Month: December 2015


This is the half term where I focus on teaching pitch to Year 1 and Year 2.  We do pitch almost every lesson but this is the time where I teach it in detail.  All the children now know their Kodaly pitches and hand signs and have spent quite a substantial time on aural work so they are ready for something slightly different.  Year 1’s will be taking a graphic score approach to pitch called “Magic Rabbit” which will consist of playing, writing and composing their own graphic scores on mini-whiteboards individually and in pairs.  The Year 2’s will be learning to read music using 6 notes from middle C to A.  For those children who find this easy I have designed a harder book with an octave of notes.  This short course also involves music from China so we will be learning about Chinese New Year and making some music using pentatonic scales.  The name of this course is “Dragon Pitch”.

Magic Rabbit is a story I have made up about a rabbit who lives at the top of the hill and likes to play.  He likes walking up and down, skipping up and down and sliding up and down.  How does he slide up the hill?  Well he is called Magic Rabbit! Magic Rabbit is shown to slide using a diagonal line, walking using steps and skipping by little arrows.  They start easy and then get quite complicated.  The children play glockenspiels and xylophones to show how he moves and later on they write down how he moves and finally they make their own compositions that their partner has to play.  The basic misconception many children make is to misunderstand the passage of time graphically along the x axis.  So many children just do not get this and every lesson I talk about this misconception as the whole basis of notated music rests on this principle – you have to read horizontally and vertically simultaneously to read music properly.  We also sing songs about rabbits to go along with the theme like “Little Rabbit Foo Foo” and “In a Cottage in a Wood”.  At the end of the unit I assess them on how well they play and compose their Magic Rabbit pieces.  We have the formative assessment of some pieces to play before they can leave so I can check their understanding.  Magic Rabbit always works well but it only gives a simple understanding of pitch, basic high and low and the direction the music is played.  This is appropriate for 5 and 6 year old children.

Dragon Pitch starts with simple music in four bar phrases where music starts with only one note and then goes up to six.  Although there are no such things as learning styles I actually teach the notes kinaesthetically as it is good fun and they get to understand pitch in terms of up and down.  Middle C is your toes, D is your knees, E is your waist, F is your shoulders, G is your head and A is hands above your head.  We learn many tunes this way before we play them on xylophones and glockenspiels.  Later on we take away the F’s and B’s and play some pentatonic tunes to fit into the theme of Chinese Music.  The major themes of this unit are reading and playing from standard Western notation and improvisatory work using pentatonic scales.  I want to put some more Orff work into this this year so I may make some changes.  We sing a song I made up “It’s Chinese New Year”, “A dragons very fierce” and “Puff the Magic Dragon”.  It is difficult to assess improvisation so I just ask the children to play some of the simple notated pieces and assess these.  These tunes are also used for formative assessment using the exit ticket approach.  Dragon Pitch works well but is quickly and easily forgotten.  In units of work to come I will be revisiting Dragon Pitch as it pointless teaching it if the children will rapidly forget it.  The most controversial element is explicitally teaching staff notation to young children.  I have been criticised for it in the past but I just think being musically literate is something important for every child to grasp and makes life a lot easier for other teachers as they progress.

During this time I will not be forgetting rhythm, we will do our rhythms every lesson just like aural work and instrument of the week.  The instruments of the week for Year 1 are Thai instruments as we are located in Thailand.  We will learn about the ranat, khim, klui, ching and khong wong.  The Year 2’s will be learning about some Chinese instruments such as the gesheng, erhu, pippa and dizi.

What I would like for Christmas in my classroom

I have a wish-list that I send to my boss from time to time.  So far I have got a mini drum kit, hand bells and 4 new lollipop drums. This year I would like an electric piano for the hall, some more cymbals and a bass xylophone.

But more than anything I want to just be allowed to teach the children in the way I teach best, in the music room with all the instruments I already have. 

I am way more likely to receive the instruments in the top paragraph than receive the autonomy in the second sadly.

