Category: Uncategorized

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    

Skye Boat Song

In Year 4 we have been singing some Sea Shanties and learning how to play “Drunken Sailor” and “Blow the Man Down” on the keyboards. We talked about the strict rules on ships and the diseases such as scurvy and rickets if you don’t get … Continue reading Skye Boat Song

Compulsion

In 2006 in our first staff meeting of our local authority music service’s academic year, our boss raised a glass and said, “These are the good times colleagues.  They will not last.  Enjoy them.”  He was right.  Our music service had grown by close to a quarter, we had more cash and more contracts from schools.  Everything was rosy.  I could pay my mortgage.  I had a full time contract on Teacher’s Pay and Conditions.

Now the picture in the nation is not as rosy.  Language like “decline”, “terminal”, and “crisis” are being used.  We know many of the reasons why.  EBacc.  Budgets.  Cuts.  This post isn’t about now; it is about why 2005 was the good time and what we can learn from it.

I was incredibly lucky getting a job with the music service when I did.  Of course, I did not know this at the time but one decision had been made that transformed our music service by accident and another that combined to make the favorable conditions for our music service to grow.

The first decision was PPA time.  When the government, with the unions support declared that all teachers were to have 10% PPA in their timetables non-negotiable, there was quite a bit of panic.  Many schools simply were not doing this, particularly in Primary Schools.  Documents like this were very useful for headteachers to work out what to do.  One of sections of this document (section 12) said that using outside agencies like Music and P.E. could be used to provide time for PPA as long as they were not outside the school timetable.  So headteachers started asking the music service I worked at for a Music specialist to teach so the class teacher should have PPA time.  In my first year, this was the majority of the new contracts we received.  When I asked why I was employed this was the reason the school gave.

The next decision happened the following year.  We were part of the pilot project for Wider Opportunities, which was then renamed First Access or Whole Class Instrumental tuition.  We had done this with recorders but never with whole class violins, which is what we started out with.  This scheme was then rolled out nationwide.  Our boss was clever and realized the danger that this lesson would be used for PPA and insisted that class teachers came so it couldn’t be used for PPA.  The schools fought this so many times but because we were strict we were able to have the hours for Music curriculum and for the Wider Opportunities project.  Our boss also insisted that we had a curriculum and instrumental specialist in each lesson – this was amazing for training purposes and I have blogged about this in the past.  But it was these decisions with teeth that were instrumental in enabling us to raise our glasses.

People can say it was the government, or budget cuts that have hammered the Music Education profession in recent years but actually it was compulsion that was the major factor in 2005 to have increased provision.  Schools only bought us in because they had to.  Would they have bought us if there was no PPA?  Well some did anyway but we got loads of contracts as a direct result of PPA.  There was no wiggle room – schools had to do something to provide 10% PPA time for all staff.  Now there is much more use of teaching assistants that are cheaper than musicians but at the time word had got round that this was one way of solving the problem quick and easy.  It only took one phone call and problem solved.

We are now at a time when there are Music Commissions, Music Manifestos, Model Music Curriculums and a whole host of other very worthy things going on.  I may not be an expert in a university but I do know schools and headteachers.  I have worked with well over 60 of them.  If there is no compulsion, no carrots or sticks then these documents will be shelved.  As in put on a shelf and never read.  We like to think that the schools we are dealing with are fellow professionals and are reading all our advice.  But most are not.  They are too busy dealing with hundreds of other things, some that other agencies used to deal with that they are now responsible for.  Headteachers are invariably nice people but they probably aren’t going to read your document.  The majority of schools will only do something if they have the staffing, time and money and the priority is always what will affect their OFSTED report favorably.

The only time in my 19 years of teaching where I have seen real change was when there was compulsion put on schools to act.  That is what we need now.  I have already said some of the things that could be done but let’s just go basic:

  1. No choir, no school – they are doing this in France.  I bet you within half a term we would have a whole nation singing.
  2. No instrumental tuition, one grade less – any school where there is no instrumental tuition going on (it does happen really I am afraid) will have the consequence that the school gets one grade less in their OFSTED report.  Hundreds of Music teachers will be employed almost immediately.  Even if parents have to pay, at least there will be a musician employed in a school (we are talking basic here!)
  3. No music qualification, no job – no Primary teacher can be qualified if they have not done an accredited music course – either Orff 1, Kodaly 1 or the Sing for Pleasure Summer School.  The result will be a sharp up-skilling of teachers, which is desperately needed.

If we did just these three things and insisted upon them, we would not need glossy 64 page reports that get immediately shelved.

