Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Impossible Marathon

Yesterday I completed the Impossible Marathon.

Let me explain.

I like to end my Year 8 classes with a band jam , where every student gets to play every instrument in my band set-up of drums, bass, keyboard, acoustic and electric guitar.
The guitars are tuned to open E with stickers on the fretboard.
There are also stickers on the keyboard which is set to a strings sound.

"I'm Turning in my grave right now"

So this week I decided that we'd play along to James Arthur's "Impossible".
And why not?   It's got a nice, repetitive chord sequence, is at mid tempo and all the kids know it.

 I did have to adjust the key down slightly using Audacity, to make this work in the key of Bm/D

So to cut a long story short, I saw 50 students that day. They all played every instrument and I heard that song, or at least the first two verses and choruses, 50 times.

'So glad that I'm deaf..."

And do you know what?

I loved that day.

I saw joy on many kids' faces as they felt what it was like to play in a a band.
I saw kids playing drums and holding a beat for the first time ever. I heard other kids playing bass guitar for the first time and making me wish they'd auditioned for my school band in February.

We got to the end of the day and I just felt happy for the kids because they all left with big smiles on their faces, talking about their favourite instrument.

For many of them, that was their last music lesson ever. They will go on to High School and, depending on the curriculum, may never see the inside of a music room again. So I wanted to end with something relevant and exciting. I wanted them to understand that playing music in a group isn't that hard.

I should know- I've been getting away with it for more than 25 years!

So I hope I'm doing right by the local high schools. I hope I'm sending on to, a group of kids who want to find out more about how to express themselves through music. And in doing so, I hope I've made their job easier.
My kids may not know the difference between a Semibreve and a Beethoven but they all leave knowing that they can play music.

'Don't mind me. 'Im irrelevant"

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

this is crazy, but...

I'm currently reading Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything"
 Not very musical  I know but stay with me. Apparently, an exploding star, or Supernova, lasts about 30 days. It erupts in the night sky, shines for a month then fades to black.

And that's not to dissimilar to your average pop song. 
I'm not having a go at pop music but that's its nature. A short, massive explosion. Maximum exposure, airplay, sales and downloads before everyone gets sick of it and moves onto the next thing.

I guess the extreme examples of the past 12 months are Royals, Let it Go and Happy. All enjoyed and suffered from blanket saturation to the point that none of us need to hear any of those songs again for a very long time. 
This is a shame because all of them were a great addition to my music programme for too short a time. But as I said, that's the nature of pop music and if I'm going to connect with these kids in my class, I'd better make sure I'm keeping up with what's in and out (see my blog about The Cool Wall).

But what if there was a song resistant to the normal pop laws?  

I'm talking about a song that has been played everywhere for 3 years, suffered endless parodies and should have truly run it's course but it  just keeps going? Add to that fact that  the entire song is hinged on just 2 chords, (C and D if you're interested) making it a perfect hook for an introductory ukulele lesson.

The song I'm talking about is of course Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" and the reason I'm bring this up is because I've found it to be an absolute winner in ukulele lessons. I said to my class today before we began the song, "It doesn't matter how cool you think you are, when I play this track, something inside of you will be dancing."

I've seen this proven time and time again over the last year. Normally a collective groan will go up as the opening bars play but by the time we hit the bridge, everybody is into it and playing those two very simple chords. Shoulders will be bopping up and down and at least half of the class will be singing along enthusiastically.

Last year during one ukulele lesson I looked out the window and to my astonishment, saw two of our schools Alpha Male pupils, , halfway across the courtyard dancing in the pouring rain. They had put down their cartons of recycling and for just 15-20 seconds, enjoyed a dance in the rain to the music booming from my classroom, before picking up the boxes and carrying on to the recycling shed.

It's quite incredible and I can't think of another song that has the same reaction. If you know of a song with a similar effect, I'd like to know about it.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Feel the Noise. Multi-Group teaching in a Music Classroom

One of the most daunting things I've done in my short career as a music teacher is to switch from whole class teaching to operating 2-3 groups at one time.

Good primary teachers, (and I suspect, a few secondary teachers too) are adept at this, realising that there are great educational benefits to working with smaller groups while encouraging independent work habits elsewhere in the class.
It's not a model that always sits comfortably in a music room because there are always noise considerations. If I am working with one group of students, playing instruments along to backing tracks, how are the rest of the class supposed to get on with anything without being distracted too much and just what are they supposed to do in this time? They can't practice quietly on their own unless they move to another space where they will be unsupervised and liable to drift off task very quickly.

I learnt this very quickly when I started out last year, trying to utilise an empty room next door to my classroom.

Computer based tasks are ideal. They tend to have high student engagement and it means that students can listen to music on headphones while they work, shutting out the sound from the other side of the classroom. of course, there are two big considerations here:

  1. What is and isn't appropriate content for students to be listening to while working? 
  2. How do I ensure that students do not spend their whole time assembling, changing and sharing playlists when they should be working on projects?

In the first instance, I put a lot of faith in both the digital citizenship agreements that all students sign at school, coupled with the web filtering package that our school uses. It's something I discuss with classes before they are allowed on headphones. We have a mutual understanding that they are privileged in being able to listen to music while working and their responsibility is to only choose content that is "Safe for School". That understanding, and the fact that our web filtering will block access to the worst means that I have very few problems in this regard.
I also think it's good to be vigilant but not too puritanical when it comes to song lyrics. I'm careful in the choices of songs I am using for whole group teaching, I am very conservative in the choice  of material for public use- school singing, school band etc.
But 12 and 13  year olds maybe hearing a sweary word while on busy working on headphones? I don't think it's that big a deal.

