Thursday, 31 July 2014

How Music Works

Yesterday I received this in the mail:

This is the book that inspired this blog. A good friend of mine lent me his copy. I took it away and was knocked out. So I ordered my own copy.

It's not quite the Holy Bible that the title suggests but it covers a lot of ground, from the very formation of what we call music, right through to the future of music as a commodity.

My only criticism of the book would be the apparent revisionism of his own back catalogue. 
Throughout the book, he draws on his own work, especially the first four Talking Heads albums, and his collaborations with Brian Eno.
And then there is an almighty great gap. The Talking Heads I grew up listening to in the early to mid 80s, Little Creatures and True Stories hardly rate a mention. Even Stop Making Sense, one of the best live albums and music films ever, seems glossed over. Maybe he felt that their best and most innovative work came in those first four ( they are all included in the book 1000 Albums To Hear Before You Die, but nothing from Speaking In Tounges on makes the list). Or maybe those albums don't hold happy memories. The band split acrimoniously and perhaps the rot had set in some time before that. 
I'm speculating. 
But for me, I came to the band through those wonderful singles from Burning Down the House onward so I wanted to know a bit more about them.

But that's a minor quibble. It's not an autobiography and  what David Byrne has produced here is a deep insight into not only how music works in his own experience and on a sociological level, but how music works as an industry. 

And you don't need to be a classically trained musician or have a degree in audio physics to follow what he has to say either. He tackles the subject in laymans terms because, like me, he doesn't come from a classical background.

Anyone even contemplating a career in music needs to read this book to understand from someone who has been there and done that, what it takes to be financially successful. (And Byrne's criteria on success these days are around comfort, not stardom).

He's also savvy enough to take on the likes of iTunes and Spotify for their lack of artist acknowledgement. He has recently pulled as much of his back catalogue from Spotify as possible. As a subscriber this disappoints me but I do get why.

So why, with all that doom and gloom did the book inspire me?

Well it came down to one of the final chapters when he offers some hope of the future of music. 
He's writing in a country whose educational system has dropped all music education in case one child gets left behind in the basics while doing something as frivolous as creating art or playing music.

That scares me because that may be my future or lack of....
And it infuriates me because dumbass politicians and non musical talking heads all around the world are spouting this garage about teaching the basics. They think if we can somehow turn our schools into factories that churn out citizens who can read write and do maths if we just concentrate on teaching those things all day.

But in the Bay Area, California, a movement has started. Music For Kids is turning music on its head and engaging kids into playing music by helping them to play the music they love already.

When I saw what these guys were doing, I felt a synchronicity. I've been following them on Twitter and am seriously impressed. 

There's someone,or maybe many people, on the other side of the world running a music program with the same fundamental ideas as me:

-Music inspires passion even in the passive listener.

-Kids learn best when they are inspired to learn stuff they are passionate about.

-Teachers teach best when they are inspired and passionate also.

-Music education is a gateway to creativity where high level cognitive thinking can be achieved relatively easily.

If you agree, we need to talk.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Social Media, Education and Me

I'm a digital immigrant.
When I began my career as a teacher, in 1996, computers were just awkward typewriters with a couple of games that took up space in the corner of the room.  I'm sorry to report that in some classrooms, this is still the case. Only the games have improved.
But this blog isn't about the use of digital technology in the classroom, it's about the way that teachers adopt that same technology to become better teachers.
And we are spoit for choice! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, PInterest, Google+, where do we start?

 Well chances are you've come to this blog via social media so you're on that journey.

This is a topic that I have more questions than answers for. After a couple of years teaching in the IT lab at my school I kind of got stuck with that IT guru tag and everyone assumes that I'm an expert in just about anything that plugs in and lights up at our school. The truth is I'm nowhere near that. More often than not it's a winning combination of Google and dumb luck that gets stuff solved around the place. That and a fairly costly service contract.
But I digress.

I'm genuinely interested in how you use social media to gain and share ideas in teaching and how you separate that from your personal social media presence.

For me, Facebook is my personal presence while, Twitter is my more professional voice. Sometimes those lines get blurred, ( though not in a creepy Robin Thicke kind of way.)  If you know me you'll probably know that I was utilising both for a few days last week for a personal crusade of sorts. I'm also quite aware that there's no such thing as a private Facebook post as well,  so that informs what I choose to share. 

For a long time I couldn't get my head around Twitter but in the last few weeks it has started to make more sense to me as a place to share and collaborate. The first thing I had to do was unfollow a bunch of sports teams and celebrities, (who shall remain nameless) as all they were doing was clogging up my feed with posts that meant little or nothing to me. I kept a few, like Stephen Fry who actually tweet things of value. For all the rest it was goodbye to the name dropping, fancy restaurant names, self promotion and in jokes.
Once the air was clear of all that twitter wittering I started seeking out (mainly music) educators who actually have something to say. I also started this blog as a way of getting beyond the 140 character limit. It's early days but it's starting to work and I'm picking up inspiration and ideas from all around the world. Where possible I'm sharing too.

