PBL in music


Problem based learning is a collection of teaching methods that places the process of learning and the student at the center, rather than the product, end result or high stakes testing.

A lot of music learning is already a great example of problem based learning, although many traditional music programs tend to place too much emphasis on the end product. Richard’s first experience of teaching music in America was not in a traditional program, but an innovative new music program at STEM School Highlands Ranch. He is now teaching Elementary students at a more traditional program at Bennett School District. He teaches a problem based learning program, including music technology, music jam skills and singing.

Richard’s ideal music program is one where the end product (concert, presentation or event) is a result of the learning processes the students have endured, rather than a staged product of over-rehearsal and learned behavior. This is possible, but the expectations of students, parents and administrators must be managed first!


A new way of teaching ensemble music skills in a modern school classroom.

The success story: the general music, composition, music technology classes that you teach are innovative, successful problem based learning communities and full of enthusiastic students!

The problem: you need to get similar results from your band, orchestra, guitar, choir or ensemble students.

At STEM School Highlands Ranch, instructors are encouraged to follow a student-centered, backward design and problem based learning approach. Lesson objectives are delivered as a problem to be solved, a design to be reverse-engineered or a collaborative team goal. We teach programs in music production (including music theory, composition and music technology), classical guitar ensemble and symphonic ensemble. The music production program was the founding program - on which the department's success has been based, originally taught by Dr Gregg Cannady and taken over by Richard Clarke in its second year. Students write their own music and songs, they learn the "math of music" traditionally and aurally and they learn to jam and collaborate like real musicians. 90-minute lessons are split into small group work, laptop assignments and whole-class instruction and workshops. By their nature, music production classes are student-centered, process-focused and accessible to students of all training and experiences.

When trying to convert this concept to an applied music or ensemble class, a student-centered format soon begins to clash with the tradition of "stand and deliver" teaching common in band, orchestra or choir classes. Don't give up! By tradition and institution, ensemble musicians and singers will want to be told what to do, where to stand, how to feel, how to behave, where to express more emotion... (etc.). Problem based learning looks like the opposite of a traditional music rehearsal, but is commonplace among all genres of music, and in both the professional and amateur worlds. Problem based learning is natural to musicians and music teachers alike, making the subject of the musician's processes of learning and real time skills interesting ones for further analysis.

If your music department consists of several studios or rooms, it's very easy to separate the sounds of different bands rehearsing or jamming, but it's also difficult to monitor students' productivity and behavior. Several ensembles working in one big room is possible with a little more cooperation among students and training by the teacher. One main room and one studio/break-out space is ideal: students can work with the teacher in a structured way and then take turns to rehearse together in the break-out space. In order to train ensemble students to share a space, the teacher must first identify the different modes of learning: auditioning, one player performs at a time while others listen, criticize and help; music sourcing, arrangement, planning and processing (using Sibelius or similar applications); listening and evaluating other groups in the room; analysis of music, singing, playing or saying rhythms together, working out the music away from your instrument; using headphones, for groups involving amplified instruments; using non-amplified alternatives to bass, guitars or keyboards to reduce overall noise levels.

By giving the students short practical sessions of around 15 - 20 minutes, as in any other school class, the teacher is encouraging more focused and productive work from students. The teacher can break up these sessions with full band rehearsals, plenaries to see work in progress and use assessment criteria or workshops to exemplify what students should be doing in their own practical time or at home during personal practice. The power is given to the students to lead their own work, but the structure of the lesson remains with the teacher. This process should free the teacher to teach and draw out students' knowledge and skills through tailored instruction, instead of leading inefficient repetitive "group practice", direct instruction and lecturing.

Use of Sibelius, Ableton, other music tools and technology is vital for this model to succeed. Avid's Sibelius notation software, in particular, is a great way to help students understand the bigger picture, practice parts and even arrange/compose music of their own. School or students' computers should be installed with Sibelius free trials - after the trial has ended, students, parents or the school can choose to buy/subscribe or use it just as a score player. A great app for tablets from the owners of Sibelius is AVID Scorch, which will open sibelius files and extract parts and play the music. Sibelius scores can also be published via a URL through Sibelius Cloud Publishing, again, free of Sibelius software, the scores can be played.

Approaching advanced music theory with middle/high school students

Would you begin a middle/high school applied music course with advanced jazz piano theory? At STEM School Highlands Ranch - a problem based learning (PBL) community - we did just that and found the logic and discipline of a jazz band piano method completely suitable for novice and intermediate musicians. Following the early chapters in Barney McClure's method, "There is no such thing as a mistake", the semester-long course at STEM School introduces music theory from a jazz band piano player's perspective in a holistic way (i.e. all 12 major keys, four common intervals and chords in all keys, the circle of fifths and common chord progressions); then the students are taught key digital audio workstation (Ableton/Pro Tools) skills and guided through songwriting, jams and composition group work towards an end-of-semester event. In the second semester, students re-approach or continue Barney's "Bandstand Theory" method, before refining their DAW skills and banding together to produce a final concert performance and album recording.

The "rolling semester" music production courses at STEM School are designed to be taken again and again, so that each time the student joins the class, they broaden their technical, theory, composition and music production or promotion skills. In this innovative, problem based learning community, the students are used to a top-loaded, "in at the deep end" start to courses, so music classes are no different! STEM performances classes, such as symphonic ensemble and guitar ensemble are similarly rigorous, teacher-led and traditional to begin with and, later, pushes students to choose or find their own repertoire in small groups, record performances, pick creative and collaborative projects and lead each other. Each rolling semester course is fed by a single semester course (classical guitar, instrumental ensemble and music fundamentals) that prepare new students for a class with students of multiple musical abilities experiences and teach 'the basics' of the respective discipline in an intensive way.

