Archive for November, 2009

Creative Christmas Carols

Friday, November 27th, 2009

By Nicole Murphy
Republished with permission from Music Teacher’s Helper

CarolingIt’s that time of year again, when all my students are begging to play Christmas carols. If your students are anything like mine, they start requesting carols around October (possibly coinciding with the time that shops start putting up their decorations – I’m sure the requests are coming earlier every year), and no matter how long you manage to delay it for, it is inevitable that there will be some weeks when student after student turn up to their lessons, proudly displaying their version of Jingle Bells. So, how do you find pedagogical value in Christmas carols, and how do you keep it interesting for both student and teacher?

I find that books of Christmas Carols aimed at students are usually only useful for one or two years at the most, before students have made too much progress to find much enjoyment in sight-reading music that seemed like such a challenge a year ago (although it is a wonderful way for them to see how much they have progressed). So I prefer to approach carols differently than merely learning them as additional repertoire.

Depending on the capabilities of the student I use all or a selection of the following steps.

Younger students are given the melody of the Christmas carol in a simple key; while more advanced students aurally dictate it. Once the melody is written down and the key is established, we build triads on each scale degree, and play through the primary triads, discussing the function of each chord (for example, the tonic sounds like home, the dominant 7th acts as a signpost pointing towards home). For younger students I discuss how a chord progression can behave like a journey – starting at home, traveling away from home, exploring a new area, finding signs that point us towards home, and finally returning home.

Once the student is familiar with the harmonic language, we examine the melody and allocate chords that are appropriate. Each chord is checked for its effectiveness in the context of the preceding and following chords.

We discuss inversions of chords as a way for making block chords easily playable and then discuss a variety of styles of piano accompaniment, which are then applied to the chord progression. Students enjoy inventing their own variations on given formulae.

For more advanced students, the final step of the process is sight transposing their arrangements into different keys.

Hopefully these are some ideas that other teachers can employ in the lead up to the festive season this year.

Student-centered pedagogy

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

By Leah Coutts
Republished with permission from Music Teacher’s Helper

The term student-centered pedagogy alludes to the student being the teacher’s main priority, rather than the music that is being taught. It’s main objective is for teachers to become increasingly dispensable to students by developing them as independent learners. So what can teachers do to achieve this?

Allow students to become active participants of their musical education

The philosophy behind student-centered pedagogy is that students learn through three stages:

* First by hearing
* Then by doing
* Lastly by conceptual understanding – seeing the music, knowing the name, and understanding the theory

Rather than telling a student what you want them to know, allow them to experience it first. This could be through movement, playing on the piano, creative activities or singing. The student’s and your imagination are the only limitations.

Understand that new knowledge is built upon that which already exists within the students

Rather than telling the student a new concept by its name straight away, allow the student time to come up with their own metaphor that is relevant to them. A great example of this is ’staccato’. The student may call it ‘bouncy’ or ’short’ or anything else that makes sense to them. This gives them links to their prior knowledge and makes sense of this new concept in their own minds.

Knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it

Takes scales for example. If we teach each scale as a new sequence of notes, then each scale becomes something to memorise and learn. If we teach the patterns behind the scale though, the student is then able to discover the notes of any scale using its pattern. This leads to independence from the teacher, which is what student-centered pedagogy is all about!

This also allows students to problem-solve to further their own knowledge. For example, if students know and understand Binary form, and you would like to introduce Ternary form, they could work out the structure based on what they already know about form.

Creativity is highly motivating

Let’s face it, if students are not motivated, they are not going to stay for the long haul. If they are not motivated, it doesn’t matter how independent they become, they still won’t use what they know. Being active, as mentioned above, is one way to increase motivation. Another way is creativity.

As well as students enjoying the composition/improvisation/movement tasks, etc, it also gives students the opportunity to apply learned concepts on their own. This gives teachers a great indication of how much the student has grasped.

The teacher as facilitator

Student-centered pedagogy aims to change the role of the teacher to that of facilitator. Their role is to discover and build on students’ experiences and prior knowledge, and to help them develop their own understanding. This quote, taken from Rhodes and Bellamy (1999, p. 21) sums it up nicely:

“A teacher tells, a facilitator asks; a teacher lectures from the front, a facilitator supports fromt he back; a teacher gives answers according to a set curriculum, a facilitator provides guidelines and creates the environment for the learner to arrive at his or her own conclusions; a teacher mostly gives a monologue, a facilitator is in continuous dialogue with the learners.”

Thus, facilitators ask questions

Not just any type of question though. If a teacher asks a question that only has one answer, then the student is being asked to recall a fact. The student could learn answers by rote quite easily without actually understanding what it is that they are saying. Asking questions that require comprehension, application, or analysis to produce an answer promotes critical thinking and helps students to apply concepts learned to answers given.

Getting out of the seat

Another thing to remember is that even though we may teach specific instruments, we are all also responsible for teaching music as a language as well. Don’t feel the student needs to remain glude to their chair, or even their instrument over the cours of the lesson. By moving and changing focus regularly, the student is more likely to stay alert, have fun, and remain active music-makers in the long-run.

