Archive for the ‘musical understanding’ Tag

Update on pitch work

Back at Pelican Primary School for Term 2, and the year 4/5 class are continuing to develop their arrangement of Gotye’s Somebody I used to know. This first week back, we revised what they remembered of the opening melody, and started to develop an accompaniment figure.

There were a couple of interesting developments this week. One occurred when we were revising the melody. We did this as a group, away from instruments, with me at the whiteboard asking questions like, “What note does the melody start on? What note is next – does it go up or down in pitch?”

Whenever the group hesitated or seemed unsure, we sang the melody together. We used the words from Baa Baa Black Sheep:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, I’ve got some. [Gliss!] (We invented this last line to match the fourth phrase of the introductory melody)

I stopped the singing on the word/syllable immediately before the pitch we were trying to identify. There was an exciting moment when I realised they were all hearing the missing note in their heads and starting to visualise or ‘map’ its direction. It was suggested in the way a large number of them all called out the right answer at the same time, after a moment of silence that was as long as the missing note would have been. I was so thrilled by this development!

For the accompaniment, I’ve created a marimba line:

D – AD – C – G (ta ti-ti ta ta)

I decided to teach it using the body-pitching approach I’ve used in the body. I taught it to the group, rather than asking them to figure a version out for themselves. They sang the note-names while patting each body part in turn:

D (knees – left hand) G (head – right hand) D (knees – left hand) C (floor – left hand) G (shoulders – right hand)

I knew that the challenge on the marimbas would be to go from the note D to C with the left hand – I anticipated that they would instinctively continue a left-right-left-right mallet pattern and would thus struggle to find the C. Therefore, I told them to use their left hands to touch D and C, and the right hand for A and G, and got them to practise this in a focused way on their bodies.

We practised the gestures together as a group. Then I set up the xylophones and marimbas and a small number of students got try out the accompaniment pattern.

This time around though, I added an explicit instruction:

“Your aim now is to transfer the information about notes and hands, up and down, from your bodies to the instruments. Keep the same hand pattern, and same pattern of up-and-down gestures, as you have on your bodies.”

I think this proved to be a helpful step. In any case, with this kind of group task, we only need one person to figure it out – they can then model it for the others, they will learn by watching, the watching will also help create a visual memory for them, and hopefully the body-contour work will help create a physical memory. We’ll see!

This class is such an interesting group. They always come in scowling, sneering, and with a lot of bravado towards me, my co-teachers, and especially towards each other. But they do take their learning quite seriously. Enough of them are motivated to create something of a critical mass, so we make progress, most weeks. My plan is for this Gotye piece to be ready to perform in 3 lessons time.


Playing by ear

Each term I devise a different collaborative music project for each class at Pelican Primary School, which we develop over a series of weeks. The grade 4/5 class has been working on the song Somebody I used to know by Gotye (a Melbourne artist, they were excited to learn). The song starts with a xylophone melody that follows the contour of Baa Baa Black Sheep and the class were familiar with the song when I first played it to them.

This project of learning to play the Gotye melody has developed into an exploration of pitch, and specifically, using an understanding of pitch to learn to play familiar melodies by ear. My ideas of how best to facilitate this developed over the term – we were working things out together.

Week 1

Initially, after getting the students to listen to the melodic introduction to the song and mark the contour in the air with their hands, I gave each child a tuned percussion instrument (xylophones and glockenspiels), and told them the first two notes of the melody. I asked them to see if they could work out any of the other pitches. We played the song’s introduction over and over and they tried to play along. This was much too difficult for them and many of them got frustrated and disheartened. I realised that they didn’t know how to approach the task, so did a rethink.

Week 2

I introduced the idea of pitches or notes being the different letters on the instrument and we established that these can go up (higher, to the shorter bars) and down (lower, to the longer bars). I taught them about pitches “moving by step” (moving to the next adjacent note rather than to a note further away), and  that we weren’t going to be thinking about them “by skipping” (as they call it) at this stage. Again, everyone had an instrument, and I asked them to locate D. I played a short phrase, always starting on D, and only moving by step (up or down one step). They listened carefully, and we played a series of phrases (unrelated to the Gotye song) in call-and-response – me by myself, and all of them playing it back to me.

