Month: January 2016

Minimum Musical Expectations

After six or more years of music lessons totalling approximately two hundred hours of class tuition, we should have some minimum expectations of what children can achieve in Music.  There is something officially written down – it is called the National Curriculum of England and Wales and it fits onto one page of A4.  Compare it to the Alberta curriculum and you should be embarrassed as the expectations in this province of Canada are far higher than anything we have in the U.K.  To be fair, you can say that the Alberta curriculum is very prescriptive and exact on what needs to be taught whereas the U.K. curriculum is a basic framework you adapt.  

As Music in the National Curriculum for England and Wales is so vague, most teachers adapt it, as you could probably teach the whole content in two or three weeks if you were competent.  I have made a curriculum for Key Stage 1 that is similar to Alberta, but also has the content of the U.K. Core Knowledge curriculum published by Civitas.  This, of course, fits the N.C. for England and Wales because it is hard not to, as it is so embarrassingly basic.  I will share it at the end of this year as I am still not happy with the final paperwork yet.  But I will share the basic aims.  Remember this is my expectations for the end of KS1, not KS2.

All students will know…


1) The names of the four instrument families

2) At least four instruments in each family from sight and sound

3) How the instruments can combine and make different groups such as orchestras and bands


4) To sing in tune

5) To sight-sing using tonic sol-fa and the first six notes of the treble clef

6) To sing in unison, in a round, in partner songs and as a solo or duet.

7) To play well known melodies on xylophones and glockenspiels using graphic notation and the first six notes of the treble clef

8) To play handbells from number and letter notation

9) To play at least four notes on a recorder including “E”


10) To keep a steady beat

11) To read, clap and play rhythms using semibreves, minims, crotchets, quavers and semi quavers and rests

12) To play ostinatos

13) To combine rhythm and pitch


14) To play and understand music using the Italian terms fortissimo, forte, mezzo forte, mezzo piano, piano and pianissimo

15) To understand crescendos and diminuendos


16) To play music using different tempi using Italian terms such as presto, allegro, moderato, andante and adagio

17) To understand accelerando and rallentando 


18) To confidently sing the song repertoires of Early Years and Year 1 and 2 totalling over 100 songs


19) To play over 30 short pieces of music on instruments


20) To have the opportunity to compose music individually and in pairs


21) To compose music using the program Dance EJ for schools

22) To compose music using an iPad

23) To record music using an iPad


24) To take part in public performances including choirs, recorder groups, handbell groups, instrumental concerts, class assemblies and year group musical plays


25) To become aware of at least thirty pieces of well known classical music

26) To identify at least ten pieces of music from around the world by naming the country of origin

27) To listen to at least twenty pieces of music from the 20th and 21st century including Jazz, Country, Pop, Rock and Dance music

28) To listen to an orchestra playing live

29) To hear a public performance by professionals


30) To identify changes in pitch and rhythm

Can this be done?

Yes.  But your lessons need to be highly structured.  I do this by having the “Instrument of the Week” at the beginning.  This covers the majority of the listening repertoire and knowledge of instruments as each child will experience around 100 lessons before they leave KS1.  This takes five minutes of every lesson.  I then have “Rhythm Time”.  This takes about five minutes too.  By the end of Year 2, the children have the foundational skills of keeping in time and sight-reading rhythms.  We then have “Singing Time”.  This takes about ten minutes and we start with Kodaly warm ups and then go into two songs we know and one we don’t or only know a bit of.  We constantly revisit known songs so they become engrained into long term memory.  That covers the singing repertoire and most aural skills.  This all takes up the first twenty minutes of the lesson.

We then proceed into “Instrument Time”.  This is when we get instruments out to play tunes, read notation etc.  This covers most of the rest of the curriculum.  I try to keep composition to a minimum as composition skills are better taught in KS2 and above when the children have more experience playing instruments correctly and with precision.  I do teach some composition and put in improvisation too.  The limited amount of composition time is the most controversial element of my lessons.  It’s only controversial in the U.K. though!  All composition activities are highly structured and only ever performed individually or in pairs.  Small group composition never works well with KS1 students from my experience.  “Instrument Time” always takes the most time, about 20 minutes of every lesson.  

