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Creation, Spark, Learning, & Curriculum

Learning is a fantastically non-linear, subjective experience that is like a stream flowing over, around, and through any number of expected and unexpected obstacles. It’s midway through the semester, and always at this time of year I find myself reflecting on how and why, on visible and invisible progress, and on what my role as teacher and facilitator might be for my students. Yesterday I discussed the concept of ‘curriculum’ with a good friend and respected colleague, Kenn, and that conversation stuck with me. It stuck with me so much that I had to ‘sprout’ it. (See Geoffrey’s comment here for an explanation of ‘sprout’.) Kenn put forward the idea that anything could be strung together and called a curriculum, but it was important for that content to connect with the learner. He said one of my all-time favourites. You cannot make someone have a spark and be excited about something if an inkling of it isn’t there already.

He spoke about the nature of intrinsic motivation, and how if that ‘spark’ isn’t there, you can’t just throw it at someone and expect it to stick, like paint. But, if it is there, and I hope we all have at least one spark of passion to cultivate something deep within us. With sparks present, the teacher can metaphorically stoke the fire. You or I plan and lay the kindling to allow the air to flow, and when needed, get out the bellows to help puff the current.

Yes, connecting with that spark is so important.

From a teacher’s point of view that means I need to have an awareness of how, so that when I do lay the pieces out for the students, it guides. I likened it to driving the motor cars at Disneyland, with the metal guide rails at the side to keep people on the road. They are wide enough that you can veer to the left or right, but you can’t completely fall off. You can certainly receive a jolt as you bang into the rails, but you are safe and it would be pretty hard to fail completely. As a child I remember riding those cars and being so proud that I was the one driving. Guidance, yes. Safety rails, yes. Kenn reminded me that as the driver, that child or student, still has to put her foot down to make the car go. I did it. My students do it. The connection to the spark is so important.

When put in that car, with all the right guidance rails, and no spark, you still won’t fail. Why? Because 16600001_76402e66b1_zeveryone follows one another, and most people want to be there. So if the person behind does put his foot down, then your car will lurch forward when his bumps into yours! Being vaulted from one place to the next is no way to learn. I am sure it does happen though – and there are better ways to not fail. I remember classes I might admit to having taken just because of requirements… and lurching from one assignment to the next simply to accrue the necessary points or credits. In those cituations I certainly didn’t learn anything by choice. If we as teachers can find a way to connect, then it makes all the difference. (image CC BY-NC by Thomas Hawk)


I don’t have the answer to a golden curriculum, and I think that’s ok. It’s ok to admit as well. This semester my students create their own curriculum with #MUS654. We’ve been thinking about it this week. They set specific constraints for a single one-to-one setting. When you can define all the variables, it is easier, but things within the curriculum still change when put into practise in a live teaching situation. I certainly still actively search for answers (I think that’s also called learning!) and surely even when I think I have found a solution, it will change with each group of students, each changing year, each season. There are so many many variables that affect one’s learning and living that one size will never fit all. However, the good bits and the successful strategies will add to the repertoire and aspects of them will transfer to each new situation.

I commend to you this article by John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue

Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model

It gives a model (like it says in the title) but more than that, it dissects the different stages of learning. It provides a very thought provoking discussion on those big questions of how and what we learn, why, and what is the value. The authors unpack surface learning and deep learning, and really discuss the ‘skill, will, and thrill’ of learning. I’m hoping to ‘think through’ this article as part of an annotation flashmob (hosted by Marginal Syllabus with Remi Kalir)

See what Remi says about the project here:

Featured image CC BY-NC-SA by Lawrence OP

Technical challenges: Barriers to Learning

This semester I spend time reflecting particularly on music learning and constructing a curriculum from the point of view of the teacher. BUT the learning challenges and barriers to learning are often the same across disciplines, so if you are not a musician, but a computer scientist, or a writer, or something completely different – I do think this will still hold relevance for you.

This week in specific I asked my students to dissect the topic of technical challenges, and that means I do it too. It struck me that there are two very distinct sides to the challenges in learning and they are perhaps not equal, but definitely intertwined and inseparable. Read more

Applauding achievements: Here’s to you, graduate!