The Little Things

Sometimes the little things we do can make a massive difference.  I have blogged before on a simple thing we did at a school in Kuwait where we played the National Anthem everyday on our instruments.  It took about 45 seconds to play the National Anthem – we all had to be there by law but we could have used a recording.  That 45 seconds made a massive difference.  It meant children brought their instrument into school every day.  It meant they warmed up before the anthem.  It meant if they had any questions about some of the other pieces they were playing they could talk to teachers who were all there.  The woodwind teacher would go through scales with the children just before we would start.  We might play “We will rock you” while everyone was waiting for the flag.  But more than anything, it fostered a sense of identity – children knew they were musicians because they played in the band.  They made friends, they hung out with other musicians.  That was 45 seconds of genius.

____________

Giving out little hair bobbles as “belts” for recorder karate.  You collected them on your recorder and played your teacher a piece at break time to see if you were good enough to get one.  We had literally hundreds of children pestering us for these blooming hair bobbles.  It was a bit annoying when you wanted a cup of tea in peace but standards went through the roof.

____________

A simple decision to move children from sitting in class order to moving them into house order in singing practice.  Suddenly there is fierce but friendly competition.  The Vikings want to sing better than the Romans.  The Saxons want to get more team points than the Normans.  Which team will win the trophy for the House Music Competition?  All the children are singing their hearts out.

____________

One class does a really good class assembly with a fantastic song with instrumental accompaniment from the children.  Suddenly the bar is raised.  Class teachers start to outdo each other.  They ask for music in good time for their classes.  They give more support to the specialist Music teachers.  They don’t just choose a song from Youtube but ask you for advice.  Parents are happy and school leaders are beaming.  Kids are proud and delighted that they are doing something really great.

____________

The little things can make a big difference.  A small change can create a chain reaction.  It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or any at all.  The biggest change in my life was a little thing that my Music Teacher did for me.  He let me come in at break time and use Notator on the Atari.  He could have said no.  My compositions were pretty dreadful to be honest but that one decision probably got me a degree and a career.

Lets thank our teachers for the little things they do.

 

Atonality

I studied Music and Politics at Keele University and part of my degree was a series of composition modules. What we all discovered quickly was the more wacky and atonal your ideas were, the better your marks became. I went down the musicology route in my third year as I couldn’t bring myself to write atonal music – which was a shame as I enjoy composition. I managed to stay out of trouble in my first year by writing a piece for piano, clarinet and eight wine bottles tuned to the locrian mode but when I wrote a purely tonal children’s ballet for flute, clarinet, piano, marimba and untuned percussion in my second year I got a message saying “your composition is a catastrophe”. In the feedback with the professor, at a loss for an appropriate idea, I jokingly suggested a new piece called “Kitchen Music” where we would set up a series of microphones in my kitchen and bang things. He didn’t understand I was joking and thought this was a wonderful idea – even better if we could change the sounds in the studio and submit it as a DAT tape. Which is exactly what everyone was doing. We called it “peeps and squeaks” and it was encouraged by our teachers and everyone who did it got praised for originality. My ballet was pretty original in that it actually used instruments instead of tape and had dancing rather than a complex speaker system. Everyone else submitted a tape piece except me and my friend who wrote a tonal string quartet. They weren’t impressed with his piece either. In a panic worrying about his future grades and career, he sold out and wrote a piece called “Human Diffusion” for his third year which he admitted was pretty horrific consisting of getting our mate Adrian to make weird noises and then muck around in the studio to make him sound like Godzilla. He got a first for that one. I exchanged composition for writing a pretty boring dissertation about Russian dictatorship and cultural revolution. Almost all of us on the course composed music we didn’t want to write and didn’t like to listen to.

Atonal music has been influential in the Music National Curriculum in England and Wales. One of the biggest influencers was a man called John Paynter who wrote books and articles enthusiastically extolling the benefits of atonal composition for children. Arguably, it’s his influence that began the KS2 and 3 group work compositions where you had to create a piece of music about the forest using a haiku and half a dozen broken instruments. The good thing about atonality as far as Paynter was concerned was that you didn’t have to have any expertise on an instrument as you were dealing with sounds and didn’t need any knowledge of melody, harmony or rhythm. You could simply create, just like an artist could create paintings using swirling colors without it having to look like anything concrete. In the book cover picture above, children are “preparing” a piano in the manner of the composer John Cage. The idea is to make the piano a truly percussive instrument by using nuts and bolts and bits of elastic inside the strings. You get different sounds, but wouldn’t it be best to actually learn how to play a keyboard instrument instead? Preparing a piano is not going to make you any better at music but playing one will.

