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Class Assemblies

I have had the opportunity to sit in many, many assemblies over the last twenty years and I have found that class assemblies can be stressful, fun, educational, boring, inspirational and bizarre amongst many other adjectives. It’s really interesting to see what class teachers come up with and I find the most successful ones are when I can collaborate well with the class teacher.

In general you have the distinction between the abstract assemblies and the topic assemblies. Both can be great but I much prefer the topic ones that are normally on subjects such as the Ancient Aztecs, Volcanoes or Under the Sea. Abstract ones are more about values such as community or teamwork. I think the reason for my preference is that primary aged children respond much better to concrete topics whereas abstract is really quite hard for the younger students to understand.

School leaderships seem to value the abstract assemblies the best as they tie in nicely with PSHE and this is invariably delivered through the assembly program. Also abstract assemblies are often a lot cheaper and less time intensive. It is a lot cheaper to do an assembly about responsibility rather than make props for Thor’s hammer and dress up Cleopatra. And if you are lucky enough to have a TA they don’t have to have a week off creating Asgard. However, when I talk to students in secondary schools and adults about their class assembly experiences it is these prop and costume-heavy assemblies that they seem to remember. I have heard colleagues saying this is a waste of time and effort and not good for children’s learning. I would dispute that – you shouldn’t really put a price on a child’s memories. So many of us remember what we were in the school nativity (I was a cow one year) and it would be shame to banish these memories in the name of efficient learning.

The Creative Arts side of the assemblies is what I am most interested in. Much of what I have seen is beyond my abilities. I once saw the most incredible International Fashion Show that must have taken a lot of time and effort. It did help that the class teacher was fantastic at this sort of thing and it really helps to work to people’s strengths. I did a class assembly yesterday with a guitarist teacher and together we did a great song about dinosaurs that the kids loved singing. They sang so well because the teachers were passionate about performing. People are mirrors and enthusiasm is catching.

I have some rules about class assemblies that I think can be helpful for everyone. Firstly, each child must say something, play something and sing something. The parents coming to see the class assembly have often taken time off work, have had to reschedule appointments or even rearrange childcare for younger siblings. They have come to watch their children, their eyes are not on other children – they are on their own. If a child has spent the assembly doing nothing we haven’t just let down that child, we have let down the parents too. I always tell the children that this is our way of giving back something to parents for all the lovely things they do for their own children. Kids don’t buy expensive presents for their parents but they can give their time and their enthusiasm as a gift – parents have memories too. The other thing I try to insist on is to use recorded music as sparsely as possible. Getting the children to produce the music for the assembly is better than subcontracting it to Jack Johnson. And if you are going to do a song by Jack Johnson, don’t use the song track – the parents have come to hear their children sing, not the voice of Jack. A school I used to work at blanket-banned backing tracks and it worked very well but it does mean that you do need some instrumental expertise. Sometimes the kids themselves can accompany but remember that accompanying is a very different skill to performing – kids who are amazing at playing solo aren’t necessarily the best at accompanying others. The other rule I have, that I know is controversial, is that a class assembly really is not the forum for learning a song. Class assemblies aren’t a vehicle for showing the process of learning, they are about a final product – the end of a journey. Teaching a song that kids don’t know in an assembly is fine but not really the place when parents have come to watch their children perform. I know some educators won’t agree with this!

Covid has had an appalling effect on the performing and creative arts. You would think that school leaderships would now be investing in music, drama and dance because of the missed opportunities. However, the bonanza in the arts is not happening as schools seem to be saying that the kids have missed out on academics and we need to bring them up to standard. I understand this but I do think it is wrong. Throughout history when times were hard and even when music and art were banned, the human spirit rebels. During the Stalinist purges with the execution of musicians and composers for wrong-think, music did not stop. Sometimes like Shostakovich, music is quietly put in a drawer but it should not remain there. As educators we need to stop and think about what has value, as well as what children need to be able to do in order to pass an inspection. Class assemblies are something that need to come back if they were taken away and be encouraged rather than diminished. I guess as a music teacher I have a bias towards the arts but I do think that we all know deep down that we have undervalued this part of children’s education and I encourage you all to set aside the maths and English for an hour or two and bring creativity and joy back into our schools. Put on a class assembly if you can – you won’t regret it.

