Month: February 2016

Sing Hey Diddle Diddle

This is a continuation of my series of reviewing old songbooks for the Primary Music classroom.

This is a Nursery Rhyme songbook published by A & C Black.  There are 66 songs and rhymes and most of them are very well known.  When I tell people that my aim in KS1 is to learn over 100 songs off by heart, they often think I am being too ambitious.  However, I would bet that most people know at least 50 of the 66 and most of these they will have learned at home, in nursery or in Key Stage 1 when they were little.  This book has all the old favourites, it’s well laid out and there is a CD available.  However, the beauty of nursery rhymes is that you should sing them unaccompanied – one of the objectives of the National Curriculum for Music.

It is interesting how society has changed and some of the songs are uncomfortable for modern ears.  Here are a few un-PC examples:

  1. Little Tom Tucker cannot possibly get married unless he has a wife
  2. Jill gets whipped by her mother for grinning at Jack’s misfortune from falling down the hill
  3. Little Johnny Green drowns cats in a well
  4. Neglecting a baby by putting it in the boughs of a tree is perfectly fine and not a serious health and safety hazard when it breaks and falls
  5. Georgie Porgie has inappropriate contact with young girls
  6. A farmer’s wife runs around mutilating visually impaired mice by chopping off their tails
  7. Tom the piper’s son steals a pig and then is beaten down the street
  8. If you don’t say your prayers you will be grabbed by your left leg and thrown down the stairs
  9. You might get beheaded if you frequent certain churches in London
  10. Jemima gets whipped emphatically by her mum for yelling and screaming
  11. Old Mother Hubbard’s dog starts smoking a pipe
  12. Blatant misandry where girls are full of everything nice and boys made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails.  

Some people think we should get rid of these songs because of the content but nursery rhymes have a long history and many were written to respond to historical and political events.  I do think that we should learn them off by heart as it is important to keep this tradition going and in later years teachers will make reference to some of them in history and English literature classes.  Also, if you don’t know them you simply will not get many of the inferences people make which refer to them.  ED Hirsch Jr. has written about the importance of “cultural literacy” when it come to comprehension; if you don’t know some of these old songs, rhymes and sayings, you will not be able to understand many inferences in newspapers and academic publications.

Musically, some songs are fiendishly difficult.  For example “Sing a song of sixpence” has a melody that goes all over the place.  The pitch does not move by step and has quite an extensive range with some difficult intervals.  I would save this song until Year 2 when hopefully most children can sing in tune.  If you try to get Early Years children to sing this song what often happens is they just say the rhythm.  This needs to be discouraged as this is why you end up with the “growlers” and children labelled “monotone” or “tone deaf”.  There is such a thing as “tone-deafness”, or amusia as it is known in the music profession but it only affects a very small proportion of individuals.  The amount of adults who go up to me and say they are tone-deaf is unreal.  I have to explain that they are probably not tone-deaf, they just weren’t taught to sing properly when they were young.  This is a good reason why we should be teaching the Kodaly pitch system in Early Years so that children can access some of these more melodically challenging songs in Key Stage 1.  The rule of thumb when choosing songs for young children is to keep it between middle C and high C, try not to have many leaps and start by selecting songs with a “so me” pattern to help children find their singing voice.

To go back to the review of this book, if you want a collection of nursery rhymes this is a good songbook to have in your Music department.  You will know most the songs but there are interesting second and third verses of nursery rhymes that you won’t be familiar with, so there is some extension material for all – even teachers.

Here is the index:



Exceptional Performance


We are very fortunate to have a world class piano teacher at our school.  When I mean world class, I really do mean it literally, her students consistently win international piano competitions and the standard of performance from all her students is exceptional.  You can even tell which children are her students simply by the way they sit at the piano and how they take a bow.  I have asked to visit her every Friday morning to see what she does and how she gets very young children to obtain such high standards.

The main point I took from today’s half an hour lesson with a six-year old student is the attention to detail.  For example, she has a special pedal board for the children so their legs and feet are still if they are too small to put their feet on the floor.  She has special piano shoes that she keeps in her room as their normal shoes are sometimes inappropriate for using the pedal.  She insists on a very good posture and helps with their arm movement as they go up and down the keyboard.  She marks exactly where children should put their fingers on the piano by using a pencil on the keys.  All these very fine details add up to make exceptional performance.

Another other thing I took away from today is the importance of the metronome.  All children have a metronome at home and she asks them to remember exact numbers for each piece they are practicing as well as their scales.  These are incredibly precise – one piece the student was playing at 60 bpm and she said it was too fast and so changed it to 58.  Most teachers would barely recognize the difference.

