Captivate Strings – the How, What & Why

St Aidan's Class 2I am frequently asked the question: “What is it that motivates your students so much about music and performance in the Captivate Strings Program?” (Catholic Education – Diocese of Parramatta, Western Sydney) In fact, I often ask myself this very same question in trying to ascertain what it is that we have done that really works in the implementation of this program.

Recently, I was privileged to be able to advise the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Ireland on the establishment of a strings/orchestra program in schools. This caused me to evaluate closely the ‘What, Why & How’ of our own String Things Program.

The String Things program is now implemented across 14 Catholic Primary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta as a classroom music program. All children in the class (usually year 3 – 4) play a stringed instrument in the class orchestra. Extended learning pathways are offered through small group co-curricular lessons of 4 – 6 students taught by our specialist teachers on our Captivate Strings Team. Click here to read a more detailed blog post about the String Things program across 13 Catholic Primary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta – Western Sydney.

One of the secrets to the success of this program – apart from very dedicated and motivated teachers – is our own authored and published String Things Teaching Method – Level 1 and Level 2. (Click on these links to see the overview videos of the Level 1 and Level 2 of the String Things Program) Also – we use very innovative eLearning resources to extend the learning beyond the classroom (Click here to read the previous post “The Flipped Orchestra – eLearning to Extend Musical Understanding and Motivation)

Click on the 4 minute video below to see the implementation of the classroom program, the co-curricular small group teaching and also our combined Captivate String Orchestra.

Captivate Screen ShotThe Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved

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The Flipped Orchestra: eLearning to extend Musical Motivation & Understanding

Blacktown Effects 3The title to this blog post might sound a bit unusual to you. You may have expected to click on this link, especially if you have searched through Google, to find upside music students or inverted violinists!! In fact the ‘Flipped Orchestra’ is a term that I coined last year after attending a forum on PBL (Project Based Learning) with very inspirational presenters from the Buck Institute of Education in the United States.

Project Based Learning or PBL originated from a concept expounded by author John Dewey in his book My Pedagogical Creed, (1897). Dewey outlined the idea of learning by doing“The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these…….I believe, therefore, in the so-called expressive or constructive activities as the centre of correlation.”1

The concept of PBL is not a modern one, but has more recently been embraced by progressive educators looking to make learning in schools more relevant to ‘real life problem solving’. As George Lucas, Hollywood Film Director and Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation states on the Buck Institute website: “With Project Based Learning, students learn by designing and constructing actual solutions to real life problems”2

In this movie, commissioned by the Buck Institute of Education, animation shows us clearly the key elements of project based learning.

The video clip outlines 3 essential elements to setup our classroom for PBL or Project Based Learning.

  1. Critical Thinking – Claire analyzes the problem and formulates a strategy to come up with possible solutions
  2. Collaboration – Claire pulls together her team to work together on constructing solutions
  3. Communication – Claire and her team present the final solution to the boss

A more recent model of implementation of Project Based Learning is the Flipped Classroom. Students still need to access information, content knowledge and also to gain skills. Ideally, this would require initiative on their behalf to research and find this information and instruction, though the teacher or facilitator still needs to be able to guide the students towards that information and instruction. The University of QLD has a very succinct explanation of The Flipped Classroom. Click here to find out more about the Flipped Classroom at the University of Queensland Australia 3

What this describes is a role reversal where the students are able to access content and instruction outside of the classroom and normal school hours. For example; in a history class where students might be studying the arrival of the First Fleet to Australia, they might have a complete ship’s journal or diary of a convict etc to access in an online format including embedded multimedia – then in the Project Based Learning Classroom, they write a script for a play around the journal or diary that they accessed at home and then produce a play, film or multimedia presentation around their script. Thus, they have demonstrated Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication through their finished medium.

So….. in the Flipped Classroom, students are more active rather than passive in their learning: “students take more responsibility for their own learning and study core content either individually or in groups before class and then apply knowledge and skills to a range of activities using higher order thinking…….”3

What does this have to do with our Captivate Strings and Captivate String OrchestraWell, I have mentioned many times in previous posts that our String Things program in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta (Western Sydney) differs greatly to the strings programs I have led in independent schools. Many of our students, for various reasons, are not able to attend one on one ‘private lessons’. Also, in many of the areas and schools of the Diocese of Parramatta, there has not been a culture of external or private teaching. This may be because there are not ‘private’ music teachers in the immediate area though I wish to point out that the purpose of motivational music education is not to have ‘private’ lessons. Such lessons can be a useful pathway. Rather, I believe we need to demonstrate the pathways to higher level thinking and the end result of musical performance and even composition or music creation. When we have an ensemble or orchestra that students can aspire to join then they see the purpose of the learning. But to get there without access to ‘private tuition’ we need to think of other ways to present the content and instruction. Thus, we come up with the concept of the ‘Flipped Orchestra’.