To answer question two, I need to go back to my primary teaching background when I would be working fairly intensively with one group while ensuring that everyone else remained on task. Having interesting and relevant tasks is important but is not the entire solution. Kids will always find something even more interesting and relevant to them, especially when they have a broadband connection, and once one student has opened up a funny video, or Minecraft, it won't be long before the rest of the group follow along.
So I'm constantly on the move. I'll teach a skill, perhaps a guitar chord. Show the group how I want them to practice than move across the room for a quick check up on the others. Not for too long- I don't want my instrumental group drifting off task either.

(First rule of guitar teaching. Give a group of kids a guitar each and within 30 second, guaranteed, someone will be playing Smoke on The Water, badly.)

90 seconds is long enough to check progress (more importantly, be seen to check progress), and answer any questions, no matter how daft they are. My favourite from the last week was "How do you type a capital 3?"

Giving regular time checks is  a good way of keeping everyone on the right page too:
"I'm going to give you 2 minutes to do that, then we're moving on"
"We're changing over at 11.50 so make sure you've got to the end of task 2"

I also make sure that the groups have task sheets that give clear instructions on what to do.

This year I have focused on 3 Chromebook tasks. As I discussed in a previous post, I make use of Poster My Wall Creating a music poster is a great way to teach a bit of layout/ graphics, motivate the students and decorate the room for next to nothing.

Although the room is quickly becoming a shrine to Ariana Grande.

The other tasks I've had success with this year is a simple video viewer utilising Google slides. The students embed You Tube videos onto pages (Google slides makes this a very simple task), following a theme of their choosing. They also create a menu page with links to each video. This task has huge buy in because they are assembling a playlist but it also introduces them to creating an interactive presentation.

We also use Soundation, a simple but effective music studio where you can just drag and drop sound clips and create some startlingly good music very easily.

I'll write in more detail about each of these tasks another time.

So that's my approach to multi-group teaching. It does require a bit of juggling, access to enough devices to allow 1-1 for one group, and an ongoing budget for headphones.

 But it works.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Killing Bono

How much does the Internet hate U2 right now? Let me count the ways....

So since every other blogger has beaten me to it, I won't continue to flog the proverbial dead horse that has been U2's career for the best part of quarter of a century.

Instead, I'm going to give them some credit.

U2 were a school band. They weren't called U2 then. They were Feedback, then The Hype,  but it was the same four lads from Mount Temple School, Dublin who are now the multimillionaires who are now foisting their latest album on your iTunes account.
And despite the feeling that I lost touch with U2 sometime after Achtung Baby, I am in awe of the fact that these 4 guys have stayed together since they were teenagers.  This was beautifully articulated in the book and film, Killing Bono, which you should read and watch right now. Go ahead, I'll wait.

I can't  think of another band who started out as a school band, never changed their line up and ended  up as global superstars. Can you?

It was another place and another time for sure, but when I work with school bands these days I occasionally get glimpse of what might be the future. 
For a start, kids today are a lot more proficient in guitar and vocals than they were, even ten years ago.
Well in two words, You Tube.
If you want to learn how to play a riff or guitar solo, chances are that someone has posted a tutorial on YouTube. If not, the tab will definitely be out there.
For non guitarists, tab, short for tablature, is a form of music notation that shows  a guitarist where to place his/her fingers on the fretboard.

Fun Fact! Tablature developed in the medieval period, predating conventional notation by a few hundred years.

Similarly, aspiring vocalists today no longer have to wait until their song comes on the radio to sing along. Every song, ever recorded is available 24/7 and backing tracks for any popular song are a click away. The proliferation of TV singing contests over the past 15 years has to be a contributing factor too.
The illusion is that anybody with a great voice can become a sensation and perhaps, kids today are buying into that, listening to the judges and actually trying to sing. I'm not a fan of these shows at all, but maybe, just maybe, they are teaching a new generation of singers that you have to get the basics of performance and pitch right. 

 In the last year I've been involved with a project that aims to encourage great singing called the IT Factor. It's a talent contest, for sure, but the team at Te Aroha Noa who have put this together have found a way to nurture talent too.
Here's a clip of the 2013 semi finalists recording a Christmas staple and getting some studio experience at the same time.

I'm in awe of these kids. At the same age I wouldn't dare to sing out loud for fear of ridicule. When I was at Intermediate School,  being good at singing was not something to be proud of.

But around the same time my ears began to change. Having been consumed by the frothy pop of Wham! for much of 1984 and 85, I turned on the TV for our weekly music video show RTR, to hear this ethereal guitar chime. Then the drums came in. I was mesmerized. Then the vocal... "Ice... Your only rivers run cold..." I was completely hooked.

One of the first songs I ever learned was Bad, from the Unforgettable Fire.
I bought that album on LP and listened to it obsessively on my Dad's stereo system and headphones. By the time The Joshua Tree came out, I had my own ancient stereogram to play it on and a cheap electric guitar to play along with it. 
Within a few months I was in my first band. Although, funnily enough, we never played any U2 covers and even to this date, I cant recall ever playing a U2 song in a band. 

And though we've parted company some 20 years ago,  those 4 kids from a Dublin high school are still the inspiration for who I am today.

And for that, I am eternally grateful.

For the free album on iTunes, not so much.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


I first came across Boomwhackers about 9 years ago when I was running a music store in Ireland.
All of a sudden, teachers who would normally be buying recorders and Tin Whistles were suddenly demanding Boomwhackers and I'd never heard of such a thing.

Well for those of you feeling the same way, Boomwhackers are sets of tubes, cut to lengths that will play a particular note, or Boom, when whacked against something solid, preferably with a bit of padding, for the best sound. Thighs, and carpeted floors work particularly well. Desk edges, wooden floors, other Boomwhackers etc. also work but can be a bit harsher in tone as they pick up the resonance of the struck object.

