Month: January 2020

The Sea

I have made a new workbook for my Year 4’s on “The Sea”.  It’s a five or six week unit on sea shanties.  It is mainly using recorders, some xylophones and lots of singing.  There are three listening reflections -“10,000 Miles Away” by Bellowhead, “Skye … Continue reading The Sea

Church

My first musical experience was listening to “Macavity” from “Cats” on vinyl. My second was the frustration with the note G when playing the recorder, resulting in me playing A with my right hand and my left pointy finger making the G. But my most profound and lasting musical experiences are directly from the church.

I had a rather strange religious upbringing – my grandparents who raised me were atheists but I loved going to the local farmer’s evangelical church where there was lively worship, people danced and clapped, spoke in weird angelic languages and it all got quite intense and some people strangely fell over. I remember this cool new song that had just come out called “Shine Jesus Shine”, which was totally awesome and we sang it over and over again with the overhead projector showing us the verses in red and the chorus in blue and a lady called Glynis playing enthusiastically on the guitar. Graham Kendrick the songwriter was my hero – his songs were the dog’s bollocks.

But I was also sent to boarding school when I was 10, where I was a treble in a high Anglican chapel where we sang every Sunday and had choir practices three times a week. We had warmups that were designed to get us to sing everything in headvoice and we were given a diet of the rich British choral tradition with early music by Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, as well as European classics like “O for the wings of a dove” by Mendelssohn and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”. There was a large variety from different ages spanning close to 500 years of music making where we learned about musical forms such as motets, anthems, psalms and sung responses. We had incense which added to the spiritual experience and a vicar who would do that thing where you sing the gospel on a monotone with a bit of a change at the end of line followed by an “Amen” plagal cadence. I basically learned to read music from the New English Hymnal – that green book was full of gems like “Tell out my soul” and “Hills of the North Rejoice”. I had no idea what most of the words were about but crickey they were stonking tunes. We used the little green book for the trebles and then the massive one when I was an alto and a tenor. It’s really that book that taught me harmony as well. Advent was the best time of the year, I loved parading in with a cassock and a surplice and a lit candle. We thought the choirmaster was mad to give us candles but no one set the chapel on fire, although I do remember Harriet Humphrey’s frizzly hair got burned by some prankster.

One of my first compositions was inspired by the chapel bell. As it bonged away I remember whistling a tune that fit nicely and later working it out on the piano. I also heard some fantastic improvisations from our organist as he played for time during communion. I experienced some playful creativity like singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” and the time when the organist put themes from “Star Wars” into our procession out of the chapel. At the evangelical church I also heard great improvisations from Glynis on the guitar as everyone started singing banana backwards. This really is a heavenly language – I never spoke in tongues myself, but it is beautiful to listen to. I also sang a song composed by one of church members called “Light of the World”, I can still remember the melody and every single word. Composition and improvisation were normal, regular things that I experienced every week no matter which church I was in.

Later on, at university I learned about how to play in a band with our worship group in a Pentecostal Church and how not to muddy the waters on the keyboards if you had a bass guitar in the band. Leaving space for other band members and playing with a variety of different people is something I learned from church worship where you can end up with a band of ten or sometimes a band of two with little to no notice. I learned about instrumentation and when the brass section and saxes are most effective in a song. Another important skill is to learn when not to play or when to play minimally – you have to be very sensitive when playing in church. Flexibility is vital like when you turn up late and the worship leader moves from the keys to the bass so you can slot in on the keys in the middle of a song without stopping. I learned about vocal harmonies, guitar solos and how to sight read from chords. My sight reading was terrible until I started playing at church, within a year it was pretty good. I also learned a huge amount about harmony when I started singing in our University’s gospel choir. This gospel choir also gave me my first experiences in conducting and arranging music. I was also in a Christian progressive rock band (we are still on Spotify) and that was great for learning about rehearsing, composing with others, writing lyrics, creating riffs, recording, sequencing, sampling religious speeches and playing in ridiculous time signatures. And collecting gear. And getting into debt…

If it wasn’t for church my musical experiences would have been dreadful as my grandparents just listened to Radio 4. I basically heard three pieces on the radio – “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson for the News Quiz, “By the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates for Desert Island Discs and “The Archers”, which really should be the UK’s national anthem. There was music on Desert Island Discs but you only got to hear about 45 seconds and they were normally pieces designed to make the listener think that the person being interviewed was high-brow and important so were incredibly boring. There really was no music in my house so I am very grateful for everything church taught me. Even my first metal experience was “To hell with the Devil” by the Christian metal band Stryper.

