Sunday, 9 October 2016

The battle of the x idol voice factor

Ever since the dawn of musical reality TV there has been a lot of criticism aimed at the format and to be fair, not all of it is justified.

Now I'm all for these shows if they inspire the next generation to want to become performers but there's one thing that really bugs me about them and it's rarely mentioned.

The format that everyone uses is a tournament, whittling down the less talented/fortunate/beautiful to the chosen few... (Dramatic pause)

and then down even further until there can only be...(music swells)

One Winner...(cut to advertisements)

who will then obviously go on to become a global superstar...

....or not.

But that's not my point today. 

What bothers me is that this is now the norm when it comes to showcasing talent and our kids are getting a pretty screwed up message about how performing arts really works.

I understand exactly why we run and support small scale versions of the shows. 
Hell, it's nothing new. There have always been talent quests.
But surely it's time to re-evaluate because when you think it through, talent quests are pretty flawed.

I'll admit that they encourage excellence and get bums on seats, because everyone loves to see their child perform (better than the kid from the school down the road)
But here's the problem.

We are setting our kids up to see their peers, who also love to perform, as rivals. 


Music and other performing arts are not sport. 
Sport is competitive by its very nature and there must always be winners and losers, even at junior level. Without a winner, it makes no sense. So please don't think I'm one of those wishy washy types who thinks that everyone should go through childhood without getting their feelings hurt. 

But music is different. 
Sharing isn't treason, its mutually beneficial.
Or at least it should be.

A couple of months back I drove a van load of excited pre-teens to perform at the heats for nationwide bandquest competition. We had a great day out and the band played exceptionally well. They all left that stage knowing they had played their best ever set and that the crowd had loved them.
When they didn't place they were absolutely devastated. On the journey home, they started to look for someone to blame. The judges? Other bands cheating? I'm just glad they didn't turn on each other to be honest.

But that's when it really hit home to me, as I tried to shut down the blame game, that this is not what I signed up for as a music teacher or as a musician.

It was only reinforced a couple of weeks later when I mentioned to the band that this year's local "battle of the bands" competition might hopefully be preceded by a day of collaborative workshops for all the bands involved.
"Won't the other schools learn all our secrets?"asked miss astute. 
"Yes, but we'll learn all of theirs, and then everyone will be awesome"  I said
She wasn't buying it, and fair enough. In her mind we'd already lost one competition  and she wasn't going to stand by while we gave away another one.

If you want to treat bands or any performing arts group like a sports team, then go right ahead.

But I'm out.

If you'd rather share, encourage and celebrate others' success, like what is supposed to happen in the  performing arts world, then let me know that you're in...

PostScript. The Battle of the Bands competition mentioned above has been replaced by a collaborative showcase evening for all the bands taking part in the workshop I mentioned. Full credit to Creative Sounds, Palmerston North and all the teachers of school bands in the area who made this happen. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A day in a Bilingual Unit.

Kia ora kotou
Today I'm doing something new and quite exciting.
I will be spending the whole day in our school's bilingual unit. The goal is to observe the students in their natural learning environment and to draw links between what they do and what I do, or could do, to improve their learning when they come to my classes.
I plan to make some observations around:

  • Use of language- Te Reo and English
  • Use of technology in a range of settings- both by teachers and students.
  • Routines, expectations and transitions.
So I'm going to attempt to blog the entire day. Here goes:

The formal part of the day. Paepae, karakia, waiata.
10 minutes into the day and English is being spoken for the first time. Some of the students are very confident in their Te Reo  while for others, it is a struggle to speak Maori in front of their class but I'm really impressed at they way they are giving it a go and being supported by their teachers and peers.

There is a lot to talk about with some big events coming up. The students are all attentive. There are some serious things to discuss but Whaea Maha is animated and using humour to keep them listening. Speaking English now so that everyone understands what is being said. Peppered, of course, with phrases and words in Te Reo.