Finally, there is the sheer ambition of the repertoire she asks young children to play.  This little six-year whose fingers are half the size of mine, is preparing for a piano concerto that she will play with a string orchestra in a concert on stage with a large audience.  And it is not easy, in fact one of the passages I would have to really think hard about and practice slowly as technically it is around Grade 5/6 standard.  The little girl plays four octave scales and then one where in D major you play the scale that turns into contrary motion then back into a scale again then ends with a perfect cadence.  She does chords in root position, first inversion and second inversion as well as arpeggios, both hands together for four octaves.  She plays chromatic scales both hands together for four octaves.   It is very impressive and remember, this girl is six and is around four feet tall.

Superhero Rhythms


We are currently studying rhythm with Year 2. I have made some simple rhythms using a theme of superheroes. I put them in the four corners of the room with a music stand in each corner and the pictures which you can find at the end of this blog post. One corner has lollipop drums, another has tambourines, another woodblocks and there are cymbals and triangles for “Hulk – smash”. Each group plays their rhythms four times, then it moves immediately to the next group that does the same and so on. I play a simple bass ostinato on the piano to keep them in time but this can be performed unaccompanied, to a drum beat or a very loud electronic metronome. After “Hulk smash” they move in a carousel to the next corner of the room until they have done all four rhythms using different instruments. The task takes about 15 minutes and is very noisy. I suggest you bring ear-plugs or headache tablets if you want a go at this activity! I am keeping the structure the same next week but with different rhythms – Transformers next time. I will keep the groups the same so the children get used to playing with one another. The week after we will go all classical and perform the names of some famous composers.

This is a good way to get children to perform together, keep in time, use a selection of instruments, read rhythmic notation, develop tinnitus and have some noisy fun. We just need a few more cymbals in the room as I am sure the Hulk would not put up with playing the triangle when he’s angry.

Feel free to use the resources below.


Spiderman Ironman

Hulk smash

Superman Batman

Wonderwoman Phoenix

Flying A Round


Continuing my series of reviewing old, yet good singing books for the Primary Music classroom.

“Flying Around” is a book of rounds.  There are 88 in all but I use only a small amount of them.  There is a good selection, with songs that could be used from Key Stage 1 all the way to Key Stage 4.  My favourites are “Make new friends”, “Canoe song”, “Sandy Mc Nab”, “Kookaburra”, “I like the flowers”, “Shalom”, “Land of the silver birch”, “Come and sing together”, “Calypso”, “Mrs. O’Leary’s lantern” and “Junkanoo”.

I use them in choir and in lessons.  I have found it works best when you physically put children into three or four groups in the corners of the music room and have two leaders for each group.  They seem to struggle with this for Year 1 but with time they get used to it, and in Year 2 there are not too many difficulties.  I normally just have two-part rounds for Year 1 and then move to three and four-part rounds for Year 2.  If you don’t have a pianist for your choir, this can be difficult to direct; this is why choir always works best with either a pianist accompaniest or a second helper.  The suggested ostinatos in the book are quite useful although I sometimes make up my own on tuned percussion. They keep the children in time as long as you have some individuals who can play well to a steady beat.

I always have a round or two in every choir practice.  It is one of the best ways to prepare children for part singing, and also is a very good way of encouraging children to sing together in time.  When they are really confident, perform them unaccompanied.  I don’t do any part singing until Year 3 when we start some simple two part pieces.  I will blog in the future about “Banana Splits”, a good book to use with material to get children into part singing.  That is probably the next step up from “Flying A Round”, although there is plenty of overlap.

Inappropriate Songs

Every now and again you will find a song in a children’s song book that you cannot quite believe is actually in there.  Sometimes it’s quite well known, you have sung it,and you just haven’t thought about the words.

Here is one I have found in the book “Apusskidu”:

A song about having lots of fun with gin and rum and how when you think it’s time to stop getting wasted you’d better have another sip from the little brown jug.

There’s even an ostinato pattern….

Beginning Rhythm

The general principle in music is “the sound before the symbol”.  Where music educators go wrong is when they just do symbols, just do sounds, or do not explicitly show how sound and symbol correlate.  So before starting rhythm work it is good to start with copying games to warm up our minds.  This is as far as some teachers go in Key Stage 1 and in my opinion, is way, way not far enough.  All Key Stage 1 pupils are capable of recognising and playing a whole variety of basic rhythms.  They just need to be taught what they sound and look like and have time to practice them over weeks with spaced practice further ahead in the school year (this goes for most stuff to do with education too!)

It is good to use instruments to achieve this purpose.  Clapping is fine but playing instruments properly is a requirement of music lessons so let’s use them when teaching rhythm.  Claves are good too, woodblocks a bit piercing, but in my experience, the best instrument to play rhythms shorter than a crotchet is the lollipop drum.


