Issue 149: Welcome to The Jungle

After the disaster (health-wise) that was the last half of term, I was very pleased to get through the week that has just gone.

It is going to take a couple of weeks to build up the “teaching stamina”. I was disconcerted to find myself a bit “at sea” on Monday morning – I think it is because having had so many interruptions to the flow of the lessons as discombobulated my mental grasp of where I was going with each class, and how I was planning to get there.

In a “normal week”, I will teach, at home, or in 8 different school,

  • 2 samba classes (year 3 and year 4/5)
  • 1 djembe class (year 3)
  • 2 recorder classes (year 2)
  • 1 descant recorder group (year 4)
  • 1 mixed recorder ensemble (year 3,4,5,6)
  • 1 theory group
  • 10 individual piano lessons (age range 5 – 65, level beginner to Grade 8)
  • 1 small group keyboard lesson
  • 2 individual theory lessons
  • 10 ukulele classes (year 3,4,5,6)
  • 3 class music lessons (reception, year 1/2, year 5/6)
  • 1 Music Club (reception, year 1)

So with all that going on, I guess it’s not that surprising that it is a bit of an effort to stay on track!

Anyway, here are three posts on the consequences of last week’s lessons… have a good week

the keyboard snake


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Issue 149: Conceptualising

This is fast becoming a lost art…

What do I mean by it anyway? I mean THINKING about something without actually DOING it.

It’s a skill with so many applications. For example, how do I get from this place to that place? What do I need to go camping? What kind of biscuits are likely to sell at a cake stall at school?

These are all questions that are better answered BEFORE you launch into the activity!

Music is one way to develop this skill of imagining how to go about doing something WITHOUT actually doing it. So, 300 children this week have been subjected to my determination that they will learn this skill through ukulele lessons this week (glory be – do I really teach ukulele to THAT many children? My word, yes I do!)

I taught six classes of year 5 and year 6 children to play “Eleanor Rigby” last week, using F and Am, and four classes of year 3 and year 4 children to play “La Cucaracha” using F and C7.

Over the course of the lessons, I refined my teaching process, until it went like this;

Learn the song (it was up on the whiteboard). Learn the notation style, including chord and strum symbols and repeat signs.

Listen, keeping the pulse and calling the chord changes.

Watch me “No, put the ukulele down and just WATCH and LISTEN” as I demonstrated how to find the starting chord (F in both cases) and switch between that and the other chord. “NO, PUT the ukulele DOWN and watch!”. They have one ukulele between two children, so if one child grabs the ukulele and starts plinking away, firstly the other child is disadvantaged, and secondly it rapidly becomes very noisy.

Call for volunteers to demonstrate what I have been showing them.

THEN let them loose to have a go! Hopefully, they have been thinking through what has to be done to create and F chord, and switch between F and Am, or F and C7.

By this time about half the lesson has passed in

  • activity (singing)
  • listening (learning about the notation)
  • thinking/conceptualisation (watching the demonstration)
  • activity (taking turns at learning the chords)

Now, when we put it all together, taking turns to strum and sing, it should work pretty quickly. And it did.

the keyboard snake

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Issue 149: Singing semitones

I’ve a favourite song, no, I’ve lots of favourite songs. This favourite song is called “Roller Ghoster” and you can find it on, or in Singing Sherlock Book 2.


Luna Park Melbourne scenic railway. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a sound sample:

The tricky part is getting the children to pitch the melodic phrases accurately. The first phrase “We’re not scared, we’re terrified” is just an arpeggio, with the notes going up in leaps. In the next phrase “Ev’rything is churning up and down inside”  the first few notes are just a tiny semitone apart. That sort of sets the challenge for the rest of the song.

Later on “We’re going up, we’re going down, and then we stop, to look around” is a mixture of upward and down ward phrases moving by a mixture of tones and semitones between notes.

This is not the kind of song that you can teach by letting the children “sing along to the backing track”. The performance speed is too fast for learning to pitch the notes accurately, and they will just make a kind of “gurning” noise approximating to where the notes might be. Ugh.

I’ve found that using physical movement to “feel” the distance between notes is best; when I teach the song, I sing the phrase slowly, and accurately (I hope!) and walk across the floor in the shape of the melody. So, for  ”We’re not scared, we’re terrified”, I stride forward with biggish steps, and for each bit of ”We’re going up, we’re going down, and then we stop, to look around” I shuffle forwards or backwards, taking mini-steps because the notes are so close together. Then, I let the children do the shuffling bit as they learn each phrase. (I didn’t let them stride about for the first phrase as I knew that would be Instant Chaos!).

