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What a wonderful world

Today I was inspired. I woke up to a fantastic video posted by my friend Duane Padilla. He has done things for me on my MUS654 music course- recorded videos, and chatted to us in one of our hangouts – he is an all round inspiring musician. Today he shared this video of himself playing a multi-track version of ‘Let it Snow’ using an app called Acapella.

Duane discovered this app right after it was released and spread the word quickly – basically it lets you record multi-track 1 minute videos for free. He had sent me a happy birthday track a week ago, and I have been mentioning the app to my students and other musicians, and I kept thinking to myself… the next time I have a ‘free day’ I should have a go with that app…

Today was that day! My aim was to do the first minute of Louis Armstrong’s live performance of ‘What a Wonderful World’. Here’s what I ended up with:


Thanks for the inspiration Duane!

This first effort goes to Charlotte, who asked me to play a song for her. :)


Beyond the box

We’ve all heard about thinking outside the box. How about thinking outside the bucket? What about thinking outside…

Outside the discipline?

Outside the medium?

How about opening your mind beyond the box?

In couple of recent classes I asked my students to show me music. I did’t want an essay – did’t want to have words. I want them to experience music in another way, and then to be able to recognise and communicate this to others.


Because we are all unique. I will never really know you, I cannot be a spectator inside your experience, your mind. For me that means that as a teacher I will never really know my students or as a performer, my audience, but if I can learn to communicate and experience in different ways, then perhaps I will have more of a chance of connecting. –or at least of gaining and giving a window into that communication.

I suppose it stems from a constructivist approach to learning, that we do and the more different ways you do something, the more likely it is to stick and sink in:

Write it. Read it. Speak it. Hear it. Feel it. Touch it. Taste it

(ok that is going too far for most academic subjects. We would all prefer not to eat our words… unless written on rice paper and then that is a totally fun exercise).

The idea of doing those things gives a holistic experience and often opens our minds to seeing whatever ‘it’ is in a new light.

2260493084_bbf9d4916a_zWe see the glint of a new side to the disco ball. As a child I was allowed to choose to buy something in a shop on a family holiday. I have no idea where we were, but I chose a crystal – it might have cost $3 – and it was the kind of thing that people would hang from the rear view mirror in the late 70s/early 80s. It looked like it could be a 40 Karat diamond to me, about an inch across at its widest, and had a hole at the top with a bit of fishing line strung through to hang it. Not as nice as the one in this photo (shared by Robert Wallace CC BY-NC-ND). Mine wasn’t very pretty, had a chip or two, and the fishing line was a bit ratty, but when I held that up to the sunlight it made the most amazing rainbows. I kept that thing until after I graduated from college. I used to dream looking at it and I promise that my mind was outside – there was no box, no idea of a box, no limit at all.

In education, often there are boxes.

  • 3351771579_e6e490ac28_zTick boxes.
  • A line for your name.
  • Don’t forget to box your answer.
  • Submit your essay in the correct submission box.
  • The dropbox.
  • The box file.

Time to get our heads out of the boxes. (Photo by Holger Ejleby CC BY-NC-ND)

The best use for a box is often to build a fort, a house, or to use it as a sled when going down a staircase, and certainly in most cases not as a box.

These stories are relevant to higher education and teaching and learning. In my classes we do things that get you out of the box. (I encourage recycling of all boxes)

As a teaching mechanism we learn to express music in different forms. How would you physically represent your learning?

I’ve had students come up with everything from maps, to lego models, to a bucket filled with things from a banana to a cactus, to a quilt in progress, to a cake (and that was a completely delicious class).

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 09.24.36 Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 09.25.06 Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 09.26.08

This year my model (yes, I do the homework too) contained things like a peanut butter clif bar – for those times when you need a power boost, a stick and a candy bar (should have had a carrot to be traditional and healthy!), a leaf – because there is always some random distraction in there, and plenty of other things, but

you will never see these things.

My learning model was sealed in a giant brown envelope, because most of the time we don’t show our learning. –that’s a conversation for another post. The point is that in that exercise everyone was able to see a part of the rainbow that is inside that crystal. What was once clear, obvious, and easily describable, turned out to be far more elaborate and complex. Learning is complex. It is individual, and all that experimenting, learning, failing, and doing again takes courage, stamina, and conviction.