After we have packed away (and after “Inspection” to make sure it has been put away carefully), we have “Listening Time”.  I put up a short quiz of four instruments where the children have to work out the instrument from sound alone.  To do this requires a careful scaffold of information about instruments every single lesson.  It is only at the end of Y2 that it clicks with most children due to the constant exposure to the instrumental sounds they hear every lesson.  This is also useful as it serves to quieten the children down after the excitement of “Instrument Time”.  Again, this takes five minutes.  We then have “Performance Time”.  This is when any child can play their instrument to the rest of the class.  I then ask if anyone else wants to play next week.  My plans are to record these informal performances but I have not done this yet.  “Performance Time” happens in silence so we get used to really listening to what our classmates can play and the routine of listening to others in silence as a mark of basic respect.  I then finish the lesson (ours are 55 minutes long) with a recap of everything we have done in the lesson and what to look forward to in next weeks lesson.  Then we all line up for the “Password”.  This is the classic exit ticket for formative assessment so I know if they have been paying attention.  It’s normally a short tune or a rhythm that they have learned in “Instrument Time”.  If they can’t play it, they watch five other children doing it successfully then they try it out themselves.

I repeat this structure every lesson.  It’s quick paced and requires good time management but, my goodness, it works.  I have tried other ways of delivering lessons but all that happens is children do not retain the knowledge and skills over time.  The way I teach in this very structured manner works because the expectations are all known and valued by the students, the routines are engrained from very early on, and if they forget something over the week, they are constantly reminded every lesson.  Most music lessons are unsuccessful because they do not do this.  If you teach a subject that only occurs once a week then you will not have time to embed these skills before they get naturally forgotten.

Some music teachers will be horrified by this approach.  It is highly structured and the creativity police would probably have a fit as it is very teacher directed.  In fact it is close to 90% teacher directed.  But my kids leave Key Stage 1 knowing tons about music, they sing and they play really well and I have never had any complaints from parents or children.  In fact it’s the reverse – parents are always telling me how much their children love their music lessons.  

Singing Games

Traditional, old fashioned singing games work well in Primary Schools.  They are common all over the world and all children should know at least a dozen by the time you leave Year 6.  Kids absolutely love them but that’s not the point – they learn so much through singing them.  Firstly, the repetitive nature means that you are continuously singing.  Secondly, the songs you sing are being reinforced by the whole group, encouraging reluctant or shy singers.  Thirdly, you have to combine singing with action.  Fourthly, the pitches of many singing games are the ones which are most natural to children so help them to sing in tune.  Fifthly, there are social benefits that help children to learn to take turns.  Sixthly, they are common all over the world so children get to sing in other languages and learn songs from different cultures.  

The best way to learn them is to learn them off other people who already teach them.  I learned many from some fantastic colleagues but the best were from an INSET course we did with Ex Cathedra.  My attitude when Ex Cathedra came to visit us at our music service was appalling.  I had looked them up on the internet about 9 years ago and it said they were a posh choir from Birmingham.  I thought, what could this group of singers teach us about teaching young children when they sing Mozart’s Requiem in cathedrals?  I could not have been more wrong.  They were absolutely brilliant and the material was perfect for young children.  Most the songs were traditional singing games but some were composed by the team and they got the balance of engagement and good quality singing right.  I enthusiastically recommend them, and if you are thinking about bringing in a musical workshop, book them in.  I have done many, many music INSET days and they were the best by a long way.  They have a new publication and CD on their website if you would like to purchase it but in all honesty it really does not make sense without seeing how the games are taught in practice.

Where else can you find Singing Games?  The best publications are the Singing Games books created by the National Youth Choir of ScotlandSing for Pleasure have many small books with them in – one is based on Polish singing games created by one of the education practitioners of Ex Cathedra.  Banana Splits , a book to help children learn to sing in parts has a few and there are a few from the Singing Sherlock series.  Some of the best places to find singing games are not from books but from people who know them – the guides, brownies and scouts have a tradition of singing games and are in most towns and villages.  Asking older members of society is also a good way to learn singing games – I was told a few by a headteacher who was nearing retirement and wanted to pass on the old traditions.  

