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Walking in their shoes

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(1 min read)

Today I had spent the afternoon assessing: 20 music students performed contrasting songs to show their work and progress this term and I tippity-tapped away on the laptop while sitting behind a desk with another examiner. We make it as fun an experience as it can be, but it is an assessment and I am not sure I would call my experience with formal assessments fun.

In the morning I was doing something completely different. I was the student –  and it was the last time I would see my teacher before it was my turn to sit a singing performance exam this Saturday.

While writing comments for the first year students today I was aware just how strange performance assessment can be. In a concert setting you know the audience has come to hear and see you. There is still plenty of occasion for nerves, but it is different. They smile at you, clap, and go with you on the musical journey. That is not to say I wasn’t right there with the students today, but when assessing there is a different perspective. The students do received applause, but they also know there will be comments, feedback that will be partially positive as well as having critical comments about how they can improve, and … a grade. That is a very different experience than simply having an audience applaud. As assessors we cannot shout BRAVO! and then look uninspired for another performer. There is an air of neutrality and it makes it tough for the students. They have to really go for it, even when they don’t get much in return.

So I thought of that while I was typing, that it is a strange situation – and doing that it is hard. Somehow I think it is important that the people behind the desk don’t forget what it’s like to be in the position of doing what we ask of students. It’s my turn Saturday, and then I really will know what it is like to walk in those shoes.

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Grow your PLN? Hmmm… thoughts on connecting

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A short reply that is longer than a tweet.

This morning I did like every morning, and indulged in an hour of reading – blogs, tweets, articles. It sounds like a long time, but I promise it’s not – I can type (nearly) as fast as I read. So looking through the #ccourses tagged tweets I noticed that Lisa Lane was talking about the daily topic set for the current unit Putting it into Practice. So this led me to look up the topic for today:

How might you create your own Personal Learning Network on the open web to provide you with support?

I did what any good student would do. I looked it up, and I am still looking. Without formally engineering connections, Connected Courses has opened a door for all of the people involved.

Consider: I am a cellist. I teach music. You don’t know who I am. I think you are interesting and would like to connect. I drop you an email or a message.

Then what?

If I am lucky and you are not swamped, you might reply.

Somehow being under the same umbrella of Connected Courses has made me braver – I have ventured a dozen connections through DM, email, or a comment and they have produced results from no reply (even in the best settings it happens- and you still have to try!) to the birth of concrete projects. That makes it so worth while. The thing that has been so valuable is that initial permission to connect and to already have a seed of commonality – I don’t want to be pegged as a musician. Music is my language but what I do is communicate, and that is not confined to one type of people. The best ideas come when the ingredients are mixed – sometimes blending well and other times sitting separately, side-by-side. Either way they reveal something about the other and then we grow.

So back to the question, how do you grow your own PLN on the open web to provide you with support? My guess is that it involves knocking on the door and seeing if someone answers. -and if someone knocks on your door, to open it, or at the very least have a little look through the keyhole.


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#Phonar. yes, this was very very very …

I love teaching spaces that make me smile even before anything happens. When I walked into the Disruptive Media Learning Laboratory teaching space at Coventry University,

WAIT. I didn’t walk into it. I carried (with help from two fantastic gentlemen) an orchestra of string instruments from the van to the third floor of the building, and we entered an absolute teaching haven. Imagine minecraft becomes real, and there is a 3-leveled terrace of 1-meter blocks covered in SYNTHETIC GRASS!!!!! and there were beanbags bigger than my kitchen table!!! Oh My Days! I had gone to heaven early!

First, I had the task of getting through to the students in a very short space of time- figuratively and literally.

Everyone was surprised. They thought that they had arrived to present their final submissions for the term.

Last month, Jonathan and I had hatched a plan… and I said, sure I can come and teach them all to play.

Could I really do that?!?! Well, yes and no. I knew what I wanted to get across, and I knew what I needed.

Help from them.

In the short hour that I had, I needed to have each and every one of those students be actively engaged.

Need is a tricky thing.

Good for me, the students were up for it.

