Suspect: The Murder Mystery Musical

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Mr Duncan Ferguson, Isaac Shatford and Ms Ginny Thorner.

Mr Duncan Ferguson, Isaac Shatford and Ms Ginny Thorner.

UPDATE: This story profiled on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp on Friday 24th October and can be seen here.

The buzz around St Andrew’s College lately has all been focused on the annual Middle School Production, largely for the fact it has been mostly written by Year 13 student Isaac Shatford, with contributions from a number of other senior students in the area of lyrics and plot. I knew something like this would always involve significant use of technology as the Musical Director was Head of Music Mr Duncan Ferguson, and was actually the first person I interviewed for a story for this blog.

Consequently, I sat down for an hour with him to learn what was involved and was impressed to learn that the following tools were just some that were used during the composition and performance of Suspect:

Quite a list! So how exactly were these being used?

Selection of Scenes from Suspect for Seven Sharp

COMPOSITION & REHEARSAL: 

Noton on iPad

Notion on the iPad

For starters, one of the challenges was that the orchestra members and cast needed to start rehearsing before the score was actually completed and with extensive collaboration ongoing between Isaac, Mr Ferguson and Ms Thorner there needed to be some way for them to see updates.

The answer was to use a combination of a shared folder in Dropbox, which was storing the score files being written in Notion. This allowed the three contributors to always be able to see the latest edits of the score at any time and also contribute edits and corrections that the others would receive immediately. The use of Notion also allowed Mr Ferguson to check the tempos and help the students ensure they were keeping accurate time with their playing. He did note, however, that the one drawback with Notion is that it doesn’t automatically update when the source files change. This was overcome by the notifications from Dropbox which would alert each of those working on the score that new changes were available.

As the product was used on both MacBook laptops and on an iPad, Mr Ferguson could use the iPad to play the score directly during rehearsals. He also used a Bluetooth foot pedal which would automatically “change pages” of the score on his iPad when playing, and if there were any changes required during rehearsals he could make them directly on the iPad, with the changes being synchronised back to Isaac in real time. This process created a great digital workflow for the writers and I asked Mr Ferguson to walk through how this looks:

“Loves a Lie” a song not completed in time for the show but will be included in the professional soundtrack recording in November.

There were a number of benefits of using Notion which included:

  • It resulted in far less printing of scores, as the digital sharing via Dropbox enabled real time collaboration to take place. In the future, it would be ideal if all orchestra members had iPads so they could also get updated copies of the latest scores in real time.
  • Because of Mr Ferguson’s other departmental commitments he could not attend every rehearsal of Suspect, but because of the excellent quality sound recordings created by Notion then the other staff involved in running rehearsals could work with the correct tempo music (particularly important for the dance choreography).

Tempo Advance AppNotion does focus on orchestral sounds and was not so strong in drums and bass, so Pro Tools was used to round out the music in this way. During orchestral rehearsals Mr Ferguson used an iPad app called Tempo Advance which allowed him to program the tempos for all the songs into a playlist and just work through them directly.

Technology has definitely allowed for the streamlining of the writing process of this show, resulting in a remarkable nine month period between the conception of the idea and the production of the show. As mentioned above, rehearsals had to start before the script was completed and to aid the students in practicing, video clips of the songs and music were embedded into a dedicated Moodle course to increase access e.g.

Moodle MusicSongs and lyrics were also distributed via Moodle in this way – with a nice mention about respecting copyright ownership of Isaac Shatford (Digital Citizenship should be taught in all classes after all!)

Moodle was later supplemented with a closed Facebook group for cast members, allowing for even further reach for sharing and practicing. Here is an example of the theme song recorded by senior students for the Middle School cast members to practice with:

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/58349924/Blog%20Data/1%20Murder%20in%20the%20night.mp3 ]

Murder In the Night – practice recording

This reveals one of the benefits of doing a show like this that was written by a student at the College: the ability to work directly with the score, modify and share it with cast and orchestra members directly. This is simply not possible with major productions that are licensed for performance (such as the Senior Production Guys and Dolls performed earlier this year).

