Category Archives: primary music education

Help! I have to take a whole school singing practice!

If you have any musical experience (or perhaps if you don’t and are the last one left in the staffroom when the head calls in!) it usually falls on you, at some point, to take a singing or hymn practice. This can be a whole school or key stage session and you either look forward to getting the children enthusiastic and singing, or count down the days in your diary with an impending sense of doom! If you are confident and have the skills to lead a musically rewarding activity then great! If not you might find these five tips useful if you are ever called upon.

Tip1

Grab the children’s attention straight away! I find the less talking the better and I recommend either starting with some fun warm up games (there are plenty available online) or finding a popular hymn and getting everyone singing. If you have a pianist or keyboard player on your staff to help you then I would definitely suggest taking them up on the offer so that you can direct from the front and provide the enthusiasm and motivation. Keep the children seated and it is a good ideas to encourage straight backs with legs crossed and hands on knees.

Tip 2

Choose your material carefully. There are lots of great hymns/assembly songs available that are catchy and modern and many have instrumental backing tracks the children love to sing along to. There are more traditional hymns that may complement your repertoire but some I don’t find suitable, not only because of their high vocal range, but the difficulty of the words. You will need to look at any of these carefully and decide whether they will encourage good singing, regardless of the message, or put the children off.

Tip 3

Prepare for the ages of the children. This is really important because most hymn practices involve the whole school and it is one of the few instances where differentiation according to age is important to avoid any disruption. By choosing the right hymns/songs you can cater for younger and older children at the same time. Look for material that has a fairly simple chorus and several verses so that you can get younger children joining in with the chorus only and the older children can sing the verses in between. Some songs even have the opportunity to add simple actions which always goes down well.

Tip 4

Get a bit of light-hearted competition going. You could split the children into two or more groups with all ages included, and get use some friendly competition to encourage good behaviour and singing. Try and involve any members of staff who are sitting in with you to look out for children who are trying hard and singing their best. Give out rewards for children who are trying their best and if you have a whole school reward system then this can work really well too.

Tip 5

Keep up the pace. It is really important not to spend too much time on one particular hymn or song. By all means sing one through in its entirety but choose an aspect such as the chorus or verses to work on to improve the vocal skills and diction. I usually have a few ready, perhaps more than I need, and judge how things are going to see if I need to move on to another one. You might want to do the same.

Well I hope that these tips have been useful. It’s great to see and hear a room full of children all singing their hearts out and being part of a whole school family. Music is one of the few subjects that can do this. Please feel free to add more ideas in the comments section and have a brilliant hymn practice!

Where Will It Lead?

Primary teachers do such an amazing job and I became one as I really wanted to get in at the beginning of a child’s educational journey. I remember my own introduction to music happened quite by chance when my father spotted a single manual Phillips organ at an Electrical Trade Show when I was about 7 years old. There were several free lessons if you bought the keyboard and I remember being a bit non-plussed about it but agreeing. Who would have known that this small decision would lead to university degrees and a long teaching career! Luckily I was also supported by some great music teachers along the way and a brilliant Leicestershire County Music Organization http://www.lsso.co.uk/ that gave me some fantastic opportunities.

So I’m saying to all primary teachers that they really do hold the keys to children’s futures and that the smallest comment or decision they make can have far-reaching consequences.

One great example that happened to me was when I was getting ready for a concert in St. David’s Hall in Cardiff with about five hundred primary children taking part. I needed some large percussion such as timpani and tubular bells and these were brought over from the store room in a van that I had hired. I was busy sorting stands and raising and lowering bits of stage when a tall boy came over and said hello. I recognized him vaguely and he reminded me that I had taught him about ten years previously. We had a nice conversation and I asked him how he came to be moving the instruments for me. He replied that he was just helping out to get some money as he was going away to music college the following September. It turned out that he was intending to study percussion but the interesting point of the conversation which stopped me in my tracks was this… he told me that his love of percussion had been set in motion by me giving him a small drum part to play in a school concert once! Well, this took a while to sink in because who would have thought that such a tiny, seemingly insignificant act could have resulted in a lifelong love of music and a possible career.

