Starting a Primary Music department from scratch with no money

I am fortunate to work in a school with a large budget. However, this hasn’t always been the case. My budget most of the time when I worked in the UK was zero to fifty pounds annually. You end up finding some very innovative ways of working when you have no money. Here is one way that you can run a good department with no cash. What you will have to do is get approval from your headteacher to raise money and insist ALL of it is the Music Department’s to keep. If you can do this, you will succeed!

So you start a new job and let’s say you are horrified to find there are half a dozen broken instruments and a few dusty songbooks. What do you do now? Always remember, your best resource are the children themselves – use them wisely and they will get educated and help build your department. The first thing to do is get singing. This costs zero and can be incredibly fun. Start off with singing games in September, it will help you to learn the children’s names if you don’t know them already. Incorporate Kodaly methods and the hand signs and work hard on aural, unison singing and rounds.

You now need to send a survey to parents to find out what instruments the children play. You could just ask the kids, but as we all know, they don’t always tell you everything. I remember finding out that one of the kids I taught was actually in a family bagpipe band and they played at a whole load of functions nationwide. And I also found out another kid was in a relatively successful rock band with his dad and some of his dad’s friends and played at pubs. I even saw them at New Year one year. Did these kids tell me what they played? Nope. The survey got them though. You will do a Spring Concert. Make sure parents know their children are going to be playing and tell them the date.

Next is a trip to a hardware store like Jewson’s. You need a set of claves and if you take one with you, explain you want a set of 60 sticks for the local school and could someone please make them for you for free. I have never done this before, but a colleague has and she says it worked for her multiple times. Now you can do some simple rhythm work. You will also need some shakers. Make some shakers with the children using yoghurt pots and rice. You won’t be using these instruments for long but you need something and you’ve got no money so this is how you can get a set of 30 shakers quickly. Use plastic buckets for drums and hit them with your sticks if you haven’t got any drumsticks. You can now do some Graphic Score work and learn rhythmic notation. I’ve got a set of 12 graphic score cards and some rhythm cards you can have for free. You will need some triangles. If you have none hit suspended metal with forks or spoons.

The next step is an instrument amnesty. With permission from your headteacher, write a letter and ask for instruments. If you work in a church school, ask if they could be brought to school at the same time as the Harvest Festival (kills two birds with one stone). Label everything. If you have a trolley, put instruments in tidily but I would recommend getting a cupboard. You will get a whole load of Early Years toys, you’re probably best off giving these to Early Years. Keep the instruments that you know will be used properly. If you can’t fix the instrument and no one else can, bin it.

This is now the time to start your choir (around October). Choir is incredibly important. Not only is it a fun, collaborative, social, educational activity for children that makes you cleverer, and happier but it is an entrepreneurial, market-driven, capitalist revenue-generating machine. You need cash. So now it’s time to go busking. You want to make sure you can book a spot at a supermarket or mall where you can sing and get people to put cash in a bucket. I have done this many times but you need to get in quick as the Salvation Army normally has a monopoly. You want to sing in the first two weeks of December if you can. The week before a Christmas everyone is running around like a lunatic and they have spent all their money. If you are feeling brave sign up for Christmas lights opening ceremonies. Ask permission to raise money for musical instruments, I have never had any problems doing this in the past. Accompany the children on a guitar if you can. If you know half a dozen chords you’re pretty sorted. Otherwise use backing tracks (always causes some difficulties with technology) or sing unaccompanied.

Also see if you can sing at an old people’s home. This can sometimes be upsetting for the children but I have found it a worthwhile experience. Kids need to know old people exist and some are not always well and sprightly. You aren’t making any cash here! You are giving back to the community and using it as an opportunity to practice. So in the lead up to your Christmas concert you have a gig at an old people’s home, and busking outside in the local community. The final one is a concert at your own school. Put on at least one nativity or Christmas show. If you can’t afford one, email me and I will give you one of mine for free with the script and all the music. I’ve written three nativities, one about a polar bear, one about Scrooge and a bizarre one where the shepherds are ninjas, the angels are aliens, the wise men are pirates and Mary rides into Bethlehem on a dragon! I never charged but always left a bucket in the corner for donations. It might seem mercenary but everyone knows schools have no budgets and people will try to give back (especially if it was awesome!). Make sure you invite whole families to your show; you want uncles and aunts to come, especially if they have no kids as they are normally the only people with any cash!

