Solfa? So? What’s in it for mi?

In a previous post, I alluded to a conversation started by @jonpowles on whether the teaching of music theory was relevant in music education. I met with my former director of music yesterday, and a conversation I had with her motivated me to post further on this topic. Over the last year or so she has become heavily involved in the Kodaly teaching method (after a few years of being completely Orff – my lack of understanding of the factionism between the two is a post for another day). She was relating to me her experiences at the recent Kodaly Summer School (two week intensive PD accreditation), and expounding the virtues of the students she met there who had been taught intensively via the Kodaly method. She talked about the young students’ ability to sign orchestral themes in solfa at concerts, and the compulsory primary school instrumental programs. She talked about lesson plans structured in three-minute increments. She talked about monolithic choral programs. All things very familiar to me from my time teaching in the private school system in a heavily music-focused community. It brought to my mind again all the questions and self-doubt I had while I was teaching.

Let’s take the first example. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think solfa is evil. I have spent many an hour with my palm towards me myself, and rejoiced when finally I could arch it upwards and introduce la, because a year of so-mi only is enough to drive a decent person to drink (apparently hardcore Kodaly purists won’t introduce la until year two – unfathomable). But I ask myself time and again – why? What value is there to these (mandatory syllabus) students to be able to solfa through Beethoven 9? What relevance does it hold for those not moving onto elective study? What relevance does it hold for those who are moving onto elective study? Tertiary study? I got through an entire music degree without solfa-ing a single thing and I can still sing Twinkle Twinkle in any given mode with no trouble at all*. Does it help students understand melodic concepts? Or are they simply able to remember which physical movement goes with which interval without understanding why that interval was used in the first place? I have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, but I really struggle with the idea that a primary student being able to solfa a given melody is a virtue to which we should aspire.

The other thing I struggle with is the idea of compulsory instrumental/choral programs. Particularly in private schools, music departments seem to aspire to have vast armies of student musicians. Directors are applauded for compulsory string programs in year 3, multiple-tier choral programs and so on. I still have to ask – why? What value do sheer numbers hold? I know there are many supporters around who talk about the benefits to students of learning an instrument/voice – better concentration, better grades etc (sounds like Ritalin…). However, I suspect it is less about the  students actually benefitting intrinsically, and more about having several ensembles that one can call on to perform at the drop of a hat to promote the school. It’s a cynical view, I know, but if anyone can answer the question ‘What do students actually get out of it?’ I would love to hear from them. I ask myself what school would have been like for me if a mandatory intensive sport program had been in place – if I had been forced to join a team, undertake co-curricular training and play in matches. I would have hated it. Similarly – what if I had already been learning the violin for years yet was forced to sit in a class with 20 others learning busy-busy-stop-stop? I really think it’s time to stop and think. Music isn’t about taking over the world.

Apologies for the K-12 music focus and rambling posts of late. I think I’ve got one more in me then can begin to relate it to my current research.

*Fun thing to test me on when drinking. If you ask for Locrian though I will probably punch you.


While I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, my first-day-back brain has been mulling over a few things I’d like on a mental to-do list for this year.  The first of these comes on the back of reading this article, which strengthened my suspicion that most people operate under some degree of misconception about things (myself included). The following are three bugbears of mine which I would dearly love to begin debunking this year:


This is a contentious one, because I know that there is a certain experience in a paper book that involves all senses in a way that eBooks do not, and it is something I still enjoy. However, if, as in the above article, you are arguing that paper books are better because of their permanence or value, think again. I suspect that the idea that computer files are somehow transient or vulnerable harks back to the pre-internet no-backup days when they effectively were. These days? I suppose it depends on how you manage your data, but generally I feel digital content has a leg up on physical in terms of permanence. I can think of any number of ways in which I can quickly and irreversibly destroy a paper book – in my case, it tends to involve unfortunate encounters with water. I can also imagine, from experience, any number of scenarios involving a required book not being in the same location as myself. Yet my eBooks are synced via various services – my iPad (current reader of choice) could be dropped in the ocean, set on fire or run over by a bus, my house could burn down and I could be on the other side of the world, and I would still have access to every single one of my eBooks. In a hundred years when my paper books are faded and unreadably fragile, my eBooks will have emerged in (presumably) perfect copy via whatever legacy file conversion system is in place then. I know which gets my vote for permanence. And value? Perhaps there is an argument for cheap secondhand texts, but without exception every eBook that I have purchased has been vastly cheaper than the equivalent paper copy in my local bookshop. The overheads for digital text are so low that it seems madness to suggest paper books are somehow better value. The only other thing I will say on eBooks for now is that I just don’t get how anyone who has to go anywhere to do anything with books can’t be swayed by the immense convenience of having multiple texts on one tiny device.