These are the things that make teaching worthwhile!

We often get bogged down in paperwork, marking and all sorts of other time-consuming activities but let us remember how important our jobs are in nurturing future generations and giving them the love of music that contributes so much to becoming a well-rounded adult.

It’s Time For us to Part! (or… when to start part singing with your primary school choir!)

Part singing comes in many forms and in this blog post I hope I can draw on my many years of experience to give you some useful ideas to encourage this important musical skill.
This type of singing develops the children’s sense of pitch and their listening skills, helping them to identify and follow specific musical lines within an entire body of sound. If any of your children take vocal or instrumental exams this will definitely help them in the aural tasks as well as making them more rounded musicians. It will also improve listening skills and generate growing confidence in their performance.
Like many of you, I begin each school year with virtually a new choir, as Year 6 children go off to their secondary schools and others leave and new ones join. My main objective at the start it to get a cohesive group whose voices blend well when singing in unison (one part). This gets easier as your choir becomes more established as you will have members who return from previous years with good vocal skills already embedded. In the warm up I use lots of singing games that reinforce a good sense of pitch – such as follow my leader; where the children copy what I song and do and I take extracts of songs we are singing and focus on tricky intervals (melody jumps). I usually let the choir give a public performance singing in unison first (generally around Harvest time) and the success of this gives them the confidence to attempt more challenging repertoire as the year progresses.
To introduce part singing I begin with simple, fun rounds which I use in the warm up (try A & C Black ‘Flying A Round’ book and CD or resources on the internet such as https://www.totalchoirresources.com/getting-ideas/ ). I begin with only two parts until these are well established and then move on to three and sometimes four parts depending on the ability of the choir that year. I sometimes develop these into performance pieces if the children particularly enjoy them, by alternating unison and part singing and sometimes adding a simple drone or ostinato (repeated vocal or rhythmic pattern). I also vary how I split the choir into groups for variety. I will split the choir in half with one group on the left and one on the right or I will split according to lines ( I generally have three lines of children arranged according to height in a semi-circle).
With other songs I may add a second part for just the final note by adding a note a 3rd above and this creates a lovely effect that works particularly well for slower songs or a quiet ending.
Another technique is to have one part humming the melody while a second part sings as normal, and although this isn’t strictly two part singing it can work very well in quieter lullaby-type material. In the Welsh song ‘Suo Gân’, for example, it gives the vocal line a delicate, calm sound.
Next I look for opportunities for some sort of echo (imitation) within a song. Think of the song ‘I Have a Dream’ by ABBA where each line is repeated or ‘When I Grow Up’ from the musical Matilda where the voices repeat the words and the rhythm. I try to find other songs where this technique can be used.
Finally the next step is to develop independent vocal parts. This can be done during choir rehearsals, giving time to each part, but I find that better results are achieved if each part is rehearsed separately at different times. If you have a colleague who has some vocal or musical experience who can help you then it may be possible to spend some time apart during your main rehearsal and then meet to combine the parts.
I hope that this has given you a few ideas to develop part singing in your choir. Remember to start simply until your children grow in confidence and become secure in their pitching. A few added notes here and there and possibly a little bit of echo (imitation) will enhance your performance and really make a difference to the vocal and musical skills that you are developing. Please feel free to get in touch if I can help in any way. Happy singing!

Have ‘Phun’ with Phunky Pharaohs!

Phunky Pharaohs!

Take your children back in time to the great age of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs… BUT… with a ‘phunky kinda pheel’!

Your children will love this new song about Ancient Egypt from Primary Songs which is packed with snippets of information ripe for further research, and they will delight in the rather interesting method of extracting the Pharaoh’s brain!
Whether you want a brilliant new song to support your Ancient Egypt topic or simply one that your children will have ‘phun’ singing, here are a few tips to get teaching right away!

1. Use some of the names as a warm up
You can use the rhythms of some of the more interesting Pharaoh names, such as Tutankhamun, Rameses and Takelot, not only to practise their pronunciation but to get mouth muscles moving, good breathing and posture, ready to start singing. You could set up a repeated pattern and change from one word to another or give words to different groups/rows and layer them.