So how do you connect with professionals and what benefits have you seen from doing so? Do you have any success stories you can share?
Do you see a place for SM in the classroom, as a learning tool for your students? if so, what are the barriers to this? 
Do you have any tips?
Should there be a 10 commandments of Teachers on Social Networking Sites?
I'll get the ball rolling:

1) Thou shalt not friend ex pupils until they are adults and only if you are genuinely interested in what they are doing with their lives and you don't mind them seeing what you have done with yours.

Please add any more to the comments section or tweet @20thCenturyBoi

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Essence of Intermediate Schools

Yesterday's local newspaper featured a big front page article on local school, Ross Intermediate and their plans to reduce class sizes drastically in 2015 by integrating the technology and arts curriculum into mainstream classrooms, effectively disestablishing the specialist teachers roles and sharing the workload and class numbers evenly amongst all teachers. 
Sounds fair, and it's bound to win them a bunch of new enrolments, but It worries me slightly, and not just because I'm at a school that competes with them for numbers.

But first a bit of an explanation for those of you not familiar with New Zealand's (fairly unique) intermediate system.
Intermediate schools cater for just 2 years- Y7&8. That's ages 11-13. A pretty formative time in a child's life and the perfect (and perhaps last) opportunity to find one's niche, strengths and passions before selecting courses at High School that may determine the career path that one sets off down.

An intermediate school is typically a blend between the primary school structure of all children in the same class with the same teacher for the day, and the High School model of specialist teachers taking classes in their expert areas. There's good reason for this. Not every teacher can or should be expected to run effective classes in the technology and arts curriculum as it requires both specific knowledge, equipment and passion. 

By the same token, not all specialist teachers have the training or experience to teach a class in the core subjects. I can't speak for the specialist teachers at Ross but at my school, some specialist teachers could easily fit back into regular classroom teaching and some just could not, and nor would it be fair (or possibly even legal) to expect them to. 

It's a bit of an old fashioned system, I'll admit. A few decades ago, intermediate girls would be sent off for cooking and sewing class while the boys went to the workshop. Unfortunately, that's the perception that many have about these specialist roles, as evidenced by our Prime Minister's comments a couple of years ago when for about a week, the Ministry of Education tried to force all intermediates to do exactly what Ross are proposing now.  

The truth is that things have moved on a lot from those days and specialist teachers are providing a lot more than manual training.The programmes offered are a lot more diverse, adhere to the NZ Curriculum, and are amongst the most popular subjects at any Intermediate. 

At my school we also outsource our expertise to other schools who send children to us for our specialist lessons. So I end up spending all week teaching a wide range of children from our school, and several others, how to play and celebrate the music they already appreciate. It's a job I love and do well so it's one I want to hold onto. 

 When I see a school across town disestablishing positions like mine to offer smaller class sizes, which is something the Government should be addressing without having to redeploy expert teachers, it makes me jumpy.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Riffing on the riff

What's the greatest riff of all time?
That's what BBC 2 want to know and their top 100 list is flooding news and blog sites everywhere.
Including Here

But reading through the comments, it becomes apparent that many people don't understand the difference between a riff and a solo. It can be complicated but let me take you through it.
Listen to the first 20 seconds of this link:

That's a riff, and a kick ass one at that. It's often the first thing you hear in a rock song and it sets out the stall for the song. That's because it's based on the rhythm and harmony of the song. It will often be the basic chords of the verse and/or chorus, with perhaps some added genius that makes it burn our way into our musical subconscious. It will usually, but not always turn up throughout the song.

So as an example, Lynyrd Skynyrd took 3 open chords on the guitar, D, C and G added a bit of flash and :

A guitar solo is a different beast. Both of the clips above have awesome guitar solos. they come later on in the songs and add a new melody, on top of the riff. 
Both make you want to play air guitar.

Of course there are many exceptions. Riffs that sound like solos:

Songs with awesome riffs but the solos just copy the vocal melody:

Songs where the solo just plays around the riff but in a higher register:

So, in a nutshell, the riff is the bread and butter of the song. It's played by the nice guy in the band, the rhythm guitarist while the solo is the domain of the lead guitarist. The show off.
Well, to be honest, that model maybe works for ACDC and Brightside  and many guitarists from  Jimi Hendrix to Jack White have covered both duties.

And it's not a competition either. A song can have a great riff and no solo:

Or be all about the solo, but you'll have to be patient. Many solos start a good 2 minutes into the song, after the second chorus and then go on and and on and on:

So what's the greatest riff ever written? 
Well I've thought long and hard about it and honourable mentions should go to You Shook me All Night Long and Ace of Spades but I'm going to leave you with this one:

Monday, 14 July 2014

Cool as....

I want to introduce you to the cool wall:

Before we go any further, I'll put my hands up and say this idea was totally stolen from Top Gear, but with a few subtle, but important differences.

1) It's about music, not cars. Sounds obvious I know.
2) It's driven by the students who are not an audience.
3) The arbiter  is a Clark, without a son.
3) It's governed by a few rules that ensure that any debate is fun, while respectful.

