I have written a workbook called “Pentatonic Fun” for Year 3. It is about pentatonic scales and Chinese music. Children have quite a lot of work to complete in the workbook: Learning the words – scale, pentatonic, guzheng, pipa, dizi, erhu, molihua, ostinato, drone, solo, … Continue reading Pentatonic Workbook
A few things before I start this eulogy to Orff-Schulwerk. First, I’m calling it “elemental music” because Orff-Schulwerk has multiple problems in today’s society. It really should be called “Orff-Keetman” if you are going to name it after a person as Gunild Keetman was absolutely vital to its development and spread. Elemental music is not the greatest of terms either, but for want of a better word it’s what I’m going to go with. I’m not suggesting that elemental music is the best way or the only way to teach music well but I will be explaining why it particularly works in primary schools. Finally, I’m not setting myself up as an expert – I have done Orff Level 1 and have desperately been asking to do Level 2 but finding a course at the moment where I am is like gold dust. I am just going to write about some experiences doing this type of teaching and why I think it works well.
People are very confused about what elemental music is. They think it is something to do with playing xylophones and it’s a bit old-fashioned. That was my attitude up to five years ago and so the first thing I will say is that it is a tragedy that we have not been teaching about elemental music in Music teacher training. I heard the term “Orff” but that was as far as it went in the UK. Other countries have different systems and I think North America and Australia are quite successful but in the UK I learned next to nothing about elemental music. Even now, despite many attempts to convince Orff UK, there is still no accredited Level course. I had to go to Kuala Lumpa to get mine. What people call “Orff” can mean very different things but my trainer told me the main premises are singing using solfege, dance (both structured and free), recorder, tuned percussion and turning everyday objects into musical experiences. If I have missed any out please tell me! It is child-centred in that learning experiences are developed by children but there is a framework of teacher authority and explicit guidance. It is more sage on the stage to guide on the side at the beginning of lessons but the sage gradually disappears as the lesson develops. The basic idea is that you take a small idea and develop it, first as a whole class and then into more complex and creative ways individually, in pairs and in small groups. I have always been sceptical about the way we try to teach small group work in music as it is so hard to get right and at its very worse ends in a chaotic classroom. Orff is the only way I have successfully seen youngish children work in groups and this is due to the high level of direct teaching in the initial stages. So it both highly teacher-directed and yet highly child-led as what the children come out with at the end is often very different to each other.
Elemental music can start with any small idea. It could be a short song, a dance move, some words, a musical idea, a rhythm or even a movement using a newspaper. It’s the development of the idea that makes it interesting, creative and musically educational. I have seen so many music lessons where many of these techniques are discussed or taught but I think the reason why they aren’t as effective for younger children is because they often deal in the abstract whereas elemental music certainly starts in the concrete. You would probably not do a lesson on “ostinato” in an Orff-based classroom but you would certainly have ostinato in it. There are learning objectives but in a typical lesson you would be developing so many at the same time it probably would not be beneficial to write them all down. This is one of the criticisms of this type of music lesson, as Orff-Schulwerk is not a curriculum but an approach to teaching music. It certainly does get progressively harder but proving it is quite hard – we can produce detailed lesson plans, intentions and predicted outcomes but when you are starting with a small idea and developing it, it doesn’t always come out the way you might expect or intend. And that is why it is creative and possibly why so many teachers and managers are scared of it in today’s classrooms with insane levels of teacher accountability.
I will try to go through a lesson I did the other day that was successful. I didn’t even teach it that well and mixed up some of the steps but the children still came up with some stunning performances. I used the Nigerian (or possibly Sierre Leone) peace song “Fungai Alafya” and we started off by singing it by rote. When they got the hang of the melody I moved onto a djembe and stopped singing so they were pitching by themselves. We then sang the whole thing using solfege and hand signs (that they are used to) and commented on why the two phrases end differently. I thought of using the words “cadence”, “perfect” and “imperfect” but decided not to – we will do that another time! We then moved onto playing the whole melody on tuned percussion. We are fortunate to have enough instruments for one each so this wasn’t a problem. Some practitioners would possibly have put an additional stage of body percussion in but one of my weaknesses is that I get a bit impatient so dropped this to get to the instruments quicker. We then proceeded to learn a type of drone using two notes, what we call a bordun. We learned three types of bordun where I played the melody and they played the bordun and vice versa. I then split the class into two (by houses as we have a four house system at our school) and had half playing the bordun and half playing the melody. The point of this is to get two parts working simultaneously without teacher assistance. The next step was to make up two ostinati that would fit the melody and bordun. There are two obvious examples and some children put up their hands to suggest them. I then had them in their four houses doing either an ostinato, the melody, the bordun or the other ostinato. Now we had four parts working well together we explored structure and played some different arrangements of the same piece, perhaps starting with the bordun, or repeating parts or having a symmetrical structure. This has all resulted in a very high level of teacher direction almost entirely led from the front. It is only then that I put the children into groups where they had to make their own arrangement of “Fungai Alafya”. Using the Class Dojo group function it immediately put the children into groups of four and they all made their own arrangements. The only new thing I added was that one of the members of the group had to play a djembe drum. All the different performances were all different but used similar material. There were no problems with keeping time with one another, they needed no assistance to play together and they all organised themselves with no teacher assistance. We listened to all the performances and gave praise for all the really good bits of each performance. The children were very encouraging of each other and I just loved how the whole class came together in appreciation of each other. This is community music as far as I am concerned. Next week, we will do the same activity but add improvisation and canon as well as recording and assessing. The task will be to make a longer arrangement of “Fungai Alafya” but it will need to have a new ostinato, a section for improvisation and a surprise. The surprise could be anything but it needs to be surprising!
