Month: October 2015

Wider Opportunities

Wider Opportunities

In my old job I used to work for a music service travelling around a number of schools delivering primary music curriculum lessons.  About two years into my employment we were told a large sum of money was coming into the service to be used for whole class instrumental tuition.  Our music service had curriculum and instrumental teachers, so we created projects that involved us team teaching brass, strings, recorder, guitar, percussion and keyboard lessons.  I was involved in the brass, strings and recorder and made some books and resources to go along with them. Much of the time we were having to make up everything because hardly any resources had been made for Wider Opportunities at the time and also we were trying to fuse together the curriculum and instrumental teaching.  This sounds like it would be easy but it wasn’t as there were basically two completely different teaching philosophies that had to work together.  The instrumental teachers were used to directly instructing an individual, pair or small group of children into performing and possibly improvising music.  The curriculum teachers were more used to compositional work and singing in the classroom with large groups.  Nonetheless, it was a really inspired move by the leadership team to pair us together and we learned an awful lot from each other. This was one of the best professional development decisions by a leadership team that I have experienced.  The instrumental teachers learned about behaviour management of 30 novices at once which many had never done before and the curriculum teachers learned about the importance of high standards and technique.  Amongst many other things.

Were the projects successful?

Like most new initiatives they were mixed.  Much depended on the schools, parents and teachers and there was little that the music service could do if they did not liaise well.  At its best it was probably the best thing that has been introduced into primary music ever.  At its worst it was an experience of boredom for some students who had absolutely no interest in music whatsoever.  We gave opportunities and experiences such as playing in big concert halls to hundreds of people and many of those students will remember those performances for the rest of their lives.  The biggest difficulty was that children really could not hear themselves play as there were often 30 children playing simultaneously in a small hall or even a classroom. And it was almost impossible to give good feedback to individuals when everyone is playing together.  When we got the children to play in groups or in rows it was a bit easier.

What could make the projects more successful?

In our service the progression was poor.  The idea was that when the project finished, the children who were interested would move into small instrumental groups.  This did happen and some were successful but there was quite a large drop out rate.  One feeling I had that never went away was thinking that we were just giving a taster for children on playing an instrument and the worry was that we were reinforcing the idea that you do a bit of music and then you quit.  This is particularly bad because one of the most powerful arguments for music on the curriculum is that you have to practice and stick at it to succeed.  And most children did quit because the tuition for Wider Opportunities was free but in most cases, parents had to pay for small group tuition.  Some schools did offer free tuition but they were the exceptions not the norm.

I also think we needed a clearer aim – some of the curriculum staff thought we were supposed to be teaching the curriculum and the instruments were just a resource to be used, whereas others thought the object was to teach them to play an instrument to a beginner’s standard just like the traditional group model.  Some thought it should just be a taster or an opportunity for children to trial the idea of playing an instrument.  There were some teachers who were completely against the project and did not participate.  I talked to one of these teachers and the reason they had for dismissing the project out of hand was simply because they could not see a clear aim to the project and they thought this would undermine the instrumental work that was currently being done successfully.  Having left the service for a number of years now, I think I can say retrospectively that when I was there the aim was not well communicated but by having a concert at the end of the project with repertoire on a CD, we knew what standard we were expected to get the children to.  I think a more standardised repertoire would have been a very good idea but like I was saying at the beginning, we were setting up the projects from scratch so there was a large element of trial and error.

Should this method continue?

All successful music approaches should continue and anything that is stopping children from experiencing good quality music education should be rethought.  That’s the whole point of this blog.

Instrument of the Week 6

In a change from the plan, I am choosing the horn as the instrument of the week for the week after half term.  As a tribute to the Back to the Future that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year I thought we would have some film music.  It also features a timpani that we did mention in passing a few weeks ago.