To get you started, here are my favourite twelve singing games:

  1. Little Sally Saucer – circle game for young children
  2. Jump Jim Joe – partner song
  3. John Kanackanacka – partner song
  4. I hear the Bells – partner and group song in two parts
  5. A Young Austrian – action game
  6. Early in the morning – circle game
  7. A sailor went to sea – partner clapping game
  8. Hear the music – acting game
  9. Copy Andrew – copying games that I wrote
  10. Who stole my chickens and my hens? – competitive circle game
  11. Here comes Sally walking down the alley – line game
  12. Stepping out and stepping in – line game

Early Years Music

The current Early Years Foundation Stage is difficult for a traditionally minded music teacher to actually do their job.  I have talked to quite a few music teachers and they all say the same thing – that free-flow “active learning” is incompatible with whole-class music tuition.  There are two major problems.  Firstly, the Early Years coordinators do not want children to leave their environment.  Consequently, you are not allowed to take them to the music room.  This really limits what you can do practically and I can’t see logically why we are limiting the children to one place.  We should be taking children to new places like the library, the swimming pool, the art room and the music room from a very young age – I cannot see why this is wrong.  If we can take them to the adventure playground we can take them to the music room.  The second problem is that the Early Years staff are not happy with whole-class teaching and want you to do small group activities for only those children who want to go to music.  What this actually means is that children come and go as they please and do not really engage with what you are doing.  It is incredibly difficult to play a parachute game or teach an action song when at any time the children can be distracted by Johnny in the sandpit.  

The argument given is the children are too young for organised music activities.  That is complete rubbish.  Music Together and Kindermusik are companies that have organised musical activities for toddlers and young children for many, many years and there are MT and KM practitioners who work in schools.  And in my experience, as long as you have a variety of activities, there is no reason for children to not join in with class music activities.  Thirty minutes max with action songs, parachute games, bean bag games, scarf games, instrument time and perhaps a musical story.  But to do this you need space and a distraction-free environment.  And that is out of the question.

So what do music teachers do in reality?  Some go along with it and just accept they cannot teach the children effectively.  One teacher I know just takes the whole group of kids round the corner when nobody’s looking and then does a proper music class.  Another had a big argument with Early Years and won and now can teach the children in the music room but it wasn’t without a fight.  My plan is to get out of Early Years because it is pointless trying to teach children when there are so many pressures to actually stop you teaching.

It’s such a shame as it is a wasted opportunity.  But as I have found out over the last fourteen years, teaching ideas are endlessly recycled and I am sure we will go back to whole-class structured activities in a few years.  Government ministers are talking about changing it and I think they will in a few years time.  In fact, the main reason they haven’t is political – ministers were worried that they would completely lose goodwill with Early Years teachers because of the local authority cuts to Sure Start.  Subsequently they decided it was not worth picking a fight with nursery teachers.  But I am pretty sure we will see some pressure to return to more structured activities – Liz Truss was talking about the French nursery system a few years back and how structured activities work well there.  Whatever they do decide to do, change it is definitely on the governments radar.  And for me, hopefully my five years of “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “The Wheels on the Bus” are over.  Even parents don’t get five whole years of this.  They get “Let it Go” instead… 


I am in two minds about these brightly coloured plastic tubes.  Yes they can teach pitch.  Yes they are simple to play.  Yes they are the same colours as the hand bells.  Yes you can get additional chromatic notes and octavators to obtain pitches an octave lower.  Yes kids love whacking them.  So what are my reservations?  Well simply, they sound crap.  And to make a reasonable noise you need to whack them on something hard.  And they always result in some behavioural issues.  And some pupils just can’t cope with instructional activities with them, they just want to bash them as hard as they can.  They are sturdy but not indestructible and they can bend if truly whacked.  Would I buy them if I was resourcing a music room from scratch?  Probably not, but I have used them in class, mainly because they demonstrate how longer tubes have a lower sound than shorter tubes.  You can’t show this on handbells, keyboards or pianos, you can on xylophones but Boomwhackers are good to show this important concept.  I have also used them to keep a steady beat and for simple ostinato work.  I think if they actually sounded good I might use them more often.

So Boomwhackers or an additional xylophone?  Get the xylophone.

Absolute Pitch

Absolute pitch, or perfect pitch is the innate ability to identify or reproduce any pitch without a reference note.  It is really rare for anyone to have his ability in the West but it is relatively common in the East.