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Ok. the back story. My friend Duane Padilla had done a fantastic solo violin version of a pop song called ‘Secrets’  by One Republic and basically he did it using a very cool tool that lets you build layers into the music. (This is also available as an app TC Helicon Voice Jam, which is superbly inexpensive) I said to Jonathan that I could get the students to play it … well approximate it !

The way the (fab) room was laid out meant that everything was hidden from sight until the students came around the corner, and there was a lovely look of surprise on their faces as they were confronted by a room full of instruments all prepared and positioned for them.

I dug in.

Then Duane turned up – from Honalulu via skype to wish us well on this crazy venture! It was after 11pm for him and he had just finished playing with his band… Back to the class…

These students were great. They began reluctant and one by one they somehow found that little bit of courage to do that thing they had never done before. It was magic to see the smiles and watch the way they were paying attention to different things – non-verbal cues, listening, and watching in ways that they certainly weren’t aware of earlier that day. In the space of 45 very short minutes, we did play a version of the piece, and there were a few moments in the middle when it all clicked and that was just like sitting on a cloud – like we were all on a cloud together. Magic.


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Sure people fell off, and they got back on, and they kept going. I loved that. See, after that first bit of courage, it wasn’t so bad, and actually they wanted to learn, and best of all they were doing it together. There were 7 different parts going on at the same time. (I think we were officially on a floor of a library – making a huge racket. Yes, that was excellent, and I mean that in the most polite and creatively positive way possible.)

Ok. this is verging on TLDR, so I am going to call it a night. A very good night. I am in excellent company and my thoughts are filled with music.

I hope yours are too.



The end before the beginning- What’s up with that?

(photo CC licensed 2 min read

There is talk of ccourses being over, winding down, lack of tweets… and the last, seemingly most how-to unit has not even begun.


I really don’t get it. From what I can see the last one is the how-to. It’s like we have been identifying an object from the outside, looking, learning, examining, always finding out more, and now the cover is lifted off. Why would something end before that??

In a community of learning, inquiry, colleagues there doesn’t need to necessarily be a formalised plan that we all follow. There do need to be common underlying goals and aims, but we already have that in teaching. I may be way to idealistic, in thinking that we all will just do things-  but from what (little) I can see there is a HUGE body of emerging work and learning coming out of this. There are always going to be problems with getting people to actively participate – and that can be paralleled to any classroom, or to getting kids to do chores, or getting us to do something – if we see the point and want to then it gets done. Tacky as it sounds, there really is no try. We do. We fail. and We do again, better. Sometimes we succeed. actually, a lot of the time we succeed and sometimes we notice it. The talk of disintegration sounds to me a bit like the kind of talk that comes from not seeing that success.

It all takes time and a huge effort to keep things outwardly going. I have been running my connected course, in my back-garden way – I am not very tech savvy, and haven’t hosted it in a fancy way, don’t have lots of bandwidth to upload and download, but I think it has gone ok. First time and 900 visits this term. That’s ok? That’s how Phonar started… I was hoping to get to 1000, but heck, the course is about creating a curriculum in music and that’s pretty obscure… but it has cool makes like ‘cross-dress a melody’ that should appeal more widely to creative types, so I just need to figure out more how to connect and put things out there. I have huge optimism, just because that’s what makes me tick. I’ve been writing a book too (Fostering Self-efficacy in Higher Education Students)- manuscript is due at the publishers on Feb.2 and man, I have never done anything like that before – way more work than writing a PhD thesis. way. more. And the thing is – the thing I value most about Ccourses is that community. Most of the innovation, the new stuff is done on a limb – slightly alone. Nobody directly around me has time to look at it – not really even to look at the course pages that I have done, so without the gentle and constructive feedback from you lot, I would be a lot more in the dark.

I don’t think that there needs to be a curriculum and a structure to continuing #ccourses  – besides, we all need a break sometimes, and if it picks up again in a year, then Blamo! We don’t want Christmas, Diwali, or the 4th of July *every day* and the holidays are worth waiting for. Let it be special, but lets keep together – and have a medium for communication. I know that the hashtag is my way to be seen for the people who don’t follow me – or aren’t in my circle (don’t really understand G+ circles.. so I have about 2 in my circles, might even be just me…) and without the hashtag I drop off the radar.