It’s so hard to grade this type of work for each child and it really does not fit with many of today’s assessment systems. Yet children performed, created and responded to so much material in an hour’s lesson. I think the reason it went really well last week was because I just got the balance right between teacher direction and letting go. Too much teacher direction results in too much scaffolding, leading to less opportunities to be creative, Too much group work results in poor performances and lack of direction. And that is why I think elemental music is so powerful – when you get it right you have a balance that is truly creative and educational yet within a boundary enforced from the teacher.
I won’t just teach elemental music in my lessons. Children still need to learn theory, perform music, learn about music from different ages and different places, compose music on their own and use music technology. But in terms of learning, I would argue that what is known as “Orff” is probably the most effective way to bring musical creativity into the classroom for young children.
In the music classroom we regularly ban songs. If there is a single swearword we ban it. Sometimes we will change a word and get away with it, like a couple of years ago when we sang Radiohead’s “Creep” but making sure we used the radio edit version. Some secular schools ban religious songs and some religious schools ban secular songs. You won’t get many church schools singing “Imagine” by John Lennon and you won’t get many secular schools singing “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb”. Gameplan has banned a whole load of songs with racist connections recently and there are websites and Facebook groups telling you which songs are racist and which ones aren’t. Even if a song doesn’t have any words it can be controversial like the BBC’s decision not to sing the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” at “Last Night of the Proms”. So the first thing I will say is that if any school or institution is being blamed for “banning songs”, this is regular and normal. It’s not weird or woke – it’s standard practice.
So we go onto the argument from authority – who decides which songs get chosen and which get banned? Normally you would say it is the person who chooses the music. This is not always the case. Sometimes it is the class teacher, the headteacher, a director, parents, sometimes children themselves. Sometimes it does not have to be someone who is alive! We had an annual “Last Night of the Proms” concert at my old school in Thailand where the mainly Thai children sang the chorus of “Rule Britannia”, whilst waving Thai and British flags. It did seem a little bit weird to be doing this in Thailand but the authority in this regard is tradition. Tradition can be an authority that transcends living leadership. We can forgo our own authority and defer to that of what has been done before because it has always been done. As soon as the decision to put on “Last Night of the Proms” is enacted then you are faced with tradition as authority because in many people’s eyes if we did not sing those two songs then it would no longer be what it says on the tin. Without “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” you don’t really have “Last Night of the Proms” because the songs and the event are one in the eyes of the majority of the public. If you decide to question this and ban the songs you will be chastised for being a kill-joy or a party pooper and setting yourself up as a higher authority. Sometimes you will be deemed guilty of arrogance because you have dared to question the authority of a hundred years of tradition. This is often an argument on why we shouldn’t ban songs that have been in the musical canon for centuries – why should we end this tradition, what gives us the right to be the final arbiter?
In almost every school I have worked in the issue of song censorship issue has reared its head. Class teachers are constantly asking music teachers to teach songs which aren’t appropriate that they have heard on Youtube. What a music teacher, a class teacher, headteacher, parent or child think are appropriate can be very different. Song choice is so controversial because our relationship to songs is emotional, can be passionate and because good songs come from the heart. I’ve nearly resigned from one school over Christmas song choice in the past and I have been criticised for certain song inclusion by Agnostics, Atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is not just about that divisive Christmas festival, should we sing songs for Diwali? Should we not sing at all during Ramadan? I’ve even been criticised for my Bonfire Night song by angry Catholics. (It’s a great song by the way – you can find it here.)