Jump Up High

Here is a simple Orff piece to learn to play music in ternary form. There are multiple ostinati as well as the melody and accompaniment. I have tried to make Section B as contrasting as possible to Section A with different instruments, dynamics and articulation. Feel free to download and use for your own classes.

You can find the MuseScore link here.

Donkey Riding

I’m probably not the only person who thought the song “Donkey Riding” was about the sort of animals that young children ride by the seaside. It’s actually a Sea Shanty about riding one of these machines in the picture – a steam donkey. Currently this lesson is in my “Animal Music” Year 3 unit but I will move it to my Year 4 “Sea Shanties” unit not only because of the subject matter but also as it is a fraction too difficult for the Year 3’s.

The problem isn’t the music, it’s actually the partner pat, clap and patch movements. The kids in Year 3 are finding this very hard and I think that Covid has had its effect here – social distancing has meant that kids are not used to touching one another so they simply have no idea how to do clapping games with one another. I am pretty sure two years ago I could have done this sort of activity with Year 2’s but now it’s going to have to be moved to Year 4 because kids are really struggling to do simple patterns.

The kids love the movements and the song and it works very well as a simple keyboard or recorder piece. I’ve arranged it for all our musical groups but you are welcome to download it and arrange it yourself from the score here:

https://musescore.com/user/7014231/scores/7425413

Happy Donkey Riding!

Twelve Days

If you need a quick school orchestral arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas – look no further! You can also find it on MuseScore here

Back to Thailand

We are going back to Thailand for another contract but at a different school. For the first time for many years I will be teaching every year group Music from Nursery to Year 6.

I’m going to spend more time this coming year on Book Reviews and developing Orff in the classroom. I’m finding that teachers are becoming very reliant on the internet for resources and don’t know where to find sheet music for a song or activity. I will be making more backing tracks using Logic, more arrangements on MuseScore and I am also going to make some quality class assemblies. I think all these things will be practical for teachers worldwide.

I will also be sharing some of my own experiences using the Model Music Curriculum. I have started making a set of PowerPoints for assemblies that use the MMC. There is great repertoire in this document and I will be trying to get the best out of it.

Finally, I will be finishing off my musical Aethelflaed. I have about four songs left to go but a script to write. I am also hoping to join a choir and a band – two things I have missed in the last two years.

I hope everyone has a great start to a new academic year!

Electro Rondo

I’ve been playing around a bit on Logic and I have made some backing tracks for my Year 3 Rocking Rhythm lessons. The children move around in a carousel learning to play four different rhythms that we learn to read using standard Western notation. They start easy with just one bar ostinati but then progress into two bars. We use normal classroom percussion instruments, about 6-8 children in each team and when we have played the music we move to the next station and learn a new rhythm. It’s a fun way to play and learn the basics of reading and performing rhythms from notation. Watch this video to give you an idea of how it works.

Leaving China

After four years I have left China at short notice. I had a new job lined up at an IB school in China starting in August and was excited to start this new curriculum. But after sixteen months of not seeing my family and being told that the authorities were not going to even consider letting dependents in until February, I decided our Chinese adventure was at an end. So I am writing this post on the plane back to Vancouver.

It was a great four years but honestly the first two were the best. The things we achieved in those first two years were quite amazing. I wrote a pirate musical for Year 1, we put on loads of shows, events, competitions, bands, recitals – basically we made so much music. The last two years with a different manager were not as satisfying, as the focus switched away from performance to curriculum but that did mean I was able to finish my Key Stage 2 scheme where we have six units for each year group with a workbook, six powerpoint files and a medium term plan. These 24 units meant we moved away from presenting a Music curriculum to the children doing a Music curriculum. In the past, some children could coast through without paying attention, but the addition of the workbooks meant kids had to think harder about what they were doing.

I have no idea what to do next. I have a young family who need me and it looks like I will need to do something different. Currently its looking like remote piano teaching so we are looking at moving to New Brunswick where the time zone could make this possible as most my clients would be from China. I would consider another international Music job but realistically in the current climate it is going to be very hard to find one where they can afford to hire a teacher with three dependents. If you can, get in touch!