The Cloud

Time and time again I talk to people who are wary of the cloud – who feel the need to either have a physical paper copy of something or a stand-alone file on their own computer for their data to feel ‘secure’. To me, this is the same idea as stuffing all your money into a mattress rather than keeping it in the bank. We all adapted to digital currency years ago – I don’t understand the resistance to cloud-based data. What is more secure – your own computer, with one point of failure, and perhaps a backup on an external hard drive or server in roughly the same location, or a large multi-site cloud service with the ability to run yottabites of storage with triple redundancy and insurance? One power surge, fire, flood or theft at your home/office and it’s all over, red rover in the first instance. I know there’s a lot of scare-mongering that goes on re: hacking and identity theft, but two things come to mind: your own computer is just as vulnerable; and one of my favourite authors’ catchcries – ‘distinguish possible from likely’. For me, the benefits (of insane convenience and security) outweigh the risks every time. I know where I’m putting my data.

Digital natives/immigrants

By this I don’t mean weighing in on the argument that digital natives theory is a load of crap – it’s been done and those of you reading are likely well-versed in the arguments and are aware of my views. What I’m referring to is the somewhat largely held belief that mature-age students are somehow fundamentally different to fresh-out-of-school students. I often hear lecturers saying ‘Well, yes, I know we’re supposed to be using technology but I only have mature-age students and they’re not interested in all that’. Yes, and before they came to uni they probably didn’t use the APA style guide, read textbooks or write critical analyses either. Basing course design on the predicted tool preferences of a student demographic is madness. Do we ask ourselves if students like using Bunsen burners before engaging in lab work? Do we ask if students prefer to read magazines before assigning textbooks? We need to stop assigning ‘special other’ categories to students, and we need to stop doing it for tools as well.

That’s my list for today. Feel free to weigh in with your own misconception bugbears in the comments.

Music syllabi – where old ideas go to die.

@JonPowles tweeted the following question yesterday afternoon: So why on earth should [university] music students study music theory? This struck a chord with me (pardon the pun) from the point of view of a former music teacher. K-12 is of course an entirely separate issue from tertiary studies, and I’ll address them as such below, but the key word I keep coming up against regardless of the domain is relevance.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that music syllabi in general (both K-12 and tertiary) are some of the most outdated in the curriculum. Very little, if anything, has changed over the last century, except for an optional nod towards ‘popular’ music or ‘music technology’. There is a very big and very loud ‘old guard’ of educators and theorists who insist on certain ways in which music should be taught, usually within the narrow window of ‘western music tradition’. Nobody questions the presence of music theory or musicianship, and nobody questions the way in which it is taught.

They should.

K-12 curriculum is my personal bugbear. I trained as a secondary music teacher, but spent most of my teaching career in T-8 music. What I’m about to say is as relevant to 3 year olds as to 13 year olds. Music theory should not be part of the mandatory syllabus. Every time I looked at the syllabus, especially the stage 4 syllabus, I wanted to boot it across the room. I can’t tell you the number of times I was asked ‘But miss, why do we have to learn this?’ and couldn’t answer honestly. Rote-learning crotchets and major scales and accent markings bears no relevance whatsoever to a student who has no plans to engage in music studies beyond year 8 (the vast majority of students). In fact, it bears little relevance to anyone other than the less than 1000 students in the state who sit for Music 2/extension exams. It is an outdated and terribly old-school syllabus. Even the two main educational theorists influencing music teaching today (Orff and Kodaly) are both dead and their work is going on 100 years old. I would dearly love to see the current mandatory stage 1-4 syllabi scrapped in favour of something more like ‘music appreciation’. What is relevant to all students is learning to love music. Learning to listen widely and critically, to be able to perform, improvise and collaborate, to be able to engage in self-expression. None of this requires a working knowledge of music notation (other than knowing that it exists and why) or an ability to parrot the six concepts of music. There is absolutely no reason why a year 8 student should need to be able to do a melodic or rhythmic dictation, or know how many sharps are in D major. What about the students who do want to study music beyond year 8, you ask? Almost without exception, they have already learned music theory in their instrumental lessons, and sit in the mandatory classes, bored to tears. Nobody wins. The elective syllabi offer more scope, but time and time again I saw students taught ‘traditional’ theory via the major composers at the expense of any functional knowledge of harmony, critical thinking or breadth of experience. Very few teachers are able to teach advanced composition or musicological analysis – the vast majority of music 2/extension students are full performance electives. If you ask most people ‘how is the current elective music syllabus relevant to students’ lives?’, I’m willing to bet most will answer ‘it’s the pathway to tertiary study’ or something similar. And this makes me sad – there is more, much more, to music than that.

