Back to Thailand

We are going back to Thailand for another contract but at a different school. For the first time for many years I will be teaching every year group Music from Nursery to Year 6.

I’m going to spend more time this coming year on Book Reviews and developing Orff in the classroom. I’m finding that teachers are becoming very reliant on the internet for resources and don’t know where to find sheet music for a song or activity. I will be making more backing tracks using Logic, more arrangements on MuseScore and I am also going to make some quality class assemblies. I think all these things will be practical for teachers worldwide.

I will also be sharing some of my own experiences using the Model Music Curriculum. I have started making a set of PowerPoints for assemblies that use the MMC. There is great repertoire in this document and I will be trying to get the best out of it.

Finally, I will be finishing off my musical Aethelflaed. I have about four songs left to go but a script to write. I am also hoping to join a choir and a band – two things I have missed in the last two years.

I hope everyone has a great start to a new academic year!

Electro Rondo

I’ve been playing around a bit on Logic and I have made some backing tracks for my Year 3 Rocking Rhythm lessons. The children move around in a carousel learning to play four different rhythms that we learn to read using standard Western notation. They start easy with just one bar ostinati but then progress into two bars. We use normal classroom percussion instruments, about 6-8 children in each team and when we have played the music we move to the next station and learn a new rhythm. It’s a fun way to play and learn the basics of reading and performing rhythms from notation. Watch this video to give you an idea of how it works.

Leaving China

After four years I have left China at short notice. I had a new job lined up at an IB school in China starting in August and was excited to start this new curriculum. But after sixteen months of not seeing my family and being told that the authorities were not going to even consider letting dependents in until February, I decided our Chinese adventure was at an end. So I am writing this post on the plane back to Vancouver.

It was a great four years but honestly the first two were the best. The things we achieved in those first two years were quite amazing. I wrote a pirate musical for Year 1, we put on loads of shows, events, competitions, bands, recitals – basically we made so much music. The last two years with a different manager were not as satisfying, as the focus switched away from performance to curriculum but that did mean I was able to finish my Key Stage 2 scheme where we have six units for each year group with a workbook, six powerpoint files and a medium term plan. These 24 units meant we moved away from presenting a Music curriculum to the children doing a Music curriculum. In the past, some children could coast through without paying attention, but the addition of the workbooks meant kids had to think harder about what they were doing.

I have no idea what to do next. I have a young family who need me and it looks like I will need to do something different. Currently its looking like remote piano teaching so we are looking at moving to New Brunswick where the time zone could make this possible as most my clients would be from China. I would consider another international Music job but realistically in the current climate it is going to be very hard to find one where they can afford to hire a teacher with three dependents. If you can, get in touch!

The last thing I will say is how much I love China, the language, the culture and the people. This place is absolutely fantastic and I know I am going to suffer from reverse culture shock when I get back to West. I hope one day to come back.

Multitrack GarageBand Project

Our students have finished their multitracked GarageBand project. I have permission to use this piece by one of our students and his parents so we can see how he has got on.

This child is ten years old and previously, like the rest of the class he has done a sequencing activity on the iPad multitracking a medieval melody. So he has had a bit of experience multi tracking. So I think it is safe to say that this is his second or perhaps third multitracked piece.

The task was to make a 24 bar multitracked piece of music with at least five different parts. One is a drum part which he didn’t have to do much for as the loops automatically write themselves! He then had to make a chord sequence using the chords C, Am, F and G and using the autoplay, put this onto guitar, bass, keys and strings. He also had to make a live ukulele part using the four chords that we have all learned. Finally he had to create a pentatonic improvised track using a keyboard synth sound. And to finish he had to mix it, do some panning and then upload to Class Dojo as a screen recorded video. Here’s how he got on:

It’s not bad for a ten year old beginning to use GarageBand. I gave him so feedback on Class Dojo that I think he needed to work on the beginning and ending and tidy it up. I haven’t taught the children about quantising yet. In fact I would prefer not to so they can play things in more accurately! He gave in about three drafts before running out of time so the ukulele part is a lot better than it was – his first attempt resulted in a quizzical look from myself and an acknowledgement that he was going to have to do it again! He also had forgotten the pentatonic melody the first time. I think he did quite a good job of this as he is using the keyboard function on GarageBand and not an external keyboard. It could definitely do with a bit more accuracy, especially with the timing.