The history and background of the String Things Program across 14 Catholic Primary Schools and 4 Secondary Schools is fully explained here in my previous blog post. But this post is much more about the published resources that drive the:

  • Classroom String Things Program – generally speaking, each year 3, or 4 or 5 class in a school (depending on the implementation plan in that school) has a ‘class orchestra’ in their classroom music program. This is resourced by the String Things Level 1 Method (Click on the video to see the overview) The backing tracks and innovative arrangements motivate and inspire students and encourage ensemble performance right from the start.
  • Small group co-curricular lessons. Students have the option to take up group lessons for violin, viola, cello or double bass to receive more detailed instruction in groups of 5 – 6. The String Things Level 2 Method books have both melody and ensemble parts to allow any combination of ensemble learning and performance. This is in effect a collaborative learning method. These books also come with a CD with quality full orchestral backing tracks so that students can practise at home with a complete ‘virtual orchestra’ and there is also a DVD with detailed instructional video on scales and technical work.
  • The Captivate String Orchestra which consists of students from across 10 primary and secondary schools, students study and learn their parts with the use of instructional video and also a video score and recording of an actual orchestra embedded in each instrumental part with the use of QR codes (Click here to find out more about QR codes) Students have face to face instruction with one of our specialist teachers. (Click here to meet the Captivate Strings Team) They are able to extend their musical understanding and their confidence by referring to the detailed instructional video and even reading the score with orchestral recording.

All of these resources, from the String Things Method Level 1 and Level 2, to the ensemble packs for school orchestras and the Captivate String Orchestra are authored, arranged and published exclusively for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta (Western Sydney) When I arrange/orchestrate simple pieces for The String Things Method or more advanced pieces such as Themes from the Moldau, I then multitrack all of the parts on REAL instruments in my recording studio and master the recording so that we have a quality recording and backing/listening track that      we can use to author the eLearning resources such as this iBook with interactive score excerpts. Themes form the Moldau iBook


Click here to download the iBook “Themes from the Moldau – an Arrangement for String Orchestra” from the iTunes Store. It is a FREE download, or search in the iBook store for “Themes from the Moldau” The author is Phil Rooke

You can click on each stave of the score excerpts to listen to that section of instruments – eg by clicking to the left of the Viola stave, you can listen to just the viola section for that excerpt. By clicking on the icon below the score excerpt you can listen to the whole string orchestra play that excerpt and follow the score.

The iBook format with embedded media gives the students a thorough understanding of the harmony and texture of the score as well as being able to extract and listen to their own part.

When we begin to learn a new piece in the Captivate String Orchestra, we first of all read the score and listen to the recording in the rehearsal. Students have the link to this video score in an email but also in a QR code on their part. Click on the video below to read and listen to my own orchestration and recording of 1st Movement from Winter – the 4 Seasons by Vivaldi. This score, arrangement and recording is arranged and produced by Phil Rooke and copyrighted to Catholic Education © 2012 all rights reserved.

There are QR codes on all of the parts of Winter 1st movement linking to the instructional video for that part. Click on the video below to see the instructional video for Winter 1st Movement – Solo Violin

Finally – the extended learning and rehearsals lead to the performance – this is our Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra performing the 1st Movement from Winter, 1st Movement at our Chamber Music Concert at the Dame Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, June 2013 – Soloist, Daniel Katafono

Thus, the 3 stages of the String Things program are demonstrated:

  1. The Level 1 books and media motivate the students in the class orchestra within the classroom music program – usually implemented around year 3-4
  2. The level 2 books are mostly used in the small group co-curricular lessons. Instructional video can be found on the DVD and the quality orchestral backing tracks are on the CD so that students are able to listen to each piece at home and play with the backing track.
  3. In our higher level combined orchestra and indeed even in school based ensembles, instructional videos and active scores are embedded on each music part with the use of QR codes.

Ultimately, the aim of the Captivate Strings Program is to offer the opportunity of motivational music learning and an orchestral performance experience to as many students in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta as we are able; no matter what the students’ cultural or socioeconomic circumstance.


1. John Dewey, Education and Experience, 1938/1997. New York. Touchstone.

2. The Buck Institute of Education Website

3. The University of Queensland Website – “What is the Flipped Classroom”

Captivate Screen ShotThe Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved


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Captivate Strings Chamber Music Concert – 2013





On Sunday November 10th, 2013, The Captivate String Orchestra presented their 2nd annual Chamber Music Concert along with our inspirational Captivate Staff Chamber Orchestra.

The Captivate String Orchestra was established just 2 1/2 years ago at a holiday orchestra workshop held at St Andrew’s Primary School – Marayong. Along the way, we have had held our annual strings showcase in June and the first Chamber Music Concert at St Finbar’s last year, also in November.

Here is a video clip of Daniel Katafono (Captivate Scholarship Student) performing the 1st Movement of the Haydn Violin Concerto in G Major with our Staff Chamber Orchestra at the Chamber Music Concert last year – November 2012.

staff photo 2The end of year Chamber Music Concert is becoming an annual event  to celebrate our students’ achievements in music learning and performance. We also celebrate the work of our great team of dedicated teachers.

The String Things program is currently implemented across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, Western Sydney. It is an inclusive program, providing an immersion experience in a ‘class orchestra’ within the classroom music program across all 12 primary schools and pathways to extended learning through our own team of specialist teachers using our own String Things method and resources.

The Penrith/Mountains Captivate String Orchestra performing Mama Mia

The Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra performing Winter, 1st Movement from the Four Seasons – Soloist, Daniel Katafono

St Andrew’s Primary School Chamber Orchestra – ‘You Can Count On Me’

And lastly, Our very talented Staff Chamber Orchestra performing the Czardas – Soloist Andras Racz

Music for next year will be distributed in the next few weeks along with the online instructional video. We will be working on Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring by J.S. Bach – the full version and also Themes From the Moldau by Smetana. This music is a step higher and much more challenging than we have previously played. Students should listen to the MP3 tracks and watch the instructional video for their part and practise, practise practise. Then, we will have much to celebrate at the end of year Chamber Concert at St Finbar’s in 2014.