The cool wall is without a doubt the most engaging part of my music programme. When my classes arrive each day, their eyes are invariably drawn to this space- who has moved up, who has moved down, who is new? It's so engaging / distracting that for some classes, it's the first thing we do, just so I can get their attention back.

A Typical Cool Wall session runs like this:

We all move over to the Cool Wall then someone is chosen to speak about an artist on the wall who is sitting  too  high or low.
I'll ask the speaker to expand on his/ her opinion then throw it open to debate. When I think we're done ,we vote. If half the class agree with the original moot, the card is moved.
Sometimes I throw in a new card. Sometimes I propose that two cards are swapped. I'm always open to request for a new card too.
This 10 minutes of seemingly frivolous fun  allows me to:

-Encourage real debate on a topic  that the students feel strongly about. Debates rage across weeks  and the kids often get more passionate and articulate as the weeks go on.

-Run a musical barometer on which artists are  and not cool, which informs my choices around songs that I will use to teach music with.

-Challenge the students' ethics in relation to their musical taste.

So it's pleasing to report that in general, your average  pre-teen can justify his/ her favourite artist and can can come up with some damn good reasons why The Wiggles are way cooler that One Direction.
They can tell you how they feel betrayed by Miley and how they just don't get Lorde
Sometimes they will vote for stuff  because their Dad likes it.  ACDC, GnR, and Metallica make occasional forays into coolness. In their eyes Michael Jackson and Bob Marley are immortal gods who will be cool forever.

 But only as cool as Ariana Grande and Five Seconds of Summer.

And on that  bombshell,

Friday, 11 July 2014


Let me say from the outset that this is not a political blog and nor will it ever be.
There are plenty of places on the internet where you can read about someone's opinion on who should or shouldn't be running their country, undercut by a whole load of comments either for or against.

This is not one of those blogs.


 When a political party's education policy seeks to reduce education to the teaching of Reading, Writing and Mathematics, and is creating a culture where schools will have to plough their limited resources into this narrow view of education or die, I have to speak up.

This blog has been live just over 24 hours and I've already received feedback from both the USA and The UK that suggest that a music programme like the one I'm currently running could not happen there.

If that's true then that is a tragedy.

And it leaves me feeling like an endangered species. Our current government have made it clear that education in this country should be driven by a set of arbitrary National Standards in Reading, Writing and Mathematics.

Readers in the USA and the UK will know where that leads to.

Specialist positions will disappear. Schools will be forced through public league tables to redeploy staff into raising the schools' score in the 3 Rs

This is despite the fact that the teaching of music at this age unleashes creativity. They don't even have to be "musical" to do that. Here's an example

The student that made that in my class used the website to create this.  He (yes, he) took a subject that he felt passionate about and paid enough attention to detail and layout that it's hard to believe it was created by an 11 year old.

How does this kid stack up against the National Standards for reading, writing and mathematics?
I don't know.
If there was a National Standard for creativity and innovation, this kid would nail it.

Our current government would be found to be be well below the required standard.
That is all.
Back to the music.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Being In a Band

I've been in bands in one form or another since I was about 14 or 15.
Mostly, it's a road of high expectations and low output for the best part of 30 years.

But in the last 2 or 3 years, I've been lucky enough to hit the right synergy- that group of people who understand each other and play well together. I love playing with my band Brightside, and I want to introduce that idea, of playing in a rock and roll band to every student who comes into my class.

So that's what I do.

Well, I'm fortunate enough that I don't have groups larger than 20. So I can set up a group on my Chromebooks, working in a music related task (more about that later), another group on keyboards
 (both groups on headphones) and I have 4-7 kids left to cycle through Drums, Bass, Guitars(s) and Keyboard.
My guitars are tuned to an open E chord and have stickers on the G, A and B positions. I tell the Bass guitarist to only play the top string which also has the same stickers. The root notes are also marked out on the keyboard.
Then it's just a matter of getting the drummer to find a regular beat. Some kids do this naturally, some need a bit of coaching but most can manage a 1234 on the toms. Once I know what the drummer can manage I'll pick up an acoustic guitar and lead the other instrumentalists in a 1 minute jam calling chord changes as I see fit.

 Then everyone rotates and we start again.

Nobody gets graded on this. There is no homework or follow up. My Year 7 classes do it as an introduction lesson. My Year 8s do it as an exit lesson so that that know how far they have come.

Everybody leaves smiling.
And that's just one reason I love my job.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014


My name's Jon and I'm a Music Teacher.
This is my first blog in ten years.

The reason I feel moved to blog again is because,  I think I've hit on something good. 
Something really good, something that might change the way you see music teachers and might even change the way music teachers see themselves.

The secret is Pop music. 

Seriously. If we want our children to embrace the world of music, we have to meet them where they are. That is right at the polar opposite of whatever folk tunes and watered down classics that your regular piano (or any other instrument) tutorial has to offer.

This blog is about what happens, when the two spheres of education and pop music finally harmonise.