Boomwhackers are also colour coded too so that the Cs are red, As are yellow etc. This is immensely helpful when organising an exercise.

So here is a robust pitched percussion instrument that sounds great, stays in tune and doesn't hurt your ears. That alone puts it in a fairly exclusive group when it comes to classroom instruments. Good quality xylophones and chime bars might fit that bill too but a set of 8 Boomwhackers is going to cost you about the same as a reasonable ukulele,  (and by reasonable I mean stays in tune and the intonation is fine at least on the open chords.) 

A boomwhacker will always stay in tune and the intonation is pretty good as a result.

And being pitched, Boomwhackers lend themselves to rhythm, melody and harmony, as shown here.

Now that's fairly advanced stuff. I had a class last year who after seeing that clip wanted to reproduce it for a school concert item. It took many hours of practice but we got there in the end.

There's a lot that can be done with them before reaching for that sort of performance level. In fact, I've found recently that many of the games and activities that I use in my drummers' circle work equally as well, and occasionally better than my trusty buckets.
One such activity is one I like to call fruit salad. I've done it for years using colour coded buckets but the change to a pentatonic set of boomwhackers suddenly brought in harmony as well. The idea is pretty simple.
Each colour plays the rhythm of a fruit's name. The rhythms are written on the board. For this, I use a set of laminated notes that I made myself and attached 1cm magnetic squares to the back of. This saves me a lot of time and is significantly cheaper than an IWB.

We have apples, grapes, oranges and  boysenberries. Bananas are a little trickier with the accent on the second syllable. Groups learn their fruit rhythm in isolation them we play in parts or all together as fruit salad.
Here's today's fruit salad, as written on my board:

And here's what it sounds like ( from 20 second in until end).

They're great for teaching the mechanics of harmony too. I use this slide to guide classes through a simple accompaniment to Radioactive by Imagine Dragons using just 4 boomwhackers that are arranged to play open chords on Bm, D, A and E in a continuous cycle through the song. It's one of my favourite musical activities at the moment because the kids just hit the groove immediately and play the whole song with great gusto.

So in summary, easy to teach and learn,  a lot of fun and a great tool for warm ups and teaching harmony.

Just don't believe the part on the instructions that says they are indestructible.  They're not.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Uke Till You Puke

Hands up, who's sick of the ukulele?
Good, that's all of you, so I will go on.

It seems that these days, I can't go through town without being aurally assaulted by a godawful Flash Mob of ukulelists, keen to let me hear their rendition of "Bring Me Sunshine" and "I'm Yours".  To which I'd like to reply "bring Me a Bonfire of Ukuleles"and "Up Yours"
And has there ever been a greater oxymoron than a Ukulele Orchestra? 

Sorry, sorry, sorry. For a few minutes there I thought I was Jeremy Clarkson. 

Truth be told, I think it's one of the best, if not the best, instruments to teach music with.

Also, I just became proud owner of this little beauty.

The ukulele is not just the instrument du jour because it's a little bit quirky and appeals to a certain aging demographic. Its popularity lies in its simplicity and the fact that even played badly, it's not too harsh on the ears. 

No other instrument makes it so easy to play chords in the keys of C, G and D. And when you're playing along with popular music, that's a real bonus.

So the start point is the C chord and its relatives.  Compared to the guitar, this is a walk in the park. 
One finger on the first string (always count from the bottom up) at fret 3. 
Then A minor. Finger 2 (Middle) on string 4 fret 2. We all have a good laugh at the way our middle finger is now extended...

About now I get the first complaints. "My fingers are not good at this", "I can't keep up" etc.

So we stop for a moment. I reassure them that the marks on their fingers will be gone by the time they leave my class and that the only thing standing between them and success is a few short minutes of commitment.
I ask them how their fingers know where to go on a phone or a gaming console. 
"Awww, you just learn it. It's not hard..."

But the unspoken part here is that you have to want to.

Kids have exquisite control over their gaming console because they understand that the better they get at playing that game, the more fun they will have. By contrast, I am hopeless on a gaming console because no one has convinced me that I need a Playstation in my life. And I'm fine with that.

I just want to convince my classes that they need a bit of music playing in their life and that the ukulele is a pretty good place to start. Because most of these kids are fine with not being able to play a ukulele, or any instrument for that matter.

So where to start musically? Well Stand by Me is a pretty old song but still reasonably well known. It's got a nice easy chord progression that loops through c, Am, F, G and back to C throughout the song. There's even a great playalong version here with chords displayed. 

You can also play Somebody That I Used to Know with just 2 chords- Dm and C. (Ok, there's an F in the chorus but D minor sounds pretty much fine to a bunch of 12 year olds playing along for the very first time)
I've managed  to boil Ed Sheeran's "I see fire" to Am, F and G with occasional Dm but to play along you will have to tune up a semitone or run the backing track through a program like Audacity that will tune the original down a semitone.
For New Zealanders, Anna Mac's "Girl In Stillettos" is always popular. (For the rest of the world, that's not as racey as it sounds). Anyway, Am, F, C, G repeat...

And a final song suggestion and one that never ever fails, you can't go past Call Me Maybe. 
This infectious little earworm starts with 8 counts on G then it's C and D all the way, only stopping for another 8 on G after the first chorus. 
Have fun!

All this frothy pop music on ukulele is especially good when you consider the alternatives. For many years the go-to instrument in the classroom was the recorder. And on balance, that's an instrument that probably did more harm than good.

