Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thoughts on Music and 'Presence' in the Music Classroom

Recently I was asked to respond to some questions and ideas for a music education research project. I always love the opportunity to explore the what and why of what I do and so I want to share my responses with you. Hope you enjoy. I would love to hear your thoughts! 
How do you describe yourself as a person? 
Outgoing, energetic, loquacious, family man, creative, and observational by nature. I seem to function either in the shadows watching and learning, or in a leadership roll.  I have done a lot of working with other projects and helping people to achieve success, but lately (the last 2-3 years), I have been consumed with my own projects and work, which includes my family, my career as an educator and my music...(in that order).

Describe why music is important to you.  
  It is important to me because it deals with the fundamental vibrations that affect humankind. I believe the study of music is the study of the human experience as it relates to space and time. I believe an understanding of music leads to a larger understanding of relationships, emotions, feelings, flow, and nature (to name a few).  I believe musicians do work with the human soul, on par with that of a surgeon or therapist. The experience of music brings people together (literally) using vibratory frequencies that resonate every part of our physical being.  Music is used to sell everything there is to sell, (aside from itself, ironically). It is a vehicle for social change and understanding, which makes it vitally important to understand and administer with good intentions. As a performer and educator dealing in the medium of music, I feel a great responsibility to show people the good that comes from pouring positive physical energy into musical experience.

“Presence” in the classroom has been defined as:
“a state of alert awareness, receptivity and connectedness to the mental, emotional and physical workings of both the individual and the group in the context of their learning environments and the ability to respond with a considered and compassionate best next step (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006, p. 266) 

Describe a moment when you felt you had “presence” in the classroom. 
  The first month of the school year consists of a massive organizational effort on my part to set up the structure, create the space and empower students to create, observe, practice good habits and communicate.  Once this effort has been made, my role in the classroom goes through a rather large shift from leading from the front of the room to sitting on the side, keenly observing, providing the tools, guidance, and praise that is required to keep the students focused, happy, and creative.  When class starts and a 4th grade student walks to the front of class full of 4th-8th grade students, gets everyone's attention and starts a warm up, then proceeds to guide the warm-up for the next 15 minutes uninterrupted (by me), I feel the sense of presence as described above. I feel lucky to have this feeling on a daily basis with my students.

Describe a time when you felt a lack of presence in the classroom. 
  Our school sits on 40 acres of woods and fields. Occasionally a flying bug or a bee will make it's way into the rehearsal space. When this happens students get distracted, pulled off task and they wind up pursuing the solution to the perceived "problem" we squish it, or capture it and set it free?  Either way they are pulled away from the work at hand and a rift in the classroom dynamic is created. I then feel as though I have to bring the process to an end, reset, and pick back up again.  The distractions are not always bug related, they can be from a student who forgot their instrument, or a rift between two students that started before they came to music....Whatever the reason, these distractions pull us out of our present state and require a different sort of attention. I take it as my challenge to keep the flow as much as possible by teaching focus and inspiring good work regardless of setbacks. This is perhaps the biggest daily challenge for any teacher (or, come to think of it, any leader of any kind... a band leader, a kitchen chef or boardroom boss). These are human issues, which I will say again, relate to the importance of studying get to work on these issues in the pursuit of something beautiful. How great is that!?!

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Introducing to my Students - First Impressions

  My school recently (last week) agreed to providing a yearly subscription to's new EDU website, which gives all of my students in the Upper Elementary and Middle School grades their own Soundtrap account with unlimited space for projects and access to over 2700 loops.  I could not be happier.  The simplicity, ease of use and ability to share and collaborate on projects instantly created a huge buzz with the students....I can already see that this was a very good decision.

  I also see that although this is probably the most powerful creation tool I have been able to offer my students, it does not mean that they will have instant success composing and producing original music that they can share with the world as their own. There are some basic principles and many lessons to teach in order to get them using this technology as a tool to make original music. I will outline some of those here.

1. Making the leap.
  My approach with new technology is usually to jump in the deep end and see what happens. So in that spirit, I sent all of my Middle School and Upper El students a link to join and let them go to town. No assignment, no direction. I just open the doors and let them play. I did ask them to share their projects with me. The whole experience has been great, I love getting the message "Evan wants to share his project with you" in my inbox. I can just click and play and hear what they have done within a few seconds. Occasionally I make adjustments, add a part here and there and message them back.  All of this happening on the outskirts of actual class/teaching time and it feels like I am hanging out with the students in their domain. Not everyone is on board, but in this case, the students have been getting other students interested and signing on, the snowball effect is apparent.
  In hindsight:  I may have made some sort of simple assignment that is required in order to get everyone up and running right away, although I can still do that, and now I have some mavericks that can assist in getting the new students up and running.

2. At first, it is all about the loops.
  With the Soundtrap Edu account, students have access to a huge loop library.  Loops are short snipets of sounds, (2,4,8,or 16 beats long) that have been professionally recorded and mastered and can be placed into a track and repeated as much or little as the user desires.  So far, my students are showing a great affinity for the drum and bass loops, which is great. They have a good instinct for the foundational aspects of music creation.  There are many many more loops to play with, so it will be interesting to see how they use them.  Here is a screenshot of the loop categories:
Each of these categories contains many many loop choices. So far my students have focused on DRUMS, BEATS and BASS loops. 
  Although they are creating wonderful sounding pieces, they are all no more than 8 or 16 measures and there is no harmonic movement.  There is also very little in the way of structure, just a wall of loops stacked on each other.  Here is another screenshot where you can see the student started right out of the gate stacking loops for 8 measures. I actually extended the piece and put in some sound FX and a heavy "4 on the floor" loop (in green), to elevate the original idea and begin to create some shape (just sharing the picture here, no audio):

3. Moving forward - First lesson ideas, structure and harmony.

  So being one week in, I am already getting an idea of how I can not only provide the students with this amazing tool, but also guide them through a process of creating a song that has complex structure and some harmonic movement.  Here are some ideas:

Mapping Music Lesson:
  Have the students pick a favorite song, map out the basic structure, then apply that structure to their piece.  Here is an example that a student mapped out of one of her favorite songs (the numbers on the right are the length in measures). 
  She then took this map to and began creating loops that matched the length of each part.  She decided that 12 measures was too long for the verses, so she shortened them to 8, which is great, all part of the process of taking ownership.  The key: She is not making a replica of her favorite song, she is just using the skeleton to create something totally new.

Chord Progression Lesson:
  Earlier in the year I gave some lessons on popular chord progressions, I-IV-V-I and the like.  Some of my middle school students took these lessons to (incredible free online music notation software) and wrote some melodies to lay over these simple chord progressions.  We then exported the written music as a .MIDI file.  I found that if you rename the file to a .MID (take away the I), you can simply drag and drop them into Soundtrap!  The different voices in the score automatically became separate tracks, which we could then assign different instruments and sounds to.  It also imported all the tempo and key data, which meant we could then add loops and really bring the music to another level. 

  As an added bonus, (which I did not see coming)...When the student played the enhanced piece for the string orchestra they immediately asked if they could play it at the next concert.  So she printed off the parts and now we will be performing the piece. She will also release the studio version on the next School album!! 

You can visit to hear the last 10 years of original student work from my students at Go Like The Wind School in Ann Arbor, MI.  It is already apparent that will play a huge role in the next album set to release in June.  I could not be more excited, and there is so much more to explore!!