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C or Do?

The title of this certainly is challenging to read.

I can assure you that I do not mean ‘see or do’.

The question I am asking is whether or not we call a note ‘C’ or ‘Do’, or anything else for that matter.

This raises so many questions for people. We live in a world where we belong to schools of thought. Are you Kodaly trained, Orff trained, Suzuki trained? Or do those names make your eyes hurt?

I have received extensive training in aural studies, sight singing and piano/music teaching. And what I have arrived at is that it is important to know what other people think, and why they think it.

The programs I have listed have lasted for a reason; they are effective.

So then why doesn’t everyone do it exactly the same way?

The short answer to that is that music is a cultural product; it is intrinsically connected to language, communication and, in many cases, national identity.

I learned the music notes as C,D,E all the way up to my final years of school, where suddenly we were attempting to sight sing using a system I only knew from the Sound of Music. And I am happy with the way I was taught. But it is no longer the way I teach.

Apart from being a music teacher, I am also a general classroom practitioner, meaning that I also (very happily) teach maths, reading, writing, science… the list goes on. I’ll never forget my first lesson in teaching students how to read, when I realised how confusing it must be for a 5 year old to be told that the letter C says ‘k’ by one teacher, only to be told it makes a pitched sound by another.

And I have changed the way I teach ever since. To a certain point.

You see, the problem with only ever using one program is that music is always going to be bigger than one program. Movable Do has many instances where it simply doesn’t work, as does Fixed Do. As do tuning systems, as does staff notation. To be an effective teacher, you need to be willing to expand your vocabulary and understandings to suit different situations.

When I teach students how to read music, I often use the names ‘do, re, mi’. But I also tell them that they have more than one name. Because that is all it is; a name. A name that helps us to know what we’re talking about.

So then which name is best?

All of them. And none of them.

The note is not the name. The note is the sound it makes.

So when I’m teaching students who are learning to read, I use ‘do, re, mi’. When I’m teaching older students, I use both. Because the names are only the labels that make the sound easier to understand.

So back to our first question: C or Do?

Simply put, the answer is up to you. Just remember that no system is perfect, or absolutely right all the time.

(And please remember that children can also be learning how to read).

Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

This post was originally published September, 2021.

crop faceless multiethnic interviewer and job seeker going through interview

Look to the experts

‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’

The rest of the quote reads: ‘but oftentimes better than a master of none.’

My personal aim, is ‘jack of some trades‘.

But why not all?

As an educator in any field, it is certainly tempting to make sure you can do everything. That you don’t need to pay for anyone else’s resources, that you can master everything, teach anything.

And no, this isn’t a plug for my music education resources. Although if you want them, I’m sure by now you know where to find them. (-insert winky face here-)

I have seen so many music classrooms like it. The timeline on the wall, following the super-imposed ‘sections’ of music history, without any further context. Baroque, classical, romantic, etc.

Now, I know many music teachers will instantly tell me that these have their place, and I do not disagree. But they are only a piece. For example, why do we consistently separate music history from world history? The two are not separate; they are inherently linked.

But even more importantly than that, I have noticed an increasingly worrying pattern of music teachers assuming that they understand, and can teach, topics that culturally do not belong to them, and that they have only a cursory understanding of.

A key example of this lies in the phrase ‘music is universal’.

No. It isn’t.

Music is a learned phenomena, culturally distinct across the world, and not fitting into a comfortable pattern for us to follow.

I can hear you asking; but where are you going with this? Am I never to teach music that isn’t mine again?

No. But also slightly yes.

The answer is in the title: look to the experts.

The internet is an amazing place. It is full of experts on different topics, keen to share their knowledge, who can explain their culture and their music more clearly than you ever could.

Even more than that, there are experts right outside your school that would be delighted to be asked to come in and show their expertise. You might even be surprised by the parents of your music students – for example, one of my old students’ dad was one of the best rock guitarists in Australia. He was certainly a respected resource in our community.

You do not need to be master of all trades. But all educators, in any field, should aim to become master of this one: asking for help.

Good luck, and may your community be full of hitherto undiscovered musical delights!

Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

megaphone speakers on wooden post

Teaching sound

A lot of people want to talk about music as organised sound. And in many ways, I agree.

But are we sound teachers, or music teachers?

I once taught a three-year-old student. In my defence, I thought she was four. She struggled to engage effectively in her lessons. That was my baptism by fire into moving away from ‘at the piano’ instruction. It wasn’t possible. I had to teach music, not piano. But what do we aim to teach such students?

Sound, or music?

Because at the end of the day, there is a difference.

To furnish an example, I am going to quote my own work.

The first example is from my latest single release; what I would term ‘music’.

