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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!

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!

 

Prepare your Primary School Choir for Christmas!

bryn-coch-choir-christmasChristmas in July? Well that’s par for the course in the world of primary teaching! Preparation is everything if you want to fit Christmas into an already hectic curriculum! I usually start to think about Christmas in the summer holiday and my family get a bit disturbed hearing the strains of various Christmas songs wafting through the house when the sun is shining (hopefully!), there are umpteen lawn mowers going and there are no more choc-ices in the freezer!

When I start to put a programme together I like to combine traditional with modern on a roughly 50-50 basis to make sure that the children are stretched musically and that they become more familiar with traditional carols, which many children these days seem not to be aware of. I like to include some unusual songs that perhaps other choirs might not attempt – for instance, ‘When Christmas Comes to Town’ from the film Polar Express and ‘Once Upon a Christmas Song’ by Geraldine McQueen aka Peter Kay which went down a treat one year. My school choir also goes out and about in the community to entertain various groups of people so I tend to make sure there are always one or two ‘sing-a-long’ songs, which go down well.
My experience has taught me to start with a song that grabs the listeners’ attention and this is particularly important when performing outside. I remember starting one performance with ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow’ just as a snow machine whirred into action (something we weren’t aware of at the time!) – it really helped to create the atmosphere! The backing track I used had a very good introduction which also made a difference and brought more people to listen.
If you have a pianist to accompany your choir then you are lucky and it’s great when your choir is performing in a school hall or concert venue. However, using a piano outside school can become more problematic. I have taken keyboards with me in the past but these days I prefer the reliability of a CD player/PA system and backing tracks. Although there is less flexibility in the performance itself, I find that the reduced stress more than makes up for it, and primary children generally rehearse to a set pattern of performance which gives them greater confidence.
So, how do I create my ‘playlist’? Well, I begin by searching the plethora of Christmas songs, both audio tracks and sheet music to determine those songs that are within the most suitable vocal range for the children. This can be very time consuming as there are many styles and often many keys that one song can have. I either write my own songs (all of the Primary Songs Christmas songs are in a suitable vocal range!) or arrange my own versions of the songs I want if I can’t find any in suitable keys. This becomes slightly easier with sound editing programs like ‘Audacity’ (free to download) where the key can be changed up or down a tone or two without losing too much quality. There are karaoke versions of many Christmas songs but I try and make sure that they have a definite ending rather than a fade out, as I don’t like to use these in performances. I also might edit a song if it’s too long and I have even added a key change or removed one if I thought it would be more appropriate for the children!
When I am happy with the song selection I save the playlist in a program like ‘Power2Go’, where I can easily access it and change the order if necessary and then I am ready to go!
Christmas is a great time of year for music and singing in primary schools and it can really bring a school together in a shared experience that no other curriculum subject can achieve. So I hope you enjoy your Christmas preparations if they are part of your school and please feel free to leave a comment or message if you think this has been useful or if I may be able to help you in any way.

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.