A junior school that I work in as a freelance music teacher has been offering optional large group keyboard to year 6 children on Friday afternoons. It is a very quick whizz through the basics of using keyboards over five half-hour sessions. There are around twelve children in each group, working together in pairs. The sessions are hugely popular, with most children signing up for them.
Some of the children will already be playing instruments at a relatively advanced stage; anything up to Grade 4 or 5 piano, woodwind, strings or brass, as this school has a strong tradition of instrumental lessons. Others may already have keyboards at home, and many will never have played any instruments apart from school percussion. As the emphasis is on the children working independantly, and at their own pace, this rarely causes a problem. I just make sure that I have plenty of material, at every level, available at every lesson.
This is how the lessons run:
Introduction and ground rules; I keep the rules to a bare minimum;
1 Please don’t go onto the demo during the lesson; in return I promise to allow five minutes at the end of every lesson to check out the demo!
2 Please don’t play your keyboard when I am speaking.
3 Please don’t mess about with, or switch off, other people’s keyboards.
Once I have got this out of the way, the fun starts. The headphones have long given up the ghost and the complicated “Language laboratory” set-up only worked briefly, so the noise levels soon rise, but this seems not to be a great problem. I try and spread the keyboards round the room, and encourage the children to have consideration for others trying to work nearby.
Week 1 is concerned with exploring the voices available on the keyboards. I spend a few minutes showing the children how to switch the keyboards on, how to switch the touch response function off, and demonstrating how to change the voices. In passing I also rmind them to keep the volume “below 12 o’clock”; i.e. the dot on the knob no further than half-way round.
I set the task of exploring the voices, looking for one that they can share with the class in a few minutes’ time. Children who have been learning instruments for several years will often choose to try out pieces they already know in different voices. Those who have keyboards at home will often be happy to help their partner, or interested in comparing their own instrument with the ones at school.
While they are busy, I take the lid off the piano in the music room. (No-one ever notices this happening; they are all far too busy discovering the drum kit, special effects, and the horrible noise that you get playing the lowest note with the tuba voice.)
After about five mnutes, we listen to each group’s favourite voice, and comment on the timbre and why they have chosen that voice. Then we move over to the piano for a look inside; it is a good idea to instruct the children to put their hands in their pockets to help them to keep their fingers out of the mechanism! We discuss what we can see, and the difference between the piano and the keyboard. Finally, I show them a practical demonstration of resonance; I press the sustain (right-hand) foot pedal, and shout “Hello, can you hear me” into the piano. The children are always hugely impressed at hearing the ghostly echo from the undamped strings and it is an excellent demonstration of how sound travels through air. After they have had a go at shouting at the piano (I let them decide on something suitable for them to all shout together), we return to the keyboards to explore the voices further. I encourage them to find the keyboard equivalent for the pictures of orchestral instruments that are on the walls,
Demo time, and first lesson over.
Quick revision of what we did last week, and of ground rules.
This week’s focus is on pulse and rhythm.
I set the task of exploring style; initially just using the stop and start functions and changing the styles. Again, after a few minutes they share what they have found with the rest of the class.
I then take over one of the keyboards. As a class, we clap the pulse of various different styles, and work out whether they count in three or four time. To demonstrate the effect of pulse, I play “Twinkle twinkle” against a waltz style, and “Away in a Manger” against a march style. The children begin to look queasy so I stop.
Moving on to tempo; we all clap the pulse while I hold down the button for increasing, and then decreasing, the tempo and discuss what happened. They are now desperate to get back to their own keyboards to try this out, but manage to absorb the implications of the “fill-in” and “ending” functions first. The rest of the lesson takes care of itself as the children try out the effects of tempo, fill-in, ending on different styles.
Demo time – and their faces when I casually mention that tempo works on the demo tunes is a delight. Most of them have also learned that they can play along with the demos on different voices.
Spellings! The children groan, but then realise that they can pick out words on the keyboards using the letters A B C D E F G. I get them to play the musical alphabet (starting on C) up and down the keyboards, show them the easy way to find D (between the TWO BLACK NOTES) and therefore C and E. After playing words such as EGG, BEEF, AGE, BAGGAGE, they move on to “nonsense” words such as CDEC CDEC EFG EFG. Hey Presto! That’s Frere Jacques! No matter what the time of year, they are all fiercely determined to manage to extract the whole of Jingle Bells from the keyboard by the end of the lesson.
Demo time – but many of the children are too busy with Jingle bells to bother.
Single Finger Chords. This is very satisfying for the children. It brings together the topics of week 2 and 3; keeping the pulse and choosing the right letters. Once they have got the hang of pressing the right key at the right time, they are ready for melody and accompaniment. Working in pairs, with one person playing the tune and the other coping with the chords and fill-in button, most partnerships will manage to play “Mary had a Little Lamb” and possibly Jingle Bells, choosing suitable style, tempo and voice.
Demo time – no-one notices.
I supply a selection of simple well-known tunes in letter form, with chords, and the children help themselves. They sit there engrossed. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, I get their attention to offer them the chance to perform to the group at the end of the lesson, but only if they want to. I leave it entirely up to each pair to choose what, if anything, they play. Almost without exception, everyone takes part. The offerings may include any or all of the following; a grade 3 piano exam piece, the rhythm of the opening of the Eastenders theme, a complicated duet using drum kit and various voices, a careful and accurate performance of Pachelbel’s canon, or a cautious and accident-prone progress through the Titanic theme. Everyone is cheered on and applauded by the group, and there is general dismay when time is up and they realize that this is the final session!