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Turning the tables: exam time

Friday afternoon I walked into an exam room with my cello, with the other students, to play in front of the Head of Music and the Head of Chamber Music. What on earth did I agree to??! I wasn’t really having an assessment, but I had agreed to perform for a final year pianist as his soloist so that he could be assessed on accompanying. Do you know how long it has been since I have been in a formal performance assessment situation? -not a concert but an exam? The final recital for my MMus at the Royal College in London was in 1997. That’s before some of my undergraduates were even born! When’s the last time you took a test with your students? On the spot, in front of them? and were assessed by other faculty?

I did do a simulated assessment where I turned the tables at a concert in 2012. I was playing a concerto with the orchestra and I offered everyone in the audience the chance to assess me, using the same forms as we use for the students. That was scary, but… this was different. There was no other audience, and really I felt a different sort of pressure. It wasn’t like a normal recital. With a normal recital or concert planning would be in place months before, and certainly the week of the event, I would do everything I could to clear the schedule so I could concentrate and rest. As there have been so many other demands on my time, any preparation for this was really focused (that’s a polite word for squeezed) into a very small space of time. Isn’t that what it’s like to be a student though? Finals time is crunch time, even if you are well prepared. You are required to spin several plates at once, keep them in the air, and deliver well on all counts.

If you put it into perspective: What if a teacher was coming up to several deadlines that coincided, like submitting an article, revising a grant proposal, preparing for the normal lectures, and coordinating a visit from an external speaker from abroad. Ideally we would like to plan these things not to coincide, but when they do, it is crunch time and even when very prepared, there is still a sense of ‘this is it’ and the balance of tasks gets pushed around. That’s how I felt with this student. I was aware that his grade was at least partly dependent on my not messing up, and that meant I needed to prepare. Two days before the exam I was to be found practising at 12:30 in the morning. Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day.

The assessment came and went and it was fine. I did ok, and my accompanist accompanied away. I felt safe, and that’s the point. I was still nervous and wishing I had an extra 20 hours to practise that solo part, but beside playing the part, the overall experience really taught me a lot.

  • Firstly we should all have to experience being on the other side of the assessment table, exposing our craft or knowledge, whether practical, presentation, or essay writing to our teaching peers, bosses, and students. The students should see us do this. I need to be as good as my word. I need to be able to do what I ask them to do.
  • Second, I have a huge respect for those who accompany regularly. I know it is different to being a soloist, but there is a great responsibility to support, be reliable, be prepared, and the amount of preparation and commitment from accompanying personnel is often completely unseen. People just see someone turn up and do the job. Hats off to you. It is a jolly important job and I’m grateful to those who have supported me.

And after that assessment I had the biggest headache – mostly from only eating cheese and crackers for the best part of 24 hours and not drinking nearly enough water, but also from the rush of relief at having done it- and they weren’t even assessing me! …oh the perils of crunch time. Balancing plates is tricky, and sometimes taking care of ourselves is one of the first things to go. So many good lessons. …and when I do it again, I’m going to think and plan differently – or at least drink water and sleep!

Hear our voices: Sing for unity

Last night was the event, a time to be heard and a time to sing and make music. It keeps me thinking there really is no time like now.

A few weeks ago I put out an invitation for people to contribute to what would become a performance piece in a positive (action) event at my lovely university. This was the second event under the banner ‘love music, hate racism’ that we have held, and this like the first was scheduled to coincide with a day (this time the eve of 100) when music, art, and positive voices needed to be heard.

Huge thanks goes to Veronika for organising the event and instilling a real sense of collegiate community – in the true sense of those words. This time we had solo voice and solo piano, the ‘Singing for Health’ community choir (led by university students), original poetry by Kay Channon from her new book, historical poetry (read in the original language first and then translated to English), and an offering by me and Pete, which included a collaborative piece that you might have contributed to. (if you did, sincere sincere thanks to you!)

The thing that made this event so very special is that there were all sorts of performances and there was not an ounce of stuffiness. There was genuinely room for everyone and everyone’s efforts were respected and enjoyed. I did have a moment of nerves and doubt before the event began as the alumni singer rehearsed her aria and I heard her lovely operatic voice fill the hall. I thought, I am singing a Dylan song after she sings. The gulp in my throat was not about Dylan, it was about me singing, but that passed and it was ok. It was really ok, and I was proud to stand up and share what 10 people had come together to make.

The Singing for Health choir sang a magic song about the lightening tree.

Down in the meadow with the wind in the west, the lightening tree faced up to the test. It was hard when struck, when you took the wrap, the terrible wrap of the thunder clap.

Grow, grow, the lightening tree. It’s never too late for you and me. Grow, grow, the lightening tree. It’s never too late for you and me.

 

Beautiful.

