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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.

Music Exams

Mention music exams and many people think of high-stakes, high-anxiety situations where you go into a small room and find a stranger at a table beckoning you to “come in please”.  You then locate a music stand or sit at a piano and spend an inordinate amount of time either adjusting the stand up and down or moving the piano stool forward and backwards.  If you have an accompanist, your normally friendly teacher has turned into some sort of robot zombie who gives you next to no facial recognition and is fumbling around with a piano score and extending it to twice its original size with selotaped photocopied sheets to prevent page turns.  You then have to play pieces and scales you have practiced a gazillion times but this time with absolutely no idea if the silent stranger likes what you are playing.  You come out kicking yourself as to how on earth you mucked up that section, why was the sight-reading impossible and why would you play D major when the examiner asks for D minor.  You curse the piano or your squeaky clarinet and wonder how on earth even after a degree, a PGCE and a Masters you have got yourself into a situation where you are honestly debating whether what you are hearing in a Grade 3 aural test is in 2/4 or 4/4.

These exams are certainly not the best way of performing to the best of your ability but they are curiously popular even now.  Even if you are not particularly good at performance exams, people still take them.  I say this as someone who failed Grade 3 piano and Grade 7 violin and never got more than a merit in an ABRSM exam.  I recently did a Grade 3 clarinet exam that I barely passed (due to my clarinet squeakingly malfunctioning – I was so nervous that I dropped it on the way to the exam).  My accompanist told me that my rendition of “Mr. Benn” was as if the jolly fellow had ingested a helium balloon.  I have also done a ukulele exam with LCM which was much better but still had a similar format.  You would think I would be anti-exams from these experiences but I am not and I will explain why.

Firstly, they give you something to aim for.  I don’t think I would have the career I have had if it was not for ABRSM exams – I am one of those people that need a target to work towards.  It was exactly the same for my Chinese HSK 1 exam this year – without the pressure of an exam I would have coasted along not really going anywhere.  The deadline focused my mind.  My technique improved.  I got better.  When I passed an instrumental exam I was proud and my friends and family were proud of me.  I got to shake hands with my headteacher and receive a certificate.  I still have them all.  Without those certificates, I don’t think I would have got the job I have now.  You have to upload a copy for most music teaching jobs.

Secondly, I learned a lot from my successes and my failures – I knew I did not deserve to pass Grade 3 piano and Grade 7 violin as I simply hadn’t put the work in.  Very rarely are the examiners way out although sadly it does happen from time to time, as it does for any assessment that relies on fallible human judgements.  The feedback I received from my failures was stark but useful and I took it on board when I successfully repeated the exams the following academic year in October.  I understand that some people would have been dismayed and may have quit performing completely as a result of this experience, but in a bizarre way I am glad I failed those exams and I feel it made me a more determined person as a result.  It was character building in my teenage years, although it certainly did not feel that way at the time.  I locked myself in my room and burst into tears.  Both times.  But after the tears and the initial embarrassment, I thought – 97/150 – come on!  I only needed three more marks – I can pass this bloody thing.  Later in my life, it took me five times to pass my driving test; I thought about giving up the idea of driving a car but I thought back to my Grade 3 piano and Grade 7 violin disastrous experiences and I knew I could do this driving thing.  Of course I could pass, I just needed to have another go – I’ve realized since that I’m just not very good at practical tasks – I’m quite clumsy, I struggle to open locked doors and do a lot of simple practical things.  In fact, some friends think I might have dyspraxia.  I’ve never got tested and I don’t really care to be honest what label gets put on me – the point is I passed everything in the end and I refuse to be labelled or treated differently from everybody else.

And I’m not driving at the moment – so you can rest easy.

Finally, the exams have been put together pretty sensibly.  There are some things I disagree with but generally if you were going to make a performance exam from scratch you would make them similar to how they exist now.  I particularly like the idea of an external marker and the feedback form – I feel as teachers we can be quite bias giving feedback to children we know well and it is good for them to hear feedback from a total stranger.  I like the fact that the repertoire is in one book so you don’t have to go around buying multiple books for one piece you need to learn.  I like how the pieces get progressively harder.  And I like the fact that you can get UCAS points for reaching the top grades.  That was a really good decision whoever made it.  Some people scoff but I personally know of someone who only got into the university of his choice because of that ABRSM exam result.