Instrument of the Week 5

This was another relatively long instrument of the week video but it worked well.  It introduces the guitar as well.  It’s a great example of tempo as the music is slow, fast, gets faster and gets slower at times.  It also has some double bass harmonics which was an opportunity to say that the double bass was going to pretend to be a violin.  The children loved that bit and was amazed that such a low instrument could also make a high sound.  We then talked briefly about the instruments in the string family.  You will need about 7 minutes at the beginning of the lesson if you wish to use this.

Music Express

music express

These books are in my opinion one of the main reasons why music education in primary schools is generally poor.  I bet if you are a British primary music teacher you may have seen one and more likely have seen them in your school.  I am not going to demonise them completely, there are some really good bits and some that I use in my own teaching.  The “Hey Mr. Noah” in Book 3 is a good resource, really good fun and helps to teach different rhythms.  Many of the songs are good, using time tested material in the A & C Black repertoire which Music Express is part of.  But the reason the series was made was so that primary teachers with no knowledge of music could teach the National Curriculum for Music at Key Stages 1 and 2 with no need to learn anything about musical notation and very little requirement to play musical instruments.  I can understand that for pragmatic reasons there was a need for this as the provision of instruments in British schools is pretty dire.  But counter-productively it let headteachers off the hook.  Why would they need to put any money into music when you can deliver the curriculum with these six books?  The consequence is that children can get through the first 6 years of their musical education without need to learn a single melody on an instrument.  And that is what happened and why we are in such a mess now.

I am normally an advocate for good quality textbooks in primary schools so I do feel a bit of a hypocrite to write off the one textbook series that is well used in a primary school.  Textbook use in British schools is some of the lowest in the developed world.  In my opinion, the success of “Music Express” is due to the low expectations of music on both the teachers and the children. They have been successful because they promote a dumbed-down curriculum.  I have looked through a whole host of other textbooks and they are all pretty poor.  LCP seems rushed and poorly crafted.  I still see Silver Burdett resources in music classrooms and they have been updated and bought by Pearson but I don’t have experience of the new incarnation.   The best primary music text-book series I have found is an American book called “Gameplan” which delivers an Orff curriculum from Grades K-6.  The reason that it is better is because the standards expected are higher.  However, you really need to be a qualified Orff teacher to deliver it and have your room set up a bit like my friend’s.

So what is the answer?  The catch-all is to say “more training” for staff and I sort of agree but the problem is not how much, or even the quality of the training but the content in the training.  Sadly, there is a widespread pedagogy amongst music teachers that results in a two-tier music education.  There is the traditional route for the elite (read people who can afford instrumental lessons for their children) and a progressive route for the rest (read people who cannot afford instrumental lessons for their children).  Because of this, most of the music training offered is progressive and does very little to actually teach young children music but to entertain them.  I think the answer is to actually change the curriculum itself to something more rigorous.  I will delve into this in a later post but for now will leave you with an alternative curriculum that does do this – the curriculum used in Alberta, Canada.

Instrument of the Week 4

Instrument of the Week 4 was the xylophone.

I wanted to play the children a high quality video of a xylophone by Evelyn Glennie but I could not find any that were of a good enough quality so I decided to show them the following video of three percussionists playing music from the computer game “Legend of Zelda” on a marimba.  This was a good idea as it also has a few other instruments from the percussion family.  One of the best bits is where it features a glockenspiel and I was able to explain the difference between a glockenspiel and a xylophone.  There is an awful amount of learning and musical terms in this video.  The tempo changes, the texture changes, there is an ostinato on the glockenspiel.  There are a mixture of tuned and untuned percussion instruments such as timpani, a snare drum, a marimba and a glockenspiel.  I also told them to look out for the triangle which only appears at the very end.  It is over 4 minutes long but the children listened enraptured without any talking or fidgeting.

Afterwards, I introduced the children to the percussionist Evelyn Glennie and used the words “deaf” and “blind” that 90 percent of the Y1 and 2 children had never heard of (90% are EAL).  I introduced “blind”, as at a later date I am going to introduce the children to my favourite musician Stevie Wonder.  I think it is important for children to learn about living expert performers and composers.

