Lecture 2: Music 1Y (& musical stuff this week)

March 13, 2010

This week has been something of a roller coaster for me, and today I’m absolutely wrung out. As a full-time school music teacher doing my MTeach after 7 years or so of classroom teaching, somehow fitting it in part-time (UWS gave me advanced standing for half the course), the normal whirlwind/roller coaster of a music teacher is compounded by a couple of nights at uni. But the learning and complementarities are amazing. So I thought I’d reflect on a week’s learning in our musical 21st century, in 21st century style (i.e. in a blog). As well as real life links, there’s crossover of the MTeach Tues 1x and Mon 1y classes too.

Some of the things I’ve taught or got involved in this week:

Teaching Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’

Monday taught Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ to a small Y11 Music 1 class, and also used it as an aural transcription and structural analysis preparation for Y12 Music 1 half yearly aural (written listening paper) exam. Looking at how melody makes harmony, and how the texture builds, and how the small-scale and large scale structure of the piece works. The Snow Patrol piece was suggested by my compatriots Adam and Dan from the MTeach class as a good I V IV song: we were doing a presentation on how to create a chord progression for a Year 8 class on Tues night. So I thought I’d try it out live on a couple of classes to see what emerged.

That raises the point that I’ve often found that if you have an idea for a class (a song or a piece of music to teach): just go for it. The material that you bring to the class has its own logic which unfolds as you work with and interact with the students. Doing a transcription with the class as you go is a great learning experience for all. You have the benefit of everyone’s ears, and you learn to trust your own experience. It’s often amazing the depth to which you can go, as you unpack together musical elements that make up the piece, and the discoveries you can make too. Many of the musicians in the class get inspired by the real-world-ness of it all. There are always the sceptics or the less engaged, but sometimes even they get dragged into the inspiration too. Preparation of course is good and highly recommended and necessary too, but I find that you mostly don’t have time to prepare everything as fully as you want.

So that three-chord song (but remember that Schenker taught us that all tonal music only has two chords anyway, so I’m not disparaging at all about simple structures) ended up feeding into ideas for how to teach it to the MTeach class on Tues, which ended up being a bit improvisational as we had discussed what to do, but hadn’t really worked together before. Anyway seemed to go alright on the night.


Spent a bit of time looking through everyone’s blogs. Well about 20. Looks like the rest of the class (aren’t there nearly 40 people?) hadn’t done theirs yet. Will look later. Haven’t commented on anyone’s yet. Thought I’d read next week’s lot before that.

Thinking about musical concepts/elements

A few reflections on musical concepts, triggered partly by student comments on James’s first lecture where he introduced the terminology. When I introduce musical concepts to students I always like to expand the conversation, especially with senior students. I tell them NSW Board of Studies divide up ‘musical concepts’ one way: texture, structure, timbre, pitch, duration, dynamics and expressive techniques. While the ‘rest of the world’ tend to call them ‘musical elements’ or ‘musical parameters’: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, structure; and dynamics/expressive stuff tends to get looked at as part of performance practice. So that way already we’ve expanded the field.

And the way musicians use texture is really interesting, as it overlaps with timbre. Andy Summers, guitarist from the Police, is widely described as a texturalist: an early explorer of chorus and flanging devices, which add layers to your sound: timbres become textures through micro pitch shifting and delays, in emulation of what happens in choirs and orchestras. And check out Pat Metheny’s sound in this way too. Or Adrian Belew’s. Or shakuhachi players.

So the boundaries are blurred. But I tell students that it’s important to use the words as accurately as you can, despite the complexity, but to always remember that the aim is communication.

Then this week I got to thinking that one of the issues with using and applying musical concepts or elements terminology is that we are dealing here with multiple modes. When we talk about sound events we are always using metaphors and abstractions, attempting to represent time-based sound events graphically (i.e. in writing or diagrams) or in speech. Multimodal is of course all in vogue, as it becomes more obvious as we all think through our wide exposure to visual media. I almost always now use visual examples of music in the classroom, of every sort of music, whether it’s Bartok or Beethoven or Beth Ditto or Bjork or Benny Goodman. Way better engagement from students. Way more to ‘get’. The vague and distant is brought close through visual concert or other filmed media.

Orchestral horn player gets inspired by Antony & the Johnsons

I talked this week with a horn player (French horn that is) who is a  peripatetic teacher at our school who’d had a gig in the orchestra playing with Antony and the Johnsons recently (late Jan /early Feb 2010) at the Opera house. She’d had her socks blown off by the experience, as had others in the orchestra apparently. They first thought it was just some pop gig with some band they’d never heard of. Only to realise that this guy’s an amazing songwriter and singer. Orchestra were apparently all messaging one another for days after the experience. They were stoked too to have four rehearsals. Unheard of: it’s usually just sight read and go home. The charts were by Nico Muhly who you might have heard of through his Bjork and Phillip Glass connections. Anyway I was interested to get an insight from a musician who was genuinely moved by the experience.