You would expect a lot of interest in atonal music with the younger generations who made music this way, wouldn’t you? It looks like great fun! But no – it remains a strange relic of the 20th Century, almost entirely taught in university music departments and curiously in primary and secondary schools in the UK. It does not happen in North America where they teach students to play instruments for marching band or concert band. So why do the British university lecturers love it but everyone else seems to hate it, and how has this niche, unpopular style of making music found its way into our classrooms?

Public Music Education in the UK has historically been pretty awful for the majority of children who didn’t play instruments but this wasn’t so much of a problem in the past as many children received free instrumental lessons and we had some great local authority music centers. Sometimes the children who got lessons in school were randomly selected or through a now discredited aural test called the Bentley Test. However, children on free school meals, like myself, got free instrumental lessons because we were poor and disadvantaged so there was an element of equity to the system. But in the classroom there was the age-old dilemma of how to teach music when some could play instruments and some couldn’t. We ended up with a pretty universal system of Classical Music appreciation with written theoretical exercises, a bit of singing and not much else. Paynter’s ideas were about creating music and the advantage was you didn’t have to have had instrumental lessons to create atonal music. It was like a sonic slosh of vibrant colours for all. These ideas were lapped up with gusto with University lecturers and Music ITT trainers who were the most instrumental in devising the initial music curriculum in the late eighties when the National Curriculum was first created. There was some dissent and many music teachers were very worried and unwilling to teach this type of composition. Many of these to be honest were pretty awful teachers and stuck in a bygone era, but some including my own secondary school music teacher were more worried about the decline in standards and the ability of a teacher being able to police this type of creative work within a small classroom. His approach was a relatively traditional curriculum but with ample musical opportunities such as choirs, orchestras and an open door to the department so anyone could come and compose music on the Atari computer or form a band. We had loads of bands for a relatively small school, a very active choral society, a choir that sang in eight part harmony and good numbers of us who did GCSE and A-Level. We never did atonal group work and he never had to do duty as he daily policed that department, encouraging us and berating us equally and fairly.

The result of Paynter’s approach to Music Education is that children don’t actually get better at music. This is how you end up with a situation that after ten compulsory years of learning music, children can’t actually play anything at all. If you don’t need to learn how to play a melody, why would you learn to play a melody? If you don’t need to know how to formulate a major and minor chord, why would you learn about harmony? You may learn other skills, and quite a few of these are useful generic skills such as teamwork and communication but you aren’t really learning anything that most of the rest of the world would deem to be musical. There are many reasons for the decline of Music at GCSE and A-Level but in my conversations with students, they really think that the course is very hard and want to choose something they are good at. We need students to be more confident in their musical abilities and a diet of atonal group work will not help children get better. We need better standards earlier.

An interesting question is why the vast majority of people hate atonal music. I don’t think there has ever been a piece of atonal music in the top fifty pieces of Classic FM. The abolition of harmony has not been a popular endeavor anywhere at any time. It’s barely part of any society on earth that uses melodic instruments. There is a theory that it is part of a human being’s fight or flight mechanisms. We anticipate the resolution of a harmonic sequences and this can create emotional and physical sensations in our bodies such as hairs standing up on end, tears or even sexual arousal. Researchers such as John Sloboda have found that enharmonic changes, ornamentation, appoggiaturas, the harmonic circle of fifths and modulation can all create these physical effects akin to our basic instincts of waiting and listening for predator or prey. This simply doesn’t happen with atonal music – the only emotion most people feel is unpredictability and chaos, which is probably why this music is used to unsettle us in horror movies. I have met some people who think atonal music can be beautiful. What is interesting is that they all work, or have worked in universities and music conservatoires. For the vast majority of people, atonality is ugly and emotionally unfulfilling. It won’t make us happy or uplift us spiritually, it’s just an opportunity for self-promoting music hipsters who want to think they are more musically and intellectually superior to us commoners. It’s the “Emperor Has No Clothes” of music.

The good news is that the world of Schoenberg, Webern, Cage and Paynter has passed and no one outside of the universities take these individuals seriously. What we need to do now is make sure that we teach children at an early age about melody, harmony and rhythm. Teach children to play well known tunes that delight them on instruments they can play and get better at. Teach children to sing great melodic songs in parts. Teach children to play music together using conventional harmonies and chord sequences. This is what the public, parents, most teachers and children want and the great news is that it actually makes you better at music. The only ones who don’t seem to want this are stuck in the ivory towers.

