How Group Work Inspired Me To Compose

I remember my first composition well. It was 1987. I was 11 years old. Bros was a thing. I didn’t like Bros. Everyone was starting smoking and I couldn’t understand why they were deciding to kill themselves. My mother had died of cancer three years before so I didn’t have a lot of respect for what my classmates were up to. They all hated me, I was a year younger than them all (I didn’t do Year 6) and was very studious. I liked music lessons and I liked singing in the choir. They hated music lessons and only girls were in the choir. When it came to options in Year 9, I was the only one who put music down. I had to change it to Welsh as there weren’t enough people to run the course so I didn’t even do music in the first term of Year 9. Luckily my grandmother took me out the school and I was homeschooled for two terms before transferring to a better school.

Anyway – back to the original story of my first composition. My music teacher told me to get in a group with other students and make music with an ostinato. It was a complete disaster. No one did anything. I tried to get the others doing something but they bullied me for wanting to engage with the task; they just wanted to talk. In the end in utter exasperation I walked off and spent the rest of the lesson in a practice room on a piano creating my first solo composition. To this day I can still remember it and play it. It uses all the black keys. It even had a second section with a second contrasting ostinato. It has fluctuating major/minor tonality and doesn’t really belong in any key, although it’s close to G flat major. It’s pretty terrible to be honest but it was my first composition. I played it every day for about two years, basically every time I played the piano. My grandmother hated it because she heard me bash it out every day for two years. My music teacher didn’t like it because I refused to work with my group. But I didn’t want to work with any of them. Why should I be forced to work with people who beat me, threw darts at me and lit WD40 in my face? Why should I have to put up with the mental abuse that the teacher can’t really see as they move from group to group? And I remember thinking how awful the compositions of the other kids were, as I knew a lot of them could play instruments and they were stuck shaking a tambourine.

Luckily this dreadful group work didn’t last long because the next composition task was on tiny keyboards that the teacher had linked up in a system similar to a language lab. This was way better, we all had headphones and we were all in the same room. The teacher could listen in on any of us playing so we couldn’t get away with playing the demo button. We had a little manuscript book and we were asked to compose a simple four bar tune and notate it in the book. My teacher marked it and I got 8/10. I was much happier and felt much more secure. Everyone got work done in that lesson.

This was the 80’s, a very different time from now but kids are pretty similar. If the teacher isn’t watching, little gets done unless you are fortunate to work in a school where it’s cool to study. These do exist but you often have to pay for the privilege. Lessons work well when the teacher can see what the children are doing. Group work isn’t a terrible thing, and I do group work in my classes. Most kids aren’t little annoying boffins like me. But I will stand up for any teacher who dislikes group work. It isn’t necessary, it isn’t better than whole class teaching, it has many problems and if it isn’t done well it can be a complete disaster. I am currently doing some group work with my Year 4’s – most the kids like it, although I would say that there is a lot of frustration in the room as it is next to impossible to hear each group play. And last year there was a kid who just turned around and refused to participate. This year I’ve been a bit luckier with the kids. It doesn’t really matter if it’s me who chooses the groups or the children themselves, I find you end up with the same problems. Friends seem to get the work done more enthusiastically but if they fall out over it you have a disaster on your hands. If the teacher chooses the groups you can get some sullen and unengaged participants. I’ve toyed with the idea of cancelling the Y4 group work project and replacing it with a unit on whole class ukuleles. I would be happier, most the kids would be happier and more work will get done. But I’ve kept it in there because we are supposed to do group work in the music curriculum and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I never did it. But also, perhaps the frustration of attempting to create music in a group is a learning experience that could be indirectly beneficial.

Who knows? The sheer frustration might inspire another kid like me to start composing.

Music Exams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How the Brexit Party can win a General Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Week Song

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

Norman Invasion

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

Recorder Karate Pieces

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

Pirates of the Caribbean

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

Skye Boat Song

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

Compulsion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Things

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

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

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

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

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

Lets thank our teachers for the little things they do.