Presentation of Learning – Feeling Proud


Photo by Sonia Sze

Last night was the presentation of learning, a culmination of the hard work myself and my peers have put in this semester. Unfortunately as I came late (straight off a very bumpy flight from NZ) and then had computer problems (oh the irony of giving a presentation on coding but you can’t make the internet work…) so I didn’t get to see very many projects. I am very much looking forward to trawling the list of projects and blogs and seeing what everyone has gotten up to this semester both in tech and in composition. What I saw of the projects made me feel proud and privileged to be a part of the education degree at the con.

Australians (and perhaps even less, New Zealanders) don’t really like to talk up what they have achieved for fear of looking stuck up. However I feel like this is a more than reasonable opportunity to do a little talking up. This semester among numerous other non tech paper related achievements such as performances, successful lessons and thesis chapters I have taught myself how to code. Until last night I thought that skill maybe wouldn’t be transferable off EarSketch, but as I sat and read the code my friend Panni put up in his presentation I realised that I’ve learnt a new language. The skill of coding is, as I point out in my research, incredible valuable. I found it catered to my interests and strengths a lot more than I thought it would, and I wonder if I had been given a role model earlier if I would have been interested in my teenage years. Not only did I learn to code, but I’ve become a lot more comfortable composing, in many different genres including electronic music. I was also able to combine my love of writing and research and see that my project could have a life beyond my hopefully good grade and own ego. I hope that many people will view and engage with my project, and that I will get more opportunities to develop my skills.

Through this project, my blog and my twitter I have connected to many talented and interesting people. I had a school from Florida, US email me congratulating me on my project. I have been followed on twitter by @WomeninTechChat, @girlswhocodeshs and @flat_io and immensely enjoyed being a part of the platform.  Last night I confidently presented a technology and cause that I am excited about, and will continue to engage with in the future.

You can get to a list of my peers projects and blogs through my friend Sara Newin’s blog. You can also access the live stream videos of the presentation night. Mine can be found here. The rest can be found on the Sydney Conservatorium FB Page.




#AMVolume and Billy Elliot – A brief stay in NZ

This week I went home, and though a majority of my time was spent working on my tech project I got out of the house a few times and experienced some amazing things.

First up was a visit to the brand new ASB Waterfront Theatre, the new home of Auckland Theatre Company. I saw Billy Elliot, an fabulous, sparkly, joyous, devastating show about the importance of expressing yourself. If you haven’t seen the movie or the show I highly recommend it. I find it so incredibly moving, and it reminds why I do music and why I want to teach music and involve youth in musical and performance experience. I’m also a total sucker for anything that’ll make me cry, and my goodness does the end of the first act do that. Incredibly well choreographed, paired with the type of music you don’t expect tap and ballet to be danced to, and expressing some of the rawest emotions this scene is so hard hitting. Watch it yourself, but don’t blame me if you start bawling at  your desk, especially if you have been sleep deprived for the past semester.

The second exciting thing I got out to see was the Volume exhibition at the Auckland Museum. This was a walk through New Zealand music from the 2000s back to the 50s. You were given an “VIP all access pass” at the start of the experience and anywhere you could interact with, take photos, try your hand at mixing tracks, play instruments, dance along you could download these onto your pass by tapping and it was all sent to your email at the end of the process. As well as those individual fun resources there were Spotify playlists to collect and so much more interactive activities. It was a cool experience to have as a educator, as a new techy and as a New Zealand musician.

Check out the fun things I saved and have a listen to the spotify playlists here. 

See my photos and snapchats of the whole experience here. 

Technology Project Done – I came, I coded, I conquered.

After two months of mostly having fun and a little bit of panicking that I wasn’t actually ever going to learn how to use it my technology project is done. Below is my final report on the program and how its application could be beneficial to the students of my prac school. In this evaluation I also focus on girls achievement in computer science and draw the conclusion that this program that mixes both coding and music is pretty darn cool.

You can also check out a video introducing EarSketch and its capabilities here or looking below. I have also made the code I wrote for the below video public so that you can code along with the video, or use it as a starting point for your own practice.  This demonstration will also be carried out live on the presentation night at Conservatorium of Music this Friday (Friday the 18th).

You can acess a downloadable copy of this report here.

EarSketch Report

Amber Johnson

 Technology Project Semester 2 2016

What is Ear Sketch?

EarSketch is a free, browser based DAW and curriculum designed to teach you how to code and make music at the same time. It has been designed to be easy for both musicians and non-musicians to use. It will work on Windows, Mac and Linux on Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Edge Browsers. As well as the online curriculum, EarSketch can provide further resources including lecture slides so that it can be taught as part of the nationally funded (in the US) American Computer Science Principles accredited course.