We had a Bertold Brecht poem read in honour of Worker’s Memorial Day, and we paused to think of those who built the buildings we use, and for all those who have expended effort that often goes unrecognised. Adam Swayne played two very moving piano solo pieces ‘(speak to me)’ by Amy Beth Kirsten and ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ by Stephen Montague. The second told the story of John Henry, building the railways until his end, and then his wife picked up that hammer and carried on.

It’s like our brilliant Vice Chancellor, Clive Behagg said in a speech earlier in the day, at his farewell (retirement) event:

It’s [a place is]  about the people.

We must never forget that. This event wasn’t about elitism, or perfection, but about inclusion, coming together, and respecting and receiving what others had to give.

I was very pleased to be among those who came together and made their voices heard in such a positive and celebratory event. Thank you to those near and far who contributed to the Affirmation Quilt and helped me share our voices together.

A brilliant typo

It’s coming to the end of the semester and student minds are beginning to focus on assessment tasks and performance exams.

A student came to me with an early draft of an essay that was part outline, part drafted text, and in it there was a brilliant typo. The student had either mistyped or autocorrect had it’s way and changed mediation to meditation.

The essay notes read like this:

Learning is meditated by the child’s behaviour. Meditation is key concept in child development and culture- it enables the child to interact with their individual development.

Although it wasn’t what they meant, it stuck with me so much that a few weeks later I told the student I thought it was actually the most meaningful typo I had come across and I wanted to write about it. There are so many things that I profoundly like about it. Firstly there are key concepts of learning, behaviour, children, development, culture, and interaction. That might just be a whole world right there. It made me think about how they worked together, like a steampunk model of the universe, orbiting and balancing with one another. Image CC-BY-NC-ND by Andrew Poole

The associations with learning, especially at exam time, are anything but resembling a child’s behaviour. Children play. Learning should be play, or at least incorporate elements of play as fundamental – play as in experimenting, experiencing, first-hand, where you are at the helm, making the rules and experiencing the consequences of how concepts work or not in practice, in dedicated time, deliberately, and with all our attention. Playing is hard work, and can include incredible precision. The difference between play and work? Perhaps this has to do with ownership. My work becomes play when I feel in control of the parameters, and also when I am allowed to fail, or have iterations to get to the final product. When we play a game, outside in the field hiding behind trees, and someone spots us and we’re ‘out’ then oftentimes the rules get adapted so we can continue. Are we not engaging in a new strategy? Persisting, demonstrating some form of resilience to continue toward the goal. Having another go so we might ‘win’, or climb the tree, or stand on the mound in the middle of the field, or get to whatever the goal might be.

Going back to the inspiring typo:

Learning is meditated by the child’s behaviour.

I imagine these melting into one, becoming transient stages of one another. The link for me was the ‘is’… back in school I loved grammar, and although it doesn’t apply to this sentence, when there is a simple state of being verb, the subject and predicate commute – you can reverse the sentence. In this case there is a helping verb, so it doesn’t work, but I took the principle and applied it to the concepts:

What if learning is a form of behaviour and this in turn is a form of meditation?

In different traditions, various types of activity can be prayer, so perhaps different activities can also have meditative qualities. I don’t know if I really know what meditation is. I think if I thought I understood, I would be wrong as well, so there’s comfort in admitting that I don’t know. I do know that reflection, stillness, and activity are all important components in my learning and it helps when I can regain my childlike mindset. I don’t mean a mindset of folly. Just as exams bring out the worst connotations of learning, sometimes the idea of being an adult somehow invokes images of being through or finished with all that experimenting, learning, growing. Am I going to get taller? No, I’m an adult. Am I going to stop growing? No, I am childlike.

See where I am coming from?

so if I rewrite the brilliant typo to demonstrate what it made me think, it could go like this:

Learning, childlike behaviour (play), and reflective Meditation is are key concepts in child my development and culture- it they enables the child me to interact with culture their individual and development.

without all the visual edits, and put into the right order, here’s where it took me:

Learning, play, and reflective meditation are key concepts in my development. They enable me to individually develop and interact with culture.

It was the best typo. Thank you to the student for being willing to share that developmental draft, and for letting me write about it. Featured image CC BY-ND–NC by the-sillies. Above image CC-BY-NC by Lee Davenport

I have a dream, about music and you

I have a dream and a vision and I believe in connection, and that collaboration allows the creation of far more than one mind could see.

I would like to invite you, whoever you are, wherever you are, to participate in a collaboration contributing to a piece for a concert-type event at my university at the end of April.

It is a positive action event to affirm life, music, and each other called ‘Singing for Unity: Hear our Voices’. It coincides with a certain 100 days, when many of us might like a reminder of the positive aspects of education and the arts. This event is not about politics, but about people, music, and life.

All sorts of contributions are invited: spoken word, music, poetry… It is open.

