Tag Archives: Reflective practice

Arranging Folksongs – An Enduring Passion

At work, I’m currently sharing a series of seminars on preserving and transforming Scottish melodies. The first week, we looked at various song collections. The next week, we thought about different angles that were worthy of research, then looked at online resources – both specialist ones that the library subscribes to, and free ones that are simply too good to overlook. And we talked about keeping a bibliography (Mendeley, anyone? Zotero?), and about keeping track of web favourites via Diigo or Google Chrome. (Josh coined the term, “webography”, which is a good way of describing it!) Either way, I strongly recommend keeping a record of which resources you used, for future reference.

Next, we’re talking about taking old tunes and transforming them. I want to demonstrate that you can take an old song from an old songbook and place it in a new setting.  Now then, my Soundcloud account has a number of my arrangements – for saxophone trio and quartet, flute quartet, cello quartet … but I wanted to do something new for next week’s seminar. So this afternoon, I flicked through an old Scottish songbook – not very old in my line of business, just 138 years! – and picked a tune to play with. I found “Farewell to Lochaber”, in a very competent but typically late nineteenth century setting for voice and piano. Actually, the tune goes with Allan Ramsay’s song lyrics. (Ramsay lived 1686-1758).Farewell to Lochaber 1 Brown and Pitttman 001 (572x800)

The songbook is The Songs of Scotland, edited by J. Pittman and Colin Brown, published by Boosey in 1877.  (NB, this is a different publication from George Farquhar Graham’s similarly-named Songs of Scotland published in various editions by John Muir Wood.  I’ve written so much about the Graham/Wood book that I thought I’d better clarify that point!)

I chose to arrange the tune for wind quintet. (The oboe has the tune purely because I’m an oboist!)  I wanted to experiment with five different instruments, because I have done a number of arrangements for multiples of ONE instrument and I fancied a change. It’s a midi file, not a live recording – sorry about that!   LISTEN HERE.

Now, old folksongs do present certain challenges.  For a start – and let’s not get into the tricky question as to how old this tune actually is, or we’ll never get to the notes themselves – they lend themselves to pretty straightforward harmonies, as this example demonstrates.  So it’s always going to be hard to come up with something really original, and if you stray too far from the strait and narrow, you run the risk of spoiling it.  Too many chords per bar certainly wreck the average folk melody, so I avoided that.  However, I quite like sevenths, ninths and temporary clashes that resolve, so if you think I’ve left “wrong notes”, then please be assured that I meant every one of them! My cadences introduce a bit of chromaticism that works in an instrumental setting (in my opinion).  After doing my wind quintet setting, I re-set the piece as a choral arrangement with religious words for my church choir;  I hesitated about replicating these harmonies in a vocal setting, but they worked well enough chorally too.  LISTEN HERE(You can hear the two settings one after another HERE.)

Another consideration is the matter of modality – Victorian compilers got quite concerned about what to do with the “flattened seventh” – the choice is basically either to harmonise it (whether as part of a chord or a temporary clash resolving downwards) – or sharpen it (which I don’t think I’d ever do) – or contrive some other kind of inoffensive discord.  Either way, my harmonies aren’t exactly what you’d put in a more ‘trad’ folksong setting for voice and/or fiddle and guitar.

The other aspect that I particularly concentrate on, after the harmonies, is the interaction between the instrumental (or vocal) lines.  I like to include motifs in the “accompanying” lines, that weave about as a countermelody to the tune itself and recur in different instruments as I go along.  I was quite pleased with this setting, in that regard.

This evening I tried out the choral setting with my choir.  It went quite well, but I had to change a couple of bars where the voices crossed one another.  Where there are two different sounds, the lines remain distinct, but having the soprano and alto crossing over just muddies the sound for the listener.  Also, I changed the underlay of the text in a few places while I was at it.  (You can’t see the text here, but it’s basically some lyrics that I wrote as a “recessional” for the choir to sing at the end of a church service.  I’ve been a church organist so long that finding suitable rhyming words is sadly only too easy for me. There’s nothing wrong with them – they’re just startlingly derivative!)  If you’re involved in church music and would like a copy of the score, do get in touch with me.

There is a mildly humorous side to the whole saga – when I proudly produced my arrangement of a Scottish folksong to my Church of Scotland choir, thinking they’d be enchanted with this Sassenach’s setting of a popular folk melody … they liked it, sure enough – but no-one actually knew the tune!  This just goes to show that fashions change, and tunes that were popular in the 19th century may not still be known today.  Anyway, I’ve just revived it.

What I look forward to, is having the opportunity to discuss the differences in approach between a classical musician with a musicologist’s interest in “trad”, and a trad musician repurposing something that has been preserved in a conventional MOTR (middle of the road) classical collection.  More on this note another day!

Practising What I Preach (Reflectively)

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…

* Here’s some information about ‘Macpherson’s Rant’, on Susannes Folksong-Notizen

** And here’s the story of Reverend Hill’s outburst

And now some more reflective reading!

This article comes from a Newsletter published by Newcastle University: Newsletter 01.6, specifically written for MEDEV, School of Medical Sciences Education Development, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University, NE2 4HH.  I’ll print it out so that I can refer back to it.