I had three lollipop drums at the beginning of the year but I managed to get the boss to buy me four more which was very useful.  Eventually I would want around 12-15 so we could do paired work with them.  

Once you can copy and play rhythms on instruments, the next stage is simple notation.  A task I start in Year 1 is the rhythm clock.  Here it is:

I first saw this on the MTRS website and I have used it in Key Stage 1-3 ever since.  I should not have to use it in Key Stage 3, but honestly so many children had not come across these basic crotchet and quaver patterns in Primary School so you have to go back to the very basics.  That’s another discussion for another blog post.  There are loads of activities you can do with the clock; recognising rhythms, playing rhythms and I get each child to play a rhythm individually and the class have to work out which one it is.  This gives me a good idea on who can do it and who can’t.  I also use it as an exit ticket to leave the classroom.  I put it on the window next to the door and say a number.  The child has to play the correct rhythm to exit.  If they do not succeed, they watch five pupils successfully do it and then have another go themselves.  Normally they get it after watching their peers.  I could go out to town and assess them all individually on this ability and then write it in their reports.  However, it’s a bit pointless because in time they all do get it and if I assess it immediately, it has no bearing if they have really learned it.  The only way you would know, is if they could do it independently at the end of the school year.  You just have to repeat the activity quite a few times in a row and then space it out over months so they have time to forget and then relearn and consolidate.  David Didau explains this very well in his latest book “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?”  The process of forgetting then relearning embeds these skills into long term memory and then it is hardly ever forgotten.

You would think that this would be easy.  There are only combinations of two different rhythms.  However, young children find this hard because it takes quite a lot of time to fully understand the difference between beat and rhythm and their concept of a steady beat is not always fully formed aurally by Year 1.  This takes time and why the first term of Year 1 is spent trying to focus on keeping a steady beat.  We call the rhythms “fly” and “spider”, the difficulty is when some children say “spider” but play “fly” – a confusion between beat and rhythm.  I tell them the “der” is as important as the “spi” but they still find it quite hard.  I have thought about going down the pure Kodaly route and calling crotchets “ta” and quavers “tee tee” – that would probably solve the problem but we learn so many rhythms using the mini-beasts such as “caterpillar” for semi quavers, “ladybird” and “grasshopper” that it is a shame to go down the dry route of “ta’s” and “tee’s”.  I might do an experiment and have one class doing pure Kodaly and one doing the mini-beasts and see which class does best in future years.

I use the lollipop drums so children can get into pairs and play the game together.  You really need to think the pairs out carefully in advance and pair up high ability with low ability.  It is frustrating for the high ability children but it’s a quickish way of getting most children to a roughly equal standard when learning to play rhythms.  I would say that it is a 2/3 – 1/3 split in most classes when it comes to Y1 and playing basic rhythms.  I also give a copy of the clock out as homework so parents can play with their children and conquer any potential beat/rhythm misunderstanding. 

Currently, I have to supplement the lollipop drums with woodblocks as I don’t have enough lollipop drums but the children find blocks a bit more difficult to manipulate as they don’t always have a handle, and every now and then we end up with a “hammer incident” when a child has whacked their fingers with a woodblock stick and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Also the hard wooden beaters can really knock out your ears with a high pitched click which is why I like the lollipop drums with the soft beaters.  I hear enough high-pitched sounds daily, which means I am probably at least half way to tinnitus.  I have completed the task with every child holding two claves each and that works fine but it can hurt your hands hitting them together all the time.  When a class exits with red, sore hands it does not look very good, even if the children have smiles on their faces.  Tambourines are a mistake as it is so much harder to hear the differences with all that shaking everywhere.  I do use tambourines but later on when we have rhythms over the length of a crotchet.

Year 1 is the right time to start as the children are beginning to learn about telling the time and clocks in general so there are some good cross-curricular links.  Most children in Year 1 know there are 12 hours on a clock and know time goes round in a circle clockwise, but it is good to reinforce these concepts.  I sometimes play the game where we play all the rhythms anti-clockwise so they understand the difference between these two terms.  Maths teachers have never complained.  I will do these rhythms for about three weeks before moving on.  Most teachers then proceed to minims.  I don’t, I go onto semi-quavers “caterpillar” first because we can use the same instruments and the same principles as “flies” and “spiders”.  I have thought about telling them the proper names to the notes and I may change my approach in the future, but currently I save this terminology reveal towards the end of Year 2.