Preparing to go to graduation today, I took a few minutes to collect myself and as I was doing my yoga poses and breathing, I thought about watching the people I had known and worked with walk across that stage, dressed in gowns and stoles – and hats, and of their achievements. Some people will not be there today, whether because of work commitments (the real world is a bugger sometimes, and having the day off means a pay cut for many), or because of distance, or even choice – but it doesn’t mean they have achieved any less. It also does not mean they won’t be remembered. You will be remembered.  Read more

Reflecting on CClasses: We learn differently

It’s 3:15 am and I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about and reflecting on how we learn and what we want to get out of our learning. I am thinking about my Romanticism class that is taking part in the Connecting Classes project. What do we want… Perhaps that is the greatest starting point – to want to get something out of it. In my teaching, in my life, I admit to starting from my own perspective (I suppose in psychology terms each person’s perspective is the ultimate starting point) and then I work out to see how I can understand an experience and best shape it for my fellow learners. What can I use to supplement or enhance? How can it be relevant to that person’s driving passions in music? How can we engage in learning together? How can we amplify each other’s experience? Read more

#CClasses: Connecting classes & connecting composers

This semester my students and I are taking part in a research project led by Jonathan Worth at the Open Lab at Newcastle University. It is a project that makes use of creative, innovative, and practical pedagogical tools – right at our fingertips (more literally than you know!). It’s based on using Twitter as a ‘hub’. There are may ways of engaging with content and gathering information, and one of the biggest challenges today is to find common ground, or I should say a common platform. Some people use Slack, some Facebook, some Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Evernote, -I have even heard of some people who like to write things down on paper. The point is that there are many ways to gather thoughts and information, and having many people with individual ways can be brilliant as it means that you can choose what suits you best. However, there are times when finding unity is useful.

This project sets out to do just that: provide a space for engagement, inquiry, reflection, and comment. Twitter is useful in that comments are in real time, they are short and sweet, and they can be identified with a hashtag. That means I (or anyone) could collect the tweets about a certain subject, or with a certain hashtag.

We are exploring using this method of ‘group-sourcing’ our thoughts and research on a topic in relation to musical composers in the 1800’s – during what is known as the Romantic Period. In a parallel to the possible ways of taking notes, I realised there was a similar scattering of material about composers.

When does this happen? Our first #CClasses session is Friday 21 October at 10 am.

Let me explain how it works:

I am fascinated by the interconnectedness of composers. In this period in history, seemingly more so than in the previous century, people have both access to music and listening. This was due to printing of music and to the rise in popularity of the piano as an instrument. When you begin to look at even a few of the most commonly discussed composers like Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms… (and the list does go on) the connections between them are astounding. People heard one another’s works. They played one another’s works. They copied one another’s works. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a resource where some of the interpersonal connections were mapped out?

Yes, yes it would be! I found just that sort of resource for composers of the 1900s. screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-19-21-12

It’s HERE. Go ahead and click through. There are two or three clicks, and then you come to the ‘composer wheel’. (screen shot –>) As an interactive, at your fingertips type of resource, it is a great idea and so useful. If you wanted to take any of these connections further, they could definitely be researched. What a great starting point!I know there could be any number of different types of connection created here, and a very critical person could ask for more or question why these were chosen, but I love it!

So what am I proposing for this session?


just for Romantic composers. Here’s a short 3 min snippet of me explaining what I’m proposing:

I love the connections, inspiration, links between art, music, literature, friendship, and countries. Let’s make a map of composers.

Our own composer wheel.

You provide the tweets about the connections:

WHO: composers

WHAT: type of music

WHERE: cities/countries

STYLE: dances? nationalism?


(for those who wrote songs)

There could be any number of topics. Feel free to suggest composers, topics, links

Please tweet any contributions and tag it all #MUL316 and #CClasses

I look forward to you joining us tomorrow at 10am for the online discussion as we spin our topics in our live class at the University of Chichester. You are ALL invited to join in. Tweet at ANY time – if you can join us live at 10am UK time, FAB. Any other time will do too!

Featured image CC BY by Pedro Ribeiro Simões and on his flickr page, he shares (from Wikipedia):

Fado (translated as destiny or fate) is a music genre which can be traced from the 1820s in Portugal, but probably with much earlier origins. In popular belief, Fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor. However, in reality Fado is simply a form of song which can be about anything, but must follow a certain structure.

The music is usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade (that has no match in English but it could be understood as nostalgia felt while missing someone), a word describing a sentiment. Another similar English translation can be to pine for something or someone.

Some enthusiasts claim that Fado’s origins are a mixture of African slave rhythms with the traditional music of Portuguese sailors and Arabic influence. ….

…maybe we should start there, with our first contribution via this photographer.

#CClasses #MUL316 …and look out for our next two sessions in the coming weeks where we listen to and discuss views of performers and then composers.

On repertoire: How do you know it?

This week’s #MUS654 topic is Repertoire, and the music we play whether we call it songs, pieces, repertoire – it is the stuff that serves as the vehicle for our musical communication with listeners, each other, and ourselves. In thinking about repertoire, we’re encouraged to look back and see our own development as musicians. How have you come to know the music you know? What was the first music you knew? Maybe it had nothing or little to do with your instrument. How did you get into the music of your instrument and did you use the same mechanisms to find music there as you might have for other listening or music you engaged with?

When you begin to think about it, it is fascinating, and as a teacher it will have relevance. You are beginning to focus on the learning and become aware of the processes that you have undertaken. Sometimes through happy chance we find ourselves on a great musical path, but often it is through the dedicated guidance, planning, and nurturing of others – parents, teachers, and fellow musicians.