The group was highly engaged during this activity. They understood it, and were challenged by it, but it was achievable for most. Two or three didn’t seem to be responding so positively, and appeared to be hitting any notes randomly (albeit in rhythm with the phrase they were to copy) and laughing across to each other. I asked them to repeat my phrase one by one. Immediately they were more engaged, and repeated the pitches and rhythm accurately. I think they found the task frustrating because they couldn’t hear their own efforts when playing at the same time as everyone else. I find that this cohort (who I’ve written about many times in this blog), generally has a low tolerance of situations where they can’t get immediate feedback (which in music is the opportunity to clearly hear their own instrument in the mix) in music class. This creates disillusionment and frustration, they stop trying, and start distracting others. They wouldn’t be able to develop the skills if they were feeling annoyed by the task (or be able to develop the confidence to approach it) so I tackled this issue of being able to hear oneself the following week.

Week 3

We started a musical version of Chinese Whispers. I set up a line of 8 instruments. Player 1 invented a short phrase, starting on D and only moving by step between D, C and B. Players 2-8 had to try and play it back, taking it in turns so that they were all playing alone. Each child got at least one turn on an instrument. While they weren’t playing they were sitting as audience, listening and (hopefully) mentally figuring out the pitches for themselves.

Everyone – those who were sitting at an instrument and those who were in the audience – could hear when an echoing phrase was different to the original, or the same. A lot of excellent self-correcting started to happen.

Week 4

We discussed phrases in music. I explained that the phrase end was where there was a natural pause in the music – maybe not a long one, but a point where the musical line came to some kind of rest. We sang through Dynamite as an example (a favourite song of the class), and they raised their hands every time we came to the end of a phrase. Everyone did this with confidence. “You see?” I said, “You already know this about music. All I’m doing is putting a name to something that you already know and understand.”

Next, I gave out a chart of the Gotye introduction, written only in rhythmic notation. Each of the four phrases was colour-coded – red for phrase 1 and 3 (because these phrases are exactly the same rhythmically and in pitch), black for phrase 2 and blue for phrase 4. (Colour-coded information is a very helpful visual cue for a lot of my students, it helps them orient themselves around new information and not feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar symbols).

For this session, I asked them to focus only on phrases 2 and 4. Phrase 1, I explained, would be tackled later. Phrases 2 and 4 are slower (crotchets rather than quavers) and move only by step.

There was quite a buzz in the air in this class. The preliminary work we’d done on pitches moving by step had given the students tools for tackling the Phrase 2 & 4 challenge, and most of the class was able to play along with the recording by the end of the lesson. Some were already starting to figure out how to play phrase 1 – something that had been frustratingly difficult in the first week.

Next steps…

We will finish figuring out the notes for Phrase 1, and write the pitch names (according to what they have figured out) under the rhythmic notation on the chart. After that, we’ll creating a class arrangement, adding a bass line and other accompanying riffs, and create a drum/untuned percussion accompaniment by ear. I’m hoping they will be able to perform the piece for a school assembly in the next few weeks.

A new approach in a challenging school

I’m trying out some new ideas in my teaching at Pelican Primary School this term, influenced by some of my current reading. The two books I have on the go at the moment are Teaching for Musical Understanding (2nd edition) by Jackie Wiggins, and Music, Informal Learning, and the School: A new classroom pedagogy by Lucy Green.

A recommendation in Teaching for Musical Understanding, concerns the proposition that all music-learning experiences need to take place in the context of authentic, whole musical works (as opposed to music that has been contrived in order to demonstrate or explain something). These musical works – songs, orchestral pieces, solo works, world music, jazz, etc – are selected by the teacher because they demonstrate a particular idea or musical dimension that will act as a ‘doorway in’ for the students’ practical learning experiences. Meanwhile, an early stage in the pedagogy described in Green’s book has students working to reproduce songs of their own choice, working with CD recordings, in small groups, and independently of teacher guidance.**

Thus, I’ve selected a piece of recorded music for all but two of the middle and upper primary classes at Pelican Primary School to use as a stimulus for a range of learning experiences. I’ve used a mix of student suggestions and my own choices to come up with songs like Fireflies (Owl City), California Dreamin’ (Mamas and the Papas), and Three Little Birds  (Bob Marley).

One thing I’ve loved observing is how eagerly the students take hold of the song sheets and sing along. This is a high-level ESL [English as a Second Language] school with a large refugee  and new immigrant intake, and it is not unusual for some students to have a much lower reading level than is standard for their age group. However, following the words on the song sheet and singing along with the recording is a huge motivation for reading. They were completely engaged and inspired, this first week, keen to sing along with the words they could recognise, and keen to have their own copy of the words to take home.