Why EarSketch?

I was introduced to this program by a member of the IT pedagogy team at the NSW girls high school that I did my teacher practical placement at. She asked if I had heard about the program, as she wanted to look into it being included in her Girls Who Code holiday program, but was not confident with the musical side of the program. It was great timing for me as I had been looking for a topic for my self-negotiated technology project. As I explored further into the program I was drawn to it even more. Computer coding always seemed like something that was so far out of my ability, but this program made it seem easy. The incredible success that the Girls Who Code program is having across the world, and the potential impact I could have in my prac school through this colleague made it an opportunity too good to pass up. I promised her that if I looked into it and learnt how to use it I would pass on my thoughts and recommendations on how to use it in the classroom and in the holiday program. This document, along with my blog and an introductory video is part of that evaluation.

A note on browser based learning/BYOB

Browser based learning, or bring your own browser is the idea that instead of the school providing a piece of technology like a laptop or tablet to each student, the student provides their technology and the teacher makes the content accessible via browser based resources. I was introduced to this idea trhough a video lecture of Stephen Heppell’s that I watched in a lecture earlier this semester. This concept of BYOB not BYOD(evice) is another reason why I decided to explore EarSketch as my project.

Making music with DAWs and other sequencing software

A DAW is a digital audio workstation and replaces the analogue recording gear that once was so expensive that only serious producers had access to it in a serious studio. DAWs allow you to record, mix and manipulate music on a digital and often portable platform. The appeal of using DAWs in the classroom is that it is a connection to the real world of music production (Kuzmich, 2014). When we let our students create and compose using DAWs we legitimize popular music and its composition process. We are sending our students the message that their music is sophisticated enough and worthy of our time in the classroom. By legitimizing the relevant cultural aesthetic (Colley, 2009) of our students we have a greater chance at engaging them in a meaningful way. DAWs and other sequencing music apps make composing easier and more accessible by providing instant feedback, meaning the students performance level or understanding of music does not necessarily have to limit their composition ability (Hungate, 2016).

Computer Coding and Girls Achievement

Computer coding or computer programming is the language of computers. It is what games, websites and apps are built out of. By learning to code we can understand what really goes into the digital resources and websites we connect and interact with every day. “Coding is the new literacy!” (Roth-Douquet, 2015) The world we live in today is being shaped by and communicated through coding. By teaching girls to code we give them back the creativity to express themselves in a language that is relevant and current (Cadwalladr, 2014). However women involved in the tech industry has actually decreased since the 90s (Drobnis, 2010).

“In 1984 37% of all computer science graduates were women, compared to just 18% now. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields. US graduates are on track to fill 29% of those jobs. Women are on track to fill just 3%” (Girls Who Code, 2016, “The Problem’, 2016).

That is where the Girls Who Code movement steps in. By creating free to access ‘girls clubs’ to teach coding in all different contexts to high school students they aim to increase the interest of women in computer science to even out the gender gap. Whilst the free program is based in the USA, it has been implemented over here by many passionate educators.

So why mix coding and music?

Music has long been proven to stimulate the brain. Making music lights up all areas of the brain and strengthens cognitive ability (Collins, 2014). Both music and coding can be considered to be languages. Working and composing through coding with the instant feedback of a DAW allows creativity and trial and error to be explored. As Steve Jobs has been quoted saying “technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields results that make our hearts sing”(as cited by Lehrer, 2011).


Since EarSketch is basically accessible from any tablet or computer I would give it great marks in the accessibility category. Obviously the need to have an internet connection could be an issue in some contexts, but it also doesn’t eat up too much data. I did find occasionally my computer would lag, and not quite keep up with the sound production. I found this same problem when using Ableton Live as well, so is probably more of an indication of the mediocrity of my computer than the RAM use of the website.

In terms of the school this report is focussed at, every student has a Mac laptop that would be more than capable of handling this program.

The layout (see figure 1) of the DAW is fairly similar to many other popular options such as GarageBand, SoundTrap and Logic and I found it fairly intuitive to use.


Figure 1- EarSketch Layout

The curriculum is modular and fairly easy to understand. Many examples are provided in the form of videos and code scripts that can be copy and pasted into the program for you to run, play around with and hear. There are occasional real life examples, such as linking to a Kanye West song, Power, as an example of staggered entry. There is definitely a lot more potential for examples, and if I was teaching this to students myself I would provide many more musical examples both as analysis activities and compositional models. One downside to the interactive curriculum is it does not save the chapter you are up to, so you have to take a note as to how much you have completed. However there is no need to work chronologically through the curriculum and it is easy to jump around the sections as needed.