Christmas has now ended and you should have some money. I would invest in some resources for Early Years and Key Stage 1 with the proceeds. You want a parachute for parachute games, some beanbags (you can always borrow these off P.E.), some scarves and some ribbon wands and five sets of diatonic handbells (the brightly colored ones). This is your big expense but I will explain why you want these. Some of these items you could make yourselves, or you could argue that they would be useful outside of music lessons. You might already have some somewhere in your school. I always think that the priority is Early Years and Key Stage 1, as if you get this right then everything else should follow.

The handbells are for your new handbell club and to relatively cheaply learn about pitched instruments without the expensive cost of xylophones. This is also another revenue making enterprise and really good for collaboration and team work. You put the children into six groups (C to A) and you play a load of songs that use the first six notes. There are hundreds of them. I can send you a PowerPoint with some to get you started. Your handbell group is for Year 2 or 3. I have done Year 1 but I think if I suggest them you will end up with a weekly headache! You can use handbells in the curriculum and in your club. They are also good to play outside (when you have memorized the melodies). Your aim is to play handbells in your local park on the bandstand (if there is one). You need to organize an Early Year’s Teddy Bear’s Picnic and this is going to be one of the highlights. The choir will also sing and hopefully there will be other children playing from your September survey. You don’t need to do this in the park, you can also do it at school but if you do it in the park then people can contribute in the bucket and so you aren’t always trying to get funding from parents. And concerts in the park are awesome. Invite the Scouts and the Salvation Army to come. This is how you will get your brass for your future school orchestra. These incredible people train your kids to play brass instruments for free (or 50p in my old scout troop). Also invite any other performers and groups – you want a crowd and you don’t want only parents at your functions. You want other people from the community to give you some money. Don’t always try to get it off the parents, they are often as broke as your school! This is your Easter Concert and make it fun and colorful – the brightly colored scarves, handbells, ribbons and parachute will bring Spring to everyone and banish the dark, cold winter months from memory.

You are probably past Easter now and everyone is going mental preparing for SATS. In traditional schools you might have a Maypole. This is the time to do some old fashioned country dances even if you don’t have one. The Year 6’s might moan about this but they will do anything to get out up from their desks and this might de-stress them and who knows, might even make them happy unless they are Class A misery-guts. Years 1-4 will think this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to them since Minecraft was invented. Dancing is something you need to become normal in your school, I taught in Helton in Cornwall many years ago where they have Flora Day and everyone dances. It is abnormal if you don’t dance. I teach about three or four country dances for kids every year but there are loads and you can get the dances and the music for free. I would suggest you put on a ceilidh in your school or community hall and charge two quid for entry. It’s always fun and the kids can show off some of the dances to their parents. If you are not comfortable calling the dances, make a few phone calls and I bet you can find someone to come in – these dances were actually a compulsory part of the curriculum in some counties of the UK many, many years ago and we could really do with reviving them nationwide. I teach them in China now and when I was in Thailand and the kids have always loved them but beware in some Muslim countries – when I was in Kuwait we were not allowed to do any dancing. The children love the Grand Circle Dance, Patacake Polka and especially Bridge of Athlone the best where you make tunnels. Oxo Reel is also fun but takes a bit more organization. I’ve seen some Year 6’s do Black Nag in medieval dress. This is an ancient dance and it was very special seeing this performed but I’ve never done it myself.

You now need to plan your summer show. If you’ve got no cash I’ve got a pirate musical for KS1 you can have for free and if you need something for KS2, I would recommend you do something like Debbie Campbell’s “Robin Hood and Friends”. It’s always been successful in every school I have worked at. It’s pretty cheap and adaptable. Don’t worry about sacking the curriculum to do a show; when I talk to grown up kids that I used to teach, it is always the thing they remember the most about Primary School. Shows are important and really powerful as far as musical identity goes. If I was to do a PhD, I think this would be the area I would choose. Put your show on over a couple of nights and a matinee and leave that bucket out for donations.