The second example is from a project my arts collective, the (In)Equal Temperament Project, are currently working on, which I would term ‘sound art’. (Listen till 1:43.) If this makes you curious about this project, read more about it here.

Different as these two examples are, I have to tell you that the process of writing was not all that different for me. Both required an idea, an understanding of sound and music, and the persistence to follow it through to the end.

To get around to the point, after what could appear to be shameless self promotion, how do we remain true to teaching music as everything it is in our classrooms?

Because music is sound, sound is music, and in our world one doesn’t exist without the other.

For our classroom practice, it means that we need to let go of a purely ‘musical’ instruction. We cannot only teach European music history, only study that music theory, only allow music that follows that set of rules.

This begins with you. The likelihood is that this makes you uncomfortable. You have a curriculum to follow, an expectation to meet from stakeholders, a tradition to uphold.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

But do add some new water to the bath.

Start with a simple step; expand your own listening, and start to discuss the sounds your students are hearing before labeling them as music. A violin doesn’t just sound ‘like a violin’; what does it REALLY sound like?

Before you know it, listening to sound AND music will become second nature!

Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

Why singing?

I have been a piano teacher since I was 15 years old. Safe to say that my first students had to deal with my teething problems. But thankfully when I graduated school and moved, they graduated me, and got the variety we all need for a good music education.

One of the regrets I have from that time is that I did not sing with my first students. Instead, I taught the way I had been taught, by playing scales, exercises and pieces.

Now, more than a piano teacher, I consider myself a music teacher. Whenever you have a student, you are teaching the whole child. They might end up specialising in the instrument they happen to be studying, they might switch musical specialties, or they might pursue an entirely different career. So the question that needs to be asked is: what skills do you want to leave them with?

That brings us around to singing. Apart from the fact that aural skills are part of every music examination, they are also an indispensable musical skill. And the wonderful thing is that children are excellent listeners. I’m not saying they are good at listening to you; we all know that’s not true. But they are constantly learning new sounds, and music is no exception.

Music is the creation of sound. We learn that that picture on the page means that we make a certain sound. That when you move your hands a certain way, you can make the sound that is being requested. The mistake that is often made here is a reliance on muscle memory instead of auditory memory. Rather than learning that middle C sounds like middle C, we learn that middle C is that note on the piano, or that finger on the violin, etc. And while muscle memory is useful, by itself it limits you to your one instrument.

So, we sing. At the start of every music lesson, instrumental or classroom. And for my instrumental students, I expect them to sing as part of their practice time. I do not create virtuosic singers. That’s not the point. But over time, they notice their mistakes before I tell them. Because rather than just remembering how their hands move, they know what sound to expect next, because they have practiced it in every way that they can.

This can seem daunting. You’re not a vocal teacher, why would you sing with your cello student? Start simply. Sing a major scale. Sing a minor scale. Sing intervals. Sing chords. You will be amazed by what your students can do, and how it develops both of you as musicians.

Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.

This post was originally published August 20201.

grayscale photography of person using dj controller

Technology and music

I finally watched Tick, Tick, BOOM the other day.

It was fabulous, inspiring, and reminded me that our profession asks more of us than we should perhaps be constantly willing to give.

One of the most touching moments of the film was the birthday present of a leather bound book of blank manuscript.

It reminded me of being a music student, desperately trying to keep track of loose pieces of paper, covered with snatches of ideas, lonely notes waiting for a home.

Now, I have only one source of manuscript. A small leatherbound notebook, imprinted with my name and a message from people who love me, to put down any sudden bursts of inspiration.

The main reason for that, of course, is that I now create most of music electronically. I use Finale, Logic Pro, and a whole host of other supporting applications. I can’t pretend that it’s any more organised than it was back then, but at least I don’t lose crucial pieces of information by accident.

More than that though, music technology allows me to create sounds and musical moments that I could not without it. The modern music world would not be what it is without technology.

So what is its place in our music classrooms?

Well, it has to be included. It is not an option to be dismissed because it is not ‘traditional’. Traditions change, practice grows. It is possible to move on without leaving everything behind. If we want to create effective, industry ready musicians, we need to make sure we give them the tools to succeed.

How to begin, then?

Well, a simple place to start is by recording their work. Then listen. In GarageBand, are there any edits they would like to make? Any parts they would like louder, quieter, more resonant?

With that simple 10 minute task, you have included some of the main elements of mixing and production, without straying away from improving their performance.

As digital natives, students nowadays will take that information and run with it. Give them the time, and you will be astounded by what they can create!

Feeling overwhelmed with the never-ending responsibilities of a music teacher? Us too! Go to our shop to find reasonably priced music education resources designed by experts to make your life easier.