Podcast EP 28: How to build numbers in the comprehensive High School Music Classroom

The high school music classroom can be quite challenging. Each type of school structure comes with their challenges. There are some structures where music is only taught for 3 or 6 months in the year. There are other structures where music is taught all year but only once a week. Both have their success and their challenges. 

This week I would like to talk about the challenges of the mandatory structure and how to engage the stage 4 (years 7 and 8) to continue through to stage 5 (elective years 9 and 10) and then onto stage 6 (years 11 and 12). 

In the Australian State of New South Wales, music is compulsory in Years 7 and 8 (Stage 4). This is where you will find three types of music students – the one who is always going to do music no matter what, the student who doesn’t like music at all and the one who sits in the middle and doesn’t mind either way. 

In Year 7, things are a little easier because they are fresh faced and are usually quite prepared to give anything a go. They are keen to learn new things and are not too concerned about how they look. This attitude can last 3, 6 or 9 months, depending on the journey of the child. However, at some point, that child is going to align themselves with one of the three types identified earlier. So how do you program for growth when you have such diversity? 

Well I have found focusing on the “middle child” is a good way. Let’s be realistic, the child who was always going to do music is going to do this regardless and your job is just to facilitate their learning. Same with the child who hates music – you need to choose the path of least resistance and not go into battle every time they enter the room. That is just going to frustrate them further. So by focussing on the middle child, the one who doesn’t mind either way, it will help you to build numbers. These are the ones you can influence the most. 

This strategy coupled with engaging and practical programming, will help you to build numbers. Gone are the days of students needing know by rote and notes on the stave, the names of the rhythms and instruments of the orchestra. I still see worksheets and activities based around the belief that every child needs to know what a crotchet is. Trust me they don’t. As long as they can clap the darn thing and play it in time, then you are winning. When they get into Years 9 and 10 (elective stage 5),  they are going to want to know more and it is there where you can make the most impact with terminology. 

Now I am not saying don’t stop using terminology or approaching high level skill in Year 7. On the contrary, I welcome it. I liken it to talking with babies. The sooner you talk to them like an adult and have normal conversations (rather than baby babble) the sooner they are going to master the language. 

So Step 2 is to have engaging units that cover a lot of content in a proactive way. Below is a list of Stage 4 units that help to engage. This program is based on Year 7 having 1 x 60 minute period a week and Year 8 having 3 x 60 minute periods every 2 weeks. It is surprising how much more you can get done with just one lesson so if you have this option, I would encourage the extra lesson being in Year 8. It truly does help to build the “middle child” and helps to engage. 

Year 7  Description Year 8 Description
African Drums
(7 weeks
7 lessons)
Focusses on
Rhythm, texture, structure,
dynamics and
tone colour.
Teach rhythm
using fruit nameand pattern
combinations
Composition
Japanese Drums(7 weeks
10 – 11 lessons)
Performance
Reviews and
reinforces 
Rhythm but
expands with
the addition of
substantial
syncopation,
texture,
structure,
dynamics and
tone colour
Take Your Pick (7 weeks
7 lessons)
Guitar practical chords and riffs Focusses on
pitch, repetition, texture, playing in time in a
group
Gaming
(7 weeks
10 – 11 lessons)
Composition
focusses on
texture,
structure, tone
colour, pitch &
rhythm using
technology
Side Project
(5 weeks
5 lessons) 
Designed for
the students to
choose their
own adventure
from a number of practical
elements. 
Side Project
(5 weeks
7 – 9 lessons) 
Designed for
the students to
choose their
own adventure
from a number of practical
elements. 
Bring on the key(7 Weeks
7 lessons) 
Keyboard chord and melodies
Using Personal
Best strategy
Focusses on
pitch, repetition, texture, playing in time in a
group
4 Chord Song 
(7 weeks
10 – 11 lessons)
Performance
Reinforces
structure and
delves into
texture using
song form 
Music and
Animation 
(7 Weeks
7 lessons) 
Composition.
Focusses on
aligning sound
effects to
animation.
Focus is also on Instruments of
the orchestra

Launch Pad
(7 weeks
10 – 11 lessons)
Composition
Extends texture and links with tone colour andrhythm, pattern and repetition. 
Side Project
(5 weeks
5 lessons)
Create your
own podcast
Side Project
(5 weeks
7 – 9 lessons) 
Rock band
project  usually
around
christmas carols

So of course, when you are talking about retention from Year 8 into Music Elective (year 9), it makes a huge difference as to how you teach Year 8. More independence over the activities gives them the opportunity to “experiment with what year 9 is like”, particularly if you comment on it during the year. In this structure, the students have completed Japanese drumming, gaming, a Side Project and will be working on 4 chord song when they start thinking about possibly choosing music for an elective. Because they have had the experiences similar to what Year 9 is like, then they are more likely to consider picking the subject. This timing coupled with the collaborative, group and individual activities, an integrated teaching style with independence, all driven by a practical component with a strong emphasis on the concepts (not necessarily delivered in a written and dry manner), gives the students the best possible positive experience. Focusing on facts and figures is not going to work in this stage. Leave that for the ones that really want to learn, stage 5 or Year 9 and 10. 