The last thing I will say is how much I love China, the language, the culture and the people. This place is absolutely fantastic and I know I am going to suffer from reverse culture shock when I get back to West. I hope one day to come back.

Multitrack GarageBand Project

Our students have finished their multitracked GarageBand project. I have permission to use this piece by one of our students and his parents so we can see how he has got on.

This child is ten years old and previously, like the rest of the class he has done a sequencing activity on the iPad multitracking a medieval melody. So he has had a bit of experience multi tracking. So I think it is safe to say that this is his second or perhaps third multitracked piece.

The task was to make a 24 bar multitracked piece of music with at least five different parts. One is a drum part which he didn’t have to do much for as the loops automatically write themselves! He then had to make a chord sequence using the chords C, Am, F and G and using the autoplay, put this onto guitar, bass, keys and strings. He also had to make a live ukulele part using the four chords that we have all learned. Finally he had to create a pentatonic improvised track using a keyboard synth sound. And to finish he had to mix it, do some panning and then upload to Class Dojo as a screen recorded video. Here’s how he got on:

It’s not bad for a ten year old beginning to use GarageBand. I gave him so feedback on Class Dojo that I think he needed to work on the beginning and ending and tidy it up. I haven’t taught the children about quantising yet. In fact I would prefer not to so they can play things in more accurately! He gave in about three drafts before running out of time so the ukulele part is a lot better than it was – his first attempt resulted in a quizzical look from myself and an acknowledgement that he was going to have to do it again! He also had forgotten the pentatonic melody the first time. I think he did quite a good job of this as he is using the keyboard function on GarageBand and not an external keyboard. It could definitely do with a bit more accuracy, especially with the timing.

It’s definitely a task I would like to keep in Year 6 – the six week unit was called “Chordal Chaos” and the students responded very well to the instructional videos that I made. We have one more unit in six weeks time on the Blues and we will do one more similar task to this and I think that will be the one we will give into his secondary music teacher so she can see at least one of the creative tasks that he has done in Primary School as part of our transition. I think we will spend a bit of time on texture and form as that was the weakest feature of all the students. But to be fair to them I never specified that as success criteria for this task.

If you would like any more information on how the students did this task then have a look at the instructional videos here, here, here and here.

Transition

I work in a 2-18 school and currently teach 6-10 year olds Music. The main transition point for us, like most other schools is between Year 6 and Year 7.  I have had many great secondary Music colleagues but interestingly not one has asked for any data about the kids I have taught, even though I have been teaching them for about five or more years.  This isn’t because my colleagues don’t care but because they are totally unused to receiving anything in the past.  When I do give them information they are normally taken aback and they feel I have gone above and beyond. I just want to share what instrument each kid plays and a bit about whether they were in the choir or orchestra.  It’s great when colleagues are interested because I love talking about our kids musical achievements.  It’s why we became Music teachers in the first place!

On Twitter yesterday one secondary Music teacher was mocking the Model Music Curriculum’s transition ideas.  As far as she was concerned, this could jeopardise a successful start to the year as it would label children to who were the “musical ones”. I find this really hard to understand.  Surely if you are a secondary Music teacher you would want to know who plays what instrument, what standard they have got to and see some of their creative work?  But I think there are still many colleagues who have this reductive attitude that I experienced in my first secondary school twenty years ago that “they don’t know anything so we start again in Year 7”.  It was only when I left that school and went on supply that I saw some fantastic things going on in primary schools and some of the great opportunities that music services were doing. So good I ended up joining one.

I don’t want to make extra work for anyone but I really think we need a better transition in most places.  It is expected that in most schools something will be handed up to colleagues on their ability in Maths and English. We need something in Music.  The Model Music Curriculum’s has this:

This seems relatively sensible and uncontroversial. The practicalities might be a bit more difficult as many secondary Music teachers could have 120 or even more pieces to listen to.  That’s an awful lot of “Ode to Joys”!  But I really do believe that something is better than nothing.  The advocates for a fresh start in Year 7 are being quite disrespectful to the work we do in primary schools. We know these kids can play and compose and it would be good for you to know what they have already achieved.