IMG_4902We also draw melodies. I love that. It is amazing though how timid a musician can become when asked to draw what they hear. What could be intimidating about that? A blank sheet of paper, a pencil, and no rules – whatever you do is correct and valid simply because it is your experience? (I took away that box again…) We aren’t used to thinking that way, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be. These two drawings are what I came up with – in response to music on the viola and on the guitar.

IMG_4903Give it a go. Challenge yourself to express something that you do in a different way, through a different medium. It is liberating, and it feels good in your brain too. I hope it helps us both to look at ourselves and to respect and sympathise with others as they learn, express, and assimilate different skills and knowledge into whatever they are doing or creating.

Featured image shared by id-iom CC BY-NC

Thinking time!

It’s thinking time in MUS654!

We should be working on Session 7, but you know what? People needed a bit of stepping back and thinking, so I added a page and we have delayed that session for a week. 

Photo byIan Foss CC BY-NC-ND

In this class, MUS654, through these pages, the goal (if you do them all, and especially if you are one of my face-to-face students at uni) is to build a curriculum for a learner. but…

I haven’t yet talked about what a curriculum is.

What does it look like?

What can it be?

So I’ve added a page about curriculum.

Don’t worry – I am not going to tell anyone exactly what or how to do things, but with this page, I encourage you to read, think, and discuss.

Here’s the new page:

Thinking time: What is a curriculum anyway?

If you missed our hangout last week, we spoke with our special guest Jonathan Rees, tuba performer and teacher form London, and we were also joined by Rob Murray from Music Academy for Schools. You can catch up here:


There is NO hangout this week (sorry!), but we will start up with hangouts again on Nov. 4 at 6pm GMT.

If anyone would like to join us, please get in touch!

We’ll pick up with Session 7 next week, where we start to explore planning a rationale and relating some of these concepts about curriculum to music.

In the meantime, happy reading!


Yes I Can: Self-efficacy

‘Yes I Can’ is about having that growth mindset. More than that, it’s what happens when you have it. There are huge differences between fixed concepts of ability and the expanding conception of capability. There are reasons for fostering beliefs about capability, self-efficacy beliefs, in people. Self-efficacy is about having a growth mindset for a specific task. Actually we need it for so many different things everyday, but it isn’t a blanket belief that covers all. ‘Yes I Can’ in one setting doesn’t necessarily translate to another. And why not? Maybe you were one of the kids who was lucky enough to have a fantastically supportive environment where YES was the default, or maybe you had a more typical experience where there was at least one thing in life where some unthinking grown-up told you that you would never do that… whether it was singing, acting, public speaking, spelling, or even wearing that shirt in public. These things have an impact.

‘Yes I Can’ doesn’t happen overnight, and to make it last takes more than a reading of the well known story The little engine who could.

2290311284_9fcb47c167_zImage CC BY-NC-SA by Viki

I was talking to my students about teaching (I lead a degree in Instrumental / Vocal Teaching for musicians) and we got to thinking about the differences between school learning and university – and then of course compared these to music learning. In school, at least in the UK, currently there is a strong trend to teach to the test. When children approach the final years of school here, they take big end of year subject exams that have a huge impact on university entrance. It is different to sitting an SAT test on a Saturday, because most of what you do in school is geared toward that final assessment. Even at 15, the coursework counts toward the grade that determines which three or four subjects a student can specialise in for those final two years of school. There is huge pressure, and huge formula. My own teenage children come home and I say things like-‘ Can I see a draft of your essay?’ and just last weekend I was met with the retort ‘Why would I show it to you? Do you know how we are required to structure the essay?’ -I felt like I didn’t have a good reply. Sometimes when you’re in a horserace, there are hoops to jump, but that doesn’t mean that they are the defining factors of your learning. I hope we can all go beyond, and learn because we want to, and because we can. But, grades, rules, exams, these things all impose restrictions and as much as any teacher would like to say it doesn’t happen, there is teaching to the test, at any level. It is simply that our students have a lot of it in the final years of their schooling.

What happens next is a shock to the system.

