Month: March 2016

Compositional Process

This post is about how I go about composing music.  Not everyone will work the same way but I see composition as a step by step process of making decisions.  There is nothing magical or mystical about it; it’s like building a new Lego model based on many, many other models that you have built before with the instructions.  It is the culmination of a series of decisions.  Here is how I composed a song for our Early Years production called “Have you Ever Seen a Goat?”

  1. Think of context. The musical I was writing the music for was entitled “The Duck in the Truck” so I read the book.  The goat in the story is lazing around in his motor-boat sleeping in a hammock.
  2. Think of setting. When I thought of sleeping in a boat in the sunshine I imagined tourists taking a Spanish siesta in the Mediterranean.
  3. Think of style. I thought we could make it a Spanish sounding flamenco song based on Point 2.
  4. Think of instrumentation. This meant I should compose the music on the guitar rather than the piano.
  5. Think of instrumental technique. I tried playing flamenco-type music on the guitar.  I wasn’t very good at it as my guitar playing is pretty basic – I am primarily a pianist.  I made up some sort of strumming style that sounded a bit like flamenco.
  6. Think of tonality. I tried to make it sound a bit like bull-fighting so I played some chords in a minor key like you hear in the movies.  I thought of the music in the film “The Mask of Zorro” as it sounds Spanish/Mexican.
  7. Think of instrumental/vocal range. After thinking about Catherine Zeta Jones and epic sword fights, I thought about the range of the children’s voices in Early Years and made sure that we were no lower than a B and no higher than a top D.
  8. Think of key. I decided that we would do this one in E minor as the last few songs I wrote were in D and C.
  9. Think of harmony. I played around with a few chords and stuck with Em, D and C major 7.  It sounded a bit flamenco-like and imagined Catherine Zeta Jones dancing around with a sword.
  10. Think of melody. I whistled a few tunes to the chords to see if anything fit.
  11. Think of lyrics. I realized I was procrastinating and thinking way too much about Catherine Zeta Jones so thought about some words to the song.  They had to be relatively simple, use the story as much as possible and use basic rhyming words as that is the focus in Early Years.
  12. Think of phrasing. I decided on a question as the first words so the music could rise when we got to the question mark and then fall the second time around.  I had done something similar before and this is a technique used in many styles of music.
  13. Think of context of lyrics. The question I thought of was “Have you ever seen a goat, floating on a boat, watching the waves go by” as that was portrayed by the picture in the book.
  14. Think of second phrase. I then needed an answering phrase so I settled on “Have you ever seen a goat, floating on a boat, gazing at the big, blue sky”.
  15. Practice to mastery. I then played this over and over about 14 times and sang and whistled a melody that fitted over the top till I was happy with how the words scanned and how the melody was shaped.
  16. Think of alternatives. I checked the range of the tune and was happy with it.  It did start on a low B, which is about the lowest note I can use for Early Years, and I considered changing the key to F minor but as this is a nightmare key for the guitar I decided to stick with E minor, especially as I love playing the chord of C major 7.
  17. Think of the structure. With young children you really need to keep a pretty distinct structure so I decided on an AABA format.
  18. Think of a new section. I then tried to make a section B.  I decided it should be about the goat being very lazy because that was the character of the goat and I know that character-based drama is better than plot-driven drama so I could do the same for music.
  19. Think about new lyrics. I played around with a few chords and came up with something – “Lazy, very lazy, sleeping in his hammock getting lots of rest”.
  20. Think about existing music. I was a bit worried about this as it sounded very familiar.  I wondered if I had written something similar before.  I hadn’t.  My next thought was what have I plagiarized this from?  I decided it was a bit similar to a 1980’s worship song we had sung in church.  I wondered whether it was too similar to put in.  I recalled the song where I thought I had cribbed it from and thought it was a bit similar in style but the notes were completely different and it certainly wasn’t flamenco, more like Israeli klezmer music.
  21. Think about adding a new phrase. Having decided the material was OK to use, I made the second phrase, “Lazy, very lazy, relaxing, chillaxing is what he likes best”.
  22. Think about audience, venue and culture. Most readers will be familiar with the word “chillaxing”; it’s what David Cameron the British Prime Minister is always being accused of.  I imagined the PM as a lazy goat in his posh motor-boat and thought that the teachers might chuckle at the reference.  Originally I thought perhaps I should not put this in as technically it is not really a word but then thought Roald Dahl got away with this all the time so why not?  I decided to leave it in.  Sorry PM.
  23. Think of transitions. I then needed to get back to section A.  I had finished on an imperfect cadence so I did a strangish bar-chord movement down the guitar with no particular notes in mind.  I thought the children might find that funny and it would be even funnier if I put a pause in just before it.  They would all be waiting for the strange bar movement and I could keep them waiting so they would all be looking straight at me, ready to sing.
  24. Think of different instrumentation. I then thought that in the show performance I would have to play this on a piano so what should I do?  I decided that I would use a descending glissando instead.
  25. Think of the ending. I then put all the song together and thought about how to end it.  I decided to repeat the last line twice which is an easy way to end a song and I had done this many times before.
  26. Think of an innovation. I liked the song but it seemed a little bland at the end. I thought I needed something a little different, as it was too formulaic.  One thing that I know I do very well is creating good endings, so I spend quite a bit of time getting this right.  I wondered what I should do to end the song a bit innovatively.
  27. Think of theoretical techniques. From my A-Level harmony lessons we had come across techniques known as augmentation and diminution.  Augmentation is when you make the notes longer.  I decided to make them exactly twice as long.  I then slowed down right to the last note sung and on the last note went back to the original tempo.  For the first time in my life I thanked the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg who used augmentation and diminution in his tone rows, where I had first learned the technique.
  28. Think of the final cadence. I ended the song with a perfect cadence with just the guitar in triumphant, flamenco style. I even thought of putting an “O Lay!” at the end but decided against it as the last time I did this, this kids were a nightmare saying it all the time in the wrong places.
  29. Think of the introduction. It is always best to leave the introduction till the end as you have material you can use.  In fact, many musical introductions are simply the final phrase so you need the ending before you can have the beginning.
  30. Practice to mastery. I then played the song about 14 more times until I was happy about it.