This worked very well, and I’m going to use the same idea for some of the small pitch changes in the middle verse “Let us just remind you” etc next week. I reckon there is a good chance of this class singing it in tune, semitones and all.

the keyboard snake

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Issue 149: Grade 1 Theory – teaching semitones and tones

I’m finding this really tricky to teach. I have a group of about ten children, ranging in age from 7 years to 11 years old who come to a half-hour Grade 1 Theory club every week. They have a wide range of musical experience; some play bass clef instruments, others treble clef, others both. One or two also play piano, but mostly they are learning just an orchestral instrument. Some have just taken Grade 1 on their instrument, others are working towards much higher grades.

The current topic is accidentals, tones and semitones.

When I teach theory in piano lessons, it is dead simple to explain tones and semitones – there they are, laid out in back and white on the keyboard;

keyboard picture

Between C and D there is an extra “step”, and the same between D and E, but E and F are cuddled up close together. If this picture showed a complete keyboard, you would see that F and G, G and A, A and B also have an extra “step”, and B and C are close to each other.

So, if the notes have an extra step between them, they are a tone apart, and if they are close together, they are a semitone apart. Two semitones one after another make a tone. So far, so good.

But drawing a keyboard is quite tricky. I’ve decided to teach them to write out the musical alphabet like this;

A   BC   C   D   EF   G   A   BC   D   EF   G   A   etc

They can remember that they write it like this “BeCause of EleFants”. That seems to work.

Now, I am trying to get them to take on board the idea that the gaps between A and B, etc, are filled with an accidental note; it is called “A sharp” if you “push the A up into the gap”, or “B flat” if you “pull the B down into the gap”.

“How can you have the same note with two names?” they ask. “Look at me”, I reply. “My children call me ‘Mummy’, but what do you call me? My name depends on who is talking to me, not who I am.” That seems to satisfy them.

Judging by the homework, I have been mostly successful in teaching tones and semitones so far. For the next step, I need to tackle B and E sharp, and C and F flat. Watch this space…

the snake keyboard





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Issue 148: Welcome to the Jungle

What happened to the first half of the term?

I crashed out with a series of chest infections that zapped my energy, sent me to my bed, and wiped out most of my teaching in January and February.

Apologies to teachers and children at the various schools I was supposed to be going to, and to your good selves..

I was just about functional in time for the week before half term – saved by not having to go in on one of the days.

Anyway, that was then, and this is now, and I am back on my feet and back in action. Hopefully that’s the way I will stay for the rest of the term (fingers and toes crossed…)

birds on a branch divider


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Issue 148: The Tale of Jeremy Fisher

rainfrog Here’s a lesson plan that I emailed in to a primary school where I was due to teach class music, before I was felled by the chest infection that just about wrote off the first half of this term. It is based on a lesson I have taught to year 3/4 classes in the past.

Bear in mind that it has been designed to be

  • easy to deliver by more and less confident class teachers (hence the various options),
  • easy to find the resources
  • easy for me to plan, type and send in, considering I was tucked up in bed at the time!

STORY TELLING WITHOUT WORDS -The tale of Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter

  • Selection of percussion instruments, any, from cupboard by front door. Enough for everyone and to spare. Cymbals and soft sticks would be good to have.
  • Pencil/paper or whiteboard/pens for storyboarding and  making notes if doing group work version
  • YouTube Clip form the ballet Tales of Beatrix Potter This clip lasts 6;30


Children will watch a ballet version of The Tale of Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter. (Listening with attention to detail and aural recall)

They will have the opportunity to discuss the story, the music, the dancing, mood, instruments, (using expressive vocabulary) Sometimes it is better to divide children into threes to discuss it between themselves, and then ask each group for a contribution. It doesn’t matter if several groups give the same idea)

The children identify the main musical sections and create a very simple storyboard (Graphic notation)

The children choose instruments according to sound (timbre) for each section and compose new music (Aural recall, composition, choose and arrange sounds to create a pre-determined effect)   


Jeremy Fisher is a frog. He is sitting peacefully, reading a paper, when it starts to rain. He gets all excited because that means he can go fishing. He dances about (doing lots of froggy jumping), dashes into his house to get his fishing gear, and then comes out and leaps about some more.  He jumps across the lily pads to reach his lily-pad raft, and then poles across the lake to settle down to a bit of fishing. (4 mins).

An ominous change to the music marks the arrival of a large (frog-eating?) fish. Jeremy Fisher catches the fish on his line – disaster – the fish is too strong for him and pulls him into the lake! Oh no, what will happen? He has disappeared and all we see are bubbles. (4:50)

The music changes and sounds more cheerful (5:58) and then Jeremy Fisher’s head appears. He crawls slowly out of the water, looking very tattered. After a moment, he checks to make sure he is all in one piece – yes, he is unhurt by the terrible experience and starts doing froggy leaps again. 

