Thursday, January 22, 2015

Baby Steps to Teaching Music Composition - Part 1


I was working on my blog the other day and I had a chance to revisit some of my old posts.  When I came across THIS post, I realized that even though this post is a few  years old, it still rings true for me.  Not only have I continued to begin my composition lessons just like this, but this lesson has allowed me to prepare my students for additional work in composition.  Look out for additional posts about composition in the weeks to come.   

Below you will find the original post from February 2012. 



As a song writer, I compose new music almost every day.    Ironically, despite the fact that I LOVE writing music, it is very difficult for me to teach music composition to my students.  In this area of instruction I consider myself a novice because I think I can do better.... MUCH better!   It's like an itch I can't scratch or a puzzle I can't solve.... I know how I do it, but it is difficult to find the right way to get others started.

Well today, I sort of had an epiphany.  Here it is....... Are you ready?  You've got to prime the pump!


All of the awesome teachers reading this blog with go...."Yep..... we know.... that is not news!  Everyone knows that."  Well, I'm telling you that I knew it, and I've lived it in so many areas of my teaching, but I just didn't really get it where music composition was concerned.


Today was the first day of teaching in a new rotation, so I was THRILLED to be starting off a new lesson on a Monday, so I planned and prepared and prepared and planned.  Then when my 5th graders walked in my brain had one of those teaching "SHAZZAAAM!" moments and I realized that I could do teach a much more interesting lesson that would still hit all of my objectives if I just went with my moment of inspiration.

Here is what I did as I flew by the seat of my pants into a lesson I can't wait to teach again tomorrow!


 1. I first had my students fold a regular piece of copy paper into 16 squares.  I have them fold their paper in half 4 times.

In Houston because of the humidity, sometimes open reams of copy paper go bad and I find myself with 30 sheets of random colored paper.  It's perfectly fine, so I choose to up-cycle instead of recycle.
 It's amazing how much buy-in you can create for a project when there is colored paper and folding involved.

 2. Then I had my students  students create this chart as a review for rhythm duration and relationships.  Each square is equal to one beat.   Since this was 5th grade and I knew I wanted to compose with them, I really pushed them to work quickly.  I explained that this chart was only going to be for their reference, so they should be accurate, but that they didn't have to copy verbatim. I had other notes that this student didn't need.
THIS was my epiphany about priming the pump....
I took the time to remind them of what they already know
 In the old days, I might have stopped there and moved onto something else.... OR I might have turned it into a reading lesson......  Instead....

3.   I asked the students to turn their papers over and we created a small blank staff.  Then as a class we reminded ourselves of the notes we already knew very well how to play on recorder.... We've introduced some of the other notes, but these notes were the notes that the kids in this class felt like they knew....

This class feels comfortable playing GABCD and E.....
 I realized that when I compose music, I use words that I KNOW! 

4.  I had them quickly fold a 2nd piece of paper just like the first. 



5. Before they were allowed to write anything on their paper, we filled out a "blank song" as a class.  They were told to use the rhythms that they knew into the squares in any pattern they wished.  Their only limitations were to make sure that they had room for the notes they chose.... (i.e. no half notes beginning on beat 4).


It was fun to see them figure out that eighth notes were the same
 regardless of whether or not they had a bar or a flag. 
6.  Once we got to this next step they go really excited.  While they were working, I had quickly passed out their recorders so that they would have them on hand.   They assigned each rhythm a pitch......Almost all of them got to the point where they were trying to play what they had written.


7.  Next time they come to class they will have a chance to edit their work using their recorder.  Because we were beginning to run short on time by the time they were assigning pitch there wasn't time for very much exploration.  So next time they come to music, they can edit their work, share it with other students ad write it on the staff.  MAYBE we'll have time to add words.


I'm looking forward to seeing how well this works with my class tomorrow.  I have high hopes! As I said, I still feel like a novice at teaching music composition, but I felt much more successful having taken the time to remind my students of what they already know.  Creating something original wasn't nearly such a leap when we remembered all that we knew before.  They were SUPER proud of themselves!
What fun!



The 16 square rhythm chart is a way to review rhythm that I borrowed from my colleague Pablo OcaƱas.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Musical First Aide - a practical guide to teaching music when your personal life is in crisis - Part 3 - take care of yourself



Having a personal crisis is just plain difficult.  Regardless of the nature of the crisis that you find yourself in, here are some tips for how to keep moving through your days with the ability deal with the crisis and be of use to your family.

