“Alien Instrument” music theory quizzes for 4th – 8th grade students

I made a few google forms that introduce basic music concepts via the Play app, using a backstory that includes NASA scientists and aliens. Students need to help the scientists figure out what aliens are trying to tell us about music!

If you want to try your hand at the quizzes, you can find them here:

  1. Intro:
  2. Intervals:
  3. Scales & Tonic:

Teachers: if you’d like to try out the forms with your own students, you can save copies below

Lessons From The Pandemic: High School Teaching

The transition to distance learning necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic has up-ended music education. There is a widespread feeling that “all bets are off.” Curricula are in flux; there are both frustrating impossibilities, and new possibilities. Adaptive experimentation by teachers has led to a profusion of recommended new approaches and tools. Much is exciting and new, but much is unclear. What should guide our approach to September?

For me, a silver lining of confusion in one domain has been clarity in another. In this post, I will not attempt to sort through and evaluate the wide range of new tools, new resources and new curricular ideas now available. Instead, I will take a step back and share four key concepts that I’ve learned to focus on over the last decade of high school teaching. Through the abrupt transition to distance learning and the emotional ups and downs of the past two months, focusing on these four “lessons learned” has kept me grounded, and allowed me to feel that my work with students continued effectively through the end of the spring semester.

These four “lessons” will be my guiding principles as I plan for September. They will allow me to make meaningful selections from a dizzying array of new possibilities– choices that I am confident will serve my students well. Ideas for specific, practical implementation of these principles will be the subject of future posts. Fellow teachers: I hope you find these four “lessons” useful too, and that they help orient you as you plan for the fall.

Lesson #1: Don’t Lead, Cheerlead.

At a time when many high school students are AWOL, it is especially important that you cheerlead for the students who *are* showing up. You must allow yourself to be tasked by these students. Work to make sure that the students who *are* showing up have a good experience.

Cheerleading means encouraging and supporting the ideas and interests of your students. It means sharing *your* perspective and experience, to give your students insight into *their* experiences — being a resource. It means helping your students open *their* doors. The best teachers I know do this.

To be sure, cheerleading is actually a form of leading. In fact, it is an integral part of good leadership.

When discouragement and pessimism are commonplace, it is especially important to be open to the perspectives of your younger students. You may be inspired by their optimism. Create a space in your meetings for sharing. When your students take initiative and responsibility for the direction of the class, and of their learning, they will be much more invested, and much more motivated.

Make sure to regularly ask the following of your students:

  1. How are they feeling?
  2. What inspires them? Where would they like to go?
  3. What are their frustrations? What are their blockers?

Lesson #2: Build A Machine

Our world demands that we work ever more efficiently and productively. Do more, with less! The constant evolution of machines is tangible proof of this, and it is important to build one with your students — in the classroom or remotely.

Your machine will not be physical, though. It will be an organizational structure that helps you and your students accomplish what you agree you want to accomplish. It will serve the curriculum, and the learning goals.

Especially now, when teachers are working tremendous hours adapting curricula to distance learning, it is important to focus on organizational structure. This will reduce the burden on you, the teacher. Offloading some labor is very important! Beyond reducing your own work, allowing your students to take initiative, and giving them the responsibility for playing a part in a functioning organization will provide them much needed investment, and motivation.

In building your machine, make sure to ask your students the following:

  1. What is the overall goal that the machine should serve?
  2. What are the parts, the roles, that must be filled?
  3. Who should play what role?
  4. What role do the students need you, the teacher, to play?

Lesson #3: Share Your Problems

If your car breaks down, take your foot off the gas immediately, pull over, and stop driving. Then take your car to a mechanic (or call a tow truck!)

Bottom line: stop, and share your problem. Don’t keep driving, and don’t try to fix it alone!

Similarly, if you sense your class machine (Lesson #2) is broken, then stop. Don’t be afraid to let it grind to a halt. And then bring the problem to your students. Don’t be afraid to sound a little dire. The best teachers I know do this.

For years of classroom teaching, I used to find myself ignoring the problems, and getting frustrated. I’d push forward with blinders on, trying to force things to work. Then a few years ago I learned: better to turn off the ignition, inform the students the machine is broken, and go back to basics. Scary the first time, but the results are far better in the long run.

A silver lining of the transition to distance education is that we teachers are all forced by circumstance to acknowledge that the normal classroom machine is broken. Necessity dictates that we raise to consciousness something that we should all raise more regularly: the goals, and functioning of the class machine.

