Xylophones

Xylophones are expensive but really good for the classroom.  They may not have lots of buttons and sounds like keyboards but they have a much better physical response and quite frankly look better.  I really think if you want keyboards you should have a keyboard lab – keyboards and other classroom instruments simply do not mix well in my opinion.  The biggest problem, apart from the cost is how to set them all up.  The first thing to consider is how best to divide up the small amount of resources most schools do have.  It therefore makes sense to have two pupils to an instrument.  The only problem with this is it restricts the amount of notes you can use.  However, there are two sets of C to A notes and there are many melodies that only use only six notes, so there are umpteen activities that can be played.  A good place to find six note tunes are books for handbells.  Orff books also have many activities to cater for a limited range of notes.

In an ideal world we would have classes of 20 and have four soprano xylophones, four alto xylophones and two bass xylophones.  This would mean everybody could play together. This would cost around two thousand five hundred pounds to buy new – a lot of money for only ten instruments.  However with thought and organisation, this is actually enough to cover most primary music melody work.  It might also help to have two metalophones and some small soprano glockenspiels so the music doesn’t sound so wooden all the time.

Sometimes the screws come off the instruments.  These can be fixed using new screws and the plastic covering I found in the chemistry department – one of the science technicians was able to fix it up for me and the DT department put the screws in.  I managed to fix four instruments this way.

Beaters are important and sadly people make the mistake I did and bought the plastic yellow beaters.  These are a false economy.  For a start they bend badly, secondly they sound terrible and third they look so awful and cheap.  It is much better to buy beaters with proper felts or woven material on the ends.  It is also advantageous to set up your room so that the pitched percussion are on stands and instantly available to play.  See the picture below for details of how my friend sets up his room – his set up is really good.  He has one bass xylophone, one bass metalophone, two alto xylophones, one alto metalophone, two soprano xylophones, one soprano metalophone and four soprano glockenspiels.  This would mean twenty students could all play tuned percussion together. I find that in many schools there are instruments available but the set up is really badly organised and many instruments need to be repaired. I wish I had the stands my friend has and a little more physical space so I could have a set up like this.  Perhaps in my next school I will!

The last thing to consider is how the students will play the music.  You could go for music stands or if you want to keep it simple, learn everything by rote.  I find having the whiteboard in the line of vision the most useful as this means you don’t need to bother with photocopying and music stands but can still have something for the children to refer to in the lesson if they need it.  Also it is important to have the piano facing the children if you are going to direct from the piano or sit facing the children if you are going to accompany them on guitar.  For many schools, this is an expensive multi-year ongoing project but if you think strategically, perhaps you could have a paid after school club to pay for resources or do some fund raising.  It is money well spent, as long as the instruments are used well. 

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The new times-table test and how it relates to music

Today the government have announced that times-tables are going to be assessed at the age of eleven through a national test.  Presumably this is a continuation of the “secondary ready” policy to ensure that all children have basic skills so they can access the secondary curriculum.  A bit like the phonics check, it is a screening process to make sure that schools are responsible for teaching times-tables.  Every school I have been to has taught multiplication tables, so there is some understandable annoyance from teachers and educationalists that the government have announced this, as it looks like they are implementing it because it is not being taught.  I doubt this is true, the reason they are testing it is to make sure that all tables up to twelve are thoroughly learned and make teachers responsible for children’s performance in the test.  As we know, just because you teach something doesn’t mean that the children have actually learned it.

Do we really need another test?  I would actually argue “yes”.  As all schools I know of are already teaching multiplication tables, no one can complain that there is any change so there should be no extra work for teachers.  As it is going to be externally marked, there is no added assessment for teachers.  It is simple and easy to understand.  If children get stressed out about it, that says a lot about the teacher making too big a deal of the testing process.  I had spelling and multiplication tests continually at school, it was just something to expect and nothing abnormal, unexpected or oppressive.  You even got a chocolate pick and mix if you got 10/10.  So why is the government calling for this national test?  My guess is they are concerned about a dangerous fallacy going around education circles that times-tables are not important and do not need to be explicitly taught.  The test will ensure tables are taught because as we all know well, what gets formally assessed gets taught.