Here is the video score of Themes from the Moldau by Smetana – arr. Phil Rooke

St Andrews Chamber Orchestra1

Captivate Screen Shot

The Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved

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The String Things Program! Motivational Music Teaching and Learning in Catholic Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

  St Aidan's Class 1

Something Exciting in Music Making has been happening in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta since 2009. Almost 1500 students in Catholic Schools in Blacktown, Kingswood, Mt Druitt, Kellyville, Granville etc, are playing orchestral stringed instruments in the classroom, school ensembles and also in a 45 member combined orchestra, led by 13 (as at November, 2013) classroom and specialist teachers.

The key element of success of this program (Click here to read my previous post “Defining Success in a Motivational Music Education Program) is in the inclusiveness of the program and the motivation of the students in the program in a collaborative learning community. The benefits of playing a musical instrument to cognitive development in children is well understood and documented but we are also seeing anecdotal evidence and hearing learning stories of increased motivational learning across the curriculum. Music performance and creation makes for more focused learners.

What is the String Things Program?

The String Things Program is an inclusive classroom, co-curricular and extra-curricular music program that is currently implemented across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta – Western Sydney. There are 78 schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, covering a wide geographic area of Western Sydney. (Click here to view a list and map of our schools) The program was implemented in just 2 Catholic Primary Schools in the Blacktown area in 2009.

What happens in the Classroom?

Our team of classroom teachers deliver the String Things program to 30 students at a time in the music classroom

In schools where the program is implemented, every student across a whole year level learns an orchestral stringed instrument in the classroom music program. For example, if the program is implemented across year 3 in a 3 stream school, the school purchases a class set of instruments which might be just a set of violins or a combination of violins, violas, cellos and double basses to form a class orchestra. All three year 3 classes then learn a stringed instrument as a class orchestra in the classroom music program.

The program is taught by either the classroom music teacher with mentoring and support or one of our specialist/classroom teachers can teach the program with the classroom teachers working in the classroom with us as ‘learning partners’. The program is based on our own authored and published strings method; Strings Things Level 1.

The emphasis in the classroom program is for students to achieve a good sound and to have a positive ensemble playing experience with their classmates as soon as possible. The String Things program has easily attainable pieces, including Classical and Baroque pieces such as Eine Kleine NachtMusic by Mozart and Autumn from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi as well as Music of Other Cultures such as La Bamba. As well as easy open string parts, many of these arrangements also have the melody part to provide attainable performance goals whilst providing a challenge for students that feel they are ready. The backing tracks (Recorded with real instruments) help students to feel they are playing with a real orchestra; supporting our central aim that ‘No child should feel they have failed in music making’. This video clip shows the classroom program in action.

Click on this preview video to see how the String Things program underpins the learning in the classroom. Please listen with good speakers or earphones to hear the quality of the media.

What happens after the Classroom Program? What pathways for extended musical learning do we provide?

Students have the option to continue learning in small groups with our specialist teachers

When all students have learned an instrument in the classroom for about 6 – 12 months, we advise parents of the opportunity to learn in small groups of 5 – 6 on violin, viola & cello – double bass is offered in some schools at a later age from about year 6. These lessons are taught by our very dedicated and talented team of specialist teachers.  (Click here to ‘Meet the Captivate Strings Team’)

The difference with this co-curricular strings program is that our specialist strings teachers continue to teach the String Things Level 1 program staff photo 2that is used in the classroom so that the extended learning connects with what is being taught in the classroom.  I use the term co-curricular rather than ‘private’ lessons to indicate that these lessons continue concurrently and in a connected way to the classroom program rather than as something separate. Our classroom teachers and specialist teachers are on the same team and work together towards improved outcomes and extended learning for our students.

Once students have worked towards the end of the String Things Level 1 books (for violin, viola, cello & double bass) then students in the small group co-curricular lessons graduate to the String Things Level 2 books. These books are unique in the provision of quality media and also the format of every piece having a melody and ensemble part. The backing CD has full orchestral tracks, both with and without melody. Students can listen to a REAL orchestra performing the piece and then another track has the orchestra minus the melody so that they can even use it as a performance backing track. There is also a DVD with quality instructional video for scales and technical work. This is not intended to replace quality face to face teaching but rather to extend the learning into the home environment.

The Level 2 books are also unique in that almost every piece (but 2) have both melody and ensemble parts. These books and media can be used for individualized learning. Students work with their teacher in group or individual lessons and extend that technical learning with the instructional video at home and then they can play any piece they wish in the book with the quality backing track at home or in public performance. However, by using a combination of melody and ensemble parts, an ensemble of any combination can be made; string quartet, trio, duet or even a full orchestra. Group lessons are advantageous at this stage because the learning is cooperative and students can experience performing in an ensemble in the lesson. Some of our students actually meet up after school or on weekends at each others homes to form their own ensembles!

I believe it is important that students listen to and experience a wide range of music. The level 1 & 2 books have Classical, Baroque, Romantic, Jazz and Blues as well as Music of other Cultures. As well as ensemble and solo performance, the classroom program also includes music listening & understanding and elements of improvisation and ‘organising sounds’ or composition.