Take care of yourself

  • Give up some things - When things were most crazy, I had to give myself permission to let go of some personal commitments that I am ordinarily deeply involved.  I quit working in the nursery at church.  I quit singing with the my church choir even though its one of my favorite things, it was just a time commitment that I couldn't fulfill.  I also put away blogging for a while, simply because there wasn't room in my brain.  I was reduced to the bare essentials.  Picking them back up now that things have calmed is a joy.
  • Pursue normalcy whenever possible - Whenever you can stick to your normal routines.  Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Eat right and exercise so that you don't get sick.  Being sick is something that no one dealing with a crisis has time for.    Going to work was the most normal thing that I did and because I was busy while I was there, it was in some ways a relief.  
  • Pamper yourself - When things are really nuts, that 30 minute pedicure or the 5 minutes at the drive through of Starbucks may be the only peaceful parts of your day.  Enjoy them
  • Set up communication routines  - Because my dad's illness was our crisis, there were lots of people who love him dearly who wanted regular updates.  In order to save myself from having to repeat myself so often, I created a communication routine so that everyone received the same information in an orderly fashion.  For me, that meant that every day, I spent time writing a Facebook update.  Those updates were a great way for me to process our circumstances but they also allowed me to share the latest news with all of the wonderful people who care for my family.  It turned into the easiest way to get up to date information to everyone.  
  • When people ask how they can help, give them an answer!  That was really hard because at first I couldn't think of anything.... but then the laundry started piling up and the $12-15 a day parking started cutting in to the budget.  It's ok.... other people can cook meals and do laundry and help with gas costs.... only you and your family get to walk through the storm.  
  • Be with friends - Burdens are easier when they are shared and some folks can help you most by letting you talk.  
  • Cut yourself a break - Sometimes when you can't be everywhere and do everything.  Don't waste time trying to justify the choices you are making.  When dealing with a crisis, you can only do what seems right at time.  
  • Celebrate small victories - There is joy even in the difficult times and taking time to celebrate those small moments can really brighten an otherwise dark time.  
  • Seek the Lord - He hears us when we call out to him.  His joy is our strength.  His strength is perfect and His grace is sufficient.  He heals broken hearts, He still does miracles and isn't surprised by anything. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Teaching Music - 101 - 5 things to notice when earning observation hours



When I was in college, I wish I had understood the value of an observation.

Before I started teaching I had to spend hours and hours observing in a "live" school setting.  I was working toward my Bachelor of Music degree with a K-12 certification in choral music.  More than anything, I wanted to see the really cool stuff.  I wanted to see a high school choir rehearsing their contest music.  I wanted to see elementary students playing instruments and games. Sadly, it was not to be.... in fact, when I was faced with the actual observations, I endured them rather than experienced them simply because they weren't what I had hoped for.

  • I spent time observing reading teachers doing running records as part of her reading class. 
  • I spent time observing math centers in action. 
  • I spent time in a 6th grade choir class with 95 students who were learning to sing "I believe I can fly"  except they that isn't what they sang....  instead spoke "Ikaahh fly".,,,,,over and over and over again.......without correction...... 
  • I spent time in an elementary school where the music teacher had been told that instead of music they were supposed to teach phonics.... so even though the students only had music 30 minutes a week, 15 minutes of each lesson was spent singing a, aah, apple.... b, buh, banana..... exciting stuff.  This made me a little crazy because the other 15 minutes of the lesson were really outstanding and I left always wishing I could see more.
  • I even spent time in an early childhood music classroom where the music class had 3 classes at a time!!!!!!  YIKES!  3 classes of pre-k alone with the music teacher!!!!!  
Each of these experiences had their own gritty reality about them.  Because of the way my class schedule fit into their class schedule, I was pretty much stuck with what I had and lucky to get it..... Depending on how your "observation classes" fit in with the rest of your degree plan, you may be in a position where you are forced to be less picky about what and where you observe......  I wouldn't worry too much about it for three reasons....

1.  Even situations that you wouldn't choose for yourself can be very rich in learning.
2.  If you only have a very narrow exposure during observations it will be very difficult for you to contextualize anything.  Music teacher hopefuls benefit from observing in the regular classroom.  Without it, your only idea of what goes on in a regular classroom is what you remember from childhood.... Things have changed!   Music teacher hopefuls benefit from observing in less that perfect musical settings because in real life there are a lot more music teachers who teach in settings that are far from perfect than those folks who have the dream settings.
3.  You can seek out observation hours on your own.  Your semesters are not on the same schedule as ours....So when you are home sometime, contact your old music teacher and set up an observation.

 No matter what subject area, or setting you are told to observe, if you are prepared for your observation, then any observation can be turned into pure GOLD!

The golden observations happen  when you realize that the real power behind any observation is not about the subject matter or setting at all..... An observation is best viewed in light of how the people in the room are behaving and how they are interacting with each other, their environment and their task. 