Composing v Composition

I have been reading quite a bit about assessing music in the classroom, particularly composition.  A good place to read more is Martin Fautley’s blog.  Basically, even after over twenty-five years of composition being an integral part of the curriculum there are some widespread weaknesses that are incredibly worrying.  The first is that A-Level music teachers have little to no confidence in the marking of A-Level compositions.  I can relate to this, in my teacher training we were given some compositions to mark by our tutor who we later found out was the Chief Examiner for Edexcel.  None of us on the course agreed on what mark to give the composition and we all disagreed on the work put in, whether it was plagiarised and what creative processes were involved.  It seems like little has changed over the years.

Fautley and other music educators have said that the answer to many of these problems with assessment is to assess composing rather than composition.  This means putting an emphasis on the process rather than the product and is in keeping with the relatively recent focus on formative assessment in schools.  They say the value is in the skills learned through composing – making mistakes, articulating ideas, refining ideas, improving work through feedback etc.  The biggest problem with this is that most schools have whole-school summative assessment policies and this will not fit with them.  However,  as many schools are now changing their assessment policies as a result of the government abolishing National Curriculum levels it is a good time to bring forward these ideas on music assessment.

Although I agree with these educators on the value of formative assessment, I am unconvinced this is in preference to summative assessment of composition.  There should still be a final product like there is for all coursework and examinations.  This will come as no surprise but I do think we had it right in the past.  In our harmony exams we had pastiche exercises of Bach chorales, string quartets and in years preceding mine they used to do fugue.  This can be marked because you can see how accurately your work compares to the original.  It is also educationally strong because it improves your harmony skills, something absolutely vital in my professional work as a composer.  Examining boards still do assess harmony skills but I would get rid of any sense of personal originality and just go with more forms of pastiche.  It should be communicated that the composition element of the course is deliberately asking for the candidate to copy a musical style.  And when asked to say why personal composition is out of favour, to reply honestly that there were too many issues with marking individual compositions and there was too much variance in the results.  A-Level musicians would understand that – why risk a good grade because marking is so erratic?  Many people will cringe at this analysis and the downside is that we would not be formally assessing some really good composition work coming from young adults.  It does seem to be defeatist but it is a way with actually dealing with the problem and if it has not gone away in the last twenty-five years, why should it now?

Edit 05/02/16 – I have just found out from another music teacher that pastiche is really what the examiners are looking for.  He went on an Edexcel course that explicitly told him that A-Level examiners were looking for compositions that emulated a style.  Note that this was just for one exam board, it might not be necessarily true for them all.  We need to have some very serious discussions with examiners if this is true.



Understanding music at a higher level involves a sense of chronology of how music has developed over time.  This used to be taught explicitly but now has been replaced with topics being inserted throughout with no sense of the overarching scheme of how it all fits together.  I will try to now explain why this is problematic.

The subject that has been most dissected in the past has been History.  My chronological knowledge of History is so poor because I have no idea how it all fits together.  I know certain epochs are from ancient history and some old and some more recent but really that is it.  The only dates I learned were 1066 and 1914-1918 and I know I am not alone in my ignorance.

A number of years ago I did a course on how the Bible fits together from Creation to New Creation and it was a complete revelation if you pardon the pun!  Stories I knew and thought I understood actually made some sense when put in an overarching narrative of how the God of the Israelites worked through history to the present day through a system of promises, signs and covenants.  It actually made some sort of logical sense for the first time, even though I had been a regular church-goer for many years.

In music, most people do not know the different periods of musical history and in a drive to become more “relevant”, now study  predominantly 20th and 21st Century curriculum.  If you think that I am being unfair here, read the 2013 Ofsted Report into music education Music Hubs – What Schools Must Do.  Here is a quote from the really damning report:

Classical music, as a serious component of the curriculum, was treated as a step too far in most of the primary and secondary schools surveyed, at least until Key Stage 4. It was felt by teachers and leaders to be too difficult or inaccessible for pupils. This reluctance created an unnecessary gap in pupils’ musical and cultural education.