The most confusing part of the IOTW was that the instrument was the xylophone but the video was of a marimba.  I did explain the differences between these instruments briefly but thought the children would remember the word xylophone a lot more clearly as it is one of the only words that young children learn that begins with an “x”.  I normally spend only about 4 minutes in total on IOTW but this one was a bit longer.  In total, I spent about 7 minutes on this starter.


To leave the classroom I often have a password.  This technique is sometimes called an “Exit Ticket”.  I set up a stand with a glockenspiel or a lollypop drum and then before the children can leave they have to play me a short rhythm or melody.  For example, my Year 1’s were learning “I hear thunder” on the glocks.  Before they left I asked them to play one of the four phrases.  For the most advanced I asked them to play “pitter patter raindrops”.  For the ones who are behind I will get them to play ” Hark don’t you?”.  If the children can’t play the melody or rhythm correctly they go to the back to have another go.  This way you can see who can do it and who needs support.  The children watch each other and so can learn what to do if they are unsure.  The most important thing is everyone must participate.  Or you can’t get out of the room.  That means there is no option to slack off.  The biggest problem is what the kids do in the line while they are waiting to exit and what happens to those who have exited.  Still not sure about that one at the moment…


After my last post you might think that I am against creating music.  Not true.  I am only against young children trying to compose music in groups with little to no teacher direction.  Improvising is different.  When you improvise, there is already a structure scaffolding for you and you just have to play in the gaps where there is no scaffolding.  For example, if you play “Old Mac Donald had a farm” using the pentatonic scale, children can improvise between each verse.  So, by rote you can teach all the children “FFFCDDC AAGGF” which they all play together twice.  Then one child, or a pair (or dare I say it, a small group) can make up a eight bar improvisation between the tune using the notes CDFG and A.  To do this you really require quite a few xylophones or metallophones where you can take the bars off – you really need to get rid of the B’s and the E’s to make a good sound.  Then after the improvisation, the tune can return which is played by all children meaning that all children can be involved in music making.  This can be repeated in Rondo Form where the tune is section A and each improvisation a new section.

This does require a music room with tuned percussion instruments which I am lucky to have.  I understand that many teachers will not have this.  You can do the same thing using only rhythm if you only have untuned percussion instruments.  Everyone learns a two bar rhythm by rote and then individuals, pairs or groups can improvise a rhythm sandwiched by the rote-learned rhythm.  If you have no untuned instruments you can do the same thing using body percussion or just clapping.

I try to have improvising once a half term.  By Year 2, all children should be comfortable to improvise a short melody or rhythm without any teacher direction.  Well that’s the aim anyway!


Composition in primary schools is a farce.   What composition is supposed to be, is an opportunity to create music for a solo performer or group of people.   It requires some considerable domain knowledge, good performance skills and good aural skills to do well.   What we have in primary schools is “experimental time” where children are put in small groups and then mess around with instruments and sounds.  This is called composition although it has almost no similarity to the real thing.   Everyone who believes in primary school composition will complain about my definition and say that is an unfair portrayal.   However, in 14 years of teaching music in schools, I am yet to see a successful composition lesson.  Really good teachers will blame themselves, the kids,  SLT,  the school or even the government before they blame the nature of group work.   Just to clarify,  most composition tasks in KS1, 2 or 3 involve children being put or putting themselves into groups of 4 or 5 to compose music to a task set by a teacher.   It simply does not work due to the nature of sound and the nature of group dynamics.   In a smallish room you cannot hear yourselves play so when everyone is playing different things at the same time you will rarely be successful.   Group dynamics means that whenever any group of people get together,  there are so many other things to talk about.   Why do the work set when you can continue your conversation from lunch time?   So little work ever gets done in composition lessons.  But there is this crazy sense that we are failing teachers if we say group work is crap so we end up with everyone agreeing with something that deep down they know is a really bad educational  idea.  I would not be so against it if I knew it worked but like I have said,  I have never seen it work well.   Ever.

So this time which could be used on aural work, singing or performance is wasted.   The kids who want to get good grades hate it as they have to do all the work as their peers can’t be bothered/do not have the skills.   Some kids are bored.  Others get into a cathagic state where they hit instruments with no thought process going on.

