In a recent comment to my ‘Practising What I Preach‘ blogpost, Calum alluded to the Waterson’s style of harmonising traditional tunes:-
“I’ve always thought one of the best approaches to harmonising traditional song (tunes) is that of the Watersons: lots of octave unisons, parallel motion, and general whooping. A million miles from SATB but for me a very powerful approach.”
A quick search found me a 1965 recording of the Waterson family performing “Thirty foot trailer”, by Ewan MacColl. Sure enough, their close harmony was exactly as Calum described, with cadences generally harmonised, but a fair bit of unison singing, too. The guitar harmonies are very static in this song, so it couldn’t be further removed from the “harmonise every chord” homophony of the Macpherson’s Rant setting that had caused me so much pain on Thursday evening!
This morning, our minister introduced the hymn by reassuring the congregation that they’d probably heard the tune ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ performed by The Corries, a folk duo. I found a fairly recent recording on YouTube this afternoon, but I doubt it would have helped much – the tune has been pulled about a fair bit. The harmonic pace was even simpler than mine – a chord to a bar – and singing was either solo or unison.
Actually, I think my organ arrangement worked pretty well. Sometimes we do use a band in worship, but they have a piano, bass guitar, one or more melody instruments, percussion and amplification. A whole church congregation wouldn’t be particularly well-supported by a single acoustic guitar, as performed by these two historic ensembles. Times change! Similarly, if I had tried a Watersons-style harmonisation, the choir wouldn’t have been powerful enough to support a whole congregation singing the tune, and whereas guitar strumming effectively marks the beats in the bar for a small ensemble, you cannae strum an organ! So – I stand by my choice of unison singing, and a harmonic pace halfway between SATB chorale and the chord-a-bar folk idiom.
I may have another arrangement to do this week – pending confirmation – but this one might just be an organ arrangement rather than a vocal accompaniment. We’ll see!
There’s not much point in encouraging our students to complete their reflective diaries if I don’t reflect upon my own practice. Indeed the main purpose of this blog is to provide myself with a place where I can reflect on the various creative activities that I pursue.
Tonight, I’m reflecting on my musical arrangements. I generally arrange small-scale pieces, often traditional tunes, for small instrumental or vocal ensembles, and last night I decided it was time to do another. I had been teaching a new hymn to the choir, when I began to realise that the perfectly competent setting of a modernised psalm text to a traditional tune was really rather incongruous. The lyrics were fine; archaicisms had been removed, so “Thou” becomes “You”, and “Thine” becomes “Yours”, but not much else had changed. However, the setting of ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ (aka ‘Macpherson’s Lament’) in four-part harmony – four chords to a bar – really irritated me. Yes, of course this is my personal preference – I don’t claim that my opinions bear any more weight than the next person’s, and I’m not saying there’s anything at all harmonically wrong with the setting in the hymn book. (Hear it HERE.)
How would this song originally have been sung? Well, ‘originally’ is conceptually a bit of a problem, because you first have to decide when the ‘original’ era actually was! In this case it was clearly during the eighteenth century.* So let’s assume that it was originally SUNG, maybe with a fiddle and/or a cello. To put it in historical context, whoever wrote the tune more than likely wrote it during or shortly after Johann Sebastian Bach’s era, but the performance context could not be further removed from an SATB chorale setting in a Lutheran church, for ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ was just a song about a fiddler who had got on the wrong side of the law – and smashed his fiddle before he was hung, rather than leave it for a lesser musician to play!
Because folk tunes are so singable, they’re tempting fare for hymn-writers. (Indeed, 1844, Reverend Roland Hill passed the comment, “The Devil should not have all the best tunes.” This observation has since been attributed to several different authorities, but that’s irrelevant here.**) Now, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of how to set a trad tune. Whatever the lyrics, many people believe that traditional tunes should have straightforward harmonic settings, but as many more feel that they should just be set in appropriate contemporary style. This is how it came about that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Gaelic festival known as The Mod produced books of Gaelic songs in SATB settings suitable for choral singing. Hymns at the time were set in homophonic (chordal) SATB idiom, and the rather old-fashioned Highlanders adopted a similar style for their Gaelic tunes.