After your show has ended it is time to wind down. Don’t go mad with curriculum in the last few weeks of term, do some games and perhaps get the children if they are able to write down what they most enjoyed about music and what they would like to do in the future. Quite a lot of choir content comes from talking to the children.

You have now got through your first year teaching music with no budget. Year 2 is where you bring in recorders if you haven’t done so already and in Year 3 you will get your set of 30 ukuleles. But that’s for another post, another time.

Cultural Capital

I am no sociologist. I’m not even 100% sure what “cultural capital” means.  But if these terms get bandied around, I wonder if other teachers might think it means the same as I do.  When I hear the two words together I think it means all the stuff that most people would expect you to know or be able to do.  And by “cultural” I guess that would also mean national and regional factors come in to play.  So you would expect someone from Derby to know what a “cob shop” is, but someone from down south might not understand what on earth that could be.  There are national expectations, so you could possibly forgive a French child for not knowing the British National Anthem but you would expect that a British kid would know it.  And there are international expectations, so you would expect every single child in the world to know what a river is (except in Kuwait where there aren’t any). Not all these expectations are true which is why they are “expectations”.  I know there are thousands of children in Britain who don’t know the British National Anthem but really it is something that is expected of every person in the country. Which is why we should teach it – we shouldn’t just expect it to be known.

As far as music goes there are some things that would be expected and some that are around the edges. So I would expect every child to have played an instrument in Primary School but I wouldn’t be so sure that they could play the recorder.  But if you talk to anyone in a school staff room or even outside of education about playing the recorder in school there is normally some sort of recognition that this is something that most people have had a go at.  And I guess this is what is meant by “shared cultural capital”.  Some people would say it isn’t important but I am not so sure.  It’s like being in the staff room where people are talking about TV programs and you can’t take part because you were only allowed to watch the news on the BBC. You can’t be part of the conversation and you feel on the fringes because you just don’t know what everybody else knows.  For example, I went to a boarding school where we had lessons on Saturday mornings. I simply don’t know anything about Saturday morning TV like the majority of my colleagues because there was no possible way I could have watched any.  Of course this is a pretty mundane example and isn’t cross-generational but if you are to engage with people in society then there are a set of inferences that you will be expected to know.  E.D. Hirsch Jnr. talks about the sort of knowledge that would be expected for anyone to understand the majority of a broadsheet newspaper article.  To me that seems quite sensible.  Also, he mentions many idioms and cultural expressions that people should be expected to know; for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs”.  If you are to understand a great wealth of literature then you need to have come into contact with the expectations of writers.  Should we just rely on parents and communities to teach these things or is it also the responsibility of schools?

As far as music goes, what would we expect children from Britain to know?  I’m not taking a local or an international perspective here although much of this would overlap.  I’m talking about the expectations of a journalist of a British broadsheet newspaper.  I think there would be an expectation that we know about instruments, especially the major instruments in a rock band and in an orchestra.  There would be an expectation that we would know the names, instrument families they belong to and some idea of what they sound like.  I think there would be an expectation that we would have played the recorder or know someone who did and there would be an expectation that we would have sung songs in assembly.  The older generations would be expected to know hymns and the younger generation pop songs but everyone would be expected to know who the Beatles were and a handful of their songs.  There would definitely be an expectation that we knew the National Anthem and knew at least twenty well-known nursery rhymes.  On technical terms, broadsheet journalists would expect we know what scales and chords are and probably understand the words “dynamics” and “syncopation”.  I think they would expect us to know a handful of Italian words for the speed of music and the word “tempo”.  They would expect us to know the most famous orchestral pieces of music and who they were written by. They would expect us to know both Mozart and Stormzy but I guess they would also expect we came across Mozart in music lessons but didn’t with Stormzy.  Famous shows referred to by name like “The Sound of Music” and the names of certain musicians would be expected.  I also think there would be an expectation that most readers would know a little about international music – perhaps not as far as knowing the names of samba instruments but definitely the general idea of what samba is and where it comes from.  Interestingly, I don’t think any journalist would expect any readers to have composed any music but I think they would expect people to have some understanding about the feelings that you might have performing in public.

