Musical Futures MOOC Week 3


“brain2” by hose902 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

This week the MOOC is all about student choice and grouping students in a music classroom. I’ll be the first to admit that I find it hard to give control over to the students, even with students who have virtually no behavioural issues, so I’ve had to go through a process of letting go.

Playing an instrument in an ensemble is one of the most complex things you can do with your brain, so with every student who is in my care I want to make sure there is no cognitive overloading before they go and rehearse with a group. It doesn’t matter the style of music, I will always have students who need to be reminded about how to break down the process to prevent frustration and make the most efficient use of their time.

Annie Murphy Paul says that there are 7 academic emotions including curiosity, delight, engagement, flow, confusion, frustration and boredom. The latter three are what I’m worried about when kids go into groups, so the first few lessons before ensemble work I tend to break down why the brain finds playing an instrument difficult and give them some strategies for overcoming frustration, and praise them for letting their brain go ‘itchy’ as it means they’re learning. Here are some of them:

  • Brain-gym-style finger warm ups for guitarists
  • Muted strumming (it helps to focus on only one hand at a time when learn guitar)
  • Feeling beat one (jumping, spinning, nodding, strumming etc. when they can feel beat one)
  • Hi-hat conversations (you need to put your concentration on the hi hat from the front of your brain, to the back, where you’re almost ignoring it, so “have a chat while playing hi-hat”)
  • Bass note sing-a-long (some students sing more in-tune when they can hear the bass note)
  • Beat-one tallying (listen to the original song and tally beat one so that you know how many bars/ measures in each section)

After these kind of activities its much easier for the kids to identify which instrument they can cope with and enjoy. Beyond choosing their instrument they notice they’ll need a certain range of instruments in their group to have success in performing, this helps them to form their groups with consideration for  both friendship and instrument preferences. We also have reflection sessions at the end of class to discuss what strategies have helped their rehearsal, and what academic emotion they may be feeling to help unpack if we need to simplify their performance or add another level of complexity. After all, I’m looking for growth from every student.

So here are my answers to this week’s questions…

What are the limits to student choice in the classroom?

In my room its about cognitive load and growth before choosing an instrument and then considering what instruments are necessary for each group.

Are there students that shouldn’t be working together in a group? What is the optimal student group size?

So long as each group member is reflecting on their personal growth and strategies, group issues should mostly resolve. Group size is dependent on the needs of the piece of music.

How do you plan to avoid the ‘Free-rider effect’ in group work?

I didn’t address this above, but I actually insist that before students move into a group they each come up with an individual plan for the group, each person has two minutes to share while the others must be in silence, then they compromise and construct the group plan.

How important is trust in ensuring effective group work?

When students understand the difficulties being placed on each musician’s brain, I think there’s a little more patience and understanding and consideration for strategies to improve skills.

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Musical Futures MOOC Week 1 and 2

My brain is a mess of connections and ideas I want to share following week 1 and 2 of the Musical Futures MOOC.

With so many ways of knowing and understanding and participating in music is it fair to limit students to one way of learning about and participating in music?

I am well and truly a generalist in my music classroom, and I have been trying my hardest to design music curriculum to capture the interest of a range of students through projects that explore musical cultures. One project is to create a piece of hip hop from scratch that has the students asking questions about their own musical and cultural identity through sampling, another has students intensively learning one piece of classical music through unpacking a single piece of sheet music, another has students participating in world music workshops to find similarities and differences between Indonesian gamelan, Latin percussion and Thai classical music. The point I’m trying to make as a music teacher through all of these experiences is…

There are a range of musical cultures and through participating in making the music of these cultures authentically, we can better understand our own musical identity and the cultures of others. 

It is especially important to me that every student can access the curriculum and resources and have a degree of choice with the project, whether that’s the instrument they end up playing or the piece that they learn.

I was fortunate to hang out with Ethan Hein at the Ableton Loop conference in Berlin in 2017. It was amazing at the conference to hear so many musicians relate that they had learnt informally, and that learning to be a musician was through the availability or access to music technologies like a dinky Casio keyboard, or a guitar or microphone and pedals, and word of mouth into how to put it all together. I strive to provide a learning environment which encourages curiosity and a desire to want to play without judgement. I suppose this is what Musical Futures and all the guest speakers in the course are getting at — we all bring our cultures and identities to the music classroom, so let’s explore them rather than restrict ourselves to one narrow view of musicianship.

Neatly tying up week 1 and 2, I made a rough overview of some units that I’m proud of and that encompass formal and informal music-making. There’s a hip hop unit, a classical music unit and a video game music unit. I hope it gives a few people some new ideas about what music class can look like. Click here –>Video game Hip Hop and Classical musical futures resources

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