This does not include the whole scoring and recording process which is still part of composition.  In those stages the song changed slightly as I had to formalize it so another musician would be able to play the music.  I also tidied up some of the rhythms so it would score well.

For a very simple song I had to make at least thirty decisions; imagine what it’s like for a symphony!  This is also why I am so unsure about composition being central to the Primary curriculum.  Composition done well is very hard and needs an awful lot of thought.  It is certainly not impossible for children to achieve; some children will just get it and not have to think too hard.  However, others really need to be explicitly taught what to do and this is why I think it is inappropriate for Primary-aged children.  Half the problem is that the tasks that children are often asked to do in composition lessons in KS1, 2 and 3 require group decision-making and it is hard enough to make one decision on your own rather than decide together and argue about it.  We seem to think group decision making is easier as many hands make light work.  It is not, composing collaboratively is even harder in my experience unless one person writes the lyrics and the other writes the music.  And if you are the one writing the lyrics, it’s hardly a Music lesson.

To compose well you need to play an instrument fluently; without being able to play the guitar relatively competently, there is no chance I could have composed that song.  Also, many of the decisions I made to write the song were based on things that I had played and heard before.  This is why I believe that if we focus on performing, aural skills and listening to a wide range of music children will become better composers.  Time spent composing is time lost on performing and listening and paradoxically won’t necessarily make them better at composing.  Being a better performer will.  There is no merit in letting children flounder at the beginning trying to create music that they are ill-prepared to make.  Let’s spend the time performing instead and bring in composition a little bit later where they will flourish.

Here is the song:

Have You Ever Seen A Goat final

Music Tutor iBooks

essential elements

I am learning the clarinet at the moment so I was looking for tutor books in order to teach myself.  I nearly bought a book with a CD but then I realised that I no longer have a CD player because I play everything on Spotify now.  So I thought, maybe there is a tutor book on the iBooks store with the backing tracks already on it?  And there was.  And it’s really good.  I just put the iPad on the table and connect it to the Bluetooth player for a good clear sound.  Every song has a track you can play along with.  Here is one of the pages:

example of music in essential elements

It was about 6 pounds, so not too expensive at all and no more fiddling around with CD’s and music stands.  I also bought a viola iBook because I need to learn alto clef properly as I still play the viola like a violin.

This would be a good resource to get for schools who have a “Bring your own iPad” scheme combined with a First Access (what used to be known as Wider Opportunities) class instrumental program.  Parents could each buy the book for 5 or 6 pounds for use at home and teachers could use the resource on the IWB and teach multiple instruments at the same time.  I know a lot of schools use Charanga, but this is a viable alternative and could work well.  I would be very interested to hear from any teacher who is already doing this.