We can’t base our National Curriculum solely on the ideas of journalists but we do need to bear in mind that to be educated is not just a personal thing but a social one too.  And we do have a responsibility as educators not to let the people we educate become socially outcast.  It might not seem like a big deal with music, but if we did this with every subject I am afraid you would end up with a whole generation of young people who don’t know the basics about how the world is, was and could be.

My main worry about music lessons isn’t actually the conversation about what knowledge that children should have. That is a good question but I am afraid we aren’t even at that level in many British Primary Schools.  When you have Year 6 children who don’t know the National Anthem, who don’t know who the Beatles were, who have never picked up a recorder, don’t know at least a dozen instruments by name and think a musical scale is something to do with a dinosaur or a fish then we have a problem. We can’t teach everything and we all know the curriculum has been crowded and teachers are under huge pressure with the foundation subjects but I do worry about the tweet I saw yesterday of a teacher who only realised he hadn’t taught any music in the year when it came to his final end of term reports with an empty box that he needed to fill.  He even said it hadn’t made much of a difference if he taught it or not.  Everything I have mentioned here can be taught by a generalist classroom teacher but I am afraid so much is not happening.  A friend of mine says his son had no music in school but they got away with it by writing a policy that they claimed to follow (which they didn’t) and saying that singing hymns in assembly was “music”.  No music clubs, no instruments, no choir, no performances. Not even a teacher who played piano – everything was the Come and Praise CD.

We really can make a difference but we may need to lower our expectations.  Perhaps composition in Primary is a step too far, as there are too many teachers who don’t feel they have the capacity to teach it.  But let’s make sure that all kids have the opportunity to at least play the recorder or ukulele, sing some Beatles songs, learn the National Anthem and walk into assembly to some varied music from today, yesterday and from around the world.  Because that is something that should be shared from generation to generation – it is expected and it should be taught.


Summer School

We are buying a car.

Cars are expensive.

We need more cash.

I signed up for summer school.

Three weeks long, straight after the end of term.

It’s absolutely wonderful. Here’s why:

1) I can teach what I like. I’m doing an Orff program. Kids are loving it.

2) I have access to all the music departments resources. No borrowing instruments from another colleagues room.

3) I get a Teaching Assistant. First time in nineteen years of teaching.

4) No queues in the canteen.

5) Small classes of under twenty children.

6) No crazy requirements for data that no one will ever look at.

7) I can get jobs done that can’t get done when everyone is in school.

8) No cover or duties (I’m teaching five classes a day, which is one class more than the other teachers so in return I don’t have to do any duties).

9) No emails or email chains to deal with.

10) No suit and tie!

Why can’t normal school be like Summer School?

The Staff Room

I trained to be a secondary music teacher in 2000 and started teaching in September 2001. My introduction to the staff room was seeing one teacher say how the Americans had it coming and were to blame for the 9/11 bombings. And other people nodded in agreement. Same day I got berated for using someone else’s mug.

The staff room is a place that some teachers are always in and some teachers will never be seen dead in. In most large schools I have worked in it has been rare to see any of the senior leadership team get a coffee – normally because they actually have a separate machine or even have a budget to get coffees from a coffee shop! Leadership teams seem to have a strange relationship with staff rooms. I think because they don’t use them they don’t see why anyone else would, so I have seen leaders make them smaller or even get rid of them completely. One school I worked in got a designer in and it was a truly awesome room but probably a bit too nice. With a massive TV and comfy chairs it was pretty difficult to do any work on a windy, winter’s afternoon.

Some staff rooms have a constant supply of food because of birthdays and things like “Fat Friday” where everyone brings in something or you take it in turns to spoil each other. If you are trying to lose weight it is probably best to stay away. The staff room fridge is the stuff of legends. Everyone is too polite to take anything out in case it might belong to someone so I have seen some things in the fridge for a year. Milk is a massive issue – ever since Maggie Thatcher’s stint as Education Secretary there has been a lack of milk in the staff room fridge. Thatcher the Milk Snatcher truly left her mark on our schools.

