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Posts from the ‘MUS654’ Category

An ode to my teacher

My teacher saw in me

what I

could not see

in myself.

Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder for how many people does this ring true?


Why did someone see something in me, and why couldn’t I have that vision myself? Is it something in our culture? Something with upbringing? Some factor… gender, schooling, money? Or something internal -the ability to see possibility over weakness? Isn’t a child told ‘no’ thousands of times in their first years of life? I’m a thinker and will always wonder.

Regardless of why, it still holds true:1312969901_9b1d83f026_z

My teacher saw in me

what I

could not see

in myself,

and I am grateful.

Read more

Picture the sound… #MUS654

One of the elusive topics in music learning and teaching is expression and meaning. How can we work in one medium (sound) and have to explain it in another (words?)? Often the intention of the teacher and the experience of the student can be so far apart, and we may never know it. This week I got creative and a bit silly and set my class loose with the project of picturing the sound. Really – I gave them all sorts of dried pulses, pasta, rice, seeds, nuts, bits of cotton wool, cake decorations, big sheets of paper and asked them to create the picture they heard as people performed to them. This sort of invitation is usually met with two different reactions, often in close succession, excitement followed by a tentativeness and doubt.

Oh WoW!

and then…

but I don’t know what to do?

Read more

Expression, improvising, and the audience with Will Wallace #MUS654

I like to broaden the #MUS654 content each time I revisit these topics, and so here’s something completely new. Will Wallace has kindly spoken to me about his musical experiences and practices. Will is Director at Christ Church College Choir at Oxford, where he is also Senior Organ Scholar. During the half-hour interview he discusses improvising, dissecting how he learned to improvise, and points out some of the challenges he faces as an organist. How does he utilise the different sonorities available on the instrument? How does he achieve sound that fits the setting? Does he adapt if he is playing within a church service or for a certain group of people? What are the limits of musical expression?

Will takes us through an example of what he might do, talking through his thought processes as he demonstrates. It is fascinating. And, if you, like me, have never played the organ, please don’t skip this. I find that listening to other musicians explain about their craft, especially as Will does, in such a clear and approachable manner, is always enlightening and gives me ideas and inspiration for my own playing and teaching.

Many classically trained teachers and performers shy away from improvising, and the mere mention of it downright frightens some people. I challenge you to watch, listen, and see if you can apply even a small bit of what Will shares to your own instrument. If you have any comments, please share them below, or via Twitter using the #MUS564 hashtag, or on your own blog. It would be a pleasure to hear what you think.

In conversation with Will Wallace:

The video begins with Will testing out the instrument. Organists don’t bring their own instrument with them of course… I left that bit in so you could see – these are some of the behind-the-scenes ‘musician’ things that we don’t normally have the chance to see and have explained… and our conversation begins at about 45 seconds. Enjoy.

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

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

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

Making learning scales tactile and meaningful

Learning sinks in when we do it. That sounds basic, but so many people think it is something that is done to them – the teacher will teach me, that’s how I learn. Well, not really. The teacher presents, facilitates, encourages, fosters, but the learner learns. Only you can do it. Simple and very powerful when you own that. What does that have to do with scales? That is this week’s topic for #MUS654: Scales and the relationships of notes. If it is up to the student to be the active learner, ok, but how can the teacher do her part to guide and present opportunities for comprehension, understanding, context, and application?

How did you learn scales?

Every time I ask a class how they learned scales, someone says the teacher gave them a book and that was it. They just had to read the music in the book and get on with it. Oh, and they learned scales for an exam, no particular other reason.

Sometimes that can lead to leaving a musician with a stunted level of understanding on so many levels – basic theory, more complex harmony, contexts outside their own instrument. So what about that beginning learning? Scales are built on patterns, and they all are made out of the same musical alphabet. I like the idea of experiencing things in different ways – see it, speak about it, read about it, do it, build it, have it be tactile.. and all of those are possible with scales.

‘Playing’ with scales

A couple of years ago I found an app Read more

Scales: Order in the chaos?

The second law of thermodynamics says that the entropy of a closed system can only increase over time. What does this have to do with scales? I was musing about scales, thinking about this week’s #MUS654 topic as I walked along the sea and thought about this in bigger contexts. I thought about order and chaos in various aspects of life: how we experience many things as whole events, not individual components or moments.

Eating a cookie involves a synthesis of the components.

Walking is a cosmos of individual actions and motions.

Performing is about the musical experience and not the technical minutiae.

Then looking out, I saw the clouds. They reminded me of fractals. I know we tend toward entropy. Dust bunnies magically grow, stuff fills the space, and I can certainly believe that, but what about the incredible order that also exists. Fractals are an infinitely repeating pattern that happens within nature, and all around us – You can look at river systems and see them, or at the patterns in leaves and see them. No matter on what level of detail you look, then still happen with the same level of perfect repetition. There is a really fascinating application that lets you navigate through them here:

I wondered if somehow scales are like that. Is it our way of creating order? Is it about reason? Even though we do not want to see the individual details within a performance, it is often when there is a glorious level of detail and precision embedded within the music and the performance that it can then transcend its parts to be a whole. Or is ti just an acknowledgement of what IS. The harmonic series exists within nature, but our scales are only partly built on those. And what about the allowances for deviation, as with the piano and its equal temperament? For example, string players tend to tune a perfect fifth to align the harmonics perfectly, which is 702 cents whereas the piano’s fifth is 700 cents. Small differences, but they can add up if you are stacking fifths across octaves of instruments.

Back to the fractals (Image CC BY-SA by Hairchaser)


My thinking and music was something that I had time for. I was going somewhere and had that mile of walking to think. I was in the right place for it. When I reflect on my early experiences of learning scales, I cannot say the same. They were something to be done for a test. In my case it was for the seating in orchestra at school. We had a list to prepare and would be tested on it. I don’t think I realised a wider purpose – not even a purpose like learning the geography of the instrument, and certainly not a purpose like learning the building blocks for conversation. I just don’t think I thought about them.

At higher levels I could synthesise the need to understand both geography and create a vocabulary. It makes me think. There must be a way to instil the skills both of understanding, facility, and application from an early stage. It requires a shift in perspective and a willingness to do a lot more playing off the page, where playing becomes musical conversation. Then new doors might open.

I’m going to do this in my own playing. Break scales down, and make sure I include more. (I was tempted to finish that sentence, but I think it is complete.) I am going to allow time to explore and know that it is more than just a pattern. Heck, nobody would have read this by consciously decoding of alphabetical repetition. (but it could be done) Reading, writing, performing: It’s all about the application to create levels of meaning – and that larger picture.