I understand that this format of exam is not for everyone.  I have lots of time for non-examined music classes.  I really like Kodaly and Orff, Sing for Pleasure and Musical Futures where exams are the last thing in their musical philosophy.  But controversially, I think that practical music exams should be offered to everyone irrespective of our own personal pedagogical feelings.  Hence, why at our school we are thinking of offering LCM exams for ukulele, keyboard, recorder, singing and ensemble performance for EVERY primary child through their normal curriculum lessons.  We have someone coming in from the exam board on Thursday to have a chat about it.  Nothing has been decided yet but it is something we are actively considering, mainly because we know that many of our children would really respond well and we believe it would dramatically raise performing standards.  Under this idea, no-one would have to do an exam but they would get the choice.  I think this is fairer than giving everyone no choice to do one unless they sign up for paid external tutoring.  Under this idea, no-one would have to pay – if they want me or my colleagues to hear them play that will be cool.  We will make home-made certificates and feedback forms and make sure they look just as good as the official ones.  If they don’t want to play in any exam at all, that will be fine too but we will teach the content anyway.  If they want an external person to come in and pay for an official certificate that would be fine too.  Yes, the exam board will make some money but we are also grateful for their curriculum and resources.  And I will tell every child about my failure experiences because the only way we can make these things less high-stakes is by either getting no-one to do them, or to tell them that failing isn’t a big deal.  I understand that by saying there is a possibility of failure, this could make children immediately anxious but I think it is misleading to say that everyone passes every time.  And I am not going to start lying to children to make them feel better.

I have the same attitude for SATS exams that have recently been discussed in the media due to Jeremy Corbyn saying that a future Labour government will abolish them.  I can understand all the different passionate views for or against these tests and as I have a young daughter I am also worried about the mental health of our children and have concerns about testing children at a young age.  However, I am also worried that for some children in the absence of SATS, the first time they will ever have to take an external examination is when they take their GCSE’s at the age of 16.  Where is the time to learn to pass and fail?  Where is the time to learn to deal with high-stakes testing that most people will have some experience of in their lives?  If we don’t give children the opportunity to respond to failure or even acknowledge it exists, I actually think we are not giving them one of the most important and potentially life-changing learning experiences that they can get.  Ask anyone who has failed something – this can change the way you look at life.  My only caveat with SATS is they are a big deal to many people and you can’t do them again.  It would make more sense to do them at the end of the first term of Year 6 and give them a chance to do better later on in the year.

I feel music exams might be able to help children to learn what it means to pass and fail and understand that failure isn’t the horrific thing that it is made out to be.  It shouldn’t be a horrific experience and I don’t wish it on anyone but if it does happen, it should be a learning experience.  We also have the amazing opportunities of the vast majority of children passing and becoming proud of their achievements.  And it is good to acknowledge that if things do go terribly wrong there is a comforting, reassuring reality:

It’s not a big deal; you can always have another go in October.

 

How the Brexit Party can win a General Election

If I was a betting man I would put a hundred quid on Nigel Farage becoming Prime Minister. Before you laugh me off, hear me out – he has massive advantages and the only thing stopping him at the moment will be if he is incompetent.

Firstly, within a day of launching his party he is 15% in the polls if there is a European Election with UKIP on 13%. If he can’t get UKIP votes from his old party with the national exposure he has and a narrative that they were useless, racist, Islamophobic, antisemitic and xenophobic idiots he is pretty incompetent. He has a right wing buffer – two if you count the BNP. Anyone who says he is a crazy right-winger can be told about more extreme right-wingers. He can even say that that sort of hatred is a Labour or Conservative thing. If he gets in a mess here, he is incompetent.

Secondly, he’s got money. He has crowd-sourced 750,000 pounds in ten days. Some really rich people in Britain are Leavers. The richest man in Britain is a Leaver although he’s buggered off to Monaco. The Tory Party has less than a million in the bank and some say they are going bankrupt. Their usual donors are not very happy with May either to say the least. Labour have cash from the unions but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brexit Party can match or surpass them financially. If he can’t get a whole pile of cash from his mates he would be incredibly incompetent.