Some other ideas that I have seen work are concerts where the secondary Music teacher was invited. However, almost every time that I have seen this mooted it has ended up in a cancelation. I guess it’s either negotiating cover with leadership teams or going to evening concerts. As some secondary schools have over ten feeder schools that would be a lot of concerts!  It therefore makes sense to record something or encourage the children to show something musical that they have done in primary school when they first arrive in Year 7.

My school is affluent and has iPads for every Year 6 student and what I am going to suggest to the boss this year is we share the children’s Year 6 Garage Band sequencing projects and get them to record themselves playing or singing anything on their iPad either as a solo, as a duet or small group. I will encourage them to make it the most challenging thing they can do, not just Twinkle Twinkle! The children are used to uploading their work to Class Dojo so all I need to do is make a folder and save the projects for the handover. I will also share my markbook with the new teacher if she wants it, which includes all the instruments they play and what groups they joined. Hopefully it will ensure a smoother transition.

I really do feel that this transition is extremely important. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen the numbers but I remember the horrifying statistics on those children quitting instruments in Year 7. Hopefully things are better now but I think it is fair to say that there was a big dropoff between Year 6 and 7. Let’s try to do something for transition but please don’t mock the Model Music Curriculum for actually having the guts to suggest something. Let’s get behind the spirit of the idea, if not the letter – what we have now is far better than the vague and unambitious one page A4 document that we have been dealing with since 2014.

Repertoire Lists

The Model Music Curriculum’s biggest controversy seems to be the repertoire lists in Appendix 2. There seems to be many people who dislike the idea of a repertoire list for a number of reasons. There are those who think it is authoritarian to have a list; there are those who are politically suspicious that a repertoire list is a method to enforce a certain style of cultural politics on young children; there are those who think there are serious omissions on the list and there are some who disagree with certain choices of music on the list. There are also a vocal group of people who think that the curriculum should just be about skills and any repertoire is at the discretion of the teacher. Repertoire shouldn’t even come into the discussion as far as they are concerned.

I really like the list, not because I am trying to indoctrinate children into a political cult but because I respect the people who have made the list and I know how much work and discussion has gone into many of the choices. I am now listening to the Australian contemporary composer Elena Kats-Chernin and her ballet “Wild Swans” as a result of the list. I posted one piece called “Glow Worms” on Wechat Moments (similar to Facebook) and my Australian friends were delighted because they thought she was only known in Australia. I would probably never have come across her music if it wasn’t for the MMC. I would have been one of those people who hear it and remark it is from a famous bank advert, rather than know anything about this beautiful work.

My biggest problem with those who are venemously against the repertoire list is that without consulting others, any content becomes quite a selfish endeavour. We should listen to experts who work in the cultural sectors and it does not just need to be those who work in schools or in the universities to choose good repertoire. I am all in favour of a grassroots sharing of good practice but it does not mean we have nothing to learn from composers, radio presenters, famous performers or even the head of an examination board.

The repertoire list is useful, not harmful. Let’s get behind the Model Music Curriculum.

Model Music Curriculum

The Model Music Curriculum has arrived and already sparked debate. I want to talk a little bit about curricula in general and why this curriculum is practically useful.

To start with we need to be mindful that in primary schools, the majority of music teachers are not specialists. Everything we say about this curriculum needs to be understood within this context. The reason we have this new model curriculum is because what we had here was not working for many schools. It wasn’t working because there was no content and was incredibly vague. Here is the entire curriculum for Key Stage 1.

Compare the National Curriculum of England and Wales with the Alberta, Canada curriculum and you will see two completely different approaches. The Alberta curriculum carefully lines out what needs to be taught and when. This is just a snapshot of one element, rhythm and there is much more that I have not included.

Now I can understand the Alberta system because I am a trained music teacher. But for many teachers in the UK – much of this is specialist knowledge. This sort of curriculum is simply not going to work with non-specialists who probably have no idea what a fermata is. What the teachers in the UK were crying out for was content.

Because they needed content, the market provided. Music Express was the market leader and you probably have these books somewhere in your school.

There is nothing wrong with these books and I still use quite a few ideas from them myself. But children were coming out of the system into secondary schools who knew very little about music. It was not uncommon for secondary teachers to say that they had to start from scratch in Year 7. The majority of children did not play a musical instrument and Music was certainly not considered an important subject, more as a relief from the pressures of the big two – literacy and numeracy. And the government has rightly realised that schools should not have to buy into the market and so has specified content in the Model Music Curriculum. This seems to be the most controversial aspect of it but to me it seems to be very practical help for a workforce crying out for guidance.