Click here to see the overview of String Things Level 2 with preview scores

What opportunities do we have for ensemble performance?

The Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra consists of students across 5 Catholic Primary & Secondary Schools.

The Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra consists of students across 5 Catholic Primary & Secondary Schools.

Ensemble performance begins in the classroom with this program. As soon as students start to learn some simple open string patterns with such classics as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic” with the motivational backing tracks, then the class is ready to perform. The children love to show their class teachers and parents what they have achieved as early on as possible.

Once the co-curricular lessons have been introduced to a school and students have their own instruments, they learn in a small group with one of our specialist teachers. Once a number of students are learning in small groups with their own instruments, then schools are able to form their own ensembles and orchestras.

A number of these students are invited to join our Captivate String Orchestra which actually rehearses in 2 halves in 2 different venues. There are over 40 students in the Captivate String Orchestra performing more challenging repertoire. The Blacktown area String Orchestra rehearses at St Andrew’s Primary School, Marayong every 2nd Wednesday during the school term and the Penrith/Mountains area String Orchestra rehearses at St Mary MacKillop Primary School, South Penrith.

Membership of the Captivate String Orchestra is open to all students in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. Whilst nearly all of the members of the orchestra have come through our classroom program and learn in small groups with our dedicated team of teachers, membership is also open to students learning from outside private teachers. Students are recommended by teachers and must agree to a contract whereby they attend rehearsals, workshops and performance and must practise their part at home.

The learning is further supported with innovative media. Mostly, our repertoire is Classical, Baroque and Romantic music by the great European composers and these pieces are custom arranged for us. Students are able to access online instructional video for their part as well as being able to download MP3 listening and backing tracks.

Where to from here? 

We have much to celebrate in our school communities and in student achievement through the String Things Program in Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. There are many remarkable learning stories – students that have discovered a passion for music making and many untold stories of children in the classroom discovering a ‘love of learning’ through music even if they don’t pick up an instrument; though they may well find their own style of music making in other ways at a later time.

Many of our students are moving into our Catholic Secondary Schools and they will be able to form ensembles and continue to perform there. These students are able to continue in the Captivate String Orchestra if they are enrolled in a Catholic Secondary School in the Diocese of Parramatta. Eventually, we will have 2 orchestras in Penrith – advanced and training and 2 orchestras in Blacktown – also advanced and training. In just a few years, we will be able to offer our continuing students an orchestral experience of a very high standard.

We have come a long way in just 5 years, from just 2 schools in Blacktown with an inclusive classroom program to an inclusive program across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools with pathways to extended learning. With our dedicated team of classroom and specialist teachers, we are discovering new and collaborative ways of music learning and many of our students are discovering a passion for music and learning. I believe the best is yet to come.

Music Making is an Adventure Best Shared: “Learning music should be an adventure; a discovery of history and culture, as well as learning new and exciting skills and feeling a great sense of achievement. Learning to play a musical instrument is also about learning self-discipline and enjoying music-making together in ensembles; whether it is with a friend as a duet, with some friends on guitar, piano & drums playing Jazz or Folk music or with a whole string orchestra at your school, it is an exciting adventure that is always best when it is a shared experience.” Excerpt from the Introduction for The String Things Method Level 2 – Author; Phil Rooke

Captivate Screen Shot

The Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved

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Meet the Team – Captivate Strings

The Captivate Strings Team is comprised of around 13 classroom and specialist teachers providing quality teaching & learning in the inclusive strings program across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta – Western Sydney. (Click here to see the full overview of the String Things Program)

staff photo 2

There are about 13 Classroom and Specialist Teachers in the String Things Program in Catholic Schools – Diocese of Parramatta.

Our team of teachers are themselves experienced performers. We are a collaborative learning community across 12 Catholic Primary Schools and 2 Catholic Secondary Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta – Western Sydney.

Our specialist teachers continue the learning in small co-curricular groups with students that have purchased their own instrument. These lessons are timetabled through the school day with minimal disruption to learning – in fact, the small group learning is itself enrichment and collaborative learning with benefits across the curriculum. Click here to read “Music Performance & Creation Makes More Focused Learners”

Some of our team teach the inclusive classroom program across 12 primary schools – find out more about the implementation of the classroom program –

Many of our teaching team also form the basis of our Captivate Staff Chamber Orchestra.

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Music Performance & Creation Makes More Focused Learners

A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia by Dr Ines Jentzsch for the University of St Andrews “draws particular attention to the skills learned in musical performance. When playing pieces to an audience or to themselves musicians must demonstrate heightened awareness of their actions: continually monitoring their playing through auditory feedback and rapidly adjusting their movements to anticipate possible mistakes.”

I want to take this a step further and say that ‘music creation’ or for that matter any type of artistic ‘composition’ or creation has even greater outcomes in cognitive and emotional development for a child than just performance – be it making up a dance, composing a string quartet or creating a great artwork.Click here to read the brief article/overview of the findings.

Last Sunday, November 10th 2013, we experienced some great moments of music and learning at our Captivate Strings Chamber Concert. Here is a sample of just one of those great moments – our Captivate Blacktown Orchestra performing Winter 1st Movement from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi – the concert was held at St Finbar’s Catholic Church, Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia. Captivate is the Performing Arts Initiative of Catholic Education – Diocese of Parramatta.

