Issue 134: Welcome to the Jungle

I don’t know about you, but I’m remembering my hectic term-time schedule with a feeling of “it wasn’t that hectic”. That’s because the regular round of rushing from school to school loaded up with samba drums, djembes, ukuleles, recorders, mp3 player, memory stick and assorted ID badges has totally disintegrated.

As always, the Summer term becomes a jumble of instrument checking, extra exam practices, remembering to turn up for music exams (essential, when one is the accompanist; AH, did I bring the accompaniments? PHEW) timetable alterations for sports days and fetes…

However, in the mayhem, here is a bit of light reading.

Only a week and a half to go…

birds on a branch divider


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Issue 134: Singing Leaders

It’s that time of year when the End Of Year School Music Assembly looms large and terrifying. The whole school (about 100 children) and parents attend – usually around 40 or 50 turn up.

The tradition (which I started several years ago – why did I set myself up for this!!!) is that every class sings a class song, and each instrumental group has a slot, and finally we do a whole school song which is learned in the separate classes and put together On The Day, at the time of the performance.  ocarina bug

My maddest ever whole school effort involved violins, ocarinas, clarinets, recorders, chime bars all coming together in a high-octane performance of “Raise My Voice” from the booklet “Get Healthy, Get Singing”. Each group had rehearsed separately, and on the day it miraculously came together with me leaping about trying to remember the structure of the song and cue everyone in at the right moment.

This year, the whole school song is “Yonder Come Day”, which is in three parts; an ostinato chant, a poem, and a song. Each class has learned all the elements, I checked the backing track to see how many repetitions will fit, and plotted out a master plan of who sings/chants what and when. However, there is NO WAY that I can cue each group to do their “verse” at the right time.

So, I have charted out the structure, and selected “singing leaders” for each group; one for year 5 and 6, three, working together for year 3 and 4, and three, supported by their class teacher, for Reception, year 1 and year 2.

So, in theory, all I need to do is press “PLAY” on the backing track and enjoy the song, instead of doing my whirling dervish act… I really do hope so, as it would be so impressive for the children to do the whole thing themselves.

birds on a branch divider

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Issue 134: Highlighting Problems

It has been a frustrating time for one of my piano students. We can look at a problem in a bar, work out what is causing it, sort it out, play it correctly half a dozen times in a row, and then as soon as we put that bar back into the piece, he plays the old error again. This has been going on for weeks – why?

One reason may be that when he is practising, he just mutters, corrects the problem, and then carries on. The error, the mutter (and emotional baggage) and correction are now firmly embedded into his playing – just what I wanted to avoid.

Yesterday I found a possible new approach;

I copied a page of the music, and put a high-lighter mark on every note that was causing a problem.

We are still struggling with the first line: (“Dreamy” by Brian Bonsor) and it looked like this:

dreamy highlighted

Not great. It becomes glaringly obvious that there is a habitual error in every bar, almost in every beat, in spite of all the careful, step-by-step work we had done over several weeks to try and correct them. The weird thing was, when I placed this high-lighted copy over the book, he could play the music perfectly. And even weirder, when I then removed the high-lighted copy he could still play it without a single mistake!

I was worried that he would become dependant on the highlighter, but somehow it has helped him to “place” the corrections into the context of the flow of the music so that he can then manage without the markings. We are trying this approach to sorting out the next line, which has the same problems of stumbling over something in almost every beat. I’ve given him the copy to take home and asked him to mark it up as he practises, and to bring it with him next week.

birds on a branch divider



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Issue 134:Running an Infant School Music Club

I’ve just finished leading a music club for a local infant school in the morning before the school day starts. It’s been quite an experience.

I had envisaged a balanced diet of listening to music, singing, moving to music, using percussion instruments in creative ways to compose, or accompany activities. All in the more informal environment of a club with just fifteen young children, as opposed to the massed hordes of thirty, or more, little darlings all eager to get their hands on The Really Big Drum.

