Rethinking the Product

What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?

None of us planned for the world of distance learning. It wasn’t even anywhere on our radar. And now the ensemble model of music education is facing the challenges of its own limits. So it’s worth taking a fresh look at what music education might look like through a new perspective – the lens of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program


That model 1) fosters the development of new skills, 2) sparks creativity, 3 inspires a thirst for knowledge, and 4) provokes critical thinking

Ironically, it’s these objectives that reflect where teachers find themselves at this pandemic moment: 


We, as teachers, have once again become students – 

  • learning how to master new apps and platforms

  • thinking outside the box

  • learning more about our subject and ways to teach it

  • and taking a fresh look at our traditional approach and its limitations. 

On May 14, 2020, NAfME hosted a webinar led by Meghan Cabral, District Director of Music, in Carmel, NY. The title of the webinar was “Music: Thinking Differently. It’s Not About a Virtual Ensemble.”  (NAfME membership required to view) In it, she cut to the chase, and challenged music teachers to redirect our focus – at least for now. Here’s the take-away:



Capable teachers with the time and gear may find tutorials like this helpful –  How to Create a Virtual Ensemble. But it requires a lot of extra training and stress for the teacher to set up and for students to navigate. For many, it means funding for technology and PD training to become proficient with it, both of which are typically in short supply for teachers, let alone the students who are expected to master new platforms for simply submitting their work. As we’ve learned by now, some of our students simply don’t have devices at home that meet the challenge.

And in the end, as Cabral spells out, the ‘virtual ensemble’ is neither collaborative or interactive. It’s recorded in isolation, and is not a valid replacement for ensemble participation. Virtual Guitar Orchestras may have some PR value and fulfill a need for professional studio musicians, but many of our students don’t live with this privilege.


Cabral encourages us to shift our focus from the ‘product’ to the ‘process.’ I have my own take on that a bit later. But for now, let’s follow the train of thought.

Think back on your own music education. For me, it was all band and choir, with a dash of jazz band and community orchestra. We learned concert music, marching band routines for the football field and street parades, and prepared for solo and ensemble contests. Sound familiar? But what did we miss? 

  • What if we had time for…

  • What if we could have learned about…

  • Why didn’t we spend time listening to…

  • Why did we never learn to talk about…

Perhaps the most humbling thing I’ve learned in a matter of weeks of distance learning is that while I strive for equity in the four walls of my classroom, this is not where learning takes place at the moment. For many, It happens in bedrooms shared with siblings, or friends. Or in a shelter.

Access to space, time and resources is not a common denominator. Students can only do what their environment allows. They need to be able to exercise choice with learning opportunities that best suit their circumstances, and they need options that empower them to do so. 


I propose a Google classroom that sets some common expectations, and then allows students to set their own learning pursuits and goals. Here’s how it might work for your guitar students in a skills-based unit.

Assuming your students have guitars at home or access to a school instrument, upload a collection of short notated exercises for students to practice at home. Keep in mind the assessment objective


Development of skills

If you’re assessing development of skills, and want students to play simple examples, be flexible on notational systems, or whether to use them at all. Understanding music notation is a different objective and should be assessed separately. 

So let’s talk about choice.

For beginners with some familiarity with music notation, examples like this may be best, with an explanation of what the numbers mean (circled numbers indicate string, numbers below indicate fret)

Or… a short explanation of how to read tablature allows the student to perform the same skill this way with these instructions.

Some students might also prefer a visual like this. Courtesy of Guitar Scientist, you can customize your own pattern and generate a ping. All that’s needed here is a short set of instructions on how to read it, or a visual demo.

It requires some planning, but try to include audio or visual examples for every notational example. Many students will always need to hear it before they attempt to play it. If they can echo an audio example, they’ve demonstrated skill, which is the sole objective here.


Set a rubric for achievement that encourages both quantity and variety in the number of examples they submit for a higher score, and allow them to be part of that decision-making. The more control students are given in mapping their road to success, the more likely they’ll be to get behind the wheel. 


That said, confirm with them their plan and hold them accountable. The notated examples for skill assessment should be uploaded into Google classroom, but also provided as PDF. Again, a hard copy in the hand is worth two in the cloud. Plan ahead, and submit files to your district copy center for printing. 


Knowing and Understanding

A separate lesson on music notation can be introduced as a Note Identification exercise on A phone version of the app is available for just $2.99 for students who have no other device. Talk honestly and discreetly with your students to confirm what they’ve access to and what help they might need with even a small fee like this. 


Students can perform the Note Identification exercise as often as they like until they’re happy with their score. Then they just submit the results directly to you by email. This is a great tool. I’ll share a tutorial in another post. But in the meantime, play with it, take time to become familiar and proficient, and show students how to customize the exercise using the cog icon in the upper right. 

 You could create your own theory exercises and present it as a Google form, but is ready to go when you are. And the advantage here is that the student can run as many practice tests as they like before submitting their score.



A lesson in blues improvisation is an easy and fun introduction to musical creativity. Generate a blues scale like this from Guitar Scientist. It’s simple. Add it to your Google files and PDF printouts.

If you like, supplement it with a brief video demonstration of yourself playing (and talking through) the notes.

Then, either provide a link to a video like this (Blues Shuffle in A), or better yet, rip the audio and upload the sound file to the Google classroom folder. The student can listen to the backing track and experiment with the art of improvising over it. Once they feel comfortable, they can record themselves playing along and send you a video of their best attempt. Just remember, we’re not assessing video or recording skills. We’re listening for creativity and communication. 


Responding/Critical Thinking

Finally, to provoke critical thinking, provide examples of a variety of blues guitarists.  Ask students to listen often and with intention. Then have them write, observing the differences among the artists (technique, instrument, tone, dynamics, etc.), while making a case for how each one brings a unique voice to ‘the blues.’ 

Provide a word bank to get them started on how to imbue meaning with extra-musical traits – words like: bold, bright, clean, crisp, dark, deep, dirty, dull, dry, fat, fluid, full, harsh, mellow, melodious, muddy, muted, piercing, punchy, raspy, raucous, resonant, rich, rounded, shimmering, shrill, steely, thick, thin, timid, warm, woody. But then turn them loose and see what language and analogies they come up with.


I shared a video to my guitar class of Richie Havens performing Here Comes the Sun, and asked students for feedback. One student said “it sounded like if the Ramones had learned how to up-strum,” and I just wanted to hug him. 

In the end, we want to encourage our students to not simply make music, but to study music, and develop a life-long curiosity of learning. 


Product vs. Process

This takes us back to Meghan Cabral’s recommendation to shift from “product” to “process.” I say we simply redefine what that “product” is. It need not be a concert performance. Or a virtual one. Maybe we let students decide what their best work was in our class and share it in a forum like a virtual science fair – what my previous school called a “Celebration of Learning.”

There are many reasons why students resist ensemble classes. Performance anxiety and an inability to commit to after school events are a common barrier. But a collection of recorded skills, test scores, improv videos, and analytical reviews shared on the school website could be a new way to define ‘performance,’ and eliminate the stigma of failing to take part in an after-school event. 


A change has gotta come. People get ready. You can do this.