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Meet the Captivate Strings Team – Chapter 2: Andras Racz, An Extraordinarily Musical Life

I’m sorry it has taken awhile to get to the 2nd biography in the series I am posting about our wonderfully talented and dedicated team of teachers – both classroom & specialist, in our Captivate Strings Program in Catholic Schools – Diocese of Parramatta. My intention earlier this year was to post a feature about each of our amazing teachers, as they are extraordinary people that do an extraordinary job in our schools. The previous post was titled “The Life of Brian” about Brian Strong, one of our specialist lower string teachers in our Blacktown area schools.

Andras Profile 2This month we learn about one of our leading classroom & specialist teachers (I like to work him twice as hard;)  who is also a very talented performer, arranger and conductor. I interviewed Andras during his lunch break at Parramatta Marist High School where he works in our very exciting Orchestra Program. I apologise for the background noise. It is so difficult to find the time to interview Andras in his busy schedule but I thought that his story and his musical experience are best told in his own words. I have cut this 30 minute interview into eight separate short videos. I just could not cut any of Andras’ story. I thought it might be easier for viewers to watch these 8 separate short videos over a week or if you like, settle into a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and enjoy Andras’ story in one sitting. I think you will find it a compelling and inspirational story.

1st Musical Experience

Early Music Education

School & Hardship

Tertiary Studies – Composing & Conducting

1st big break – Orchestrating & Conducting for the City Radio Orchestra

Coming to Australia

And this is the most important one I think – Andras’ view of music education and advice to students & “How to Practise”

Recently, the Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra performed Andras’  wonderful arrangement of Caccini’s Ave Maria at the Captivate BEST OF Showcase. Many of the audience would be unaware that this is his arrangement and he has put his arranging stamp and style onto many of our best Captivate performances.

Conductor: Phil Rooke, Soloist: Abbey Keane – Year 3

In January 2011, Andras was nominated for and received a Golden Fiddle Award in the ‘Best Teacher’ category. He was invited to the awards in Tamworth to perform and interview by the Australian Teacher  Journal. The article is reproduced below with permission. Click here to subscribe to “Australian Teacher”

Australian_Teacher_March_2011I feel very privileged to have Andras as a colleague and hope that many of our students, parents, school leadership teams and teachers take the time to view the videos of Mr Racz’s life story. All of our dedicated teaching team have stories to tell and I believe that by hearing these stories we can each learn something about ourselves and about hard work, dedication and motivation.

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Captivate String Orchestra Places 1st in Penrith Eisteddfod

Last Thursday 22nd August, the Captivate String Orchestra performed at the Penrith Eisteddfod and gained 1st place in the High School Orchestra section with 96 marks. The Captivate String Orchestra was formed in the term one school holidays in 2011. There are now 45 members of the orchestra which includes a full double bass and cello section, violas and violins. All of the students in the orchestra have come through our classroom strings program across 12 Catholic Primary Schools . The orchestra rehearses in 2 separate halves; the Penrith/Mountains Orchestra rehearses every 2nd Tuesday at St Mary MacKillop Primary School, South Penrith and the Blacktown Orchestra rehearses every 2nd Wednesday at St Andrew’s Primary, Marayong.

Increasingly, our orchestra members are moving through to our Catholic Secondary Schools and providing that our orchestra members are enrolled in a Catholic Secondary School in the Diocese of Parramatta, then they can remain in the Orchestra and continue to attend rehearsals, workshops and performances. There is no membership fee to belong to the Captivate String Orchestra and members are also able to attend free weekend workshops held a few times a year with expert tuition from our wonderful team of Captivate Classroom and Specialist teachers and occasionally with guest teachers of very high standing.

Although the majority of students in the Captivate String Orchestra are primary school, they are already playing High School level repertoire. In the Eisteddfod, we performed the St Anthony Chorale (Attributed Haydn, Arr. Rooke) and also the 1st Movement from Winter – the Four Seasons. (Vivaldi, Arr. Rooke) The solo for the 1st Movement of Winter was performed by Daniel Katafono of Delany College.

As the orchestra members move through to our Catholic Secondary Schools, so too will the level of repertoire increase. In term 4, the orchestras will be continuing to increase repertoire from our own teaching method used in our Captivate Strings Program; String Things Level 2. Our own published teaching method contains ensemble repertoire and helps to motivate students to practice at home with quality full orchestral backing tracks on the CD and detailed instructional video from our very talented specialist teachers on the DVD. Additionally, our higher level orchestral arrangements have QR codes on each part so that students can access a detailed tutorial video for their part; eg Cello part for Winter 1st movement. Access to online tutorials for our Captivate orchestra members increases motivation and makes our rehearsals much more efficient and enjoyable.

In term 4, we have a weekend workshop in the planning where we will work in sectional tutorials with our very talented team of specialist teachers on new repertoire and we will also be recording this year’s repertoire for a CD to be released next year. On Sunday afternoon, November 10th at 3 PM, both the Captivate String Orchestras and our Staff Chamber Orchestra will present a very exciting concert at St Finbar’s Catholic Church, Glenbrook.

The Blacktown Captivate String Orchestra performing Winter at the Captivate BEST OF Showcase at the Dame Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre – Jun 2013

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“Oh no. Not yet another blog post about music practice!!!!!”

“Oh no. Not yet another blog post about music practice!!!!!” I hear you say.