In the hands of a well trained player, a wooden descant recorder is capable of playing beautiful baroque music. But a class full of cheap plastic recorders, honking and squeaking through 5 note folk tunes is hell on earth. Last year I experimented with some Tin Whistle lessons, as an easier to play and more pleasant sounding alternative to recorders but even they had limited success because they are no good for playing songs that kids want to play.

So let's throw the recorders on the bonfire instead of the ukuleles. They won't burn as well but it might be more satisfying. 

Today's kids don't want to learn how to play Mary Had a little Lamb and nor did the the previous recorder playing generations if we're honest.

They want to be able to play along to Ariana Grande and 5 Seconds of Summer and they need an instrument that lets them do that easily. So, if it's good enough for G.R.L. to use a ukulele for breakthrough single Ugly Heart, it's good enough for me and my students.

If you know a great pop song that works on ukulele, please leave the title and the basic chord pattern in the comments. 
Uke on...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Further Adventures with Buckets- The Drummers' Circle

We were sitting in an open circle today, bashing away on our buckets and having a merry old time when it occurred to me that we were playing out an activity that has been with us for many thousands of years. So all of a sudden, my music lesson took a sideways turn into a bit of basic anthropology/ sociology.

My makeshift drummers' circle awaits its next class.

We stopped playing and I shared my thought with the kids. They got it. I asked them why our ancient ancestors might have participated in drumming circles.
I was pretty impressed with the list of possible reasons they came up with in just a couple of minutes.

1) As a part of a ritual
2) For entertainment/fun
3) As a group bonding exercise
4) To ward off threats such as wild animals or the supernatural
5) To shard the warmth of the central fire
6) Because there was nothing else to do at night

Not a bad list, I thought.

We went on to talk about what the instruments might have looked like then, before I appointed a chief of the group and gave him a woodblock to lead us all in some call and response drumming. After a few chiefs had been deposed , (mainly for their lousy sense of rhythm), we wound up the exercise and moved on. But what a great way to start the lesson. It had us all energised for the remainder of the lesson and while I'm not sure if we scared off any wolves or evil spirits, I'd like to think we all bonded a bit.

My makeshift drummers circle only happened this week when I finally realised that my classroom was just far too dominated by tables. Tables are fine when you need to do some writing but since that accounts for about 10 minutes of my 10 week programme, I just couldn't justify the space they were taking up or the fact that for most of the time, there was a physical barrier between me and my students.

It was a bit scary re-organising the room so that the main feature was an open circle. It's a mind-shift for the kids too, but it does make transitions between parts of the lesson easier and for that reason alone, I think I'll stick with it for a while. I'll let you know how it goes.

Update: 04.09.14

It goes a little something like this:

Thursday, 21 August 2014

All Together Now...My School Singing Memoirs

Since time immemorial, schools have gathered together once a week to sing, or at least mumble through a selection of terrible, terrible songs.

"We don't even have to try, it's always a good time"

On many occasions I have stood guilty of the crime of inflicting massed vocal misery on those in front of me.
And for that I am truly sorry.
But I've also had a lot of joy leading school singing in those moments when the song, the school and the moment connected.
I'll share a couple of those in the second half.
But first, the misery.

School Singing Crime #1
It's early 1984 and for reasons that history has now erased, the number one song on the New Zealand charts is Maggie by Foster and Allen.
Yes, Foster and fekin' Allan were officially cooler than Simon Le Bon for a brief moment in time and our accordion playing music teacher just loved it. 
As a school, our collective coolness took a beating over those few weeks. The accordion wheezed and we squinted at the handwritten OHP, slowly moving our mouths in time with the music for fear of being strapped for not enjoying the most popular song in the whole country.

School Singing Crime #2
Like most high schools, Feilding Agricultural High School had a school song. Pity they never bothered to teach it to us so that to this day I have no idea how it went.
It would be trundled out for formal occasions like prizegivings and assemblies with visiting dignitaries, when you'd think it would be a good idea if the whole school at least knew how the damn thing went.
But no.
The words and melody were a secret only known to the school boarders, who were probably forced to sing it several times a week in the hostels but were all of farming stock and couldn't hold a tune in a bucket.

School Singing Crime #3
Elmo's Song. For the uninitiated, this is a stupid little Sesame Street ditty that basically goes La La La La Elmo's Song over and over again. Im not even going to dignify it with a link.
I threw it into the school singing mix for a cheap laugh a few years ago and have been pestered by kids to play it at every singing session since, while simultaneously being begged by teachers to just drop it. As long as I don't cave in and play it at school singing in the next few months it will be permanently purged from the school's repertoire as none of the kids attending our school in 2015 will have experienced the damn thing.

School Singing Crime #4
Let it Go. The clue is in the title.

Now lets look at a couple of successes.

School Singing Victory #1
The Fields of Athenry. When I came back home to teaching in 2007 I wanted to bring a bit of Ireland back with me and this anthem was just perfect. It would be unthinkable to teach this song to children in many parts of the UK where sectarianism is still an ugly scar, but on the other side of the world it's just a song about love, injustice and a longing for a happier time. My school raise the roof when we hit the chorus, every time.

School Singing Victory #2
Here's a short list of old school songs and the key that never fail at school singing with Y7-8:

Lean on Me                                                                         E
I Can See Clearly Now                                                         E             
Hey Baby.                                                                            D
I'm A Believer.                                                                      D
Swing Low/When the Saints/This Train medley or round.     E
 Have You ever seen the rain.                                              C

School Singing Victory #3
I realised this year that I don't have to do this whole school singing alone. For all my teaching life, school singing accompaniment was a choice of  live; a guitar, piano, or (God help us) an accordion, or recorded.
But the options for recorded accompaniment were to use backing tracks put out by the well meaning but usually awful Kiwi Kidsongs series or the equally patchy Australian publication Sing/ Sing Along.

