I believe that all students have potential to be musicians, and as I teach, I actively keep in mind that perhaps the way I was taught is not the ideal method(s) for present-day students. Other subject areas such as Math and Science have worked hard to keep up-to-date with relevant technology, and contemporary / interactive pedagogical methods. I approach music education creatively, using different approaches and techniques to engage every student both individually, and as a group.
In Singapore I had over 35 private students, ages 7 through 18, whose abilities ranged from brand-new beginners to advanced high school / pre-conservatory. I taught at three of the best schools in the country, Dulwich College, Singapore American School, and the Australian International School Singapore. Each school had one or two advanced superstar players, but a majority were beginner / intermediate middle school level. To describe the culture of music education in Singapore, even at the international schools (excluding the American School), ensembles are not enforced, and the culture of band as a social gathering, which we are so familiar with, was basically nonexistent. The students, even the youngest, if they wanted to learn an instrument (or moreso, if their parents wanted them to learn an instrument), were to just take private lessons and perform well on their individual ABRSM or Trinity Exams. Music performance is a mostly solitary experience for these students, and the lonely superstars at each school acutely felt like big fish in small ponds.
My greatest illustration of a unique and extremely effective pedagogical approach I created and used at these schools for the students of all ages and abilities, was Scales Karate. I remember in middle school, learning scales was a laborious chore, and not very inherently rewarding to a 12 year old. The Scales Karate Method is like regular karate, where students pass certain levels to attain the next color belt, and prizes for each level attained. Prizes are awarded for those who attained at minimum Red Belt – which means they successfully performed ALL scales from either list (majors or minors), from memory (allowed to look at a Circle of Fifths page which was provided). Prizes were varied, but were all fun. No money, food, or expensive gifts were awarded.
When I first came up with the idea, one of the main concepts I wanted to implement was both a sense of individual competition / success, as well as fostering a team identity. Scores were tallied for each individual, but also added up by school. As I met with my brass classes each week, or in their private lessons, I had an extensive Excel spreadsheet with everyone’s scores both individual and a tally per school. Your individual score contributed to the greater good for your school, and as these were the most elite and competitive schools in the country, they all wanted to beat the others.
I witnessed numerous positive results from this Scales Karate experiment. Primarily, many parents wrote to me every week saying their children were practicing scales at home willingly every single day, unprompted, and they couldn’t believe it. Secondly, the big fish at each school finally saw that there were other superstars at other schools, and these students especially competed with each other to achieve their black belt or get higher scores. They finally had peers, and Scales Karate even resulted in some of these more advanced students from various school meeting up informally out of school and becoming friends!
Remarkably, the very first student to achieve a Red Belt (play every Major scale including chromatic for me from memory at a steady tempo) was a 10 year old trumpet-player girl from the Australian School. As soon as all the students saw the Excel doc the next week, knowing she was only in 4th grade, suddenly all of my other 4th graders were inspired, their new peer role model was a girl their age, who went to a different school! Suddenly achieving your Red Belt didn’t seem quite so daunting. My superstar players at each school competed with each other to achieve their Black Belt for all Majors and Minor scales.
I am particularly proud of my Scales Karate invention. Many colleagues have borrowed the concept and implemented it at their own schools, with their bands and private students. Scales Karate made what was previously an arduous task into a game, and it immediately appealed to students of all ages.
Another example of how I utilized a modern approach to music education, by implementing technology in the classroom, was by using Smartmusic. Scales Karate worked wonders for my private students. At Dulwich College I had private students as well as brass classes. At this school, every 3rd grade single student learns to play a string instrument, it is part of their music curriculum and therefore required. They continue strings until 5th grade, when they have the option to switch to a wind or brass instrument. This school started band students on all of the basics, as well as mini-bassoons (pitched in G), oboe, euphonium, plastic trumpets, plastic trombones, and three-quarter size single F French horns (my personal favorite)! I was responsible for beginner brass classes of trumpet, trombone, and horn, each of which was comprised of 4 – 16 students.
This school was brand new the year I started as a teacher with them, and as you can see, were very open to new ideas and had very deep pockets. Every classroom had brand new full AV systems with Bose speakers and screens. With these beginners, I used the Standard of Excellence Red Book, which they all received, and in every class we would project the homework etudes up on the screen, and we would play them all together. The advantages of using Smartmusic are many, you can easily change the tempo, record your own playing (which they always got a kick out of) and at the end would give you an accuracy score. We would play as a group, duets, and individuals to work our way through the book.
At the beginning of the year I was the only teacher on the team to use Smartmusic, but as my supervisors observed my classes and saw the extreme success we were having, by the second semester the administration purchased Smartmusic online subscriptions for every music student. I had particular success with an autistic beginner trombone student, he came from a troubled family and didn’t have much success in such a rigid environment of the British school system. He latched onto Smartmusic, excitedly learned and memorized “Merrily We Roll Along”, and wanted to play it for the whole class (all the band students, not just trombones!) They were amazed, as they hadn’t even really heard him speak very often, much less anything else. His participation in Music went through the roof, as his confidence skyrocketed for the first time.
I believe that every student has potential to be a musician, and it is my sincere wish that more music educators would be willing to explore beyond their comfort zone, go past “the way they’ve always done it”, to experiment and implement technology and/or games in their instrumental music classroom. Techniques such as Scales Karate and technology such as Smartmusic foster a strong feeling of individual accomplishment as well as team spirit, which in turn nurtures self-worth and self-confidence even in the least likely students.
2017 Singapore Scales Karate Spreadsheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qRR7rGeisAc_rSyElZU7xZjrU_TZab9xR7moB9yRaXY/edit#gid=0