I’ve already presented a few different topics there and I’d like to start with this one:

How do we come to know the music we know?

As a child, I grew up with records – LPs, 33s, 78s. Yes, we even had a Victrola (as well as the fancy hi-fi record player). These were a mix of classic songs from the 1930s – 1950s, a good dose of Jazz quartets and trios, a very few classical records (1812 overture), lots of folk music, and a couple of very cheesy Christmas albums – one man with a deep voice singing to an orchestral accompaniment, with a touch of sleigh bells in the background…  That was it. There was no piano in the house. There were no other instruments. Those records were magic.

That is a starting point. I remember walking around with a little radio and we would search the channels to find whatever there was – eager to hear new things. It still happens like that with much of pop music. People eagerly await the next single or album from an artist. When did that die with other styles of music? (responses please – that’s a real question, not just a rhetorical one) As a cellist my knowledge of music, certainly at the beginning, was very limited and nearly completely reliant on whatever the teacher gave me to learn. Having a background in the LPs in the sitting room and the pop songs on the radio didn’t help me to know about the cello, and in the beginning, my years of first position etudes didn’t come close to giving me a clue about the repertoire for the instrument. The first time I heard a cello concerto was when I was learning one. That is the wrong way around.

Now people aren’t reliant on the records in their house or the two channels that might have good reception on the radio. We have access to so many recordings it is really mindblowing. So the question – do we (and do our students) seek to expand what we know? Do you look for new music to play? That could be new old music – it doesn’t have to be modern. I think we do, but the impetus is different. Think about reading books. We are taught to search from a young age. Children are taken to libraries and talked through what there is. (How often do we start students by giving them a tour through great works for their instrument?) We are taught how to find it. We are encouraged to seek and read. And when we get proficient at the basics, we are allowed to have preferences and to suggest our own content.

I don’t like horror books. I prefer comedy or mysteries where I have to think.


If a young learner is asked what would they like to play/sing, would they have the same musical literary knowledge to say – I would like to do X because I enjoy that style or period or composer… It may be a different way of looking at it, and it may take more work on the teacher’s part, but think how empowering it could be for the student.

I wonder what is your  experience with learning? Do you learn music and musical repertoire with the same relish you read or the same enthusiasm you find a new tv show to follow? Or the same way you follow popular charts? I wonder why or why not? Perhaps through understanding how and what we do, we can take the best bits from all our learning and bring those together as tools so we can be the best facilitators and teachers to guide ourselves and others.

Quite aside from the #MUS654 class, musician and author Bill Benzon blogged about his Jazz education in a series of posts, and it is fascinating. He did it the right way around and in these posts he expresses a breadth of listening, learning, and understanding that is noteworthy. I recommend you definitely read Bill’s first post:

My Early Jazz Education 1: From the Firehouse to Louis Armstrong59229006_2fb282fe23_z

and if that sparks your interest, Bill is very articulate (in music and words) as he goes on in successive posts. He takes us through influential repertoire and how he came to it. I wonder if we could each do a similar thing? What shaped you? …if you are drawing some blanks, maybe it’s time to go to the virtual musical library and check out some tunes.

I have linked to Bill’s further posts on his education below, but am saving the last one for when we talk about observing lessons. You’ll have plenty to read and listen to with these first ones… enjoy! (image CC BY-NC by Allert Aalders)

My Early Jazz Education 2: Maynard, Miles, and Diz

My Early Jazz Education 3: Herbie Mann and Dave Brubeck

My Early Jazz Education 4: Thelonius Sphere Monk

My Early Jazz Education 5: Al Hirt and (again) Maynard

Featured image CC BY-NC-SA by Via Tsuji

California Dreaming: The Musiquality Book

Nearly there! In 2015 a group of my university students and I had an extraordinary adventure as we set to make a dream that would take us 5000 miles away to work with a group of students in California into a reality. It was one of those things that on paper just wouldn’t seem possible. We had no resources or experiences, but a whole lot of sheer enthusiasm and belief. It did happen and it was the most amazing time – from planning, learning, baking, laughing, packing, travelling, daring to go further, doing new things, teaching, meeting new people, going new places, asking, becoming a group, and saying thank you.

It was one of those happenings that really had an impact on people, myself included, and good things came of it. People kept saying to me, you should tell the story, and so I have. With encouragement and help from those who were with me, I have written it all down. We always planned to document our trip, and so had lots of recorded and documented conversations. The draft text is pretty much done – at around 200 pages, and it’s different to other educational books. It is a combination of an autobiographical story about education, but not theory, not something in the classroom, it is about life and real, meaningful, experiential learning. It’s also about our individual stories, and the commitment and perseverance it took to make it all happen.