My Clay Doll

I have managed to score out “Ni Wa Wa” (My Clay Doll) using the new version of Musescore 3.  I inserted the Chinese characters and the pinyin into the lyrics and it was relatively easy and I think it has come out quite well as a first attempt.  My one year old daughter Miranda really likes this song and I am proud to say this is the first song she has ever started singing!

This traditional song is about a little clay doll and is for Pre-school children.

Chinese

泥娃娃, 泥娃娃, 一个泥娃娃, 也有那眉毛,也有那眼睛, 眼睛不会眨

泥娃娃, 泥娃娃, 一个泥娃娃, 也有那鼻子,也有那嘴巴, 嘴巴不说话

她是个假娃娃, 不是个真娃娃, 她没有亲爱的妈妈, 也没有爸爸,

泥娃娃, 泥娃娃, 一个泥娃娃, 我做她妈妈, 我做她爸爸, 永远爱着她

Pinyin

ní wá wá, ní wá wá, yí gè ní wá wá
yě yǒu nà méi máo, yě yǒu nà yán jīng, yǎn jīng bù huì zhā
ní wá wá, ní wá wá, yí gè ní wá wá
yě yǒu nà bí zi, yě yǒu nà zuǐ bā, zuǐ bā bù shuō huà
tà shì gè jiǎ wá wá, bú shì gè zhēn wá wá
tā méi yǒu qīn ài de mā ma, yě méi yǒu bà ba
ní wá wá, ní wá wá, yí gè ní wá wá
wǒ zuò tā mā ma, wǒ zuò tā bà ba, yǒng yuǎn ài zhe tā

Translation

My clay doll, my clay doll, my one clay doll
She has eyebrows, she has eyes but her eyes can’t blink
My clay doll, my clay doll, my one clay doll
She has a nose, she has a mouth but she doesn’t speak

She is a fake baby, not a real baby
She has no dear mother or has a father
My clay doll, my clay doll, my one clay doll
I’ll be her motherI’ll be her fatherI’ll love her forever

Here is the song on Musescore

And here is the pdf of the melody and lyrics

Ni_Wa_Wa

2019-Year-Of-The-Pig

新年快乐

xīn nián kuài lè!

Model Curriculum for Music

The Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb has announced a new Model Curriculum for Music Education.  It is needed because currently the curriculum for six years fits on one page.  As it is so vague, some schools have been able to get away with teaching music through a few hymns at singing practice and a nativity at Christmas where you can’t hear your kids sing because they are singing to a YouTube video.  Some of the stories I have heard from parents with young children are quite frankly appalling.  No choir.  No orchestra.  No recorder group.  No music lessons.  No instruments.  It’s easy for us in the Music Education Community to praise each other for the work we are doing and forget the places where NOTHING is happening.  It is unacceptable and I am so happy the Minister is actually trying to do something to help by actually giving some sort of guidance.

You would think that everyone would be happy about this, including those in the Music Education community.  I am quite disgusted by some of the things people are saying:

Reading music seems to be something incredibly controversial and something that only Tories do whilst testing and indoctrinating innocent, hungry children about something that is completely pointless.  If I meet Gillian Jeffries from the tweet above, I will have a few words to say.  I blooming well hope she is not a teacher.  Yet, I heard some of these arguments from teachers and tutors on my Music PGCE twenty years ago and some from colleagues over the years.  And from listening to some of the new generation of teachers, not much has changed.

It seems there was a generation of teachers from yesteryear who just taught theoretical notation out of context from any sound.  Surely, we have moved on from this?  I teach notation when I teach recorder.  I teach notation when I teach singing.  I teach notation when I teach the children to play the Chinese Drums.  I teach notation when I teach the children the keyboards.  I teach notation when I teach children violins.  And if you teach using the Kodaly method, notation is embedded in so much of what you do.

The minister has brought together a whole load of experienced music teachers, headteachers, performers, conductors from all sorts of walks of life to improve things for children who have sod all music at school.  And he gets this sort of cynical, pessimistic quite nasty reaction from people who should know a lot better.  OK, this committee might come out with something useless – but hopefully they will actually do some things to improve matters.

Here are a few of my own suggestions for the working party – I am quite hard-line so I doubt they will go along with any of these but they should be looked at.