2. Listen to the vocal track
Get the children enthusiastic by letting them listen to the vocal track. This track is sung by ordinary primary children who enjoy singing and is deliberately not perfect so that your children can relate to them. Unfortunately with some songs children find trained adult voices rather funny, so my intention is to make the vocal tracks of the songs more relatable. I also find that children want to move when they hear the track, which is great and gets them wanting to sing it.

3. Start with the chorus
There is nothing to say you have to start at the beginning of a song! The chorus is catchy and a good starting point, alternating between two notes with some repetition. It also uses part of the harmonic minor scale that is a popular feature of Eastern-type music.

4. Move on to the verse

Once the chorus has been mastered, you can then move on to the verse which also uses features of the harmonic minor scale. It is a good idea to take make sure that the first words at the start of each verse are in time, so I start by counting the children in until they know it well. Also it is useful to practise the notes G A> B and C D> E separately as these can be quite tricky intervals to pitch.

4. To sing or not to sing the 3rd verse?
The third verse uses a different melody to introduce lots of Egyptian Pharaohs with really interesting names! Some will be familiar but most not. This is a great opportunity for the children to carry out their own research on these historical figures but also a chance to have fun with the words when singing the song! Listening to the verse on the vocal track might help with the pronunciation and also fitting the words with the melody, but if you are teaching younger children, you might wish not to sing this verse and use it as an instrumental instead. Your children could make up their own movements, as mine did, and have lots of ‘phun’!

5.The last note!
At the end of the song the last line ‘Boogie down inside a pyramid’ finishes on an E two notes above middle C. If your children are good singers they could aim to use the E an octave and two notes above middle C if they want to be adventurous and end on a high!

So have lots of ‘phun’ singing Phunky Pharaohs and let me know how you get on. ‘Pheel phree’ to send a tweet or an email – I love to hear!

5 ways to get more boys singing in your choir!

boys-singing

Motivating boys to sing has always been something of a challenge  for music teachers and you often see more girls than boys in primary school choirs. As a primary teacher running a school choir, I have tried a number of schemes to encourage boys to participate and generally find that the following points help to redress the gender balance. I do audition for the choir as I believe a high standard of singing adds prestige, especially when taking part in community concerts and events. However, you may wish to adopt a less formal approach to your choir and run it more like a singing ‘club’ – this could be a whole blog post in itself!

I have used the following points over the years to help improve the gender balance, but please feel free to comment and add your own.

1 PLAN CHOIR TIME
Perhaps the obvious one is to try and find a time slot for choir rehearsals that doesn’t conflict with other extra-curricular clubs or take away too much play time. Many boys participate in sport (as do many girls) and I have found that unfortunately, with a few exception, most boys will tend to choose sport over choir. It may be worth meeting with colleagues to plan a timetable for extra-curricular clubs that reduces this conflict of interests. Children enjoy a good run around (except when it’s wet!) and I feel it is a shame to deprive them of this when they have been working hard in class, so I try not to use play times for rehearsals unless absolutely necessary.

2 CHOOSE YOUR SONGS CAREFULLY
The material you choose to work on with your choir is extremely important in order to keep up the interest and retain children throughout the year. I look for current, popular songs that fit within the vocal range (roughly B below Middle C to C/D above) and I also write my own as, after twenty-seven years experience, I think I have more of an idea as to the sort of music children enjoy singing! Not surprisingly, some popular songs are actually quite difficult to teach as well as sing, so it is really important that the vocal range is suitable and the rhythm is not too complicated. Boys, in particular, find it a bit embarrassing if they find that the pitch is too high, and they can sometimes be put off by this, so it is worth considering carefully. I am lucky in that I have a colleague who plays the piano for choir but I like to use backing tracks as well, as this can really lift a performance and provide a great instrumental and rhythmic accompaniment. However, some backing tracks are not suited to the appropriate vocal range and can cause some difficulty. There are programs such as Audacity (free to download) which can alter the pitch but usually altering more than a few semitones can result in distorted playback – not good for performances! Songs on the Primary Songs website that I have found boys particularly like are: Gladiators! Rockin’ Romans and When You’re a Kid in World War 2.