Just as you should ask your students to share their interests, goals, frustrations and blockers with you (Lesson #1), you must share your own interests, goals, frustrations and blockers with them. Be open and honest. You have taken their input, and offered your ideas and experience in building a class organization that serves the shared learning goals. If you then at some point start to feel a bolt is loose, or a belt is broken, trust your gut. Stop, and share your feelings with your students.

Ask these basic questions of your students:

  1. What are the learning goals?
  2. How does the student organization serve these goals?
  3. Is there a problem with the organization? Is it in fact broken?
  4. How can the organization be transformed to better serve the goals?
  5. Does the organization need different roles, or different students in the roles?

Lesson #4: Sustain Surprise   

Immediately following the closure of schools and the impromptu transition to remote learning, I found myself dealing with strong feelings of loss. Yes, I missed seeing my students, and working with them in the classroom. But what was it specifically about making music in a room together that felt so irreplaceable?

After thinking carefully about it, and talking through the question with my high school students, my tentative answer is: the element of surprise.

Surprise plays a huge role in successful teaching and learning. Surprise is there in any good story, and any good joke. It is there when a student or a group of students play a piece of music, lending their own unique interpretation to a composer’s ideas. It is there in a good jazz solo. Surprise is there when a student realizes they are interested in something that they thought to be totally boring — or finds something fun they thought for sure would be totally lame. Finally, surprise is there for us teachers when we try something new and it works — when we reach a student in a way we weren’t expecting to be possible.

Is it possible to sustain surprise beyond the classroom?

Of course it is!

In preparation for the uncertainty of the coming fall semester, I encourage high school teachers to stay open to new ideas. Listen to your students, and be open to all sorts of new approaches.  Make sure to build possibilities for surprise into your teaching model. The more student input you make room for, the more the students will surprise you.

Let surprise to sustain you in your endeavors. Good luck!

Background Images For Video Chat Music Recitals

I was in a good mood so I decided to let my private cello students play their Zoom recital from a special location of their choice, anywhere in the world. After all, who hasn’t dreamed of playing the Sydney Opera House??

Many of my students are elementary and high school age, so I’m glad parents were cool footing the bill for plane tickets, meals, etc.

Perhaps your music students would enjoy a similar opportunity. Here are some ideas for locations to get started. I’m sure there are many more!

(The following images are from Wikimedia Commons. Image captions link to high-res versions, which can be downloaded and used as video chat backgrounds.)

Practice breakthroughs

Everyone who has learned a musical instrument has had the experience of hitting a plateau in their practicing. It’s that dreaded feeling of just mindlessly repeating something — treading water — and an inability to make any forward progress.

Then there’s the opposite feeling: you do one little thing differently, you try a new approach, you add something to your practice routine, and then there’s a paradigm shift — an “aha” moment. Suddenly, something clicks and you understand the music differently. Your frustration is gone, and you’re a better musician.

My most recent “practice breakthrough” came on cello. I’ve played simple chords on cello for a very long time — simple major and minor triad “barre” chords — but had hit a wall in my progress. I was unable to understand the way the chords connected to one another. I had zero grasp of the voice leading. Then I remembered something my high school piano teacher had me learn, in the one year of piano lessons I took when I was 17. He had me memorize I-IV-V7-I chord progressions in all 12 keys on the keyboard. My teacher obviously thought this was an integral part of learning the piano — even more important than practicing Bach two-part inventions!

It was a bit of a struggle to translate the idea of I-IV-V7-I progressions to cello at first, and on the first day of practice it was awkward and painstaking to work through the fingerings. The second day was still pretty bad. But on the third day of practice something clicked, and I now have a new understanding of the ways the chords connect on the cello fingerboard. Yay practice breakthrough! Thanks Mr. Gibson!

Do you have any “practice breakthroughs” to share? What was it that pushed you past a practicing plateau?

Basic Harmonic Motion: Rising Fourths

To wrap up April, Jazz Appreciation Month, I made a video using Music Compass to demonstrate a bass line walking up major tetrachords: Do-Re-Mi-Fa. The interval between Do and Fa is a perfect fourth — this is the “rising fourth”.

Harmonic motion over a rising fourth occurs twice in the ii – V7 – I chord progression so ubiquitous in jazz. A remarkable example of this ii – V7 – I progression is in the Ray Noble jazz standard Cherokee, in which the B section and reprise of the A section are a long chain of 12 ascending fourths!

In this demo video below, you’ll hear the bass line (played on cello!) walking up sequential major tetrachords.