  1. No school cannot have a choir (you may think this over the top, but Macron has done this in France.  It is policy).
  2. Any school that is not teaching at least 45 minutes of music every week will be placed in special measures.  I am pretty sure that would happen to the school if they had less than 45 minutes of English so it’s hardly controversial.
  3. Any school that does not have a trained music teacher on the staff must send a designated teacher on the Kodaly Spring Course, Orff course or Sing for Pleasure Summer School every year.  This is where the extra funding the minister has promised should go.  No school can complain if they are given the training for free.
  4. All B(Ed) courses to run Kodaly and Orff-based training and be entered for Level 1 for each.  We could make up our own, but why bother when there are already some fantastic accredited courses out there.
  5. All B(Ed) students to be entered for Grade 1 on any instrument of their choice at the end of their course.  If they fail they cannot get QTS.  I hear groans but if you fail your maths test you can’t teach.  Why should Music be any different?  And if the teachers moan and say “I’m not musical” then immediately proceed to Point 8.
  6. All children to play recorder from Years 2-4.  This will be mandatory, the same as teaching number in maths.  There should be a government-funded scheme to give a recorder and book to every primary student who enters Year 2.  Before people complain they hate the sound of the recorder, in some areas of Scotland every child is given a chanter. See my article on why recorders are important here.
  7. Singup to become free again and to publish books with the melody in to give to children for assemblies – not just the lyrics but the treble clef melodies.
  8. An information campaign to convince children, parents and teachers that music in schools has nothing to do with talent and is for all.  This must also explain to parents how children should practice an instrument.  In my experience, the vast majority of parents haven’t got a clue what practice involves, what it looks like and why it is important.
  9. Every school to have external artists come in at least once a year.  Otherwise they will be fined.  Before anyone complains about cost, ask the scouts or the Salvation Army to come in.  They will do it for free and you might even be able to source some instruments.
  10. Support the Hubs.  If a school has no information about the hubs or the majority of parents have no idea what they are then they will be downgraded one grade of their OFSTED report.

Quite frankly, I have had enough of schools treating Music as a nice optional extra.  We have been way too accommodating in the Music Education Community and it is time we supported the Minister whatever our political tribe and sort this out so we can have a generation of children getting a proper musical education.

Chinese Folk Medley

Dragon

I have made a short Chinese Folk Medley of two Chinese songs “Ni wa wa” (My Clay Doll) and “Hong Tsai Mei Mei” (Rainbow Sister) for school orchestra ready for Chinese New Year.

It’s not too tricky but the first violin and first flute parts at Rehearsal Mark H will take a bit of practice.  We are performing this piece as a collaboration between four schools in our city.  Feel free to download and print any of the parts and backings.  There is also a link to the MuseScore file here:

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Score_and_Parts

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Alto_Saxophone

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Bassoon

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Bb_Clarinet

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Bb_Trumpet

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Concert_Bass_Drum

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Contrabass

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Flute_1

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Flute_2

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Glockenspiel

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Harp

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Horn_in_F

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Oboe

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Recorder

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Tenor_Saxophone

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Timpani

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Trombone

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Tuba

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Violin_1

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Violin_2

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Violin_3

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Violoncello

Chinese_Folk_Medley-Xylophone

The Problems With First Access

What was the “Wider Opportunities” project, now First Access, are the schemes that have been put in place where a whole class learn an instrument together, normally for a year. It came about after the Labour Education Secretary David Blunkett gave a clear commitment that every child should play a musical instrument in the Blair Years. Credit where credit is due, Blunkett stuck to his word and schools got a variable experience of each child learning an instrument together. I worked for a local authority music service that implemented this scheme so I have first hand experience of setting up, carrying out and evaluating these projects. I still run quite a few in my school now. I have blogged about this a few years ago, today’s blog is to explain what tweaks we need to do to make these projects work better.

The basic idea is great. We all play an instrument together with an expert guiding us. The projects go wrong as soon as you encounter differentiation, practice, assessment, technique, logistics, accommodation, repairs, change in teacher, and a lack of aims. This sounds pretty stark but most of the projects have not been set up with enough thought concerning the little details. To get this right means we have to accept some uncomfortable things we would rather not deal with. It also means thinking about pedagogy and philosophy.

Differentiation

Everything goes well in your First Access lessons for about half a term and most the kids are are the same level. You buy a book like “Fiddle Time Joggers”, or “Recorder from the Beginning” or “Standards of Excellence”. You project the music on the interactive white board. This is easy! The kids are all learning! Why the heck didn’t we do this years ago?