I would like to make two things- firstly a song. (Yes, I know I play the cello) The old Dylan song – The times they are a changing. I love it. Now here’s the invitation. I had in mind something like the giant internet choir project of Eric Whitacre, but then I thought, hey wait, I can think broader….  And I reached out to a friend in Arizona who recorded sent me an audio track of the chords HERE

and I thought wouldn’t it be great if this could become something more? Remixed into something- a bigger work? The song is the basis and I invite people to contribute how they see – with your dream, your vision. The event will have contributions people from across disciplines at my uni, and I thought it would be a great thing to include the wider educational and artistic community as well.

I would love to have images, music, a verse without words and with different instruments. I would love to have everyone send me their voice, or a talking head, or even just some words that I could edit in over an instrumental section where people said something – a sentence.

 

I believe in connection.  (that might be what I say)

 

Maybe people’s ‘I believe’ sentences string together to become a poem in themselves. (You can see this idea developing as I type.)

I am good at ideas, but I need you to make them work, so please take up the invitation. Feel free to contribute anonymously or as you, however you feel comfortable, to either (or both) of these two things (to interpret as you wish):

1.     A contribution to ‘The times they are a changing’, which could be sound, music, image. The basic song is based on the Peter, Paul, & Mary version (because I really like that one) and the guitar backing is here:

2.     A sentence, in audio, typing (you could always leave a comment below, and I am happy to string them together), or a video of you saying something positive. I suggest the beginning ‘I believe’ or ‘I will’ or ‘I am committed to’…

Feel free to comment on the post, email me, or you could even post a letter! (that would be exciting!) Hope you join me as a named or anonymous contributor.

(featured image ‘the way the wind blows’ by Thomas Hawk CC-BY-NC)

Meeting people: On all sorts of levels

I attended #OER17 with many different goals and hopes, but all were surpassed and I came away having learned a most valuable, topical, and poignant lesson about our world and how we interact. I met people. Meeting people is something that we do and teach, or at least teach about, in so many ways. In my Psychology of Learning and Teaching class I even teach about meeting people – the value of social interaction, social context, the self, how children develop, but this day was a landmark revelation for me. I was aware not of teaching through the rear-view mirror of McLuhan but of not realising we are riding bicycles while others are driving on the same road with us. It is challenging to verbalise. This is a personal reflection with pedagogical implications.

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Making music everywhere: Cello Weekend 2017

Music everywhere. Cellos everywhere. Smiles, laughter, learning, good work, new strings, new learning. It is difficult to sum up what a magnificent weekend has just happened with 25 amazing cellists: students, professionals, teachers, children, parents – so many walks of life. There was incredible generosity to support from so many different angles- from a private donor, to three string companies each supporting us with strings, one sponsoring one of the workshops, and then there were the parents and teachers. We had cello cake and cupcakes! Oh my goodness… and the teacher who sat with the youngest students throughout the whole weekend to make sure they didn’t get lost.

Have a little look into what we got up to:

The recordings are taken with my phone as rehearsals went on (you can even hear me counting in the background…) and the music over the last few photos was recorded at the concert – by me, with my phone, while conducting. It was at that moment I thought – oh drat! I could have made a good recording with the zoom recorder in my bag… the bag over there… It’s tricky to get all the planning right when you are planner, orchestrator, director, and deliverer, and if the recording was the only thing that slipped, well that’s pretty good for me.

This last piece was composed by the gal singing, and I had talked to her and said we had a cello orchestra, so why not write out a string accompaniment? She made it easy, and that was great. We did not, however, get to rehearsing it. So only a very few (the youngest members) had heard it before we performed it. The thing is, it is a lovely song – about ‘our perfect world’ and the lyrics say – I’m dreaming of our perfect world, and you’re there… come, take my hand… – It is 100% positive. When we played it, the orchestra could be relatively together and in tune, despite not having played it – and it was a lollipop at the concert, not the main works, so perfection wasn’t the aim for this one – it was about the experience. But, because it was easy, people had enough spare attention to enjoy, look around, and soak it in. I had no score, only the parts, so I was looking at the players the whole time, and something magic happened. One by one, they began to smile at me. It wasn’t everyone, but about 5 just grinned, and I thought,  This, this is why we make music, why we teach, what it really means to learn. 

Ok, I get sentimental, and I admit to being very optimistic and enthusiastic, and it is without apology. I was moved by those smiles, and by the support of people – parents, partners, babies (yes we really did have a 2 month old baby at the Cello Weekend), and unseen supporters (Thank you Charles!). Thank you to everyone who attended and who made this weekend possible. To the University for the use of the Chapel, to the string companies: D’Addario, Jargar, and Larsen, and to the players. You are truly amazing.

I very much look forward to next year’s event.

Save the date: 

Cello Weekend 2018

April 14-15