Month: October 2016

Ukulele v Guitar



I have now been teaching guitar to Year 5 for the past half term and I can give a bit of feedback as to how it is going and how it compares to the ukulele.

The negatives to start with.  First of all, the guitars have been a nightmare to store as we haven’t quite got the storage right in our school.  The carpenters will be building us a guitar storage rack over half term so this problem should be sorted relatively soon.  Secondly, the guitars have been a nightmare to tune as there are six strings and there are 28 students in each class.  I have started to only tune the first three as we have only been using them to play simple chords.  Thirdly, the majority of the children tried and failed to play the simple D chord as they found it way to difficult to put a three fingered chord shape on the guitar.  I tried to simplify the process to get D into three stages but that didn’t work either.  Perhaps if we plug at it every week we might make some progress.  I remember it took me about three weeks to perfect the D chord. Fourthly, there have been some difficulties with physical space as children are too close to one another and cannot hear themselves play.  There is not much we can do about that – the room is too small.

The positives.  Firstly, 95% of the children can play “Yellow Submarine” using simple chords C, G and G7 and sing at the same time.  There has been a definite improvement in attitude and attainment since we had “Yellow Submarine” as the assessment task – they seem to be taking it more seriously and the few students that were treating the guitar as a toy are now treating it as an instrument. Secondly, differentiation is easy in guitar lessons – the extension activity is to play full chords rather than the simple versions.

I still think ukulele would be better for Year 5 than guitar.  It would be easier to store and tune and it would be easier for children to take home and practice.  The chords are about the same difficulty but you get the satisfaction of playing all the strings rather than just three.  It would also take up less space so guitars won’t be bashing into one another and each child should be able to hear themselves play more clearly.  And they are easier for small hands to hold.

It’s a closer result than I thought it would be.  I would say it’s 2-1 to Uke United.

The Northern Lights



I wrote a song a few years ago to fit in with my Christmas musical “Polo’s Christmas”.  It is about the Northern Lights and is suitable for Key Stages 1 and 2.  There is nothing religious about the song and it can be used at any time.  I’ve enclosed the vocal track (thanks to Megan who sang this when she was 13), the backing track and the printed sheet music.


Slithering Snakes


I have created an original piece for our Developmental Orchestra.  It is designed so all our musicians can have a part that they can play.  The First Access students who are learning clarinet, violin, cello and trumpet all have a very simple piece using only a few notes so they can join the Orchestra.  The other parts are designed for those working around Grade 1-2.  The Audio is taken straight from the computer notation package Sibelius where I composed the music.

The scores can all be found in this pdf file:


If you would like to try this piece out you are very welcome.  There are another 9 pieces to follow in the coming months.

Three Singing Pigs


This is a continuation of my series of useful books for Primary schools.

Three Singing Pigs is a great book of stories by Kaye Umansky that are designed to be performed with instruments and singing.  They are aimed at Key Stage 1 pupils but some can be used in Key Stage 2.  I have used some of the stories as a one off lesson and used some as a performance piece for a whole term.

The best stories for music in my opinion are “The Awongalema Tree”, “Tiddalik”, “The Hairy Scary Castle”, “Treasure Island” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”. I have done all of these successfully with both Y1 and Y2.

This is a great book for those departments that sadly have few instruments but a random collection of odds and ends that make sound.  But it is also great if you have a wide selection of instruments – these stories work with whatever you have.

There is enough material for at least half the year and anyone teaching Key Stage 1 music ought to have them by their desk.  There are some others in the series “Three Tapping Teddies”, “Three Singing Pigs”, “Three Rapping Rats” and “Three Rocking Crocs” but this is probably the best of them.

Distractions and thought

I have been re-reading Dan Willingham’s book “Why students don’t like school” and thinking about distractions and general thinking in the Music classroom.  If learning is about transferring knowledge and skills from working memory into long term memory and memory is the residue of thought, then we should be concerned about what can distract us from thinking in Music lessons. And the answer is, an awful lot.  

My main worry is group composition in lessons.  Sadly, there are so many possible distractions that group composition can be incredibly unfocused.  And in many lessons the composition part can take up the majority of the time.  I have seen students (in my own classroom sadly and in others) spend time thinking about their hair, someone else’s hair, what’s happening tonight, what happened last night, why it is unfair that Sonia has the bass drum, why it is unfair that Sonia cannot work with me, why it’s unfair that Sonia has Heidi in her group and she can play the piano so they have an unfair advantage.  You get the idea.  You could say that this is simply poor group work but I can assure you that if you have more than three groups composing together in a room or in separate rooms, there will be students thinking of many, many other things that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter when you are not looking.  It’s human nature and you probably did the same as a kid if you were put in a similar situation.  You can probably still get composition work done but there is an opportunity cost – the time you have spent cannot be given back, and we already have little time in Music lessons as in most schools we only see the children once a week for 45 minutes to an hour.

Paired work is often a lot better as you can bounce ideas off one another and not into the group void.  Individual work is probably the best for thinking but for some students that struggle, it can be useful to have some input from another person.  Subsequently, I try to cut down the amount of composing in lessons unless it is done by individuals and pairs.  Sadly, so much of the current Music curriculum is geared to compositional group work and it is still seen as best practice even though many students are simply not thinking about music in music lessons.

Willingham says that the most important principle for teachers to think about is what the children will be thinking about in whatever activity you are doing.  And if there is not much thought going on then it will not be remembered and therefore will not be learned.  Good learning requires deep thinking with ample time for practice.  An example of how to make a task which has substandard thinking turned into one with deeper thinking is with copying rhythms.  Music teachers often start lessons with copying rhythms and these can be fun and motivating but actually there is very little thinking going on.  The teacher claps, the children copy.  A better activity in my opinion is the “forbidden rhythm” where if a certain pattern is played by the leader then the children have to put up their hands rather than copy the rhythm. This is better because the children need to be thinking to themselves what the forbidden rhythm is and constantly compare it with the current rhythm being played.  If it is not the forbidden rhythm then you can copy it, but if it is then you have to put your hand up.  So it’s actually a form of comparison and not simply copying, which requires a lot more thought.  

The other major distractions in Music lessons are the set up of the rooms themselves.  Even if you are the most amazing teacher in the universe, if your room is an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure then you are competing with visual and audio gluttony.  The kids see the instruments and want to play them.  Perfectly natural.  But are they focused on the lesson?  Probably not, through no fault of anyone really.  This is why I think we need to spend a lot more time thinking about the set up of our rooms and the storage of instruments.  Currently in my classroom we have some guitars around the room and as soon as one falls over it is domino rally.  And any learning goes out the window when you see twenty eight guitars cascading around the four corners of the room.  We desperately need a storage solution, either racks or guitar stands.  Not just because of the guitars going constantly out of tune but because the distractions are not good for learning.  

And that’s kinda the point of school.