Before we dismiss this line of thinking out of hand, we should ask if there are any good reasons why we shouldn’t teach times-tables.  The main criticism is that learning them by rote is poor pedagogy as children aren’t actually thinking about the number relationships and relying on memory; the old knowledge vs understanding argument.  There are educationalists such as Jo Boaler who argue that thinking about numbers is a much better way of understanding multiplication, especially through talking through different methods that children use to obtain an answer.  I have sympathy for this and it is always good to listen to others to think how we go about solving a problem and it is also good to confront any misconceptions at their source.  However, there is a very good argument for instant memory recall as most mathematical problems have multiple steps and if you do not know your tables by heart you are adding an extra step in your thinking process.  And as we know, the more steps you have, the more likely you are to make a mistake as it introduces an additional cognitive load.  Another argument is the ever-present one that now we have calculators why should we bother to learn multiplication facts by rote.  Isn’t this another relic from our outdated Victorian education system?  Again, cognitive load theory is a reason why instant recall is preferable to calculators but also many mathematical processes rely on multiplication relationships and concepts such as simple algebra, ratio, fractions and statistics simply do not make much sense if you do not already know your tables.  Finally, the best reason to teach them in my opinion is a bit simpler – secondary maths teachers really want the children they inherit to know them as it makes their life easier.  It’s hardly a good pedagogical reason but if we really believe in reducing teacher workload then we should take it seriously.  If secondary maths teachers have the knowledge that the children know their tables, it is one less thing that they have to worry about and those that don’t can be identified and helped right at the start of secondary school.  Maths teachers should not have to worry that their pupils do not know their tables just like English teachers should not have to worry that pupils will be unable to construct a grammatically correct sentence by the age of 11.

How does this relate to music?  I see a similar problem with learning notation and I have been guilty of making similar mistakes in the past.  When teaching piano you can learn to play through recognising the notes in relation to each other, for example when notes go in step or if they skip.  Some children work this out by numbers on their fingers which is why beginners playing all pieces with thumbs on C can result in some bad practices.  They don’t actually know their notes but have come up with their own system to relate the symbol to the sound such as thumb = C, pointy finger = D etc.  Sadly, this can actually cause problems later on when the music becomes harder or if their fingers change hand position.  One pupil I taught could play a variety of different pieces as long as thumbs were on C but did not know which note was which.  When I finally twigged that they did not really know their notes we had to more or less go back to basics and relearn material.  Sadly that child did not continue playing as a result of the frustration they encountered.  This is why I always do ten minutes of a piano lesson on basic theory using flashcards.  This has made a big difference and I encourage children to know the notes by rote rather than try to work them out.  When playing piano you have to have good hand eye coordination and, like with times-tables, we need instant recall if we are to play music fluently and to a consistent speed.  If you can instantly recall the names of all the notes on treble and bass staves then you have a much better chance of playing fluently and will find sight-reading less of a challenge.  Just like in maths you need to know your tables to be numerate, in music you need to know your notes to be musically literate.

Some music teachers will complain and say that they do teach these things, but the evidence is against us in general.  Sadly there is a large proportion of children who cannot even read treble clef by the age of 11.  This makes secondary music teachers lives much more difficult than it should.  There should be an expectation that children know their notes by the age of 11 and the government have responded to this by adding to the new KS 2 Music curriculum the expectation that staff notation will be taught.  There are music teachers, both in primary and in secondary schools who say musical literacy is not important.  We had conversations about this on my PGCE.  However, this is one of the reasons for the disastrous report into music education that I have referred to previously.  Most secondary teachers do not expect primary children to know notation but I think that they should.  You can still teach an exciting practical curriculum in primary and expect children to be musically literate just like we do the same for normal literacy.

So what practical steps can we take?  Teach notation from KS1 and practice it through practical activities for 6 years.  Teach recorders.  Teach hand bells.  Teach violins.  Teach ukuleles.  But do not expect theory will magically happen.  Theory is vitally important and it needs to be explicitly taught.  Just like all artists should know their colours, all dancers should know their steps, all mathematicians should know their tables, all musicians should know their notes.

