The scope of their largest assignment of the year was unlimited.
The Grade 12 Music class’ Independent Study Project (ISP) was assigned in September, with one month provided to brainstorm and craft a proposal.
“The students pick the nature of their ISP,” says Jamie Oatt, Department Head of Music at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS). “As long as I feel it will create a deeper learning experience for them and expand on an area we have already developed (For example, a solo performance must involve learning a new skill or developing their technique beyond what we would normally do in class).”
Oatt says he has been assigning this very project every year since he began teaching Grade 12 music four years ago. It builds on the concept implemented by Paul Pietrkiewicz, the former Department Head of Music at SMCS, who retired in 2016.
I find when the students pick their own area of focus and it resonates with them, then the resulting product is always inspiring for me and the rest of the class,” says Oatt, now in his 26th year of teaching, all at SMCS. “This year’s ISPs were extremely well done and very detailed.”
Here are the authors and composers of four Grade 12 Music Independent Study Projects, describing their inspiration, learnings, process, and finished works --- in their own words:
JOSEPH DE NOVELLIS
A trumpet-player, De Novellis began learning music at eight and is a past recipient of the Grade 10 Music Award at SMCS.
“The focus of my ISP was to learn how to arrange a piece of music. In my opinion, the Grade 12 music ISP is designed to help students learn about a new aspect of music, whether it be more theoretical (such as how to arrange or compose a piece) or more practical (such as learning how to play a new instrument).”
“I was browsing YouTube and stumbled across the soundtrack of Super Mario Galaxy, one of my favourite games. This gave me the idea to arrange a piece from the game for my ISP.
I wanted to share my interest in the music behind Super Mario Galaxy with my friends and family, and I believed that arranging a piece from the game for the concert band to play would be the best way to accomplish this.
I used a piano version of the piece as a base for my arrangement. However, I had to continually listen to the original piece because the piano version was extremely simplified.
The piece that I chose to arrange has several distinct sections to it. I worked on one part at a time and made sure to frequently check to make sure that what I was doing looked and sounded correct.”
“I also had to ensure that my arrangement would be physically possible for the band to play, meaning I had to limit the range of notes that I could use. Once I had all of the sections finished, I made small adjustments based on the feedback given to me by Mr. Oatt and my classmates.
It took me roughly five to six months to complete my ISP. I didn't work on it every day, but when I did work on it, I worked for several hours at a time.
The biggest challenge I had was learning how to use the arrangement software. I would often have an idea in my head, which I struggled to implement because I was not familiar with all of the functions built into the program I used.
My greatest reward was listening to the finished product. It was very satisfying to hear all of my work in its completed form.”
Michael Shu plays the piano and flute. He began learning music at four years old. He is currently preparing to take his Grade 10 piano exam in August and is considering a minor in music performance at the University of Toronto.
“I wanted to perform. I watched a few flute performances online which were accompanied on the piano. I figured that it would be interesting if I could play both piano and flute parts for my ISP.”
“Originally, I planned to play the flute solo at the Spring Concert accompanied by a recording of myself playing the piano. Unfortunately, because of the cancellation of the concert, I recorded both parts instead and submitted the video to Club Blue Note.
I was greatly inspired by solo ISP performances given by senior students in the past few years. After watching their performances in the previous Spring Concert, I knew that I wanted to do the same.
I wanted to improve my technique on the flute. I focused on double-tonguing, dynamics, and dexterity.
I practised the piano and flute parts in separate weeks. In the recording stage, I first recorded the piano accompaniment. I then recorded the flute part while listening to the piano recording. Finally, I used video editing software to combine the recordings.”
“Since November, I practiced two to three hours a week.
I had to motivate myself to practise every week. Since I had months to practise the piece, I had to make sure that I was on schedule to completing the ISP.
The greatest reward that came from my ISP is the positive feedback and support from family, friends, and teachers after watching my performance.
Perseverance pays off.”
