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.



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


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.

Some tips for arranging Christmas music for young children

  1. Don’t do too many songs.  Five or six is more than enough.
  2. Get all the children to sing all the songs.  Some schools still insist that each class should be given a song which only they sing.  Resist this, you want all the children to sing.
  3. Do not arrange songs that go below middle C.
  4. Going up high is not a problem – children even at a young age need to be developing their head voice.  However, school staff really find it hard to pitch songs above a high C and automatically try to sing an octave lower. Because of this I try to just keep the range of songs between middle C and high C.  If you can train the staff to sing with their head voice that would be a long term solution!
  5. If you can sing songs that use the intervals so, me and la (G, E or A at fixed pitch) it will help the children’s vocal development.  However, all songs like this will be a bit boring for the audience.
  6. Make your performance live.  It is OK to rehearse to backing tracks but it is important for children to sing with an accompanist and if things go terribly wrong, a good accompanist will cover any obvious mistakes.  If you don’t have one, advertise.  We need to encourage live music and give jobs for accompanists.  If we don’t we will lose these skilled musicians and it will be another job that will be pointless for young musicians to train for.  Don’t think that all music needs to be accompanied by a piano, if you have a guitarist that is wonderful and if you are lucky to know a harp player ask them to accompany your children’s singing.
  7. Make at least two copies of the sheet music and print out with at least three weeks to spare.  Make sure the accompanist (if it is not you) has the music well in advance as it is not fair to spring music on them at the last minute even if they are amazing.  It’s basic respect.
  8. When rehearsing the songs never start with the entire song.  Break it up and teach each phrase four or five times, modelling exactly how you want the children to sing.
  9. Insist on good word pronunciation of the start and end of words. This is especially important for English language learners.  This will make the words clear and if you are performing in a hall it will stop the sound becoming awash with vowels echoing in the hall.
  10. Make sure all the children sing.  If they aren’t tell them that mummy or daddy will becoming to watch them sing, not the teachers or other children and this is a lovely way to say thank you.  Your singing is like a Christmas present to your family.  They will probably film it too and show it to their friends!

Some more thoughts on composition

I have written quite a lot about composition recently, simply because there is so much emphasis on this with the wide educational focus on creativity. I would have loved to have been at yesterday’s Michaela education debates but had to just follow the debates on Twitter.  Thankfully the whole building were tweeting like mad, it was hard to keep up!  The one I found the most interesting  was Guy Claxton vs Daisy Christodoulou on “Sir Ken is right: Traditional Education kills Creativity”.  I have been reading “Seven Myths” by Daisy and “Educating Ruby” by Guy so I know where the two are coming from in their individual analysis. Sir Ken of course is Sir Ken Robinson who is famous for his TED talk on schools and creativity (incidentally the most widely seen TED talk on Youtube).

Basically both authors are saying the same thing – we all want children to have creativity, it’s the means to get to this hallowed grail that they argue over. Claxton is saying we can teach creativity directly whereas Christodoulou says that it is through the teaching of knowledge that we become creative. One of her most poignant remarks was that Shakespeare’s very traditional education did not result in uncreative plays but quite the reverse, it was because of his education that he was able to be a creative genius.  Anyone who looks at Shakespeare’s plays can see that it would be impossible to write what he does without a traditional education.  You can throw out all the historical plays for a start.  Claxton’s argument rests on the idea that you can teach transferable generic skills, something that Daisy rejects.  Having read both books, I do think that the research favours Daisy, there just is not enough convincing evidence to suggest that generic skills can be transferred between domains.  In fact there is a lot of evidence to suggest the reverse.

So how does this relate to music composition in schools?  We have to think of what we do in schools and how it relates to creativity.  The first thing to understand is that composition at GCSE and A-Level is very different to composition pre-GCSE.  The main model at GCSE/A-Level is to compose using a computer either using Logic/Cubase or Sibelius/Finale, finally submitting compositions as a score or as a recording.  Sometimes the audio will be people playing instruments but more common will be students submitting work that is played by midi instruments.  I have absolutely no problem with this whatsoever – it makes complete sense. The only thing I would suggest is that we ensure that children have adequate computer skills before starting the course.  If the first time children encounter Sibelius or Logic is in Y10 or worse still 12 then they are going to be on a very difficult learning curve.  Anyway, this in my opinion is a good way to produce composition work and I have no complaints.  It is done quite regularly in the music industry and will prepare students for work at University if they choose to go or to have experience creatively making something if they choose to do something else.  I am very in favour of composition post 14, in fact older children should be spending close to 2/3rds of their time creating music as it is a higher level skill and one that they should be able to accomplish towards the end of their school life.

But in Early Years, Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 the model is completely different. There are some schools that are doing more computer based composition work in KS3 and this is probably a good thing, especially if they can get the core skills of sequencing and scoring correct.  But most schools have a system where young people get into small groups with tuned and untuned percussion instruments and collaboratively create music.  It is this system where the problems lie.  For a start, composition is mostly collaborative at KS 1, 2 and 3 and mostly individualised at KS 4 and 5.  Why?  The main reason I think is because the children do not know enough about playing an instrument or how to create music using a computer.  Also, collaboration is seen as a good thing for pupils to experience.  But like I have said before, all this results in is bad group work.  How can children create music, often with sound all around them when there are so many factors against them? Anyone who thinks you will get quality work out of a small group of mixed ability adolescents playing instruments has probably never worked with teenagers or is lying to themselves.  Also, how on earth can you assess this work?  What if person A in the group has done nothing and person B has done all of it?  There are ways around this, you can ask the pupils to write down who did what percentage of the work but this seems to be a recipe for social disaster in a class situation.  I am not denying there is good group work going on in schools, but I am saying that it is incredibly difficult to get right.  And I really don’t want to equate creativity with something that is poor quality.  That defeats the object of creative work.  Creativity is not supposed to be a process where you have to reject your ideas because other people are more vocal about their own. Creativity is not about bossing everyone else to play what you want them to play.  Creativity is about the spark of ideas.  Done right I am sure it will be amazing.  But the situation in schools is not good.  Children leave their musical education aged 14 with generally poor instrumental skills, next to no musical literacy and a poor attitude to classroom music.  This then filters through to the next generation and the next.  I am not blaming music teachers for this.  We have all experienced lessons where compositional group work goes wrong, it is really hard to get right.

If we are to stop this, let’s just play music.  They have band in the States and Canada which seems to work well and has worked well for years. There are some great Orff programs that use traditional instruments well in the classroom. Some of this has composition in the program but the main difference is they are much more structured than composition programs in the UK for Primary  and Lower Secondary Music classes.  If I were to make some changes to music teacher education I would make all music teachers do Orff Level 1 for a start – it should be compulsory for all trainees.  And I would encourage teachers to teach sequencing and scoring at KS3.

I always do composition work in classes for all ages – it is important to give all children the opportunity to create their own music, however badly or well it goes, but I think we need to get away from an expectation that composition happens every lesson or even every month.  We should not be putting pressure on teachers to be teaching composition when they are doing great work teaching the children to perform well.  I don’t really care what music work we do in schools as long as it is high quality and we prepare children for their higher classes to give them as many options as possible.  But in general, an emphasis on performing and aural work in the younger years as well as good musical literacy skills will be the best preparation for children if they want to take music further.