Thursday, 31 December 2009

Re-use your bottles

'Empty vessels make most noise' is a phrase I remember from childhood, along with 'Use your initiative.' I seem to remember that if I did use my initiative the words 'You thought? You THOUGHT?!' came my way soon after.

But today's post is not about my happy reminiscences but about sound - the science of sound. By the end of the seasonal festivities, if indeed you haven't already, you should find yourself with easy access to numerous empty bottles of varying sizes. You may already be able to play a bottle by blowing across the top, aiming a jet of air at the opposite section of the rim. If not, perhaps you can persuade someone to teach you.

Now if you sound a plastic bottle in this way, and then a glass bottle of the same capacity, will the pitch be the same?

Are bottles of greater volume pitched higher or lower than those of smaller volume?

Do all glass bottles of the same capacity have the same pitch? Will shape or thickness of glass make a difference?

Never again be a wallflower at a party! The cool folk may steer a wide berth but you're never alone with a bottle.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Twang on a can

Here, as unwisely promised yesterday, is a clip of me twanging the ring-pull of an aluminium fizzy drink can whilst simultaneously filling it with water. What do you think happens to the pitch of the note?

My own, subjective and non-scientific, opinion is that the pitch stays the same. The note seems to get higher because the upper harmonic partials are increasingly favoured as the can fills. If I were to blow the can like a flute then I would hear the air inside vibrating. Less volume of air, as the water replaces it, means a gradual rise in pitch. When I twang the can it is the can I hear resonating. The water dampens (no pun intended - 'deadens' might be a better word) the sound of the lower partials.

Today I went for a long walk by the sea so no sonic experiments. But tomorrow I shall continue to explore the seasonal debris and make some more rubbish instruments. If you would like to join in then hang on to all sizes of bottles, both glass and plastic, tin cans of various types, wrapping paper and anything else you think might produce a noise.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

These instruments are rubbish

Before you consign the debris from your seasonal festivities to landfill and the recycling banks why not have some fun with it first? That is certainly my own intention and I'm starting with some fizzy drinks cans. I had a grand plan which I'll reveal tomorrow but on the way I noticed a thing or two. You may know that all plastic bottles of the same size play the same note if blown like a flute. Well aluminium cans are the same although it is not nearly as easy to produce a sound in this way. However, when you twang the ring-pull (which remains attached to the modern can after opening) the pitch varies betrween cans. Of the five cans I tried the pitch varied between G and Bb. These cans were all the same brand from the same multipack. Although the cans all contain the same volume of air there must be other variations in their construction.

The next thing I did was to twang the ring-pull as I gradually filled a can with water. It requires a steady hand. (Using a funnel has a deadening effect.) Why not try this now? I'll post a movie of my own experiment tomorrow. Before you begin, though, what do think will happen to the sound as you pour in the water? Does experience tally with your prediction?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Busking in Norwich part two

Here's the second show, again just under 15 minutes long. The emphasis is on the less professional, and occasionally crazier, kind of busker.

The guys in the picture aren't featured. I saw them this afternoon kicking up a storm with a kind of East European gypsy take on some well known tunes. They were certainly jolly and had tremendous stamina but their case was far from overflowing with cash when I looked. A pity - they deserved better.
&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_0">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_1">href</span>="">Busking in Norwich part two by The Miracle Men&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_2">lt</span>;/a>

Monday, 21 December 2009

Carol Singing

I do enjoy carol singing and last night was perfect for it - thick snow on the ground that was still white after two days lying on city streets. On the street I moved from earlier in the year there is a tradition of singing a few verses at each door and collecting for charity. Everyone who opens their door is treated to a verse of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' at the end. It takes perhaps an hour to visit all the houses and then we retire to one of them for mince pies and mulled wine to warm the extremities. One thing I love about singing carols is the sense of a shared culture. The older folk knew the words to at least the first verse of most of them and the value of all those turgid school assemblies and enforced church attendance becomes clear.

The other evening as I was about to leave the house I heard a knock at the door. I opened it to a boy of about ten or twelve. He sang:
"We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year"
and then stopped. It was all he knew.

It felt more like trick-or-treat than caroling but I didn't want to discourage him from singing and appreciated his courage.
'I'm going away for Christmas,' he said.
'Good for you,' I replied.
I gave him 50 pence (I didn't want to give him too much incentive to return!) and then noticed his friend overlapping him as they worked their way down the street. Very time-efficient; these boys will go far!

I thought of putting a notice on the door along the lines of "No Carol Singers UNLESS you know the first verse of at least TWO carols by heart". But of course I didn't. And tonight the folk on my new street are going caroling. The snow looks like sticking around so bring it on.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Busking in Norwich part one

<a href="">Busking in Norwich part one by The Miracle Men</a>

Shortly before Christmas 2005 my friend Eamonn Burgess went out with a hand-held audio recorder interviewing buskers on the streets of Norwich. From the material he gathered we made two short (just under 15 minutes) radio programmes that were broadcast on Future Radio the following spring.

If ever you've busked, considered busking or even casually wondered what it's like for the person behind the guitar (saxophone, tambourine or whatever) then this is for you. It really is most illuminating and very entertaining, although not always for the reasons intended by the featured performers.

Unlike some towns and cities Norwich has a very relaxed attitude towards buskers. There is no police harassment and the council doesn't exercise any 'quality control' making for varied fare. However, the arrival of privately owned 'public' spaces such as Millennium Plain and that bit outside the new mall has altered the lay of the land somewhat.

Part two to follow.

Monday, 14 December 2009

How very sweet

As a woodwind teacher I have found myself occupying a unique position in the lives of some of my younger students. I am that rare thing: an adult they come to know well who is neither a family member nor a school teacher. ( Although I teach in schools it quickly becomes clear to them that I am not gunning enthusiastically for the establishment.) Perhaps if I taught something else - guitar or literacy perhaps - the same relationship would arise. But reed instruments require an embouchure and an embouchure requires practice. Kids who don't practise can't play solidly for a full lesson so I have learned to break up the playing in various ways. I have also learned that children come to their lessons for reasons other than music. Some really need to talk to a neutral adult without incurring the stigma, and parental worry, that asking for counselling would entail.

So I can talk knowledgably about nail varnish, ties and trainers along with the barriers they present to learning. And other things. It may not be necessary to build a friendly relationship with a student in order to impart knowledge but that's my style.

Today a boy came in wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Normally he would be wearing a uniform. I asked him if it was a non-uniform day.
"Yes. I just had to bring in a bag of sugar."
"A bag of sugar?" I repeated.
"Yeah. It's for the homeless in London or something."

I quipped that next year he'd have to bring in a tube of toothpaste but it did make me wonder. It also reminded me of eating white bread, margarine and white sugar sandwiches at school because it was all I could get my hands on. I can still remember the satisfying crunch that made me feel I was eating something substantial and sustaining. My teeth have been full of metal ever since. So what is the sugar for? Will it really be fed to the homeless or is it to be exchanged for something else, like the milk-bottle tops we used to collect for the blind? How can I possibly teach while I'm worrying about this? Would I have made more money in dentistry? Well, obviously.

Next time I might just keep my keep my curiosity in check. After all, my students talk about all sorts of things but never my attire. So why should I mention theirs?