After half a term, you’ve lost a third of kids who are struggling, a third think it is too easy and a third are kind of happy with what you are doing. You now have the Differentiation Problem and you have to come up with a solution that will appease children, parents, school leadership, the class teacher who is looking at you like a clueless puppy-dog and yourself. So you either 1) do nothing, 2) take out the more able to do something harder, 3) attempt to write a harder or easier part to what you are doing or 4) make new groups. This is pretty consistent for almost every type of instrument. I have taught classes of recorder, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, ukuleles, guitars, keyboards, djembes and Chinese Drums. We all end up with the difficulties but it is less of a problem with djembes and Chinese Drums. The differentiation problem seems to coincide with difficulties with pitch and musical literacy more than rhythm.

All three of my potential solutions have major costs as well as advantages. Number 1 is pretty lazy but actually isn’t as bad as you think because as soon as you split the group you have less time for each other and as soon as you split the music you have to teach two different things twice, leaving less time for students. What most teachers seem to do is stick with Number 1 as long as possible before moving to Number 2 at the end of the year with some small group teaching. Few people attempt Number 3 or Number 4; I do but it only works when you talk about…

…Practice

But you can’t even talk about this if, like most of the schools I have worked in, the children are unable to take the instruments home. This is the main reason, in my opinion, why some of the projects fail. The children can’t practice at home so make little progress. All that happens at the end of a year is the kids give up playing an instrument and the teacher ticks something off their yearly checklist. Even the kids that do take the instruments home have the problem of tuning if it is a stringed instrument, or knowing what to play. Sometimes the Music Education program Charanga can work if children have laptops or iPads but the main problem is the children don’t know what to play or how to play it. And most of their parents are clueless too. The solutions are 1) Parent workshops to show them how to tune, guide and what it means to practice, 2) A shedload of photocopying (the senior leaders are going to freak when they see our Music Department’s photocopying bill!), 3) Emailing music to children or 4) Charanga or interactive books like Essential Elements on the iStore. I have tried all four. What I have found is that I really don’t believe Charanga works at home, the kids don’t use it, but if you give them music in their book bag, their parents will make them play it. Basically if you equate practice with homework and make sure it is in the homework folder, then there is more chance it will get done. But in general, this is a major barrier to playing an instrument – music teachers and class teachers have not thought carefully enough on how, when or where children will practice. Even worse is if you have a class of thirty children you simply can’t listen to them all play which leads us to the problems of…

…Assessment

How on earth do you know where each kid is at if you have a class of thirty children playing instruments together? If you are fortunate to have an hours lesson and you just spent one minute with each child that is half the lesson before you have actually taught anything, tuned up etc. Music teachers deal with this by 1) Getting children to send videos of them practicing at home (if they have an instrument), 2) Listening to children in groups, 3) Listening to children playing on their own in front of the class, 4) Taking children out to listen to them play, 5) Class recitals, 6) Self assessment. The biggest problem is the common lie that many more pompous music teachers give, which is they are able to listen to a group of four children play and are able to assess them individually when they are playing together. Can you ****. You can barely do this with a pair of children. It’s a lie to get out of the awkward situation of putting children on the spot with asking them to stand up in front of 29 peers and play on their own. That in my mind is a fully understandable lie. I have done every assessment method in the book. They all are flawed but I actually have been experimenting with Number 5 – Class Recitals and this seems to work the best. Basically, you set up a mini concert, tell the children and parents the date and ask the children to write down their best piece which they have to play in a mini concert with the rest of their class on their own or in a duet with a friend. There is no opt-out. There are ethical problems with this but you do get a rough, evidence-based assessment of each child’s ability and a celebration of achievement and an opportunity to talk to parents about their children. I am sure there will be a generation of children complaining on how their music teacher forced them to play in front of everyone and how it felt dreadful to be compared with Cordelia but every other assessment system has been pretty dreadful too. Self-assessment is pretty useless – human beings are notoriously bad at self-assessment and peer-assessment can often result in bullying. The embarrassment though in our little concerts is normally a result of a failure of practice or…

Technique

How do you teach good technique to thirty children? Those teachers who say it’s just the same as teaching one child or a small group are kidding you. It’s frankly close to impossible. The ways that work are 1) Teacher modeling, 2) Peer-to-class modeling, 3) Peer-to-peer modeling (paired work), 4) Outsourcing technique to an online teacher through a video. I go mainly for Number 1 first – I will show the technique myself. I then do Number 2 if a child has good technique and I want others to see it. Number 3 I use as a check – “look at the person next to you and see if you are doing it the same way, if you aren’t can you work out who is doing it wrong?” Number 4 is get the kids to watch a video of someone doing it right at school or at home. Another thing I do is put the children in four groups in lines (our children are in four houses) and get each group to play and adjust technique if the children are getting it wrong. I’m not assessing here, I’m just seeing that one child is playing A when it should be G and is mixing up C and D. It is blooming hard work and you have so little time to adjust technique. Everyone says they hate it rote learning these days but in this circumstance rote learning is your friend. Just instruct the children in small steps and practice it over and over and over. Remind children of the basics constantly and then most technique problems deal with themselves as the children self-correct.