Personally I am just as likely to be uncomfortable and wishing to ban songs as the next person. I was very unhappy about teaching the song “Cell Block Tango” from the musical “Chicago” because it is about murdering men and feeling justified in the endeavour. “Blooming insensitive idea” goes through my brain. None of my female colleagues had any concerns about this song and actually told me that I was a misogynist for worrying about performing it in a secondary school. They used the “see the song in context” to justify its inclusion and I was won over with that explanation. We did “Chicago” and we did it very well and my female colleagues did a great job of changing the script to be a little more appropriate for secondary-aged children. Do I think we should have taught the children this song? I am still unsure – I’m not even sure we should have put the musical on in the first place!
However, my blood starts to boil when it’s the other way round and schools say they will ban “Joseph” because of its religious story. “How can you ban a story that is basically all about dreams and doesn’t mention God?” My head is now pink and my voice has started to go to eleven. “Because you can find it in an ancient religious book” is the reply. “Blooming woke kill-joys” is the murmuring comment of my indignant brain. The reality is that we are all guilty of censorship and our censorship differs because we are different. Some things affect us more than others. For me, it’s when song censorship appears in Early Years that I get most annoyed. Some schools have honestly banned “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (my daughter’s favourite song). She loves changing the colour to “green” or “pink” sheep, and as far as she is concerned it is the funniest and best song ever written. I think it even beats “Baby Shark”. Well I tell you now song-banners, the Black Sheep stays in the repertoire and if you disagree you have my three-year old daughter to deal with. And she’s cute with curly hair.
The list of racist songs that has been circulated recently is pretty incredible and long and you start thinking that every song must be racist as some are so standard in our repertoire. I shook my fist when seeing “Land of the Silver Birch” is now the musical version of “Tintin in the Congo”. Boo hiss. I hung my head at the realisation that “Do your ears hang low” is now the “Mein Kampf” of music education. Noooooooo. Sometimes I think some of these choices are justified – I personally don’t think we should be singing “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo” – I heard the racist version in the 80’s and now when a child sings it to choose someone in the playground my heart always skips a beat until I can breath easier when they use the word “chicken”. Why do I have a problem with this even though the words are changed? It’s simply because I know the racism concerning this song – I wouldn’t teach it even with changed words because in my mind it is too soon. Perhaps when I’m retired they can bring it back.
But I am a total hypocrite. Two of my favourite songs in the school music repertoire have changed lyrics – “John Kanackanacka” and “Jump Jim Joe”. Both of these are now on the banned list because they used to be racist. That is what I think has changed in the last few years. What is new is the idea that because a song used to be racist, in today’s world that makes them racist now even if the lyrics have been changed. However, in yesteryear a song was racist if it had racist lyrics. And despite my uncomfortable reaction to “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo” I think we had it right before – a racist song is simply a song with racist lyrics. I don’t want to live in a world where we can’t play “Jump Jim Joe” but I also don’t want to live in a world where our hearts skip beats with “Eenie Meanie Minie Mo”. Most the time I will just avoid controversial songs or seek out an alternative but I’m still not happy because I simply don’t like banning songs. Banning songs feels extreme and it feels illiberal. I know some people will disagree with me here but I think we have to make a distinction. For me if a song has 100% of people not knowing it was originally racist and it doesn’t have racist lyrics now we can sing it. Let’s call it “Dan’s Law” after me – I’ve always wanted a law named after myself!
In all this politicking we lose the focus of what we should be doing – teaching children to sing well. Let’s not stop children from enjoying songs that may have been racist in the distant past but no longer are. Just like a racist person can change and be rehabilitated into society, a racist song can too.
I’ve scored out the melody of Samba de Janeiro for use in music classrooms. Feel free to print out and use.
The A-Level examination crisis has been a disaster for so many young people. This really is the first entry to many careers and I would not be surprised if there was real resentment and anger to what has happened. In the end, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of your ability in March, it’s when you do those exams in June that you prove what you can do. For my Maths A-level many moons ago I got a D in my mock just before the Easter Holidays. It was fair and it was accurate and it was a good indicator of my ability. But then I worked incredibly hard, I did every single past paper for the past twelve years, I asked for help from friends and teachers, I did not go out in the Easter Holidays and I worked till midnight many nights. And I got an A. And that was fair and accurate and a good indicator of my ability. The difference was I worked crazy hard. These students have not had that opportunity and it is so unfair that their grade is based on an algorithm on how other people worked in the past at their school or college. And that is unfair, even if it is an accurate predictor. Algorithms should not determine your life.