Friday, 11 December 2009

Playing for funerals

I have played for a wide range of ceremonies in my time. My own beliefs concerning the supernatural, spiritual and so on have yet to crystallise and I can’t share the convictions of those who ask me to perform. But this allows me to entertain pretty well any view and ‘try it for size’ for the duration of the event.

Ceremonies are very important to the people who stage them and, one assumes, to most of those who attend. Birthdays, weddings and hand fastings, christenings and other baby-naming ceremonies all come with high expectations and, although often very enjoyable, are never especially easy. But the hardest, by a country mile, are funerals. I’m not talking about the wake, the party afterwards. I mean the burial or cremation, the ceremony itself.

The most difficult have been those where I have known the deceased and so know the bereaved. Not only is the pressure immense but I am also grieving and feeling empathy with the other mourners. Even when I have known neither the departed nor any others present I find it impossible to remain detached, especially when the circumstances surrounding the funeral are especially harrowing.

For one such event I was asked to play some ‘Buddhist’ flute. What was required was some bamboo flute with an Indian, Chinese or Japanese flavour, something I can do well enough. I was to lead the mourners from the chapel to the grave and play while the coffin was lowered in. Again, I was happy to oblige and well within my comfort zone. But then came a question for me: “How much do you charge?”

So how much should one charge for a funeral? For family and friends obviously I couldn’t accept a fee but this was a professional engagement. It took place within walking distance of my house and would take two hours at most, including travel. I can’t remember what my hourly rate was at the time but if it was £20 that would make the fee £40. Easy. But on the other hand I didn’t want to exploit anyone, especially after they had just lost someone close. Just because I don’t have any religious beliefs doesn’t mean I lack compassion. Feeling like one the folk preparing Scrooge for his funeral (they take everything he has that might fetch a few pennies, even his bed linen) I asked for twenty quid. Of course this probably made the person who had engaged me to play for her best friend feel like a cheapskate and suspect my competence.

Next question: what to wear? Normally I would wear black suit, white shirt, black tie – the default attire in the UK. More often these days people are choosing to celebrate the life led rather than mourn its passing, making for a less sombre dress code. This funeral was to be one of those. “Wear something bright and colourful,” I was told. So I did.

The service itself was truly awful. The husband, left with two very young children, was inconsolable. I had no difficulty in engaging with the emotional tenor of the occasion. Tears were streaming down my face as I prepared to lead everyone, pied-piper fashion to the graveside. But then the priest informed the congregation that the grave was in the new part of the cemetery, across the dual carriageway. “If you would all like to get into your cars and follow the hearse back to the main road. Turn right and then right again at the first roundabout.”

Like any good musician I improvised. As I was seated near the back I hastened outside, my multicoloured stripy jumper totally at odds both with the occasion and the mood I wished to express, and began playing as everyone emerged. If I couldn’t play them to the grave I could at least play them to their cars. Except that, once out of the building, no one moved. They stood like statues, with no idea how they were supposed to behave, listening reverently. The situation was as new to them as it was to me and I realised they weren’t going to get into their cars and drive off until I released them. So I stopped and they left me with my patron who, having come to town on the train for the day, was also without a car. She forced some money on me (more than we’d agree) and headed for the ladies’ loo. For an instant I wondered if I should wait and help her find the rest of the mourners but then thanked her and legged it through the cemetery (why hadn’t I brought my bike?) to the dual carriageway. Dodging the traffic I made it across to the area containing the grave. I quickly spotted the assembly and hurried over to find the undertaker looking anxiously at his watch and the priest asking what had kept me.

After the ritual words and prayers I played in the appointed manner as the coffin was lowered into the ground and earth and flowers were thrown on top. And so the final question: When should I stop? (or How much is enough?) There was no one to give me the nod that says ‘thanks, you can shut up now’. Although I wanted to give value for money I am a firm believer that one person’s music is another’s noise pollution and that silence is greatly underrated. (There – I do have firm beliefs after all.) After a while I walked slowly backwards, playing long notes all the time, until I felt I had drifted out of earshot. Finally I turned and walked home feeling both privileged and deeply moved but utterly drained and unable to work for the rest of the day.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hot Mikado

Tonight Hot Mikado, by one Rob Bowman, opens at a local high school where I teach woodwind. It's a musical of the kind the school stages on a yearly basis. Based on Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, it was written in the 1980s in the style of the 1940s. This makes for an interesting libretto with its satire on the British political and imperial system of the Victorian era mixed with cultural references from the swing era - Roosevelt's New Deal for example - along with a 1980s slant: 'We don't need your disco sound' chirrups the chorus.

Having been late for the first band call (other work commitments), missed most of the second (another gig) and unable to make the dress rehearsal (a heavy cold, real humdinger) I find myself approaching the first night feeling somewhat unprepared. Practice has been all but impossible but, in the best showbiz traditions, the show must go on. And so it shall. The part I was given calls for flute, clarinet and alto sax. Fortunately someone else has taken on the flute elements. Some of the changes are very quick and the shortest allows a minim rest (no more than a second in that particular piece) to switch from flute to alto.

The original operetta has a personal resonance as it is both the only G&S work I've seen live and the first live show of any kind that I attended. I was ten and the headmaster organised a music club for the six or seven fourth formers in the junior boarding house. One day he announced he was taking us to see a light opera and, when the day came, we duly went. What an eye-opener. The only live music I had experienced previously was the school piano as it bashed out hymns in morning assembly. The only stage show was the school nativity play. I was blown away and the experience was only eclipsed by seeing Hawkwind a few years later.

So I confess to being a little suspicious of Hot Mikado when it was announced. Not really being a fan of musicals I'd never heard of it and anticipated a dumbed down version of the real thing. A bit like a Hollywood history - the first casualty is the truth. But, although the libretto has the odd cringe worthy moment (as I'm sure would the original if I listened again), the music is good. In fact the best numbers are the ones Sullivan wrote and Rob Bowman messed with. Hot, certainly. Fun, fast and furious. I just hope, for my sake and everyone else's, I can reproduce it satisfactorily tonight.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Music without instruments

I have been reading the travel writings of Victorian explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. Some of it is hard work, not because his style is heavy but rather because it is so light and matter of fact. Somehow this makes his descriptions of shooting orangutans in the jungles of Borneo all the more horrifying. But parts are absolutely fascinating. At one point he is staying overnight in a village in the meeting house, a building where business is conducted, guests accommodated and where the young unmarried men of the village sleep. The chief has left and the boys have been amusing themselves with trials of strength and skill, somewhere between arm wrestling and Sumo but unlike either. Wallace writes:

"When these games had been played all around with varying success, we had a novel kind of concert. Some placed a leg across the knee, and struck the fingers sharply on the ankle, others beat their arm against their sides like a cock when he is going to crow, this making a variety of clapping sounds, while another with his hand under his armpit produced a deep trumpet note; and, as they all kept time very well, the effect was by no means unpleasing. This seemed quite a favourite amusement with them, and they kept it up with much spirit."

The game reminded me of one from Adventures in Sound, a freebie on the website, called Bodycon. The less we have the more inventive we can become. Of course there are no audio recordings from Wallace's visit to Borneo, which took place in 1856, so we'll just have to use our imaginations. However, if you are into body percussion and haven't seen Sounds of Rain and Thunder yet (on YouTube) it really is worth a look .