STEM chose Barney McClure's method because it fit well with the problem based learning, backward design instructional approach that the school had chosen for all staff to follow. Why limit beginner students to C major scale when there are eleven more major scales that have identical patterns of whole and half-steps; why learn only major chords when you can learn the three types of triad in any major key; why only play in easy musical keys when all twelve keys are interrelated? In essence, we are looking for the fundamental math of music to explain these relationships and then how to apply the math to any musical situation: that is what a jazz pianist is doing all day long.

Technology in music education

At STEM School Highlands Ranch, technology is abundant, particularly in the music classroom. Music elective students use school laptops and iPads to compose, edit and view music products. They also use their own laptops and phones to view, upload and document assignment progress and use free software from Ableton Live, Avid (Sibelius, Pro Tools and Media Composer), Soundbrenner and Musictheory.net. These hi-tech facilities are backed up by digital and acoustic pianos, classical acoustic guitars and other real instruments. Students learn traditional music theory, or as they call it at STEM School, "the math of music".

The whole idea of "traditional music" is prevalent in students' and parents minds. They want their students to access traditional music, albeit classical, jazz or popular music. Our music classes are not traditional ones, but the traditions of classical, jazz and popular music theory form the fundamentals. All of our three programs - Music Production, Symphonic Ensemble and Guitar Ensemble - teach good instrumental technique, music theory/notation and concert performance skills. However, as well as traditional skills and applications, we offer assignments in recording music products, collaborative and creative projects and composing. As the teacher of these courses, you have to have one foot in the traditional camp and the other in the real world of media, creative music making and problem based learning.

In a school without such facilities or students who don't have their own laptops, music teachers must still drive for the same technology-based skills and applications and use whatever resources the school provides. For example: should the school have a set of band instruments or acoustic guitars, the teacher should look to engage students in regular audio/digital recording activities (both good quality "studio" recording, area or whole-class recording); if the music students have access to a bank of laptops, all music students should be taught to use a notation program (such as Avid's Sibelius) and/or a digital audio workstation (such as AVID's Pro Tools, or Ableton Live); lastly, if there are other devices available such as digital cameras, compact audio recorders, students' own phones or laptops with webcams - the teacher should encourage students to use them to track their own progress regularly.

If the school is starting from scratch - i.e. no instruments, traditions or music library - investment in digital music workstations is recommended alongside buying traditional classroom instruments (piano, guitar, percussion etc.). A workstation should include a laptop (unless students use their own), an audio interface, a dynamic microphone, a MIDI keyboard and an electro-acoustic guitar. You can add AKAI/Ableton Push controllers for free, along with Ableton Live Intro software, for free with the "Push Initiative". Buying copies or site licenses of Avid's Sibelius notation software is highly recommended for teaching choir, ensemble, composition and music theory lessons in music technology. If the music budget is limited, doing without the studio hardware is OK: just a laptop and copies of Sibelius First and Ableton Live Intro will suffice for teaching a digital music course or enhancing a traditional music course.

If music production students have their own laptops to plug into workstations, and in a department offering multiple programs (guitar, band/orchestra and music production) purchase/use of a few iPads/tablets is a great way of making music theory, technology and shared files more accessible to students who do not have much musical training. Apps such as Avid Scorch, ForScore, The Metronome by Soundbrenner, Tenuto/Music Theory, GarageBand, Guitar Tuna and iReal Pro are apps we use at STEM School.

Student-centered, problem based learning

High school music students at STEM School Highlands Ranch are rocking the concept of student-centered learning! For the third year, STEM School is presenting their live "album launch" and live concert, showcasing all of the students' original songs, jams and Ableton Live compositions.

The first concert was called "Band Together" developed and led by Dr Gregg Cannady. Last year's students, as this year's, were led by Richard Clarke and is staged by our friends at DIME Denver. DIME is Detroit Institute of Music Education, a great organization that teaches full time Commercial Music and Popular Music at the Bachelors level in their Downtown Denver location. DIME Denver is led by successful British band, Wildflowers, who are based in Denver.

The concept of student-centered learning is not just limited to this high school class. It is built into each course at STEM through following a problem based learning (PBL) model. Classes in general music, music technology, band and classical guitar are all built using backward design and essential questions in order to guide students towards real world, relevant and individualized learning outcomes. All teachers at STEM School use the problem based learning approach to design their courses, which has made collaboration between programs instantly more successful.

Among the many positive outcomes of student-centered, problem based learning is student empowerment! The student-centered aspect encourages students to take ownership of their end product (i.e. a public performance and digital recording); the problem based learning - rather than project based learning - encourages students to avoid only focusing on the end product, but the process. All in all, assuming the teacher has paired students appropriately and is facilitating the general process (both in terms of preparation and pointed intervention), students quickly take control of all musical behaviors (rehearsal, analysis, logistics, direction).

This change was easily applicable, if not natural, in our "music production" classes (which covers general music, music composition, music theory, DAW recording/sequencing) as students are used to taking control of group work and problem solving. Splitting a guitar ensemble class, or another applied music class, into quartets/trios and giving them choice over concert repertoire rehearsal and presentation is one step in the right direction. Handing over the reins to the students in a band/ensemble/orchestra class is an entirely matter altogether.