Both these publications would contain a mix of new compositions, usually on the theme of looking after the environment, being nice to each other, and in the case of Sing/Sing Along, being proud to be an Aussie.
The rest of the songs would be re-workings of "classic" pop songs with well meaning lyrics, and the occasional contemporary tune thrown in there in a desperate attempt to look relevant.

While the Sing/Singalong series cost about $120 for the music book and backing tracks, Kiwi Kidsongs, while it lasted, was a free resource. 
Neither represented very good value for money.

The website is a game changer when it comes to backing tracks for your school. For around $2 a song, you can buy a track and choose not only the level of vocal backing but also the key the song is played in. The tracks are professionally recorded to a standard well above some of your local karaoke bars. Another bonus is that if you download a song in particular key and it doesn't work with your school's voices, you can change the key and download again at no further cost. How cool is that?
And of course, the big difference is that karaokeversion is publishing new tracks from new, top 40 artists almost every day.
Suddenly, I'm not restricted in my school singing repertoire by songs that translate to acoustic guitar. I can lead with a backing track. We've had some brilliant singing moments this year with both Happy and Rude.
A word of caution though. This brave new world led to School Singing Crime #4.

Sometimes you really should just let it go.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Can anyone play guitar?

Considering that this blog goes under the bold title Anyone Can Play Guitar, I thought I'd better back that up with some of my experiences.

Anyonc can play guitar but everyone wants to play the blue one

I chose the title for a couple of reasons:
First and foremost, I believe it to be true and in some ways that belief defines my music programmes.
Secondly, it's a reference to the song of the same name from Radiohead's underrated debut. Radiohead took their name from a Talking Heads song, ( refer to previous blog How Music Works for further explanation of why that's important)

But back to the guitar.

All my year 8 classes this year are getting a couple of introductory guitar lessons. These lead on from the ukulele lessons that I run for both year 7 and 8 (which I will write about later.)
It's a big deal for a lot of my students when I say " I think you guys are ready to move on to the guitar"
They've been playing ukulele for a few weeks and it's a bit of a growing up moment.

I'm in the middle of upgrading my class guitars and I'm buying 3/4 sized guitars to replace the tired, warped full sized ones I inherited. I think that for kids ages 11-13, a 3/4 guitar is just fine. Some kids at that age are able to cope fine with a full sized guitar but for many, it's just cumbersome and off-putting.

Another consideration is the one in ten students who is left-handed. Well, you might think this is harsh and a bit 'leftist" so to speak, but honestly, how many other instruments, apart from drums/percussion can you name that can be played left handed? Left handed pianos anyone? 
Can you imagine a left handed violinist in the orchestra, jabbing their neighbour in the side of the head with their bow?
The reality is that most of the guitars in the world are set up to be played right handed so it seems to me that it's probably in a left hander's best interests to at least try to learn to play right handed from the outset. 
Would that advice have made Jimi Hendrix a better guitarist? probably not. Does it help with organising a music class. Definitely.
I always keep one guitar strung left handed though....

(Left handed readers, feel free to bash out and angry response in the comments, using your right handed keyboard)

So for my first guitar lesson, I tell them the good news. A whole bunch of chords they learnt
 on the ukulele are going to work on the guitar. They just have different names. 

Then we learn our first proper guitar chord, E minor. 
E minor is a great place to start because you only need two fingers and you can strum all six strings.
Then we learn A minor, which is an easy move from E minor and is also a known ukulele chord.
Now we can play our first song: Rumour Has It

The first 2 and half minutes of this song are just E minor with an occasional shift to A minor. When you hit the bridge it's time to back up and play again from the start
The other great thing about this song as an introduction to guitar is the way the drum intro defines the strumming pattern:
Down, down, down, down-up.....

By the way you might have noticed that the backing track on the link above has been transposed up a semitone to allow for easy playalong. It's a handy trick that I use a lot myself, but one to be aware of, especially if you plan to play along to your original Adele CD.

From there on it depends on the class. Some can quickly learn the basic chord structures for D, G and A which opens up a whole bunch of songs that we can play. There are plenty posted by Lyric Chord on youtube easily linked to from the Rumour Has It clip. I like these because the chords appear big and bold along with the lyrics, saving me from having to write out charts.

Another popular and current song that kids will pick up very quickly is Foster the People's Pumped Up Kicks which you can play an endless cycle of Em, G, D and A to if you have the Audacity to drop the key by a couple of semitones ( or a class set of capos)

Of course this all opens up a can of (copyrighted)  worms, interpretations of which will vary from country to country and institution to institution so I don't want to get to far into the whole issue except to say that I sleep easily at night knowing that:

My school pays a substantial  licence fee that allows me to use copyrighted music as a part of my educational programme.
I do not distribute music files or scores to colleagues or students.
I make every effort to source music from legal sites such as iTunes.

But it's a brave new world we live in and our instant access to an incredible range of tunes, tools and resources can't be ignored. But then, if you're here, you already know that.

Rock on.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Ode to the Humble Bucket

 Meet Wullie:

Wullie's a well loved cartoon character in Scotland. He even has his own merchandise store and surely the world's worst website ever..

He's not so well known anywhere else, (possibly because he speaks a Scots dialect and couldn't give a toss about the Internet) 
But I've known him since I was a child and I know he's onto something.

That's because Wullie loves his bucket and throughout his adventures over the years, he's found a multitude of uses for it.

I'm a big fan of the bucket too. I can buy one on special for less than a dollar and I even get to pick the colour.
A basic hand drum is going to cost me $20. A good djembe or conga is going to be at least $200.