How young should they start?

A question asked by many parents to music teachers is when Little Johnny should start learning a musical instrument.  And the answer most music teachers give is, “when Johnny is ready”.  I try not to say this as I don’t think it is very helpful.  My reply is invariably, “well Little Wolfgang started learning Suzuki violin at age 3.  Would you like to know what that involves?” I tell the truth about some other pupils: “Little Hannah started learning piano with Mrs. Crackwhip; Hannah is pretty amazing, would you like to know how she got so good?”  Sometimes I reply with a question like, “What would you say to Little Johnny if he asks to give up after three weeks?”  When parents understand what learning an instrument really involves and how it affects their children and themselves, they start to ask the right questions, rather than looking for assurances on how good a parent they are or trying to keep up with the Jones’. 

I make it clear that when I teach an instrument my style is not the same as Mrs. Crackwhip’s.  Not because Mrs. Crackwhip is bad but because parents need to know that tuition is different, not only for each individual student but because teachers are different too.  I explain that my pupils will not go on to be virtuosos like hers and they will not get over 140/150 in their ABRSM examinations, but there is role for my style of teaching too.  It’s a bit slower paced, a little more theory based and more appropriate for children who want to learn but are going to really struggle with Mrs. Crackwhip’s approach.  But I will defend Mrs. Crackwhip to the bitter end because her style of teaching is absolutely vital for a certain kind of pupil that needs to be constantly stretched and will not be concerned about two to three hours of daily practice.  We need a variety of different teachers to cater for the variety of different students.

Another question people ask is what instrument to learn and when this should be taught.  I normally say that clarinet and trumpet teachers have told me that it is best to wait for pupils to have their front two adult teeth before learning these instruments.  I have no idea if that is true but it is what I have been told.  They often ask about guitar – I try to discourage this as it is very difficult for young children to play well.  I sometimes say to these parents to get a small ukulele first and see how they get on with that before starting the guitar.  That normally leaves parents asking about piano, violin and flute.  I try to encourage the cello and viola as well as the violin, as there is no reason why small children cannot play these as long as there are good teachers available.  I suggest that budding flautists learn the recorder first before buying a flute, which is one of the reasons I like to teach recorder in Year 2.  I try to promote drum kit too.  At my current school we have some great Year 1 and 2 drummers, one of which is already in a band playing around town with his dad in local gigs!  The one instrument I get asked about the most is the piano.  There is nothing to stop most children from learning this from the age of 3 but there are many reasons why it might not be a good idea to start so early.  However, I am very happy with very young children learning musical instruments; the research is pretty clear that the younger you learn, the more advanced you will get if you keep it up and also there is a much higher percentage of children who have absolute pitch when they started young.  I will blog about this phenomenum in my next post.

Pitch

This is the half term where I focus on teaching pitch to Year 1 and Year 2.  We do pitch almost every lesson but this is the time where I teach it in detail.  All the children now know their Kodaly pitches and hand signs and have spent quite a substantial time on aural work so they are ready for something slightly different.  Year 1’s will be taking a graphic score approach to pitch called “Magic Rabbit” which will consist of playing, writing and composing their own graphic scores on mini-whiteboards individually and in pairs.  The Year 2’s will be learning to read music using 6 notes from middle C to A.  For those children who find this easy I have designed a harder book with an octave of notes.  This short course also involves music from China so we will be learning about Chinese New Year and making some music using pentatonic scales.  The name of this course is “Dragon Pitch”.

Magic Rabbit is a story I have made up about a rabbit who lives at the top of the hill and likes to play.  He likes walking up and down, skipping up and down and sliding up and down.  How does he slide up the hill?  Well he is called Magic Rabbit! Magic Rabbit is shown to slide using a diagonal line, walking using steps and skipping by little arrows.  They start easy and then get quite complicated.  The children play glockenspiels and xylophones to show how he moves and later on they write down how he moves and finally they make their own compositions that their partner has to play.  The basic misconception many children make is to misunderstand the passage of time graphically along the x axis.  So many children just do not get this and every lesson I talk about this misconception as the whole basis of notated music rests on this principle – you have to read horizontally and vertically simultaneously to read music properly.  We also sing songs about rabbits to go along with the theme like “Little Rabbit Foo Foo” and “In a Cottage in a Wood”.  At the end of the unit I assess them on how well they play and compose their Magic Rabbit pieces.  We have the formative assessment of some pieces to play before they can leave so I can check their understanding.  Magic Rabbit always works well but it only gives a simple understanding of pitch, basic high and low and the direction the music is played.  This is appropriate for 5 and 6 year old children.