The other thing I have found by learning the clarinet is how knackering practice can be when you are a beginner.  I was really running out of puff on one song and my mouth was a vibrating mess so I asked a few friends who were clarinettists why I was so rubbish.  They told me it was perfectly natural and it will take time to build up muscles in your mouth, so its best to only practice for ten minutes at a time.  Learning a new instrument is good for music teachers as it makes us understand what it is like to start from scratch.  I had certainly forgotten how hard it is to start – perhaps I will have more empathy with my students as a result!

Instrumental Rhythms

instruments

This is the last in the rhythm unit of work for Year 2.  So far, the children have done Superhero, Transformer, Rondo, Composer and Tasty Rhythms.  Instrumental Rhythms is the last in the series.  The final set of rhythms is on families of the orchestra; String Rhythms, Woodwind Rhythms, Brass Rhythms and Percussion Rhythms.  Through this lesson children will learn to identify orchestral instruments in the four families.  The rhythms are written in pitch order from high to low.  There are no new rhythms in this lesson but we do have a triplet in one, to remind the children of what we did in the last lesson.  The rhythms will be played on tambourines, lollipop drums, maracas and, for a change, sand blocks as we have not used these instruments and we happen to have a set of eight in the department.

instrument rhythms

Although this is the last in the series, this is not the last time we will encounter these rhythms.  I will use them as a starter in next terms unit, but we will just clap them.  If you don’t keep revisiting the rhythms they will easily get forgotten.  It is also best to interleave practising the rhythms as it is one of the best ways of securing a concept into long-term memory.  So every other week we will go through a set of these rhythms just as a short, two minute activity.

There is a lot in this weeks lesson.  The names of the instruments, what they look like, their timbre, their pitch and the rhythms themselves.  Consequently, I will spend a lot of time going through this before we start.  A good website I have used in the past is the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra page for children.  We will go through all the instruments mentioned in the rhythms using this site before we play anything.  The children in my classes are quite familiar with orchestral instruments as every week the last thing we do is listen to four instruments and work out what instrument it is from the sound.  They are also familiar with the names of the families as we go through them every lesson too.  Just a minute or so doing this every lesson can have a massive cumulative effect.

Next half term’s work is on timbre so this is a good short introduction into instruments and how they can be used and combined.

Here are the pdf’s of the Instrumental Rhythm set:

Percussion Rhythms

String Rhythms

Woodwind Rhythms

Brass Rhythms

Orchestral Rhythms

 

 

RIP National Curriculum

I haven’t read the new white paper on education yet as it is hot off the press but the gist of what is happening in UK schools is that every school will become an academy by 2020. Petitions have been started, information (and misinformation) being passed around on Facebook and Twitter and it is all going a bit crazy.  Perhaps I am being completely naive but I am really not that bothered about school structures; it always seems to be about teachers discussing who is in charge and who gets to boss who around.  In my experience working in all sorts of different schools, there is always someone who wants to boss you around and as I actually know what I am doing, I just wish they would leave me to it and enjoy the results of happy well-educated children and contented parents.

The biggest change that will affect teachers that has hardly been reported on, is that by turning every school into an academy the government has basically got rid of the National Curriculum.  Well everything that isn’t examined to be more precise.  This is because academies are not obligated to teach the N.C. and if every school becomes an academy, there would be no compulsion to have to follow it.  This seems a bit odd as they only made a new curriculum two years ago.

In music education, teachers are continuously trying to justify why the subject should exist in the first place and how it should be taught (there are so many different music schemes and they are hugely different) but actually there is very little attention to what is getting taught.  If you go by the National Curriculum for Music, very little – it fits onto two sides of A4. So that’s why I am in two minds about the academies plan, as although the Curriculum was incredibly basic, at least there actually was one.  I guess the ghost of the N.C. will linger on as it will still be there lurking in the netosphere but we can choose to ignore it or give it the finger.  If that’s the case it hardly makes for something truly national but as long as we can just get on with teaching music properly I’ll be happy.

Tasty Rhythms

fruit

This is a continuation of the Year 2 unit on rhythms.

“Composer Rhythms” was a bigger hit than I could have imagined.  I only wanted to give a very brief overview of the eight composers, just to get across the idea that a composer is someone who writes music.  However, the children were absolutely fascinated by them and had so many questions.  Here are a few: “Was Beethoven born deaf or did he become deaf?”, “Did Liszt get married?”, “Did Bach die before Mozart?”.  I took the opportunity to play them a humorous version of Beethoven’s Fifth which they loved:

Anyway, we managed to perform the Composer Rhythms and they were so much more settled at getting into their groups now we have a routine.  To get their attention after they move from group to group I have been playing some rhythms which they copy on their instruments.  It’s a much better way of getting eventual silence rather than shouting out “STOP!’.  I have got a little bell on my table and I am going to try that to signal that we are ready to start the next set of rhythms.