3 PUT BOYS TOGETHER
If possible I always try to put boys together when I decide where everyone is going to stand. I usually have three to four rows according to height, putting the tallest of each row in the middle and tapering off to the sides. I try to keep the children together in a block rather than spread them out as this improves both the sound and gives them more confidence. I tend to use height as a rough guide because I like to put boys either in twos or threes within a row rather than have them on their own. This has the advantage of creating new friendships and giving them more of a sense of belonging and greater confidence.

4 RAP AND BEAT BOXING
Many boys consider Rap and Beat boxing to be ‘cool’ and therefore if you can encourage this and utilize it in your choir it really encourages boys to participate. I discovered recently that we had a Year 6 boy who was amazing at beat boxing who was hidden under the radar. Incorporating talent like that into your choir could really improve your recruitment of boys. I have also thought about changing the name of the choir to make it more attractive to boys. I know that ‘rock choirs’ are very popular with adults at the moment so perhaps calling your choir by a more interesting name could be beneficial.

5 MALE SINGING ROLE MODELS
The majority of teachers in primary schools are female and therefore it is so important to provide good male role models for singing. You might have male staff members who enjoy singing or who sing or play in a band so perhaps you could persuade them to perform in an assembly or concert with your choir. Living in Wales we have a strong choral tradition  which includes Male Voice Choirs, and my school choir has joined with trained singers on a number of occasions for charity concerts, giving the children a chance to hear, talk and work with them. I would definitely encourage this if you have a vocal group in your community that you can establish a link with. In addition, it is worth contacting your local secondary school as it might be possible to invite former pupils, or boys who sing and perform, to come to your school. It could be something informal such as letting them come to perform during a choir rehearsal or perhaps helping to generate interest with a session for the whole school. If you have the technology, why not show examples of male singers during assembly time or during class. There are plenty of great videos on YouTube, covering a wide range of musical styles, that could be used for discussion and really inspire boys.

I hope I have given you a few ideas to think about if you are trying to recruit more boys into your choir. Please feel free to share any of your own thoughts and ideas so that we can continue to develop great singing in our schools.

Great songs that primary children love to sing!

As a practicing primary teacher I’m always on the lookout for great songs that inspire children and enhance their learning. There is nothing better than seeing children’s faces light up with enjoyment and personalities coming to life with the right song while, at the same time, knowing that learning in other curriculum areas is taking place.

Until fairly recently, finding suitable songs meant a visit to the local music shop (or 20 mile round trip in my case!) and browsing through various compilations, collections and musicals, or trawling through publisher’s weighty catalogues. Sometimes I would strike it lucky but most often than not I would end up buying a book of songs and only using two or perhaps three songs.

Throughout my teaching career I have always written my own songs (I twice reached the finals of the HTV Carol Competition having just started teaching) and since then, many colleagues have told me over the years that I should get them published. However, with the demands of teaching I just didn’t get round to it.

With new technology together with the internet I really saw the potential for my songs to reach a wider audience and after collaborating with a colleague a few years ago to create ten successful songs in the Welsh language for primary teachers in Flintshire, Wrexham and Denbighshire, I was inspired to explore this new exciting direction. I had an enormous amount of fun composing new songs, re-energising some older ones and creating backing tracks as well as converting them into digital format using mp3s, PDFs and PPTs etc.; so that they could be instantly made available via download. And that is the essence of my website; fun songs that children really enjoy singing that support important areas of learning and are instantly accessible, with everything a teacher needs to give a great performance!

You don’t even need to be a music or vocal specialist as all songs come with audio tracks of the piano accompaniment if you don’t have a pianist, and more songs now have audio tracks with vocals to either sing-along to or to help you really get to know them before you teach them.

So as my first blog post comes to an end I look forward to providing you with an ever-growing selection of great songs written especially for primary aged children. Please let me know your thoughts about them and although I have lots of ideas buzzing around in my head, I always appreciate any suggestions for new material.