Music theory at tertiary level is something that has been concerning my husband (a composition lecturer) for years. He is of a very functional bent, and aims to give students a practical and wide-ranging functional knowledge of harmony and theory. And yet he constantly comes up against the fact that music theory is by and large taught by musicologists. Now, several of our dear friends are musicologists, and I don’t intend to slight their vast and comprehensive knowledge in their area of research. However, an advanced knowledge of species counterpoint bears little relevance to any tertiary student other than those intending to move into the musicological academia. I completed my undergraduate degree this century, and yet the vast majority of my harmony units covered theory that was several hundred years old. Even when teaching senior music I have never had to articulate the difference between a Neapolitan 6th and a German augmented 6th. My knowledge of music theory far exceeds any relevance to an intended or unintended future career. For people like me, this is fine, as it holds a certain nerd value, but for most students, music theory that is half a millenia old just isn’t relevant. It is convoluted and outdated. I am not arguing that music theory should not be taught – tertiary music students need an in-depth knowledge of functional harmony, voice leading, melodic constructs and so on, so that they can engage in music as well-rounded and intelligent individuals. But theory as it is taught today ignores such a large proportion of the richness of music and ideas – how many students, upon learning ground bass theory, can tell you that virtually every rock,  jazz and blues piece today is a chaconne? How many students can talk about the relationship of 4th species counterpoint to 20th century musical theatre? How many students who learn to realise figured bass can then walk you through a II-V-I jazz progression and choose an appropriate mode to improvise over it with? How many piano students who have spent their degree learning intimately and virtuosically all the works of Chopin can even play in time? How many students can explain why (or even know that) keyboard Bach sounds fantastic played by Bela Fleck (banjo), Nick Parnell (marimba/vibes) or Yngwie Malmsteen (metal guitarist) but awful whenever it’s played on piano (apologies to those who enjoy it)? It’s time for the bricks-and-mortar institutions to scrap their curricula and take a good, hard look at what’s relevant now and in the future.

If you’d like to add your two cents to the debate, you can either post below, or comment on Jon’s Quora thread on the topic.

On papers and academic integrity

On my mind lately has been the sustainability of the current publications model. The lag time between the call for papers and the actual conference or publication is often six months or more. Particularly in edtech, six months is a long time to stay relevant. I’ve just finished writing the final copy of paper post-review for a conference next year. What I hadn’t thought about when submitting initially was how much my thinking would change in the months since the initial write. It’s a difficult rewrite when you no longer really believe in what you’re writing. Concepts that seemed relevant months ago now seem outdated and as though they are missing the point. I’m well aware that I’m my own biggest critic, but I’m still struggling with the idea that by the time I present the paper, it will represent thinking that is at least eight months old, not how I’m thinking now or in two months’ time.

The other side of the coin here is the pressure to publish or perish. I feel it. I’m a new-career academic and senior exec has made their views on academics and research publication quite clear. My question is, at what point do you set down the line between quantity and quality? I’ve come to realise there are more than a few throwaway papers floating around – and I’ve just written one of them. Is it worth dashing off papers for ‘easy’ conferences/journals just for the sake of getting something published? Or taking time to craft better works around significant concepts, at the risk of only publishing/presenting once or twice a year?

Walking the walk.

I currently have a box of WoW on my desk. I’ve mentioned it in a couple of recent posts on designing training using GBL principles. Yet, I’m not a gamer, and that fact has not sat well with me of late. Hence the box. I have yet to install; It seems to be the general consensus that WoW eats your life. I have had my own thoughts on WoW in a recreational sense for a number of years now. At the pointy end of my thought process, though, I was finding it hard to justify not investigating it as a player.

