Issue 141: Welcome to The Jungle

Another week has flashed past – another round of recorder, ukulele, samba, djembe lessons, another set of class music lessons planned, taught and reflected upon.

Thinking over the lessons is such an important part of teaching. Reflecting on what went well, and what didn’t work.

Releasing a class of infants into the wide-open space of the school hall can be a bit like letting a genie out of a bottle. Suddenly they are everywhere, and regaining order can be a challenge. Why did that happen? What can I do to avoid it next time?

An afternoon of back-to-back samba lessons left me feeling as though I had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Why? Was it me? My choice of activities? Or perhaps the children were too tired - their whole afternoon had been a round of demanding physical activity and maybe the noise and energy of samba was just too much. It isn’t always the teacher’s fault if lessons go awry!

Then there are the lessons that worked like a dream. How did that happen? What did I do that made it all come together so sweetly? Can I capture the essence and save it for a rainy day?

One of my resolutions for this year was to keep a diary, and so far I have managed to write something every evening. Not only about teaching, or “another early night again, I’m SOoooo tired”, but things I have noticed in the day. It has seemed to slow the mad rush of time slightly. Today’s observations; unseasonable, but welcome, warm weather, and the golden brown of the leaves on the chestnut trees. The look on one boy’s face when I praised his singing and asked him to be a “Singing Leader”.

Yeah. It’s a good life!

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Issue 141: Leaping about on a piano

Well, not literally, of course!

No, it’s when you have to jump to a new chord.

Step 1 is to KNOW where you have to land – seems obvious, but too often the student hasn’t really, REALLY learned the notes, shape and fingering for the chord they are jumping to.

Step 2 having overcome deficient note-reading skills to work out the notes and accidentals they are aiming for, they need to commit it to memory. Sometimes I give it a “name” – maybe something bizarre like “Fred”, more often something descriptive like “middle black note E and D”. I might even call it “G7 second inversion” if that works.

Step 3 you need to be able to take off from the previous note, and while in flight, form your hand into the shape for the landing chord and arrive in good time to be able to delay playing the chord until the exact moment in time that it should sound. It is always a recipe for disaster if arriving at the chord and playing the chord are not separated into two separate motions.

My student hadn’t really dealt with steps 1 and 2 so it was no wonder that step 3 never worked. He’s impatient of a step-by-step approach to learning, so I used trickery and guile…

In order to assist with the note learning, I asked him to think about which finger in the three note chord would be the one to focus on, as the “guide-finger” to aim for. We tried each one in turn, to work out which was best. (Hidden agenda – we learned each finger’s note in turn, and also the hand/finger shape of the chord).

I asked him to come up with a descriptive name for the chord. He rejected “Fred” as “too silly” (if often works for me, but then it was to be his choice. He came up something that suited him, so we were now able to play the preceding notes and then jump to “D-middle black-C”.

The next thing was to remove the rushed, panicky approach to the chord. So, to start with, just freeze on the preceding note, imagine the fingers and notes and shape of the chord, and then gently move to it, naming the chord and using the chosen guide finger. Keeping everything gentle, steady, un-hurried, calm and accurate is essential at this stage, and as the mental and physical tensions are removed the leap becomes easier and easier.

Sadly, I suspect that this student will be in too much of a hurry to go through this process back home… well, we shall see…

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Issue 141: Teaching young recorder players to read B and A

This worked brilliantly with a year 3 class. It came about because I couldn’t persuade my trusty “Recorder Magic Interactive” software to work on the class laptop in the 30 seconds that I had to load it and start the lesson, so I abandoned all my technology and went for whiteboard and pens instead.

I had previously taught the class to read crotchet and quaver notation from flash cards, so I put up my laminated cards (blutac-ed them to the now useless interactive whiteboard) with a couple of 4-beat bars.


We said them (doo for crotchet, doo-bee for pairs of quavers), clapped them, and played them on B and A (the only notes I have taught them so far – this was only lesson 3!)