And it is not only non-specialists. I work in a large school and we have multiple teachers teaching the same year group. So when we plan lessons, I plan Year 2-4 and my colleague plans 5-6 but we teach classes lessons we have not planned ourselves. Having done this for years with multiple people over multiple schools, I have found that they rarely read the medium term plans – what they want to know is the content. They love the workbooks I have made and they make their own themselves. Often they ask for PowerPoints for each lesson or to know what the end goal is and work backwards from there. The only person who has asked me for a lesson plan in the last ten years is my boss who I am sure rarely reads them carefully – there is so much more to have to do in a busy department. This isn’t because we are all lazy – it’s simply that the content is a lot more important than people have realised.

The Model Music Curriculum spells out the knowledge, skills and suggested content and so is a great document for specialists and non-specialists alike. For myself, what I will take from it is the huge repertoire list of Appendix 2 and see how I can broaden my existing curriculum. One thing I will criticise about myself is I can end up teaching the same content in multiple years because I know it works. This document will give me the confidence to explore some unfamiliar music and try to bring it into my curriculum to give children more breadth. It is also reassuring to know that we are on the right lines, as so much of what we are doing is in the MMC. It can also give me the confidence to defend our curriculum. Every now and then when the boss changes they want to put their own mark on what we teach or to try to tell us how we should teach. This document is empowering because I can tell my boss we are actually doing things in a perfectly acceptable way.

The word “model” in this context means “a possible and good example”. This curriculum is certainly better than anything we have had in my memory but more importantly it is practical. I don’t think the people who have drawn this up are that bothered if we don’t replicate it in its entirety; where they want to help is to get children learning, playing, creating and listening to a wide range of music and if we can think of alternatives that result in happy musical kids I am sure they won’t get angry. That is why it is non-statutory.

Let’s get behind this curriculum.

Houses

There has been quite a bit of outrage from Lee Hill’s decision to rename the houses in his school after contemporary activists instead of historical figures. Lee Hill, as a headteacher, is completely within his rights to call the houses whatever he likes (within reason … Continue reading Houses

Creating a Keyboard part in Garage Band

In this fourth instructional video into creating a twenty-four bar multitrack composition, we create an organ part along similar lines to the strings and guitar but also spend a little time on adjusting the volume of each track.

One mistake many children make when mixing is they want to hear their favourite part so often ramp up the distorted guitar part and turn a relatively good composition into something frightening and terrible! A good thing to do in preparation to this is to listen to a few modern pop songs and ask what children hear the loudest. It normally goes as follows – vocals, bass, drums, guitars, keyboards and then backing vocals in that order. So for this project I try to get them to take the guitar and strings part down by about fifty percent. This step is quite important because when you have so many layers of sound it can be difficult to hear the part you are concentrating on.

Creating the organ part is relatively straightforward and shouldn’t be too difficult as it goes along the same lines as the strings and guitar. The end of the video shows mixing the organ part so it is about the same volume as the guitar and strings but lead the drums up high ready for the next part which will be the bass.

Creating a string track in Garage Band

This is the third video in the series on creating a multitrack recording in Garage Band for Year 6 students. The aim of this lesson is similar to that of the last and is basically more practice in opening tracks, choosing sounds, choosing good combinations and recording accurately to a click track. The video is 4 minutes long and students should be able to create something decent in about twenty minutes or less.

Creating a Drum Track on Garage Band

I am making a scheme of work for Year 6 using Garage Band to create a simple four chord song. It uses quite a few of the functions of Garage Band and requires students to have an iPad with Garage Band connected. I have made some instructional videos that go with the scheme and this is the first on how to lay a simple drum track. The objectives are to make a 24 bar drum track and play with the functions to become familiar with simplicity, complexity, dynamics, percussion instruments, fills and timbre. This lesson should only take about 10 minutes to explain and less than 10 minutes to complete but I also have the following video that students can refer to if they are struggling.

We will be doing this in January so we will see what the results are like in mid-February when we finish this five week unit.

How to create a drum track in Garage Band