Let’s just abolish it until kids are 14.  You will see standards rise and more people take the subject for GCSE.  

Instrument of the Week 3 – Trumpet

I haven’t updated Instrument of the Week for a while so there will be a few updates.  In Week 3 we did the trumpet.  I showed them this:

It’s quite a good video as young children love to see other children playing music as they really think if they can do it so can they. I introduced the word “brass” so the children could identify the instrument family.  The children knew the song and started singing it half way through which was great – after I talked a little bit about the trumpet we sang “Old MacDonald”.  We talked about valves and “buzzing” to make a sound – a good excuse to make some funny noises!  I also used the word “accompaniment” and asked the children if they could identify the instrument that the teacher was playing with the child. We had some good guesses with “guitar” and “piano” but in the end I had to tell them it was a harp and show them a picture from a Google image search.

Just to clarify – Instrument of the Week is a pre-lesson starter so the children can walk in to music.  It is time that the teacher can talk to a class teacher if there is something about the class that they need to know.  If there is a child who is distressed or needs to be talked to then it gives time for the teacher to deal with it, in the knowledge that the other children are doing something constructive.  If the lesson is one where one lesson backs on into another then it gives the teacher some time to put the room straight or their thoughts straight before embarking on a new class.  The music is not more than a few minutes long and it is a good routine so the children can find their carpet spots and transition their minds into music-lesson mode.  And finally it helps with my objective that by the end of Year 2 all pupils will know 40 instruments off by heart from sight and sound.

Carpet Spaces – update

Carpet spaces have worked.  The children are so much happier now they know exactly where to sit in a lesson.  There are no arguments and every child has their own personal space. Children who would wind each other up now have distance.  After a singing game or instrumental activity they now know exactly where to go back to sitting within 10 seconds rather than 2 minutes.  I can see exactly what every child is doing, what they can do and what they are struggling with.  The children know you can’t avert the gaze of the teacher and any misbehaviour is caught  and dealt with immediately.  They can all see the white-board and I know who is concentrating and who is in la-la land.

I’m happy with circle spots too if you are unhappy with the notion of three rows of children all looking forward.  But will I ever go back to no set space?  Never again.

Frustrations for Music Teachers at Christmas

In the good ole’ days, Christmas was easy.  Everyone knew the songs you did and the Christmas show was invariably the same.  All you needed was a piano and some tea towels.  Now it is a lot more complicated and there are certain things you can and cannot do.

  1. You cannot sing traditional songs – “Away in a Manger” is banned as it mentions the “Little Lord Jesus”.  One head said we could sing it if we changed the word “Lord” to “child”.  “While shepherd’s watched” is meaningless because they are not watching anything any more.
  2. You cannot mention Jesus – he is banned in many schools unless they are faith schools.  You can mention Santa as much as you like.
  3. All music must be recorded in three formats – 1) normal speed with vocals, 2) normal speed without vocals and 3) slow speed for rehearsal.  This has to be recorded as you would exactly play it on the piano on the concert day.  A robot would be much more beneficial than a trained music teacher.
  4. The songs for Christmas will not be chosen by a music teacher but by someone who knows nothing about music.  This person will then instruct the music teacher exactly what they have to play based on a 12 second audio recording from YouTube.  This is no joke, this really did happen.
  5. The music will have to be re-scored for the purposes required in point 3, the key changed so the children can attempt to sing it, new words created so they scan properly and the whole thing reduced in difficulty as they are originally written for professional pop or opera singers.

What are the implications of this?

  1. A shared common experience between generations has now been eradicated
  2. It de-professionalises trained music teachers
  3. All those resources and songbooks built over many years might as well be thrown away

I have nothing against good quality non-religious Christmas concerts.  It’s just depressing that most of the alternatives are pretty devoid of content.  If you do want to do a non-traditional Christmas show I would recommend many of the publications by “Out of the Ark” rather than relying on Youtube.