Tuesday 23rd June – Obtaining Silence

That magical moment just before a performance starts, the perfect synchronising of a whole class rest, rest, the quivering air at the end of a good samba when everyone has stopped together…

which is then ruined by a child who always wants to add their moment of individuality, who never pays attention, who is always fiddling with their instrument and playing something entirely different…

The trouble is that samba, and djembe, and indeed, many class music activities, are NOT improved by a child expressing their individuality and creativity at random moments. A class performance of a musical item requires everyone to do exactly what they should be doing all the time.

In my year 2 samba classes this week I played this old, old trick, and it worked.

I picked out the child – let’s call him Sam – not his, or her, real name – who was the main silence-spoiler. You have to be sure that their constant mistakes, tappings, and twitchings are not due to any learning difficulties, by the way, so take your time in choosing your child.

Challenge them to pick up their instrument without a sound, copy a rhythm (I chose to play and say “Sam is the best”) and then put their instrument down silently. Usually, they will do their most competitive best to succeed.

“Right,” you say. “How about that for a gold medal effort! Sam’s set the standard everyone has to reach.” Repeat the challenge for each group in turn, and for the whole class, comparing their effort with Sam’s. Keep an eye on him as the lesson continues – did he do a “stop” worthy of a mention? Did he manage to stick to his section’s rhythm? Did he come in on time with a call and response? “well done – all of you/most of you (choose appropriate phrase) are as good as Sam now – gold medal standard, everybody!”

Sam is receiving attention and reward for being a leader in good samba playing (a novel experience – he’s usually in trouble for bad behaviour!) and the whole class is on their mettle.

It was great – two classes sounding pretty good. (There was a different “Sam” in the other class, but the technique worked on him/her as well!)

This doesn’t always work. I have another class (not samba, this time) where the only way they can achieve a reasonable level of ensemble is if a certain individual is away, or if I have sent them out. After nearly a whole year I have still not found the way to get them to set aside their own desire to lead, to be in charge, to do their own thing, whatevs.

That person doesn’t seem to care about working together, teamwork, making music together. But I do. For that individual’s sake, for the sake of the class, for the sake of my sanity!

fanfare for the common ant



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Monday 22nd June – Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns 1


When teaching “Hot Cross Buns” to beginner recorder groups – well, any beginner woodwind groups, try changing the words to

Hot cross buns 2

“Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns, THREE-a-penny, two a penny, Hot Cross Buns”

It’s just that if the fingering is “1 2 3,  1 2 3,  3333 2222 11111, 1 2 3″ then the changed words fit the fingering. I’ve found that the children are far more likely to play a “G” on the third line if they sing “3″, rather than repeat the fingering of the first and second lines.

Just a thought – try it and see.

fanfare for the common ant



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Sunday 21st June – Encore, Frere Jacques!

Last week’s sessions on Frere Jacques with boomwhackers worked so well, that I devised a follow-on.

Once again, I divided the class into four teams, but this time allocated 2 each of the boom whackers for C D E F G A, and a couple of note charts for Frere Jacques. The challenge was for each team to learn to play the whole of Frere Jacques, WITHOUT any help from me. Here’s the chart:

  • C   D   E   C
  • C   D   E   C
  • E   F   G
  • E   F   G
  • GAGFE   C
  • GAGFE   C
  • C   G   C
  • C   G   C

WARNING – CHAOS AVOIDANCE ALERT – Make sure you do all the explaining how to read the chart (assuming they have forgotten from last time) and instructions BEFORE you divide up the teams and hand out the gear. If you have a well-known system for creating the teams, you may have to pause while several individuals immediately STOP listening to you and START trying to work out which team they will be in and who will be with them. Wait until you are reasonably certain at least 75% of the class know what they are supposed to do before you let them begin.

It was fascinating to see how different groups tackled the task. There were several different approaches, ranging from entirely random to some quite clever allocation of parts.

HINTS –  for line three; if one child has G A and another has G F it all becomes much simpler – also D and A have very little to play, so giving these players another colour as well helps to keep them interested.