At university, there is a strong push to develop autonomous learners, to develop people who will make a lasting contribution to society, to guide those who will change the world. Individual differences are valued and encouraged. The skills that were honed to write just so, to answer with the correctly phrased re-articulation of the definition of a plate tectonics are no longer being asked for. I am not saying these activities are useless. That foundation of factual knowledge and the understanding of how to follow rules is essential and is one of many skills needed as people navigate life. I love how Stravinsky found freedom in the confines of rules. He was known for pushing boundaries in his music, not through anarchic daydreaming, but with an extremely high level of skill, careful compositional planning, and precisely notated instructions. He said:

349px-Igor_Stravinsky_LOC_32392u“Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible. My freedom consists in moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.” (Stravinsky, 1970, p.65)

Photo by George Grantham Bain Collection – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.32392. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The foundational knowledge learned through the final school years is useful, and forms a base from which people move forward, but students can be unprepared for the dramatic change in tack of methods of learning and expectations they meet as they begin their university education.

A growth mindset is definitely needed, but there is also a need for transitions to be facilitated, and for the positive ‘Yes I Can’ self-efficacy beliefs to be developed and enacted. There has been a growing awareness of practical links between university learning and achievements and professional life, with the rise in vocational courses and the emphasis on embedding employability.

Self-efficacy is about the ‘Yes I Can’ and teachers can do a lot to help foster this.

Self-belief is at the core, but is not enough. It is backed up with skills and the practical accomplishments that demonstrate the reality that actually, yes, you can do something.

This morning, mid typing I read Alan Levine’s Tedx talk about +/- memory and how that relates to teachers you may have had, who makes an impact, and what you remember, and he recalled the positive impact of various teachers throughout his education. I thought, yep, I was really lucky to have a few of those teachers who really made a difference because they showed me how to develop that belief. It takes work for an educator and it is not something that can come from an extra assignment or additional research. The teacher has to start by believing, and continue, even when the student doesn’t. The rewards may not be immediate, and might not come until much later, sometimes years after the students have left and they come back and say how that thing you encouraged them to do was really useful and led them on to something else – because they knew they could do it. I realised the impact of one of my teachers and thanked him decades after leaving school. Sometimes educators never see the direct results, but it is important to believe in people. It takes a commitment from the teacher and even some risk, as this is a different perspective for some, and it requires that you are willing to learn yourself.

For me knowing that I can, and the possibilities brought about through having the self-efficacy to put that first foot forward have led to great connections and opened doors, and I want to pass that on. I wrote the book Fostering self-efficacy in higher education students, because I believe in students, I believe in teachers, and I believe in the power of education.


Featured image CC BY-SA by Chris Gilmore

It’s all about Repertoire

Five weeks in… already?! So how is it going? Are you finding your way? What are you getting from MUS654?

My university students are drawing together a curriculum for a year’s musical tuition for a someone – the age, the level, the instrument is all up to them. You may be doing that too, or perhaps just following along and reading bits to stretch your musical brain.

Someone asked me this week what did I want to accomplish with all of this?? and I said that I hope to give people the keys to think differently, to think about the things that they do or might be doing. Take a parallel, an analogy- when I came to London I didn’t like it.  As a post-graduate student coming from a different country, although London has a way, I couldn’t quite apprehend it – spatially, socially, or culturally – at least not in the space of those first 10 months I spent there. My experience involved carrying a cello an hour and a bit across London to and from music college where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t understand the routines or the ways it all worked.  I needed a key to somehow unlock the maze that I was busy running around in.

MUS654 is not an answer booklet, it’s no A-Z of teaching, but it is a catalyst, a tool to help you find or even custom-cut your own keys.  once you have the keys, you can have more freedom to go where you like. Think of the topics in the sessions as different houses, and we get to glimpse into some of the rooms – certainly not all of them – but a glimpse can give some insight into a topic or way of thinking, and you can take it from there. So far we’ve taken a tour of a neighbourhood of topics, and from here on out we are going to look at how to connect it up with both specific issues, and with links that bring the topics together.

Have you done a few tasks? Shared any thoughts or ideas? Commented on someone else’s tasks? Let’s hope so!


Timid? Quiet? Ah, perhaps that’s something deeply learned…  What are some of the first demands placed on a baby? What do the parents say? — Hush, don’t cry. DON’T CRY. HUSH. — as a mother of three, my heart sank a little bit. Yes, I did it too.

So could it make a little sense that children, that people, that we are reluctant to share things?Hopefully not. Please have a voice! As intellectually curious learners lets be keen to promote a culture of learning.

