The more we let the student decide, the more flexible the teacher has to be. Here I discuss three levels of student autonomy and the resultant expectations of the teacher, in the context of private music lessons. There is also, as usual, a few technological bells and whistles attached…
As a teacher I am supposed to be a paragon of wisdom and virtue. But as a professional musician in these times I find myself in a similar situation to the students – a landscape where the guitar itself is not the main feature, but one among many other seemingly unrelated ones (social networking, publicity, knowledge of current pop songs etc). My own feeling these days is that blindly sitting down to just play is not enough. There has to be at least a recognition of some sort of context or goal.
In a way this is the position many young students are in – without yet having a definite idea of what they’re about musically, they are taking the teacher’s vision for granted and doggedly learning because they are told to. Whereas if I were to be honest, I couldn’t say that the way Im showing is the best way, or that a certain type of music is ‘better’ than another. Perhaps the line we draw for students to walk should be a bit broader than the development of strict performance skills for classical music. Perhaps broad enough to allow them to ‘move around’ themselves, if we wanted to continue the analogy. But what could this mean?
Well, ‘moving around’ may come down to autonomy or self-direction. As teachers we try to set the parameters of the lesson so that the student finds answers rather than being supplied with them. Given the plethora of influences via the media, the ability to ‘self-learn’ is becoming increasingly important, as the role of the teacher is surely also changing to that of facilitator – one who discovers with the student, helping them to learn. In my own private teaching this has regularly taken the form of hearing a student’s request on YouTube and transcribing the melody or figuring out the chords for them. Student advancement in learning comes by showing them how its done – finding the tonic in the song, for example; or distinguishing between verses, choruses and bridges. In this way, the student has given an autonomous request for learning material, and the teacher has responded by working on the actual material (i.e.: writing out the chords etc.), but also by altering the lesson plan so that the student might gradually learn to do it him/herself. There seems to be two levels of autonomy here:(i) the student’s choice for material and (ii) the student’s ability to assimilate the material. It’s the second level where our job as teacher/facilitators would come in, and it requires a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to lesson plans. It also takes a certain opportunism to recognize musical lessons hidden within student’s requests.
For example, a student wants to learn a solo found on YouTube; the solo requires the student to play in fifth position, which they of course readily do (more-so than if you said ‘right, this lesson we’re learning about the fifth position’); as the student grapples with the technical challenge of the solo, the teacher introduces a simpler piece of music to be played in fifth position, and the student is surprised at their own achievement! Their intrinsic motivation has pushed their learning further, and faster, than any kind of advice from the teacher. In the place of advice, it is in the teacher’s holding back that the student achieves.
This is fine for a while, but their comes a time when YouTube videos become just as dry and uninteresting as the book – despite, and probably due to the waning of enthusiasm which comes along with any regular behavior. What I and many others (most notably Paynter in the 70’s) have dubbed ‘creative projects’ offer a new sort of territory for learning, one in which there is a much greater scope for autonomy or discovery when handled correctly.
Take for example, Paynter’s Sounds on Tape (I mentioned it before here. After a preliminary explanation of how to achieve different sounds using magnetic tape (chiefly by altering playback speeds and layering the recordings), the students are invited to create a piece of a certain duration. Apart from the time constraint, the only limits here are the techniques themselves, within which the student is granted artistic freedom. Of course, this exercise isn’t all that relevant now because we don’t use large tape-decks anymore. However, with the rise of Digital Audio Workspaces (such as freeware Audacity) we have the potential for an even more intuitive version of Sounds on Tape, aided by the visual element and a whole heck load of different effects. We are not limited to one sound either, we can through a couple of found sounds in the mix in order to try and create something really interesting.
Allowing a student to splash about with technology in this way is a real example of learning by doing, and in my experience young students are adepts at operating the DAW within a very short time. However, again, the teacher needs to learn to step back at important moments where the student is getting used to something. Faced with the goal to create a short 3 minute track, with a little bit of support and perhaps collaboration from the teacher, the student finds his/her way around the DAW.
Here is another excerpt from my thesis last year, which tries to incorporate these ideas into a simple lesson plan, while also attempting to categorise each stage of the learning in Bloomian terms:
“Using private musical instrument classes as the model, the approach to creative projects in this study will either begin with sound or with text – the instrument or notation. Viewed as an overall process with either of those starting points, there are many possibilities for exercises and projects, which overlap frequently. Both will have different note entry requirements, which employ different tools.
The following diagram offers a visualization of these overlapping possibilities, as
considered from the two starting points of sound and text, in a technologically integrated iterative learning process.
Diagram 1 – Process Map
This map outlines a learning process shaped by the possibilities offered by some of the technologies listed above, with the presentation of the creative project as the goal. The categories from Anderson and Krathwhol’s revision of Bloom are included to indicate the general trajectory of the process. Beginning with sound, we can ask the student to Play from Memory a piece they might want to record on a basic device or simply using a phone. Once taught the basic controls for doing so, the student can demonstrate their Understanding of the technological aspect of the task by importing the recorded sound file into a DAW such as Audacity. They can Apply their new found knowledge of the DAW by carrying out some basic editing or by adding effects to the sound file – an activity which will require them to Analyze the recording. After Evaluating their editing work, they can decide whether to add other recorded elements.
The final creative product can ultimately be broadcast online using any one of the popular mediums such as Soundcloud and YouTube.
Beginning with text, there are a handful of options using different technologies, from simply writing something down on manuscript paper to playing an improvised melody to the transcription app ScoreCloud, or entering in notes by the keypad into Noteflight. Once up in Noteflight, the web-based notation environment, we can continue with more instructional content, such as a basic arrangement task – a simple accompaniment to a melody for example. As a web-based task there is an asynchronous element, which can facilitate a more qualitative interaction between teacher and student than the simple setting and correcting of tasks. Suggestions for the piece of music, based solely on musical taste rather than a specific learning goal, amount to an online collaboration between the teacher and the student where both are creating. Recording the piece at the next lesson brings the process back in line with the affordances of recording and editing technologies, after those offered by the text-based softwares have been explored. As in Bloom’s original taxonomical structure, the steps in the process map can be revisited as many times as needed. For example, during the editing phase there may be some re-considerations concerning the text of the piece. Amendments to the piece can be made easily by using ScoreCloud to transcribe new melodies, while different recording takes can be shared on Soundtrap for further collaborative editing. The ultimate goal, then, is to present a creative project by uploading it onto a popular platform, such as YouTube. This stage presents the overlapping concepts of Create as a Bloomian cognitive process and Faultley’s ‘Pluratistic Developmentalism’.
2.2.1 – An example of a sequence of learning activities:
i) Play a melody by memory into Scorecloud.
ii) Correct any mistakes after Scorecloud’s transcription.
iii) Upload the XML/MIDI into Noteflight. Tasks and outcomes can be set,
at this point, to the arrangement. For example, set a baseline to the melody which makes use basic note durations.
iii) Play through the collaborated arrangement at the next lesson and discuss improvements. The student and/or teacher sync the recording onto the text in
iv) Collaborate with the teacher on creating the final product – a combination of straight recording and audio processing in Audacity.
v) Mix the sound events of the recorded and edited piece in Soundtrap. vi) Broadcast the final product on a platform of choice (eg; YouTube).”
In the context of such ‘creative projects’ the teacher has to be as flexible as possible, and ready to accept anything the student produces and work with it. Otherwise the student is likely to react badly and this avenue is closed for a considerable time, if not forever… and this is not what we want.