Friday, 4 December 2009


Half-holing is a technique familiar to recorder players. In order to move some notes up or down by a semitone it is necessary to partially cover a hole, allowing some air to escape through it. In fact to play in the upper register at all it is necessary to jam the tip of the thumb into the hole in order to force the instrument to overblow by an octave.

This is not a problem faced by players of the orchestral flute which has a system of keywork that makes it fully chromatic. But the recorder is relatively sophisticated in comparison to the humble bamboo flute. The tone of a good bamboo flute is both stronger and richer than that of a recorder but playing one with other instruments can present a problem. A recorder is, at least in theory, fully chromatic. Not so the bamboo flute. My favourite is pitched in Ab - not a great key for spontaneous jams around the camp fire.

The other day I was playing a studio session for a maker of library music. We had used the orchestral flute almost exclusively but thought we try something more 'ethnic' for a change. I have one in C which is close enough to the key of F, the key of the piece in question. But it meant half-holing the top hole in order to make a Bb.

This was not a problem until I had to execute a fast descending run. To ensure accuracy of pitch I partially covered the hole with masking tape. As you can see in the picture, half-holing is a misnomer - nearly all the hole is covered.

If you a are a flute (or recorder) player reading this I should explain that although the flute in question is pitched in C it feels like I'm playing a D scale. This makes it a transposing instrument, a fact that became clear when we abandoned the bamboo and went back to orchestral flute. I then had the sensation of reading everything a tone down. Flutes and whistles in D are very popular because they make the notes any flute or recorder player would expect. D is also a key that most guitarists can manage without too much trouble.

It is possible to cover holes lower down the instrument to facilitate playing in other keys. I part covered the second hole as well (pictured) to give me C Dorian. Always cover the side of the hole nearest the wrist of the playing hand - this allows glissandi and other effects that make these instruments so wonderful.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Each month I post a free music game on the Play With Sound website. This is in addition to the other free music games on the site that have proved so useful in schools, drama workshops. December's Game of the Month is suitable for adults and children over nine.

Called Telephone it has a communication theme but is really about developing fluency with three simple rhythmic motifs. The fun bit is using these to contact other players. In order to do that one must develop the skill of of hearing and reproducing the motifs accurately.

Telephone will develop rhythmic, listening, communication and improvising skills. The rhythms can be clapped or played on instruments. Let me know how you get on.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Experimenting with sound

I occasionally buy a copy of New Scientist if I am on holiday or about to get on a train. It’s written in terms simple enough for a layman like myself to understand and there’s usually some article or other about sound. I took one to Cambridge the other day (where it felt like a comic) and was disappointed to find almost nothing about sound save for one brief item.

I assume you are familiar with Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs. He rang the bell, the dogs came and he fed them. He did this for a number of days and then rang the bell and, when they came, he didn’t feed them although they salivated expectantly. The dogs had been conditioned by the bell. Any caveman who ever befriended a dog could have predicted that result.

Pointless or not, Pavlov’s work should have made the following research, reported in New Scientist, November 21st, unnecessary. In the 1970s a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania played two different sounds to 1,800 three year olds on the island of Mauritius. One of the sounds was always followed by a loud, frightening noise. The noise had such an effect on the children that, on hearing the sound that preceded it, the children would sweat with apprehension. Somehow (and we’re asked to take this as a given) the researcher measured the amount each child sweated every time they heard the warning sound.

Fast forward thirty years or so and we find that perhaps there was a point to the experiment after all. It transpires that of the children involved in the experiment 137 went on to gain criminal records. All of these children sweated significantly less than others of similar race and gender. So we have a link between an early fearlessness in the face of loud noises and criminal behaviour. Of course the report begs so many questions. What did other fearlessly sweat-free three year olds go on to become? Astronauts? Heavy Metal musicians? And were there no three year olds back home in Philadelphia? Were their parents more expensive to buy off or was Mauritius simply a pleasant place to go for a working holiday?

Before you rush to try any of this at home, just remember that that was the 1970s. Try something similar today and it may be the last time you are allowed to work with children (or animals). Content yourself with watching today’s shop assistants, force fed the saccharin Christmas hits of yesteryear on a continuous loop, turn into tomorrow’s homicidal maniacs.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hearing through the skin

I don't know if anyone else picked up on some research suggesting that the cries of newborn babies vary from nation to nation. Apparently French babies cry differently from German babies, perhaps because of the speech they heard while in the womb.

Well today I read of some Canadian research suggesting our skin plays a part in interpreting speech. I overdosed on skin watching 'Bruno' last weekend so I'll save you a picture. However, I'm contemplating attending opera in my birthday suit, the better understand the proceedings.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Return of Dumbek

Some time early last year the skin of my dumbek split close to the rim. I have been a fan of goblet drums since spending a month on an excavation in Carthage. We were digging down through a Roman harbour complex to a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Tanit. We had Saturdays off and I spent them getting lost in the souks of Tunis where there were various instruments displayed amongst all the other wonders. I left with two clay drums, one with a medium pitch the other much deeper. Somehow I got them home without breaking them but within a couple of years they were just so much mosaic. Breaks involving the flared section were easily repaired but once cracked at the rim the skin lost all tension and the drum was ruined.

Some years later I bought metal dumbek on which I learned to play Egyptian rhythms. To the amusement of other drummers I tuned it flat; I'd loved the sound of the deeper of the two clay drums and wished to recreate it. It also made it easier to bend notes, tabla style. It served me well until a fall onto a concrete floor broke the alloy tension ring. I was very fond of that drum and missed it greatly. So when a traveller to Istanbul returned with the drum in the picture I was over the moon. However, it was not long before the skin split near the rim. The drum had been made in Pakistan and imported into Turkey. I'm not sure whether the skin, which varied in thickness, was of 'export quality' (ie good-enough-to-sell-abroad-but-I-wouldn't-try-to-sell-it-locally quality), or whether it suffered from changes in temperature and humidity.

Last night, after a long wait, I collected my newly re-skinned drum. The new skin is darker than I have seen on this type of drum and certainly thicker than it was before. I'm itching to play it but the kids are in bed so I'll have to wait for the morning. I favour the under-the-left-arm position; the right hand plays the deep notes while the ring finger of the left hand flicks off the the thumb onto the drum just inside the rim. It's one of the quickest ways I know to get blisters but the sound is very satisfying.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Teaching - the hardest gig? Part Two

Last week, after a delay brought about by the half term break and a Government inspection, I presented the last of a series of woodwind demonstrations. Aimed at the 11yr old intake at a local high school the sessions were designed to educate the children about instruments they would only otherwise see on TV. There was also a hope that some children might take up the flute, clarinet or saxophone themselves.

The sessions open with a question to the audience: 'What is a woodwind instrument?" As someone who didn't know what a flute looked like until first presented with one at age 13 or 14, I should not have been surprised by some of the answers. Drums, guitar and 'cello were obviously way off the mark. Trumpet a little closer. One completely unexpected suggestion was didgeridoo. From that session onwards I brought in a 5ft (1.5m) cardboard tube to use as my first instrument and followed this up with a genuine Australian didge (pictured).

