Category Archives: primary teaching

How to ‘sneak’ more music into your classroom!

10 'sneaky' tips.

Just a quick blog post as September is such a busy month! Hopefully like you, I am a little bit biased when promoting music in primary education, but it doesn’t take many years of teaching to realize that all teachers have their own specialism and want to promote their subject. It is only when you come to look at the timetable that you wonder where all the time is going to come from to fit it all in! From SATs to new initiatives it seems to be quite a common occurrence to reduce the curriculum and music, and the arts in general, seem to be the first to suffer. This is such a shame as there is a wealth of research into the physical, psychological and social benefits of a musical education.

With that in mind I have put together 10 short points to ‘sneak’ more music into your school day! In other words, times when you can include some aspect of music in a cross-curricular way that you may not have thought about before! If you do use some of these already then, congratulations – you’re well on the way to providing a well-rounded education for your children. Please feel free to add any ideas of your own in the comments section below.

So here they are, in no particular order:

1.Play music as the children enter the classroom (or even during wet play!) – this could be topic-related or from a particular composer or genre. I often use YouTube videos so the children can see instruments being played and performers enjoying making music. I also use this to promote good male role models for both singing and playing instruments. For instance the Piano Guys, 2cellos and Mike Tompkins have great videos.

2.Sing the register! You could sing a simple melody and the children could respond, by imitating, with their name. The same can be done for dinner registers too!

3.Use extracts of music or current songs to give the children instructions such as when to move places to find a different partner or for a particular job, such as moving to the next activity, tidying up or getting into line. Some teachers use a tambourine or maracas to do this but why not an actual piece of music? It is also a very good way to save your own voice!

4. Use simple, short motivational songs and the beginning of the day and calm ones at the end.

5. Play music on an interactive whiteboard or computer to stimulate discussion – pick a composer, topic, style or music about an event. The children could then contribute their own ideas and perhaps make a collaborative wiki or PPT!

6.Make a song part of your topic. The teacher Ashley Booth has done this successfully with ‘River of Dreams’ as part of a topic on rivers.

7.Use songs to reinforce subject content. For instance, I have a new song about to be added to Primary Songs called ‘Can You Feel the Force?’ with lyrics including the important scientific concepts we teach about forces. It’s one way to make it fun and provide another learning style.

8.Play music while the children are working and use it to manage the emotional atmosphere of the classroom. – calm to get them settled and energetic to get them moving and motivated.

  1. Use music as writing prompts or to set the atmosphere. The ‘Jaws’ theme springs to mind when trying to get the children to understand the idea of suspense. Discussing film soundtracks and the mood set can really help children to transfer these concepts to their own writing.
  2. Get the children to create jingles for persuasive language – great if you have access to ipads with GarageBand or similar. Why not add sound effects to written stories – such a lot of fun and can help with sequencing.

Well I hope you find this short list useful and whatever you do to ‘sneak’ more music into your classroom – have fun!

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!

Link

So… you want to start a choir?

You may have highly trained musical skills or you might have been caught humming on the way to the staffroom! No problem! If you are thinking (or it has been suggested to you!) of setting up a choir in your primary school, where do you start?

Well, in the twenty-seven years that I have been working with primary school choirs I have put together seven tips that, I hope, will be of use to you if you are setting out on this rewarding journey.

First of all, why start a choir in the first place? There are numerous scientific and psychological studies that show music and singing to be very beneficial to the development of the human brain and also for the social and well-being of children. At the same time it can improve confidence and boost the school’s standing within the community.