I can buy a lot of buckets for that.

Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that a one dollar plastic bucket sounds anywhere near as good as a half decent djembe but when I'm teaching rhythm to my year 7 and 8 classes it will do just fine.

The first five to ten minutes of just about all my classes are bucket based and usually based around a game or activity that gets the kids playing music for fun.

Here's a few easy bucket games I've invented/ adapted:

This is pretty much Simon Says. 
I choose a 4 beat rhythm that is code for "put your bucket on your head".
Then I play various 4 beat rhythms which the class play back in a call and response pattern. When I play the Buckethead rhythm, the last person with a bucket on their hear is out and loses their bucket.

Team Buckethead
Each team has a different Buckethead rhythm. When I play a team's rhythm they have 4 beats to all get the bucket on their head to earn a point. Points off for getting it wrong. First to five wins.

Rhythm Detective
This one is like Wink Murder. The detective leaves the room and a leader is chosen from the group to lead a rhythm. The leader should change the rhythm every 10-20 seconds, though subtlety is the key here. 
The rest of the group protect the leader by following but not looking directly at him/her. The detective has 3 guesses to find the leader.

The old drinking game Whizz Bang Bounce is easily adapted for buckets and an absence of actual drinking.
 Everyone sits in a circle. 
One four beat rhythm means pass it on. Another means change direction and another pattern means skip the next person. 
Keep the rhythm patterns simple but distinct and this game will be a big hit with your class.

Let's All Play Our Drum
I saw this on YouTube a couple of weeks ago and tried it with my classes. It went off like dynamite:

If you can't see the video the link is here:

Buckets are a great way to introduce rhythmic notation too. With 4 different coloured buckets, I can get a 4 part rhythmic pattern up and running very quickly. 

Once they show me that that can do it on buckets, I'm ready to tackle that unholy alliance of classroom percussion: Triangles, Woodblocks, Drums and Tambourines, all played together.

And this will be the subject of a future blog.

Keep on rocking in the free world...

Thursday, 31 July 2014

How Music Works

Yesterday I received this in the mail:

This is the book that inspired this blog. A good friend of mine lent me his copy. I took it away and was knocked out. So I ordered my own copy.

It's not quite the Holy Bible that the title suggests but it covers a lot of ground, from the very formation of what we call music, right through to the future of music as a commodity.

My only criticism of the book would be the apparent revisionism of his own back catalogue. 
Throughout the book, he draws on his own work, especially the first four Talking Heads albums, and his collaborations with Brian Eno.
And then there is an almighty great gap. The Talking Heads I grew up listening to in the early to mid 80s, Little Creatures and True Stories hardly rate a mention. Even Stop Making Sense, one of the best live albums and music films ever, seems glossed over. Maybe he felt that their best and most innovative work came in those first four ( they are all included in the book 1000 Albums To Hear Before You Die, but nothing from Speaking In Tounges on makes the list). Or maybe those albums don't hold happy memories. The band split acrimoniously and perhaps the rot had set in some time before that. 
I'm speculating. 
But for me, I came to the band through those wonderful singles from Burning Down the House onward so I wanted to know a bit more about them.

But that's a minor quibble. It's not an autobiography and  what David Byrne has produced here is a deep insight into not only how music works in his own experience and on a sociological level, but how music works as an industry. 

And you don't need to be a classically trained musician or have a degree in audio physics to follow what he has to say either. He tackles the subject in laymans terms because, like me, he doesn't come from a classical background.

Anyone even contemplating a career in music needs to read this book to understand from someone who has been there and done that, what it takes to be financially successful. (And Byrne's criteria on success these days are around comfort, not stardom).

He's also savvy enough to take on the likes of iTunes and Spotify for their lack of artist acknowledgement. He has recently pulled as much of his back catalogue from Spotify as possible. As a subscriber this disappoints me but I do get why.

So why, with all that doom and gloom did the book inspire me?

Well it came down to one of the final chapters when he offers some hope of the future of music. 
He's writing in a country whose educational system has dropped all music education in case one child gets left behind in the basics while doing something as frivolous as creating art or playing music.

That scares me because that may be my future or lack of....
And it infuriates me because dumbass politicians and non musical talking heads all around the world are spouting this garage about teaching the basics. They think if we can somehow turn our schools into factories that churn out citizens who can read write and do maths if we just concentrate on teaching those things all day.

But in the Bay Area, California, a movement has started. Music For Kids is turning music on its head and engaging kids into playing music by helping them to play the music they love already.

When I saw what these guys were doing, I felt a synchronicity. I've been following them on Twitter and am seriously impressed. 

There's someone,or maybe many people, on the other side of the world running a music program with the same fundamental ideas as me:

-Music inspires passion even in the passive listener.

-Kids learn best when they are inspired to learn stuff they are passionate about.

-Teachers teach best when they are inspired and passionate also.

-Music education is a gateway to creativity where high level cognitive thinking can be achieved relatively easily.

If you agree, we need to talk.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Social Media, Education and Me

I'm a digital immigrant.
When I began my career as a teacher, in 1996, computers were just awkward typewriters with a couple of games that took up space in the corner of the room.  I'm sorry to report that in some classrooms, this is still the case. Only the games have improved.
But this blog isn't about the use of digital technology in the classroom, it's about the way that teachers adopt that same technology to become better teachers.
And we are spoit for choice! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, PInterest, Google+, where do we start?

 Well chances are you've come to this blog via social media so you're on that journey.

This is a topic that I have more questions than answers for. After a couple of years teaching in the IT lab at my school I kind of got stuck with that IT guru tag and everyone assumes that I'm an expert in just about anything that plugs in and lights up at our school. The truth is I'm nowhere near that. More often than not it's a winning combination of Google and dumb luck that gets stuff solved around the place. That and a fairly costly service contract.
But I digress.

