Month: November 2018

Keyboards

I think every child should be able to play the keyboard by the age of 10. By being able to play the keyboard I mean:

  1. They can switch it on, put the headphones in and know the letters names of all the notes including sharps and flats
  2. They can change the tones and discriminate between at least thirty of them from sound alone, using correct instrument names
  3. They can change the rhythms and make them faster and slower and know the difference between different time signatures
  4. They can play melodies by rote with one hand from the guidance of the teacher modeling from the front
  5. They can play melodies using treble clef notation with one hand using all five fingers
  6. They can play simple pieces with hands together
  7. They can play single fingered chords using their left hand
  8. They can play fingered chords both in the left hand and right hand
  9. They can play a simple piece with a melody and left hand single fingered chords
  10. They can play with a partner and on their own
  11. They can record themselves playing
  12. They know how to compose their own melodies using staff notation
  13. They can pick out a tune from a simple melody from listening alone
  14. They can improvise a tune using a few notes

This is not an exhaustive list but if we could manage to teach this it would make our secondary colleagues very happy as half the time they are starting from scratch with many students. Buying the keyboards is not always the biggest burden, it’s the set up and the rooming that needs the most thought. If you are going to do it properly you really need a room set up with fifteen power points as if you are dealing with batteries, recharging and moving keyboards around you end up with broken instruments and chaotic lessons. To set up the room properly takes quite a lot of thought and we still haven’t got it right where I am at the moment. The problem is that music rooms are often multi purpose, we need space for choirs, orchestras, dancing so setting up keyboards semi-permanently is not easy.

Something I will be experimenting with soon are the keyboards that are powered by and use the sounds of an iPad. This could be a game changer in a normal classroom. They are low cost but I am going to try one out at home before ordering any for school.

Children love using the keyboards generally. They get frustrated as if the keyboards are not set up with enough scaffolding, the children with no experience of how they work get quickly discouraged. I find it best to put the letters of the notes on from C-C in two places using stickers; some people think method this is of the devil but it saves a lot of questions and normally means everyone can get some work done. I also put Treble clef and Bass clef reference cards on each keyboard so the children can work out the notes themselves. It also helps if the children have used xylophones before they come onto the keyboards. In our school from Year 4 onwards the expectation is that children will be using keyboards for about a third of every other lesson. So in total, from Year 4 to Year 6 we are talking about 50 hours of Keyboard tuition. That should be enough to teach all the points above but it is also good to have a keyboard club for children to go to if they want to take it further or simply practice the music they have been given in lessons. I always let them take the music home – we are fortunate that a lot of our students have keyboards at home and those that don’t have the opportunity to play in school.

Keyboards Rock!

Singing Practice

At our school we have singing practice for all Primary year groups. I am currently doing Y3, 4 and 5 and it’s probably the best lesson of the week.

There are many aims for singing practice but my main aims are:

1) To encourage communal singing

2) To learn to sing in parts

3) To learn songs from around the world (we are in an international school)

4) To sing a range of songs past and present, using different accompaniments

I’ve developed an eclectic repertoire to achieve this. Here is a short sample of some of the things that have been successful.

Firstly, I don’t spend a huge amount of time warming up. This is not considered good practice so you are best to ignore me here but unless you are aspiring to be a professional singer I don’t think we need to do too much. I start with something like the 1, 121 scale game, and some simple scales ascending and descending to different sounds. I try to make it fun but also use musical vocabulary so will ask the children to sing staccato ascending and legato descending and I will also use Italian terms to sing s scalic passages louder, quieter, faster or slower.

Next I will do either a round or a partner song. Rounds I take from the book “Flying a Round” and partner songs I take from the book “Banana Splits” which is the best introduction to part singing I have seen. I put the notation for partner songs on the board and we spend a bit of time with detailed questioning like which part is singing at bar 7, or how many crotchets are in the entire piece. These questions are to encourage children to really look at the score and not just at the words. Learning to navigate a two part score is harder than you might think and normally has to be explicitly taught for anyone who is not having private instrumental lessons. Rounds that have worked well are “I like the Flowers”, “Land of the Silver Birch”, “Kookaburra”, “Calypso”, “Junkanoo” and “Boots of Shining Leather”. Partner songs that work well are “I hear the bells”, “Down by the Bay”, “Tongo” and for younger children “Sing a little song”. I also do some songs that you can have one large group singing an ostinato while the other group sing the melody. When you do this it is good to start accompanied and then take the accompaniment away. The children really get something special from singing practice when they can hear themselves singing unaccompanied in harmony. Some good songs for this are “Popacatapetl” and “Zum Gali Gali”.

Next I normally put some songs from different countries if I haven’t already done it in the rounds or partner songs. I usually try to vary this with different accompaniments. Sometimes I will sing some African songs just accompanied by djembes, some Spanish songs with a guitar, songs with ukulele and sometimes some folk songs unaccompanied. I try to keep it live and use as little backing tracks as possible; it’s important to communicate to children than music takes skill and doesn’t just come out of a box. However, I do use good quality backing tracks if I need a bit of a break, or for a song as children are leaving so I can focus on getting them to exit safely, yet at the same time keep on singing till the very minute they leave the hall. The Outoftheark resources are very good for this, as are all the Singing Sherlock books. I try not to use too many YouTube karaoke tracks except for the last part of Singing Practice.

The last bit is really what the kids have been waiting for and it is to sing some of their favourite songs. I do these accompanied by the piano and make sure I change the key so they fit children’s voices. I will play them the original, normally as a lyric video as some of the videos are inappropriate, but for performing at assemblies I will always play live. Some music teachers shy away from popular songs but in the end the singing assembly is the children’s – I have my aims but at the same time the children should be allowed the opportunity to sing songs they like. I choose these songs by asking the children what they would like to sing on Bus Duty. So far we have sung “Titanium” by Sia, “Faded” by Alan Walker, “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, “It’s my life” by Bon Jovi, “The Final Countdown” by Europe, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and one choice by me – “Country Roads” by John Denver. We need to promote country, we really do! It takes a bit of time to arrange some of these songs so they work with Primary aged children but it’s worthwhile. I’d never heard “Faded” until I was told it was a good song by the children and they really sing it beautifully. Some of the choices were interesting, “Eye of the Tiger” and “Final Countdown” are pretty old now but I think they have endured as they seem to appeal to energetic boys who are influenced heavily by their fathers! “It’s My Life” is also a bit of a strange choice but it’s a bit of a cultural phenomenon in China as everyone seems to sing it at karaoke. We are an all-through school and we get quite a few secondary students peeking through the window and they tell me they are a bit jealous that Primary kids get to sing some of these songs because they tell me they had “boring folk songs”. Keeping some of these “boring” folk songs is actually incredibly important to me and I think society as a whole, but the way to do it is to combine them with songs that the children really want to sing.

Singing Practice is still a work in progress, my next steps are to get a small group of musicians to play with me so I might incorporate some drums, bass, guitar, ukes, recorders or orchestral instruments but this will take rehearsals and scoring, so this is a job for after Christmas. I would also like to do some recording because the children do rise to this challenge and produce some awesome singing.

And finally, I couldn’t resist the temptation to “Rickroll”, so last year when I took Year 1 Singing Practice, I told them about this nice guy called Rick who was never gonna give them up, and never gonna let them down. Complete with actions. And it was good fun to Rickroll all of the Year 1 staff when I emailed them the lyrics! I wish I could show you the video of 120 five and six year olds singing Rick Astley, but we all know that the days of sharing videos with the kids in are over. Take it from me that they thought this was the coolest song of all time!

Have fun singing!