After a couple of minutes, each team had a chance to play, and they mostly succeeded well enough that we could all play together as a class, and then – hold your breath and cross your fingers - play it as a four part round!

NOW, here comes the bit I was most pleased with;

If you go through the chart for each letter in turn, you can re-write it in a sort of summary form like this:

  • 1        2        3       4
  • C                 C      C
  •           D
  • E                  E
  •           FF
  • G       G        G
  •     A

In other words, C plays on beats 1, 3 and 4, D plays on beat 2, E plays on beats 1 and 3. F plays a “double beat”  or two quavers on beat 2, G plays beats 1, 2 and 3, and A plays just after beat 1 (but before beat 2)

If each team can manage this new arrangement, it will sound as though they are playing Frere Jacques as a four part round. Once again, having explained what they were supposed to do, I left them to get on with it (apart from going round sorting out disputes, keeping them on task etc.

Out of the nine classes, (three each of year 4, 5 and 6) two teams succeeded without any intervention from me; one group of normally “lively” year 4 boys, and one mixed year 6 team. A couple of teams managed it with a little help.

I was really pleased with this lesson, and also the previous one. I like the (social skills) emphasis on team working and problem solving, as well as the solid (music skills) practical application of reading simple notation and using pulse and rhythm skills.

You could do this on any pitched percussion. Where boomwhackers score is that they can be played without having to look at the instrument, unlike most other pitched percussion instruments.

fanfare for the common ant


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Monday 15th June – Year 1 Recorders

Years ago, I had a fairly torrid time, teaching recorders to a group of year 2 children. I was inexperienced, easily coerced, and gave way with certain misgivings which were well-founded. It was grim and unrewarding and left me with a determination NEVER to teach recorders to Keystage 1 every again.

I’ve clearly not developed a stronger character or sense of self-preservation over the ensuing decade, as I spent last term teaching  descant recorder to two Year 2 classes, and I am now halfway through a term of teaching two Year 1 classes.

However, it’s been a much better experience all round. I was dreading Year 1, but, by keeping things very simple, we are at the stage where most of the class can read and play B and A with a certain amount of accuracy.

Secret weapon 1; a piece of tape stuck over the thumb hole of the recorder. Excellent squeak-reducing measure.

Secret weapon 2; simplified notation. We have only covered A and B so far, so I write out the music on large sheets with only one line on the stave. No time signatures, no treble clefs, no bar lines. They will all come later, if at all.

Secret weapon 3; colour coding. In this example, A is blue, B is black.

Recorders B and A notation

So far, so good. Five weeks to go.



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Saturday 13th June – Boomwhackers en francais

This week’s Boomwhacker lessons with years 4, 5 and 6 revolved around the song ”Frere Jacques”. (If I knew how to add an accent to the “e” in “frère” , and could remember which direction they were supposed to go in, I would have added them. But I don’t know, and I can’t remember. So sorry and all that.)

It was really an exercise in team-work, which the nine classes, three in each year group, coped with to a greater, or, to be truthful, lesser degree. (Remember, these are the classes which are also spending the other two lessons of the afternoon doing PE and Basketball, so they are in an “interesting” mood when they arrive in my class…)

Here’s the lesson outline; They sit in a circle on chairs. I have got plenty of boomwhackers, enough for everyone to take part. On the whiteboard, I have written out the notes for each line;

C  D  E  C      C  D  E  C

E  F  G           E  F  G


C  G  C         C  G  C

I’ve got four colours of whiteboard pens, which is why I  was able to colour-code the lines, choosing “red” for line 3 because it is the trickiest of all.

We sang the song through in French, and again using the note letters.

I explained that they would be working in four teams, each learning a single line of the song on boomwhackers. The plan was that, working together, each team would play their line, and if they all played in turn, we would be able to play the whole song.

This simple plan was pretty much enough to occupy the whole lesson.

I then counted up how many were in the class (ranging from 33 to 25), divided by four, and sorted the teams. Greens were given C, D and E boomwhackers, Blues got E F and Gs. Reds were given C E F G and A, and Blacks the remaining C and G (they were allowed to have one of each).