Focus: Becoming a reflective practitioner

Reflection and reflective practice are two of the key buzzwords in professional and education practice at present. But what exactly do we mean by these …

http://www.medev.ac.uk/newsletter/article/32/Authors: Prof. David Brigden; Mr Nigel Purcell.

The authors cite S. Atkins and K. Murphy’s ‘Stages in reflective practice’, which go into a little more depth in defining the process of critical incident, reflection and ultimately changed practice:-

1. Self awareness

2. Description

3. Critical Analysis

4. Synthesis

5. Evaluation

Conclusion

 

Time for some Reading

I did manage to read Paul Warwick’s ‘Reflective Practice: some notes on the development of the notion of professional reflection’, during today’s lunch-break. However, I’ve wasted quite a bit of my free time feeling ill with migraines this past week, so I haven’t read as much as I’d intended.  I’ll write a few thoughts about the Warwick reading and then maybe I’ll find time to look at some of the other materials tomorrow.  (I’ve found the Reflective Practice wiki – the ‘What is reflective practice’ topic looks relevant, though the sheer extent of it is a bit mind-boggling – and I thought I’d also look at the link, ‘Focus: Becoming a Reflective Practitioner’.  If I get through all that, I’ll be doing well!)

So, first to the Warwick article:-

Warwick, P. (2007) Reflective practice: some notes on the development of the notion of professional reflection

Available at  http://escalate.ac.uk/downloads/3573.pdf

The e-tivities for this week ask us to consider Zeichner and Liston’s 5 key features of reflective teaching (1996), which Warwick summarises  in his chapter.   These are just two of the more recent educators whose work is summarised, for Warwick begins with J. Dewey’s theories from the early 20th century.  Indeed, the overview examines so many authorities that it is a little overwhelming for the emerging teaching artist!

I found it a little difficult relating some of the more philosophical elements of classroom teaching (eg, “moral purpose”) with the kind of teaching I’ve been involved in.   My problem is that there is little continuity in the kind of teaching I am asked to do:-  one-off guest lectures (eg the Scottish song transformations lecture that I did last week); or the bibliographical skills session that I did for the PGCert students last session; or indeed the initial library catalogue and database training sessions I provide for new students at varying levels.   The only continuity I experience is with my church choir, where I have no curriculum development to worry about, and the ‘institutional and cultural context’ is our Christian faith, discussion of which does not form part of my duties as a choir trainer.  Training a choir of adult volunteers is not quite the same as having responsibility for a class.

A reflective teacher examines, frames, and attempts to solve the dilemmas of classroom practice.  I understand this point.  I need constantly to endeavour to involve and engage the class, and to seek to find ways of getting greater participation wherever possible.   I can understand this in the context of my one-off teaching engagements.  (It’s harder when you’re taking a choir-practice, as you can’t rehearse the sopranos and give the rest of the choir something else to practise while you’re listening to the ladies!  You generally don’t want them singing something else while you’re trying to correct or shape one particular vocal line.  The dilemma here is in trying to convince them not to talk amongst themselves when you’re listening hard to identify where something could be improved or corrected!)

A reflective teacher is aware of and questions the assumptions and values he or she brings to teaching.  I see what Warwick (quoting Zeichner) is saying.  If I’m training a class in information-handling skills, I need to take care not to assume that everyone will search the same way as me, or bring the same level of expertise that I’ve acquired over many years.  I need to be aware that there may be issues, eg, dyslexia or visual impairment, making students have to work much harder or try different approaches to achieve the same results.  Or, in the case of the Scottish musicology lecture I did last week, I need to question and challenge my interpretation of the sources and be open to alternatives, notwithstanding the research I’ve spent many years refining.  Again, however, it’s hard to apply this same ideal to choral training.  The closest parallel I can offer, is that I am conscious of my greater musical experience, and I do instinctively seek constantly to ensure that everyone understands what I’m asking them to do on a practical level.

A teacher is attentive to the institutional and cultural contexts in which he or she teaches.  I can’t help thinking it must be easier to understand your context when you’re delivering a larger part of a formal curriculum.  For me as a librarian, being attentive to the institutional and cultural contexts means being aware that this is a performing arts institution, where performance has a greater emphasis than it did in my own university experience, and where research itself is practice-based.  Hardly a day passes when I don’t remind myself of this, so I do think I’ve got a realistic grasp of this concept.   Certainly, I remembered it when giving the Scottish song lecture.

A teacher takes part in curriculum development and is involved in school change efforts.  As subject librarians, we were involved in the curriculum reform process, but because my teaching role is in a ‘one-off’ capacity, in reality I have less involvement in curriculum development than the average part-time, hourly-paid lecturer.  I truly don’t want to seem negative about this, but I would currently struggle to discern a way in which my occasional contributions could be considered in any way to be developing the curriculum.

A teacher takes responsibility for his or her own professional development.  At last, here’s something where I can proudly state that I do, both as a librarian and as a teacher, seek any available opportunity for CPD.  After all, that’s what I’m doing in attending this credit-bearing course.

Independent Study for Reflective Practice in Learning and Teaching

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 ….!