Gesture and embodiment

Intrigued this week too that Anne Power in her 1x class mentioned gesture and embodiment in several ways: I’ve been intrigued by these ideas particularly over the last year or so and constantly look for opportunities to integrate embodiment and gesture explicitly into music teaching. There’s a whole interdisciplinary field out there of embodied cognition and specifically embodied musical cognition, combining musicians, music technologists, robotics people, you name it. If you’re interested, go check out Alexander Refsum Jensenius’s PhD thesis for starters. It’s pretty accessible.

Viva la Vida lives

We’re reviving Coldplay’s Viva la Vida for an assembly performance next week. We did this last year based around a string group and a seriously good female pop/rock singer we have in the current Year 11. I created some string parts last year from adapting the commercial piano/guitar sheet music transcription, with lots of listening too. Great success when we did it. We want to be better this time. Added some voices from our choir, some wind players. Struggling with smaller string group and lunchtime only rehearsals. And some newer people. And we lost a few players who’d left school from last yr. The Monday rehearsal was OK-ish. The Friday one had some spectacular moments. So we’re on track to blow them away next week. Tip: always aim to blow people away with a school performance. There is a lame-its-only-a-school-band expectation in all of us. Fight the stereotype. Students can do professional level work under the right conditions, even people with limited experience.

Old guy learns punk guitar energy

Then on Wed I was playing guitar for a student who’s performing at a concert next week for Year 12 electives. I’m learning guitar for ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ by the Gossip. Rehearsals went well. Today getting some inspiration from The Gossip themselves. Energy with one guitar, one drummer, one voice in a mega stadium festival. Wow!

We run all our elective performances at school as concerts now, as the students really rise to the occasion and you frequently get professional levels of rehearsal and performance happening. We encourage students to not only work with each other and teachers but ex students, professionals too, where they or we have the contacts.

Florence teaches us to go cosmic

Later in the week rehearsing with another student who’s singing Florence and the Machine’s ‘Cosmic Love’ at that same concert. I’m attempting to substitute a guitaristic acoustic guitar part for the harp part on the original. Hmm. But the band and vocalists are sounding great.

Bebop is back

In between I was being a jazz electric bass player for another student rehearsing for the same concert. Trumpet player doing bebop, Bobby Shew’s ‘Red Snapper’. Kind of stretching for me, but I can fake it/rise to it. Must practice more this week.

Mozart keeps on through Nyman

In between all that I had quite a successful large group prac class where we learned in an hour and a half or so with a whole mixed bag year 10 class to play Michael Nyman’s ‘In Re Don Giovanni’. Minimalist adaptation of the opening of the ‘Catalogue aria’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Laurie Anderson is coming to town

The same class discovered for me that Laurie Anderson is coming to town, to the 2010 version of the Luminous Festival, now called the Sydney VividFestival. This class is much amused by my attempts to inspire them with the classic ‘O Superman’. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha of course is part of the laugh. And we played Anderson’s ‘Born Never Asked’ in class too. But what I loved is that the people who thought ‘O Superman’ was a joke, actually then discovered that Laurie Anderson played in the festival associated with the 2010 Winter Olympics, that she’s married to Lou Reed and they work together, and that she’s in town soon. And they’re both curating the festival. Hey, maybe this isn’t just the ravings of a crazed music teacher! Hey maybe I can learn something here! An outbreak of learning. Well viral learning maybe.

Learning breaks out in school despite our best efforts

Earlier in the week, I had a real outbreak of learning in a Year 8 class I’d set an open ended task of composing in self-chosen small groups using guitar, recorder,  optional voices, optional piano other instruments. One group created an amazing song, drawing on all the skills in their group, including encouraging one another, learning from one another, cueing one another, writing words: it was an absolute joy to watch. They begged to play their piece for the whole class, which they did on Friday. And the class was astounded too. I’m continually amazed at what students can achieve if given their way, in self chosen groups.

Making a band out of five piano players?

And in the middle of the week forming an ensemble with our Year 5 & 6 students: five piano players, drums and acoustic guitar: figuring out possible repertoire and adaptations started with ‘Bags Groove’ (Milt Jackson) and ‘C Jam blues’ (Ellington). Thinking of adapting some Jamey Aebersold stuff ‘Watermelon Man’ (Herbie Hancock), or maybe getting some Afro or S American folk tunes going with some marimbas and stuff. Or maybe try some simpler jazz charts from the filing cabinet. Great musicians. Bit of a new challenge for me.

Folk music goes on

Then there’s another folk oriented group I’m rehearsing with, a few members missing due to Y12 exams. A fiddle group with rhythm section. Trying some repertoire derived from Bellowhead (‘Sloe Gin’), Steeleye Span (‘Mooncoin Jig’) and the String Sisters (‘Luseblus’).