What annoyed me was that, in 2005, here was the same decorated homophonic style being perpetuated, forcing a rather lovely traditional tune into a four-square SATB straitjacket. To me, the fast-moving chords detracted from a tune that was elegant in its simplicity. Joseph Ritson, way, way back in the late eighteenth century, wrote a rather poetic metaphor about traditional tunes, in which he likened folk tunes to a simple country lass, whilst he likened art tunes to a primped and corseted fine London gentlewoman. It’s too much of a generalisation, and too simplistic by far, but – had things changed so little?
At the same time, I hasten to add that I fully realise we can’t have a twenty-first century congregation lustily singing a psalm to the accompaniment of a fiddle and cello! Nonetheless, I immediately came home from choir practice and booted up Finale Songwriter to devise an arrangement suitable for congregation and organ without requiring the choir to sing the whole thing in fast-moving chordal harmony.
What I ended up with was a setting for unison voices, with the organ chords moving two to a bar rather than four. I used fairly conventional twentieth century harmony with the odd seventh, but nothing very innovative, and I tried to make the bassline fairly decisive – it lent itself to stepwise downward movement in the verse, and bigger intervals with some cycles of fifths (V7-I) in the chorus.
Controversially, I’ve added a couple of organ bars at the end so that the tune can end on the tonic chord. This is absolutely not how it would have been intended originally, and Scottish music enthusiasts will confirm that it’s not unusual to end “in a different key” or with the tune on something other than the tonic note. However, my twist rounds it off into a conventional V-I cadence, because church congregations tend to feel slightly adrift if a tune doesn’t seem to “end right”! Listen to a midi file of my version HERE.
Because this is a reflective posting, I can’t rule out that I might not make further changes to my setting at a later date…
With less than a year left to go in my present part-time postdoctoral research project secondment, now seems a good time to do some serious reflection about what I’ve done, and what I could do next. This doesn’t feel like something I should necessarily put in a public blog – at least, not straight away. Very soon, I shall hear how our institution fared in the latest REF research assessment, and that in itself might shade future plans. I have ideas, but not necessarily the means to see them through to fruition.
Furthermore, I’ve got a couple of writing commitments to be done in the next fortnight; another week at work; Christmas preparations at home; church music to rehearse in Bearsden; and every chance of catching my own version of the man-flu that has flattened our youngest son! My intention, therefore, is to carve out half a day, perhaps after Christmas, when I shall take myself somewhere else to sit and reflect about my career path. However I manage it, my New Year’s Resolution is to keep researching!
The blog homepage is the reflective journal itself. Additional pages accommodate my e-portfolio and other relevant information about the various aspects of my professional practice, thus:-
Feedback – I have few opportunities for requesting feedback, but it is important to me that learner’s comments are gathered together to inform my future practice.
Music Librarian – ‘user education’ includes introducing readers to the library catalogue and relevant e-resources as well as encouraging good research and bibliographic skills appropriate to the individual reader’s context and level of study.
Musicologist – I give occasional lectures and seminars both within and without the Conservatoire in my capacity as a postdoctoral researcher.
Organist/Choir Trainer – the practical, artistic aspect of my profile.
PDP – my Professional Development Plan as a Teaching Artist
Personal CV – my scholarly writing and presenting are all part of my professional profile. (Besides keeping my CV up to date with recent papers and presentations, I also maintain an Academia.edu presence; and upload what I can to Research Gate, which is a good discussion forum.)
Resources – an almost inevitable outcome of my librarian/musicologist existence (not to mention a key focus of my present postdoctoral research) is that I have honed my bibliographic skills to a high level. The Resources page details my professional reading for the duration of the Teaching Artist course, with occasional annotations. Annotated bibliography is an art in itself; for day-to-day purposes, I only annotate occasional entries .
One of my main objectives in undertaking the Teaching Artist short course was to equip myself with more knowledge and understanding of good contemporary pedagogy. Starting this blog was part of our digital ‘orientation’, both to facilitate our own reflection and to enable us to share comments with our course-leaders and fellow creative artists. This latter activity thus constitutes peer-review, offering each of us the opportunity to make constructive observations about our colleagues’ practice.