As I travel around our schools to work with ensembles and with teachers in the classrooms, I see so much musical potential in our schools but not enough students realise that it takes some dedication and time spent in practice at home to tap that potential. The Rewards are great – both in personal achievement but also in group participation in orchestras and ensembles. To experience a moment of joy from a successful solo performance is a great feeling but even better to practise your own part at home and then to share that moment with a whole orchestra or ensemble.

Achieving those ‘God’ moments:

Steven at workLast year in our Captivate Strings Showcase, we experienced some real ‘God Moments’. I coined this term when, after the concert a few days later, one of the parents sent me a beautiful email in which she thanked me (I accept her thanks on behalf of our dedicated team of teachers) for allowing her daughter to experience the musical journey and she stated in her email that in the concert: “God was present”.

I coined the term: ‘God Moments’ to define that moment in music performance when students (or even adult musicians) reach technical proficiency but also a level of emotional interpretation of the music PLUS, when that emotional interpretation is clearly understood and shared with the audience. Note that technical proficiency is required first of all. It is not emotionally satisfying to hear a Bach solo sonata or an improvisation on a Miles Davis melody that has an outpouring of emotional interpretation but has incorrect notes or timing.

The question that I would like to raise here is at what stage should the teacher introduce emotional interpretation and when is the student encouraged to explore that emotional interpretation in their practice?

My Eastern European Violin teacher at the Conservatorium many years ago, whilst I was studying ‘Legende’  (A very emotional piece) by Polish born composer, Wieniawski; would roll a cigarette and exclaim “My Gott Boy!!! Close your eyes and think of a beautiful girl!!” I don’t remember if this method helped me to attain the correct emotional interpretation of the piece. I have not suggested this to my students!

But I digress. The teaching or acquisition of emotional interpretation is such a huge topic for discussion that it would take many blog posts to cover it. I am certain that I would receive many responses with varying degrees of consensus. My point in mentioning it is tied up with the “Why” of practice. Student motivation increases greatly when they have attained sufficient technical skills to begin to understand the context of what the composer was feeling when they created the music – even better if the student can begin to connect to that context. My experience is that it is vitally important right from the beginning for the teacher to wisely choose repertoire that the student can attain at a technical level and achieve a cultural/emotional connection. This can be a great learning journey for both teacher and student.

A very interesting point about emotional interpretation comes from the concert pianist, Anna Goldsworthy in her autobiography; “Piano Lessons”. Her Russian piano teacher describes the importance of ‘inside hearing’ and feeling the inside pulse. Anna struggles to try and listen with this inner hearing: “For a moment I understood her meaning and caught the pulse of the semiquavers like a wave. I felt the freedom of ‘inside hearing’: the astonishing dissolution of technical problems through a slight change in perspective, a different way of listening.”

 It is my desire that parents and students reading this blog post might nod their heads and recall a moment in practice or rehearsal when they felt the ‘inside pulse’, that indefinable moment when all of those scales and exercises came together in a point of musical perspective; a ‘slight change of perspective, a different way of listening’.

Music should be fun:

“Music should be fun” is a catch cry I hear often from our students in the classroom and in the Captivate String Things Program – yes, but we should also derive deep satisfaction from mastery of skills and attainment of knowledge and great joy from being a part of a team and performing such works as ‘Winter from the 4 Seasons’. Great satisfaction comes when the seemingly tedious twenty something F#’s being played in the viola sectional rehearsal and the descending chord sequence being practised by the double bass section all come together towards the end when “Mr Rooke puts all those parts together”.

 Teachers also need to understand that it is great to have some fun activities, but also to channel those fun activities into deeper learning & understanding. In fact, when I am mentoring teachers in the classroom program, I stress the need to get the instruments tuned and the class playing something simple and attainable ASAP in the lesson. This is why we started the Captivate Orchestra Workshop with our ‘Captivate Version of La Bamba’. This was very simple to sight-read but is comprised of a repeated ostinato pattern in A major – a different pattern for everyone but a musically satisfying exercise to limber up and start the workshop.

Both in our own practice at home and also in the classroom or music lesson, we need to mix up our tasks of the easy and fun and easily achievable with the more difficult tasks that we have yet to master. This has long been identified amongst cognitive psychologists as the ‘zone of proximal development’ “The idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy” (Guitar Hero: The New Musician & The Science of Learning by Gary Marcus) Video game developers have long known about this ‘zone’ and pre-test their games to ensure that they contain just the right amount of challenge to reach the next level whilst allowing a certain satisfaction in easily achievable tasks.

Just last Friday I was working with one of our talented teachers to push a year 4 class to a higher level of understanding with placement of the 1st finger. At the end of the lesson, the children asked to play La Bamba. (Book 1 – String Things) We ended up playing it 3 times over. It’s a very simple repeated open string pattern but it was fun. Enough fun for the class to ask to play it 2 more times. But we had already achieved deeper understanding of listening to and adjusting the sound of a Major 2nd by listening to the rest of the class and adjusting the placement of the finger. Then applying that knowledge and skill in performance. (One Finger Samba – String Things Book 1)

Putting the puzzle together:

We can achieve ‘God Moments’ as individual performers but I believe that the real joy comes when we  Share the Musical Adventure of playing our own individual part in a bigger ‘musical picture’.  I believe this is best outlined in the introduction at the front of our own String Things Level 2 books used in our Strings things program in Catholic Schools:

“Learning music should be an adventure; a discovery of history and culture, as well as learning new and exciting skills and feeling a great sense of achievement. Learning to play a musical instrument is also about learning self-discipline and enjoying music-making together in ensembles; whether it is with a friend as a duet, with some friends on guitar, piano & drums playing Jazz or Folk music or with a whole string orchestra at your school, it is an exciting adventure that is always best when it is a shared experience.” Excerpt from the Introduction of “The String Things Method Level 2 by Phil Rooke

The ‘What’ & ‘Why’, Now – the ‘How’

So, all of the above is the ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Musical performance. It is vital to know what we are aiming towards in performance so we can have our ‘eyes on the prize’ as I say to students when we are talking about our practice at home. But we also need to be self-motivated. I believe we should have some experience of live musical performance – something that we can aim towards. Hearing a great piece of music performed live by real musicians can often be an ignition experience for our students in schools.