With a song like California Dreamin’, I’ve asked them to notice the 2 groups of singers in the recording – the main group (or soloist) and the backing singers, who sing the ‘echo’ of each line. I get them to sing along with one part or the other, and suddenly they are having their first experience of part-singing, something that they have not been able to manage yet, when it is just them on their own with me and the guitar.

Pelican Primary School is not a straight-forward school environment – it is probably the most challenging school I teach in, and have ever taught in! It is challenging for all sorts of reasons – to do with behavioural issues and the way that the students engage with learning, and with each other. Their capacity to listen, to stay on task, and not seek distraction is incredibly limited, something that still can take me by surprise even now, after two years at the school.

Music is sometimes just too ‘invisible’ and abstract for them. They actually work best with very structured, formal, directed teaching with only a small amount of creative thinking or applying knowledge in a variety of contexts. By contrast, my approach as a teaching artist is to facilitate rich, multi-layered experiences, through a process of collaborative inquiry and exploration. I use a lot of informal learning approaches – building skills and understanding through a range of games, tasks, and creative projects that run across many weeks. This doesn’t really work at Pelican!

Therefore, perhaps the biggest challenge for me is in figuring out the most effective way to create meaningful music learning experiences for these students that work to their learning strengths. I’m always open to trying out new things, and always trying to deepen my understanding of this cohort and what they need from me. I’m cautiously optimistic about this new approach with CDs providing the musical context for our creative work and understanding of concepts and theory. I’ll describe more of what we do, and how it goes, further into the term.

**Of course both books have far more to say than this, and are inspiring, thought-provoking reading – highly recommended! However, I’ve limited myself to these points for the purposes of this blog post.

Pitch, implicit learning, and innate understanding

I had another ‘moment’ in my exploration of teaching pitch concepts today. (I’ve been posting on this topic, see below). Today at Pelican Primary School I introduced the Slit Drum to the prep class.

I invited one of the children to come to the front to play. She wasn’t sure what to do, so I suggested she hit each of the ‘tongues’ of wood, one by one, and see if they sound the same or different.

“Hit this long one, and then this short one,” I suggested, pointing to the tongues I meant. So she did that, and one of the boys in the class called out happily, “I can hear that it is short-long-short-long!” And as she continued to play, he sang along with her – “short-long-short-long” – and some others in the class did the same.

It was a happy moment for me. I have been puzzling over ways to build students’ understanding about the concept of pitch, highs and lows. I try to find ways, in the musical environment I create in the lesson, for these concepts to be available to those children who are ready to connect them to their own innate understanding about how music works. Young Will, calling out his observation to me, was doing exactly that. After the puzzles of the recent weeks it was satisfying to be reminded that some children are ready to work with these concepts, and will make the necessary initial links in their own time, if I provide the right environment. I think of this as providing strong environmental scaffolds.

Making sense of tonality

This term at the Language School I am revisiting a project idea that I developed in my first year at this school (about five years ago now). It is a way that I try to create understanding among the students about tonal relationships between notes, and give them information that will help them compose melodies that have a sense of shape and tonal balance to them.

Here is the basic tonality premise that I wanted to give them: A key signature or tonality brings with it a strength or sense of ‘home-ness’ to particular notes. The tonic has a strength that makes it good finishing point, for example. The notes of the triad have a similar sense of groundedness to them. Other notes of the scale, if played at the end of a phrase, will sound less complete. But melodies sound interesting if they include a mixture of triad notes and other notes.

In a class of new arrivals, who are only just beginning to learn English, I don’t want to get into these explanations. Too many words! Too much new language will bog us down, and slow the task down – and I find that ESL/new arrival children need to have glimmers of success appear early on in new tasks, to give them confidence and a sense that they are on the right track. Therefore I decided to explain the concepts using language they already know. Continue reading

More on pitch contours

Further to the post below about my work with pitch with Middle Primary students at the Language School, I had a very pleasing experience with the class last week. When we came to the point in the lesson where we were preparing to play our melody on the glockenspiels, the students (who were all sitting on the floor) spontaneously broke into singing through the melody, patting the assigned parts of the body as they went. This was the group that I felt the whole exercise hadn’t worked for at all, and here they were, performing it with confidence and accuracy and strong recall.