As an experienced blogger, reflecting upon various aspects of my work is relatively second-nature to me, but the present subject matter – being a teaching artist and practitioner – was completely new. The 29 posts that I have made include the course assignments (lesson plan, theoretical account, contextual study, theoretical appraisal of my teaching and learning methods, and self-assessment of online discussion), and a few lighter postings when multi-tasking my daily existence threatened to get on top of me; but there are still a good number of postings about my course studies.
In general, the blog represents a series of reflections on recommended course readings; and on my own practice. I have sought to reflect upon ways in which the theoretical readings can be applied to my professional teaching practice. (There was a period of adjustment as I realised that my usual third-person, objective research mode of writing needed to be adapted to suit first-person reflection in this new ‘social sciences’ discipline.) I have had opportunity to reflect before, during and after teaching or presenting experiences, and hope to continue in this practice in the months to come, in order to build upon positive and lessen negative outcomes in the future.
Of all the readings that I have done, constructive alignment theory resonated the most with me, and I read various recommended articles by John Biggs before I wrote my blogpost about it on 2 April 2014:-
I had already read Salman Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse (2012) before attending the Teaching Artist course, so I have some familiarity with the concept of ‘flipping the classroom’. Even if Khan’s practice is primarily in the digital world, the idea that students make their own meaning in their studies by being more practically involved in them, is just as much applicable to face-to-face teaching. Many of my readings, but most particularly those by Biggs, made me begin to realise that I needed to make my teaching much more interactive, and my lesson-plan for a session on postgraduate research and bibliographic skills has been designed to take this into account. Once I had shared the lesson plan in our collaborative space, Steph gave me helpful feedback, reassuring me that I was thinking along the right lines:-
“Hi Karen, I like how precise and to the point your lesson plan is. Everything is described in a clear fashion that makes it easy to understand each activity. Do you find that 60 minutes is a suitable amount of time to teach the students what they need to know? The learning outcomes here would make this a very useful session to include at the beginning of a Higher education course, when research and bibliographic skills are expected to be used on a regular basis. I certainly felt/feel intimidated and unsure about the correct way to document references and resources, so it would have helped me!”
“It certainly sounds that you have quite a challenge on your hands delivering the amount required into the time you are given, and I think you utilise you materials and resources very well by exercises such as the emails beforehand and follow-up that you offer. Don’t worry about being a pain …”
Another problem that my reflections continually came back to, was the lack of context and continuity in the kind of teaching that I’m required to do. Again, with the abovementioned lesson-plan, I’ve tried to create context by contacting students in advance of the session (see the invitation HERE), and also sought instant feedback at the end of the session. The lesson took place today (19 May 2014), and I intend to follow up with an email to all students and their course-leader a couple of days later, once I’ve transcribed and summarised the feedback forms.
Reading about deep, surface and tactical learning was informative, and reinforced my long-held belief that students do not always see the relevance of information skills to their courses in a conservatoire. If learning how to access a particular database or format a bibliography are not directly relevant to, for example, learning the harpsichord, and moreover are not even assessed, then they are reluctant to engage fully – even tactical learning will not take place. I need to continue to work on ways of helping students see the connection between information literacy and academic success, and the major benefits for their future careers whenever information is needed for a programme note or other piece of written work, whether creative or perhaps linked to a business proposal.
Indeed, I can draw certain parallels between my information skills teaching and the sessions I have led on the Scottish music BA course. When I’m talking about historical Scottish song collections, my subject matter is at least pertinent to the degree course. However, my research was effectively a combination of musicology and cultural history, whilst student on the Scottish music course are primarily motivated by performing, composing and improvising it. My material is informative, and there certainly is the expectation that these students will have a thorough grounding in the history of their subject, but I have to accept that 18th – 19th century Scottish musical and cultural history may not have as much appeal as a series of gigs or a recording session. Again, I must continue to seek ‘hooks’ to draw them into my historical world, and find ways of demonstrating the relevance of the subject that I am teaching. This is definitely an area that I would like to continue to read and reflect upon, and I should like this to evolve into a more scholarly article in due course.
THE TASK ASSIGNED:-
“Having kept a journal for the duration of the course, you are required to summarise your key learning points from the course and post your summary to your ePortfolio. In your summary, highlight what/who has informed your learning and identify any changes you have started to make to your teaching practice. Where changes have been implemented, summarise the impact this is having on your students’ learning experience. Again, in your summary make reference to literature and dialogue with colleagues, peers and your students that are informing your learning and prfessional development . In your summary identify key areas, issues or opportunities you wish to develop following the course.