I encourage our talented classroom and specialist teachers to perform for students when the opportunity arises. It might even be in response to a question. I see a part of my job as a Music Educator in Catholic Schools as connecting outside performers to our schools. Here is a wonderful acoustic string trio; “The String Contingent” performing at a concert and workshop at St Mary MacKillop Primary School a few years ago. I always like to find performers that not only perform in our schools but also directly engage and involve the students in those performances.

In recent weeks, leading up to our Captivate String Workshop and in various school ensemble rehearsals, I have been trying to convey to students and indeed to parents two main facets or elements of Music Practice:

Time – there is just no way around this factor. You just can’t turn up to an orchestra rehearsal, open up the case and expect to play the part. Our highly qualified and dedicated teachers have had to spend a lot of time to reach a level where they can just look at music and play it. There are still challenges for them.

In the words of J.S. Bach: “What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.” In other words, the great Johann Sebastian Bach had to invest a great deal of time to reach a state of mastery in performance and composition. He is challenging us in this quote to at least equal him using our ‘natural talent’. I would suggest that there have been very few people (if any) in history that could achieve the same level of mastery as J.S. Bach without a large investment of time.

“Deliberate Practice” In his paper, Practice Makes Perfect…But, What are the Keys to Effective Practice? (Click here to download the PDF), Michael Griffin outlines the need for repetition: “When a stimulus is repeated often enough, a new connection or neural circuit is made.” This is both a challenge for us but also very exciting. Just think – when we ‘get it right’ and then we repeat, our brain is growing neural pathways. We can effectively extend or ‘renovate’ our brain through repetitive music practice! Wow!

Kids brains on musicFurthermore, to maximize the use of repetition, psychologist Gary Marcus in his book; Guitar Zero: The New Musician & The Science of Learning, emphasizes the need of ‘focusing on one’s weaknesses rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths.” Further, Marcus points out that; “Engineers might call this taxonomy (Identifying and rectifying errors)  a task analysis; I’d call it a gigantic challenge”.

 Well….Gary Marcus is right. It is a difficult for any of us to identify our errors and then to focus on just that bit. I know as a teenager, when I picked up my violin and I could play something well, I wanted to impress – parents, friends, etc 😉 That is in the nature of teenagers everywhere – but identifying our weaknesses and striving to make ourselves better people is the mark of great musicians, academics, sportsmen and sportswomen. It all starts with how we approach our music practice – this can lead to self-discipline and a new way of working across all learning areas.

The great Australian musician and educator, Richard Gill even describes difficulties in focusing on the difficult passages and technical mastery:

“As a sight-reader I had not made time to practise properly. I was catching up – reading music and learning a repertoire. Scales, arpeggios, chromatic scales and all the essential ingredients to establish a good technique for playing the piano went by the wayside as I travelled the music highways and byways of this fabulous repertoire.”

In other words, the famous Mr Gill was so excited by musical possibilities and the wonderful world of musical repertoire at his fingertips that he found it challenging as a young musician to focus his practice on the immediate task at hand and developing technical facility. Needless to say, he must have worked hard and having had the privilege of being a student in his “Choral Techniques” class at Sydney Conservatorium during the ‘80’s, he most certainly has a vast knowledge of repertoire. But in the early stages of his musical development, the task of self-evaluation and repetition even for Richard Gill was a challenge.

So…we have learned that as well as putting the time in, we need to use lots of repetition and analysis. We need to be honest with ourselves about the tricky bits, slow them down BUT – there is one more strategy we can use in our striving for musical proficiency. My good friend Michael Griffin calls this ‘Chunking’. This is simply the identification of musical patterns that may be challenging you. Identify those bits, slow them down, practise them many times and then identify where else in the piece those same patterns appear. This is great news, because this is a great time saver.

I would recommend that you click on the link to Michael’s web article: Learning Strategies for Musical Success.  There is a link on the page to download the podcast. It is well worth taking the time to download and listen. Michael Griffin unpacks the techniques for ‘deep learning’, metacognition, chunking etc. These are all strategies that go together to help us become more self-disciplined and self-motivated in our music practice.

So, we have picked up a few tips about concentrating on the ‘tricky bits’, slowing down and repetition from music educators, Richard Gill and Michael Griffin. We have gained an insight into emotional interpretation from Concert Pianist and author, Anna Goldsworthy and for an insight into how our brains work when we are practising music, I highly recommend downloading the iBook or purchasing the hardcopy of: “Guitar Zero: The New Musician & the Science of Learning” by Psychologist and Author, Gary Marcus.

For a quick read for students & teachers, please click on my Summary of Practice Ideas & Techniques. 