I'm genuinely interested in how you use social media to gain and share ideas in teaching and how you separate that from your personal social media presence.

For me, Facebook is my personal presence while, Twitter is my more professional voice. Sometimes those lines get blurred, ( though not in a creepy Robin Thicke kind of way.)  If you know me you'll probably know that I was utilising both for a few days last week for a personal crusade of sorts. I'm also quite aware that there's no such thing as a private Facebook post as well,  so that informs what I choose to share. 

For a long time I couldn't get my head around Twitter but in the last few weeks it has started to make more sense to me as a place to share and collaborate. The first thing I had to do was unfollow a bunch of sports teams and celebrities, (who shall remain nameless) as all they were doing was clogging up my feed with posts that meant little or nothing to me. I kept a few, like Stephen Fry who actually tweet things of value. For all the rest it was goodbye to the name dropping, fancy restaurant names, self promotion and in jokes.
Once the air was clear of all that twitter wittering I started seeking out (mainly music) educators who actually have something to say. I also started this blog as a way of getting beyond the 140 character limit. It's early days but it's starting to work and I'm picking up inspiration and ideas from all around the world. Where possible I'm sharing too.

So how do you connect with professionals and what benefits have you seen from doing so? Do you have any success stories you can share?
Do you see a place for SM in the classroom, as a learning tool for your students? if so, what are the barriers to this? 
Do you have any tips?
Should there be a 10 commandments of Teachers on Social Networking Sites?
I'll get the ball rolling:

1) Thou shalt not friend ex pupils until they are adults and only if you are genuinely interested in what they are doing with their lives and you don't mind them seeing what you have done with yours.

Please add any more to the comments section or tweet @20thCenturyBoi

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Essence of Intermediate Schools

Yesterday's local newspaper featured a big front page article on local school, Ross Intermediate and their plans to reduce class sizes drastically in 2015 by integrating the technology and arts curriculum into mainstream classrooms, effectively disestablishing the specialist teachers roles and sharing the workload and class numbers evenly amongst all teachers. 
Sounds fair, and it's bound to win them a bunch of new enrolments, but It worries me slightly, and not just because I'm at a school that competes with them for numbers.

But first a bit of an explanation for those of you not familiar with New Zealand's (fairly unique) intermediate system.
Intermediate schools cater for just 2 years- Y7&8. That's ages 11-13. A pretty formative time in a child's life and the perfect (and perhaps last) opportunity to find one's niche, strengths and passions before selecting courses at High School that may determine the career path that one sets off down.

An intermediate school is typically a blend between the primary school structure of all children in the same class with the same teacher for the day, and the High School model of specialist teachers taking classes in their expert areas. There's good reason for this. Not every teacher can or should be expected to run effective classes in the technology and arts curriculum as it requires both specific knowledge, equipment and passion. 

By the same token, not all specialist teachers have the training or experience to teach a class in the core subjects. I can't speak for the specialist teachers at Ross but at my school, some specialist teachers could easily fit back into regular classroom teaching and some just could not, and nor would it be fair (or possibly even legal) to expect them to. 

It's a bit of an old fashioned system, I'll admit. A few decades ago, intermediate girls would be sent off for cooking and sewing class while the boys went to the workshop. Unfortunately, that's the perception that many have about these specialist roles, as evidenced by our Prime Minister's comments a couple of years ago when for about a week, the Ministry of Education tried to force all intermediates to do exactly what Ross are proposing now.  

The truth is that things have moved on a lot from those days and specialist teachers are providing a lot more than manual training.The programmes offered are a lot more diverse, adhere to the NZ Curriculum, and are amongst the most popular subjects at any Intermediate. 

At my school we also outsource our expertise to other schools who send children to us for our specialist lessons. So I end up spending all week teaching a wide range of children from our school, and several others, how to play and celebrate the music they already appreciate. It's a job I love and do well so it's one I want to hold onto. 

 When I see a school across town disestablishing positions like mine to offer smaller class sizes, which is something the Government should be addressing without having to redeploy expert teachers, it makes me jumpy.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Riffing on the riff

What's the greatest riff of all time?
That's what BBC 2 want to know and their top 100 list is flooding news and blog sites everywhere.
Including Here

But reading through the comments, it becomes apparent that many people don't understand the difference between a riff and a solo. It can be complicated but let me take you through it.
Listen to the first 20 seconds of this link:

That's a riff, and a kick ass one at that. It's often the first thing you hear in a rock song and it sets out the stall for the song. That's because it's based on the rhythm and harmony of the song. It will often be the basic chords of the verse and/or chorus, with perhaps some added genius that makes it burn our way into our musical subconscious. It will usually, but not always turn up throughout the song.

So as an example, Lynyrd Skynyrd took 3 open chords on the guitar, D, C and G added a bit of flash and :

A guitar solo is a different beast. Both of the clips above have awesome guitar solos. they come later on in the songs and add a new melody, on top of the riff. 
Both make you want to play air guitar.

Of course there are many exceptions. Riffs that sound like solos:

Songs with awesome riffs but the solos just copy the vocal melody:

Songs where the solo just plays around the riff but in a higher register:

So, in a nutshell, the riff is the bread and butter of the song. It's played by the nice guy in the band, the rhythm guitarist while the solo is the domain of the lead guitarist. The show off.
Well, to be honest, that model maybe works for ACDC and Brightside  and many guitarists from  Jimi Hendrix to Jack White have covered both duties.