Some people are commenting that if we went back to the old modular examinations then we wouldn’t have had this problem. But there were two main reasons that we moved on from modular assessment. Firstly, coursework was getting gamed especially from overseas and those unscrupulous students with big bank balances. A whole industry of people writing essays for you and tutors doing coursework were undermining the system. Secondly, a modular system doesn’t always lead to good learning – some people like myself take a bit longer to learn things but it all comes together at the end after a lot of work and practice.
Like in my previous post, the answer I believe was to postpone everything just like they did in China with the gaokao. Most of the A-Levels courses had already been completed by March. All we needed to do was give students a bit more time and then complete their examinations normally. If you can’t socially distance an examination there is no hope for us all. You would then instruct universities to start a month later and finish a month later. It was not a massive problem in China and I don’t think it would have been as hard as we think for the A-Levels.
What will probably happen is many students taking a year out so they can retake in October which is going to cause chaos for universities in the next few years with less people going now and then a massive spike in years to come. The government will be under huge pressure to reform the examination system so we will probably see more chaos for schools, as every time government reform the system it has created chaos. And the annoying thing is that all of this could have been avoided. I guess we didn’t know how long the pandemic would be so cancelling seemed more sensible to postponing. But I think it was the easy option and now we are suffering the consequences of students not being able to progress because they were not given the opportunity to prove what they really were capable of. There is no point of an examination system where students do not take an exam. Our students deserve better and no-one wants their mind to be replaced by an algorithm taking other people’s minds into consideration. It’s not human.
What a mess.
The current disaster with A-Level results is creating chaos in the British education system. I find it interesting to compare the Chinese gaokao final examinations with the British A-Level system and how both have had to cope with Covid-19. Both systems are designed to be main entry point to the university system and both hold examinations at the beginning of summer.
The main difference has been that the United Kingdom have scrapped examinations for this year but China postponed them by a month. You can argue that the Chinese had more time to sort something out as their crisis was the first to start in the global pandemic. It is also easier for the Chinese to reschedule, as all their examinations happen on two days. Instead of completing them on 7th and 8th June, Chinese students completed them on 7th and 8th July. The British system can take over a month and has many scheduling complications.
I’m not going to argue about which system is academically better but which system is easier to administer. The main criticism of the Chinese system is that it puts massive pressure on students to be ready for a specific date. If you are unwell on one of those days then it can seriously affect your future life. Another argument is that it is easier for the Chinese system to administer examinations as there is only one examination board. This beggars the question why the UK have five, even though they have 1/10 of the amount of students annually taking the examinations compared to China. There are arguments for keeping the amount of examination boards but there is no real reason why we must have multiple exam board – this is a choice, we could just have one.
There will be calls for examination reform after this current fiasco. There may be no change as we can all blame Covid-19. But we could simplify the British system so that if things go wrong it won’t adversely affect hundreds of thousands of young people. I think any system should have examinations that do not last longer than a school week. There should only be one examination board. The system should be leaner, clearer and easier for parents to understand. If the Chinese can get 10 million children to do their exams over two days, I am sure we can get 800,000 children to do theirs in less than five.
In our Covid-19 world you might not be surprised to learn that I am suffering from loneliness. My wife, three year old daughter and new born baby are thousands of miles away on another continent and we still don’t know when they can come back. Most my friends mean well but they are pretty clueless understanding what it means to be lonely. They think going for a walk on your own would be healthy and enjoyable. It might be healthy but you come back sadder than when you walked outside. Reading a book or playing a computer game does not help, it just wastes away some time of being alone. I find writing poems, or blogs helpful as you are communicating with something even if there is no immediate response back. Who knows if anyone will read this post or a stupid poem but you can pretend that someone may click on it and possibly understand what you might be going through – there is some connection. The best way to get through loneliness in my opinion is not to be lonely. This week I have jumped at the chance of cleaning someone else’s home together just because I would be able to get some interaction somewhere.
You end up doing things you might not normally do, or might even be socially harmful. It’s kind of attention seeking but if you are lonely and no-one is talking to you, spending time on the internet, asking questions, sending stupid messages, sharing Trump memes, making Twitter polls are all ways in which you actually get interaction with other people. It can be manipulative and annoying but you would think that there would be some understanding of what it means to be lonely in the wider population. The reason it can be socially harmful is you get exasperated by some people and end up doing something which is self-destructive. So, after a friend of mine made excuses for the hundredth time for going out for a cup of coffee I just blocked him on WeChat (Chinese Facebook for those who don’t know what it is but it is way, way better). The rejection is just too painful. I know he is busy and Chinese culture means people don’t pop round to people’s houses. I do get it but you think to yourself – come on man you are a pretty shit friend. You know I’m thousands of miles from my family, you’ve had yours there 24/7, you live two apartments down and don’t want to spend any time with me and this has been going on for five months.