(Photo CC-BY byDiba Tillery)

 This week in #MUS654 we are looking at Repertoire. After having grounded ourselves in the musical building blocks – what do we already know, and what is out there, and how do we expand our horizons. As you will know, we learn by doing, and so I hope that you are able to do some of the bits of MUS654 and sharing your creations and insights. Have a voice, as we make the learning community! You can catch up on yesterday’s hangout with Ralph Stelzenmüller HERE and please join us next Wed. at 6pm BST for our next hangout.

Here’s to the upcoming weeks,


It’s hangout time again!

Yes, it’s nearly Wednesday again, and that means it’s time to look forward to a Google Hangout for #MUS654 at 6pm BST. This is when I invite a guest to discuss aspects of the week’s topic with me, my students, and you. This week we’re thinking about study material. What is it we use to learn in music? Is it something from a published book? Is it something else? How do we devise it? (photo CC-BY-SA by daryl_mitchell)


Our guest this week is joining us from Switzerland. Ralph Stelzenmüller, a native Burghausen/Salzach, studied organ, church music and directing at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He then completed his postgraduate studies on harpsichord and organ at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, studying with Jean-Claude Zehnder. For three years, he held a lectureship and taught music history at the Athanor Akademie for theater. In increasing demand as both a player of basso continuo and as an accompanist for Lied, he has performed and taught throughout Europe and South America, working with many of the great names in Early Music, including Anthony Rooley and Andreas Scholl. In 2005 he founded his own ensemble, Combassal. In 2010, Ralph took up the postgraduate organ scholarship at the University of Aberdeen, where he is writing a PhD on the development of the basso continuo in England.

We’ll be talking with Ralph in a few hours: Wednesday 7 Oct, at 6pm BST and you can watch HERE. Feel free to join us- you can always email, comment, or tweet either to join us live, or to add something to the conversation with the #MUS654 tag.

The music lesson and the walnut tree

This is in response to Steve Wheeler’s challenge to use a ‘twisted pair’ that has somehow impacted your teaching. My pair is the music lesson and the walnut tree. Photo CC-BY by Steve Slater

In my Open Music class #MUS654 we have been exploring the different aspects of music learning and how these map on to different instrumental specialisms with the end goal of designing a curriculum for a year’s teaching. We had dissected the components of sound, playing, scales, and then studies and connecting material before moving on to repertoire. I love using metaphors to describe situations, and I wanted to make this one fun….

Thinking cap on, I had an idea. In the building where my office lives, there was a recent renovation that included adding a kitchen. Fantastic! Everything we had learned so far points to an informed outlook on learning that includes being informed and having a firm grasp on the way different aspects of tasks relate to one another and fit into the larger picture. -teaching my students to use self-regulation in the way they approach teaching- with hierarchical goals, using metacognition, and interweaving reflection and evaluation into the way they teach and learn. So the kitchen would be the key to my metaphor.

We had the ingredients, and now it was time to put them together. What could be a better ‘lecture’ than one where you bake cookies as a class? (oh, yes, I am serious.) The plan was to bring in all the ingredients and to discuss the components of musical learning and how we approach them, the techniques of mixing the different elements, what they mean, and what they produce – and then the punchline

The punchline??

We’re in the kitchen, we have cookie dough, but….


(health and safety, you know)

So the meaning of the analogy? Well that’s the discussion starter – is it enough to have all the ingredients and have the instructions to put them together? What’s missing? What do you need? As learners do we need someone else to learn? How does our learning cook?

And where does my neighbour’s tree come into it? It’s a walnut tree, and every morning as I walk 8042842059_74fd751c09_zmy son to school we pick up a couple more walnuts that have fallen out of the tree…. so I thought I’d give each of my students a walnut and leave them with the physical reminder of our time together (as there were no lovely, fresh-baked cookies – I know that is totally mean, but all that active learning has to have some sticking power, no?) and give each of them a walnut, still in the shell and as I hand it to them say, “It’s a tough nut to crack.”

Photo CC-BY by Nacho


Linking it up: #MUS654 Week 4 is here!

This week is all about connection, and starting to engage with joined up thinking. The topic of Week 4 in #MUS654 is ‘Studies and Connecting Material’. As usual, there will be by-the-book thinking and perhaps some personal experience to use as a basis for thinking about what makes a study or étude. My goal is to challenge your thinking and also to begin to connect up the dots. Remember, those in my physical class are creating a curriculum and after having considered the basics that comprise sound and how we produce that on instruments, the orientation of that sound through scales – now we are ready to get into thinking about the learning.