Pangarau (Mathematics)
The warm up game is very physically active as well as mentally stimulating. The kids are excited by the prospect- it's clearly something that some have done before and enjoy. Now Whaea Iritana settles them and explains the rules. Everyone is listening. . Students are allowed to sit, stand, lie while they receive instructions.

Today's lesson is in statistics and we are learning to use spreadsheets. The group lesson in a blend of languages with lots of specific vocab. being taught at the same time. Another group are using flashcards while a third group are using Mathletics on their new Chromebooks. All are engaged fully.

I'm in another room now. Similar set up to the last class for Pangarau. This is really no different to the way an effective maths class would run in any mainstream class and not a million miles from the way I run multi-group music lessons.

I think that later on today I'd like to meet with a small group of kids and talk to them about what they see as differences between classroom learning and music/specialist classes.

One of the kids is struggling with an easily teachable maths concept. The teacher in me insists I break cover and jump in. First time I've taught some maths in a few years.

I've just moved class again and the Maori language content has gone up noticeably . Whaea Maha is giving instructions primarily in Te Reo,  then clarifying in English.  For the first time since first thing this morning at the Paepae, I hear the students speaking more than just one or two words in Maori. They are conversing with each other by switching between the languages, sentence by sentence.

A game has begun involving the whole class. It's loud and chaotic at first glance and I'm having trouble following what's happening as it's 80% Te Reo. Maha tolerates the outbursts and general rowdiness that accompanies  the game with good humour and in the spirit of the game.

The game is over and the class have settled to work after Maha has clarified expectations (in 2 languages).
Once again, the class starts to look and feel like one of my multi group sessions, Maha is giving most of  her attention to a small group while the rest of the class have independent tasks that they are engaged in. She keeps an eye on the rest of the class and lets a group know when talking drifts off task. Students have chosen a space to work in, on their own or with others. Conversation and some good natured banter is going on but generally, students remain on task.

I've moved on to the fourth and final room in the unit. Although still part of the same open plan building, the atmosphere is very different. This is the Rumaki, where teaching and learning takes place primarily in Te Reo. Pa Lewis has spoken only a few English words since I entered 5 minutes ago. 
Another key difference is that this class has a 1-1 ratio of devices to students. Most appear engaged in self directed e-learning and the room is quiet, calm and busy.

It's beginning to become apparent that the 4 Kaiako in this unit are just as diverse in their teaching styles as the teachers in any other syndicate at this school and that is one of the unit's strengths. I'm not going to find a teaching style that fits for all these kids that I can copy or borrow from when they come to me. They may be very united as a syndicate but they are a pretty diverse bunch. 

This class obviously enjoy and thrive in a quiet environment and they have a teacher who is very quietly spoken. They self regulate the noise level within the class and are not shy about shushhing anyone who speaks above a low voice. 

All the students from the unit have moved into the hall for Kapa Haka practice for the afternoon. I have taken a small cross section for a bit of a korero about their learning here at Monrad, and specifically, their experiences in music and the other specialist subjects.

The following is a summary of the discussion rather than a transcript:

"What do you like about coming to music and the other specialist subjects?"

  • Learning new things- songs on the guitar
  • Experimenting with things from our Maori culture- in Food Tech we learnt about breadmaking
  • Making stuff in woodwork.
  • Understanding electricity in Science

"Do you feel that there are differences between the way you are treated and spoken to when you come to me and the other specialist teachers, compared to in your class?"

  • Not really.
  • Whaea feels more like a Mum- we're more comfortable with our own teachers but the specialist teachers treat us pretty much the same as our classroom teachers.
  • Sometimes we are a bit wary of them because we don't know them so well and don't know what their response will be if we ask for something.

"Is there anything I can do in music class that would make it better?"

  • It's fun there anyway. 
  • Can we learn more instruments?
"can you teach me some words and phrases in Te Reo that I could use in class with you?