1.  Notice the children  - Who are these creatures?  The BEST way to be a good teacher is to understand who your students are.
  • Are they enthusiastic?  
  • Are they interested?  
  • Are they on task? If they are not on task, can you identify a cause?  (i.e. time of day, seating arrangement) 
  • If redirection is needed, what sort of redirection do they respond to?
  • How do they interact with the teacher? 
  • How do they interact with their peers?  
  • What seems to motivate them? 
  • What humors them?  
  • What frustrates them? 
2.  Notice the teacher - Notice greatness.  Your focus as the observer should focus on their good habits because those are the ones you want to take with you when you leave.  
  • How does the teacher speak to the children?  
  • Does the tone used, elicit the desired response?
  •  What is this teacher doing that works?  
  • What routines are in place that help facilitate a smoothly run class?  
  • If the lesson starts to veer off track, or gets stuck....what does the teacher do to keep things moving?  
  • What adjustments does the teacher make?  
  • How does the teacher address discipline issues?  
3.  Notice the environment -  Acknowledge the silent contributor.  As the observer, rather than concentrate on what is wrong with the space, focus on what steps the teacher and the students do to adapt to the space. 
  • Is the room well lit and of comfortable temperature?
  •   How has the teacher addressed these issues if they are not optimal?  
  • Is the room cluttered or neat?   Are the students able to navigate easily?  
  • Can they find the items that they use?  
  • If another person enters the room, what is their impact on the overall focus? 
  •  What sorts of things are posted in the room that the students or the teacher actually refer to
  • What sorts of things are posted in the room that seemingly have no purpose?
4.  Notice the teacher-student collaboration - Collaboration is the maker or breaker of any classroom experience.  As the observer, start honing your ability to observe how the social interactions within the classroom affect the learning outcomes.  
  • What is the culture of the classroom?  
  • How does the teacher include everyone?  
  • How do the children treat each other?  
  • Are tasks released to the students or is the teacher doing all of the work?  
  • What questioning strategies does the teacher use to keep everyone invested in the lesson? 
  • What jobs and responsibilities do the students have in order to facilitate the class culture? (i.e. line leader, or study buddy) 

5.  Notice quality - what were your favorites? 
  • What transitions worked best? 
  • What activities worked best? 
  • Where was the source of motivation? 
  • What strategies were used to facilitate independent practice?
  • What methods were used to help students demonstrate their knowledge? 






Thursday, January 8, 2015

Musical First Aide - a practical guide to teaching music when your personal life is in crisis - Part 2 - Managing the Crisis


This was a tough year for my family.  Between December of 2013 to March 2014 my dad spent 120 consecutive days in the hospital.  Most of those days were in ICU.  I'm pleased to say that he is doing VERY well today, but it has been a long and difficult journey.    As I look back on this year I can say that there were several things that happened before, during and after the crisis that allowed me to continue to teach in the midst of the chaos.  I'm sharing these in hopes that these posts might help those in difficult circumstances.  
  

Here is a link to Part 1 - Planning and Preparation

  