However, in my experience and trying to be as charitable as I can, I do recognise that very few people I know have any idea what it means to be lonely and worse still have absolutely no idea how to deal with people that are lonely. If you are lonely some of the worst things you can suggest are activities that you would do alone. It seems pretty obvious, but if you know someone is lonely, it is pretty insensitive to say you should go out for a bike ride on your own. I guess people are trying to be helpful but it just feels as if you are being palmed off and pushed to one side to get things done yourself. If you know someone is lonely you don’t normally tell them to do some cooking at home alone. It’s one of the weirder attitudes that I have come across; there does seem to be this idea in society that lonely people need to become less lonely by doing stuff alone. Bonkers isn’t it!
It’s been over five months since I have seen my immediate family. Most of my other family members have died long ago and I am not particularly close to others. I have some cats to keep me company but they are not the greatest at having conversations. I tried talking to Rocky the Cat about existentialism but Rocky’s answer was to pee on the mattress and demand more food. Summer the Cat is currently gnawing my armpit. I know it is disgusting and this is not behaviour that I should be encouraging, but it’s about the only physical contact I’ve had for months. There is the internet and FaceTime but when your family is sixteen hours behind and your wife knackered from giving birth there isn’t always a good time to converse. I read stories to my daughter Miranda, it is one of the only things that keeps me going. I’m currently trying to play Civilisation on my Playstation but this does not cure loneliness, it just buys time to try to forget for a small amount of time that you really are alone.
The other thing people seem to not understand is that if you are lonely just go somewhere where there are people. Now, I am lucky in that where I live there are almost no restrictions and I can go to bars or coffee shops and I am rather good at starting conversations, although my Chinese is pretty poor. But this certainly does not cure loneliness – in fact it can make it worse because it just amplifies how alone you really are. If you are lonely, going to meet someone you don’t know does not always help.
You do feel guilty for being lonely. There are so many things I need to do. I have a bass guitar that needs fixing, a curtain pole to put up, a driving test to apply for, learn Chinese, getting all my documents ready to go to Canada in a few year’s time. But when you are lonely, these things don’t really mean much. Human beings are not designed to be lonely but we seem to have an attraction to the Lone Ranger – it seems stronger, more attractive, more capable to do things alone. I see my new curtain pole and I know that I can probably put it up myself. But if I was to put it up with someone and talk to them at the same time I would actually enjoy putting the curtain pole up. It would make me happy. Putting the curtain pole up on my own will make me sad because it will amplify the feeling that I am alone. Do I feel guilty for not wanting to put up the curtain pole on my own? Yes, of course I do – it also looks pretty bad, people might think I’m incapable of putting it up on my own. And it is pretty pathetic to ask someone for help just because you want to have a conversation but not tell them the real reason why. But it’s even worse to tell people the real reason why, because it is not socially acceptable to be lonely – it’s considered weak.
Other people may have another idea which is understandable but not actually very helpful. They may be aware that someone is lonely and think the solution is to get loads of people together and do something en masse. Now, I can’t speak for other people but I don’t think I am talking rubbish by saying you can be lonely in a large group of people. The old adage, two is company, three is a crowd is pretty accurate, although I find three is OK but four is crap. Many lonely people will still jump at the chance of interacting with multiple people but in my experience it is the face to face contact and sharing between two people that is most valuable and takes away the feelings of loneliness. And the feelings do subside when you are spending time with someone, it is therapeutic and it is helpful. That’s not to say a night out isn’t something to look forward to, it is but probably won’t stop you feeling lonely.
When I lived in West Wales I spent quite a lot of time with an 80 year old lady called Wally who lived in a cottage near me. I was only about 13 at the time but I used to sell duck eggs to her. She probably didn’t even eat them, it was an excuse for me to talk to her. She told me all about going to the Savoy in London and seeing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with the D’Oyley Carte company. She introduced me to some great classical music that she had recorded off the radio – my first hearing of Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” and Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto came from Wally turning on her tape recorder. She was lonely but I really enjoyed spending time with her. Something I find hard to understand is that some people don’t want to spend time with people who are lonely. I guess there are lots of busy people out there but I really enjoyed spending time with lonely people. Having grown up with my grandparents and spent a lot of time with pensioners, I think I do understand what it means to try to be with people who are lonely. Trying to speak Welsh to my next door neighbour Doris (which I was terrible at) turned into listening about what the village used to be like fifty years ago and it was fascinating to talk to someone who genuinely had never travelled further than Swansea in her life and married someone from the neighbouring village. Talking to lonely people is reciprocal, it’s not one way therapy and does not need to be burdensome – it’s a relationship.