Through this approach, I have found numbers to double in just 3 years. Engaging content delivery is what will work at this stage. Some argue that this practical approach implies that the subject is just practical all the time and so therefore a “bludge” subject. Of course, we know it isn’t but making sure the content delivery has value, relevance and you make the connections known, then the students are more likely to see it as a valid subject. It all comes down to content delivery. In this programming, by the time Year 7 complete their first year, they are able to 

  • play in a variety of keys
  • name notes, rhythms
  • identify different rhythmic and melodic patterns
  • aurally identify chords – major, minor, dom 7th and dim 7th
  • read chord symbols
  • play triads on the keyboard
  • read tablature
  • use garage band, imovie, google apps for education
  • understand the 6 concepts – particularly texture and tone colour. 
  • identify and spell (not always correctly) over 70 terms
  • understand and have a general working knowledge of instruments of the orchestra. 

…and that is without having to do worksheets on naming notes, tracing notes, drawing notes etc. The students do written work without really knowing a lot of the time. 

Now as you progress into Year 9 and 10 (stage 5), the content delivery becomes a lot more involved. They usually  have quite a good working knowledge of concepts but lack the detail. It is here we usually find two different types of students – the ones who wish to focus on the primary instrument and the ones who are looking to explore other instruments or methods of creating music. Again, this can be quite challenging and again I say it all has to do with content delivery. 

At this stage, you will find more periods so it is imperative that you use an integrated teaching style. Don’t have composition or aural only lessons that go for an hour. That’s a straight turn off. Tackle everything from a practical approach and you will see the most impact and growth. Again in New South Wales, the students progress from Stage 5 into Stage 6, being given an option of possibly 3 courses – Music 1, Music 2 (Music Extension) and VET Entertainment Course. 

Each of these courses require different skills and it becomes fairly evident in Year 9 which course the students could end up in. So make that your focus. Retention from Year 10 to Seniors can be quite high if you focus on where they could possibly go and differentiate the program to cater for the direction they are headed. With this primary focus, just like the middle child in stage 4, you can really cater and guide your students to select the subject in Years 11 and 12. I have seen many stage 5 teachers adopt this strategy and find great success. My colleague taught 27 Year 10 students and once the classes were formed 24 of them were doing music and the only reason the other 3 didn’t was because there was another subject that they needed in the way.

So in stage 5 in New South Wales, there are certain topic that have to be covered, particularly if you are looking at directing students to Music 2. They need to have a working knowledge of a variety of compositional devices, score reading and the understanding of harmony. So we start tackling some of this in Year 9, again from a practical focus. Below is the outline for the Year 9 and 10 course. 

Year 9 Description  Year 10 Assessment 
Xerox Project  (7 weeks
17 – 18 lessons)
Students work
collaboratively to investigate a particular styleand remake an existing song in the new style. Practical task with a process diary
Minimalism 
(7 weeks
17 – 18 lessons)
It is here we
introduce some of the
compositional
devices that
music 2 would
need to focus
on. We use film music to link
with the next
unit. 
Musical
Theatre 
(7 weeks
17 – 18 lessons)
Students focus on a few
musicals
including 6/8
time. This is
primarily a
practical focus
as the school
has a strong
history of
musical theatre. 
What’s on the
Box   (7 weeks – 17 – 18 lessons)
Obviously this
is relating to
radio, film and
TV. It is
primarily a
practical unit 
Side Project
(5 weeks
12 – 13 lessons) 
Designed for the students to
choose their
own adventure
from a number of practical
elements. 
Side Project
(5 weeks
12 – 13 lessons) 
Designed for the students to
choose their
own adventure
from a number of practical
elements. 
The Beatles  
(7 weeks
17 – 18 lessons)
The focus of
this unit is
revolving
around
harmonic
functions and
chords along
with structure
and the use of
different
instruments
from different
cultures. 
Sinfonetta
(7 weeks
17 – 18 lessons)
It is here that
we extend the
compositional
focus  from
minimalism and build the skill
set in this area.
Jam Sessions 
(7 weeks
17 – 18 lessons)
This extends on the harmonic
work done in
the previous
unit and also
focuses on
structure and
improvisation
Australian
Music  (7 weeks – 17 – 18 lessons)
Performance
unit and looking at Australian
Music from
different angles – contemporary, indigenous,
classical. 
Side Project
(5 weeks
5 lessons)
End of year
concert
Side Project
(5 weeks
5 lessons)
End of year
concert 

So as you can see, the focus of the units are smaller and tend to lead into each other, extending the skill set of the students all through a practical platform. I have found that this type of programming works well with stage 5, rather than focussing on broader or historical topics. Relevance is important and delivering content practically. 

Obviously the challenge with the content delivery is to have a flexible work space which relies a lot on the student’s self control. Ground rules that are consistently delivered and acted upon is paramount in achieving success. You are only as strong as your weakest link so get your weakest link to teach in this environment, and you will soon see where the leaks are. 

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