It’s definitely a task I would like to keep in Year 6 – the six week unit was called “Chordal Chaos” and the students responded very well to the instructional videos that I made. We have one more unit in six weeks time on the Blues and we will do one more similar task to this and I think that will be the one we will give into his secondary music teacher so she can see at least one of the creative tasks that he has done in Primary School as part of our transition. I think we will spend a bit of time on texture and form as that was the weakest feature of all the students. But to be fair to them I never specified that as success criteria for this task.

If you would like any more information on how the students did this task then have a look at the instructional videos here, here, here and here.

Transition

I work in a 2-18 school and currently teach 6-10 year olds Music. The main transition point for us, like most other schools is between Year 6 and Year 7.  I have had many great secondary Music colleagues but interestingly not one has asked for any data about the kids I have taught, even though I have been teaching them for about five or more years.  This isn’t because my colleagues don’t care but because they are totally unused to receiving anything in the past.  When I do give them information they are normally taken aback and they feel I have gone above and beyond. I just want to share what instrument each kid plays and a bit about whether they were in the choir or orchestra.  It’s great when colleagues are interested because I love talking about our kids musical achievements.  It’s why we became Music teachers in the first place!

On Twitter yesterday one secondary Music teacher was mocking the Model Music Curriculum’s transition ideas.  As far as she was concerned, this could jeopardise a successful start to the year as it would label children to who were the “musical ones”. I find this really hard to understand.  Surely if you are a secondary Music teacher you would want to know who plays what instrument, what standard they have got to and see some of their creative work?  But I think there are still many colleagues who have this reductive attitude that I experienced in my first secondary school twenty years ago that “they don’t know anything so we start again in Year 7”.  It was only when I left that school and went on supply that I saw some fantastic things going on in primary schools and some of the great opportunities that music services were doing. So good I ended up joining one.

I don’t want to make extra work for anyone but I really think we need a better transition in most places.  It is expected that in most schools something will be handed up to colleagues on their ability in Maths and English. We need something in Music.  The Model Music Curriculum’s has this:

This seems relatively sensible and uncontroversial. The practicalities might be a bit more difficult as many secondary Music teachers could have 120 or even more pieces to listen to.  That’s an awful lot of “Ode to Joys”!  But I really do believe that something is better than nothing.  The advocates for a fresh start in Year 7 are being quite disrespectful to the work we do in primary schools. We know these kids can play and compose and it would be good for you to know what they have already achieved.

Some other ideas that I have seen work are concerts where the secondary Music teacher was invited. However, almost every time that I have seen this mooted it has ended up in a cancelation. I guess it’s either negotiating cover with leadership teams or going to evening concerts. As some secondary schools have over ten feeder schools that would be a lot of concerts!  It therefore makes sense to record something or encourage the children to show something musical that they have done in primary school when they first arrive in Year 7.

My school is affluent and has iPads for every Year 6 student and what I am going to suggest to the boss this year is we share the children’s Year 6 Garage Band sequencing projects and get them to record themselves playing or singing anything on their iPad either as a solo, as a duet or small group. I will encourage them to make it the most challenging thing they can do, not just Twinkle Twinkle! The children are used to uploading their work to Class Dojo so all I need to do is make a folder and save the projects for the handover. I will also share my markbook with the new teacher if she wants it, which includes all the instruments they play and what groups they joined. Hopefully it will ensure a smoother transition.

I really do feel that this transition is extremely important. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen the numbers but I remember the horrifying statistics on those children quitting instruments in Year 7. Hopefully things are better now but I think it is fair to say that there was a big dropoff between Year 6 and 7. Let’s try to do something for transition but please don’t mock the Model Music Curriculum for actually having the guts to suggest something. Let’s get behind the spirit of the idea, if not the letter – what we have now is far better than the vague and unambitious one page A4 document that we have been dealing with since 2014.

Repertoire Lists

The Model Music Curriculum’s biggest controversy seems to be the repertoire lists in Appendix 2. There seems to be many people who dislike the idea of a repertoire list for a number of reasons. There are those who think it is authoritarian to have a list; there are those who are politically suspicious that a repertoire list is a method to enforce a certain style of cultural politics on young children; there are those who think there are serious omissions on the list and there are some who disagree with certain choices of music on the list. There are also a vocal group of people who think that the curriculum should just be about skills and any repertoire is at the discretion of the teacher. Repertoire shouldn’t even come into the discussion as far as they are concerned.

