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...