Many schools these days are moving away from religious music and I can understand why due to the expectations of the modern secular world that we live in. But a common theme on this blog is to caution us on what we can lose by going for the new and shiny. It’s one of the reasons why it is called “Traditional Primary Music”. It can be romantic and perhaps inaccurate looking backwards but it can also be inspiring and thought-provoking to consider what we could be losing or have lost. I am happy that I had a spiritual musical upbringing, against the wishes of my grandparents but in their favour, at least they allowed me to take part and follow my own path even if they thought it was poppycock. No one was ever saying that God was banned or it was inappropriate to sing songs about Him. Some people think an upbringing like mine would be woefully restricted but I hope I’ve been able to articulate how church helped me to listen, sing, play, improvise, compose and basically become the musician and person I am today.

Church Rocks!

The Dangers of Creativity

I have written about creativity before here and to summarize, I do believe creativity is important – it can be and is taught in music lessons, but I am very skeptical of the claim that it can be taught independent of context as there is little evidence to support it is a directly transferable skill. If it was I would be a good cook and could draw something better than a stick man. I also said in my previous post that the most musically creative people I have met had one thing in common – they had acutely listened to wide range of music for a long time. Just like the best writers have read the most books, the best composers have listened to the most music.

This post is about what we can lose in Music Departments if we are focused completely on creativity. The context is a point that someone made to me recently that if there is no creative task in a music lesson, we shouldn’t be teaching it. This is a dangerous idea because much of what we do in Music is not creative but does lead to creativity. Large parts of the curriculum are not intrinsically creative – for example, learning the violin or recorder isn’t very creative, singing songs isn’t creative and putting on a musical where you tell everyone what to do is not a creative task for students. I would go as far as saying that 80% of what we do in Music is not directly creative. So the idea that we should be providing more creative tasks is attractive, reasonable and fair-game. But the catch is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of how people become creative. The danger is that our string groups, orchestras, bands, and choirs can become undervalued and in our weekly lessons, whole class ukuleles, recorders, and learning to play keyboards can be considered “just performing”. My main gripe is that in the gallop for creativity we consider Performing to be the inferior and unattractive cousin to the relevant and cool cousin Composing. What some people forget is that most creative composers have spent years performing and without these skills they wouldn’t be any good at composing.

There is nothing wrong with a lesson where there is no creative task. I will repeat this shocking statement – there is NOTHING WRONG WITH A LESSON WITH NO CREATIVE TASK. There would be something wrong if we never did creative tasks at all but often we don’t recognize or value that many of our performing tasks result in creative individuals. This is why performing is indirectly creative.

What I want to do is reassure Music Teachers from the onslaught of what I call the “creativity police”. Don’t feel that what you are doing is inadequate because it is performance-based. These are things that matter deeply to students and are appreciated by parents who know the true value of what we do. Be confident in your programs and don’t let the CP stop you from teaching what you know your students need to become truly musical and creative people.

MuseScore

Probably the best free resource you can have as a Music teacher is MuseScore. I have ditched Sibelius and now I use MuseScore for everything. The main advantage is the community, there are huge amounts of material that you can download and adapt – I have not had to buy any music scores for the last three years. You have to spend some time just getting used to it – I suggest just copying out some music to start with if you are a beginner.

For students, this is really good for learning how to compose music. I haven’t used it with younger children yet, but we do use it with older students. One of our GCSE students wrote a four movement symphony and it was excellent. This year I am going to start experimenting using MuseScore with Primary students and I will blog on how I am going about this and how successful or unsuccessful it is proving to be.