It’s always been a bit of an enigma because there have been many theories why some people possess the ability and some do not.  The first theory says that no one has it when they are born but through experiencing music from their environments they can gain the ability.  This is the environmental theory.  The second, is that absolute pitch is passed on genetically from families that have the gene.  This unsurprisingly is called the genetic theory.  The third theory is that we all have it innately but only some people display it later on.  This is called the innate theory.

There is evidence for all three.  It is interesting that some children learning music from a young age have absolute pitch and this has been attributed to music tuition.  However, we do not know if this is the reason, for correlation does not equal causation.  An “absolute pitch” gene has been discovered but again we are dealing with correlations.  The theory that seems most plausible is the third because scientists have found that if you disable certain parts of the brain through TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), people who have never had absolute pitch suddenly display it.  This would suggest that everyone has the ability but during early childhood the brain produces new neural pathways to process auditory information so most people do not display absolute pitch.  The reason for this is the brain is interested in language development and absolute pitch is too much information entering the brain.  This may seem a bit strange but the brain does limit the amount of information as it can be disadvantageous.  In fact there is a plausible theory to suggest that all autism is, is too much information entering the brain at too young an age.  This would also explain why there is a link between individuals on the autistic spectrum and those with absolute pitch.  It also explains why people from the East are more likely to have the ability; tonal languages are spoken more widely in the East and the brain might interpret absolute pitches as language information so use the neural pathway responsible for absolute pitch.

So next time someone displays the wonderful aural abilities of absolute pitch, don’t feel jealous.  You too have the same abilities but to get them you either need a very precise blow to the head or have to put special magnets on your head!


Xylophones are expensive but really good for the classroom.  They may not have lots of buttons and sounds like keyboards but they have a much better physical response and quite frankly look better.  I really think if you want keyboards you should have a keyboard lab – keyboards and other classroom instruments simply do not mix well in my opinion.  The biggest problem, apart from the cost is how to set them all up.  The first thing to consider is how best to divide up the small amount of resources most schools do have.  It therefore makes sense to have two pupils to an instrument.  The only problem with this is it restricts the amount of notes you can use.  However, there are two sets of C to A notes and there are many melodies that only use only six notes, so there are umpteen activities that can be played.  A good place to find six note tunes are books for handbells.  Orff books also have many activities to cater for a limited range of notes.

In an ideal world we would have classes of 20 and have four soprano xylophones, four alto xylophones and two bass xylophones.  This would mean everybody could play together. This would cost around two thousand five hundred pounds to buy new – a lot of money for only ten instruments.  However with thought and organisation, this is actually enough to cover most primary music melody work.  It might also help to have two metalophones and some small soprano glockenspiels so the music doesn’t sound so wooden all the time.

Sometimes the screws come off the instruments.  These can be fixed using new screws and the plastic covering I found in the chemistry department – one of the science technicians was able to fix it up for me and the DT department put the screws in.  I managed to fix four instruments this way.

Beaters are important and sadly people make the mistake I did and bought the plastic yellow beaters.  These are a false economy.  For a start they bend badly, secondly they sound terrible and third they look so awful and cheap.  It is much better to buy beaters with proper felts or woven material on the ends.  It is also advantageous to set up your room so that the pitched percussion are on stands and instantly available to play.  See the picture below for details of how my friend sets up his room – his set up is really good.  He has one bass xylophone, one bass metalophone, two alto xylophones, one alto metalophone, two soprano xylophones, one soprano metalophone and four soprano glockenspiels.  This would mean twenty students could all play tuned percussion together. I find that in many schools there are instruments available but the set up is really badly organised and many instruments need to be repaired. I wish I had the stands my friend has and a little more physical space so I could have a set up like this.  Perhaps in my next school I will!

The last thing to consider is how the students will play the music.  You could go for music stands or if you want to keep it simple, learn everything by rote.  I find having the whiteboard in the line of vision the most useful as this means you don’t need to bother with photocopying and music stands but can still have something for the children to refer to in the lesson if they need it.  Also it is important to have the piano facing the children if you are going to direct from the piano or sit facing the children if you are going to accompany them on guitar.  For many schools, this is an expensive multi-year ongoing project but if you think strategically, perhaps you could have a paid after school club to pay for resources or do some fund raising.  It is money well spent, as long as the instruments are used well. 