Dragon Pitch starts with simple music in four bar phrases where music starts with only one note and then goes up to six.  Although there are no such things as learning styles I actually teach the notes kinaesthetically as it is good fun and they get to understand pitch in terms of up and down.  Middle C is your toes, D is your knees, E is your waist, F is your shoulders, G is your head and A is hands above your head.  We learn many tunes this way before we play them on xylophones and glockenspiels.  Later on we take away the F’s and B’s and play some pentatonic tunes to fit into the theme of Chinese Music.  The major themes of this unit are reading and playing from standard Western notation and improvisatory work using pentatonic scales.  I want to put some more Orff work into this this year so I may make some changes.  We sing a song I made up “It’s Chinese New Year”, “A dragons very fierce” and “Puff the Magic Dragon”.  It is difficult to assess improvisation so I just ask the children to play some of the simple notated pieces and assess these.  These tunes are also used for formative assessment using the exit ticket approach.  Dragon Pitch works well but is quickly and easily forgotten.  In units of work to come I will be revisiting Dragon Pitch as it pointless teaching it if the children will rapidly forget it.  The most controversial element is explicitally teaching staff notation to young children.  I have been criticised for it in the past but I just think being musically literate is something important for every child to grasp and makes life a lot easier for other teachers as they progress.

During this time I will not be forgetting rhythm, we will do our rhythms every lesson just like aural work and instrument of the week.  The instruments of the week for Year 1 are Thai instruments as we are located in Thailand.  We will learn about the ranat, khim, klui, ching and khong wong.  The Year 2’s will be learning about some Chinese instruments such as the gesheng, erhu, pippa and dizi.

What I would like for Christmas in my classroom

I have a wish-list that I send to my boss from time to time.  So far I have got a mini drum kit, hand bells and 4 new lollipop drums. This year I would like an electric piano for the hall, some more cymbals and a bass xylophone.

But more than anything I want to just be allowed to teach the children in the way I teach best, in the music room with all the instruments I already have. 

I am way more likely to receive the instruments in the top paragraph than receive the autonomy in the second sadly.

Composing v Composition

I have been reading quite a bit about assessing music in the classroom, particularly composition.  A good place to read more is Martin Fautley’s blog.  Basically, even after over twenty-five years of composition being an integral part of the curriculum there are some widespread weaknesses that are incredibly worrying.  The first is that A-Level music teachers have little to no confidence in the marking of A-Level compositions.  I can relate to this, in my teacher training we were given some compositions to mark by our tutor who we later found out was the Chief Examiner for Edexcel.  None of us on the course agreed on what mark to give the composition and we all disagreed on the work put in, whether it was plagiarised and what creative processes were involved.  It seems like little has changed over the years.

Fautley and other music educators have said that the answer to many of these problems with assessment is to assess composing rather than composition.  This means putting an emphasis on the process rather than the product and is in keeping with the relatively recent focus on formative assessment in schools.  They say the value is in the skills learned through composing – making mistakes, articulating ideas, refining ideas, improving work through feedback etc.  The biggest problem with this is that most schools have whole-school summative assessment policies and this will not fit with them.  However,  as many schools are now changing their assessment policies as a result of the government abolishing National Curriculum levels it is a good time to bring forward these ideas on music assessment.