I keep the didge playing to a minimum. The embouchure doesn't sit easily with playing reed instruments so I don't practise it much. Then comes bamboo flute; children are always surprised that so much music can come from something so simple. This I contrast with the orchestral flute on which I play 'Greensleeves' accompanied by the class teacher on piano. Greensleeves is an English folk tune attributed, at least by some, to King Henry VIII although it is unlikely to have been written before he died in 1547. Perhaps as many as half the children recognised this but none could name it.

Questions about the flute, and for the other instruments, include "How much do they cost?" and "How many buttons has it got?" I can never remember how many keys so have to count them all each time. The sax has so many I don't bother.

The clarinet comes next and I play them a klezmer tune called Mazel Tov, (Yiddish for Good Luck!). I don't know many klezmer tunes in major keys but this is one and it's a hit. I mention the instruments uses in jazz and classical music before playing something from Carmen by Bizet, again with a piano accompaniment. I make a mental note to find out exactly what a character in SpongeBob plays on the instrument.

And then come the saxophones. I have brought in an alto and a tenor as this is what the school has available for study. The teacher and I play The Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini. instantly recognised by one and all. I then play a few bars of The Simpsons on the tenor. We contrast size and weight of the instruments and the teacher tells the children about forms to take home if they are interested in learning an instrument.

And now there is time for a final question or two. "Do you teach guitar?"

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

MIDI files for improvisation Part 2

Last week I posted some midi files for improvising in one key. It is possible to improvise against those chord sequences with the notes of one scale only. It's like cycling with stabilizers; completely safe, fun at first but quickly limiting.

This week I want to take it a bit further with the following sequence:

l:C / / / lC / / / lD / / / lD / / / l
l F / / / lF / / / lC / / / lC / / / :l 8 Bar in C midi file

This sequence is in the key of C major but visits the neighbouring key of G major. The D chord in bars 3 and 4 is acting as the dominant chord in G major and you should play an F# against it rather than an F natural. Note that it is not acting as the tonic of D major so don't play C#. If you don't know what I mean by tonic and dominant, don't worry at this stage; the exercise will still work.

Listen to the sequence and you will hear the chords changing. Now play along in C major, changing to G major (the key with F# in) for the bars with the D chord, and back to C major for the F and C chords. When you have mastered this try the same exercise in the other keys (below) and try breaking the rules to see what happens. For instance, play a C# against the D chord and see if you like it. Music is in the ear of the beholder.

The same sequence in F:

l:F / / / lF / / / lG / / / lG / / / l
lBb / / / lBb / / / lF / / / lF / / / :l 8 Bar in F midi file

Play in F major except over the G chord where you play in C major (so no Bb for those two bars).

and the same sequence in G:

l:G / / / lG / / / lA / / / lA / / / l
l C / / / lC / / / lG / / / lG / / / :l 8 Bar in G midi file

Play in G major except over the A chord where you play in D major (so add C# to the F# you already play).

And finally, if none of these symbols mean anything to you and you play entirely by ear then good for you. Feel the changes and let your ears/fingers find the notes that go best.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Thank you, Sting

For those of you who don't live in the UK, or who have better things to do than watch TV, The X Factor is a cheap 'reality' TV programme in which members of the public perform their party pieces - covers of other people's songs - in front of a live studio audience and three arbiters of quality and taste. It is a show that has captured the public imagination. There is something mesmerising about watching people make fools of themselves before being torn apart by a panel of judges. Car crash television.

So why should I care? After all, I don't watch much TV and there are plenty of other viewing options if wanted them. But I do work in music education and it bothers me that children watch this and aspire to being involved in 'art' of this kind. And when I say involved I don't mean as a hard-working (but unseen) stage musician, make-up artist or camera operator. They want to be the stars and they want it now. And most are spared the humiliation.

What happens to the chosen few? Being young they know that getting older, being last year's, or last decade's, news is not going to happen to them. After their attention seeking has been fully exploited they have two choices. Either launch their kids into hot-air balloons for another media-fix or resign themselves to a life of opening village fetes and switching on Christmas lights. Pantomimes, of course, need actors so that's out.

Andy Warhol said "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes". Well it's the future now and the competition for cutting the ribbon at the new supermarket is immense; fifteen minutes is a very short shelf life. Everyone has 'talent' for something but only those who work at developing and honing that talent will endure.

For more on this, by someone far more eloquent than myself, read Sting's take on The X Factor.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Recording the blacksmith

Back in May, Cogitator posted a short clip of a blacksmith hammering away at an anvil. This made a strong impression on me and when I came across a blacksmith at a camp in August I knew to take advantage of the situation.

Dave Perks brought a portable forge with him to the camp and set it up in the shade of some trees. He was very happy to demonstrate the rhythmic nature of his hammering technique: so many beats on the iron being forged, interspersed with beats on the anvil in order to maintain momentum. He had brought along an unusual piece of scrap iron, a disc with fins, that he wanted to make mountable as a gong. I managed to capture most of the process in one way or another and have made the results into a short movie (3'52).

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Taking music exams - ten tips

A friend told me recently that her daughter was soon to take her Grade 5 flute exam. The problem was that she had played the three set pieces to death. Is there any way to revive a piece of music that has died on you?

Not all my students take exams. Exams suit some and not others. They can bring people on, or they can turn a student into an 'exam junkie'. Exam junkies just want to get through the grades as quickly as possible. They do very well until they reach a point where they just don't have the breadth of experience and technique to progress further. Being addicted to success, this where they would rather give up than put in the necessary work. Exams are a learning aid only and should be part of a balanced diet.

If are taking an exam you will find people are only too willing to give you advice. Here's mine. Just like everyone else's, take what is good for you and ignore the rest.

  1. Remember why you chose to play the instrument. Is it because you love the sound it makes? Have you become so bogged down in the mechanics of the pieces that you have forgotten about the sound?
  2. Remember why you're taking the exam: to get one person's objective and informed opinion of how well you play on a particular day, under pressure. And this in the hope that they can tell you something useful.
  3. Forget any other reasons you may have for taking the exam. These may include pleasing your teacher, impressing friends or family members and gaining entry to some band or orchestra. While these may seem important in the short term they are ephemeral. Don’t let them come between you and your enjoyment of the instrument.
  4. Your teacher may well be piling on the pressure. This should be constructive: about you and improving your performance. But beware, and challenge if you feel able, any negative pressure to do well. Your teacher may feel nervous on your behalf or may feel it reflects badly on them if you achieve a poor result. That’s their ‘stuff’ and it’s unfair for them to make you responsible for that.
  5. If you have been ‘bribed’ to do well by the promise of some material reward try, to put it from your mind. This is negative pressure by the back door. If you can bring yourself to do this, politely decline the reward in advance and free yourself of the distraction. You never know, perhaps you’ll be rewarded anyway.
  6. It doesn't matter how well or badly you do. It's not a GCSE or your driving test. If you do well, tell the world. If you do badly, keep it to yourself. As soon as you take another grade, or have any other musical success, this result becomes redundant
  7. If your pieces are ‘dying’ on you because you have played them too often, give them a rest. Play something else. Play an easy piece but make it sound great. You may have already mastered Greensleeves or Bach’s famous Minuet but remind yourself why they were so popular. Improvise with friends or to a backing track.
  8. Consider a stage actor who must perform the same part night after night. It is not enough to learn the lines and repeat them. For each performance they must breathe life into their character. They must become that person. Learning the ‘To be or not to be’ speech will not, by itself, make you Hamlet. Find the character in each of your pieces.
  9. Look for your blind spots. If possible record yourself playing your set pieces and listen back. Where do your fingers stumble, where does the intonation suffer? What other technical errors are you making? Now, rather than play entier pieces, concentrate on those passages and gradually expand them by playing the bars either side.
  10. Dare to contemplate failure. The fear of failure makes failure more likely. What are you really afraid of? Is it your teacher, your family, your friends? (Please don’t say the examiner! You will probably never meet them again and whether they smile or frown during your performance is rarely reflected in the mark they give.) Any storm you have to weather afterwards will quickly pass. You are doing this for yourself. It’s a hobby, maybe even a passion. Enjoy the event.