Even in 2006 there were smoking rooms for teacher smokers in some schools. How on earth this was still happening is quite mind boggling. I actually spent quite a lot of time in that horrific yellow cubical although I don’t smoke, simply because the conversation was way more interesting than in the normal staff room. There was this history teacher who smoked a pipe who was fascinating. The kids were absolutely terrified of him and so were most the staff but he knew a heck of a lot about everything.

The seating in a staff room is not as changeable as you might think. I remember sitting on a certain chair in a new school I was at and actually being asked to move as that seat had always been sat on by a certain teacher for the past forty years. You can normally guess people’s ages by who they sit with in the staff room. I would love to say that young and old commune together in harmony and they do in some places but you will often see the usual cliques reside in the usual places and sometimes in a big staffroom will never meet each other. After two months in a big school you realize you don’t actually know their names so you have to avoid them.

The staff room is a place where I have seen news of life and death, wonderful events and horrific circumstances. It’s the place I broke down in tears when I found out my ex-wife was cheating on me and it’s the place I announced my new wife was pregnant. I’ve flooded the staff room by keeping the tap water on all weekend (actually I flooded the school) and I’ve tidied it up and made a staff room library. I’ve nicked books that would never be claimed or read and I’ve given away books that I hope other colleagues will read one day.

If you don’t go into the staff room regularly, make an appearance this week and brighten up your colleagues lives. Leave some home made cookies on the table and a bottle of milk in the fridge. It will be appreciated.


Before I start this post, there is an immediate definition problem with the word “creativity”. Some people think it means someone inventing something new and original and some people think it is simply about creating something. It’s almost like the difference between painting by numbers and painting a picture without numbers. For this post, I will use Ken Robinson’s definition “the process of having original ideas that have value”. I don’t always agree with what Sir Ken says but I think his definition is a fair one and so we will go with that.

The controversial words in Ken Robinson’s definition are “process”, “original” and “value” and that is where we get the most conflict. I would agree with Sir Ken that creativity certainly is a process – I don’t want to go down the route that creativity is something you are born with or inherit genetically. Even if there is any truth to this, it won’t help us in schools to develop creativity if we are simply going to write off large proportions of children for not having the right genes. I really do believe it is something you can learn but I’m not sure it can be something that can be directly taught as a transferable skill. I am pretty good as a music composer and I’ve been told my poetry isn’t horrific but my creativity in Art is awful and I can barely create an edible meal. As far as original goes, I am unsure that anything really is strictly original. Everything created is in context of something else that has been either influenced or copied. I would argue that there really isn’t anything truly original, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Value is the hardest to define. I guess KR would say that value is determined by the person or people who have created the product or people who have benefited from it. And of course this definition is insufficient because creativity doesn’t always have to result in a concrete end product, although much of the time it will.

Most people I have encountered who talk about creativity don’t create much. Almost every music or instrumental teacher I have met doesn’t compose their own music. They don’t write poems, they don’t write stories, they don’t even write blogs. Some say they don’t have the time, that teaching is all encompassing but others say that without the notes they can’t perform anything. I have heard absolutely fantastic musicians say they cannot compose anything. But they all have an opinion that creativity is incredibly important, even if they don’t do it themselves. Whatever we think about creativity, there are definitely barriers that are very strong, even amongst the workforce that are actually entrusted to deliver a generation of creative individuals.

