A-Level Composition Concerts & Events CPD Extra Curricular GCSE General Key Stage 3

September 2020

September 2020 is going to be unlike any other September in my career. In fact, no teacher alive has been faced with the same problem before. A global pandemic, months of lost learning and new constraints on how we work.

I like solutions and I hate problems. However, we need to face the problems in order to find the solutions. Facing problems need not be a negative experience if we then solve some of them. In this blog I am going to look at some of the issues we face as Music Teachers in September 2020. I hope that I might have some ideas that you can then ponder for yourself.

What I will add is that every educational setting is different. We all have different students, situations & Senior Leadership teams. Not every problem can be easily solved, but it is worth exploring them.

Unknowns

The first problem I believe we are facing is that so much is unknown. But we have grown accustomed to that over the last few months. We don’t really know what September will look like and we eagerly await more advice. I don’t really like not knowing stuff. I prefer to have all the facts and then I can think things through. But yet during this season I have grown an awareness of this in me and I have started to counter it.

So my solution. Wait. Don’t panic about the unknowns and just wait to be told what to do by the people in charge. This is both on a National and a school level. Your SLT will be busy working out what on earth is going on, so wait and see what they say. It is foolish to worry and certainly not helpful to try and come up with your own plan. You might have a great idea that isn’t possible in September.

Unknowns are annoying and we can’t always work on specific plans in the midst of them. But another solution is to think about what you can do in-spite of the unknown nature of September. As teachers we do like to plan meticulous lessons, calendars and schemes of work. But how about for a few weeks we look at our own teaching. A solution to the unknowns would be to consider what we can do to get ready. Is there a book you have been putting off reading that might help you with your pedagogy? Are them some genres you want to explore or some composing you want to undertake.

If we can grow personally in this time then we will be ready to tackle the challenges of September. If we arrive back with fresh ideas and inspiration for ourselves, then we will be able to then focus on how we teach in the “new normal”.

Extra-Curricular

I touched on this in my previous blog entitled One Metre Music. Extra-curricular as we know it is unlikely to be able to take place in September. That is the problem we are all facing. Those big choirs, concerts and events just won’t be normal for a while. We most likely won’t be able to have all year groups in bands or choirs and we may have to ditch the events that we had in mind. That is the problem we are facing.

My first solution to this is to say, don’t worry. But then I hate it when people tell me not to worry. My whole career has been built around a thriving extra curricular programme. I have spoken about it at conferences and blogged extensively about the need for a healthy calendar of rehearsals. So I find it hard not to worry, but I can’t worry about it, that won’t help anyone.

So the next solution for me is to consider what Extra Curricular could look like, but without putting any finer details into the mix:

  • Small ensembles, bands & choirs do work.
  • Year group based rehearsals will help to strengthen the students. The weaker students will gain confidence and the stronger students will develop.
  • Extra Curricular Music is just as much about the community as the actual music itself. If they can’t play wind instruments or sing then they can still gather at the same time.
  • The school day might look different, but students will still have breaks and in those breaks “rehearsals” can take place.
  • Whilst we don’t have concerts imminently, we will have them again. So we could prepare for that first event long in advance, even if we only start by talking about it and not actually playing any repertoire.
  • Whilst we might have fewer rehearsals due to changes in the day, it will still be a welcome break for students – especially after all these weeks of nothing.
  • Repertoire for smaller ensembles might mean we need to research music for say a Sax Quartet or a clarinet choir. Spending time on such research will never be in vain and will always come in handy.

Extra Curricular is at the heart of what we do. I say we just need to keep thinking about potential repertoire, but we don’t need to try and plan a weekly timetable. We have no idea what will happen and so all we can do is think around what might work. Don’t forget that we have unknowns and there is no point over-planning only to find out that we can’t do something. But we can research repertoire, consider ideas and look ahead to that first big event!

Musical Music Lessons

There are several problems that I want to think about with regards classroom music. I have already looked at some of these in previous blogs, but a few new themes are emerging.

No Instruments

Problem: we might not be able to use instruments – keyboards, guitars, ukuleles etc. This is not great, but it is a problem that we can overcome. But what are some of the options:

  • Regular cleaning might facilitate certain instruments being used – or could students use their own instruments only?
  • Clapping – there is loads you can do with just clapping, look at Steve Reich!
  • Body percussion – You should start checking out what Ollie Tunmer is up to online.
  • Spoken verse rather than singing – I presume speaking in a classroom is okay.
  • Electronic instruments on devices such as iPhones, tablets & iPads.
  • Percussion that can be easily and quickly cleaned such as Remo Sound Shapes.
  • If students have instruments at home then they could record themselves playing. Videos can then be shown in class.

No Singing

It does look like singing might be an issue, another problem for September. But I also don’t think that is entirely clear just yet. So in many ways I am seeing it as something that I really hope does change. It got me thinking about warm-ups though and how before we do a vocal warmup we start with some physical warmups and some breathing warmups. I think one initially solution here is to keep that going and use it is a starter in lessons.

Lessons are likely to be 50 – 60 minutes long. If we are unable to use computers & instruments as much, then we need to work out how to fill the time. Warm-ups will work well for this and then we can continue this practise when we can start singing again. Let’s watch this space when it comes to classroom singing and start to look at alternatives to fill the time.

