sing, sir’ line – they just got on with it.

Nevertheless, there is no doubting that in my enthusiasm to get the boys singing, I haven’t really asked the same question of the girls. In fact, I had kind of assumed that girls can sing. But actually, some of them can’t. And many of them won’t. Enter the Choir who won’t sing! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure this is going to work. We had our first rehearsal last week, with about 16 girls, and one of the girls just wouldn’t sing. [For the others, we started by spreading out in the room, closing eyes, and turning around very slowly as we sung, so that nobody would be able to identify who was singing what.] But I found myself getting quite frustrated with our non-singer. I asked her if she could scream – she said yes. But she wouldn’t!! But then again, that is exactly the kind of pupil who I am keen to get alongside; for whatever reason, she doesn’t feel able to express herself with her voice, and it’s very unlikely to be a musical or even a vocal problem, and very much more likely to do with her self-esteem. Enabling every pupil to find their own voice. My hope is – and it may take another five years – that this new choir might be able to do the same for the girls as the boys’ equivalent has. If it does, our pupils at Monkton will have found something very special indeed.

Cambiata – the changing voice

Here’s the next chapter in my desire to enable every pupil to find their own voice. The last few weeks have seen an amazing series of personal discoveries, largely through reading some of Dr Martin Ashley’s extensive research both here and in his book Singing in the Lower Secondary School. Don’t be put off by what sounds like a rather unexciting title – this is a must read for everyone who teaches music. The issue – how to keep boys singing.

Voices don’t break, they change. The problems with getting 13/14 year olds singing are numerous – it’s embarrassing, it’s not cool, and many claim not to be able to sing. But actually, that last claim is quite legitimate. As the voice changes the accessible vocal range is massively reduced (and less reliable) and is also very specific. So if you don’t choose repertoire very carefully, they actually can’t sing it because it’s outside their range. This seems so obvious now that it has been pointed out.

We have a healthy number of year 10 boys in the Choir who can’t sing, but the fact is that some of the songs we have been singing go too low for them at the moment. And my solution has been ….? Well, I’ve just ignored the problem with a ‘Don’t worry if you can’t get down there just yet.’ How is that helping them to find their voice? It isn’t. The actual solution is to have them sing in a range which they can manage; it might only be in a range of a perfect fifth, but that’s fine. And it’s a beautiful sound, and unusual. Unusual because we don’t often hear our 14 year olds singing.

At the moment, the few boys who do sing treble in the Chapel Choir move down the SATB structure as their voices change – but this doesn’t work, and never really has. Alto is right in the gap where they quite possibly have no notes at all; tenor goes both too high and too low and the changing voice it too unreliable to cope with this. We’re asking them to sing in a place where they have little or no voice. I’m guessing they stay because they feel loyal to the choir and are hanging on, looking forward to the day when they can sing properly again. It’s far from ideal, but it’s what we do anyway, perhaps because it’s all we have or know.

cambiata rangesI’m reluctant to change the Choir who can’t sing format because it has worked really well, but at the same time I’m keen to explore the possibilities of getting, and keeping, our younger boys singing in a choir with the line-up specified here. Look out for Cambiata Choir, coming soon! I put together a quick arrangement of Fields of Gold yesterday [which we sung through with the Bevan family choir!] and a certain 14 year old sounded just gorgeous – although of course I’m biased. But he did really enjoy it, not least of all because he could sing it.

Meanwhile, what about the girls? I think it’s fair to say that Monkton girls have probably felt a little neglected with all my attention on getting the boys singing, but Ashley has something to say here too. Doubtless encouraged by popular vocal models, many only use their modal (speaking) voice – in short, they don’t even realise that they have a singing voice! This is certainly an issue to be addressed, unlocking the girls’ singing voices: again, the problem is going to be persuading them that it’s a safe and exciting place to be. Challenge to self accepted!

In the meantime, composers of both educational and choral music, take note – there is a big gap in the UK market for repertoire for changing voices choirs.

How we learn

Not so long ago I read a fascinating book called How we learn, written by Benedict Carey, a reported for the NYT.

Our brains take in a huge amount of information – that’s not news to me. But what really caught my interest here is this: it’s not just about what we can store and recall, but also about what we need to forget. This is not the place to go into the complexities of the different areas of the brain and their functions, but suffice to say, we filter everything (subconsciously and pretty well instantly) and this information is stored in different ways, dependant on how useful it is. And in general, random stuff – stuff which doesn’t appear to relate to anything else – is pretty quickly sifted out. [It is in fact stored as well, but retrieval can be hard because it is seen as uneccesary so it’s put somewhere at the back I guess!] There is so much that we need to have access to that it would be impossible if our brains had everything immediately to hand, so actually it’s vital that these filters work well.

In the 1880s, Hermann Ebbinghaus developed a series of more than 2300 three-letter nonsense syllables, such as RUR, HAL, MEK, BES, SOK, DUS. And then spent months learning lists of up to thirty-six of them! He then tested his memory of them at specific time periods – 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 48 hours etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as time passed, his recall was less and less successful, and after 12 days he could remember little more than 25%. [I can vouch for this with my own experience of learning digits of Pi!]

luriaIn the 1920s, the Russian neuropsycologist Alexander Luria began a series of experiments on Solomon Shereshevsky, who had a seemingly endless memory. Once he had studied a chart like the one here for about 3 minutes, he could recall it – reading up, down, backwards – not just for a few days, but for years! Shereshevsky was a synesthete, and for him numbers, letters and words were tinted with associations of colour, taste, shape etc which enhanced his recall.  He might have had an amazing memory, but because his ‘memory filters’ were effectively switched off, he found day to day life very difficult because he found it impossible to sift out the constant conflict of associations attached to just about everything.

Aside from the fact that learning lists like these would appear to be pretty pointless, I suspect that most of us would look at both of these scenarios and think it unlikely that we could remember them – the main reason being, of course, that they are totally random.

Contrast this then with work done by Philip Ballard in the early 1900s, who conducted experiments on memorising Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

In short, unlike with Ebbinghaus’ random syllables, he found that people’s recall actually improved at successive intervals; there is so much here of imagery and story that the brain recognises it as useful and so it is not assigned immediately to the trash!

So where is the musical application is this?

Whether notated music is written for a single line, or in the case of pianists and others, several notes simultaneously, in one respect it can be seen simply as a series of events.

partita3

On these three lines there are 110 note events. My question is this: How random are they? The answer is, undoubtedly, that these notes aren’t at all random, quite the opposite. To a young musician, however, learning a new piece of music, it is often the case that they don’t yet have the experience to place a new piece of music in context, and therefore much of what is before them might well appear, to them, to be random.  Rather like the list of numbers above. Wow, imagine how horrible that would be: to go to a maths lesson and wade through all of those random numbers, in the knowledge that you are to be quizzed on them the following week… No thank you!

Somehow we need to be sure that we help our pupils to access the imagery, the story [theory maybe?] or whatever else they might need to help them to make sense of the notes in the piece of music which they are learning. Otherwise, perhaps it’s no wonder that, although we think we’ve spent time teaching them a piece, we sometimes find ourselves frustrated that they don’t seem to have taken anything in…..