And it's not a competition either. A song can have a great riff and no solo:

Or be all about the solo, but you'll have to be patient. Many solos start a good 2 minutes into the song, after the second chorus and then go on and and on and on:

So what's the greatest riff ever written? 
Well I've thought long and hard about it and honourable mentions should go to You Shook me All Night Long and Ace of Spades but I'm going to leave you with this one:

Monday, 14 July 2014

Cool as....

I want to introduce you to the cool wall:

Before we go any further, I'll put my hands up and say this idea was totally stolen from Top Gear, but with a few subtle, but important differences.

1) It's about music, not cars. Sounds obvious I know.
2) It's driven by the students who are not an audience.
3) The arbiter  is a Clark, without a son.
3) It's governed by a few rules that ensure that any debate is fun, while respectful.

The cool wall is without a doubt the most engaging part of my music programme. When my classes arrive each day, their eyes are invariably drawn to this space- who has moved up, who has moved down, who is new? It's so engaging / distracting that for some classes, it's the first thing we do, just so I can get their attention back.

A Typical Cool Wall session runs like this:

We all move over to the Cool Wall then someone is chosen to speak about an artist on the wall who is sitting  too  high or low.
I'll ask the speaker to expand on his/ her opinion then throw it open to debate. When I think we're done ,we vote. If half the class agree with the original moot, the card is moved.
Sometimes I throw in a new card. Sometimes I propose that two cards are swapped. I'm always open to request for a new card too.
This 10 minutes of seemingly frivolous fun  allows me to:

-Encourage real debate on a topic  that the students feel strongly about. Debates rage across weeks  and the kids often get more passionate and articulate as the weeks go on.

-Run a musical barometer on which artists are  and not cool, which informs my choices around songs that I will use to teach music with.

-Challenge the students' ethics in relation to their musical taste.

So it's pleasing to report that in general, your average  pre-teen can justify his/ her favourite artist and can can come up with some damn good reasons why The Wiggles are way cooler that One Direction.
They can tell you how they feel betrayed by Miley and how they just don't get Lorde
Sometimes they will vote for stuff  because their Dad likes it.  ACDC, GnR, and Metallica make occasional forays into coolness. In their eyes Michael Jackson and Bob Marley are immortal gods who will be cool forever.

 But only as cool as Ariana Grande and Five Seconds of Summer.

And on that  bombshell,

Friday, 11 July 2014


Let me say from the outset that this is not a political blog and nor will it ever be.
There are plenty of places on the internet where you can read about someone's opinion on who should or shouldn't be running their country, undercut by a whole load of comments either for or against.

This is not one of those blogs.


 When a political party's education policy seeks to reduce education to the teaching of Reading, Writing and Mathematics, and is creating a culture where schools will have to plough their limited resources into this narrow view of education or die, I have to speak up.

This blog has been live just over 24 hours and I've already received feedback from both the USA and The UK that suggest that a music programme like the one I'm currently running could not happen there.

If that's true then that is a tragedy.

And it leaves me feeling like an endangered species. Our current government have made it clear that education in this country should be driven by a set of arbitrary National Standards in Reading, Writing and Mathematics.

Readers in the USA and the UK will know where that leads to.

Specialist positions will disappear. Schools will be forced through public league tables to redeploy staff into raising the schools' score in the 3 Rs

This is despite the fact that the teaching of music at this age unleashes creativity. They don't even have to be "musical" to do that. Here's an example

The student that made that in my class used the website to create this.  He (yes, he) took a subject that he felt passionate about and paid enough attention to detail and layout that it's hard to believe it was created by an 11 year old.

How does this kid stack up against the National Standards for reading, writing and mathematics?
I don't know.
If there was a National Standard for creativity and innovation, this kid would nail it.

Our current government would be found to be be well below the required standard.
That is all.
Back to the music.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Being In a Band

I've been in bands in one form or another since I was about 14 or 15.
Mostly, it's a road of high expectations and low output for the best part of 30 years.

But in the last 2 or 3 years, I've been lucky enough to hit the right synergy- that group of people who understand each other and play well together. I love playing with my band Brightside, and I want to introduce that idea, of playing in a rock and roll band to every student who comes into my class.

So that's what I do.

Well, I'm fortunate enough that I don't have groups larger than 20. So I can set up a group on my Chromebooks, working in a music related task (more about that later), another group on keyboards
 (both groups on headphones) and I have 4-7 kids left to cycle through Drums, Bass, Guitars(s) and Keyboard.
My guitars are tuned to an open E chord and have stickers on the G, A and B positions. I tell the Bass guitarist to only play the top string which also has the same stickers. The root notes are also marked out on the keyboard.
Then it's just a matter of getting the drummer to find a regular beat. Some kids do this naturally, some need a bit of coaching but most can manage a 1234 on the toms. Once I know what the drummer can manage I'll pick up an acoustic guitar and lead the other instrumentalists in a 1 minute jam calling chord changes as I see fit.

 Then everyone rotates and we start again.

Nobody gets graded on this. There is no homework or follow up. My Year 7 classes do it as an introduction lesson. My Year 8s do it as an exit lesson so that that know how far they have come.

Everybody leaves smiling.
And that's just one reason I love my job.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014


My name's Jon and I'm a Music Teacher.
This is my first blog in ten years.

The reason I feel moved to blog again is because,  I think I've hit on something good. 
Something really good, something that might change the way you see music teachers and might even change the way music teachers see themselves.

The secret is Pop music. 

Seriously. If we want our children to embrace the world of music, we have to meet them where they are. That is right at the polar opposite of whatever folk tunes and watered down classics that your regular piano (or any other instrument) tutorial has to offer.

This blog is about what happens, when the two spheres of education and pop music finally harmonise.