17/60 March to the Beat

I learned this activity at a training day earlier this week, and have been trying it out yesterday – three times! With year 1 (just 5 of them, as reception had already gone home), a year 3 and 4 class, and a year 5 and 6 class.

It is deceptively simple – you play a walking beat on a drum (or, in my case, a woodblock) and the idea is that the class walks round in time to your beat, stopping when you stop, starting when you start. You’d be surprised; we found it easy on the training day, but we are all grown-up professional musicians. Even making allowance for the natural exuberance of small children released to move around in a large space, it took a while for them to settle into the beat.

I introduced the activity while the children were sitting in a circle. I played a steady beat and walked round in time, stopping and starting and asking the children what I was doing.

Of course, these are crotchet beats, a musical fact I will be introducing later.

Then, you introduce “jogging” – quavers – (which is NOT the same as running, Liam and Percival). This can (and briefly, did, with the older children!)  quickly degenerate into crazy running round unless you are ready for this. I found lashings of praise for the children doing really neat jogging, especially if they were “pack-leaders” did the trick.

Once it was going well, I let the children take a turn at leading, setting them up for success by announcing that I was looking for really good followers to be the next leader.

Finally I dished out claves, wood blocks and rhythm sticks to everyone, and asked them to play in time with me, watching and following exactly what I did (“watch out, who is a really good follower?”)

One more class to try it with – a year 1 and 2 class this afternoon.

It is a surprisingly tiring activity – mentally – as you need to concentrate if you want to get it right.

On the training day there were further ideas for developing this very simple, but profound, activity which I’ll post in due course.

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16/60 Jazz Piano

I’m about to start teaching Jazz Piano. Again.

ABRSM Jazz Piano: Pieces Grade 5

Now here’s an admission – many, many years ago, I did teach the ABRSM Jazz syllabus. I had a Grade 1, and Grade 2 and a Grade 3 pupil, and at the same time I entered myself for a Grade 4. Why enter myself?

Well, this was completely new territory for me. I had a copy of the ABRSM book “Jazz From Scratch” by Charles Beale which I had a good look at, and then I bought some of the exam material. (Regrettably, I lent my “Jazz from Scratch” to a pupil and it has never come back. Ho Hum. I could do with it now.) I remember starting with Grade 1, happily chuntering through the first page, and then, on page two, the notes in the right hand all disappeared to be replaced by the words “8 bars improvisation”.

You have to remember that I started piano lessons when dinosaurs were still roaming the land, and one played Czerny and Walter Carroll and Mozart and Bach and, maybe, occasionally, something very weird like Bartok.

Image result for scenes at the farm

Yup – this is just how I remember the cover.

So, back to me and page two of Grade 1 Jazz piano. I poured a glass of wine, had a go at interpreting the chord symbols (they didn’t write them like that in my theory classes) and set to work. It took a couple of evenings before I got the rough idea – and a bit longer before I worked out how to “teach” improvisation – a skill I had never explored before.

I can’t have been too bad – we all passed with better or lower scores, reflecting how much practise we had done, how well we had learned our scales and what we were like at sight reading.

I entered myself, because I wanted to know exactly how the exam, especially the aural section, was delivered, and I wanted to have a clear idea of how the comments reflected what the candidate played. I’ve plenty of experience of classical exams as candidate and accompanist. I’ve even taken music exams as an adult of maturer years; my teaching Diploma (LTCL) and Grade 5 singing, and even, in a mad moment, Grade 1 violin!). So I can be confident that I can translate the examiner’s written comments into what happened in the exam room, even when I wasn’t there. It is a different experience. There is a lot of improvising, in all three pieces, and even in the sight reading and aural tests.

The scales are “weird” too; I developed a sort of short-cut to learning them which meant that I could rely on my classical major/minor knowledge to save time in learning them. The fingering can go a bit wild if you aren’t paying attention;

mixolydian means “minus one, or one accidental lower” eg C mixolydian is C-with-B-flat

dorian means “double-delete” eg C dorian is C-with-E-flat-and-B-flat

lydian means “let’s have another accidental” eg C lydian is C-with-F-sharp”

aeolian means “in the minor key-signature” eg C aeolian is C-with-B-flat-and-E-flat-and-A-flat

I admit, I kind of winged it through the syllabus first time around. This time I aim to do better. For starters, as part of developing my skills at reading lead sheets, I am going to mug up on the chord notation properly. Maybe I’ll even attempt Grade 5… More of this to come!

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15/60 Free Song Source

Some time ago I came across this site;


I’ve copied and pasted this from the home page which explains who they are and what they are about:



This website was initially created to provide resources for the Vocal Union project. All materials on the site are freely available to people working in community music and education.
We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Sage Gateshead and Sing Up.
The site is currently hosted in collaboration with BlueJam.


It is a treasure-trove of lovely songs for all ages. I’m about to start running the singing assemblies at one of my schools this term and I can see that I’m going to include a few of these. Like this one, which looks like a nice little warm-up, and might even find its way into the Harvest Festival. Happy singing!

Bela Mama



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14/60 Lead Sheets and Piano Lessons


At the music service that I work for (when I’m not working for other schools or as a private teacher) we have been revising the piano curriculum that supports and underpins what we teach. For the first time, teaching the pupils how to read lead sheets has been incorporated, starting from around pre-grade 1 level. In the early stages we just get the pupils to play a simply accompaniment to a melody using the chord symbols, while I play the melody, working up to more complex chords and “hands together” as they progress.