Chaos ensued.

First I had to explain that the team colours were not anything to do with the boomwhacker colours, as some of the Reds tried to get all the C boomwhackers from the Black team, who were busy trying to tell me that there weren’t any black boomwhackers. I hadn’t seen that complication coming. Once we had got that straight, they all set to work. Sort of.

Sometimes a team would organise themselves into boomwhacker colour order, work together and play their tune without any help. Others paid no attention to each other, chatted, messed about. Some had Not A Clue what they were supposed to be doing – I wonder why?.

Just for you, here are the “technical” problems that each team needs to deal with;

  • Greens are always flummoxed by the repeated C when they play the second “Frere Jacques”
  • Blues take a while to remember to leave a gap between each “Dormez-vous”
  • Reds come a cropper because their G has to play twice in each phrase, and the A and F have to be alert to get their notes in. Their C sometimes follows on from their E too quickly. It is tricky.
  • Blacks go C G C G C G C G without leaving a gap. Or, they leave the gap and go C G C    G C G.

Having given them a few minutes (and whatever clues they need) to get their lines working, I caused quiet to happen somehow. A few “Listen and Copy” rhythms worked quite well; holding up a hand for silence was ineffective, my samba whistle caused stunned silence (maybe not quite so loud next time?). We heard each team in turn, corrected the mistakes, and then attempted to play the whole song.

Now, the genius part of the lesson. If you swapped the teams over, you can just do it all over again; the children are more than happy to have a go at another line, hopefully learning from the previous experience.

NOTE Swapping the teams over is a non-trivial exercise in serious listening skills. take it from me; you ned to do this in a series of carefully sequenced mini-steps.

  1. Tell the children to park the boomwhackers under their chairs.  STOP THERE.
  2. Say “Reds and Blacks, stand up. LEAVE THE BOOMWHACKERS UNDER THE CHAIRS. Now Swap seats” (You may have to say “LEAVE THE BOOMWHACKERS UNDER THE CHAIRS” several times.)
  3. Use a similar form of words to swap the other teams.

You can now repeat the previous part of the lesson. You might want to insert a short discussion on how to improve the learning/teamwork process at this point.

Depending on how things are going, and how much time is left, you can choose one of the following. Over the course of the week I made different choices according to the dynamics of the various classes.

  1. see if everyone can play their part over and over so that it sounds like a round (start each group in turn, sing along with any group that is going wrong until it settles). Encourage the children to listen once it is settled and going well.
  2. swap the groups again
  3. have a discussion about what teamwork involves, and how music lessons are not just about learning to play tunes etc, but also about using other skills/core values etc
  4. clear up and play a game like concentration, elevens, 7-up

On the whole, all things considered, taking an overview, it all went pretty well.

And the children seemed to enjoy it. Win-win.


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Friday 12th June – Hi There, I’m still here!

I guess this “comment” from the spam box says it all;

Hi admin, i see your blog needs fresh posts. Daily updates will rank your website in google  higher, content is king nowadays. If you are to  lazy to write unique articles everyday you should search in google  for Ightsero’s Essential Tool

well, here I am, and not “to lazy to write unique articles everyday” thank you very much!

I’ve been busy, doing things like teaching, and report-writing, and ClassicFM quizzes to find out if they can guess which instrument I play (violin – wrong) or which is my favourite piece of music (Elgar Enigma variations – wrong again).

If you’ve time to fritter away on trivialities, here’s the link  for the Classic FM quiz page where you too, can see if you can work out which  name is a type of pasta and which is a Composer.

Seriously, just as I thought I was about to expire from a whole week of fairly hectic here-there-and-everywhere thrashing around the county, I was given something that I will treasure;

Thank you card

 Apparently it is National Kindness Day, and one class were asked to make a card for someone that had helped them. Inside is a lovely letter from one of my pupils thanking me for teaching them recorder. Ahhh. Makes it all worthwhile.

