I am trying, with many stumbles, to provide years 3 and 4 with a music education. By music education, I mean broadly one that John Finney would recognise as such (see his blog).
Year 3 have 18 sessions with me over a year, and Year 4 have 19. It’s a half-term on, a half-term off. Sessions are 75m or 60m in length. My tools are me+my fiddle, a very experienced TA whose fear of music ed. I fight by teaching music she loves, a uke per child, a half-size drumkit (transported by official drumkit monitors) the internet, access to some orchestral instruments (ones we’ve been given, ones the children learn) and an established school-wide culture of using instruments as a means of busking along (about half of KS2 have tried out the informal orchestra at least once). The classes are very large – 35 year 3s in a room-but they have been well-taught in KS1 and have sophisticated skills in music and movement.
Music being gloriously unimportant in the OFSTED hierarchy, my first tasks in the longer 75m music lessons are getting the children changed for PE then settling them down for 5 minutes of “mental maths”. This is fun. It takes three rounds of Match of the Day or two rounds of Hall of the Mountain King (with our own words) on fiddle plus t-shirt-over-heads-humming*** to change for PE. Sometimes I play slow hymn tunes during mental maths too. But the music education feels as good when I instead prowl round helping with the maths, calling like a rag and bone man for “mathematical musings, mysteries, manifestations”, drilling down to show how you play with the centimetres and metres until they become things that can relate to each other, dissolve into each other – taking pleasure in the process.
This being a rookie year, lessons then partially succeed or fail. Recorders, recorder book and standard notation? Glad I only tried that with one class. Starting off the year by getting them in groups to say their names in rhythm? Let’s cast a veil over that. The drumkit art? Well, ok-ish.
I’ve become a true convert to the ukulele because it makes us sing, and sing in so many different ways, but reject the notion that learning a variety of songs using C, F and G7 should be my goal for the first 20 lessons with children this young. There are more important things to do. The children like to make up their own chords, and there is more to be got from progressions than isolated plink sounds. My favourite progression is (in C) the “Raindrops Keep…/”Still Rock’n’Roll”/”Something”/”Life on Mars” openings. Splendidly, Cmaj7 likes to go by different names, and generally I love how this progression opens up a world of clash and uncertainty whilst simultaneously working your finger isolation. If I had to put things in order, I’d start with the disguised technical repetition of C7 through versifying on “I don’t know but I’ve been told….”. Then the children like at least two lessons on the “We Wlll Rock You chord” of A minor with its forbidden fruit of “You big disgrace” and youtube footage of Freddie being Freddie. Try rolling from C7 to that We Will Rock You chord and you’ll learn F, entering the I-V7 sound-world. But there’s an awful lot to do there…
We’ve performed one I-V7 song but I’d like to stop now and work on independence. If you’ve been taught Paw-Paw Patch (with cello on bass and strumming the upbeats so that you’d feel ok if David Ashworth walked in), what does it take to figure out Yellow Submarine’s chorus? Well, it seems there are about eight steps *, ones which teenagers would figure out for themselves in a typical Musical Futures approach. But I can’t send 8-year-olds off to practice rooms in groups so for now I’m explicitly teaching the steps instead (a pity, as not only did my trial group of three children figure out “Submarine” with classic MUFU informal learning whilst I facilitated but one also “got” what it is that makes “Submarine” something we still sing in 2015). When you know both Paw-Paw and Yellow Submarine, can you figure out the brain-tricks of Alouette? Will you need more or less guidance? I hope to find out by the end of term.
I am teaching notation. I am deadly serious about it. I am so serious because I know that if I do not succeed in teaching notation, then the kids from our council estate will learn, when they go up to year 7, if they haven’t done already from well-meaning misguided comments aimed at the instrument-learning kids, that they are not “musicians”. That is not acceptable to me so I will teach them notation. **
To teach standard notation, I have started with a drawing of a uke. Then I have moved to chord charts. That has taken a long time because, in my inexperience, I had not predicted the complexities of getting 7-year-olds to accept that they ought not to draw the edge of the freboard. Perhaps I should rebrand that and say I have allowed them to play with different styles of chord-chart and to find out for themselves that drawing the edge of the fretboard will leave them likely to put their fingers on the wrong string. Yes, that sounds better….
After the first half-term, it became apparent to me that, since we do not have a music room, we needed exercise books for our chord charts and our lyrics. And so we have spent a long time working out our chord charts, creating and naming charts for new chords, and seeing what happens to the hand and the ear when you play what you’ve drawn. We’ve learnt that if you draw charts sloppily you won’t be able to refer back to them usefully in your next music lesson – which may be after a gap of 40-50 days. And so, unfashionably in progressive music ed. circles, I have become a big fan of the exercise book.
Now my year 4s are transitioning from chord-chart to song-sheet: “CHORDS YOU WILL NEED” at the top, then lyrics with the chord names written in. We will need to stay at that point for a long time. But it is my hope that in their second year of learning with me, my pupils will start to think about the relationship between the bass-drum beat and where you put the words. I think we will use poetry to help us. We will then add bar-lines to their song-sheets. Then slashes for each beat with the top line of the time signature. I can see that far ahead, and I know it will take me twice as long as I think to figure it out. My ambition is to be blogging again a year from now on how to add standard rhythm notation as a substitute for slashes – but only for the right songs, at the right times….. this is about a justifiable music education, after all.
* Step 1: hear Paw-Paw in your head. Step 2: sing Paw Paw. Step 3: remind yourself of the two Paw-Paw chords. Step 4: practise the move between the two chords. Step 5: sing Yellow Submarine in your head Step 6: Sing Yellow Submarine Step 7: Sing Yellow Submarine with your hands in the prayer position – move them out when the chord changes, move them back when it changes back. Step 8: Choose one of the two chords as “home” then have a go at Yellow Submarine…..
** Yes, I am engaged with our secondary’s superb new head of music but this is a deeply ingrained cultural bias. She cannot wave a magic wand.
*** T-shirt over head humming is the new kazoo.