EarSketch claims to be designed for non-musicians, and I do think you could use the program without knowing about formal music first. One of the best examples of this is the categorisation of the sound clips in the library. The sound clips are separated into “genres” such as new-pop and dubstep and the keys are the same or complimentary within these categories, making it easy to create a coherent piece first try. However I do feel like the amount of musical terminology included is perhaps a little redundant. The curriculum includes quizzes on the definition of pitch and tempo which doesn’t seem all that useful or relevant to the rest of the content. This could also potentially intimidate or stop the prospective non music specialist tutor from wanting to teach this program. However the inclusion of the music terminology, and sections in the curriculum on structure and repetition do open up the program for great potential to be easily integrated into the music classroom curriculum. The dreaded concepts of music could definitely be easily applied, which could be a selling point to get this program into classrooms.

In just a short time I was able to achieve a good outcome, using several different techniques that the program is capable of. It very quickly felt like I was able to produce real and authentic electronic music. The potential to include samples and own recordings make this a viable piece of technology, even if it does include learning an extra skill in comparison to GarageBand style programs.

Going beyond the basic skills is a section of curriculum simply labelled ‘optional’. The skills in this section covered are very wide. There is a whole section on strategies for collaboration and peer feedback, backed up by Liz Lerman’s psychological research as explained in her book, Critical Response Process. The section on copyright and sampling history provides a little more context for the technology and electronic music in general. The section on how to share your work and codes publicly encourages an open resource and open classroom philosophy.

Overall I think this is a great program that is uniquely placed to improve both composition and computer literacy skills in and out of the classroom. Its relevance to the popular music culture of today makes it likely to be an engaging part of any educational program. It is very student lead and its collaborative sharing features make it easy to learn as a group. I do not believe that you would need to be a trained musician to implement a unit using this program, however a greater level of musical research on the background of electronic and dance music would be helpful and enrich the program. Perhaps the support of an assistant teacher/musician would help this program to fully reach its computing and musical teaching potential.


Websites for further information


Computer Science Principles Course:

Girls Who Code:

Liz Lerman:




Cadwalladr, C. (2014, Mar 02). The new review: Discover: CODING: Why we should get with the program… and try coding: The tech industry is championing a new initiative to get us all to try programming for an hour – and live down the stereotypes. but just how hard is coding, and why should we all be doing it? carole cadwalladr speaks to four experts. The Observer Retrieved from

Colley, B. (2009). Educating teachers to transform the trilogy. Journal of Music Teacher Education 19 (1): 56-67.

Collins, A. (2014). How playing an instruments benefits your brain. TedTalk. Retrieved from on 13/11/2016

Drobnis, A. W. (2010). Girls in computer science: A female only introduction class in high school (Order No. 3405512). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; Social Science Premium Collection. (193661894). Retrieved from

Girls Who Code. (2016). The Problem. Retrieved November 13, 2016, from

Hungate, W. M. (2016). Music technology in high school music education: How music technology can increase musicianship skills in high school students(Order No. 10149358). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1831572777). Retrieved from

Kuzmich, J.,Jr. (2014, 12). DAW workstations. School Band & Orchestra, 17, 46-48. Retrieved from

Lehrer, J. (2011, October 7). STEVE JOBS: “TECHNOLOGY ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH”. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Roth-Doquet, S. (2015, December 02). The Five Reasons Girls Should Code. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Ear Sketch – Finished the curriculum

I finally managed to finish the curriculum. There was a lot of very interesting extra optional units at the end that talked about a few more complex computer codes and offered some pretty good advice about feedback and collaboration.

I’m sure  I will still need to go back to reference, and have taken notes on where in the curriculum the most useful instructions are, but I can now start to finalise the composition that I will be live coding as my presentation next Friday night.

I also started to plan, research and structure my report as you can see below….

Report Draft.JPG

Ear Sketch -Addictive Rhythm?

Repetition refers to repeated sounds or sequences of music. It is a key feature that is shared by almost all kinds of music throughout the world. Humans enjoy repetition because of what psychologists call the mere exposure effect. We like music or sections of music that we have consciously or unconsciously heard before. Furthermore, musical repetition has the profound effect of drawing the listener into the music, making us feel as if we are participating rather than just listening. Upon hearing a repeated section of music, the brain will try to imagine the next note before it is actually played.