Also it does look like in smaller groups with social distancing, it might be possible to do some singing. I am keeping an eye on the government advice as I am sure there will be updates.

No Computers & Composition

If like me you use computers in your music room then one problem may be that we can’t use them. I don’t think it will come to that because I think with regular cleaning they can still be accessible to students.

But another problem will come if you are not in your music room and in another block of the school as part of a year Group bubble. My solution here is that you start to look at cloud based, online music resources that students can access anywhere in the school. There is a lot out there and I have already blogged about this in my Corona blogs.

Also I don’t think it is the end of the world if students can’t use computers for composition and production. I have been thinking about whole class composition where students come up with ideas and as the teacher you bring them together from the front. It would be a good link to their Musical Understanding (see below) as they would be suggesting what is needed within a piece of music. It is something I am going to work on, but I like the idea of talking through a composition and modelling to students how to create and arrange ideas.

I also think that we need to be teaching our students how they might compose music at home. This may involved online DAWs such as Bandlab or Soundtrap. Or maybe we can get them composing on their own instruments at home (see my Composing at Home blog series). The work that we can’t do in school might start to be the work they complete at home. Lessons will be used to teach & model and then students can compose at home. I know that doesn’t solve the controlled conditions issue for GCSE/A-Level, but that is for another blog possibly. And I am aware that composition can happen away from screens & machines, so the title NO Composition isn’t entirely true!

Deliberate Listening

I have already blogged about this concept, so please do check out my Deliberate Listening blog. But I really do think it is worth stressing that listening is going to be a solution to a lot of our problems. We won’t be able to get students up and out of their seats. We may not have singing & instruments in lessons. But we can get students listening to music more & more. We do however need to learn how we can focus this listening and bring the music to life. Here are some of my early thoughts on listening to accompany my previous blog:

  • Listening Diaries where students log what they have heard and start to join the dots & compare music/genres.
  • Key Term Bingo where students listen out for features within the music. Making an activity into a game will really help.
  • Listen & Share – this is where students listen to music at home and they come in to school with their own presentation. Having students bring to life the music they love will be a great way to star the year off. It will also mean that lessons are full of a range of styles & genres.
  • Listening through the use of videos – so I guess watching videos. But not just any videos and not just random watching. Sometimes seeing an orchestra playing a piece can be amazing. Watching a musical but interspersed with questions. BBC Ten Pieces. There are lots of options.

Listening to music and analysing music is going to become a real focus for us in September. I see it being broken down into shorter Starter style tasks and then more extensive study of pieces. I would imagine that set works for GCSE will spill over into Key Stage 3.

We just need to embrace the changes and start looking at, dare I say, more traditional music teaching.

Musical Understanding

It strikes me that September is a chance for us to really focus on Musical Understanding.

Musical understanding is all about students learning what is actually happening within a piece of music. It is what needs to come before practical work or composition work, where we introduce students to the inner workings of music. It strikes me that practical work will be more tricky in September – the problem. But the solution is that we start to embed a greater level & depth of musical understanding in our students.

I would encourage you to read a the ISM Trust report on Musical Understanding by Kevin Rogers. It will explain the concept in more detail and there is a great wealth of knowledge. Imagine if we used the time in September to really develop this in our lessons. A deeper understanding of music will then lead to a greater practical response.

This is a quote from the report from Professor Keith Swanwick:

‘Knowing music is something like knowing a person. We cannot really believe that we know people because they happen to be around us, or because we pass them in the street or stand crushed together on a train or bus. This is no more knowing a person than to have the statistical information that someone weighs so much, is six feet tall, lives in Leeds and owns a car and a washing machine’.

Professor Keith Swanwick: A basis for music education, 1979

Innovation

One problem we will face as music educators is the potential lack of concerts in the Autumn term. Social gatherings in the form of an audience are unlikely to be allowed for a while. So we need to innovate.

Over the lockdown period we have all started to get used to technology. Zoom is very much part of our lives and virtual choirs & orchestras are common place. The solution for September is to start innovating. How can we stream concerts live from our school? What events can still happen and how can we share them with parents.

There will be some safeguarding issues to look at as well as the logistics. But my feeling is that it will be possible to put on events that are then videoed and shared. The smaller ensembles we will be working with can then have a platform to share their hard work.

It will be okay

Do you know what I think? I think it will be okay. I think Music Teachers are amazing, and we are good at overcoming problems. We are used to innovating, inspiring and inventing. We make things happen and we have to juggle a lot during the day. September will not be easy, and it won’t be normal. But we can do this, you can do this.

But we will need to innovate & plan. We can’t just turn up and expect things to happen. It is down to us to make our departments thrive in the face of this awful crisis. I don’t think we need to over-plan or spend all summer working. There are likely to be more documents and guidelines released. But we can think and get excited about the new term. We can listen to music, read and generally get excited about working in our actual schools in September.

I am really looking forward to overcoming the challenges. It is daunting and don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely sure how ready I am. But my theory is that we will be able to make a difference and we will be okay.

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