Perhaps it’s time to throw the dog a bone with one last round of Daily Connects that include a sign up for keeping in touch. What do you think?

There are more than just 6 of us, and it is worth more than the analytics can show.

Off to bake cookies, or we don’t get treats in our lunches, and to teach and type – the end of my book won’t write itself!

Happy Monday and Happy December !15733401648_c3bc2d98a3_z

p.s. that’s what I’m making. If you would like the recipe, COMMENT! ;) and I’ll happily post it.

A breath of fresh air

Jonathan Class 1
(1 min read) Yesterday I welcomed a guest for the day. We had both studied at Northwestern University a lifetime ago and we passed many times in the hallways of the practice building, went to each other’s recitals, and even had classes with each other’s teachers.

Jonathan is a professional tuba player. He took the day off from his job playing for the West End show Scottsboro Boys to come down to Chichester for the day. At first, by MA students looked slightly surprised when I said that I had arranged a class with a tuba player. There are pianists, singers, violin, guitar, but none of them are brass players. It was fantastic. Jonathan also spent time hearing and talking with the undergraduate low brass players.

We all learned. There was laughter. The music and the learning was reinforced and students were given permission to think and believe in what they were doing. It is relevant not only to tuba players, not only to string players, not only to musicians, but to all learners.

My favourite exchange was between one of the brass students and Jonathan, where the student demonstrated how a student thinks sometimes – with years of training in following instructions. The student was playing and stopped and said:


Jonathan: Why are you saying sorry?

Student: I didn’t breathe when you told me.

Jonathan: But you don’t have to do what you’re told. What I say is right for me, but I’m me and you’re you. That’s why you go away and sing it and figure out what’s right for you. – You’re only as good as the work you put into it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play it today, or tomorrow, or next week, but if you can take it apart and work on bits and you know you are getting a bit better then that’s ok. You’ve got to push yourself, but not destroy your confidence. It’s about balance. Music is a doing word. You’ve got to do it.

I loved that. It is relevant if you are a musician, and if not, replace the word ‘music’ and ‘breathe’ with ‘learning’ and it is relevant to you too.

Thank you Jonathan for sharing your day with me and with my students.

Jonathan Class 2

Mind the (Learning) Gap !

Yesterday I found myself running.

running from a lecture to the train

running from the train to the tube

running to another meeting

running to reply to the emails


and running

and running

and then I stopped.

I have a weekly meeting that, at the moment, keeps me grounded in hope, friendship, and a shared vision.

I had one of those moments when the person I was talking with held up a metaphorical mirror and I stopped.

I stopped and saw that sometimes in a semester learning is like running, and we (I) think there is a finish line, we (I) think we can see that finish line, and if we (or the students) fall off the track – sometimes we haven’t really fallen off  but we are just running in a different way – in slow motion for a moment, in reflection for a moment. Breathing for a moment.

I have had a few of those ‘mirror’ moments in the past few weeks, and they have made a huge difference to my learning. I am so glad someone stopped me so I could see that gap, and the learning that happens there.

Now I need to learn to give my students the space to have their time, and to sometimes stop running.

Mind the (learning) Gap !

Bloggin it for #CCourses

Yes, it’s Sunday. In England for us that means a traditional roast lunch with all the trimmings (think Thanksgiving, but every Sunday and smaller portions) and as much family as is around. This weekend we were with our three children, grandparents, auntie and partner in for a flying visit from Switzerland… labradors cavorting around hoping for attention or scraps of lunch – you get the picture. And in a post-lunch moment of quietness, I thought about connected courses, and Alan’s blog post about the ‘do’  came to mind. I watched the videos, and after bit of a busy week and felt a bit out of touch – what was I supposed to be doing? Was there something??

I went to the course page and read. Sure enough at the bottom of the page there were ‘makes’! I haven’t done any yet, and I’m not quite sure if I can fir those exact tasks into the week to come, but thought at least I could write about some recent experiments and connections with connected learning.