Although I agree with these educators on the value of formative assessment, I am unconvinced this is in preference to summative assessment of composition.  There should still be a final product like there is for all coursework and examinations.  This will come as no surprise but I do think we had it right in the past.  In our harmony exams we had pastiche exercises of Bach chorales, string quartets and in years preceding mine they used to do fugue.  This can be marked because you can see how accurately your work compares to the original.  It is also educationally strong because it improves your harmony skills, something absolutely vital in my professional work as a composer.  Examining boards still do assess harmony skills but I would get rid of any sense of personal originality and just go with more forms of pastiche.  It should be communicated that the composition element of the course is deliberately asking for the candidate to copy a musical style.  And when asked to say why personal composition is out of favour, to reply honestly that there were too many issues with marking individual compositions and there was too much variance in the results.  A-Level musicians would understand that – why risk a good grade because marking is so erratic?  Many people will cringe at this analysis and the downside is that we would not be formally assessing some really good composition work coming from young adults.  It does seem to be defeatist but it is a way with actually dealing with the problem and if it has not gone away in the last twenty-five years, why should it now?

Edit 05/02/16 – I have just found out from another music teacher that pastiche is really what the examiners are looking for.  He went on an Edexcel course that explicitly told him that A-Level examiners were looking for compositions that emulated a style.  Note that this was just for one exam board, it might not be necessarily true for them all.  We need to have some very serious discussions with examiners if this is true.

 

Chronology

Understanding music at a higher level involves a sense of chronology of how music has developed over time.  This used to be taught explicitly but now has been replaced with topics being inserted throughout with no sense of the overarching scheme of how it all fits together.  I will try to now explain why this is problematic.

The subject that has been most dissected in the past has been History.  My chronological knowledge of History is so poor because I have no idea how it all fits together.  I know certain epochs are from ancient history and some old and some more recent but really that is it.  The only dates I learned were 1066 and 1914-1918 and I know I am not alone in my ignorance.

A number of years ago I did a course on how the Bible fits together from Creation to New Creation and it was a complete revelation if you pardon the pun!  Stories I knew and thought I understood actually made some sense when put in an overarching narrative of how the God of the Israelites worked through history to the present day through a system of promises, signs and covenants.  It actually made some sort of logical sense for the first time, even though I had been a regular church-goer for many years.

In music, most people do not know the different periods of musical history and in a drive to become more “relevant”, now study  predominantly 20th and 21st Century curriculum.  If you think that I am being unfair here, read the 2013 Ofsted Report into music education Music Hubs – What Schools Must Do.  Here is a quote from the really damning report:

Classical music, as a serious component of the curriculum, was treated as a step too far in most of the primary and secondary schools surveyed, at least until Key Stage 4. It was felt by teachers and leaders to be too difficult or inaccessible for pupils. This reluctance created an unnecessary gap in pupils’ musical and cultural education.

So when should we start to show that music has developed through time?  I would argue the time to start this is in Key Stage 2.  In Key Stage 1 the priority must be rhythm and pitch, texture, timbre, tempo, structure and dynamics to understand how music is made before moving on to when it was made.  I think the chronology should be referred to explicitly throughout Key Stage 2 but I would put a specific mini course at the end of Year 6 to show how it all fits together.  All children should be able to know by the age of 11 that there is a tradition of Western notated music from the Medieval Period to the present day.  They should know about the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic and a little about the 20th and 21st Centuries.  I would probably leave much of the 20th Century to Key Stage 3 as you cannot make any sense of the variety of music in these periods without a solid understanding of reactions to Romantic music, particularly the composer Wagner.  

The worry most teachers have is that this could be incredibly dry and uninspiring.  It does not have to be that way whatsoever but does need a shift away from entertainment to actual learning.  If we are to help our secondary colleagues we need to prepare the children they inherit for a curriculum that will require a more robust theoretical and academic approach.  That is if we are to take the Ofsted music report seriously and actually engage with its recommendations.