I really like the list, not because I am trying to indoctrinate children into a political cult but because I respect the people who have made the list and I know how much work and discussion has gone into many of the choices. I am now listening to the Australian contemporary composer Elena Kats-Chernin and her ballet “Wild Swans” as a result of the list. I posted one piece called “Glow Worms” on Wechat Moments (similar to Facebook) and my Australian friends were delighted because they thought she was only known in Australia. I would probably never have come across her music if it wasn’t for the MMC. I would have been one of those people who hear it and remark it is from a famous bank advert, rather than know anything about this beautiful work.

My biggest problem with those who are venemously against the repertoire list is that without consulting others, any content becomes quite a selfish endeavour. We should listen to experts who work in the cultural sectors and it does not just need to be those who work in schools or in the universities to choose good repertoire. I am all in favour of a grassroots sharing of good practice but it does not mean we have nothing to learn from composers, radio presenters, famous performers or even the head of an examination board.

The repertoire list is useful, not harmful. Let’s get behind the Model Music Curriculum.

Model Music Curriculum

The Model Music Curriculum has arrived and already sparked debate. I want to talk a little bit about curricula in general and why this curriculum is practically useful.

To start with we need to be mindful that in primary schools, the majority of music teachers are not specialists. Everything we say about this curriculum needs to be understood within this context. The reason we have this new model curriculum is because what we had here was not working for many schools. It wasn’t working because there was no content and was incredibly vague. Here is the entire curriculum for Key Stage 1.

Compare the National Curriculum of England and Wales with the Alberta, Canada curriculum and you will see two completely different approaches. The Alberta curriculum carefully lines out what needs to be taught and when. This is just a snapshot of one element, rhythm and there is much more that I have not included.

Now I can understand the Alberta system because I am a trained music teacher. But for many teachers in the UK – much of this is specialist knowledge. This sort of curriculum is simply not going to work with non-specialists who probably have no idea what a fermata is. What the teachers in the UK were crying out for was content.

Because they needed content, the market provided. Music Express was the market leader and you probably have these books somewhere in your school.

There is nothing wrong with these books and I still use quite a few ideas from them myself. But children were coming out of the system into secondary schools who knew very little about music. It was not uncommon for secondary teachers to say that they had to start from scratch in Year 7. The majority of children did not play a musical instrument and Music was certainly not considered an important subject, more as a relief from the pressures of the big two – literacy and numeracy. And the government has rightly realised that schools should not have to buy into the market and so has specified content in the Model Music Curriculum. This seems to be the most controversial aspect of it but to me it seems to be very practical help for a workforce crying out for guidance.

And it is not only non-specialists. I work in a large school and we have multiple teachers teaching the same year group. So when we plan lessons, I plan Year 2-4 and my colleague plans 5-6 but we teach classes lessons we have not planned ourselves. Having done this for years with multiple people over multiple schools, I have found that they rarely read the medium term plans – what they want to know is the content. They love the workbooks I have made and they make their own themselves. Often they ask for PowerPoints for each lesson or to know what the end goal is and work backwards from there. The only person who has asked me for a lesson plan in the last ten years is my boss who I am sure rarely reads them carefully – there is so much more to have to do in a busy department. This isn’t because we are all lazy – it’s simply that the content is a lot more important than people have realised.

The Model Music Curriculum spells out the knowledge, skills and suggested content and so is a great document for specialists and non-specialists alike. For myself, what I will take from it is the huge repertoire list of Appendix 2 and see how I can broaden my existing curriculum. One thing I will criticise about myself is I can end up teaching the same content in multiple years because I know it works. This document will give me the confidence to explore some unfamiliar music and try to bring it into my curriculum to give children more breadth. It is also reassuring to know that we are on the right lines, as so much of what we are doing is in the MMC. It can also give me the confidence to defend our curriculum. Every now and then when the boss changes they want to put their own mark on what we teach or to try to tell us how we should teach. This document is empowering because I can tell my boss we are actually doing things in a perfectly acceptable way.

The word “model” in this context means “a possible and good example”. This curriculum is certainly better than anything we have had in my memory but more importantly it is practical. I don’t think the people who have drawn this up are that bothered if we don’t replicate it in its entirety; where they want to help is to get children learning, playing, creating and listening to a wide range of music and if we can think of alternatives that result in happy musical kids I am sure they won’t get angry. That is why it is non-statutory.

Let’s get behind this curriculum.

Houses

There has been quite a bit of outrage from Lee Hill’s decision to rename the houses in his school after contemporary activists instead of historical figures. Lee Hill, as a headteacher, is completely within his rights to call the houses whatever he likes (within reason … Continue reading Houses