Month: May 2019

Choir Planning for Christmas

This is the time for music teachers to start planning for Christmas. Yep, it’s May. Some music teachers plan for the next Christmas in January so we may be considered a little bit late. What we need to do now is work out what groups do what and prepare the files before the end of term so every child who returns in August (we start in August) has a file with all the music ready. We are a largish international school and have many choirs. We have a Year 2 Choir, a Year 3 Choir, a Year 456 Choir and a secondary youth musical theatre group which is basically a choir that moves and are part of the secondary annual musical.

Next year we will be starting a chamber primary choir so the Year 456 Choir will probably have very few Year 6 members as my colleague who works cross phase is interested in starting an auditioned Y6/7 Chamber Choir. This will work out well as we have so many children wanting to join our choirs and we always make them non-auditioned. The new Chamber Choir will be our only auditioned choral group and will be for those children who want to take singing very seriously and sing in close harmony.

My group will be the Year 456 Choir and I will have them an hour a week although I am thinking of taking an additional rehearsal for Year 4 for twenty minutes before school starts. It is a two-part choir and for the new Year 4’s they will have had some experience but this is the first time they will be split into sopranos and altos. Our school has four houses and way I choose is simply that Romans and Vikings sing soprano and Normans and Saxons will sing alto. We could listen to their ranges but no song will go above an E flat so they should all be able to sing both parts. I will swap them over after Christmas when we get a new repertoire so they all get a chance to sing soprano and alto.

The next job is to plan from September to December and make sure that each choir doesn’t sing the same songs. My choir will have a repertoire of two international songs for International Day in November, a peace song for World Peace Day, two Halloween songs for Halloween and eight songs for Christmas. Because this is a lot of repertoire there will be some repeats from last year. We will repeat “Child of Song”, “Twelve Days of Christmas”, “Carols 4” and “Walking in the Air”. My colleague is thinking of some suitable songs but I have planned “Do you hear what I hear”, “Sleigh Ride” and “Colours of Christmas” and I have an ambitious idea of doing “Hard Rock Hallelujah” for Halloween. We will all have a meeting in the next few weeks about repertoire so we have a plan moving forwards. Nothing is set in stone but we want to get the majority of the planning done now as there are so many other things to focus on when the academic year restarts.

The reason we have to plan so early and thoroughly is that we only get fourteen hour-long rehearsals before Christmas and have to prepare a lot of material. Each song will be in an individual’s file with the full piano and two part vocal scores. Each song will be scanned so that we can send a copy of the music home for each child. We make backing tracks for many of the songs in the studio so children know which part to sing and how it fits together. These recordings are then sent home to practice. We work out the live instrumental accompaniments now, as no song will use a backing track – we strongly believe in live music. This means that the school orchestra will accompany the choir for about four songs. I spent a long time making full orchestral parts for “The Star”, “Twelve Days”, “Carols 4” and “We wish you a merry Christmas” last year and they were successful in our Winter Celebration and our final concert in an enormous mall in Guangzhou. This year we will make orchestral arrangements for “Do you hear what I hear”, and “Colours of Christmas”. We will make an arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” for the Wind Band and our string group will accompany the choir for a few songs like “Walking in the Air”. Nearly all the instrumental parts are hand-made so they exactly fit our strengths. We buy a few arrangements online but we have found you end up having to adapt them all, so it is sometimes easier to download something basic on MuseScore and then either adapt it or more likely rearrange it. I put all my arrangements on MuseScore for free.

Every song takes about three to four hours to arrange on MuseScore, about another two to three hours to make a backing track and mix down and about an hour to sort out files, photocopies and email the tracks and PDFs to the students. Most of this work happens in the summer but I try to get some done in term time. Each song will then need about two to three hours of rehearsal so that’s why we need everything prepared in advance, as we basically learn the songs very quickly and then just keep refining them over all the available rehearsals. We sing the songs without the files so the children need to learn a lot of words, hence the constant repetition.