Ear Sketch got philosophical on me today, which reminded me about a great post/essay/review by Ethan Hein I read at the start of the year when doing a paper on “pop” music.

Working on Ear Sketch and producing a pop/dubstep style sound*, and reading articles like this one helps me to reflect on the value of pop music in the classroom. It’s value doesn’t have to necessarily be in it’s place in our students culture, but it can actually be found in the music itself. James Humberstone reminded my class to look for the sophistication in pop music, a sentiment that I have gotten into many arguments with more purist friends since I first started at the con.

*Mostly- I will admit I had a go at this quick mash up to cheer a friend up today.

The Big Question- Am I a composer now?


So I did it, I wrote and recorded a composition. This is my first composition since my NCEA level 2 (the equivalent to year 11 in NSW) as composition is not compulsory for the final year music course.

Recording – The Rose – SSA Choral

Download Score 

I will admit I struggled. I cried a little bit (though that is fairly normal for me at this point in semester) and got angry at the fact that I was being marked (50% of the paper!!!) on something I didn’t believe I had any chance of completing. But I suppose I shall admit defeat. Maybe I am a little bit a composer. Deep deep down inside.

I finally felt like I could do this task when I realised it was just an extension of my already very specializsed and honed skill, choral singing. Through actively listening to lots of choral (see earlier post for spotify playlist) music that I love, not just a original model I analysed, I was able to find small ideas to play with. The idea of the major to minor switch and the overlapping parts stretching out to the end definitely came from the liturgical music I sing every Sunday. The added harmony is instantly recognisable in Whitacre’s pieces.


In terms of the actual process of composing all I can explain is once I had my harmonic structure (see in earlier drafts) I played around, moving notes, changing values and voice leadings. I have definitely been told before not to rely on the notation software, but I did. I and I think many students will. I think the difference is that I was not blindly clicking, rather I had ideas, annotations on the score suggesting more space, more movement or less chromaticism. In my sketch I had stars drawn around the climax point of the piece, meaning I wanted the most shimmery beautiful chord I could find for that word. Through the use of the notation software I was able to realise the ideas and concepts I had in my head without needing to hear the fully finished piece in my mind.

In a way I guess my main composition technique was improvising, using the instruments given to me my MuseScore and guided by my years of choral experience.

So would I do it again? I think so. I might stick to arranging for a little while longer, but since I didn’t actually get to write a SATB piece I might try to complete that little goal, if I have anytime left in between all the other learning and playing I want to do in the summer holidays.


Recording Challenges – Untranslatable files and missing mic clips.

So after having composed an atmospheric, moody choral piece I needed to find a trick on how to record it with the appropriate free tempo, low rits and dramatic accelerandos that make a piece like this really sparkle.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that the idea of ‘cheating’ a click track, by manipulating the notation software using many different changes of tempo and adding a woodblock click had been suggested to me. And that is what I did!

final draft recording cheaty copy-Soprano_1-2.png

Once I had this perfect I exported the parts as .wav files with the intention of adding these to my recording software. However this is where I hit a snag. I couldn’t get Ableton Live to work for me with the tracks properly, I even tried them in midi form but that wen’t even crazier. So I made a last minute decision to change to Garage Band. BUT I couldn’t get my midi or wav files into Garage Band. So what did I do? I help my mic up to my computer and recorded my tracks into the Garage Band. The sung to those click tracks and deleted them at the end. Not particularly glamorous or high tech, but for my purposes it worked!

So moving onto my actual recording set up. I had a borrowed iPad (one day I will get one when I have some money to burn), an Ultravoice Behringer Dynamic Mic, an iRig Pre, and a mic stand with the wrong sized mic clip. I ended up doing a little improvising on the mic stand and made it work. In the end my “studio” looked like this, with me reading my score off my computer and recording into the iPad.


I actually felt a lot more comfortable using GarageBand, I do love it’s simple format. I also liked being able to add a little more space and less compression to my vocals using the ‘Big Room’ presetting.

The last hurdle came just as I was finishing up recording. My voice, which had been in serious use all day, started to give out. So unfortunately the recording is not as tight as I would like it, but singing the alto part finished my voice off for the night and recording the slightly out of phase section in the middle wasn’t a viable option.

My composition is now posted to Soundcloud and you can access it here, and I tweeted about it (and at Eric Whitacre, let’s see if he responds!) so it’s out in the world now. I feel pretty proud of it, but I will do one more blog post to explain my journey as a “composer” this semester soon as this blog post is way too long.

I hope you enjoy listening to my composition, and if anyone wants to perform it please contact me, I’d be so excited to hear it live.