Thirdly, he’s got the activists. People don’t realize how important these are. We all know that old people vote which is why the Tories keep winning but no one really understands why. Quite simply they are brilliant at getting their vote out at elections and they know which doors to knock on. They know who all their supporters are and on Election Day a whole army go out to get them. They even drive little old ladies to the polling booths. If you go to the Conservative Home website today you will see a mass defection to the Brexit Party. And before you say these are just right-wing keyboard warriors, have a look at what is going on in the local Conservative Party association meetings. Conservatives are very, very angry with Theresa May for the Brexit delay, they are leaving as they are fully aware that their leader has stabbed them in the back. You can’t get supporters to campaign for something in their manifesto and then ignore it and expect them to be cool about it. It scuppered the Lib Dems and they have never recovered, it is now happening to the Conservatives. These activists know who to talk to and who to get out and vote. And I will be absolutely shocked if Farage doesn’t have a list left over from the Brexit referendum. Leave mastered Facebook ads and whatever you think of the campaign it was bloody effective. If he doesn’t know who to get out and vote he is incompetent and remember we are talking about 52% of voters.

Fourthly, he only needs 25% to win an election. The opposition (Remain) is split five ways. He already has 25% if he can get the UKIP votes. He doesn’t need to campaign in any constituency where there is an existing Leave MP. He can divert all resources to places where he only needs to get 25%. The Conservatives have been decimated this week because of the Brexit delay. Labour has already split. Momentum are angry with Corbyn and TIG have left them. The Lib Dems are nowhere. All he needs to do is get about 400 local candidates who aren’t xenophobic idiots (that might be a bit harder, come to think about it). If Farage can’t exploit that he is completely incompetent.

Fifthly, The Brexit Party is new. There is little baggage apart from Farage himself. Many people think he is a fool. But he is a fool that 52% of voters voted with. He has already got people who have defected across from other parties. All he needs to do now is say he will respect the referendum result, respect the NHS promise, and respect the voters. If he says he will protect pensions he should win a lot of support. And he is combatting a narrative of someone who has consistently lied. Who has betrayed her red lines, trying to cobble together a deal no one likes and combining with Labour to get the Customs Union she promised she would leave. She has delayed, delayed delayed as well as being totally useless, a woeful negotiator and unable to get any consensus anywhere. The narrative has changed from a brave woman determined to get a reasonable deal to a megalomaniac sociopathic liar who never listens, is totally untrustworthy and is universally hated. And Labour and the Tories are obviously split. There is major party fatigue and everyone just wants someone to stick to their word. If he can’t exploit that narrative he is really, really incompetent.

Sixthly, he has the element of surprise. No one is going to think the Brexit Party is a real threat as they don’t have any votes yet. You can’t really tactically vote with an entity that doesn’t have a history. You can’t say “Oh, we need Tories and Labour to vote for this one guy to stop the Brexit Party getting in”. The first we will know is when it’s too late. And remember, with a five way Remain split he probably only needs 25% to win most constituencies. He just needs to keep his mouth shut here – if he mucks this up he is stupidly incompetent because he actually doesn’t need to do anything.

Finally, the opposing leaderships are dreadful. Whatever you think of Farage, he actually has a bit of charisma when you compare him to Theresa May. Corbyn has a bit more about him but is hardly the most inspiring leader. If you can’t beat parties in this state you are totally incompetent.

We haven’t even mentioned the media. If he can’t get the right-wing media onside he is more incompetent than Stoke City at taking penalties this season. (That is really bad if you didn’t know!)

So to conclude this pretty dreadful analysis – if you are not a Farage fan you just need to hope he is bloody incompetent. It’s his to lose.

Book Week Song

I have written a second book week song.  This one is a gentle one for Nursery and Key Stage 1.  Feel free to download and print. MuseScore Link Book Week Book_Week_is_Fun  

Norman Invasion

I’ve written a song about the Norman invasion.  It actually uses the same music as my song about a lionfish invasion that I wrote a few years ago!  It tells the story of the Norman invasion and I checked it with a history teacher and … Continue reading Norman Invasion

Recorder Karate Pieces

I have made a pdf of the Recorder Karate pieces that we are using.  They are different to the ones you can buy online and have been selected for use with Years 2 and 3.  Feel free to use, download and print. Recorder Karate Belts

Pirates of the Caribbean

I have made a simple version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” for String Quartet.  We are also going to be playing it in our string orchestra.  Feel free to download and print. He’s_a_Pirate-Cello He’s_a_Pirate-Viola He’s_a_Pirate-Violin_I He’s_a_Pirate-Violin_II He’s_a_Pirate