And a final note on failure. Call me a woolly liberal if you like but I hate the word. People give up instruments because they don't pass. This is the downside of exams. People fail for all sorts of reasons while less able musicians scrape through. It doesn't mean they have no affinity for the instrument they played the day before the result came through.

Everyone finds their level. I dropped out of A-level geography but I still enjoy travel and reading about other parts of the world. Stopping formal study is no barrier to continued enjoyment. I'll never be as good a flautist as James Galway or Hariprasad Chaurasia. That hasn't made me give up the flute and failing your exam is not a good enough reason for you to quit your instrument.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Midi files for improvisation

I have written in Playing With Sound, and blogged recently, about improvisation. I thought it might be useful, in addition to the chord charts, to upload some midi files so you can improvise along in the keys of C, F and G. There's no mystery. Provided you can play the major scale of the appropriate key you can't go wrong. So C major goes with '12 Bar in C' and so on.

The files will play in Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and QuickTime. All you need to do is click on the link. If you want to save them to your computer, click on File (top left of your screen) and then 'Save Page As'. Decide where you want to put them and click OK. I went to the trouble of creating them in three different styles, each cheesier than the one before.

12 Bar in C
12 Bar in F
12 Bar in G

I'll take this further in a future post.

Friday, 6 November 2009

My new shaker

For a man whose book of music games claims to be equipment-free I have been enjoying props lately. First the non-standard dice and now this shaker. It was the end of my weekend away and we stopped in a little market town called Ashbourne. Having endured a café where the service was so bad it was actually funny, we took advantage of the extra hour created by the switch from British Summer Time back to GMT. What to do? Window-shopping! My partner, with an eye for clothes, spotted an ethnic shop with a tiny street frontage, the size of a door. The interior was far larger, taking up two floors of an old Georgian house. And while she perused the garments I surveyed the various knickknacks: bangles, beads and mantelpiece clutter, all at pocket money prices.

I’m always on the look out for a musical instrument I’ve never seen before but this shop was rather disappointing: Indian bells on strings that were de rigueur for self-respecting hippies back in the seventies, and some gourd shakers. The shakers looked like the worst kind of tourist tat: over-decorated and unwieldy; an ornament not an instrument. To confirm my suspicions I picked it up and shook it. And was pleasantly surprised.

It’s actually more like a rain stick than a shaker, despite being just under a foot (30cm) long. In itself that wasn’t enough to interest me as the ‘shower’ lasts barely more than a second: all over before you’ve even opened your brolly. But the quality of the sound is intriguing. It has musical notes that suggest metal or ceramic elements inside, although there is no sign of the gourd having been opened. Some aspects of the sound recall bamboo gamelan instruments while others remind me of a self-righting plastic baby toy (circa 1987) that had a bell inside. Play the clip and judge for yourself.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Free game for November

If you can tap your foot you should try November's free music game. Inspired in part by Luke Rhinehart's 'The Dice Man' it involves rolling dice to decide what beats to play on.

You really don't need any 'proper' musical instruments for this game. A tin can, comb, hole punch or plastic bag will work just as well. Obviously, if you happen to have a Stradivarius violin to hand don't hide it away: that will sound just fine too.

Anyone can play. And you really don't need a fancy die like the one in the picture. A standard-issue six-sider will work just as well. Or you can make yourself a spinner with a matchstick and a piece of cardboard.

I post a new game every month, in addition to the ten on the website. If you sign up to the newsletter you need never miss one. The dice game is great fun. Cause a stir by playing it between courses at your local restaurant - there are plenty of things to make sounds with on a dining table.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Improvise? I don't know what to play

Jazz can be very daunting to play: all those chords coming thick and fast. But there are sequences that are easy to play over, providing you keep within the same key. For instance, if you are soloing in C major against the chords C, F and G (the 'primary' chords in C) then anything you play will sound OK. Incidentally, this goes for the 'secondary' chords Am, Dm and Em too. Just play the notes of the C major scale and let the chords make you sound good.

Easy? Well you might think so but it can still be hard to play anything. This is like writer's block. Asking a musician to play up and down a scale is a lot like asking an author to type the alphabet on their blank sheet of paper. It's writing but it's not very creative!

But writing gives us a clue. Imagine the instrument you are playing is your voice and use it to say "Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall". Try it again with some different notes. Now you have a musical phrase. Only you know you are really playing Humpty Dumpty.

Now try some other lines you know. Something from Shakespeare perhaps? It doesn't have to rhyme; anything will do. You can tell your own story or describe how you felt on your way to wherever you are playing: "I burnt the toast so I had to make some more and that made me miss my bus and now I'm grumpy." Too long? Probably. So just take one part of it and play that: "I burnt the toast, I burnt the toast." Use another section for an answering phrase: "Now I'm grumpy".

Telling your own story in this way can make it easier to connect emotionally with the music you are playing. As you become practised at this technique you can react spontaneously to events as you play. Whether your audience is the Albert Hall or the rest of your class you can express annoyance with someone who came in late or proclaim your love for the attractive person in the front row. And they'll never know (at least until you tell them).

Having got started with improvising in this way you may find you have an incentive to tackle the esoteric arts of modulation and key change. But that's for a future post.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Musician's rest

I never really got on with the Walkman. Although small for its time it was still cumbersome and the novelty of music on the go quickly wore off. The mp3 player is less so but I realise that what I don't like is having music fed directly into my ears. I enjoy listening to music but also have a good memory for it and usually have something 'playing in my head'. The advantages of this are that I can't lose the player and it never runs out of batteries. And it nearly always plays something appropriate to the moment.

Living in Norfolk, a county not famous for dramatic topography, I tend not to recall tracks associated with vast panoramas. On a well-earned break in the Peak District last weekend I found myself revisiting The Who's 'I Can See For Miles' for the first time in at least a decade. It is a dramatic, uplifting piece of music and suited the splendid view from the top of The Roaches. (The curious lyric is about a boy who pretends to be blind so he can watch his girlfriend flirt and then complain to her about it afterwards. A psychologist would have a field day.)

The best part of the trip was a walk near Monyash before the weekend crowds arrived. There were times when I could hear nothing but the occasional bird. (Even the head-player switched itself off.) Living in a city there is always some man-made sound going on. Screening out the unwanted noise becomes second nature but still requires effort. What I needed most was the sound of silence and that afternoon it came like rain to a desert.

And then of course, this being England in October, it really did rain. But beautifully.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Seeds on stony ground?

I did two more woodwind demonstrations this week which passed without a hitch. The Pink Panther theme always goes down well, as does The Simpsons music. I hold up 8-year old Lisa as an example of someone who's done a lot of practice to reach such a high standard. (I suspect, in his time, Bleeding Gums Murphy has done a lot of something too but I don't go there.) The clarinet brought some surprising responses because a character in Sponge Bob apparently plays it. Note to self: watch more TV.