Sing for Pleasure Books


These tiny books are actually very good.  Like all resources, some aren’t fantastic but many I use day in, day out in my lessons.  There are some very simple songs for young children, some accumulative songs, songs from around the world and there are some good rounds and singing games.  Mine came in a little file which is handy.  If you need a book if you aren’t that familiar with the song, they are easy to take with you for a reference.

Songs I use from the series:

1) Boom Chicka Boom

  • Boom Chicka Boom – all ages
  • The Hand Jive – Year 2 melody only, more parts for Years 3 and 4

2) Kumala Vista

  • Kumala Vista – Year 3 and 4

3) Tongo

  • Tongo – Year 3 and 4
  • Clap, stamp, slap, click – Year 3 and 4
  • Emmanuel – Year 3 and 4
  • Shalom – Year 2
  • Lazy Coconut Tree – Year 3

4) Popacatapetl

  • Ooo a lay lay – Year 1
  • Popacatapetl – Year 3 and 4
  • Pizza Hut – Year 3
  • A Young Austrian – Year 3
  • Young Peter the Fiddler – Year 6

5) Tall Straw Hat

  • I don’t use any songs from this book

6) Rock ‘n’ roll – a round?

  • Rock ‘n’ roll – a round? – Year 6
  • Junkanoo – Year 5
  • Waters of Babylon – Year 6

7) Lost in Space

  • Lost in Space – Year 6
  • Soualle – Year 6
  • Hewenu Shalom – Year 5 and 6

8) I’m gonna sing

  • Canon in Swing – Year 6
  • I’m gonna sing – Year 2 and 3
  • Tina Singu – Year 5 and 6

9) Ghosts

  • Ghosts – Years 2 and 3
  • Dem Bones – Year 5
  • Calypso – Years 3, 4 and 5

10) Bear Hunt

  • Bear Hunt – Early Years




I am going to review some well used singing books.  Okki-tokki-unga is a pretty old singing book by the firm AC & Black.  It’s really good for young children and probably best for EY to Year 2.  There are great action songs, counting songs and some singing games.  The full index is here:

Some songs I would not use anymore as they have smoking in, or are a bit military in nature.  Most are great.  An essential book for the music classroom.

Song Writing

I was asked by someone to get my six and seven year olds to write a song.  There are some children who can do this.  Most cannot.  Writing a song is not as easy as you think.  The way to start teaching it is to replace words to existing songs.  One way of doing this is to take a song like “London Bridge is falling down” and change the material that we use to build it up.  For example, “build it up with chocolate bars”, “build it up with teddy bears” etc.  The children love this and with one and two syllable words they start to learn about melismas, using more than one note for one syllable. 

The next stage is to replace words of an entire song to make the meaning completely different.  So instead of “Going to the zoo”, we can change it to “going into space” and change the verses to things we could find in space rather than at the zoo.  This stage is a lot more tricky for children because not only do they need to independently think of things in space, they have to make it into a sentence and then make the sentence fit the music.  This is where most children fall to pieces.  You can do a half-way activity where you give the children three sentences and they have to choose which one fits the song the best.  This gives them the opportunity to sing the sentence to the music to see if it fits.  To do this you need a good sense of rhythm and pulse and an understanding of how the first beat of the bar is stressed and it is not necessarily the first word of a sentence.  These are incredibly difficult concepts for most children and the main reason why I don’t move onto this stage until at least Key Stage 2.  This is why I believe that the main aims of Key Stage 1 music must be rhythm, pitch, aural skills and a large repertoire of known songs and pieces.  It is difficult to write songs if you haven’t experience of how songs are structured.  The more songs children know, the better their understanding of song structure will be.  

The next stage should be left to Key Stage 3 for most children.  This is to create their own music for their song.  In order to do this you need to understand melody and probably harmony.  Some children can make up an independent melody for their words but what normally happens is they sing it to an existing song but don’t realise that is what they are doing.  If you want truly original work, the best thing to do is to make a simple chord sequence and then a melody can be sung over the top which fits.  This is why a basic knowledge of chord progressions and harmony is important to be able to write good songs and why you can’t really start it until you have started learning harmony.

And this is ultimately why asking seven year old children to write a song is not only a difficult thing to do but actually an unfair thing to do, as we are asking young children to do something they are simply not prepared for.  There are exceptions, there are some children who can write a song with little to no help.  But because of these exceptional children, we think all children should be able to do this when I have just shown how difficult an activity it really is.  If you really want to teach children songwriting, the best things to do are to learn an instrument like a ukulele, guitar or keyboard and learn how to construct simple chord sequences.  I would not be bringing in proper songwriting with original melodies and harmonies until Year 9.  There is nothing to stop younger children having a go and writing their own songs but it should not be an expectation for children to be able to do this until they have a good knowledge of melody and harmony.