The harmonic motion, indicated by the movement of the red tonic piece, is in rising fourths: starting at C and moving to F, a perfect fourth, and then from F to Bb, a second perfect fourth. You can follow the major tetrachord shape being rotated on the Music Compass. The pattern of rising fourths continues from Bb to Eb, Eb to Ab, Ab to Db, and so forth. The sequence of tonal centers is known as the Circle of Fourths, and it goes through all twelve major keys. It ends back where it began, on C.

Harmonic Motion: Rising Fourths

Why the parallel *minor* pentatonic scale works so well over a *major* blues

This is a question that’s haunted me in a low-level way since I was in the eighth grade and my guitar teacher in Silver Spring MD first taught me that I could solo over the 12-bar blues changes using the parallel minor pentatonic scale. He probably didn’t use the words “parallel minor” at the time, and I only learned these years later in freshman theory/aural skills. But yes, he was right: not just the relative minor works, but the parallel minor. I knew a little about relative minor, even then. I knew that if I was soloing over a blues in C major, I could safely use the C major scale, and also C major’s relative minor, A minor, and therefore also the A minor pentatonic. But a C minor pentatonic?? Not only didn’t the parallel keys end up clashing horribly as might be expected, but the C minor pentatonic was probably the most “bluesy” sounding choice! How could this be?

While trading solos over a C blues with some cello students today, with a Music Compass on the stand demonstrating the C minor pentatonic, I finally grasped one neat reason why.

Blues Legend B.B. King

Let’s start with the chords in the C major 12-bar blues progression. We need a I, a IV and a V chord, and in the blues all three of these are typically dominant seventh chords. So, in C major, that means a C7, an F7 and a G7 chord. Since I was playing the chord accompaniment on cello, I wanted to reduce each of these four-note chords to the essential notes so my hands didn’t get tired too quickly. I reduced each chord to a dyad of just two notes — the root and 7th — to make sure I was both anchoring the root motion and supplying that dominant 7th sound so characteristic in the blues. So here’s what I was playing for each chord:

C7 (root + seventh)
F7 (root + seventh)
G7 (root + seventh)

If you take all three of these dyads consisting of root notes + sevenths, and combine the notes into one shape, you get… the C minor pentatonic!

C Minor Pentatonic

This is a big reason why the C minor pentatonic can “float” so nicely over the three dominant seventh chords of the 12-bar C major blues.

Now try building a C minor pentatonic using the Music Compass webapp, and jamming over a C major blues backing track available on youtube, like this one!

Daily Music Practice: Why it Works

Years ago, Brendan showed me a version of this practice circle:

I’m not sure where this circle originated, but to this day, I have it up on the wall next to my drum kit. Whenever I lose motivation to practice I try and remind myself of this little circle and how everything is connected. It feels counterintuitive, but practicing when I don’t feel like it (even for just few minutes) can slowly build momentum and help regain confidence and motivation.

Part of the difficulty with establishing a practice routine is discovering a habit loop that works for you, and tweaking it as needed over time. Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit" describes how habits work as simply a cue -> routine -> reward pattern.

Photo credit:

He explains that if we wish to modify or create habits for ourselves, it is helpful to observe the how and why of what we do. Similarly, it is helpful to observe and tweak the patterns we have in our daily practice routine.

To do this, sometimes I imagine that I’m running my own mini-laboratory. I use the margins of my music notebook to write "lab notes" about which parts of my routine seem interesting and useful, and which parts are becoming boring and useless. I try and run experiments to see what adjustments to the routine might work and what doesn’t work. For instance, if practice feels monotonous, maybe I can use a dice roll to decide what to work on. Or maybe I can try using a stopwatch to set timed intervals to help focus how time is spent and to create a sense of urgency.

A few years ago I was trying to do a lot of triplet exercises out of method books that I had since I first started playing drums. However, I found myself losing interest. I was bored practicing them and they seemed incomplete. So, I started to experiment with making my own triplet exercises. Because I had created them, I felt more motivated to test them out to see if they would be more successful than the previous exercises that felt so dull.

It helps to remember that if one goal of practice is to stay motivated to practice in the future, then it shouldn’t feel like a monolithic chore. Sometimes things work for a while, and then they don’t, and at that point it is probably time to switch things up and try something new.

It’s always a challenge to remember the long term goals and outcomes that come from short term activity. The impact of daily practice may not show up until weeks, months, or even years later. I believe staying motivated is the hardest part.