This might sound a bit depressing and unfairly critical. However, I have seen some notable exceptions. One music teacher I met a few years ago fell into the job by accident due to a maternity leave and she actually did create music but never said she was a musician. No matter how much encouragement, she had made a distinction in her mind that she was someone who taught music, wrote music, performed music in church but wasn’t a musician because she didn’t have a music degree or a PGCE in Music. She also wrote stories and poems but didn’t bang on about creativity whilst creating absolutely nothing like some people; she just enjoyed it and got on with it. The most creative person I think I have met was a guy I met at university who taught himself the guitar. He listened to more music than almost anyone else I knew even though he was studying science and not music. He went to charity shops and bought everything on vinyl for 10p including albums of random British Northerners from the old collieries playing Hammond Organ renditions of flamenco music. He was good because he had such an eclectic taste in music that he had so many influences to draw on with his own compositions. This resulted in his own music being (dare I say it) original. Finally, one teacher I knew created some wonderful compositions but then left after a year to do a Master’s degree in Composition. Something we need to learn in the education sector is that if you really want creative individuals, we need to give time so people can actually have time to think and time to create. If a teacher is composing music in their PPA time they are not messing around, or not doing the day job, they are actually improving their own skills and subsequently the skills of the children they teach. If a teacher feels the only way they can be creative is to actually stop teaching children, we have a serious problem.

What I find fascinating about people who don’t compose music is that many have this erroneous idea that the compositional process is something mystical, enigmatical and spiritual – yet at the same time they think that anyone can do it and everything has value because creativity is linked to personal expression. These ideas have more to do with romanticism than creativity. The truth is that creating music is not mystical, enigmatic and spiritual and really is a process of making choices based on knowledge of what you know has worked in the past and perhaps a hunch of something that might work, again based on what you know has worked in the past. And going back to Sir Ken’s definition, not everything that is deemed creative has value because it depends on the thought process going on in the individual’s mind. If you are cathartically banging a drum whilst your partner randomly hits a triangle, you aren’t being creative. You’re just messing around. You may have got children in groups, making up music about living in the jungle but if the sum of your thought is “we are going to bang this drum because they have drums in Africa and there are jungles in Africa” then you really are not being creative at all. Most composers in the past and present have commissions, you are asked to compose something that someone else has asked for. You can put your all into it, but whether it is you consciously or subconsciously making choices or those of a customer, you are doing the same thing. All require choices, thought and compromises. And whatever the final product, most creativity is about trying to create something even if you might not get something tangible at the very end of the process.

Often the reason children end up with something that really isn’t very good isn’t because they don’t have creative minds; it’s because they either can’t play anything well enough to use to accompany themselves or create upon, they don’t have the technical skills to create on a computer or they don’t have the theoretical knowledge to know what will work and why. They may be unable to write music down. If they haven’t listened to a lot of music they probably won’t know how music is structured. But most importantly, to compose you need time to think. And you don’t get much time to think in a music class. So what we need to do to make children better at creating music is to improve their performing skills, their aural skills, their general musical knowledge, their theoretical knowledge and their technical skills. And give them time to think.

Demystifying creativity is very important. I have very little time for Ken Robinson’s view that we educate children out of creativity. The idea that we are born with innate creativity that dissipates as you experience the education system is completely contrary to contemporary cognitive psychology. What is closer to the truth is that you learn what you think about and you learn the most when you think very hard about something. And creativity can only exist if you have something to think about. So how can you educate someone out of something you have barely experienced?

In music education we simply don’t give children enough time to think and that is because we are continuously having to return to the basic concepts of rhythm and pitch because these are not learned early enough in Primary School. When you have children who can barely play a melody entering secondary school you know there is a problem. And I am not overstating the issue – I would bet all my chips on the premise that every secondary music teacher has some children in their class who can’t find Middle C on a keyboard, let alone play a tune with more than one finger. When you are thinking about where the keys are, it is very difficult to think about how to be creative. If you are driving a car you need to be thinking about the road ahead, not looking down at the switches to find out where the indicators are whilst you are moving forward.

If we really want creative musicians the answer is obvious. Improve basic instrumental, vocal, technical and aural skills in the most interesting way possible that allows children to get better and as a result be able to think about other things whilst performing. The majority of our work in Primary Schools must be improving performing and aural skills with the theoretical knowledge that goes along with that. Our secondary colleagues will be delighted with children who can sing in tune, perform melodies on recorders and keyboards, keep in time and recognize the basics in how to write music down. And creativity will flourish.

