42/60 A Surfeit of Christmas Concerts

The joy of working in several different schools is that you experience different school cultures, environments, collect new ideas, meet so many lovely people.

But at this time of year I take a rather different view;

Tomorrow (Saturday) is the end of term Christmas celebration one of the keyboard ensembles I teach on Saturday mornings. Making sure that the child who started last week is a bit of a challenge, especially as it was her first ever lesson on any kind of keyboard.

This weekend I also need to make sure that I can play the accompaniments for the first school carol concert I am involved with. That’s just a little matter of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Jolly Holly” – both are straightforward piano parts without too much cleverness, and no dangerously confusing repeats, dal segnos, “to Coda” marks and rapid pages turns forwards and backwards. Phew. Just so long as I can get my fingers round them by Monday night.

Then I turn my attention to a number of “Out of the Ark” Christmas songs – they are the ones where I frequently lose my way – plus there is an key change for the last verse on the backing track of “No Room at the Inn” which isn’t in the book. I might get it learned in time…or I might not…  This is for the next school. The choir is singing to Retirement Village on Thursday afternoon, so as well as their children’s songs there will be some traditional carols as well. I’m told that there is a piano… I’ll take my mp3 player and amp in the car, just in case.

That morning I will have run the end-of-term recorder assembly at yet another school, where year 3 demonstrate what they have achieved after a mere nine lessons (G, A, B, and C without too much squeaking).

Before then, I will have been teaching the carols for – yes, another school’s end of term church service….

Is that all of them? Possibly… I live in fear of forgetting something important. At least this term I am not accompanying any music exams!

holly divider

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41/60 The “Father Christmas” scale

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When I’ve young piano pupils learning their scales at this time of year, I sell them D major as “The Christmas Scale”.

Yes, I know, offering a scale as a Christmas Treat might not seem to be totally in the spirit of Christmas Cheer.

But it has F sharp and C sharp! If you teach this mnemonic for sharp key signatures

“Father Christmas Gives Dad An Electric Blanket”

then, obviously, D major is the most seasonal scale to teach now. So, I do try and reach this scale in December. Anything to liven up the process of learning scales. Mostly, the pupils are happy to go along with the Christmas theme.

It’s not so appropriate at other times of year, though…. but I have a cunning plan….

(The partner mnemonic for the flats is “Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet”)

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40/60 Is this a Music Lesson?

One of my various employers has a policy of observing all their teachers at work every year. Not a bad idea…

except if they were to observe me teaching one of my young piano pupils (eleven years old) I might come a bit of a cropper….

This girl doesn’t want to learn to read music, she doesn’t want to learn any proper technique or skills. She doesn’t practise, she never brings any music. But she still comes to lessons every week. We started with a traditional, age-appropriate tutor book, but that soon disappeared, never to appear again. In previous terms we have learned the black keys chopsticks, a few pop songs, done a bit of improvisation – there are plenty of useful ways of filling a lesson.

This term she is on a mission, to learn ”Fur Elise”. I could compromise, and get hold of a simplified version, but she is not that kind of girl. It’s all or nothing. So, every week, we go through a couple of bars, revising and correcting what she remembers of last week’s work and adding a few more bars. She can play the whole of the first theme to her satisfaction, and we have embarked on what I call “the song” section.

My “old” teacher self would be constantly trying to persuade her to “do it this way” or learn “something more suitable to your skill level”. But, years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about their child’s drum lessons. The teacher had complained that this lad never practised, never brought any music, wasn’t making any progress and all they did every lesson was play the drums together for half an hour.

My friend replied that this was fine by her (My “teacher-self” was more than a bit shocked!). She explained to the drum teacher that her son enjoyed the weekly half an hour playing the drums, it provided him with relaxation and pleasure from  demanding academic work, and as far as she was concerned she was happy to pay the going rate for the time.

I have often thought about that. After all, I’ve been immersed for years in a teaching world that is all about practising, and making progress, and doing things “properly”. To be sure, I’m not ruling “having fun” and enjoying music” out of the lessons. That is important too. But the idea that a parent would pay just for the lesson itself, with no other outcome that the pupil had had a pleasant half an hour pursuing something they wanted to do or learn, was a new concept.

So, going back to my “Fur Elise” girl, I have checked that the parent is OK with how the lessons go – and she is – so that’s what we do. Fur Elise, and the time we spend in the lesson going through is certainly important to her.

Perhaps I should re-christen it a “Music Session” rather than a “Music Lesson”. Although some deep, serious and purposeful learning is taking place – just not along the normal, traditional lines.

Snake keyboard divider

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39/60 Preparing for the End of Term Nativity

I’ve set up the “teams” now for some of the carols at the end of term. The year 3 /4 class is responsible for playing the percussion I have put three of each different instrument in each carol; the

The “Little Donkey” team of six have to play an ostinato rhythm; “Little Don-key” on the woodblocks, and ring the jingly bells in the bit where it goes “Ring out those bells tonight”

percussion donkey

The “Rocking” Team are accompanying “the Rocking Carol” (“Little Jesus Sweetly Sleep”) with triangles, playing a steady slow pulse throughout the two verses.

percussion triangle

The “We Three Kings” team is much larger. Verse 1 will be accompanied by on ostinato “We Three Kings” tapped on tambourines. Verse 2, gold, will be accompanied by jingle-sticks. Verse 3, frankincense has shakers, and verse 4, myrrh, the more ominous sound of scrapers. The most hotly contested instrument was the suspended cymbal and soft stick for the chorus. No surprise there.

percussion we 3 kings

That is twenty-four of the twenty-nine children in the class each with a part to play.  Some of them were absent (ill) or absent (extra support with maths). I’ll add them in when they re-appear.