Some interstate visitors

In the middle of the week had emails from Australia’s multicultural music pioneer Linsey Pollak who’s in town in the middle of the July holidays – wishing we could run a concert for students, which we probably can’t – and the Melbourne Scottish Fiddlers: we’re working on that in the September holidays: workshops for strings.

Linking music learning to life

So what’s all this music-teacher-plays-punk-rock-jazz-minimalism-electrpop-folk-guitar-bass-fiddle-mandolin-viola-conductor-recorder-all-in-the-one-week (and who’s head nearly explodes with the confusion & conglomeration of it all) got to do with MTeach classes? Well everything really. I find that everything I come across in my musical life (including MTeach lectures) becomes part of my teaching, either directly (e.g. use of pieces of music I discover; adapting someone’s conceptual ideas) or indirectly (your experience of art changes the way you experience life and the world). And all my teaching affects my musical development. And everything I’ve ever done in music finds some kind of link somewhere to something in school.

And it is so inspiring to work with enthusiastic students. Sometimes they’re overtly enthusiastic, sometimes quietly so. Sometimes you get direct feedback. Sometimes you find out years later that someone got switched on by something they experienced in your class. Sometimes you’re not quite sure what people think. Sometimes people are hostile too: I have had quite negative reactions from good student musicians who find my open-to-all-music approach totally different from their AMEB experience or whatever. But thankfully they’re the minority, and some eventually recover anyway. And I am working on strategies in true teacher style to engage the disengaged, including the disengaged who think they’re above it all; and to find more ways to encourage students to self-differentiate their learning.

And students are amazing sources of new networked knowledge: they discover things and pass them to you. Likewise you discover things and pass it to them. Kind of like real life really!

Prince and Purple Rain is back

It was good to have a Prince song brought to our attention by James in the lecture. ‘When Doves Cry’ is of course familiar in a general sort of a way, but I think I know more about Prince second-hand than directly. Another artist to catch up on. I went through a catch-up on Dylan phase last year: listening to albums, watching films. Feeling like I need to do that with Prince. The problem (or joy, depending how you look at it) is that there is so much music and art in human history, you never can really keep up. I guess that’s one advantage of human community: you can keep up by keeping in touch.

Bluegrass keeps on

With bluegrass (one of the versions of ‘When Doves Cry’) I worry that it’s just seen as humorous. But bluegrass musos are very aware of their redneck image and often mercilessly or subtly send themselves up. And while we’re raving about country, the Nashville musos are some of the most amazing virtuosos on the planet: Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss et al. Check out another version of When Doves Cry, on the Live Music Archive of Internet Audio Archives, by Greensky Bluegrass band: it comes off kind of like one of the existentialist-meditative tracks from the legendary Seldom Scene.

What is the Live Music Archive?

The Live Music Archive is an incredible resource of music recorded by live tapers and published by permission of the bands themselves. Largely jam-band oriented stuff, but you’ll be amazed at the range: GYBE, Rusted Root, John Butler, G-Love, The Waybacks, The Grateful Dead. Thousands of bands.  Tens of thousands of concerts in full-fidelity audio (44.1 Khz uncompressed) if you have enough hard disk space and bandwidth: but they’re mostly in mp3 as well. All free.

Communal fandom is everywhere

James mentioned Pavement, going to gig etc, anticipation, awesome experience etc. So I thought I’d better check this lot out. Hmm American lo-fi legends on a reunion tour. Seem to attract lots of adulation for ‘core fans: “this is f*****g Pavement!” So I found a Pavement podcast and had a bit of a listen. Sheesh, lo-fi alright. But kinda cool. Acquired taste I guess. Hey I can go weirder: try Pruitt Igoe! His enthusiasm (James’s that is) reminded me of a friend’s enthusiasm for Elbow. And I’m intrigued too by that process of fandom and communal expectation facing a visiting artist who you’ve managed to get tickets to. Like festival expectation fever: an interesting expression of artistic/aesthetic/human community. What would the anthropologists make of it all?

While on the subject of weird and the wondrous:

I love New Weird America: check out Joanna Newsom:

And here’s a link my son sent me this week, the wondrous late Esbjorn Svensson playing when ‘God invented the coffee break’:

This blog started off as a reflection of what happened to me musically this week, allied to MTeach learning, and it’s kind of blurred into a reflection on my thoughts about music this week too. So get bored or inspired as you will. But keep up the good musical work wherever you’re doing it, especially if you’re working to find ways of firing up our young people.

Andrew Tredinnick

Well the week’s only just got started and the blog’s running on… Here’s some other things that I was involved in at school later this week:

One Response to “Lecture 2: Music 1Y (& musical stuff this week)”

  1. aftertrace Says:

    I love Joanna Newsom! Another great blog, Tredders, lots for your co-educators out there to learn and many points we should extemporise on in our next lecture.

    Keep it up.


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