So when should we start to show that music has developed through time?  I would argue the time to start this is in Key Stage 2.  In Key Stage 1 the priority must be rhythm and pitch, texture, timbre, tempo, structure and dynamics to understand how music is made before moving on to when it was made.  I think the chronology should be referred to explicitly throughout Key Stage 2 but I would put a specific mini course at the end of Year 6 to show how it all fits together.  All children should be able to know by the age of 11 that there is a tradition of Western notated music from the Medieval Period to the present day.  They should know about the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic and a little about the 20th and 21st Centuries.  I would probably leave much of the 20th Century to Key Stage 3 as you cannot make any sense of the variety of music in these periods without a solid understanding of reactions to Romantic music, particularly the composer Wagner.  

The worry most teachers have is that this could be incredibly dry and uninspiring.  It does not have to be that way whatsoever but does need a shift away from entertainment to actual learning.  If we are to help our secondary colleagues we need to prepare the children they inherit for a curriculum that will require a more robust theoretical and academic approach.  That is if we are to take the Ofsted music report seriously and actually engage with its recommendations.

Choir KS1 Christmas

We just did a choir concert today and sang 11 songs with KS 1.  Many of the songs had solos and all of them had instruments.  The songs were:

1) Jingle Bells with sleigh bells
2) White Christmas with solo introduction and triangles
3) Silent Night with solos and triangles
4) Deck the Halls with drums
5) Santa Claus is coming to town with a solo introduction
6) Feliz Navidad with maracas
7) O Christmas Tree with Chinese cymbals
8) Rudolph with lots of instruments and the beginning solo
9) Little Donkey with woodblocks and hand bells
10) Let it snow with introductory solo
11) We with you a merry Christmas with cymbals


One of the best instruments primary school children can learn is the recorder.  It fits nice and easy into your book bag, sheet music fits in nicely too and you can make it is as simple or complicated as you like.  The problem is that it still has a bad reputation as a basic and unsophisticated instrument.  I always enjoyed playing mine but in secondary school it was not considered a proper instrument until we had an exchange student from Germany.  In our school orchestra we were told we were going to play a recorder concerto and we all laughed at the idea but learned the music as we were told to, thinking that our teacher was joking as it clearly said “violin” concerto on the top of the page.  Then at the rehearsal, we saw our exchange student take out a small case and play an incredible Vivaldi violin concerto on a little wooden descant recorder.  I never considered the recorder a joke instrument after that.

The basic problem with recorders is that you really do have to completely cover the holes to make a nice sound and you can’t blow loudly.  This is why it can be useful to learn the four-holed ocarina prior to the recorder.  If you blow loud you get no sound so you learn quite quickly that you have to blow quietly.  The other difficulty is that notation gets in the way and you end up with either some getting bored at the pace of lessons because other struggle to read notation or the converse, using letters prevents any real knowledge and skill of rhythm.  I have found the way to start is to use coloured squares and rectangles.  Note B is blue, A is red and G is green.  The rhythm is notated by the size of the rectangles with a square being 1 count.  This way we can play a lot of music quickly yet reading the graphic notation carefully to understand rhythm.  After about six lessons we basically go back to the beginning and read everything using standard Western staff notation.  This way they can concentrate on the notation having already internalised the melodies.  

I normally start recorders at the end of Year 2 so they have the whole summer holiday to practice music that we have learned.  I have made my own recorder tutor but I also recommend the standard “Recorder from the Beginning” by John Pitts.  This fits nicely into book bags and goes at a pretty good pace.  I do introduce some other resources as well as the one thing that most recorder tutors do not do is give enough pieces to practice.

Basically, at the end of Year 2 I get students to learn B, A, G and E.  Some teachers like to put in C and D and miss out E but this is a technical mistake as learning E does give you a much better hold of the instrument and also is a good introduction to the clarinet that some pupils go on to play later on.  In Year 3 we master all the notes of the D major scale.  I expect all the students to be able to play everything and I do not differentiate for the majority of the class, I expect all of them to read and play to a relatively high standard.  The only exceptions I make are for those students that have joined later on in the year.  I normally give them a book to take home and a few one on one lessons in lunch time to get them to around the standard of the other children. 

I would recommend all primary students learn the recorder.  In fact, I would make it compulsory to do at least Grade 1 before they leave Year 6 if I was allowed to!  This would mean that our secondary colleagues would inherit all children capable of playing an instrument and knowing the basics of musical notation.