I hope there have been some useful tips here for you. Please share any others that spring to mind.

Look out for future blogs on students as individuals, catering to different personality types, and ways to find out who your students actually are!

Memorizing Music

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

By Matt Marvuglio

Republished with permission from Artist House Music

matt-marvuglioOne way to impress people at an audition or in performance is to have your music memorized. This can be a daunting adventure for some of us and can create a good amount of anxiety too.Most musicians I know don’t like to memorize music. What if I forget? Will I have to go all the way back to the beginning and start again? I’d like to explore the process of memorizing music where you will gain more confidence in your playing. Once you get hooked on the process you will want to memorize everything. First of all, your mind works like a computer. Actually it’s the other way around. Computers were designed by examining the way people think and modeling a machine after our thought processes. We have a short term memory and a long term memory which is the same as RAM in the computer and the hard drive. Our short term memory is the window through which we process information to store it in long term memory (or our hard drive.) The more ways or cues you use to process the music, the more chances you have for retrieving it.

The biggest fear of memorizing music is forgetting. Forgetting usually happens when a retrieval strategy breaks down. It happens to everyone if you don’t process the music in a number of different ways. We need to process music in a number of different ways so you will be confident that you will not forget. This way, if one system breaks down, the other one can take over. Maybe a better way of describing playing music without reading it would be “internalizing” the music. Let’s talk about the different ways that you can internalize a piece of music through different memory systems.

Visual is the most common memory system through which we all relate to the world. For some of us, this is the way we learn music. We read it. When you close your eyes, you can visualize the part and see the page in front of you.

Tactile is the memory system through which we can feel the music by fingering the instrument. You can remember how a passage feels and you can reach for it. Through this system you can recognize familiar patterns such as scales and arpeggios. Musicians who don’t read can rely upon this memory system.

Aural is the memory system through which we can hear the music. Solfege is a system of study that clearly identifies the pitches in a systematic way and helps us build our aural perception. Scale degrees are assigned numbers or syllables and you identify chromatic alterations and key changes.

You need to use all of these systems and be aware of what you are seeing, feeling, and hearing when you practice. Also, it is important to isolate each system to fully understand what’s happening. This is a great way that you can put your music theory and solfege to use.Everyone will have a different memory system that is stronger based upon how you practice and learn music. Let’s look at the following passage from the J.S. Bach Minuet in G and put it through the different memory systems. Let’s begin by reading the example.

The Visual Memory System
Before you start reading the example you should look over the passage and answer the following questions:

• What is the tempo?
• What is the time signature?
• What is the key signature?
• Are there any chromatic alterations?
• Sing the rhythm to yourself?
• Are there any tricky rhythms?

Now you are ready to read the example.



After playing the example you should ask yourself, what did I just play?



In this case we have two four-measure phrases and within these phrases, a question and an answer.

We are starting to create a network of knowledge of the piece that will help us remember what we are seeing on the page. Let’s continue with the next memory system to help us create yet a deeper understanding of the composition.

Tactile Memory System

Here I’d like to make a case for practicing scales and arpeggios in different patterns. The more you practice different patterns, the more you can develop your memory system. This is very similar to learning vocabulary. The more you learn, the better you can express yourself. Let’s play the piece by fingering your instrument silently focusing on the patterns and the intervals. We already know that the tune is in G major, so we can focus on the different patterns in the key of G and not worry about any chromatic alterations and reduce the possibilities. I like to think of the patterns as leaps or steps.



Let’s review what we just fingered. The first two phrases are constructed by leap step leap. Where the second phrase is all stepwise patterns with a leap at the end for a cadence. And, the whole passage is constructed with a G major scale. Including our third memory system will complete the picture and really give meaning to the music.

Aural Memory System
One way to organize the melodies that you hear is by using a solfege system. This system was invented a long time ago to help monks remember the tunes they were singing because they weren’t writing them down. There are two basic systems and I prefer to use the moveable Do system where a syllable or number is assigned to each scale degree of a key and it moves with the key. Our example is in G major which means that G would be Do or 1. Let’s use numbers to identify the scale degrees:



Now it’s time to sing the example without your instrument using the scale degrees. If you know the solfege syllables you can use them too. If you need to check yourself with your instrument, by all means do so until you can sing it without a pitch reference.

Wrap Up
This way of thinking will open up a whole new way of practicing efficiently and help you memorize music. Using different modalities to learn or encode music should make it easier to retrieve music or have it at your fingertips. And that’s what we did with this small Bach passage. What you will find is that one memory system is stronger than the others and you will not by able to rely upon each system equally. When you’re trying to memorize a piece, it is important to create a network of knowledge that will give you a deeper understanding of the music. Work on different ways to learn to memorize music so when one system fails, you can rely upon another. Don’t forget now!

Matt Marvuglio is Dean of the Performance Division at Berklee College of Music. As a virtuosic flutist and composer, he has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, premiering his compositions for jazz flute. He has presented clinics for the National Flute Association, the Acoustic Society of America, and the International Flute Convention in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He teaches in Berklee’s online extension school, Berkleemusi Visit Matt’s Web site at