One year 7 class remains. I couldn't fit it into my schedule. When I asked about it I was told it was the special needs class: ten students, three helpers. I would be unlikely to get any takers but they would probably enjoy the experience.

Straight after that I found myself chatting with the guitar tutor about a student he had who was making little or no progress and seemed ill-equipped to grasp even the basics. What to do? So I told him of my time in a special school where for some kids even assembling a saxophone with the crook (curvy bit) pointing the right way took some weeks to crack. There were no future Galways, Charlie Parkers or Naftule Brandweins among them but there were improvements in their co-ordination, behaviour and appreciation of music. On top of that they were getting one-to-one with an adult who was neither parent nor class teacher and needy kids just love attention.
So now the guitar teacher is determined to enjoy his student on the child's own level and I'm ready to perform for kids in the bottom set and broaden their horizons in any way I can. But first it's the half term holiday and hooray for that.

The significance of the title? My memory of the Bible is poor: it was compulsory to attend church on Sundays at my old school and there were various assemblies led my well-meaning hypocrites. This 'Christianity as a tool of the Establishment' was guaranteed to foster rebellion against organised religion in all its forms. However I do remember something about the waste of scattering seeds on stony ground. That may be true for gardeners but when it comes to people no ground is so hard that you can't plant something.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Drummer's Tale

Martin, the drum teacher at a local high school, related this exchange with at student:

Martin: "Where's your book?"
Boy: "I actually had my book and drumsticks in my hand but then the house caught fire. We had to leave and I wasn't allowed to take anything with me. I wanted to go back in to get them but the fireman said I couldn't. I said it was my drum lesson today and I had to get my sticks but he wouldn't let me ."
Martin: "You forget them again, didn't you?"
Boy: "Yeah."
Martin: "How long did it take you to think that one up?"
Boy: (thinks...) "About an hour?"

Time better spent practising, no doubt, but now that you're reading this perhaps the effort wasn't entirely wasted.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Teaching - the hardest gig? Part One

Performing for adults, although not always a breeze, is very different from entertaining children. For a start, adults have chosen to be there and are generally predisposed to having a good time. Kids, in school anyway, are there under sufferance and are not usually allowed to start chatting amongst themselves or drift off to the bar.

As a classroom teacher there is time in which to get to know a group and build a relationship. As a freelancer it's often a completely new class each time: new kids and new teacher in charge. There is usually, even within the same school, a completely different culture: ground rules and acceptable standards of behaviour are never the same twice. Yet every teacher seems surprised that there may be other ways of doing things.

I am presently in the middle of a series of sessions in which I am trying to revive interest in learning woodwind at a local high school. The place had just built a new library and created a sixth form when the old head retired. He was replaced by a man who was the perfect embodiment of the Peter Principle (by which members of an organisation rise to their level of incompetence). Within two years he had turned the school around, nosediving it into a failed inspection and a 'special measures' regime. Parents capable of exercising choice sent their kids anywhere but this school and music, including woodwind, went through the floor.

So in attempt to garner students I have been taking in a variety of instruments to demonstrate to Year 7 classes. I am about half way through the series and will report next week when it's all over. To date the highlight has to be the student who was evicted from the room for failing to give an appropriate answer during the roll call. Presumably to maximise the attention he was getting he decided to sprint to the door, failing as he did so to notice the music stand I had set up. The stand went down with the child on top. Fortunately neither suffered any real damage.

In all this episode must have wasted ten or fifteen minutes of teaching time as we waited for a senior teacher to come and hear both sides of the story in the corridor outside.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sounds of Africa

I buy a paper most Saturdays and spend the rest of the week trying to read it. This morning I actually made it to the travel section of The Guardian where they drew my attention the their Blog of the Month. It's truly an amazing site called Listen to Africa and it features photos and audio clips gathered on a two year cycling trip. It's gone straight in to my bookmarks.

There is a splendid variety of sounds and commentary but I'll stop prostrating myself before the blog's creators and let you check it out for yourself. Beware the python-chicken clip. (They warned me but I couldn't help myself.)

Friday, 9 October 2009

A mission for the new intake

Are you a teacher looking for ideas for the new intake? Does your school have any of those hand-held USB sound recorders such as the Easi-Speak? Then this may be for you.

I moved house recently and was struck by all the different sounds that contributed my new environment. Your new students may not have articulated it but I imagine the new sounds they have encountered since joining the school must have made an impression. I have described the Easi-Speak recording microphones in earlier blogs but any similar recording device would do for this exercise and many mobile phones will record sound in adequate quality. Form teams of three, one team for each recording device. That gives you one ‘leader’, one to operate the device and one to log the recorded sounds on paper. The leader is the least necessary of the three but can keep their ears open and suggest new sounds to record, freeing up the others to concentrate on their tasks. You could also make them responsible for ensuring the written record tallies with the clips on the recorder.

If possible, issue the recorders at the start of the day and collect them at the end. In the next lesson you can ask each group to play back the clips and invite the other children to identify the sounds they hear. The quality of the results will depend on many factors, not least the ability of the children to handle the technology. Don’t stint on the training here; and that means familiarising yourself with whatever technology you’re issuing. In my experience most children know their own mobile phones inside out so you needn’t worry in that regard. You will also need to reproduce the sound at sufficient volume. The Easi-Speak and most mobile phones have headphone sockets for a standard sized mini-jack so this should not pose a problem.

So what are the benefits of this exercise? Well, they are manifold. It
  • builds confidence in using the technology.
  • improves presentation skills.
  • promotes independent learning.
  • encourages co-operation.
  • develops powers of aural observation.
  • familiarises children with their new environment.
  • provides an opportunity to repay trust.

A word to the wise: If you are using Easi-Speaks make sure they are charged up, set to record in whichever format you prefer (WAV or mp3) and the memories are clean before you begin. My informal road test may also be worth a read.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Excuses excuses

I've been teaching woodwind for a little over twenty years now and though it hasn't put me in the Howard Hughes league it hasn't been a bad life. Perhaps my only regret is that I didn't write down all the excuses I've been given over the years by students who haven't practised. Well, better late than never and I intend to make a list of them for the revamped Adventures in Sound website.

I heard a couple of goodies last week. When asked what an eleven-year-old had done over the weekend the reply came: "Nothing. Just lay about." (I hope I was slightly more forthcoming at that age but I probably wasn't.) "Did you play your flute at all this week?" I asked. "No. I didn't have time." I find that kind of logic-defying answer hard to dispute.

Better than that was the girl who announced at the start of the lesson that she hadn't had time to practise because she'd had to go to the shop and buy some lasagne for her mum. "Was that the only time you had all week?" "Yes. I'm not allowed to practise until I've tidied my room and I didn't finish that until last night and then I had to go and buy the lasagne. And then we watched Dirty Dancing." It transpired that her saxophone was way down on her list of priorities, below other homework, tidying her room, buying strips of pasta and the movies on TV she described in greater detail later in the lesson.