The new times-table test and how it relates to music

Today the government have announced that times-tables are going to be assessed at the age of eleven through a national test.  Presumably this is a continuation of the “secondary ready” policy to ensure that all children have basic skills so they can access the secondary curriculum.  A bit like the phonics check, it is a screening process to make sure that schools are responsible for teaching times-tables.  Every school I have been to has taught multiplication tables, so there is some understandable annoyance from teachers and educationalists that the government have announced this, as it looks like they are implementing it because it is not being taught.  I doubt this is true, the reason they are testing it is to make sure that all tables up to twelve are thoroughly learned and make teachers responsible for children’s performance in the test.  As we know, just because you teach something doesn’t mean that the children have actually learned it.

Do we really need another test?  I would actually argue “yes”.  As all schools I know of are already teaching multiplication tables, no one can complain that there is any change so there should be no extra work for teachers.  As it is going to be externally marked, there is no added assessment for teachers.  It is simple and easy to understand.  If children get stressed out about it, that says a lot about the teacher making too big a deal of the testing process.  I had spelling and multiplication tests continually at school, it was just something to expect and nothing abnormal, unexpected or oppressive.  You even got a chocolate pick and mix if you got 10/10.  So why is the government calling for this national test?  My guess is they are concerned about a dangerous fallacy going around education circles that times-tables are not important and do not need to be explicitly taught.  The test will ensure tables are taught because as we all know well, what gets formally assessed gets taught.

Before we dismiss this line of thinking out of hand, we should ask if there are any good reasons why we shouldn’t teach times-tables.  The main criticism is that learning them by rote is poor pedagogy as children aren’t actually thinking about the number relationships and relying on memory; the old knowledge vs understanding argument.  There are educationalists such as Jo Boaler who argue that thinking about numbers is a much better way of understanding multiplication, especially through talking through different methods that children use to obtain an answer.  I have sympathy for this and it is always good to listen to others to think how we go about solving a problem and it is also good to confront any misconceptions at their source.  However, there is a very good argument for instant memory recall as most mathematical problems have multiple steps and if you do not know your tables by heart you are adding an extra step in your thinking process.  And as we know, the more steps you have, the more likely you are to make a mistake as it introduces an additional cognitive load.  Another argument is the ever-present one that now we have calculators why should we bother to learn multiplication facts by rote.  Isn’t this another relic from our outdated Victorian education system?  Again, cognitive load theory is a reason why instant recall is preferable to calculators but also many mathematical processes rely on multiplication relationships and concepts such as simple algebra, ratio, fractions and statistics simply do not make much sense if you do not already know your tables.  Finally, the best reason to teach them in my opinion is a bit simpler – secondary maths teachers really want the children they inherit to know them as it makes their life easier.  It’s hardly a good pedagogical reason but if we really believe in reducing teacher workload then we should take it seriously.  If secondary maths teachers have the knowledge that the children know their tables, it is one less thing that they have to worry about and those that don’t can be identified and helped right at the start of secondary school.  Maths teachers should not have to worry that their pupils do not know their tables just like English teachers should not have to worry that pupils will be unable to construct a grammatically correct sentence by the age of 11.

How does this relate to music?  I see a similar problem with learning notation and I have been guilty of making similar mistakes in the past.  When teaching piano you can learn to play through recognising the notes in relation to each other, for example when notes go in step or if they skip.  Some children work this out by numbers on their fingers which is why beginners playing all pieces with thumbs on C can result in some bad practices.  They don’t actually know their notes but have come up with their own system to relate the symbol to the sound such as thumb = C, pointy finger = D etc.  Sadly, this can actually cause problems later on when the music becomes harder or if their fingers change hand position.  One pupil I taught could play a variety of different pieces as long as thumbs were on C but did not know which note was which.  When I finally twigged that they did not really know their notes we had to more or less go back to basics and relearn material.  Sadly that child did not continue playing as a result of the frustration they encountered.  This is why I always do ten minutes of a piano lesson on basic theory using flashcards.  This has made a big difference and I encourage children to know the notes by rote rather than try to work them out.  When playing piano you have to have good hand eye coordination and, like with times-tables, we need instant recall if we are to play music fluently and to a consistent speed.  If you can instantly recall the names of all the notes on treble and bass staves then you have a much better chance of playing fluently and will find sight-reading less of a challenge.  Just like in maths you need to know your tables to be numerate, in music you need to know your notes to be musically literate.