You should make regular entries into your Online Journal from 5 March to 5 May 2014. Your journal summary should be completed and uploaded to your e-Portfolio by 19 May 2014.”
Last week’s session was led by Andrew in Mary’s absence, and used her PowerPoint presentation, ‘The Teaching Artist: Reflective Practice’. As part of this, we looked at John Connell’s poem, I am learner, in which he stresses the important role the LEARNER plays in their education, and how they make different connections and pick up different threads, depending on their own learning journey and prior experiences.
John Dewey, American educationalist, once said that, ‘If we do not reflect on our experiences, we do not learn from them.’ Speaking as a fairly recent PhD graduate, I know this to be true: I am very conscious that I had learnt a lot from my mistakes between the first, unfinished PhD abandoned when I was 24, and the second, completed one when I was 51. My whole methodology was very different, much more methodical and generally more focused. Having recently been a student and experienced doctoral study in the digital age, I believe I have much useful experience to draw upon when it comes to teaching others. When I’m consulted as a subject librarian, I’m a subject expert with skills in bibliography and research methodology, and this makes me almost what in some colleges would be called a ‘tutor librarian’. At the same time, I have to remember that my study was a university PhD, and I must not assume that undergraduate performers will adopt the same approaches to their subject as I did (and do).
I looked through and printed out the slides of Mary’s PowerPoint, three to a page, so I could annotate it. I had resolved to watch Eric Booth’s ‘Making Creative Connections, Active Listening and Reflection; Birkenhead and Stevens’ The Performance Reflective Practice Project (2003) was also cited, as was Zeichner as quoted by P. Warwick in 2007, ‘Reflective Practice: Some Notes on the Development of the notion of Professional Reflection’. We are invited to consider the five key features of reflective teaching as expounded by Zeichner. As I write this evening, I’ve watched Booth’s presentation but have yet to look for Birkenhead and Stevens’ project.
The powerpoint invited us to consider what reflective practice means to a teaching artist, and what might go in a reflective journal – plainly, reflection is key, and the journal must record more than just ‘what was done’. I liked the slide illustrating reflective practice as a cycle – reflecting on action, in action, and for action – in other words, reflecting as the teaching is taking place, reflecting after teaching has taken place,a nd reflecting as a way of preparing for future teaching.
As a class, we talked about the slide quoting Confucius – his three ways of acquiring wisdom, namely by reflection,by imitation (the easy option) or by experience, ‘which is the bitterest’. There was some debate about this last. I don’t have a problem with the ‘bitter experience’ option – obviously, teaching and learning will employ all three methods at times. Did I practise better research study methods a quarter of a century later, because I had reflected on what went wrong, or through ‘bitter experience’? To be honest, I’d say I had reflected on bitter experience, so these two are clearly linked. Similarly, there’s a place for imitation. If someone demonstrates a fruitful methodolology or technique, and the less experienced student imitates it, then the modeling/imitating paradigm is serving a valid purpose. Blind imitation, no. Thoughtful imitation, yes of course.
The penultimate slide cites another reference to follow up: Kemmis’, ‘Action Research and the Politics of Reflection’, inBoyd, Keoghand Walber, Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning (1985). I’ll try to read some of these references later on this week.
Another of our tasks for this week, was to explore the resources in the Reflection in Learning and Teaching area on Moodle, and to read and reflect upon some of them. In addition to watching Booth’s ‘Making creative connections’, I have also watched John Connell’s ‘I am Learner’ blog podcast about his new learning platform currently in development, ‘CommonLearn’ – classroom learning ‘in the cloud’, and looked at Marcia Jackson’s presentation, ‘The Artist/Teacher Identity in the Classroom’, about professional identity management strategies for the teaching artist. Her statement that ‘Multiple identity roles such as artist, teacher, mentor and researcher add value to the practice of both artist and pedagogy’ was a great endorsement for the multiple identity that I see myself as embodying. A good place to stop writing and start reflecting ….!
I'm a musicologist disguised as a librarian. I've been writing this blog as part of my PG Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Arts Education, at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.