The next stage in our rhythm learning is to increase their length, so the children are reading more notation and thinking harder about the note values.  So far, apart from the rondo, everything has been a one bar phrase.  This time we are performing two bars of 4/4. Here they are:

Tasty rhythms

I have called them in turn; Vegetable Rhythms, Fruity Rhythms, Meaty Rhythms and Sweet Rhythms.  We will talk a little about food and healthy choices and a balanced diet as a cross-curricular link.  I thought hard about the triplet on the “strawberry’ and I thought why not – let’s teach them this new rhythm. Here is the carousel diagram:

tasty rhythm diagram

Like last week I am going to use maracas, tambourines, woodblocks and lollipop drums.

Here are the files that anyone is very welcome to download and print:

Fruity Rhythms

Meaty Rhythms

Sweet Rhythms

Vegetable Rhythms

 

 

Rhythms with a Rondo

This is a continuation of our Year 2 work on rhythm.  So far we have done Superhero rhythms, Transformer rhythms and Composer rhythms.  The children are much better at the activities now they have settled into their groups; they know the carousel procedure, where they start and where they end.  As I put the rhythms on stands in the four corners of the rooms, they do not need me to say their rhythm, they read it on the stand and start playing together even before we start the activity.  Now they are used to playing in turn I am going to add a new element – a rhythm we all play together which recurs after every section.  In musical terms what I am introducing is rondo form or ABACADA form, where section A (the rondo) keeps returning.  We all play the rondo together.  Here it is:

rondo

We say it together as “fly, fly, spider, fly, caterpillar, spider, fly, hey!”  On the rest everyone stops except someone who plays the cymbal and we all shout “hey”.  The children like this bit a lot!

The rhythms are all repeated four times and after the fourth time we all come back with the rondo.  Here are the other rhythms:

rhythms with rondo

This activity works well, it is an extension of the other rhythm activities as it adds the element of structure as well as some semiquavers.  It is also a good opportunity to teach children how to use the guiros properly and to tell them the proper name rather than “scraper”.

Here are all the rhythms as a pdf.  Feel free to download and print.

Rhythms with repeated figure

 

Composer Rhythms

composers together

So after the Superhero and Transformer rhythms it’s time for something a little more high-brow, so we now have Composer rhythms. This is a good opportunity to use the word “composer” and understand what it means and give a little introduction to some of these famous personalities. It is also beneficial for children to think that music is not just something that happens now but has happened for many, many years. Most the children I’m teaching don’t even know what a CD is, as everything is on iPads, Spotify and YouTube so it’s an opportune moment to explain how people heard music in the past.  I tell them about CD’s, tapes, vinyl records, reel-to-reel tape, gramophones and what people had to do before recording was invented. After my little introduction we play the rhythms. I do make a little joke about my “Chopin Liszt” of groceries I need to write down before I go home.

composers

For this activity, I have Haydn and Mendelssohn on the woodblocks, Beethoven and Mozart on the lollipop drums, Chopin and Liszt on drums and cymbals and Bach and Tchaikovsky on the triangles and tambourines. I have always wanted to write that sentence – it will probably be considered heresy by most classical musicians but there we go! We perform the same carousel just like the other rhythms.

Here are the rhythms as pdf’s if you want to download them:

Bach Tchaikovsky

Beethoven Mozart

Chopin Liszt

Haydn Mendelssohn

 

Backing Tracks and Live Performance

I am not that keen on backing tracks unless they are only used for rehearsal purposes. A friend of mine said that at his son’s school they use backing tracks for public performance. Normally, on a CD there will be a vocal backing track and a track without vocals. The idea is that you will use the vocals for rehearsals and the backing for a public performance. However, my friend said that his school used the vocal track for their performance. So what the audience heard was not even only their own children singing!  The excuse given is so the children sing more confidently as the vocal track will help support them. However, if the children never hear themselves singing as a group without support, they will not know how to take responsibility for their own performance. Too much support results in poor performance and poor learning outcomes.

So what are the alternatives?  First, accompany children with live music. Most people think that this has to be done on a piano. It doesn’t – in many ways a guitar is a better instrument to accompany children as you support them with chords. If you use a piano you are tempted to play the tune in the right hand. This gives the children too much support of the melody. If you accompany on a guitar then the onus is on the children to sing the melody properly. If you accompany on a piano it is good to miss bits out so you only hear the children singing. Like many things in life, less is more.