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics


Give Me Excess of It. Gill, Richard. 2012 Pan MacMillan Australia Pty Ltd

Piano Lessons. Goldsworthy, Anna.  2009 Published by Black Inc., an imprint of Schwarz Media Pty Ltd, Melbourne Victoria

Guitar Zero: The New Musician & The Science of Learning. Marcus, Gary. 2012 First published in Great Britain and the Commonwealth by Oneworld Publications

Click here to read Michael Griffin’s  “Learning Strategies for Musical Success”

Also Michael’s excellent article: Click here to download the PDF for “Practice Makes Perfect but….What are the Keys to Effective Practice?

Lastly, I would like to add a video from a previous post. I was shooting video at the “Youth in Jazz Competition” at the Richmond Club a few years ago and my friend, Jazz musician John Morrison was adjudicating. John told this wonderful story just before delivering the adjudication about a gig he played with his brother James for the King of Thailand. We can extract some great motivation from this story: Musical Skill is not something you can download from the internet. Prince or Pauper, you have the opportunity to work at your music and achieve great skill.


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Summary of Practice Strategies

“Do you really want it?” Find a place & a time:

 So often, when I question students about their practice habits, they say to me: “But I don’t have time”. My reply; “Who made your breakfast this morning?” “Well Mum (or Dad) did. But what has that got to do with practice?”  Well……plenty.

Many primary and secondary aged children have the time and opportunity to practice but I have found a trend that “I’m too busy”. It’s trendy these days to be busy. This is the nature of school-aged children. They need adult intervention to get them to realise that they have the time and opportunity BUT, they may need to give up something – it could be Facebook or video games. (In our day, it was just television) At the end of the day, they do need some help in finding the time and opportunity.

However, the name of the game is Motivation. Some of this motivation can come from the school music program or teacher, but ultimately, the student must be able to see the possibilities and become goal oriented.

How do we motivate our students or children? Here are some tips for parents & teachers:

Exposure to exemplary performance.

This tip is for both teachers & parents. I was very fortunate that my parents were very keen on music & arts and though we lived in a small coastal town, they would subscribe to concerts by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and we would regularly make the 100 km trip to our nearest regional centre to see this orchestra.  A few times there were solo violinists and this, along with my father’s vast record collection sowed the seed of motivation for me.

These days, in suburban areas, I would argue that community and even professional orchestras and also local music theatre productions may be closer at hand than you realise.

Teachers – perform for your students in the lesson. Classroom teachers, play Youtube clips, DVDs (I own Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra – my classes LOVE his very witty performances) Even better for schools to access live performances such as Musica Viva – or even find parents who are musicians to come and perform in your school.

 OK….. I’m practising. What now?

Students; don’t just shut yourself in your room and say: “Well, I spent half an hour practising, so I’m getting better”. I have to be honest and say that we have all fallen into this trap at some time.

Here are some very direct tips on achieving your goals:

  1. Make certain that you have a goal. I have to be very honest with you here students. Listen to your teachers on the topic of repertoire. So many times I hear students say: “But I want to learn to play a Taylor Swift Song”. OK…. That is a valid goal. BUT you need to know about music and how to play your instrument before you can play music by your favourite pop star. This is true of everyone. Your teacher will know the scales & exercises you need to learn. Plus, from my other blog, my advice to teachers is to choose repertoire that will motivate – that has the right balance of being attainable BUT with some challenges. Don’t be content to just keep playing the easy pieces at the front of the book over and over – you’ll never reach your end goal otherwise.
  2. If your school has a music program and ensembles, join an ensemble, band or orchestra. It is much more rewarding to rehearse and perform with other musicians. This will also give you performances to prepare for and aim towards. It is like being on a sporting team. If you train alone and you don’t have a match to prepare for, then it is hard to train alone and reach your goals. If you are part of a team, you have the pressure of having others depend on you to learn your part BUT on the other hand, being part of a team also means you get more encouragement and it is more rewarding at the “Big Match” or the performance.  SJPSorchestra1
  3. If you are the type of person who works better to a schedule or timetable, then by all means, make a timetable. I decided that I want to lose weight and get fit BUT as well as working long hours, I spend up to 3 hours a day in my car driving to work and then driving between schools and the office. I either get up at 5.30 AM and fit in a half hour walk at the start of the day OR, after dinner at night, I take a torch and do a 3 km walk around the block – I take a torch if I have to.  The lesson here is that 20 minutes 5 times a week is better than NO practice. My 3 km walk that is now a habit instead of watching the TV means that I walk at least 15 km a week instead of watching a silly 30 minute sitcom. I feel better and then do at least a 5 km bushwalk on Saturday or Sunday. It’s a great health plan and it can be a great practice plan.
  4. LAST THING – start your practice session with something easily attainable that you enjoy and then reward yourself at the end with something fun that you enjoy. Spend at least 15 minutes in the middle working on a difficult passage. This way, you will look forward to your practice – like reading a good book.

These times are just guidelines. When I am teaching beginners, I advise at least 20 minutes a day. 30 minutes a day is better. Students wanting to do music as an elective subject at school or to attempt external exams should always follow their teacher’s advice on practice times. I would not attempt to teach someone on 5th grade violin unless they commit to at least 45 – 60 minutes a day. Students working at 7th Grade and above as a guideline need to commit to at least an hour a day.

Think of it like this. If you are on a representative sporting team, you will do your own training program everyday, then at least 3 team training sessions per week.

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