Logistics

You would think that giving each child an instrument which they then play wouldn’t be that hard. You would be mistaken. The children forget them at home much more frequently than their PE Kit. They lose them. They sell them (yep, I am afraid I have experienced this). They mix up each other’s bows. They mix up each other’s mouthpieces. They leave them on the bus. Getting Instrument A to Child A in the right place at the right time is way more complicated than you would think. To solve this you need 1) Parent workshops, 2) Letters to class teachers, parents, 3) Countless emails, 4) Phone numbers for the local police and school bus companies. I say this in jest but I have had to do both of these things in the past. But the answer to all of this is 5) Spare instruments. If you don’t have five extra instruments for your First Access problem either cut your loses like myself and go bald, pull out all your hair or buy wigs. You would never believe where these instruments go. No wonder so few schools give instruments to the kids to practice at home.

Accommodation

You are happy. You will be teaching in the school hall. Loads of space. But there is a hidden catch. Sometimes this hall is to be used for SATS. Indoor PE. Book Week. Book Fair. Year 2 Dinosaur Exhibition Week. If you think you will teach every lesson in the school hall, think again! And if your lesson is directly before lunch then you will be expected to put all the chairs out for the dinner ladies. The answer to these problems are to prepare two lessons. Number 1 is the school hall version. Number 2 is the classroom contingency plan. Your main difficulty is that no one will tell you to change room until the last possible moment. You will be told how you need to be flexible. When you are told this, stand your ground and explain that they have known for a year when SATs will be and all they need to do is see who has booked the hall and email that person and explain why they will need to change rooms. If you just accept the “be flexible” line then they will never ever think about you and you (and the children) will have to put up with a chaotic lesson every six weeks or so). Your contingency plan requires a CD player and a CD as you will be unable to log in to another class teachers computer in an unfamiliar room. Make sure the school have not thrown it out and keep a CD version of all your repertoire. If you need a triple insurance plan, make sure the school hasn’t thrown away the OHP. Keep a board marker in your pocket.

Repairs

Broken bows. Cracked reeds. Two thirds of a recorder. Ripped out pages of books. No resin. No shoulder rests. No valve oil. No spare strings. Those button thingies on the trumpet valves that keep falling off. Bridges collapsing. Pegs breaking. Missing tail pieces. Clarinet key pads that have worn out. The problem is that most teachers deal with this after they need repairing. Then you end up running around and making mistakes. Buying the wrong reed strength. Putting on 3/4 size strings on a 1/4 size violin. Finding out the bow you’ve bought was the wrong size and won’t fit in the case. The answer is to buy a tool box with a set of repairs and then review every year. I am afraid barely anyone does this. Another answer is to get a company to come in and repair instruments. We do this at our school at the same time the piano tuner comes in. I’m impressed with the brass man but I am not impressed with the string man. Like every external agency, it can be hit and miss. If you do not repair you will end up with kids that do not care and look after their instruments. People are mirrors. This was a major problem at our school – last summer I had to throw away thirty-five instruments for differing reasons. With more care from the string team this would have been less than ten.

Change of teacher

This is huge. When the teacher changes, in most circumstances the whole scheme changes. Keeping consistency in First Access is incredibly difficult. This is the same as any teacher in any school. But it is the main reason I think whether these schemes work well or fail. I have seen very successful classes suddenly go backwards when the teacher changes and I have seen the reverse, with a huge leap in achievement – the only change is the teacher changed. This is a multi-faceted problem but there is one big way we can keep teacher consistency and that is through…

…A Common Aim

The reason so many of these great schemes fail is because we don’t have a common aim. When I started doing First Access we had a meeting with colleagues and the first disagreement we had was whether the point of learning the instrument was to teach the curriculum or whether the point was to learn the instrument. This might just sound like semantics, but some teachers were just teaching three notes for the entirety of the year but combining them with fun activities, singing etc. They were completely unconcerned with how well they were achieving on the instruments because as far as they were concerned that was not the aim. Their aim was to teach children what dynamics was, or what rhythm was and the instrument was a tool. As it was a tool it didn’t actually matter how good you got with it as long as you knew the basics of how to hold it. Other colleagues looked at this with horror – for them it was all about playing the instrument. How on earth could you go through a whole year only learning three notes. But both teachers were pretty consistent, they just had different aims. Our leadership solved this problem by giving a common aim. You can do this with curriculum documents but no one reads them properly. You have to put the teachers on the spot and the way to do this is to have A Big Concert. We used to put on the Big Concert at the Victoria Hall in Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent. It was a great experience for the children and as we had a common repertoire which we had to learn, it meant we ended up with a common aim. And this meant that we started to have some consistency with each other in the Music Service.