Say Turituri if we're not listening.
You say "Tihei... " . We say "Mauri Ora" Whaea Kelsi does this.
Harakuraku is a guitar
Rorohiko is a computer
Puoro means music
"Haere mai ki te whariki"- come to the mat
Waiata means song or sing.
Try to roll your Rs, otherwise some people, rude people, might try to correct you.

So that's my day almost over.
I've been made to feel very welcome and have come away from the experience, knowing the kids and the teachers a little better and with a few insights I can share with my colleagues. In fact, I'd encourage them to try it themselves. 
A day out of the class, to watch some other practitioners teach is affirming and refreshing.

To top it all off, I dropped back into the music room to find that reliever had taken an idea from a video I'd left for them to watch -Rowan Atkinson's invisible drum kit, and turned it into a whole new activity, one I want to run with. 

So my music programme just became a little richer for my not being there.

Funny that.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Name Game


Here's a bit of off the cuff music fun.
As you might know, most students in my classes start their lesson with me by playing the versatile and cheap drum alternative that is the one dollar plastic bucket.

There's also the compliance business of me having to take the roll/ register for that period.
At the same time, most of the kids are looking at and discussing my far too-popular Cool Wall.

So today I found a way to combine all three.

I made copies of the cards on the cool wall for artists with a clear and simple rhythmic name.
A name that can be fitted into a straight 4/4 count.
So Ariana Grande works well while Selena Gomez doesn't as the first beat falls on the second syllable.

I demonstrate the rhythm of each artist's name and the class plays it back. I then use the cool wall cards as cues for the whole class to play.

After much shuffling of cards I stop and ask the class to consider their own names and how to play them. They may choose their first name or first name and surname.

I then call the roll and each student answers on his/her bucket with a rhythm based on his/her name.

Up on my whiteboard I have 8 x 4 beat rhythms arranged using magnetic notation cards that I have made. Each one matches to the name of an artist. 
Once we have spent some time, matching artists to their notated rhythm the fun really begins.

Monday, 6 April 2015

"I'm just not a musical person"

Are you a "musical person"
Chances are that if you follow this blog, you are.
Actually, I'd suggest that if you walk upright, have an opposable thumb and know how to make fire then you are.
But don't be sad 'cause two out of three aint bad

What's started this blog off is a comment from a colleague yesterday that really got me thinking.
 He teaches a Hard Materials class (that's woodwork in old currency) and we were discussing the engagement and attitude of our students.

His comment, (and I don't want to put words in his mouth because there's a very good chance he'll be reading this)  was along the lines of:

"It's different for you because some people are musical and some aren't" 

And after a lot of careful thought on that I'm calling Bullshit.

On the contrary, every student that enters my room for the first time already has a strong emotional and cognitive tie to music in a way they quite frankly don't have to woodwork. 

They have their favourite songs, singers and genres for a start. 
Not many have their favourite carver or cabinet maker.

So, with this in mind, I only have myself to blame if I don't see full engagement in my classes.
At least for the first session or two!

I'll admit I have trouble with engagement later when the physical demands of playing music kick in with some students.

This term I've been using Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" as my introductory ukulele song. The chords could not be simpler: Am F and C. All one and two finger chords.
Most kids will pick this up within 10 min, which includes the time to play the song. 
The problem is always the next step, which is the G chord. 

There's no cheat code for the G chord. I show them the best techniques for moving their fingers to the right strings and frets but from there on in it's self discipline. 
Now most kids at this point are hooked. They've already played along with Sam Smith, easily, so teaching one more chord is easy. They want to learn.

But there are always a few that want to give up at this point because:

1). Their fingers are sore, 
2).  the song sucks, 
3).  music is not their thing.

And to be honest, I'll accept the first two excuses over the last one because:

1).  Fingers get sore playing stringed instruments.  It gets easier as they harden up.
2).  I can't please all the people all the time. If you hate the song, fair enough. 
       Just don't spoil it for everyone else.
3).   That excuse doesn't hold any weight in any other area of the curriculum.