So, in addition to the new free music games page on the site there will soon be a list of the best excuses. Feel free to contribute and be name-checked (if you like). Perhaps you remember one you gave yourself.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

More free music games

October's free music Game of the Month, Phasing Out, is now on the website. The site is undergoing some changes and they are all for the better. It will soon feature more free music games suitable for workshop leaders, drama teachers and classroom teachers at both primary and secondary levels. And if you play in a band you could even cause a stir by playing then with your fellow musicians.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Playing for Dance

Last week Eastern Straynotes, the little band in which I play clarinet, had a couple of firsts. We were asked to play for one of the monthly gatherings of a group of Lindy Hop enthusiasts upstairs in a bar called Orgasmic. This we duly did with our brand new double bassist Gary Rudd, aka Ukuleleladdy and (soon to be) famous for The Ballad of Ronnie Biggs.

Playing for dance is always rewarding. There's a communication between musician and audience that only happens in this context. It is completely unlike playing for diners who, let's face it, only require a background ambiance and perhaps the cache of eating to a live band. This group of people had come to dance and we knew, by the filling and emptying of the dance floor, whether or not we were hitting the spot. We quickly learned what worked and what didn't. Swing numbers such as Stompin' At The Savoy and Jersey Bounce went down well but one of our favourites, Diga Diga Do (which we medley up with the bar music from the first Star Wars film) bombed because the tempo was too fast. One number that really set the place alight was Topsy - hot swing in a dark minor key.

Given that this is a dance form that kicked off in Harlem in the 1920s and was mainstream in the 1940s I wasn't expecting any original exponents to take the floor but I had anticipated an older crowd. There were certainly oldies in their sixties, possibly older, who had lost some athleticism but were able to convey so much with superb economy of movement. But many were in their twenties and thirties, too, coming to the style with no previous knowledge of partner dance. It was lovely to see the ages mixing and feel a part of that.

So, the first Lindy Hop gig and our first outing with new-kid-in-town Gary. I'll remember it partly for the music and partly for the realisation that the ubiquitous kettle lead (Gary needed one for his amp) is all but obsolete as practically every kettle is now cordless. But mostly I'll remember waiting outside Orgasmic for forty minutes after the gig while Gary tried to get his van, parked a three minute walk away, back to the venue through Norwich's one-way system.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Why become a musician?

Why become a musician? Or anything else for that matter?

My father always wanted me to get a steady job; he often mentioned banking as a suitable career because of the security it offered. His own path had led him into an unexpected life in the military via the second world war, going back in after de-mob when he discovered teaching wasn't for him. The stable peace of the cold war made for safe and secure employment.

Today I wouldn't associate safety and security with either of those fields. But they obviously appeal to some for all kinds of reasons. The important thing is to follow your heart. I was told the following at a party last night:

Confucius said "find a job you love and you'll never do a day's work in your life".

Now doesn't that sound like good advice?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

What a surprise!

Research, reported in the Guardian, has shown that learning an instrument at school has knock on benefits in other areas of learning. Does this sound at all familiar to anyone? This time the UK government 'hopes to double the number of children' in primary schools learning an instrument by 2011. The bad news is that there will be an election next year that only the most roseate Labour supporter thinks the incumbents can win. So a great time for making promises then.

Perhaps the new government, of whatever political persuasion, will at last take some notice both of this research and all the other studies that have been made in the past. If you sense a lack of optimism on my part it's because many people struggle with the idea that something recreational, like music, can be of educational benefit beyond its own sphere. No amount of evidence is likely to overturn this fundamental prejudice. I just hope there are enough forward-thinking head teachers out there prepared to give it a try. There's really no need to wait for yet another government initiative.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Sustainable technology

It has been said, although I can't remember by whom, that renaissance man (and presumably woman) understood his world completely. And although I can't help thinking it something of an exaggeration there is no doubt that it was far truer then than now. Since the industrial revolution we have become increasingly specialised creatures, a point brought home to me whenever a piece of hi-tech equipment fails. The most recent instance was the failure of my computer's motherboard. I imagine the 15th century equivalent was having a quill snap; easily remedied, either by oneself or by someone to whom you could explain the problem. I am no stranger to computers but, beyond the fact that mine didn't work, I didn't even know what the problem was.

When a piece of hi-tech gear stops working the first question is whether or not it is cost-effective to effect a repair and this often requires the opinion of a specialist. Often the parts are too expensive to replace or the item itself has become obsolete. In theory it can be recycled by poorly paid workers risking their health in the developing world but in practice it usually ends up as landfill.

So it was with no little joy that I read of some 15th century church bells in Suffolk being re-mounted and rung again for the first time in 25 years. I may even make a pilgrimage to hear them. They are testament to the enduring nature of acoustic instruments. I still play a soprano saxophone that is close to a hundred years old. Somehow I doubt either the software or hardware I use now will be anything like as long lived. Even if it survives it is unlikely to be considered fit for purpose. The life-span of electronic instruments is short, regardless of how well they are looked after. Something worth bearing in mind when deciding how to spend the departmental budget.

Monday, 31 August 2009

September's free game

September's game of the month has moved here temporarily while I sort out my PC and try to recover several lost files, including a more finely crafted version of this very game. As well as providing other benefits it is a perfect back-to-school game, allowing you to learn the names of a new class and giving the children the opportunity to remember and reinforce their class identity. Oh, and don't forget to check out the new free music games page on the website.

Who's calling?
Duration: 5 - 10 minutes depending on numbers
Age: 6 - 13
Players: the whole class

This is designed for children sitting at desks. Itis not a prerequisite but it is perfect for getting to know a new class and if the children are stationary rather than moving around it can be easier to remember their names. It's very similar to other voice recognition games but is easier because the direction from which a sound comes gives a clue as to its source. I make three claims for it:

1. You will get to know the names of the children.
2. The children's awareness of the others in the class will improve
3. It will improve listening skills

Make sure that any new children are known to the rest of the class. You will need to decide what form of names to use. I suggest the names the children are normally known by in school. (Children from other countries with names that are hard to pronounce are often known by nicknames or the closest local equivalent.) Make it clear that any name-calling will not be tolerated.

· Choose one child to be the first listener. Offer them a blindfold if you like but at any rate they must close their eyes. Select another child to be the first caller. Do this by pointing to them.

· The caller sings the name of the first child who must identify the owner of the voice. If the listener guesses right then they pass the blindfold to the caller. If they guess wrongly the caller sings their name again. If, after three calls the listener has failed to identify to caller, that caller is 'safe' (for the time being at least) and you must choose a new caller.

· When a caller is identified they become the next listener.

· Continue in this manner until everyone has had a go at either calling or listening, if not both.

Tips: A confident child who enjoys high status will make a good first listener, is more likely to wear a blindfold and will set the tone for the rest of the game. However, they may make a poor first caller unless they are confident singers because they will fear losing face.
Although the children are relatively safe because they are seated, it is worth stressing that harassment of anyone wearing a blindfold is completely unacceptable.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The buzz on the street

'Cars hiss by my window' sang Jim Morrison. It occurred to me yesterday that it must have been raining when he wrote that. It has been a very dry August in my neck of the woods so when it rained I noticed the difference in the traffic noise drifting across the gardens from the main road. The dry whoosh to which I had become used had taken on a wetter note: this hiss alluded to in the song. I may have been slow getting there - it's forty years since The Doors released LA Woman - but I was pleased with my realisation.