Managing work responsibilities while in a season of crisis!  
  1. Don't drive yourself when you get bad news!   My dad was in the ICU but stable, so I felt OK about being at work.  My brother was with my parents and  I was scheduled to take the day off a couple of days later when my mom would need a break from the hospital.  At lunch I realized that I had missed several phone calls and a text from my mom indicated that my immediate presence was needed at the hospital.  In addition to being upset and in a hurry, I was more than an hour away from the hospital.  I informed my administration about what was going on and then got in my car.  I drove about a block when I realized that being behind the wheel was REALLY a bad idea for me.  I was able to contact a friend who drove me to the hospital.  I got there safely and therefore avoided additional crisis.  Don't drive yourself when you get bad news!    
  2. Understand your Human Resources Department!    In addition to being experts about everything you need to know about insurance, leaves of absence, disability, donated sick days and what happens to your pay check when you miss too many days, they also have information about resources such as family counseling and various avenues of assistance that are available to employees in crisis.  My dad had a turn for the worse right before the winter holidays.  One of the last things that I did before the administration offices closed was take the time to speak with one of the folks who would help me take a leave of absence if it was eventually needed.  Because I knew I would be off for two weeks no matter what happened, I needed to start the ball rolling early.  
  3. Get creative with how you use your days.  - In December and January especially I spent a LOT of time at the hospital, and as much time as I was there, I also knew that I wanted to stretch out my days as long as possible.  I took LOTS of half days especially when my dad was in ICU because the ICU was closed from 6:00-10:00 a.m. anyway, so it didn't make sense for me to be there when I could e at work saving days for another week.    When my dad was awake, he was happiest and calmest when we were with him.  We were happiest and calmest when we were with him, so it worked out best if we were all together.  I also found it VERY helpful to take advantage of weird days at school.   Music teachers everywhere know that specials are often the first classes to get hit with the "weird schedule" stick at school.   While my dad was in the hospital, we had our annual visit from the local dentist and our annual PTA fundraiser grade level pep rallies.  Both events took place during what should have been my teaching time.  However, when you are facing a crisis, your time is worth gold, therefore, I very happily took the days and spent them with my dad while I  let my sub sit in on the dental hygiene lecture and listening to the fund raiser pep rally 6 times.    Don't waste your time at school NOT teaching! You might need that day to take your turn at the hospital.  You might need that day at home to do laundry and to prep upcoming lessons.  Do what you need to do!  
  4. Time is precious so prioritize.  -Because I didn't choose to take a leave of absence, I was at school 1-2 days a week during the toughest times.  When I was at work, I felt like I could work all day but I had to be very choosy.  What was I doing?  I was creating GOOD sub plans, I was teaching the tough stuff and I was letting the small stuff go.  While in the hospital waiting room, I submitted my grades, wrote emails, did any computer prep work I could do and wrote lesson plans.  This helped me to keep things going at work but more importantly, it kept my mind occupied during the LONG LONG LONG LONG hours of unknowns and waiting!    "Let it Go!" was sort of my theme song.  Music teachers are sort of control freaks and when things got crazy at home, I couldn't control everything anymore so there were things that I had to let go of.... which leads me to my next point...
  5. Receive help gracefully!!!!!  My co-teacher, my specials team, my grade level teams and my administrators were absolutely amazing.  They were so faithful to help out.  Of course, I can't even begin to tell you the hours that my co-teacher spent making sure that I had all of my bases covered.  I can't tell you because she didn't burden me with that stress... THAT is how awesome she is!!!!    I pretty much had to dump an entire choir concert and full day multiple stop field trip in her lap.  She was a champ.  She stepped up and took charge.  My team helped cover my classes when I had to leave and a sub wasn't available.  My team leader helped by being another "heavy" at our concert.  He even served as MC during the concert.  It is a role that I would usually fill, but although I managed to attend and conduct the concert, I was not REALLY there, don't actually remember the concert and wouldn't have been fit to hold the microphone, let alone speak coherently.  We muscled through that concert as a team.  One of the 5th grade teachers was even on stand by as an emergency conductor.  She attended the last week of choir rehearsals, learned the music and was ready to step in if needed.   My administrators also worked with me to find solutions to make sure that when I was in need, my students didn't suffer. 
  6. Communicate - Depending on your type of crisis, you may not want the world knowing your business, but you do need to communicate with you co-teacher or team leader and admin.  They can't help you or problem solve with you if they don't know what is going on.  Be sure and let them know if it's ok for others on your campus to know your news.  You have the right to be private if you choose. 
  7. Don't procrastinate - None of us know the future.  If you have time to make that phone call or 5 minutes to order your recorders then do it today!  There are so many things beyond our control that we have to wait on, so at least at work, don't put things off, you might need tomorrow to do something important. 
  8. Record yourself -  A picture is worth a thousand words and a poor quality, in a hurry, on the fly video is worth a million.  With the iphone in your pocket you can make a pretty great video. You can demonstrate choreography you can teach a descant....AND you can talk faster than you can type..... There were a couple times when I needed to move quickly that a video on the music ipad was the fastest way to communicate with my co-teacher and sub.  I'm glad that those videos have since been lost, but they worked better and were faster than anything else.  
  9. Embrace flexible scheduling - Sometimes, you can ease your stress significantly by making adjustments to your calendar.  Move performances, trade performances with another department, or even cancel.... it will be ok..... really..... it will be ok.....  
  10. Keep it simple.  No one will take away your music teacher card if you simplify.  In fact, if YOU simplify, then perhaps your students will shine brighter!  It is after all about the students. Do something they already know.  Choose a program you've done before.  Decide not to have speaking parts and just sing.  Decide to wear holiday outfits from home instead of music room costumes.  There are LOTS of ways to shave the fluff out of your music class.... The fluff may be what you love the best, but when there is a crisis, you might drown in fluff, so get rid of it.
    • GREAT Sub plans are SUPER Important - This year has confirmed in my heart something that I've been known to be true for a long time.  There is no such thing as a silver bullet sub plan.  Sub plans are not something you can turn in to the office before the first day of school and expect them to hold any instructional water.  They must be changed and updated regularly so that they fit into and can somewhat approximate where you are in your road map.  You can certainly move things around so that the sub isn't teaching the tough stuff, but when our lives get crazy, we run out of easy stuff for the subs to teach and we just have to let go of getting to teach the tough stuff ourselves and make sure that our sub plans are excellent.  With that in mind, there are some excellent resources available.  These two are my favorite resources to use if I have a need for something easy, quick and prepared.  

    I have also written a post about how to develop good sub plans HERE!