I hope this lengthy post shows quite how complicated First Access is and how a simple statement by a well-meaning Education Minister can result in something actually incredibly complicated. I still think Blunkett was right. We can all learn instruments together and there can be a lot of good things that can come from this. But blooming heck it is really hard to do well. I’ve only learned many of these things from doing it day in day out for ten years. Most teachers leave after five years these days. The kids are the losers if we don’t get it right. We need to put a lot more thought into First Access, I haven’t even mentioned things like motivation and culture for a start. If anyone has some good or bad experiences, can you tell me in the comments below or on my Twitter feed.

Changing your mind

This is not a music post but about that which bores us all – Brexit.

I didn’t vote in the referendum, I was working in Thailand and I hadn’t set up my voting registration. But if I had I would have voted for Brexit because I studied European Union in my Politics and Music course at Keele University (yep I know that’s weird!) and I know full well that the EU really is an organisation in favour of a supranational federalist Europe. That’s what “Ever Closer Union” means. I’m very suspicious of any organisation where you can’t democratically remove the people who make laws and I still believe in a sovereign nation state.

I’ve changed my mind on Brexit because of Rory Stewart’s support for Theresa May’s deal. His argument is based, I think, on his experience in Afghanistan and Iraq making peace in civil wars. We haven’t had a huge amount of violence (although one MP was horrifically murdered in the referendum campaign) but there have been huge amounts of threats and pure nastiness everywhere. Brexit has divided families and communities. I know of teachers who refuse to talk to family members because of the way they voted. I am pretty much considered mad because I said in the staff room that I was in favour of Brexit. In some ways we have had a very public civil war and we are still very deeply divided as a country.

Some people may change their votes and their minds but whatever happens it is still going to be a relatively close result if we have a second referendum. And whatever happens we will have some very, very angry people who can legitimately say that the government betrayed their wishes. Cameron very clearly said on millions of leaflets that the government would implement the referendum result. But two years on, this issue has gone beyond who is right and who is wrong. Brexit could be an economic catastrophe or it might not be as bad as everyone thinks. What is worse is that we are badly divided as a nation and we have to bring people together not apart. This means letting everyone lose.

If one side has “won” we can’t unite. We are that broken, we are that divided. There will always be more calls for more referenda and more threats, more hate and more people with huge chips on their shoulders. We are still angry after two years and it doesn’t look like there is any consensus in parliament or with the general public. We all need to lose in the sense that we all need to take a hit if we are to unite again. That’s what happens in a civil war. We need to learn humility and that can only happen if we all compromise and accept that there is no consensus.

Theresa May’s deal is not great. But it’s the only deal on the table. The EU might use it to trap us in the Customs Union but there are quite a few legal options for us if they really did try to keep us in. But all of this barely matters. Like Rory says, every option is a slight variation on Theresa May’s deal but now what is needed is for us to move on and implement the deal. We need to implement this deal because it is not perfect. We need this deal because nobody wins. We have to accept a dilution of our own views because half the population disagree with us. We have to get out of our echo chambers and accept we don’t have a monopoly on truth; that even if no one we know thinks differently to us, there is a community somewhere else in Britain where it is the exact opposite. I still think Brexit is not bad, I still think we can prosper even if we don’t get a deal. But I have changed my mind that we should implement hard Brexit because that is what the voters voted for. They didn’t. Half the country was divided.

Brexiters need to take this hit. They need to know they will not get hard Brexit and they will have to pool some of their sovereignty. We have to stay close to Europe. But we must not cancel Brexit either. Even if our GDP goes up as a result and everyone gets free ice cream. If we do that we immediately legitimize every person who claims they have been betrayed. That’s how you end up with fascist governments and it is arrogant to believe that will never happen in Britain. The Remainers need to take their hit, there will be a Brexit and no second referendum. But we will stay as close to Europe as we can. This is why we need a deal – because we need to heal and we need time to see how we can move on together without alienating each other in the process. What will make Britain prosper is a united country and May’s deal is our first step in national healing.

Christmas is a time to come together in families and in communities. Can we even dream to come together as a country?