I then used a whiteboard pen to draw a line through the notes on just one flash card, so that we could tell the different between the Bs and the As. The children were more than happy to play B for the notes on this flashcard, and A for the notes on the other.

Next step; draw a longer line, and put some notes ON THE LINE (which means with the line running through the “blobs” of the notes and some just under the line, mixing them up a little. The children were still confidently able to play B and A correctly following this primitive notation.

Final step; explain that there are actually 5 lines, and the one we are focussing on is the middle line. If the blob of the note is ON the middle line, play B, and if it is in the space under the middle line, play A.

Whoop whoop! They could still correctly choose B and A! I shall find out whether this note-reading lesson really worked when I’m back at the school this week… and maybe this time I’ll be able to get my software working.

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Issue 141: Si si si; and Call and Response Songs

This seems to be a theme of my lessons this term.

Some of the songs I am using don’t, at first sight, fall into this category. I’ve been using the “Rabbit, run on the frozen ground song” in samba and djembe lessons, fist as a straightforward song, and then as a call and response song.

Having learned the song, we then sing it as call and response (me leading, and then the children leading). Once that is secure, we sing and play it, all through, and as call and response. On djembe, I use bass and tone to differentiate between the two parts. On samba, I (or the children!) assign lines to the different instrument groups, in two parts, or maybe in more complex arrangements. By the time you have taught the song, discussed the content (someone’s caught a rabbit, someone else doesn’t seem to believe them, and as you let the rabbit go, where’s the proof?), and worked through the process of transferring it to instruments, and tidied it up, a whole lesson has happened!

I was teaching the song “Si, si, si” to a year 5/6 samba class, and it occurred to me that this would work very well in the same manner. It’s a traditional Congolese welcome song:


You can sing it as a round; the entry points are marked 1,2,3 (line 4 is a repeat of line 1)

I was thinking of doing it as a call and response song, the call being two bars eg “si, si, si, dola da” and the response being the next two bars (eg) ”yaku sine ladu banaha” with djembe or samba classes.

I’ve found that teaching a rhythmically interesting song, and then using it as the basis for percussion work is a very effective way producing an effective performance, especially for younger children. I’ve done this now with Sambale  Kumala, kumala and Kalele, and it has worked every time.

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Issue 140: Welcome to The Jungle

Ugh. My first full week of teaching this term. I was ready for an early night by Friday!

That’s not ”Ugh” because I don’t like the teaching, I hasten to add, but “Ugh” because I’m feeling a bit stunned by the combined experiences of the week. I have classes ranging in age from infants up to year six, and group lessons, and individual lessons, and back-to-back “carousel” class teaching where the children spend the afternoon going from kick-boxing to ukulele or samba (that’s me) to drama. Plus the travelling in between from school to school.

This term I’m teaching in eight schools. I load up prepared for infant percussion, djembe, samba, descant recorder, treble recorder, ukulele, keyboard or piano, depending on where I am and when. Not forgetting my packed lunch, sound system (if I need it) and mp3 player.

Oh, and I did forget my mp3 player – left it in a local school, which necessitated some speedy re-thinking of all the next day’s lessons until I could go and rescue it. Oof – that was a tricky day!

I have created a new page for the site, where I am steadily listing all the songs I use for beginner ukulele lessons. I shall try and add to it every week. Eventually I plan to do this for other instrument groups as I go along.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this week’s posts.

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140: More on Beethoven’s Fifth

I think that the important thing that I need to remember is that year 5 and year 6 children are exactly that – children. Some of them are probably still only 9 years old.

I reckon that is my number one error when planning these lessons to do with composing music based on elements from this great Symphony.