For lots of kids, Physical Education is not their thing but they don't get to sit it out because it might leave them a bit puffed and sore.
If numeracy or literacy are "not their thing" those kids can expect a barrage of numeracy and literacy interventions. 

So why make music an exception?
You know you like it.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Jules HATES the Ukulele

Every now and then, something happens in class that completely floors me and leaves me reeling, wondering where to go next.
I just had two classes, a week apart, featuring the same student, that did just that.

Jules, (not his real name) had been attending my music classes for a few weeks and we had got on just fine. Then two weeks ago, when I went to introduce his group to my Ukulele 101 lesson, he completely lost the plot.

He went from low level task avoidance to out and out meltdown, including throwing the ukulele and punching a window, in the space of about a minute.
If he'd hit that window any harder we'd have been calling a ambulance, I'm sure of it.

I had nothing.

It took me all my strength to stay calm myself and keep the rest of the class calm, safe and on task.

Jules was picked up by the school Principal shortly after he raged out of my room and once he had calmed down, told the Principal that he just hated playing the ukulele. He'd had to do it at his last school, was no good at it and that was that.

I should probably point out at this juncture that there's a lot worse things going on in Jules' life than having to learn ukulele.

But even after learning a bit about his home life I still couldn't fully reconcile what had just happened.

In any case, I knew that I had to spend some time one on one with Jules before the next week's class. One day earlier this week when I had a free few minutes, I went and took him out of class for a short chat. I reassured him that I was there to help him but made it clear that we could not have a repeat of last week. We parted with him agreeing to give the ukulele a go.

The next day rolled around and Jules was one of the most switched on members of the class for the activities I had planned prior to ukulele lessons. Then it came time for his group to collect their ukuleles and join me in the circle. I watched a reluctant Jules pick up his instrument and to start some of the same behaviors I'd seen a week before; head down, swinging the ukulele nonchalantly from side to side. His friend Ezra (also not his real name) saw it too.

"Don't do this again Jules" Ezra pleaded.
And Jules responded. He picked up his ukulele and held it, ready for the lesson. He was going to give it a go.
But he held it like a left hander.

Now that's not unusual. Many, if not most people, picking up a guitar or ukulele for the first time will naturally hold the neck in their right hand.

Here's me, proving that point in 1975

But I knew by my conversation with the Principal that Jules had already had lessons in ukulele so I ran with my instincts.

I told him to hold the ukulele like a softball bat.
He raised it above his left shoulder.

The penny dropped.

Jules is right brained/ left handed. For some reason he has learnt to write with his right hand and therefore thinks of himself as right handed. But he's not.

He loves music. Every observation I've made of him apart from that one minute meltdown confirms this. And the clincher? I retuned his ukulele to play left-handed. He then spent just 5 minutes with Ezra, who is quite a good ukulele player, mirroring what he was playing.

By the end of that lesson, just 15 minutes later, not only was Jules the best ukulele player in the group, he was also the happiest.

Jules has a long road ahead of him and I'm not suggesting that I cured all his woes by showing him that he could play the ukulele left handed, but that day we took a step in the right direction.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Music news with Sam Smith

When I was a regular classroom teacher, my favourite time of the day/ week was Current Events.
It was that timetabled but fairly unplanned slot when we'd look at what was going on in the world and have a bit of a chat about what that all meant.

So I thought that this year, I'd try it out with my Year 8 classes.
I call it music news and although it has a planned start, it can end up anywhere.
This week it has mainly been about Sam Smith.

There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, as you can see, he won an armload of Grammys, so that's kinda newsworthy.
Then there's the fact that one of the songs he won a Grammy for was actually written by Tom Petty in 1989.
So that's got us talking too. I play them the recording I linked above and ask them if it's fair that Tom Petty gets a share of the songwriting. I also point out that 12.5% of the the songwriting royalties (which Sam Smith and Tom Petty have agreed to out of court) is not a a big slice of the pie.