If you don’t already do this, I strongly recommend you plan Christmas in May or before. It reduces a lot of stress in term time as many music teachers are expected to have a dual role of teaching great lessons and basically running an after-school events company. It may seem a bit unfair and there is a lot of work but that’s the job and as far as jobs go, it’s a decent, fun and rewarding one. And it is always amazing to hear from members of the public that no school does Christmas as good as our school.

How Group Work Inspired Me To Compose

I remember my first composition well. It was 1987. I was 11 years old. Bros was a thing. I didn’t like Bros. Everyone was starting smoking and I couldn’t understand why they were deciding to kill themselves. My mother had died of cancer three years before so I didn’t have a lot of respect for what my classmates were up to. They all hated me, I was a year younger than them all (I didn’t do Year 6) and was very studious. I liked music lessons and I liked singing in the choir. They hated music lessons and only girls were in the choir. When it came to options in Year 9, I was the only one who put music down. I had to change it to Welsh as there weren’t enough people to run the course so I didn’t even do music in the first term of Year 9. Luckily my grandmother took me out the school and I was homeschooled for two terms before transferring to a better school.

Anyway – back to the original story of my first composition. My music teacher told me to get in a group with other students and make music with an ostinato. It was a complete disaster. No one did anything. I tried to get the others doing something but they bullied me for wanting to engage with the task; they just wanted to talk. In the end in utter exasperation I walked off and spent the rest of the lesson in a practice room on a piano creating my first solo composition. To this day I can still remember it and play it. It uses all the black keys. It even had a second section with a second contrasting ostinato. It has fluctuating major/minor tonality and doesn’t really belong in any key, although it’s close to G flat major. It’s pretty terrible to be honest but it was my first composition. I played it every day for about two years, basically every time I played the piano. My grandmother hated it because she heard me bash it out every day for two years. My music teacher didn’t like it because I refused to work with my group. But I didn’t want to work with any of them. Why should I be forced to work with people who beat me, threw darts at me and lit WD40 in my face? Why should I have to put up with the mental abuse that the teacher can’t really see as they move from group to group? And I remember thinking how awful the compositions of the other kids were, as I knew a lot of them could play instruments and they were stuck shaking a tambourine.

Luckily this dreadful group work didn’t last long because the next composition task was on tiny keyboards that the teacher had linked up in a system similar to a language lab. This was way better, we all had headphones and we were all in the same room. The teacher could listen in on any of us playing so we couldn’t get away with playing the demo button. We had a little manuscript book and we were asked to compose a simple four bar tune and notate it in the book. My teacher marked it and I got 8/10. I was much happier and felt much more secure. Everyone got work done in that lesson.

This was the 80’s, a very different time from now but kids are pretty similar. If the teacher isn’t watching, little gets done unless you are fortunate to work in a school where it’s cool to study. These do exist but you often have to pay for the privilege. Lessons work well when the teacher can see what the children are doing. Group work isn’t a terrible thing, and I do group work in my classes. Most kids aren’t little annoying boffins like me. But I will stand up for any teacher who dislikes group work. It isn’t necessary, it isn’t better than whole class teaching, it has many problems and if it isn’t done well it can be a complete disaster. I am currently doing some group work with my Year 4’s – most the kids like it, although I would say that there is a lot of frustration in the room as it is next to impossible to hear each group play. And last year there was a kid who just turned around and refused to participate. This year I’ve been a bit luckier with the kids. It doesn’t really matter if it’s me who chooses the groups or the children themselves, I find you end up with the same problems. Friends seem to get the work done more enthusiastically but if they fall out over it you have a disaster on your hands. If the teacher chooses the groups you can get some sullen and unengaged participants. I’ve toyed with the idea of cancelling the Y4 group work project and replacing it with a unit on whole class ukuleles. I would be happier, most the kids would be happier and more work will get done. But I’ve kept it in there because we are supposed to do group work in the music curriculum and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I never did it. But also, perhaps the frustration of attempting to create music in a group is a learning experience that could be indirectly beneficial.

Who knows? The sheer frustration might inspire another kid like me to start composing.