Which leads me to – to what degree a researcher can be respected without walking the walk? Publishing/presenting on educational theory without ever having been in a classroom, web 2.0 integration without being on Twitter, games-based learning without being a gamer and so on. Thoughts?

Using Moodle round the wrong way – an exploration of lessons and conditionals

A while ago now I wrote this post outlining a few ideas on using gaming principles to inform staff training. Those ideas are now becoming reality, and I’m in the midst of designing the Moodle Dailies – a training site for both staff and students. The idea is informed conceptually by WoW daily quests (short 10-15 min tasks that keep you familiar with the environment, increase skills/reputation etc etc) and structurally by Angry Birds (a structured sequence of levels that you must pass to unlock the next level, and each level can be passed with three varying levels of skill). Where the site is really out of left field in terms of traditional training is in the fact that no how-tos or other skill-based information is offered – a goal for each level is defined, but participants must source their own information and develop their own skills. Just like in a game, really.

To build a Moodle site structured like this, I’m really reliant on the use of conditional activites (to allow levels to be ‘unlocked’ and so on). The addition of conditional activities in Moodle 2 has been a bone of contention with many educators. Initially designed to echo the ‘selective release’ of other LMS systems, conditionals give you the ability to dictate a student’s progression through your course. Advocates of authentic, constructivist and self-directed learning argue that student progression should not be dictated, in favour of a more exploratory model. I’ll admit I initially had similar thoughts. Mark Drechsler’s recent (and excellent) post on open source ecosystems covers some of the issues in LMS feature sets here. However, I think to argue that conditional activities don’t create an effective educational environment is only seeing half the story. Like most tools, the devil is in the details – use it poorly, with a restrictive, transmissive approach in mind, and it will be a poor learning experience. But use it creatively, with an explorative and self-directed approach in mind, and the game changes. I’ve found that trying to structure a game-like environment with conditionals really makes you think about progression, motivation and metacognition. If your design is based on goals and not information delivery, there’s ample opportunity for authentic, exploratory learning. All you need to do is think a bit backwards.

The big sticking point for me in the design of the Dailies has been level completion. One wishing to provide level scores and conditional progression in Moodle has several options at their disposal. For practical reasons that I won’t go into here, quizzes, choices and feedback modules were vetoed in favour of the lesson module. However, the wrangling of lesson modules has been a small adventure – it is a fickle and convoluted mistress. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve arrived at an ideal solution. The idiosyncratic scoring and jump structure mean that you are forced to ‘feed’ responses to some extent (ie someone who attempts the level once can see very clearly what they need to do to get higher scores next time), and irritatingly, in order for the lesson to log a grade or a view, you are forced to display an ‘end of lesson’ page that is clunky and non-customisable. I found out the hard way that there’s only so far you can hack a module before you have to start playing by its rules. That said, there’s still a lot of scope for designing disruptive use of modules that were probably initially designed for transmissive, information-push delivery.

I think what has stood out for me the most in this design process is that, while there might be particular design elements inherent in a system, particularly when features are requested by the community to meet certain needs, there’s no real restriction in this. Pedagogy can be rethought infinitely within the technical bounds of a system. So to those who are wary of conditional activities (or anything else for that matter), may I suggest you just spend a while with it trying to use it around the wrong way, for an entirely unintended purpose, and you may find yourself a fan after all.

Workshopping the workshop

It’s come to my attention that the way I deliver face to face development workshops is broken. Not badly; I’ve never been the type to do the stand-and-deliver here-is-my-wisdom-in-a-powerpoint type of workshop that you often see (everything I do is hands-on with lots of discussion, and well-reviewed), but I still feel like there’s quite a gap between the style of education I’m promoting and the actual delivery mode of workshops. However, I’m also very aware of the fact that there is a certain style of workshop that most academics expect and are comfortable with (there is a reason the aforementioned style of development is commonplace). My colleague and I are about to start drafting the workshop program next year, and my intention is to treat it as a small-scale project. I’d like to get to a stage where I think the content and delivery structure of our workshops is more authentic. I’ve outlined some thoughts on online training in a previous post, but face-to-face training is something I’ve yet to really solidify ideas on.

So my question for you is – if you could design your ‘ideal’ CPD workshop to attend, what features would you be looking for? What’s defined the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ PD you’ve been to? If you’re someone who delivers training, how do you cut the balance between expectations and intentions?

And my final question – is the workshop even the best model? Or are we barking up the wrong tree entirely?