But for me, the reason to keep this guy in my Music News section has more to do with his acceptance speech when he thanked the man who he fell in love with and who broke his heart.

Because for a lot of my students, that's a newsflash.

A singer they adore is gay!

I know I'm on dangerous ground here as a primary school teacher but this is an issue that I unashamedly push.

If a student wants to down-vote an artist on our Cool Wall "because they're gay", as often happens I'm going to challenge their thinking on that with "Tell me what you mean by gay?"
Normally the student means gay as in crap and uncool.
Which I understand but wont accept because it's lazy and insulting.
I'll ask for a better description of the artist.

On occasions, a student has gone for the more literal "I don't like him because he likes men" argument and I've seen their classmates shoot that argument down. Which was great. And it's great that we're talking about it at this age.

But there is a long way to go. Out and proud genuine pop stars like Sam Smith are still a rarity.

Elton John, George Michael and Freddie Mercury ran a flamboyant campaign for decades before declaring their sexuality, once and for all,  in the twilight of their careers (and in Freddie's case, life).

Morrissey and Michael Stipe both ran interference by being obtuse and/or enigmatic with the media because while flirting with the idea of being gay was good for sales, actually coming out risked bursting the bubble.

The few out and proud acts from the Village People to Scissor Sister, have been left with camp disco as their genre and niche.

So I like Sam Smith, not only for his music but because as a gay soul singer, he's teaching some kids a little about tolerance.

And I won't back down.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

How Soon Is Now?

It's the school holidays here so I guess its time to forget about all that educational stuff and focus on the music.
And for me, the past week has been dominated by what might be my very favourite song ever,

 How Soon Is Now? by the Smiths.

I must admit I fell in love with my wife Jane, just a little more when she chose the Smiths Singles CD on our drive home from our holiday last weekend.

But in an album of great songs, this is the one that towers above the rest. I get why it's been called the Stairway to Heaven of indie. It's just that preposterously good that the songs around it feel like filler.

So let's break it down.

First and foremost is Johnny Marr's finest moment on guitar. The vibrato delayed rhythm guitar that drives the song, the slide that cascades in and out, the harmonics that sound like angry chime bars, all add up to a wall of sound that Phil Spector could never dream of.

Now listen to the rhythm section. Andy Rourke is working overtime on the bass while Mike Joyce plays a solid, hypnotic but never boring drum groove.

The whole song hinges on a Bo Diddley beat, one of the most primal, sexy grooves in the history of rock and roll. But when played in slow motion the urgency of the riff becomes woozy and semi stoned just like the protagonist in the story who has wandered into a disco or nightclub but is too shy to ask anyone to dance with him.

The lyrics switch between the first and second person narrative. He's basically having an argument with himself, and we've all been there, or at least I have...

Now it must be said that The Smiths, and Morrissey in particular have a reputation for being miserable, gloomy killjoys.

A quick read though their song titles does nothing to dispel that idea: Cemetry Gates, Girlfriend in a Coma, Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now...

But if you can get past the titles and listen to any of those tracks it quickly becomes apparent that not only is the music up-tempo and at times, positively jaunty, but the lyrics are witty, playful and absolutely unique. (There's a reason that Cemetery is spelt Cemetry, but don't let me spoil it.)


 "How Soon is Now" IS absolutely miserable.

This is rock bottom stuff for a teenager.
Turning up to a party, knowing no-one, losing an internal battle of wills to shyness:

So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die

Yep, that's pretty bleak. Possibly none more bleak.
Even for Morrissey.

But these bleak words are  backed by this powerful and somehow uplifting, multi textured rhythm.

Maybe it's the way that harmonic guitar chime refrain ends on an unexpected high note or maybe it's because this song sounds like nothing else in The Smiths canon, let alone anyone else's.

It's a unique slab of indie rock n roll, and if I haven't yet convinced you to click the link above, then you've probably already stopped reading...