We got the glockenspiels out quickly and tried it out on the instruments. I also played a few games with them, where I would touch one part of my body (eg. the top of my head) and they would play the corresponding note that we had assigned to it (eg. high E). I did this quite a few times with high and low E, to try and establish the octave, and the difference in the sounds. We worked in small groups, and those who weren’t playing copied my gestures and said the appropriate letter name, while their classmates played the appropriate notes. Then we swapped over, so that everyone had a turn.

However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of pitch is now understood by the class. (Jackie Wiggins gives some compelling and thoughtful argument to what it means to have established true musical understanding in her book Teaching for Musical Understanding). But hopefully they now feel a little more confident with the task, and with this confidence will come the mental space for new concepts to take hold.

What this experience demonstrates too, is that some things just take more time that you anticipate. Or, alternatively, that if the energy in the room isn’t right on the day, some tasks just won’t take root. And that, even when it seems like nothing is really working, nothing is going in or making sense, it probably is!

Pitch contours and other puzzles

I’ve been thinking a lot about how you build an understanding of pitch among young students. Regular readers will know that I teach a lot of students in primary (elementary) schools that don’t have a lot of English, or who speak English as a second language. Because of this, I put a lot of thought into ways of teaching and establishing musical concepts without resorting to verbal explanations.

With pitch I’ve tried lots of different things. Firstly, I should explain that all my classroom work has a compositional basis, so we rarely isolate pitch as a context. Mostly, it comes up because I want children to develop their aural and inner hearing skills so that they can learn, recall, and figure out melodic lines more easily. To do this they need to have an awareness of the way the pitches in a melody relate to each other – whether they are moving up or down to the next note, by step or by leap, etc. Continue reading

Musical understanding

I am currently reading Teaching for Music Understanding by Jackie Wiggins, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s written in a highly readable, direct, sympathetic, no-nonsense style, with lots of practical suggestions and explanations. I am finding that much of what she suggests holds true for my own preferred approach to music education, and it is wonderful to read such clearly articulated descriptions of education values and strategies that I hold dear, but sometimes struggle to label.

For example, she acknowledges the wealth of information that has been written for music educators about teaching the musical elements, but suggests that musical principles – such as simultaneity and ensemble, balance, tension and release – are also an incredibly important part of musical understanding. She writes,

These principles are broader than the specific elements as they seem to connect to more than one of the elements. Simultaneity and ensemble are related to rhythm and texture but also to pitch in terms of intonation. Balance is also related to ensemble. Tension and release are an important part of harmony but are also linked to rhythm, dynamics, tempo and even form.

Wiggins, J. (2001). Teaching for Musical Understanding. New York: McGraw-Hill (p. 69)

I never give much explicit attention to the musical elements in my music teaching. It seems to me that if you take a compositional or creative approach in your teaching – when the students are engaged in creating their own musical work – all the elements will be present, and the students’  learning and understanding will grow through the manipulation of these, through the creative process. They are elements after all. They are all present, all the time. And they can learned very effectively through implicit teaching, and rigorous musical environments.

Jackie Wiggins presented at the ASME [Australian Society of Music Education] conference I attended in Launceston in July, and another approach she talked about was the use of dimensions, or metadimensions. Metadimensions might be genres or styles or other affective qualities, that can prove a powerful “doorway in” to creative work. I started to see that the sort of broad starting points of compositional language that I use in the projects I lead with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble to take this approach.

She talks about “creative probelm-solving” as being the broad descriptor for the kinds of composition tasks her students engage in – “problem-solving” in that the tasks that are set require the students to undertake their own investigation and develop their own solutions. The tasks are authentic, and very open-ended. The questions the students ask are the same questions an adult, or a profssional musician would need to ask if tackling the same problem. This too, is true of the way I like to work with students. I’ve essentially adapted my own group-devising processes I would use with peers and other professionals, for the work that I do in primary/elementary schools. The questions that need to be asked in order to solve the problem are essentially the same.

I realise too, that in a project-based context, I try to give participants a range of experiences, and then a musical problem to solve. The ‘experiences’ might be new concepts or techniques, or particular musical strategies that I think will be useful in the creative problem-solving task that follows. I wonder if, when mapping out my pedagogy, and how it varies in the different environments in which I work (from orchestras to refugee/minimal schooling backgrounds) I could build my workshop plans around the two strands of Experiences and Problem-solving?