I’ve added chord symbols to many of the easy songs that I use in music lessons like this;


so I think these will help me get started. I’m also going to browse through www.teachpianotoday.com which has a lot of blog posts and ideas to get me started.

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13/60 New Term, New Start, New Post

I vaguely remember stating that I would attempt to do 60 posts this year – but I appear to have had an unintended Music Jungle sabbatical for several months.

willy wonka quote

Right – let’s do some sums; there are seventeen weeks left in this year before the start of the Christmas holidays. So, three or four posts per week should see me on my way to managing a total of 60. Let’s go!

I have signed my school up for http://www.classicfm.com/classical-100/full-list/ which is a list of 100 pieces of classical music that you can stream. It’s been around for years, but somehow I never got around to exploring it

classical100 resized

My new resolution for this coming term is to try and get the class teachers into a mindset of playing music to their classes every day, and this app might be just the way to encourage them. It has been developed by ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and ClassicFM. You can select music by instruments, mood, period, nationality and other things that I can’t begin to remember. There’s a really good variety of old favourites and less well-known pieces; well worth a look. Or rather a listen.

Schools can register for unlimited access to Classical 100 at www.abrsm.org/classical100.


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2017/12 Prep Tests and Teaching by Rote

Rote is how I learned to play piano – I had a “knuckle-rapper” teacher to start with.

“It goes like this, dear” she would say, playing the first phrase. If I copied it right, all was well and good. If not, she’d do it again. I’d normally manage to learn it after a few goes, depending on how complex it was – but how on earth could you practice it during the week? So, back to square one, next lesson… and the one after, and the one after, which is where the knuckle rapping would probably start.

I could just about read treble clef, but bass clef was a mystery for several years, until I started learning the cello. And changed piano teacher. The ne piano teacher was NOT a knuckle rapper, but none-the-less fairly scary.

So, I have been a rigid advocate of learning to read music. On the whole, unless there is a definite reason (dyslexia, learning difficulties), reading music isn’t that heard – no worse than learning spellings or times tables. It’s just not very interesting – like spellings and times tables.

However, in the case of the piano Prep Test, I have radically changed my approach. I now tend to teach the five-finger exercises as “telephone numbers”, written into their practice notebooks. From the new test, “Dreaming”

5 4 3 2 1234545 right hand, and then left hand.

without bothering on start notes. “Just play it wherever you like” I say. I make sure the rhythm is correct, and I make sure they DON’T see the printed copy yet. Once the fingers and rhythm are secure, I then show them where on the piano to place their hands;

“Right Hand starts on A, the first letter of the alphabet. Left starts on D, DOWN there”. I write those instructions into their practice notebooks. Later on, when that is secure, I show them the printed copy. “That’s what you have been playing” I say, in admiration, and they glow with pride. I show them how the notes move step by step, finger to finger, and we look at the dynamics. Next week, they can play from the copy, following the notes and the dynamics, and also “by heart” because they’ve been doing that for weeks now. “Reading” the music holds no worries – they are “reading” what they already know.

I’ve used this approach with a tense and timid Grade 1 pupil as well – teaching her the first part of “La Donna e Mobile” with a mixture of finger numbers and rote instructions;

3   3   3    5  42;    2   2   2   4  31;   3   2   1  ”hoppity-skip-jump-32″;    4  3   1  ”hoppity-skip-jump-32″;

If I had shown her the printed music, she would have stopped practising in fright. Now she’s playing confidently, and I can relate the next part of the piece to what she already knows. I call that a success, and can build upon these very first steps in gaining confidence.

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2017/11 The New ABRSM Prep Test

I’m a fan! I can’t remember how long the old prep test book had been out, but if I never teach “Boating Lake” or “Jogalong” again I won’t mind a bit. Not to mention “Walking”, “Rocking” and “Hopping”.

The new prep test is a more realistic mid-step between the end of the tutor books that I mainly use, and the Grade 1 exam.

I’m also really enjoying the pieces in the new Piano Star books. I’m using all three of them.

Book 1 makes an ideal mini-bridge between the tutor book and the next level. Younger children may have become so used to the way the music is presented in their book, that having another book of pieces in quirky styles and a different font helps them become more confident, and consolidates note-reading.

With more confident pupils, I just tick off the ones in the list of pieces which I think they will be able to work out (with a little help here and there) for themselves. Tripping across the odd new note or rhythm here or there is a good initiative test for them.

I take a similar approach with book 2. It contains alternative pieces for the Prep Test which are amusing, descriptive, approachable and inviting.  As the date of the prep test comes closer, we select one piece to “learn perfectly” while “messing around” with the others – we might play them on different notes, at different octaves, missing out accidentals or adding more – whatever seems good at the time.

Book 3 is a good mini-step between Prep Test and Grade 1.

As a general point, I think it is a great mistake to lurch straight into the next exam book the week after taking an exam. Ideally, I would like to have spent some time covering all the technical requirements (dealing with the struggles and issues along the way) on pieces that are not too challenging. That way I also get to introduce lots of different pieces, so that the students have plenty of opportunity for honing their note/sight-reading skills.

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2017/9 When they stop practicing

Here’s an insightful blogpost from www.teachpianotoday.com for dealing with those times when a student is unable to practice.

Not so much for when they’ve lost the motivation or interest as when, through circumstances at home or at school, they are just not in a mental place where practice can happen.

There’s not much that I can add – except maybe the advice to give the student a hug, although probably what they might need at the time, needs to be treated with caution these days.

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