So here you go with some more posts about what happens when you try and teach music…


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Sunday 17th May – Four Card Trick

I haven’t played this game for a while, but did it with a couple of classes a few weeks ago. Actually it was the same set of classes that I have just been talking about in the previous post:

In previous lessons, you make sure that the children are familiar with rhythm notation. I have only been using crotchet, crotchet rest, and pairs of quavers. From my flash-cards (downloaded from the Australian Kodaly website) I chose these four, and made sure that the children could say and clap them. We were using “Boom” for crotchet,, “sh” for the rest, and “whacker” for the pair of quavers.

For example;

rhythm 2 cropped

rhythm 1 croppedOnce this was secure, I arranged the four flashcards in a row (choosing Sensible children to hold them) and we clapped through all four cards without a break – do a count in first to make sure everyone starts together.

Now for the four-card trick; the object is to clap the whole four-card rhythm from memory. Let the children choose the first card to be removed – say the third one in this example. One last clap through, and away goes the card. The children clap through all four cards, doing the third card from memory.

At this point, a boy sitting near me turned round and stated ”I can’t do this, because I can’t remember things”. As far as I knew, he didn’t have any major learning difficulties, so I merely said “Give it a go, and I’ll help you”. I thought it was so sad that at the age of eleven he already had a label “can’t remember things” which let him off even trying. He was reluctant, but at least made a bit of an effort.

Anyway, back to the trick. You repeat the process until all four card have gone. They should be able to do clap all four cards, from memory, without a mistake.

Normally, that’s the end of the activity. However, this time I extended it by starting a discussion about HOW they remembered the cards. Did they associate them with the person holding the card, or remember the actions, or the pictures, or the words, or the rhythms? What about the effect of the repetition? Did they have to think about it, or could they just do it? The point of this was to get them reflecting on the Process of how Remembering takes place. Too often, I find that people/children seem to think that just being in the place where teaching is happening is enough for learning to take place, ignoring the fact that some effort is required from them.

Well, that’s a big bee in my bonnet about teaching and learning, and it was good to hear the children reflecting on how they remembered the four cards.

And reflecting on this earlier set of lessons, and how well they went, goes a long way to helping feel better about the lessons with these children last Friday.

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Sunday 17th May – Aaaargh

Every so often you have a day when you seriously doubt that you are any good as a teacher.

Friday afternoon was one of these.

I arrived home in a state of shock and exhaustion and self-doubt, but a few days spent reflecting on the lessons have helped restore my confidence somewhat.

Here’s how it was; three lessons back-to-back with year 6 on Friday afternoon of total chaos, zero teaching and learning, mega-voice raising and even resorting to using my samba whistle (it WASN’T a samba lesson either) to make myself heard above the children.

Friday afternoon is always a tough assignment; this is the afternoon where the three year 6 classes “enjoy” a carousel of extra activities while all their teachers share PPA time together. Currently the three activities are music, basketball, and PE. At least it isn’t kick-boxing this term!

On this particular Friday, they had spent Monday through Thursday doing the national SATS tests. As a reward, they had a non-uniform day on the Friday, with lots of non-curricular games and activities and probably sweets. By the time they came hubble-bubbling into my music class they were beyond everything. My carefully planned lesson only held them for so long, and then they lost all concentration. I gave up on the lesson and resorted to circle games, but to be honest, they (I mean the Known Boys, really) didn’t even have the brain-energy left for that.

However, we all survived, even the child I caught sucking a smallish and deadly square of polythene.

Once I had thought things through, I felt a lot better about the afternoon. I have taught that lesson before, several tines, and it has always worked. It should have worked with these classes as well. It was just the combination of the events of the week, and the events of the day, that set the afternoon up to be like it was. Oh, did I mention it was a Boomwhacker lesson?

It still left me exhausted. I ate cake and chocolate biscuits and croissants all day yesterday, and now feel ready and strong enough for this coming week.

But I have already marked off next end-of-SATS-week Friday-afternoon as “Unavailable for music teaching to year 6″. Just in case.

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