But we do get the idea that loneliness only applies to old people and this is a myth. When I was in West Wales there were no other kids my age around and I would spend many days on my own. Some people think it was idyllic – climbing trees, making dams in streams, making dens in the bracken – but when you are on your own these things aren’t always that great. I would have been much happier playing the Sega Megadrive or piano duets with a friend. It’s not the silence, it’s not the lack of things to do, it’s a feeling. It is difficult to describe this feeling – some people say it’s an empty feeling but it isn’t exactly like that for me. For me it is a sadness, an insignificance and a feeling of being a problem that needs to be solved rather than a human being. I would like to think that we all get this feeling from time to time but I am not so sure – one thing I can definitely say is that it affects some people deeply and some people barely seem to mind. I hate being alone, I have never wanted time to myself or “space” and I don’t want to feel guilty for feeling this way. It’s just the way I am and I am past lying about my feelings in an attempt to be socially acceptable. I don’t think there is a cure and I don’t think that learning to spend time alone is the answer. Quite simply I like spending time with people and I don’t like spending time on my own.
Anyway, this post has not been easy to write. I guess if it does any good, just have a think of who should be lonely under these crazy circumstances and who might be lonely. Just a message, an invite for coffee or even time weeding flowers together could help someone feeling sad.
Freddie was born yesterday! Here’s a little song I wrote to celebrate his birth. When he’s older he will get to play it too. I am getting it written out by a professional calligrapher as a baptism present. We did the same thing when Miranda … Continue reading Freddie’s Melody
My first memory of music is from 1981. It was my mother playing “Macavity” from the musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber on a record player. I remember it being the most awesome thing I had heard in the world and I can even remember where I was standing in the room. Next to a stone statue of Gollum that held up the door with Faramir the Cat purring on the settee. My next memory was children’s TV. The music of the program “Rainbow”, and “Blue Peter”. And the haunting music of “Tales of the Unexpected” which was scary with that silhouette of the lady dancing as my mum and auntie played cards.
My first experiences of music in school (that I can remember) were also from children’s TV programs. I am sure my early teachers from Selwyn Infant School in Plaistow sang to and with me but my first memory of music in school was watching Playschool on the big TV that was wheeled in. I also remember watching Sesame Street on the big television. I think I must have been about five or six years old then.
We also sang. I remember being at the back of the hall and being unable to read the words from “Water of Life” (from “Come and Praise” – still used in schools). This was a big deal and a life changing moment as I was told I would need glasses. A decade war with authorities was about to start because I absolutely hated glasses and refused to wear them. We also learned “When a knight won his spurs” – my favourite song, it had such a beautiful melody and the words were all about giants and dragons. I had to learn it by repetition – we did have an OHP but I couldn’t read the words as I didn’t have any glasses.
The first musician I was introduced to was a man called Elvis Presley. I don’t remember ever listening to any of his music but in the flat opposite mine there was a guy called Big Tim who had a kid called Little Tim. I used to roller skate around the flat landing with Little Tim and sometimes go into their flat. I remember loads and loads of picture frames with this Elvis guy holding a guitar. He looked a bit weird. No one dressed like that in Plaistow. I remember being told that Elvis was very important. He must have been – why else would you have twenty pictures of him up on the wall?
My next experience was the recorder. I was given a free recorder (I was on free school meals) and inside was a piece of rolled up paper that had the notes written down. I was good at reading so I taught myself to play B, A and G. I remember thinking that G was incredibly hard and I knew I should play it with three fingers in my left hand but it was much easier to play it with two in my right and my pointy finger in my left. I then remember getting told off for bad technique. Recorder was fun, I really enjoyed playing this and making spells in the playground with my friends as I told everybody that I was a warlock. All the boys played football, but that was pretty dangerous so I tried to hang around with the girls. Only one liked me, a girl named Kelly Hume. She had red hair and lots of freckles. I am sure I was about seven because I remember being disappointed that ladybirds had six spots and I was seven so I no longer aligned with ladybirds.
Next was the violin. We were never allowed to use the bow but that didn’t bother me as I loved plucking the thing. It’s probably why I really enjoy playing the bass guitar now. I got to have group lessons on the violin because I was on free school meals. I do remember how cool it was to be allowed to leave lessons to go to this special group. We were taught to play with fingers 1 and 2 and my violin had stickers on it so I knew where to put my fingers. I never got to 3 because my world was turned upside down as my mother was ill and went to live in a hospital and I went to live with my grandparents in West Wales. I remember leaving the flat on the 13th floor for the last time and waving goodbye to Big Tim and Little Tim. I never saw them again and never went back to Plaistow until leaving university.