A piano-player since the age of four, Ginevro also plays the drums. As a result of his ISP, he has now added a third instrument to his repertoire.
Ginevro lists his most proud musical achievement as claiming a third Provincial Championship with the SMCS Drumline last year. He plans to continue making music a part of his life.
“The main focus of my ISP was to learn the basics of the acoustic guitar and be able to present a song of my choice.”
“As I was planning my ISP, I knew that I wanted to explore something new and different. I played keyboard and percussion instruments throughout my time at SMCS, so I thought that it would be interesting to end with a string instrument.
I was inspired by a previous student who learned the guitar for his ISP. I realized that it was something I was also interested in pursuing, and since the opportunity arose. I thought that I would give it a try.
To produce my ISP, I had to start with the basics. That involved taking it very slow and learning a new chord each day. After I was familiar with a few chords, I was able to learn how to transition between them, along with a few basic strumming patterns. That allowed me to put everything together and play a few easy songs. I repeated that process with more difficult chords until I was able to play longer and more complex songs.”
“I put aside about one hour each day to practise from February until the end of May.
In my opinion, the hardest part of the ISP was learning the very basics. Since I had never played a string instrument, it was challenging to get used to the feel of the guitar and the techniques required to play. I also had no idea how many cuts I would get along my fingers.
The greatest reward came from the biggest challenge, which was getting started in the first place. This ISP game me a reason to begin playing, and I will always be grateful for that opportunity.
Big tasks are very overwhelming, so it is critical to start small and gradually make your way up. There were many instances when I thought that the project wouldn’t work out, but I kept practicing and gradually got better.”
SEUNG JAE YANG
It was his exposure to the SMCS Drumline in Grade 7 that gave Yang his first real exposure to music. And he’s never looked back!
He plays the drums, guitar, piano, and harmonica, winning numerous regional and provincial titles for his drumming, along the way. He lists is favourite musical memory as, “whenever I get to perform for others.”
With career aspirations of being an engineer, Yang also plans to continue to keep music a hobby in the future.
For his ISP, he challenged himself by tackling the composition of a full concert band arrangement.
“One of my favourite movies was Interstellar by Christopher Nolan—a science fiction film based on real theoretical science. The movie’s soundtrack was very appealing to me as it made the movie come alive. I had lots of fun arranging the soundtracks from Interstellar because I was combining my interest in science and technology along with my interest in music. I hope to make contributions to human space travel someday by working for SpaceX or NASA!
To capture the intensity and dangers of space travel by utilizing full and low brass sounds, as well as to capture the essence of life by using pipe organs—an instrument that breathes like humans do.”
“I listened to the movie soundtrack many times in order to decide what instruments I want to use for certain voicings. I also looked at some piano scores to grasp an idea of how I wanted to structure my score.
I spent about a full week dedicated to finishing the arrangement from start to finish. Afterwards, it was just fine-tuning certain parts through some critiques I received. I would say I spent about 40+ hours on the score.
I learned how to listen very carefully, even for the tiniest things—they make a big difference in the overall sound of the music. It’s the small things that matter a lot.
Greatest reward? The fact that I got to recreate a soundtrack from one of my favourite movies by making my own arrangement.”
“Pursuing and executing full concert band arrangements as De Novellis and Yang did, represented an even deeper challenge and level of achievement,” says Oatt.
“We had many conversations about different ways to orchestrate the music (For example, which instruments could play a specific part/melody),” he recalls. “I think both boys learned so much about how to write for certain instruments other than the one they play in band. They received feedback from the Grade 11 and 12 music students on their first couple of drafts which allowed for editing and refinement.”
And as far as his own personal learnings as the teacher?
“Sometimes the students’ interests are in an area that I do not have much expertise or experience,” says Oatt. “So, I am often learning about new concepts, digital resources, repertoire, and many other musical applications and being inspired by my students’ musical passions.”
A noteworthy educational journey indeed.