Choir KS1 Christmas

We just did a choir concert today and sang 11 songs with KS 1.  Many of the songs had solos and all of them had instruments.  The songs were:

1) Jingle Bells with sleigh bells
2) White Christmas with solo introduction and triangles
3) Silent Night with solos and triangles
4) Deck the Halls with drums
5) Santa Claus is coming to town with a solo introduction
6) Feliz Navidad with maracas
7) O Christmas Tree with Chinese cymbals
8) Rudolph with lots of instruments and the beginning solo
9) Little Donkey with woodblocks and hand bells
10) Let it snow with introductory solo
11) We with you a merry Christmas with cymbals

Recorders

One of the best instruments primary school children can learn is the recorder.  It fits nice and easy into your book bag, sheet music fits in nicely too and you can make it is as simple or complicated as you like.  The problem is that it still has a bad reputation as a basic and unsophisticated instrument.  I always enjoyed playing mine but in secondary school it was not considered a proper instrument until we had an exchange student from Germany.  In our school orchestra we were told we were going to play a recorder concerto and we all laughed at the idea but learned the music as we were told to, thinking that our teacher was joking as it clearly said “violin” concerto on the top of the page.  Then at the rehearsal, we saw our exchange student take out a small case and play an incredible Vivaldi violin concerto on a little wooden descant recorder.  I never considered the recorder a joke instrument after that.

The basic problem with recorders is that you really do have to completely cover the holes to make a nice sound and you can’t blow loudly.  This is why it can be useful to learn the four-holed ocarina prior to the recorder.  If you blow loud you get no sound so you learn quite quickly that you have to blow quietly.  The other difficulty is that notation gets in the way and you end up with either some getting bored at the pace of lessons because other struggle to read notation or the converse, using letters prevents any real knowledge and skill of rhythm.  I have found the way to start is to use coloured squares and rectangles.  Note B is blue, A is red and G is green.  The rhythm is notated by the size of the rectangles with a square being 1 count.  This way we can play a lot of music quickly yet reading the graphic notation carefully to understand rhythm.  After about six lessons we basically go back to the beginning and read everything using standard Western staff notation.  This way they can concentrate on the notation having already internalised the melodies.  

I normally start recorders at the end of Year 2 so they have the whole summer holiday to practice music that we have learned.  I have made my own recorder tutor but I also recommend the standard “Recorder from the Beginning” by John Pitts.  This fits nicely into book bags and goes at a pretty good pace.  I do introduce some other resources as well as the one thing that most recorder tutors do not do is give enough pieces to practice.

Basically, at the end of Year 2 I get students to learn B, A, G and E.  Some teachers like to put in C and D and miss out E but this is a technical mistake as learning E does give you a much better hold of the instrument and also is a good introduction to the clarinet that some pupils go on to play later on.  In Year 3 we master all the notes of the D major scale.  I expect all the students to be able to play everything and I do not differentiate for the majority of the class, I expect all of them to read and play to a relatively high standard.  The only exceptions I make are for those students that have joined later on in the year.  I normally give them a book to take home and a few one on one lessons in lunch time to get them to around the standard of the other children. 

I would recommend all primary students learn the recorder.  In fact, I would make it compulsory to do at least Grade 1 before they leave Year 6 if I was allowed to!  This would mean that our secondary colleagues would inherit all children capable of playing an instrument and knowing the basics of musical notation.

Introduction to Harmony for Year 2

Now is a great time to introduce harmony to Y2.  I do this through the song “Little Donkey”.  First I teach the part of the song that goes ” Ring out those Bells tonight, Bethlehem, Bethlehem.  Follow that star tonight, Bethlehem, Bethlehem”.  I then put four children in the four corners of the room and give them four hand bells, high C, B, A and G.  The children play CCCBAG then sing “Bethlehem, Bethlehem”.  I explain this is a melody.  I then put another child in each group with a harmony note.  I explain when you put the sounds together you create harmony.  I then put a third child in each group.  I explain this is still harmony but often when you have 3 or more notes together in harmony it can be called a chord.  I then add more harmony notes so all children have a bell.  We then move around as a carousel so all children get a turn of playing in each chord.  I sometimes get another child to play the Bethlehem, Bethlehem bit on a glockenspiel. 

To do this activity you will need hand bells.  They aren’t too expensive.  I recommend you get 3 sets of diatonic bells and one set of chromatic.  You will need an F sharp for this activity to sound right.  I use bells quite a lot so I think it is a good investment if you don’t have them.  Nonetheless they are not indestructible and every 3 to 5 years you may need to replace a few that are not working well. 

The next lesson will repeat this activity but we also learn the tune and put the coconuts/woodblocks in for the donkey.  I set the whole song as an optional homework.