What I was aiming for was to get the children to combine a melodic pattern and a rhythmic call-and-response pattern, in the way that they had just seen and heard in the first part of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

I told them what to do, I showed them what to do, I attempted to divide them into sensible combinations of children, started handing out the instruments, and then

well, I choose a description from any of these and it would be close to what happened next;

  • hive of activity
  • enthusiastic musical exploration
  • pandemonium
  • chaos

It was not helped by being confined to the classroom, due to a timetable melt-down. In the end I sent three groups into the corridor outside, leaving far too many still in the class room. Would you believe that 7 sets of chime bars, 7 shakers and 7 tambourines could be so deafening.

I could see a sort of emergence of what I had hoped would happen beginning to take some kind of vague and shadowy structure as I went from one end of the class to the bottom end of the corridor checking that everyone was OK, and nothing too dodgy was happening.

At the end of the lesson, I called everyone back into class, sat everyone down quietly, and invited a couple of groups to play what they had composed so far.

Sheer magic. Out of the terrible cacophony, each of the two groups, working together, produced more or less exactly what I had been asking for. How on earth did that happen?

I’ll tell you something else. A number of the children have come to me after the lesson to get the name of the music we have been listening to and ask where they can buy it. “Is it on I-tunes?” I call that a Result.

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140: The Telephone Song Lesson


I’ve put this song in The Jungle before, but here it is again with chords. I had a great time teaching three year 4 classes, and then a mixed year 3 and 4 class to sing and play this song earlier this week, and it worked like a charm. Totally brilliant. I love it when a plan comes together!

The year 4s are all aged 8 going on 18, and rebelling at the idea of singing “baby” songs – but unfortunately when it is your first lesson on an instrument it is bound to have to be a bit simple. It made for a fairly tough first lesson, probably not helped by the fact that they had just come in from kick-boxing. So I was bracing myself for another – shall we say - ”lively” afternoon, when I suddenly remembered this song. It sounds so much more grown up than Row your boat.The Telephone Song

First off, I explained that the song was about two people having a conversation, and then taught it. I didn’t bother with the singing game, just did line by line “listen and copy” until the song was reasonably secure. Then we did some “watch and copy” movements in time to a drum track with a strong rhythmic beat (“Syncopate it” from “Music Express – Developing Skills” which is probably my most used resource).

On to the ukulele bit. Having sorted out how to hold and strum the ukuleles, I used the track again for strumming in time to a beat; switching between “once per bar” and “twice per bar”. NOTE – if you start the children off by having them put their thumb on their nose before you strum, there is a good chance that you will get most of  them strumming DOWNWARDS with their thumb instead of upwards with their whole hand!

I carefully explained the C chord, which we had done last week, and the C7 chord, and how to read the chord chart – this is worth a whole post on its own – and gave them the task of working in pairs to learn how to play the two chords. This gave me a chance to go round the class and sort out problems.

Then we were off. I wrote the chord sequence up on the board and played it to them;

  • C             C7
  • C             C7
  • C             C7
  • C    C7     C    C7
  • C    C7     C    C7

and in slow motion we went through it together a couple of times. After the chord changes were beginning to become recognisable I speeded up slightly, and then began singing it. Whahay! They were soon all joining in, and I have to say it sounded Very Impressive. Smiles all around, and no (major) behaviour issues this week

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140: Engine Engine, Number 9

I suddenly remembered this song when I was teaching ukuleles this week. You can sing the whole song to a C7 chord, which must be the easiest ukulele chord to play (a no-fail item in the end-of term showcase?). Strum twice per bar.

Engine Engine ukulele

You can do actions; train movements with the arms, point down the line, jump on the word JUMP, hold out palm and point to it for “money back”. Yes – thumbs up, No – thumbs down, Maybe – hands, palm down, rotate from side to side to show indecision, So – hands palm up.

Getting the children to all jump at the same time is tricky – they have to bend their knees slightly during “If the train should” so that they can all lift off together on the word “jump”.

I’ve also experimented with changing the words; “We all like to go to school, going to school is very cool”

or topic based “Stone-age life was very tough, Living conditions were rather rough”. You might want to miss out the Yes, No bits. This could be a composition (work it out and write it down beforehand) or improvisation (just go for it) activity.

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