I questioned Mr Ferguson how common this sort of “digital workflow” is amongst other schools and he believes it is essentially unique within New Zealand, describing it as the perfect model for other schools to consider implementing. He did admit, however, that working with Isaac made it easier:

Isaac is a musical prodigy, a stunning musician and I’ve never know another student who was able to produce this amount of work to this quality ever before. He’s written great songs, but it is the sheer amount of songs he has written that is just unheard of. There has been nothing to this level that has ever happened before to the best of my knowledge.

PERFORMANCE ON THE NIGHT:

Set design for the stage show Suspect

Set design for the stage show Suspect

Due to the complex set design, members of the orchestra could not all see the stage (see image to the left). To help get around this, Year 13 student Ella Harris came up with a simple, yet ingenious, workaround as explained by Mr Ferguson:

I had the iPad Mini beside my keyboard near the orchestra, and I placed an iPhone at the back of the auditorium that could easily see the entire stage. Before the performance started I simply started a Skype video call between the two devices, meaning I could see everything happening on stage at any time.

It is this type of thinking, use of technology and problem solving, that typifies what happens in the music department at St Andrew’s College. It was also during live performances that Mr Ferguson used MainStage 3 with a Midi keyboard plugged into his MacBook Pro to play the glockenspiel during performances.

During the first performance of Suspect Head of Culture Sophie Wells and Mr Dave Jensen from the TV & Media Studio, were tasked with using HD video cameras to film the show with some close up shots. Whilst the final performance was going to be filmed by the College’s TV & Film crew, it would be shot only from the back of the auditorium making close up shots challenging. With the performance captured, Mr Ferguson used Final Cut Pro to edit the two camera feeds into a rough mix of the entire show and then shared it with the cast members via the closed Facebook group.

This allowed them to reflect on their performances and actually see and hear in detail what guidance they were receiving from Ms Thorner and Mr Ferguson about their performances and to truly “get” the message.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/58349924/Blog%20Data/More%20than%20just%20a%20friend.mp3 ]

More Than Just A Friend – practice recording

 SUMMARY:

It’s pretty clear from this blog post that significant amounts of technology are deeply embedded into the practices within the Music Department at St Andrew’s College, and that they serve to enhance the creation and production of top quality music.

It’s worth reiterating that when talking to Mr Ferguson it was very clear that the use of this technology was always targeted around efficiency gains in collaboration and never simply because “they could.” Ultimately, this is how technology can assist learning outcomes – when used authentically and deeply integrated into the learning it is a fantastic tool, and in this case one that made the production of a show possible within only nine short months.

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8 thoughts on “Suspect: The Murder Mystery Musical

  1. This was such an amazing experience for the everyone involved…writers, musicians, cast , crew, orchestra…thank you I Isaac, Ginnie and Duncan and everyone who made it happen. We are very proud of you all.
    Thank you Sam for providing this insight to technical aspects of the show.
    Chris Leighton (Rector)

  2. Thanks for this post Sam. It is amazing how seamlessly the technology was woven into the prcoess. Having files in Notion files made it so easy for me to keep up with the changes to the score. I was able to select only the vocal score which was relevant to what I was doing with cast. It also meant we didn’t need to schedule continual meetings for updates.

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  5. Reblogged this on learningideasnz and commented:
    At the moment there are many people involved with the #28daysofwriting and I’m full of admiration for them! I’m struggling to keep up with one blog post per week. To be fair in my defence in the last week I have just setup a full music block and recording studio after the completion of our music dept building programme. I’ll do a full blog about that soon as I’m sure other teachers will find it fascinating how we’ve created what I think is one of the finest recording studios of any school in New Zealand (and even the world!).

    So for my blog this week I thought I’d just send you to an excellent blog written by the director of IT at St. Andrew’s College, Sam McNeill. In this blog Sam interviewed me and we discussed all the different processes and pieces of technology that we used in the creation and production of a musical written by a year 13 student of mine, Isaac Shatford.

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