If you are going to be a little more ambitious and use drums or congas in your accompaniment then you really need a bass guitar as well. If you have a good pianist you can get them to play the bass or even split a keyboard so the top half is piano and the bottom half is a bass guitar sound. You do need the bass if you are going to go for a full live instrumental accompaniment otherwise the sound will just be too top heavy.

If you listen to any recorded music on a CD or MP3 and pick out the most prominent parts you will find they invariably feature in this order:

  1. Lead vocals
  2. Bass
  3. Backing vocals
  4. Drums
  5. Guitar
  6. Keyboards

In school performances when live music is featured, invariably the teacher in charge of the mixer (who normally knows next to nothing about sound) boosts the sound of the piano as they think it is the most important instrument. The resulting mix will inevitably sound groundless. If you are playing in a largish hall you need to have the bass at a much higher level to effectively ground the performance.  Also, if children cannot hear the bass they find it harder to sing the melody. So either use only piano, only guitar or if you are going for a full accompaniment with percussion – piano/guitar, drums and bass. I would also suggest that if you are going to rehearse with full band you also invite the person mixing the music to rehearsals too.

Most schools do not have these luxuries though and have either one accompanist or none. If you do not have an accompanist I suggest you advertise or ask your local High School if they have anyone on staff, or a talented pupil who can accompany your children. My music teacher started his career as a 15 year old organist for a local church choir; if he had not had that experience he probably would not have got the organ scholarship at Durham Cathedral when he went to Durham University. The experience he gained from accompanying the choir was priceless. Rather than using backing tracks, we should be spending a little time looking around our communities to see if we can support young musicians. For a musical I once wrote, I enlisted some parents to play guitars, flutes, bass and drums. It worked out well and some parents who had not played for many years got back into playing music as a result. If your school has no accompanist, send a letter out to your parents. You’ll never know what hidden talents are out there if you don’t ask.

If you really must use backing tracks for public performance, please stop using YouTube. When people download these tracks they come out very low quality. There is a great website called karaoke-version where you can make custom backing tracks of songs that do not lose the sound quality. There is a huge library of them too. The beauty of this site is you can change the key of songs to fit your voices. Often when backing tracks are used, the songs are a tone and half too high for the children if it features a male soloist. The music industry of today generally favours high tenors and Adele-like altos belting out tunes in chest voice so it is quite difficult to find music in an optimal key for primary school children to sing properly in their head voices. If you get children to belt everything out in chest voice you can actually do some vocal damage and it is not good for initial singing technique.

There is a role for backing tracks but more and more I am seeing professional music teachers using these tracks when they could be accompanying using an instrument. I have heard the argument that you can focus more on the children if you are not playing and can put in actions for songs. Having the freedom to teach children well by using technology has merit, but in public performance it is always better to have live accompaniment. It sounds fresher, is more emotionally fulfilling and the children always sing much better. I believe that children need to understand that music does not come from a box or an iPod and it requires skill and practice. What better way to show this than to have live accompaniment.

Transformer Rhythms

transformers-generation-1-1st-series-autobots

This is a continuation of my rhythm unit of work for Year 2. We played the Superhero rhythms last week and that worked well and now we are on our Transformer rhythms. Next week is Classical Music Composer rhythms. The idea of this series is to have four groups of instruments and the children play them in a carousel going round the four corners of the room.

Transformers togetherEvery week we have the same groups so they get the chance to gel together over time. I am not a great fan of group work in general as it normally turns into group non-work but this is an opportunity for children to play a variety of rhythms on instruments in a structured manner. In this activity each group plays the same rhythm together and each rhythm is played independent from the others. Generally, what does not work is when group work becomes a free for all and children play rhythms with no sense of actual pulse in their own time.  This approach fails because it is impossible to hear what you are playing with so many other sounds present in the room.  This results with children understandably playing louder and louder so they can hear their part above the cacophony.  And this is what leads to music teachers becoming deaf and losing their voice, upset children sticking their fingers in their ears and frustration all around.

For a class of 28 children you will need four sets of seven lollipop drums, seven tambourines, seven woodblocks and the other a mixture of cowbells/triangles and cymbals (the cowbells/triangles play “Optimus” and the cymbals play “Prime”. Like the Superhero rhythms, the activity takes about 15 to 20 minutes to complete. It’s a fun introduction to standard rhythmic notation and because we do a similar structured activity every week for six weeks, we get the chance to have time for repeated practice, which of course is the path to mastering anything competently.

Here are the four rhythms.  Feel free to download and print out if you would like to try the activity.

Bumblebee Ironhide

Optimus Prime

Sideswipe Sunstreaker

Thundercracker Megatron