The cockney kid born in the sound of Bow Bells had a difficult time transitioning to life in Wales and it wasn’t just my accent that was a bit out of place. We had some lessons in Welsh, we had to learn our times tables in Welsh as well but we did have violin lessons like before and I was still on free school meals. I even got to use the bow this time. What was best about living in Wales was the space to run around, I spent many hours outside on my own making up stories about a land populated by ducks and teddy bears. I made maps of my world and I can still write it down. What annoyed me the most was this stupid birthday cake that the teachers brought in when it was someone’s birthday. It was the same cake every time and you couldn’t eat it. I think it was made of cardboard. Why would you celebrate someone’s birthday with a fake cake? And then we would sing “Penblwydd hapus i chi”. Singing was good and it was kinda cool to sing in a different language but I was always baffled why everyone thought this language was incredibly important but no one spoke it to each other.
But the big deal now was this strange new word I’d never heard before – practice. Practice was when you had to play violin EVERY SINGLE DAY for half an hour. And if I didn’t play I got no food. The fights we had always ended up with me losing because I liked food and I worked out that although I blooming hated getting the violin out, tightening the bow and resin-ing it and having to cope with playing the thing even though it was out of tune, once I had it out it was OK and bearable. My grandmother never watched me play but guarded the door so I was on the room on my own for half an hour every day. I had to rely on working things out for myself because I was given relatively no guidance. It was a good thing I was a good reader and it was good that I had a violin book to take home.
Although I was not happy with the violin, there was something new to me in the house – a piano. My grandmother had a honkytonk old ship’s antique piano in the house and had the John Thompson books, a book called “The Jolly Herring” full of folk tunes and some funny songs and a Christmas Carol book called “The Easiest Christmas Carol Book”. The first piece I learned was “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”, which my grandmother taught me by rote. That was the first and last time she taught me anything. The next thing I learned was “March of the Gnomes” from John Thompson 1. I was pretty good at playing C but it was a bit strange why the book kept on telling you to play with both of your thumbs. Why not just use your right hand? So I always ignored the fingering, right from the beginning. This is why my technique is very bad.
I was pretty motivated so I got through the whole of John Thompson 1 pretty quickly and I took the book with me to visit my mother in the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. I even played some piano duets with a nurse while my mum watched, she wrote me a letter saying how proud she was of hearing me play.
I then got onto John Thompson 2 and remember getting half way through and realizing I could go no further. Because my technique was bad I just couldn’t play the pieces and I was getting bogged down with key signatures. The next thing I did I think was incredibly mature of myself as I was only about 8. I decided I had to go back to John Thompson 1 and play it properly and read the instructions carefully. This meant playing “The Sea Bees’ with the left hand and not just using one finger. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to never give up. I think it comes back to this moment in my life. I have taught piano for over twenty years and I have used many different books and made my own ones up as well. For really bright kids, Michael Aaron is really good but I’ve found that everyone seems to go back to John Thompson. It’s old but it really does work. For primary kids I normally do John Thompson 1 & 2 and half way through 3 then go straight onto Grade 1. For secondary kids I normally do Michael Aaron 1, half way through 2 and then on to Grade 1. John Thompson does have an emotional hold on me, one of my Year 4’s was playing a piece for an audition this year and I immediately remembered it as “The Giant Steps” and smiled. I remember what I thought was astounding creativity because you could actually put your left hand over your right one to play. It’s only broken chord arpeggios but it had quite an effect on me.
The reason I think didn’t find it too hard to learn piano on my own was because of the violin lessons I was having at school. I cannot remember learning how to read music but I do remember learning “Every Good Boy Deserves Football”. The most important thing was having the time to think and when you were on your own for half an hour with your instrument, there was plenty of time to think. I was getting pretty good and I was playing some pieces from the “Jolly Herring”.
On the 30th November 1986 I was told by my grandmother that we were going to London. We nearly missed the train from Swansea; it was moving as we jumped on. I saw my mother in hospital. She was on a ventilator. I gave her a lamp that I had weaved from weaving class. My granny gave her a white winter’s rose. We left the hospital, I saw my auntie Carol but my gran said we had to go. I remember walking down the street from the hospital wondering if I said goodbye to my mum. I am sure I did but I can’t remember doing it. We got back to West Wales. I went to bed.
The next day I went down to play the piano. My gran came down and said she had some bad news. I said that I knew what it was and that my mum had died. She nodded. I turned the page in the book and played “In the Field of the Willows” on the piano. I think I played this every day for the next ten years that I lived in the house. I still cry every time I play it now. No one gets over losing their mum. I was only eight years old. A few weeks later it was Christmas. I got three presents from my mum, a tape recorder for my ZX Spectrum, a beautiful rainbow colored teddy bear and a violin. The violin was more important to me then.