  • We’ve kept both the lovely bits and the struggles to make a very honest account.
  • It includes the perspective of those who were with me – my students and the teachers have all contributed to writing this book.
  • As a learning situation, we were all in it together: learning, teaching, and supporting one another, and it happened completely outside the box. …started in the box and burst out pretty quickly…

Have a peek at the 1-minute trailer to have a glimpse into the story:

 Look for more updates soon 🙂


For International Girl’s day: the daughter who stood up to the sea god

I didn’t know there was an international girl’s day until today, and it is perfect for this post. It is dedicated to all the girls out there. Clearing out a cupboard under the stairs, we found some old school work from a long time ago when my daughter was 8. I handed the pile to her and asked if it was to keep or to recycle. She brought me one of the pieces over the weekend and showed me a spiral bound story that she had written. It had a picture of a winged girl on the front, and she said she thought it would be a sweet fairy tale, (the school brief inside the cover was to invent and write a creation type story about the ‘Sea God’) but instead she made her story about a child calling out racism! GO GIRL! It gives me great hope to know this is what she was thinking back then. img_7288

In light of the world, the seen and unseen pressures that people face, the troubles people are unwillingly born into because of their race, creed, or physical place in the world – I often feel the need to share some good things. It is what I can do. So this is one of them. It was my daughter’s invented story. The themes are ever important today-

Children matter. Black lives matter. Women matter.

I am so pleased she wrote it, and am so pleased that her wise school encouraged her to get ideas onto paper and let them flow. Read more

Making connections: speaking through the fabric of music

Musical connections are a lot like any other connections. (4 min read) We need to experience them, process, and attribute meaning to them, and that is something that we all get better at with time and practice. There’s that practice word again… This post is inspired by this week’s #MUS654 topic Session 4: Studies and connecting material, and I wanted to liken it to conversation and listening, but there are differences. Although both are aural – spoken word and musical sound, we tend to engage with one very differently to the other. In speech there is a fluid dynamic. It is knowingly experimental and sometimes messy – wait, I didn’t mean that… no, no, it’s more like this… – In conversation it is entirely acceptable to present ideas and change them, or to present ideas and realise that they lacked clarity and then need to add detail. Read more

Well I never! No scales or studies?!?

This article caught my attention when it came out and I bookmarked it…. I thought it was perfect for this week’s #MUS654 topic about studies and connecting material. Imagine being an established soloist and speaking out about something pedagogically controversial? I’m not sure if that was James Ehnes’ intention to be provocative or if he was just stating his own practice as a mater of fact opinion. I’ll let you decide!

The article is titled: “I never practise scales and studies from books” 

Let’s start with a couple of comments from two other very respected performing musicians.

Brannon Cho: He’s not saying that basic foundation exercise is never necessary; obviously when you’re still learning how to get around your instrument and learning about harmonic and melodic structures at a young age, it’s crucial. But once you’re past a point in your development as an instrumentalist and artist when you’ve mastered understanding of keys and intervals and intonation, it’s much more practical and effective to study directly from your repertoire

Nicholas G: The things he described (scales, arpeggios, chords) can certainly be taken way further than basic foundational exercises. Those 3 things are things I think are essentially impossible to master, I mean those 3 things basically encompass all of harmony. It definitely depends what you plan on using your fundamentals for, but at least coming from a improvisatory perspective, these are things even top professionals never stop working on because it takes a complete mastery of those things on your instrument to use them in real time. Just the actual magnitude of harmony is huge, so it’s a never ending process. I’m not saying one shouldn’t study from repertoire and recordings, but rather it’s ridiculous to dismiss scales, arpeggios, and chords as developmental exercises and as less useful than studying repertoire for a high level musician. I mean even looking at Bach violin partitas, it seems he was experimenting endlessly with different ways of voice leading through scales and arpeggios. It’s certainly not something he could have only learned through studying repertoire, because he was experimenting with harmony while writing… and Bach was an incredible instrumentalist himself! I guess it’s just a choice of how well rounded you want to be as a musician. My favorite musicians are personally great performers, composers, and improvisors… it seems like James Ehnes is coming really strongly from a purely performance standpoint. There’s just so much more you can do with scales, arpeggios, chords… harmony… than use it as a developmental exercise.

It is certainly a thought provoking article and those comments really present crystalised thoughts. I wonder what it and they stem in your thoughts and your experience?

I have pasted the article it into which allows group annotation – it lets you (and me, and anyone) comment on the document and see what other people say. It is an experiment for me with #MUS654 and I would love for people to join in the discussion right on the page…

If you have never used it, it is very easy. Please feel free to join in, you can make comments easily. The article is LINKED HERE:

Once you get to the page, here’s how easy it is to comment:


(screenshot from

Looking forward to hearing what you think! (if group annotation is not for you, you are always welcome to comment on this page)#MUS654