How to keep a steady beat (pulse) while performing music

In my high school string orchestra class, where we’re rehearsing Handel’s Sarabande, I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with the students about the unintended tendency of our tempo to fluctuate — rush or drag in certain sections. Some of the students immediately want to use a loud, rehearsal room metronome to keep the performance in time. My instinct is to encourage them to subdivide and to listen around the ensemble for the finest subdivision — in our case eighth notes. My sense is that we need to try listen and internalize subdivisions. “How can we internalize something if it’s not externalized first?” some of the students complain, with a certain logic.

Classic style metronome and wood stringed bass

How does metronome practice “work”, anyway? Do we have to be highly attuned to where we rush, where we drag, for it to be an effective learning process that leads to improvement in our consistency of pulse? Or does metronome practice work more by rote and repetition, ingraining a clockwork in our minds and muscles?

I asked Farsheed for his input on the issue, figuring his skills as a drummer mean that he’ll likely have some ideas. Here’s his response:

"I think the way metronome practice works is more through slow repetition that builds muscle memory. The goal isn’t to get better at playing along with a metronome like a robot, but to improve our ability to play without one. That means ideally when playing along with a metronome, you can hear it but you don’t have to pay close attention to it. If playing along with a metronome feels stressful or difficult, that’s probably a sign the tempo is too fast for what you are trying to do. Slow the metronome down to the point where you can play along in a more relaxed state of mind and so the metronome no longer feels imposing. I think issues with rushing and dragging often happen because we are not in a relaxed state of mind & body, and that anxiety causes us to overthink and causes our muscles to tense up. So, I think the idea of practicing with a loud metronome in class is not a bad idea, but maybe only at a very slow tempo to make sure the students are relaxed and that the metronome is not an elephant in the room. Then once everyone feels comfortable at the slower tempo (comfortable to the point of boredom), you can try gradually increasing the tempo and/or remove the metronome. Your idea to have students listen around the ensemble for the finest subdivision seems a bit counterintuitive as you want them to hear and pay close attention to a kind of relative ‘hidden’ metronome. That might lead to a distracted and tense performance, which may lead to more rushing and dragging. I wonder though, is your idea to focus on listening to subdivisions because students are having trouble understanding how to play the notated rhythms?

I really like Farsheed’s idea of aiming for a relaxed state of mind in which the metronome is no longer imposing, and getting there by starting well under the desired tempo. We’ll try that in rehearsals next week! In the Sarabande, our unintended tempo changes usually occur in transitions — for example the violins are playing an eighth note accompanying role, while the cello section has a melody with longer rhythms, in this case dotted half notes and quarter notes. When the roles reverse in a transition, there will be a tendency for the tempo to drag, the guilty party usually being the violins taking on the melodic role with longer tones. The idea is that keeping the listening focus on the chugga-chugga eighth notes (the finest subdivision) before and after the transitions will help keep the tempo consistent. String players are renowned for taking their sweet time with long tones in the melody, and in their bliss, blocking out all else. I know because I’m one such string player myself!

Two-Part Harmonies in Pop Music (Part 1)

I want to take a closer look at vocal harmonies in pop music– specifically, which intervals are frequently used between voices? Which are more unusual? What are the effects of the different intervals in terms of the character of the music? I’ll explore these questions this in a series of posts on vocal harmonies.

After making a short cello arrangement of Major Lazer/DJ Snake’s tune Lean On, I’ve started listening for the use of perfect fourths (P4) and perfect fifths (P5). Fourths and fifths sound “open”, “hollow” and “scary” to me. The uses of fourths and fifths in the examples below probably violate prohibitions against “parallelism”, but that’s another subject for a different post!

Perfect Fourth (P4)
Perfect Fifth (P5)

Danish singer MØ uses fourths and fifths throughout Lean On. The first example is right at the beginning: “…innocent, remember, all we did was care for eachother….” In the arrangement below, the piano RH (second line) is playing the fourths and fifths.

Another tune that came to mind when I tried to think of any recent (and not-so-recent) pop tunes with “hollow” and “scary” vibes was Lorde’s song Royals. Sure enough, it also has lots of fourths and fifths in the vocal harmonies, here also taken by the piano RH (middle line). “…I cut my teeth on wedding rings….”

Are there any other good examples of pop tunes that make use of fourths and fifths in the vocal harmonies? The genre of bluegrass is coming to mind for some reason. Are these intervals more common there? Jazz too might have more examples of parallel fourths and fifths, though perhaps more frequently between instrumental rather than vocal lines. Maybe also soul and gospel harmonies?