Choir Planning for Christmas

This is the time for music teachers to start planning for Christmas. Yep, it’s May. Some music teachers plan for the next Christmas in January so we may be considered a little bit late. What we need to do now is work out what groups do what and prepare the files before the end of term so every child who returns in August (we start in August) has a file with all the music ready. We are a largish international school and have many choirs. We have a Year 2 Choir, a Year 3 Choir, a Year 456 Choir and a secondary youth musical theatre group which is basically a choir that moves and are part of the secondary annual musical.

Next year we will be starting a chamber primary choir so the Year 456 Choir will probably have very few Year 6 members as my colleague who works cross phase is interested in starting an auditioned Y6/7 Chamber Choir. This will work out well as we have so many children wanting to join our choirs and we always make them non-auditioned. The new Chamber Choir will be our only auditioned choral group and will be for those children who want to take singing very seriously and sing in close harmony.

My group will be the Year 456 Choir and I will have them an hour a week although I am thinking of taking an additional rehearsal for Year 4 for twenty minutes before school starts. It is a two-part choir and for the new Year 4’s they will have had some experience but this is the first time they will be split into sopranos and altos. Our school has four houses and way I choose is simply that Romans and Vikings sing soprano and Normans and Saxons will sing alto. We could listen to their ranges but no song will go above an E flat so they should all be able to sing both parts. I will swap them over after Christmas when we get a new repertoire so they all get a chance to sing soprano and alto.

The next job is to plan from September to December and make sure that each choir doesn’t sing the same songs. My choir will have a repertoire of two international songs for International Day in November, a peace song for World Peace Day, two Halloween songs for Halloween and eight songs for Christmas. Because this is a lot of repertoire there will be some repeats from last year. We will repeat “Child of Song”, “Twelve Days of Christmas”, “Carols 4” and “Walking in the Air”. My colleague is thinking of some suitable songs but I have planned “Do you hear what I hear”, “Sleigh Ride” and “Colours of Christmas” and I have an ambitious idea of doing “Hard Rock Hallelujah” for Halloween. We will all have a meeting in the next few weeks about repertoire so we have a plan moving forwards. Nothing is set in stone but we want to get the majority of the planning done now as there are so many other things to focus on when the academic year restarts.

The reason we have to plan so early and thoroughly is that we only get fourteen hour-long rehearsals before Christmas and have to prepare a lot of material. Each song will be in an individual’s file with the full piano and two part vocal scores. Each song will be scanned so that we can send a copy of the music home for each child. We make backing tracks for many of the songs in the studio so children know which part to sing and how it fits together. These recordings are then sent home to practice. We work out the live instrumental accompaniments now, as no song will use a backing track – we strongly believe in live music. This means that the school orchestra will accompany the choir for about four songs. I spent a long time making full orchestral parts for “The Star”, “Twelve Days”, “Carols 4” and “We wish you a merry Christmas” last year and they were successful in our Winter Celebration and our final concert in an enormous mall in Guangzhou. This year we will make orchestral arrangements for “Do you hear what I hear”, and “Colours of Christmas”. We will make an arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” for the Wind Band and our string group will accompany the choir for a few songs like “Walking in the Air”. Nearly all the instrumental parts are hand-made so they exactly fit our strengths. We buy a few arrangements online but we have found you end up having to adapt them all, so it is sometimes easier to download something basic on MuseScore and then either adapt it or more likely rearrange it. I put all my arrangements on MuseScore for free.

Every song takes about three to four hours to arrange on MuseScore, about another two to three hours to make a backing track and mix down and about an hour to sort out files, photocopies and email the tracks and PDFs to the students. Most of this work happens in the summer but I try to get some done in term time. Each song will then need about two to three hours of rehearsal so that’s why we need everything prepared in advance, as we basically learn the songs very quickly and then just keep refining them over all the available rehearsals. We sing the songs without the files so the children need to learn a lot of words, hence the constant repetition.

If you don’t already do this, I strongly recommend you plan Christmas in May or before. It reduces a lot of stress in term time as many music teachers are expected to have a dual role of teaching great lessons and basically running an after-school events company. It may seem a bit unfair and there is a lot of work but that’s the job and as far as jobs go, it’s a decent, fun and rewarding one. And it is always amazing to hear from members of the public that no school does Christmas as good as our school.