Some music teachers will complain and say that they do teach these things, but the evidence is against us in general.  Sadly there is a large proportion of children who cannot even read treble clef by the age of 11.  This makes secondary music teachers lives much more difficult than it should.  There should be an expectation that children know their notes by the age of 11 and the government have responded to this by adding to the new KS 2 Music curriculum the expectation that staff notation will be taught.  There are music teachers, both in primary and in secondary schools who say musical literacy is not important.  We had conversations about this on my PGCE.  However, this is one of the reasons for the disastrous report into music education that I have referred to previously.  Most secondary teachers do not expect primary children to know notation but I think that they should.  You can still teach an exciting practical curriculum in primary and expect children to be musically literate just like we do the same for normal literacy.

So what practical steps can we take?  Teach notation from KS1 and practice it through practical activities for 6 years.  Teach recorders.  Teach hand bells.  Teach violins.  Teach ukuleles.  But do not expect theory will magically happen.  Theory is vitally important and it needs to be explicitly taught.  Just like all artists should know their colours, all dancers should know their steps, all mathematicians should know their tables, all musicians should know their notes.

How young should they start?

A question asked by many parents to music teachers is when Little Johnny should start learning a musical instrument.  And the answer most music teachers give is, “when Johnny is ready”.  I try not to say this as I don’t think it is very helpful.  My reply is invariably, “well Little Wolfgang started learning Suzuki violin at age 3.  Would you like to know what that involves?” I tell the truth about some other pupils: “Little Hannah started learning piano with Mrs. Crackwhip; Hannah is pretty amazing, would you like to know how she got so good?”  Sometimes I reply with a question like, “What would you say to Little Johnny if he asks to give up after three weeks?”  When parents understand what learning an instrument really involves and how it affects their children and themselves, they start to ask the right questions, rather than looking for assurances on how good a parent they are or trying to keep up with the Jones’. 

I make it clear that when I teach an instrument my style is not the same as Mrs. Crackwhip’s.  Not because Mrs. Crackwhip is bad but because parents need to know that tuition is different, not only for each individual student but because teachers are different too.  I explain that my pupils will not go on to be virtuosos like hers and they will not get over 140/150 in their ABRSM examinations, but there is role for my style of teaching too.  It’s a bit slower paced, a little more theory based and more appropriate for children who want to learn but are going to really struggle with Mrs. Crackwhip’s approach.  But I will defend Mrs. Crackwhip to the bitter end because her style of teaching is absolutely vital for a certain kind of pupil that needs to be constantly stretched and will not be concerned about two to three hours of daily practice.  We need a variety of different teachers to cater for the variety of different students.

Another question people ask is what instrument to learn and when this should be taught.  I normally say that clarinet and trumpet teachers have told me that it is best to wait for pupils to have their front two adult teeth before learning these instruments.  I have no idea if that is true but it is what I have been told.  They often ask about guitar – I try to discourage this as it is very difficult for young children to play well.  I sometimes say to these parents to get a small ukulele first and see how they get on with that before starting the guitar.  That normally leaves parents asking about piano, violin and flute.  I try to encourage the cello and viola as well as the violin, as there is no reason why small children cannot play these as long as there are good teachers available.  I suggest that budding flautists learn the recorder first before buying a flute, which is one of the reasons I like to teach recorder in Year 2.  I try to promote drum kit too.  At my current school we have some great Year 1 and 2 drummers, one of which is already in a band playing around town with his dad in local gigs!  The one instrument I get asked about the most is the piano.  There is nothing to stop most children from learning this from the age of 3 but there are many reasons why it might not be a good idea to start so early.  However, I am very happy with very young children learning musical instruments; the research is pretty clear that the younger you learn, the more advanced you will get if you keep it up and also there is a much higher percentage of children who have absolute pitch when they started young.  I will blog about this phenomenum in my next post.