This afternoon (1pm BST) we’ll be listening to and tweeting about the three interviews on the #MUS654 Week 4 page and that will be the catalyst for thinking. I hope you join in and have a think about how you learn, teach, and begin to join up the dots in music making.

As you go through the week, Tweet, blog, or email me – we’re using the hashtag #MUS654.We’ll be having another Google Hangout next Wednesday 7th Oct. at 6pm BST to discuss the week and any topic that we have covered so far, and you are more than welcome to contribute to the conversation. If you missed last week’s hangout where we talked about scales, you can catch up here.

Photo CC-BY-NC-ND by Jeff S. PhotoArt at

My scales story #MUS654

(2 min read) As a student I was a latecomers to seriously studying music, and as we know it takes a lot of practice to be excellent at any instrument (yes, voice is an instrument). As a first year undergraduate I had a great friend who gave me a present to help with my practising. It was a pink mini-Fender Amp that had a slot in the back for a 9v battery, an input and an output. I used it for years until it finally went to live with the other amps in the sky.  (Photo CC-BY by S.Su)


What was it for? Scales and intonation. That’s right, my little pink Fender amp was a drone machine for me and it would be hooked up to my digital tuner and blast out sine tones (like these) so I could have a solid, fixed reference pitch as I practiced. I used it religiously everyday – and I needed to! There was no quick fix for developing an inner ear or learning the placement of fingers on a fretless instrument. I quickly realised that as a cello player, I thought about notes, and scales, mainly in a melodic context. What I mean, is that I didn’t have that key harmonic reference in my head like another musician might. (Photo CC-BY-NC by Bill Selak)

The amp was a stepping stone for me. As I plugged away learning the patterns for my scales and solidifying the geography of the fingerboard it helped to keep me on track. The next step was to create that drone myself, with my voice. The magic of this (once you get over the fact that you are not supposed to sound like a diva holding a low G -or whatever note- for a minute or more) was that the combination of the voice and the cello notes interacted in a very physical way. I could FEEL the vibrations of the different intervals. So an octave really felt smooth as glass, whereas the major 7th had a sawtooth edge that produced very tangible harmonic beats. These were different from the more textured velour of a 3rd. It is a real challenge to hold a pitch steady when the interval is moving, and not to waver. Really, give it a go – even if you sing against that sine wave generator I linked to – play a note on it (turn it up so the volume matches your voice) and sing a scale. You’ll feel those intervals too.

It is a practice that taught me to tune in, literally, as well as to get into the mental space where I could really listen. Scales became more than rushing through the Galamian finger pattern of ‘stretch-stretch-squash-squash-squash’ (which is how to play a major scale on a violin/viola/cello staring on any note) and moved into a real tool for teaching me about relationships of notes and balance within my hand and the sound.

Do I still do it? Yes.

Do I make my students do it? Yes.

Do they think it’s silly? Yes, and I volunteer to sing the first drone – and we all laugh. It is very good to laugh. …and then to practise some more!

Don’t forget this week’s #MUS654 Hangout/Webinar happening on Wed. 30th September at 6pm BST. We’ll be talking about scales and the relationship of notes, and I look forward to welcoming Roozbeh Golpaygani روزبه گلپايگانى who will be sharing his knowledge of Persian music. You are more than welcome to join in the conversation in person or via Twitter.

Week 3 is here! #MUS654

This week in the open music course #MUS654 we think about ‘Scales and the relationships of notes’ – there is content to spark your thought and imagination and you are invited to join in with the various tasks. These are intended to get you thinking differently – beyond your own experience or practising habits, and to extend outward so we can all learn from each other.

You can find the Week 3 page HERE or you can navigate by hovering over the #MUS654 2015 tab above.

We will be having another webinar/hangout next Wednesday, 30th of September at 6pm BST and you are more than welcome to join in! The plan is to have people with different instrumental specialisms and from different traditions to talk about the topic of scales, notes, and how they relate to our music making and learning. If you missed last night’s webinar with Duane Padilla and Pete where we discussed melodies, you can catch up here:


I look forward to seeing you (or your posts!) in the week – as always, if you have any questions, observations, or suggestions, please get in touch. I am happy to reply and improve what is here.

All the best for the week ahead!


Photo CC-BY-BC-ND by Peter Witham