Last week marked a number of connections for me and my students.

1. I posted the last content-based session (Interlinking issues) of the first iteration of my music course online. MUS654 has been an experiment for me – throwing myself and my students in the deep end and overall they have really taken to it. I am not sure that running a course on creating a curriculum is necessarily the best choice if the course is to be appealing to a wide audience, but it has made the first inroads to reach a wider community and it has certainly encouraged my students to get out there and think wider. Having replies to things like this inspired reply from California and a tweet of a drawing from Kevin have cast their eyes well beyond the city walls to new possibilities.

2. on the back of that, I told someone about connecting. I had been just kind of getting on with it and unless you knew me or my students or were on twitter, you wouldn’t particularly know about my class. So I told the student’s union about it, just in case other students wanted to have a nose around. Heck, the idea of connecting and open sourcing things might appeal and then they might go to their teachers and ask for something along those lines.  –  you never know what might come from sharing an idea, and if nothing else comes of it, that’s ok. I’ll keep on truckin’.

3. Last week another class of mine connected with David Preston’s high school class. We all learned ukulele as an initial hello activity so we could play with one of his students and some of my students came in one evening to make the link. We certainly had a few challenges to negotiate with live cross-continental communication, and how it all changes when you try to play music collaboratively. I had my youngest son with me because it was in the evening for us… and not all the students could make it because of various other commitments. The fact that it wasn’t a particularly neatly orchestrated exchange didn’t particularly matter because that wasn’t the point. The students got the message that we believe in connections: they can do things, they can dream things, and it may take work, but so much is possible.

4. Some really neat face to face 3D (as Maha would say) connections have been born over the past week. Some of Jonathan Worth’s #Phonar students are working with a cello piece that I recorded, and one contacted me:

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and I arranged to take her to meet the maker of my cello, Malcolm Combes. How cool is that!? This guy is a legend to me and I love that part of his story is now going to be connected and told through another medium. I love that connections don’t always have to remain online.

I’m enjoying the ride. I love pushing out in new directions and the challenges are completely yummy – I know I’m learning at least as much as the students. Even if these specific connections weren’t born directly out of connected courses, the people involved in ccourses have certainly instilled me with a big dose of inspiration and confidence.

Here’s to the week ahead!

over and out.

MUS654 Interlinking Issues

Tomorrow’s the day. In the MUS654 session there are two interviews not to be missed. The first is with high school orchestra director, Frank Lestina, who has educated literally thousands of students across his 35 year career, followed by an interview with Hans Jensen, who is one of the most sought after cello teachers in America.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t work in a school or play cello – these musicians have taken the time to share their craft, their thoughts, and specific stories about their approach to teaching and communicating with students.

The opportunity to ask the direct questions of how and why does not often spring up. Perhaps it is because we aren’t in the right place at the right time to ask, we might be shy, it might just not be appropriate to burst out with a deep and meaningful question. Whatever it is, I know I have often seen performances and wondered… but had no way or real occasion to ask.

I am very pleased to have found that occasion with both Frank Lestina and Hans Jensen. Frank Lestina has now retired, and his perspective on years of experience is something that is valuable and relevant to those of us still on that career path.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 21.24.12Hans Jensen is certainly not retired. In fact he is on the go, pushing the boundaries in every direction. I last caught him via message in transit just before stepping onto a plane to teach somewhere in America. He’s just back from working on final drafts of his next technique book, and is finalising a CD release of a performance with 60 of his students – from across 30 years of teaching.

These two educators have certainly left deep marks in the world of music and music education, and I am very grateful they were willing to share their time and expertise.

Stop by tomorrow, visit MUS654 Session 10, and join the discussion.