It wasn’t as I planned, or imagined, at all. The club took place in the school hall – what a lovely big space! But all the children wanted to do was to tear round and round the room. A friend used to call this “having the runnables” when her five-year-old son used to take off like this. I started to wonder what they had been eating for breakfast. Haribo? Froot Loops? I learned to channel this desperate desire to charge about in a couple of different ways;

using music with strongly contrasting sections (“Rippling Rhythm” from Music Express Extra 5+ or, “Fossils” from Carnival of the Animals, Beat Patterns from Music Express “Developing Skills”) and teaching different actions to do for each section of the music

playing a “running game” where I played the rhythm for different areas of the hall on an instrument; PI-A-NO, CLOCK, DOOR-TO-THE-GAR-DEN and the children had to go (run!) to the right place. I used to let the children take turns at leading the game

We then all had a calming down activity, usually sitting in a circle and passing a tambourine, or a rain-stick round without making any sound.

Once they had got some of the running out of their system, and I had brought them back to earth, I could then indulge myself in a little “music teaching” in line with the planning  had so carefully prepared!synchronised penguins working together

I try to incorporate some kind of active movement in every infant music lesson anyway. Carnival of the Animals is a great standby for short bits of music for stomping, or gliding, or tiptoeing around. You can also take the opportunity to talk about the sounds, instruments, speed and loudness/softness before, or after they have done their moving about.

“Now children, what are The Rules?”

“No bumping, no pushing, and NO FALLING OVER allowed”

“Well remembered, off you go”

birds on a branch divider


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Issue 133: Welcome to the Jungle

What happened? Where did June go?

I was swamped, I have to say, by school concerts, extra lessons, exam practices, and accompanying instrumental exams.

There were also a number of things, non-musical, that needed my full attention, with the result that the Jungle slipped well down the list of priorities.

I apologise if you have been visiting the site in the hope of finding something new. I’ve three posts up; Samba at the school fete, the Cup Song for ukuleles, and Improvisation at the keyboard (in the hope of make learning scales more interesting).

We are also keeping our fingers crossed that we have fixed the bandwidth issues that have been plaguing us. We have a better spam filter in place, and have taken down one post that was acting as a ”spam-magnet”.

Oh, I found this on facebook and twitter this week; I loved it….

Thanks for coming back, and I hope you enjoy this week’s posts.

Great Wall of Chimebars

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Issue 133: Samba at the School Fete

I was approached to see if I would come and run some samba workshops as an activity for a school fete last month. As usual, I said “Yes” first (they were offering a fee !!!) and then began to think about it afterwards.

A lot of the issues were solved by the school – they provided space in a marquee so my instruments would stay dry, and they were incredibly well organised for admin – I arrived to find a clip board with a list of attendees for the three sessions, someone from the committee to run that side of things, and even sticky labels for the children!

I didn’t have to worry about money, as they wanted the activity to be free to all comers.

I set out a number of picnic blankets, which had the dual purpose of defining the different instrumental groups and also acting as boundary markers. I used some of the instruments from my “real” samba kit; surdos (drums), ganzas (shakers), and agogo bells. I augmented these with items from my “street”, or “found” samba kit (that sounds so much more upmarket than “junk” kit). Drums – large, plastic upturned patio tubs, played with mallets made from wooden dowels padded with toy stuffing and socks, tamborims (hand drums) – metal cake-baking dishes and cheap red plastic beaters, and more agogo bells - enamel mugs played with short lengths of dowel. I put out a total of around 30 instruments, and had my trusty boomwhackers in reserve should more be needed.

The plan was to run three 25 minute sessions, and then a final parade of whoever wanted to join in.