A friend and I were discussing the sound of wind in beech trees recently. They have thin, flexible leaves with an emphasis on quantity rather than size. Morrison compared his cars to 'the waves down on the beach'. Beech leaves have a similar quality to waves over sand but drier, if that makes any sense. It occurred to me that before the massive deforestation that has accompanied agriculture and industry mankind would have been very attuned to what we now consider subtleties. A forest is, to use a phrase coined by David Toop, an ocean of sound constantly providing information for all who can read it.

I used to consider the sound of traffic as merely noise; the audible equivalent of the electromagnetic fog that some believe has contributed to the decline of bees. Whilst I would still prefer it gone it is part of the environmental soundscape and I have to make the best of it. Knowing it's been raining , even before I open my eyes in the morning, is a start. What use I can make of knowing there's a boy racer working off his testosterone or that the police are going somewhere in a hurry I'm really not sure.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Music game - Wobble

Not a 'back to school' game - you'll have to wait for September's Game of the Month for that - more of a holiday relaxation.

Duration: 10 minutes
Age: Consenting adults
Players: Any number of pairs

By focussing their attention elsewhere this activity relaxes the participants' throats and so warms up their vocal cords without straining them. The exercise came from a butoh workshop and is intended both to ground and centre the members of the group.

The 'consenting adults' suggestion is because the players have to touch each other's legs, albeit through clothes. Adults are not immune to self-consciousness but they are usually capable of getting over it. Of course if your players are used to physical contact you'll have no problem in that regard.

· Divide into pairs. If your group is new, or unused to physical touch, you may like to pair men with men and women with women. At the very least be sensitive to people's attitudes to being touched by someone of the opposite sex, especially where cultural taboos exist. If in doubt check you have even numbers of both genders before initiating the game.

· In each pair one person, the receiver, puts their weight almost fully into one leg and presents the other one to their partner, keeping that foot on the ground and using to retain stability. Both knees should be unlocked.

· Their partner, the giver, kneels in front of them and, starting at the upper thigh, uses both hands to wobble the flesh of the leg. They work slowly down the receiver's leg towards the ankle and when they reach the foot they press firmly on the upper surface as if trying to push the foot into the ground. While they wobble the leg they sing into the flesh in any manner they feel appropriate. Their voice may wobble too or it may be a constant tone. The pitch and timbre may or may not vary. There is no right or wrong. The receiver joins in with the singing, either in mimicry or response.

· Do this twice more on that leg and then the receiver shifts their weight into the leg that has been worked on and presents their other leg. The giver wobbles the second leg in the same manner three times. Then the partners swap roles and the giver becomes the receiver.

Tips: This activity is best done in loose, comfortable clothing such as track-suit trousers. It is easier to work a clothed leg than a bare one.
Join in yourself and, vocal-wise, lead from the front.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Sauna acoustics

I have mentioned a rather special building in the past. It is a sauna constructed primarily in plywood in the shape of an icosahedron. I have spent many happy hours in there over the years and have heard speech, laughter, chant and song within its walls (sides?). On my last visit I was treated to some very atmospheric didgeridoo playing late one night around the full moon. This prompted me to try out the acoustic with my clarinet.

I visited in the morning, when it was cool, and set up my recorder. I then began noodling on a folky theme in (concert) D dorian which allows me to drop down to what is, for me as a Bb clarinetist, known as bottom E. A few snaps, some fun in Windows Movie Maker and result awaits below.

From the point of view of the musician I found the acoustic supportive while playing but with a very rapid decay of any reverberations. Parallel surfaces are avoided when building recording studios as they prevent standing waves from making echoes, all of which are added later to give the required sound characteristics. Although the plywood that makes up the sauna is reflective, very little of the surface area is parallel to any other side of the structure. So, unlike most indoor spaces, it has no sympathetic resonances reinforcing the volume of certain notes. Most producers and recording engineers would agree that a sympathetic natural reverb like this is preferable to one applied solely after the event. And the vibe in a studio is unlikely ever to match this sauna. I could have added a flattering 'atmosphere' but prefer it like this.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Free Game for August - Fish and Chips

I love gigs within cycling distance and last night I played at Will Giles' Exotic Garden, a fabulous place near the railway station. The event was a party for Norwich's Green Party which, never having wielded power of any kind, are still considered cute and cuddly and immune from the opprobrium that is traditionally heaped on the spenders of public money. Ironically I had a puncture on the way and, looking for a safe place to put my bike on a Friday night, left it outside the Plantation Gardens, another favourite haunt.

There was enough stone and brick-work at Will Giles's place to make for a good acoustic. It's built on the side of a steep hill so there's a sense of being in an amphitheatre when playing. Although amplification was technically forbidden Andy still managed to sneak his battery powered Pig behind a palm leaf to enable a reasonable balance with the clarinet. Our mix of klezmer and jazz usually hits the spot and this was no exception.

I have just posted a new Game of the Month for August on the website. Fish and Chips was taught to me by a group of ten year olds earlier this year but I believe its appeal is universal by both age and geography. In case you are wondering, chips are deep fried lengths of potato, roughly equivalent to North American fries and what the French call pommes frites. By all means substitute a food item with which your players will be familiar. If you are playing in Spanish please try the word 'paella' and let me know how you get on.

The game is perfect for bonding as the individuals in the group have to listen closely to each other. I hate to say it, so early in the holiday season, but it's a perfect 'back to school' game.

Talking of holidays, this is my last post for a couple of weeks. I'm off to a couple of camps to play live music for various dance forms and will tell all on my return. May the sun shine on us all but especially on my tent.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Working with children and animals

The old Hollywood adage is never to work with either. I played for a tiny family gathering today with Andy the guitarist. It was suggested we play under a tree next to the hens. Birds seem to like wind instruments in a way that mammals don't. These chickens were singing along merrily so I asked a boy of about eleven to take a picture with instructions to get the chickens in the shot. 'Take as many as you like,' I said. When I got home and looked at the camera I found 230 pictures, only one of which had the birds in shot.

In retrospect their voices didn't carry especially well. We weren't using amplification apart from a little boost to Andy's nylon stringed guitar. However, I appreciated their moral support and they certainly gave us a stage presence we may otherwise have lacked.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Aeolian Roof Box

If you've been following this blog you'll know I went to see some musical theatre last week rather than go and look at a roof box. In fact I went the next morning, prior to a weekend's camping and jamming in the woods near historic Bury St Edmunds.

I duly bought the box and headed for home. I was about to turn on the radio, my chosen CD having been refused by the in-car entertainment system, when I was treated to the song of the roof box. Sweeter even than those ancient sirens who charmed Odysseus. Mind you, they had to compete for attention with the Aegean Sea: the A140 is easier to upstage.

Factors including wind direction and speed of travel made for an enjoyable ride back listening to the roof-bars and box run through the harmonic series. And in case you're wondering if I've lost the plot, others have enthused unbidden. It was my best motoring experience since Classic FM used birdsong as a test signal back in the 1990s. Had I known the roof-box vendor was throwing in an aeolian harp I may have forced another tenner on him.

Well it's nearly time for a new game. August's Game of the Month will have a seaside flavour, although it can be played anywhere. Look out for it from Saturday. Meanwhile it's not too late to check out the July offering at Called Limelight you may find it useful if you are faced with a disparate band of would-be musicians at a workshop or play-scheme this summer.