There was never any music in the house in Wales apart from me playing the piano, the violin and the recorder. My grandparents didn’t listen to music, and the only sounds I heard most the day were the “pips” before the news on Radio 4 and the theme music from “The Archers”. There were still TV programs and the theme music from Ski Sunday, Match of the Day and Test Match Sunday were great before Grandad would watch the sports on the BBC. My favorite theme tunes from when I lived in Wales were “Lovejoy”, because of the sound of the harpsichord, “Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds” and I remember being quite taken aback with the music from the BBC series “The Tripods”. This had really weird synthesized sounds, and sounded like it had come from out of space.
We had a record player at home but I was never allowed to use it. The record box had some classical music, some musicals and some really weird people who were white but were in blackface. My grandmother had about six albums by the “Black and White minstrel band”. I never got to hear any of these records until I was about sixteen when my grandparents were out for the day and I was home alone. I never heard any pop music at home or at school. I was not allowed to watch “Top of the Pops”.
I then found an instrument somewhere in the house. I can’t remember exactly where I found it but it was a mixture between a piano and a recorder. It was called a melodica. I played it in my bunk bed and experimented with strange chords. We had very thick walls so it didn’t matter how loud I would play as I wouldn’t disturb anyone. I remember playing it one day and telling myself I needed to remember this moment really carefully for the future. Basically I forced myself to remember a moment in time when I was just staring at a bookcase holding my melodica. I had the melodica until my second wedding day where I played with a sea-shanty band at my own pirate wedding. The melodica is lost somewhere in Bermuda where I was living but it had thirty years of being played. Hopefully one of the children in the pirate choir that sang for us might have picked it up and is playing it now.
Well things got a little bit more exciting musically because I made a new friend called Matthew who lived in a farm about a mile away. He went to church so I got to sing in church for the first time. And this was mega cool because the songs were groovy and there was a lady called Geraldine who played the guitar. The best song was this new one by a guy called Graham Kendrick called “Shine Jesus Shine”. We sang this on repeat every Sunday and people would clap their hands and then there would be dancing and then this huge lady would fall over and then loads of people would start praying over her. Then this weird angelic singing would start called “Singing in Tongues”. It sounded a bit like a mixture of something from a monastery, and saying the word “banana” backwards. It got louder and louder and then would calm down. Everyone held their hands in the air. I sometime joined in the handjive but I never succeeded in the tongue-singing thing. I’ve found out it’s called glossolalia. These strange happenings occurred close to every week. But then we got to play on the swings outside Abercych community hall and go back and play on the Commodore 64. Church was something I looked forward to every Sunday. My grandparents sneered at me for going as they were staunch atheists but I loved singing and Graham Kendrick and Ishmael were writing some mega anthems. And after church we would have shared lunch and farmers cooked really good food. Especially pies. They also had an old honkytonk and a typewriter. I spent hours of time playing church worship songs on the piano, and typing inane rubbish on a typewriter that didn’t actually have any ink in it.
Computers was the next musical thing for me because I was programming my ZX Spectrum to make music, using the command “beep”. I composed my own pieces and got it to play “Ode to Joy” through painstaking trial and error. I learned a lot about pitch and duration from the Specky and how it all worked mathematically. It also improved your aural skills because you had to really check if the sound you programmed was the right one.
Recorders were still a big thing and I remember getting annoyed that I had to play second recorder in our recorder group because I didn’t know how to play B flat. I quickly learned B flat so I could play “Patapan” in Cardigan Primary’s Christmas Concert. I think I also played the violin in an ensemble because I remember going to a room where one of the kids could play “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. He was amazing. I remember thinking how incredible it would be to play like that. I also heard Cardigan Secondary School’s Orchestra and this had a major effect on me. I was absolutely stunned by the sound. Ever since then, the sound of an orchestra is one of the only things that makes me cry.
And that was the end of Primary School for me because my grandmother announced that I was to go to Llandovery College at the age of 10. I never completed Year 6. The summer holiday I picked up stones in a wheelbarrow, picked raspberries in the garden and picked out tunes from”The Jolly Herring”. I was pretty confident musically. I was nowhere near the best at music in my class but it was something that I knew I was pretty good at.
I am currently writing a new musical about Æthelflæd the Warrior Queen of Mercia. It’s still in it’s first conception but I’ve written about five songs and dances and nearly completed the first draft of the script. It is to be a school musical, for … Continue reading Æthelflæd the Musical