It started as envisaged – a group of a dozen children, aged between 6 and 8, turned up, got their name stickers, and we set to. A  bit of “listen and copy”, with opportunities to change instruments, and then “Samba, samba, we love to samba” – my favourite beginner samba rhythm. I introduced the idea of how to stop VERY early on in the proceedings, and then added a few simple breaks;

  • hold up four fingers, blow the whistle “Toot, toot, toot-toot-toot” means everyone stops and says “samba, samba, we love to samba four times
  • as above, but single out one group and give them a signal to continue playing; blow the whistle, and then that group continues playing by themselves, everyone joins in again after four lots of “samba, samba”
  • wave my stick around wildly in the air – everyone plays as fast and as loudly as they can (a “rumble”) until I blow the whistle “Toot, toot, toot-toot-toot” and they go back to “samba,samba”

Doing all this, and swapping instruments, easily occupied the 20-25 minutes.

However, the next workshops didn’t follow this plan At All. Only a couple of very young children turned up for the next session, stayed about ten minutes and drifted off. I was a bit worried about earning my fee.. but I needn’t have been. What tended to happen for the rest of the afternoon was that groups of friends would drift by, accept an invitation to “have a go” and spend some time, depending on age and interest, doing the activities from the first session. At one point I had about 8 young teenagers all working away at Samba Funk, creating their own breaks, and developing a fairly intricate samba for nearly three quarters of an hour.

The parade didn’t happen; there was a sudden change in the weather. The sky turned black, the heavens opened, and suddenly my samba tent was full. I seized my drum and whistle, and soon had an all-age band going, parents, children, grand-parents (“just give me a shaker, dear”).

I had another fete at another school the following weekend. We had put together a similar plan, which followed a similar path – one relatively “formal” workshop, and then a steady flow of young children and parents passing through, some staying longer than others, some suddenly dropping their instruments because it was time for – whatever the next attraction might be.

It was an interesting experience – and gave a lot children the chance to have a go at something new.

Great Wall of Chimebars

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Issue 133: The Cup Song for ukuleles

This song is featured in the film “Pitch Perfect”, which I have to admit I have never watched.

I have posted about “The Cup Song” before, because I do the rhythm stuff with paper cups in class music from time to time.

ants playing "the cup game"

However, the chords for the song are ridiculously easy (by which I mean that even I can play them without breaking into a sweat) for ukuleles;

C, F, G7 and Am (I use G7 instead of G – it sounds ok, and makes it easier to get from F to G7 to C)

you can get the song and the chords here:

There are hundreds of versions of the cup song on the internet. Here’s the one when she’s cooking muffins;

If you hunt around, you’ll find tutorials for the cup actions – they are sort of really simple, but slightly tricky…

Great Wall of Chimebars

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Issue 133: Improvisation for learning piano scales

How can you make learning scales interesting?

Here is my favourite version of “Pianists” from “Carnival of the Animals”

and here’s a little improvisation activity to enjoy, based on knowing your scales;

With your left hand, just play the first and fifth (here’s a chance to use the terms “degrees of the scale”, ”tonic” and dominant”) notes of the scale, either as chords, or as a steady, alternating pattern – 1 5 1 5 etc

with your right hand, make it us – the only rule is that you must use the notes of the scale.

I don’t insist on using the correct fingering, as that goes haywire if you want to make your improvisation jump about in pitch. The objective here is to get the notes of the scale and the key signature straight.

I’ll start doing this kind of thing from very early on with beginners, in C major. I’ll play the left hand and let the student improvise (“just play the white notes – any of them – go ahead”!), or I’ll footle about on the white notes while they keep a steady pulse on C and G, using two hands if necessary.

So, in the key of Bflat major, your left hand uses Bflat and F, and your right hand can play anything chosen from Bflat, C, D, Eflat, F, G, and A. It works, honest! Some notes sound nicer than others, but this is IMPROVISATION. Which means experimenting, figuring out what different combinations of notes sound like.

This also works for harmonic minor, melodic minor, pentatonic, and blues scales.

I find this a useful little activity in all sorts of ways – to reinforce the scale, to prepare for working on a new piece, a fun little filler when you have three minutes to use up at the end of a lesson, or as something to do as part of a practice plan.

Great Wall of Chimebars

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