  1. Decide whether you are going to have a choir that is accessible to every child who wishes to participate or whether you are going to audition. The size of your school will sometimes decide this for you as, in smaller schools, you might want to get a decent sized group to begin with and work to improve the vocal skills of all the children. I would suggest a minimum of about 20 as this can give you a decent volume and the children will feel more comfortable and less exposed. If you are going to audition, I suggest using ‘Happy Birthday’ as most children ‘know’ it already, so there’s no need for any additional preparation, takes little time to sing and is very revealing in that usually it is only the best singers who can pitch the octave jump in the middle correctly! I always tell children who are not successful that they are on my ‘reserve’ list and to keep singing as much as possible in class. It works in the same way as, for example, the football team – all children play as part of their PE lessons during the year but not all are selected for the school team.
  2. Will you have help or go it alone? You may be the only person able to work with your choir and that’s okay, but if there is a pianist/keyboard player available, or another staff member willing to help then I would definitely suggest accepting their offer or doing a bit of persuading! Aside from the musical aspect of accompanying the children, an additional member of staff can help with settling, organising and taking registers. They are invaluable if a child becomes unwell or needs attention as this allows the rehearsal to keep going!
  3. Decide when you want to rehearse. There are often many factors to consider but the main one is whether you want to rehearse during school time or after school. If you have a decent lunch break then, at least, you know you are likely to get a good turnout but you may have other priorities such as marking or preparation. I find that after school works best when there are fewer distractions and more rooms available, but I do use break times and lunchtimes if a performance is approaching. As long as you keep a register of members and parents/carers are made aware of the collection point after rehearsals then this is the option I go for. Sometimes there are clashes with other extra-curricular activities so this is something that you will need to consider very carefully if you want to have a good turnout every week.
  4. Decide the length of your rehearsal. Again this might be dictated by time constraints, but I usually aim for between 30 and 45 minutes with a quick ‘water break’ in the middle. if there is a performance approaching then I do sometimes extend to the hour but I find several shorter rehearsals can produce better and more focused singing if you are able to ft them in.
  5. Establish a routine. I find that the choir children respond well to a routine just as they do for you as a class teacher. Tell them where to put their coats, whether they can keep a bottle of water with them (I sometimes find this distracting – so I plan a few quick ‘water breaks’ during rehearsals) and where to stand. I usually arrange the children in three rows according to height as, I think, this looks good visually and is fairly easy to organise. If I do any two part singing I split vertically so there is a left and right group, but I do sometimes split according to rows if there are three parts!
  6. Always start with a warm up. Trained singers often suggest that your warm up should be about 30 minutes but I find that five or ten minutes is sufficient for the length of rehearsal I do. There are many warm up games you can buy or download. (see Pinterest, outoftheark.com) I often take words or musical phrases from songs to be worked on in a particular rehearsal and develop them as a repeated pattern. The children also like more physical activities like ‘Chewing a toffee’ where they pretend to chew the stickiest toffee to work the facial muscles – it always results in some great expressions and a few laughs!
  7. Choose your repertoire carefully. Make sure that you engage your children from the start. I always make the first song a fun, easy-to-learn song so that they leave that first rehearsal with a sense of achievement. I usually aim to develop a good sense of pitch and ‘singing as one voice’ through unison songs (one part) and then I progress to more demanding ones, extending to two parts or more during the year, depending on the ability. My wife has a small choir in her school and finds that letting the children suggest songs (which they tend to take from the latest chart hits) helps with retention and keeps the motivation and enthusiasm going!

The famous saying goes – ‘The longest journey begins with a single step’ and you just need to get going and enjoy the many delightful (and sometimes frustrating!) aspects of the journey ahead. Have fun and remember that you will be inspiring children to develop a love of singing and music and maybe you’ll make a few lifelong memories along the way!

 

Life is a song – sing it!

bryn-coch-choir-bryn-yr-haul-care-home-christmas-2016

The spirit of Christmas arrived for me a couple of Mondays ago at 2.30pm, give or take five minutes! Yes, we had some great concert performances by Foundation Phase and Key Stage 2 but the real magic of Christmas descended when I took a group of 16 Year 6 and Year 4 choir children to perform a selection of Christmas songs for a group of elderly residents at a local care home.
Sadly, the success of primary schools (and, of course, secondary) is constantly judged by the data requested, but in this instance, no amount of data could reflect the warmth and sheer joy created in that twenty minute performance. The look on the faces of the children showed their genuine delight as they sang their hearts out with ‘Let it Snow!’, ‘Little Donkey’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. The audience, some of whom were initially quiet and sedentary, suddenly came alive; tapping their feet, clapping along and grinning from ear to ear. It was as if time had been suspended and nothing existed outside of this magical bubble of humanity! At the end of our performance, the children were encouraged to mingle with the residents and wish them a ‘Happy Christmas’. Some, it has to be said were quite reluctant at first, but after a few minutes they were moving around from one resident to another like a game of musical chairs that they would inevitably play later in the week.
And so in that one afternoon an opportunity was presented to contribute to the true meaning of Christmas by joining hands across the generations. ‘Music speaks when words fail’ is a saying that sums up the occasion and I urge all schools with a choir to get in touch with local care homes, day centres and community organisations. As well as providing opportunities to perform and develop their vocal skills, your children can give so much to the wider community in ways that, sadly, cannot currently be measured by Ofsted/Estyn, but nevertheless enriches the lives of all in so many ways.

Have a great Christmas!