DISCUSSION; talk about the story, how the froggy dancer moves, how the music adds to the mood of the story. If you knew the story but could only hear the music, not see the pictures, would you be able to know what was happening by the sound?

Watch the story again, maybe pausing it to note the different sections;

  • fast and happy music,
  • calm quiet fishing music
  • dangerous music
  • happy music again


Divide instruments by sound into “happy”,” calm”, “dangerous” and form three groups; follow story outline with instruments (you could put ballet on again with sound off, or follow written order on whiteboard)  Choose a conductor to direct which group should play when.


  • Children make their own storyboards of the different types of music
  • Divide instruments by sound into “happy”,” calm”, “dangerous”.
  • Divide children into groups of about 6. Give them a selection of instruments from each of the “happy/calm/dangerous” groups. Get them to use/combine their storyboards to compose new music for the story.
  • If time, groups share their compositions. They could be recorded and played back, saved to computer so that the children can listen to them again. (You need about 2 mins per group for this)


Working individually or in groups, children create simple cartoon of story. Watch video again, maybe with sound but not picture. Children hold up the appropriate picture for the music.


  • Draw pictures/create models of frogs with concertina folded legs, or make origami frogs
  • Research Amazonian rain frogs
  • Make lake/lily pad/frog scene from coloured paper
  • Find out about Beatrix Potter, read the books, watch more scenes from the ballet
  • Create dance

birds on a branch divider



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Issue 148: Making a Thunderstorm

Here’s another lesson emailed in from my “sick-bed”.

The same considerations as before; suitable for all classes in the primary school, easy to collect the resources and deliver, easy for me to type up and send in!

Thunderstorm Simulation

Short lesson: Watch the video, discuss, try and create the same sort of effect.

Longer lesson: collect up enough instruments for whole class (if using big wooden xylophones or wooden box drums, several children can share) and create same effect using instruments)

A choir creates a thunderstorm using only body percussion sounds.

Watch the video (1’48’’) maybe more than once

For discussion

  • how the sounds are made
  • grading of loudness of sounds
  • grouping of performers
  • role of conductor
  • how the performers know what to do, when to start, change or stop

 have a go at recreating the performance – teacher led

  • evaluate how it worked, what would make it better?
  • Try with different children conducting conductors
  • record and listen to your performance

 LONGER LESSON use a variety of instruments

  • Sort the instruments into groups for the different types of sounds.
  • Hand out instruments to groups, and try conducting a storm.
  • Did you manage to create the soft-louder-loud-softer-soft effect?
  • What do you have to do differently?
  • Try in smaller groups. Members of groups could take it in turns to be the conductor

birds on a branch divider



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Issue 148: Ukulele; Eleanor Rigby

Aha, I’ve discovered that this song can be played using F and Am – Easy-easy-peasy-peasy!

You can get the words and the chords here:


First of all, click +5 on the transpose bar. That will put it into the right key.

Secondly, ignore all the variations (unless you are teaching in ADVANCED MODE, which I certainly am NOT!). Just use F and Am all the way through.

You might want to just stick to the first verse…

I taught this today to a Year 5 class who haven’t been playing very long.Product Details

Here’s a brief outline of the process I went through (I had a backing track in F/Am from my trusty “Ukulele for Kids” book). If you don’t have a backing track, then… create your own, maybe? Record some friends singing and playing it?

  • Listen to the track, keeping the pulse quietly
  • Talk about the song and the words, The Beatles etc
  • Listen again, noticing the chords and strum signals
  • Listen again, calling out the chords as they change
  • I then demonstrated on my ukulele chord C (which I call “1-2-3 Easy Peasy C” and tend to use as a starting point for teaching most chords), followed by chord F, using fingers 1 and 2, followed by chord Am (“just unglue finger 1″). I did this a couple of times.
  • I invited children to come forward as see if they could do C followed by F followed by Am – chose about four individuals
  • Give out the ukuleles and let them practice. The children already know to check that the ukuleles sound the song “My Dog Has Fleas” – G C E A – and bring them to me for tuning if necessary.
  • As a whole class, play four C chords. AND STOP. I count them in; 1 2 3 4 C C C C
  • Repeat with four F chords.
  • Repeat with four Am chords. This is probably overkill, but I am also trying to teach the idea of “following instructions” to this class!
  • Repeat with four F chords followed by four Am chords and F chords again and Am chords again AND STOP.
  • We are good to go!  

This lesson worked really well – the children enjoyed the song and were more than capable of singing and playing it.

birds on a branch divider


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