I’ve put the instruments for each carol team into separate tubs, with a note of what has to be played when. So far, so good. Unfortunately I forgot to make notes of Which Child is playing which part….

Next lesson may be interesting as some of the children won’t remember what they were meant to be doing, and others could try and take the opportunity to switch groups….

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38/60 Soler Fandango

I was given this book as a birthday present last month;

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and have just started listening to the suggested works for every day. I’m saving 1st December music (meltingly beautiful) for a post nearer to Christmas. The piece for 3rd December is this amazing harpsichord piece, the Fandango by Soler. Oh Wow;

soler fandangoI listened to it one-and-a-half times on Sunday 3rd December. The half is because I glanced at the clock and realized I needed to abandon my coffee and toast if I was going to get to church in time to play the first hymn – I was the organist on duty at the early service! So I had another go at hearing the whole piece (ten minutes long – a marathon) later, in the afternoon.

I need that music!

I have that music!

If you go to the website of the British Harpsichord Society, www.harpsichord .org.uk, you can find a link to downloadable scores. Oh happy, happy discovery.

I’ve printed off the first 6 pages, of 36 pages, to start learning it from today.

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37/60 Finger Puppets and Recorders

My finger puppets have been working hard.

finger puppets 2

I was able to teach a class of thirty year 3 children how to play the note “C” in just a few minutes. This was in the seventh of a series of ten lessons, and they had already learned B, A and G, thanks to the “Recorder Magic” interactive video:

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My next step was to place a finger puppet on the first finger of my left hand, form the letter A on my recorder (two fingers and a thumb) and then make my finger puppet go up and down, explaining that when it was up, I was making a C, and when it was down, I made the A. With a bit of care, I could actually play the two notes with the finger puppet in place.

Now, I selected two of the children who I knew would be able to succeed. I stood them up before the class, handed them each a finger puppet, and got them to follow my example. They chose another two children to have a go, and then I handed out the rest of the finger puppets (ten in the pack!) Very soon, everyone had had a go, carefully watched by their “recorder buddies” to make sure that they had put their puppet on the correct finger.

Job done!

Capuchin plays the recorder

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36/60 Getting the children in and out

Most of my “transitions” with a class of primary school children happen in quite an orderly fashion, but I have one class of year 3s who chitter like a a cage of agitated monkeys as they move from classroom to hall.

It should be so simple; First they bring their chairs and arrange them in three pre-arranged rows. Then they go back to their classroom (just across the corridor from the hall) and fetch the guitars, which are stacked up in a great random pile in the cloakroom. They arrange the guitars in a long row, away from the chairs, with the name labels showing. Finally they look along the rows until they find their guitar, and put it beside the chair on the floor beside them.

In my dreams. What actually happens in that they trickle into the hall, chittering in increasingly high-pitched voices, all bossing each other around.  The chairs are abandoned in disorderly rows, far too close together. They then queue up to tell me that this isn’t their guitar, or they can’t find their guitar, or they forgot their guitar, or Simon is sitting in Mary’s seat, or they can play their guitar or they can’t play their guitar or they need a drink or they need the toilet or….


Now that I KNOW that I am not preparing for a Christmas Concert, I can dump the guitar curriculum, and focus the next few lessons on how to transition from class to hall and back without all this fuss!

Getting them back is so much simpler; I issue these simple instructions, warning them not to move until I say “go”

  1. Don’t move until I say “go”
  2. You will firstly take your guitar to the cloakroom if you take it home, or to me if it stays in school
  3. Don’t move yet
  4. Then come back and fetch your chair and take it back to class
  5. Don’t move yet
  6. Do you understand what you have to do?
  7. Alright, off you go.

Then I start singing one of the songs or chants that we’ve been doing (“Yonder come day”, “Children go, I will send you”, Grandma, Grandma, sick in bed“). They all join in singing as they process like a trail of ants carrying guitars or chairs.Somehow, the singing keeps them focussed on the task, and they don’t start chittering and wittering and messing about.

Now to fathom out how to get them into the hall without losing the plot…

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35/60 The finger puppets have arrived!

I posted a while ago that I had ordered some finger puppets.

It was over a month ago! I’m more used to deliveries taking a matter of days, rather than weeks, or even a month. I had pretty much given up hope, and at a cost of just a couple of pounds, was ready to write it off as a bad experience.

But, here they are!

As you can see, a young pupil (aged 5, third lesson) has arranged them on all the pairs of black notes on my piano

Finger puppets 1 finger puppets 2

and the cat and dog have snuggled up together on C and D.



finger puppets 2


I am SO pleased with them, that I shall order some more at once! The mouse’s pointy nose has made it very quick at sniffing out different note, with the pink elephant (pink? why not, if the hippo can be bright blue…) running a close second. How did I ever manage without them.

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