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Posts from the ‘MUS654’ Category

Lyre Bird: #MUS654

I was thinking about melodies and the #MUS654 topic of ‘what makes a melody?‘ when I remembered about the lyre bird. No, this is not a veiled political comment, I’m talking purely about a very unique bird that lives in Australia. It is distinct to look at, with its long pluming tail, but the sounds it makes are truly extraordinary.

On the #MUS654 page on melody I suggested imitating a bird, but perhaps not this one! It has evolved a lifestyle that involves singing singing singing through the winter, as this is its mating season. Also there is a need to really woo the lady bird as she only produces a single egg every two years. Thus the song is amazing. Have a listen…. this two minute video is worth watching. See if it challenges your understanding of how birds and other natural sounds fit into music and everyday listening:

Your turn!

If you haven’t had a go imitating some birdsong, have a go. Xeno-Canto is a database that has over 373,800 recordings of birdsong. You can search by species and choose the tweeter of your choice to listen to and imitate. Remember you can share a link on your own blog, tweet it with the tag #MUS654, or share in comments on this post or on the the #MUS654 page on melody.

Featured image CC-BY by Hardy Humphries

Listening to the world MUS654

It’s the beginning of this year’s #MUS654 and we’re looking at all things sound for this week. Under the #MUS654 tab (at the top of the page on this website) are all the sessions and this week’s topic: The Mechanics of Sound has to do with sound. Every year I come to this with fresh ears as I learn to listen again. What does my world sound like? What can I hear?

So often sounds wash over us. Listening is a strange thing compared to sight. With sight, we can close our eyes and ‘make it go away’, but not so with sound. Bathed in sound from dawn to dusk and in between, the world never stops. Sitting in my office now, lights off, sun coming through the window, through the quiet I can hear the tappity tap of my keys and I wonder what else can be heard. I know there are programmes that can identify what you type by listening to the sounds of the patterns of typing, and the loudness of the different key strokes. What does the world around me reveal?

There are so many things that I am unaware of.

I recorded myself typing the text above. See if you can hear the patterns of my typing. Can you hear when I made mistakes and went back to correct them?

On this week’s page there are several activities you can explore. I have chosen this as an ice breaker, because it’s fun, and everyone can participate- whether you consider yourself to be specifically musical or not. I have recorded a ‘soundscape’ of something that I encounter every day. Your job is to listen and guess what it is. Please leave your guesses in the comments below 🙂 and in a few days I will post the answer in the form of both words and a picture. Don’t spoil the answer by reading all the comments first!

As a musician, listening is crucial; it is distinguishing between the smallest nuance. It is a skill that we continue to develop, and we can choose to open our ears to the world around us and to hear it with new vibrancy. What can you notice? What is around you? What sounds do you like and can you pinpoint why? So many questions…

Have a go recording your own soundscape, and do look at the other resources and activities on the page. Whether you are in #MUS654 for the long haul (all 10 weeks!) or just happened by the page, welcome and let’s explore the world of sound together. I am always open to questions or comments, and would be delighted if you shared your comments and creations so others could join in, widening the conversation.

Featured Image CC BY-NC-ND by Images by John ‘K’

Learning on your own

I love learning and I love teaching, and I love to make things fun. My classes started last week and I made a little video with the help of my son to illustrate what happens while ‘learning’. (insert cheshire cat grin here) If you need a good giggle, this one’s for you. Image CC BY-NC by Greg Hirson

See in learning stuff, could be any subject, there is content and then you have to figure out how to actually assimilate it and make it real for you, so that in the big wide world it means something and is useful. Very often we are given a ‘to do’ list and are set free to ‘learn’. The to do list is the what, and seldom includes the how or why. When I showed this video in class, it made my students cry with laughter, not because it is slapstick, but because it’s true. Read more

Time to open #MUS654 for 2017

It’s the start of another academic year, and I have just welcomed a new group of wonderful final year students to my undergraduate class on repertoire for the young performer. It’s a great one, in that we are so diverse, from classical to folk to rock and yet all on a common path of figuring out how to create a year-long curriculum for a learner. One of the first things I tell people is that I am not in a position to tell them how to ‘do’ their instruments. I can advise and guide on how to learn and devise learning. Time to open our minds! (featured image CC BY-SA by Eddie van W.)

We have more in common than we think – even with this year’s group spanning ukulele, clarinet, electric bass, voice, and violin. With all my classes we have no textbooks, and I strive to gather as many resources as possible for the students. For some classes these are paywalled, and fortunately we have access. For this class, there are many great resources that serve our purposes that are freely available. Over the past few years I have developed an open educational resource that is the closest thing to a text book that we have. It is here as the #MUS654 pages. There is a drop down menu for the pages, and I’m going to keep a grid of all the posts I make this year on a page there.

The idea was born out of two things:

  1. I can’t tell everyone what to do (I really could not pretend to have the expertise in ALL the instruments- that would be beyond pretentious)
  2. The people who can advise are out there, and so I thought wouldn’t it be great if my students worked to engage with you all, and in turn you were all invited to join in as well! (yay!)

What I had devised was like a mooc, but it isn’t a class that people need to register for. It is more of a cMOOC (that’s where everyone connects up and they devise the content). I didn’t realise it when I started this class in 2014, but that’s what I was creating. In this project/#MUS654, we discuss the commonalities of music, planning, engagement, but you have to do the heavy work and make the content for a curriculum (if you want). Otherwise you could just dip in and out and join in with anything that takes your fancy.

Learning to reach our and network is more than half of the game for musicians today.

So if you are a player, performer, enthusiast, teacher, learner, or just fancy yourself as a person who enjoys a bit of music – you are warmly invited to join in with any or all of the goings on here. Those studying with me at the University of Chichester will be following along with the content from now until the beginning of December, and I’ll announce the weeks with a blog post and share it as widely as I can. Feel free to look at Session 1: The Mechanics of Sound and see what you think…

You can participate by:

  • Tweeting (in your own account, or feel free to make a fake account just for this if you prefer to remain detached from your normal profile)
  • Blogging
  • Commenting on the main pages and posts here, on this website

You are in control of how publicly or privately you post.

I encourage you to tag things with #MUS654 and I’ll be searching! If I’m clever, this year I’ll figure out how to aggregate blogs! (these technical things hurt my brain sometimes 😉 )


I look forward to having you share the musical journey with us! We can learn a lot from one another.

Here’s to #MUS654 2017


Image CC By by Sharon Mollerus

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