See you there,


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Listening to expression – putting phrases to paper

Today in class we did something different: we drew. That wasn’t all we did, but it was a fantastic catalyst for the session and the students and I thought you might join us…

The students came prepared to play something on their instruments and they knew that we were following up the MUS654 lesson on the session on Phrasing and Musicality. They were slightly surprised when I gave them each big sheets of paper. What were these for?? I wanted them to experience thinking of the music in a different way, and asked them to create a representation of what they heard. This was something that we could discuss and that the performer could see, take in, and respond to. Being presented with a clean slate and being told that anything goes is not always the way we are taught to learn. It can be really refreshing to un-peel the layers of expectation and to be allowed to express yourself.


It was a pleasure to see the students explore the music and different ways of communication and understanding and playing. It was a fun session and a challenge to have a go exploring representations in a different medium.

One of the students gave me permission to share part of her performance so you could join us and have a go putting your pen/pencil to paper and see where it leads you….


Equity and Diversity

Thinking about the topic for #ccourses and for me language gets in the way. People say… if we do this for them… and language is so loaded and sets so many implied divisions, even when they are certainly not intended. For me when I divisions are unfurrled, that is when I have learned respect and understanding.

Words and Listening

I am reminded of leaving America to come live in England. Even though I thought we spoke the same language, there was so much I didn’t understand. Culture, history, different values, meanings, and traditions. It was a powerful lesson for me to learn that there was a universe of understanding that I did not yet have. I’ll tell the story…

When I moved down to the South Coast of England after my postgrad in London, I used to enjoy going to my friend’s grandfather’s house a couple of villages away to talk over a glass of sherry – it broke up the day’s cello practice, and he was a lovely gentleman. We would sit at his old pine table in the smallish and typical English kitchen, with teapots, mugs, a little black stove, and a small pantry cupboard, and he would pour sherry and have  plate of peanuts or ‘bombay mix’ (nuts and pretzels and little crackers). The day that I remember so well he was telling me about having to leave for the war- and the sirens were going and he was in the Piccadilly office and he described going down the stairs and the secretary rushing down the corridor and having to leave everything and shutting the door and the telephone was still ringing, but they had to go- left it all just like that. I listened, very naturally, nodding – adding ‘uh-huh’ and ‘yeah’ and at some point he slammed his hand on the table and said,

‘Will you stop?! Why are you doing that – nodding and carrying on like you were there. You have no way of knowing what I am going to say or of understanding what it was like. Sit and listen, but don’t pretend to know.’

This was in May of 1997. I remember the floral dress I was wearing (good for playing cello), I remember breaking out in a sweat and in red blotchy patches on my face and neck, and I remember the silence that followed while he looked into me.

I then said – sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.  and I tried very hard not to cry.

The tension broke with a sip or sherry. My friend’s grandfather went on to say-

‘you need to learn to listen.

There is more to a conversation. Listen to what is being said and then you might have a comment.’

I found it very difficult to sit still and almost stifling not to fill the space between his words with ‘noise’ (which I think is an American thing to do). Over many sherry time visits, and garden visits, and lunches I learned to appreciate listening and really had valuable conversation lessons. I was made aware that in general I didn’t know how to actually hold a conversation that involved listening and not automated responses.

So, his overall advice involved eliminating the pre-emptive nodding or gestures and the instant agreement and alignment with stories. From then on it was more interactive- I would ask questions and for a while he would reaffirm that it was ok to ask, and he would explain… I got so many stories- and began to gain a sense of history that I had never known in America – not because I hadn’t learned, but because I wasn’t there; I hadn’t lived his story.


Beyond words

I like to think that music somehow is beyond words. It can communicate with one or many, and each will make unique connections and attribute different meaning to what is heard. Even if I tell you what to hear, it is your experience and will resonate with you, your history, mood, disposition – all differently to mine. We are different and there is joy in that diversity. For this I’ll give you a song, not a story. This piece was written for me – and it is all about resonances. I hope something in it resonates with you.

Resonance for solo cello. composed by Jill Jarman, performed by Laura Ritchie 


Last thoughts…

I tweeted about my friend who teaches at Peabody – and he did something awesome. Decided to teach about equity and diversity by living it. -and all because he crashed his car… If you ever get to meet this guy, Andrew is the best.

*I had typed the whole post and lost it *blip* on the computer… so retyped it a bit quickly! More thoughts for another time- Laura