Saturday, 28 February 2009

Getting out the instruments – 10 points

If you work with children, how was your last experience of working with musical instruments? Did it border on chaos? Were you left hoarse and exhausted with a splitting headache? I'm talking here about 'real' classroom instruments from the percussion trolley or cupboard. I've witnessed and officiated over stressful lessons with electronic keyboards too but I'll save my thoughts on those particular delights for another time.

So the worst case scenario goes like this: You get out the instruments and hand one to each child. While you are doing this the children are either experimenting with or complaining about the instrument they have or, if they are still waiting, begging for one of those yet to be distributed. By now you are tense and irritated and begin issuing threats and administering sanctions. The 'good' kids get nervous and frustrated. The 'bad' kids sense an opportunity. And you haven't even started. The lesson continues in the same vein and you don't get through half what you had hoped. And you vow never to put yourself through that again.

Consider the following:
1. The only other school equipment that is given the colour scheme of a toy shop or sweet shop is found in the gymnasium. It's far less noisy for a start and the kids get to run off their excitement. (Are the computers in the IT room given the rainbow treatment? I don't think so.)
2. The excitement generated by the sight of all this wonderful gear is in inverse proportion to the opportunities to use it. And then some. It's basic economics: scarcity increases interest. The less often you get the stuff out the worse it's going to be when you do.
3. The sweet shop analogy is very apt. Perhaps the only difference is that sweets make less noise to begin with and are enjoyed in relative silence. But children want to know what they all taste like.
4. Decide what activity, game or exercise you want to share and which instruments you are going to use.
5. A class of about thirty children is going to be unmanageable. The only way to make it work is to rule with a rod of iron but this will crush the spirit of exploration and is likely to turn many off music for ever. Music should be fun.
6. So split the group into as many groups as you have responsible adults. This should take your group size from about thirty down to about fifteen. If you are the only adult the following exercise will be more challenging, less than ideal but not necessarily impossible.
7. Clear away the tables and chairs and have everybody sit in a circle (or circles) on the floor. Circles give a sense of belonging – everyone is included and everyone can see what's going on and when their turn will come. Allow them to kneel if they prefer – it's a more dynamic posture. Have the circles as far away from each other as possible.
8. Take two of the same instrument and, if there is anything you think they might not discover easily for themselves, demonstrate it to the group. Pass one to the person on your left, the other to the person on your right. Ask each person to explore the instrument for a moment and pass it on. Some may take longer than others and this is OK. Peer pressure will usually prevent anyone taking too long. When the instruments meet across the circle take them back and put one of them 'away'.
9. Tell the group you will make a sound on the instrument and pass it on. You want each person to try to make a different sound from the person who gave to them. The group may only think of two different sounds and this is OK. Just let them alternate these. It forces them to listen to the sounds that are being made and watch the others as they try to make them.
10. Repeat these two processes with all the instruments you intend to use. Think of it as a tasting session. If the instruments were food items you would want to try them individually. Children are likely to cram their mouths with all manner of conflicting flavours if given free rein in a sweet shop: it's only natural. You are helping them develop a more sophisticated sonic palate.

Now you are ready to hand out the instruments and get on with your lesson plan. The children may still be disappointed with their allocation but at least they will have had a go on everything and will less desperate to sample everyone else's.

Remember to take everything slowly, step by step. The more gradual the process, the more relaxed you'll feel. If you are not enjoying yourself, ask yourself why. As with any other activity, your confidence and sense of wonder will inspire your students.

Friday, 20 February 2009


This is a way of getting reluctant singers, especially young children, to activate their vocal cords. First you need to get them humming. If you anticipate resistance even here then break the ice by treating them to your impression of a refrigerator and ask them to name them the familiar household item you are pretending to be. Obviously, if they are unfamiliar with fridges you'll have to think of something else. Before you head off down a tangent, invite them to try their own refrigerator impression.

By now everyone should be humming. Try getting them to explore the tingling feeling in their lips. If they can't feel any tingling ask them to smile and, at the same time, hold their lips together less tightly, so they are just touching. Now see if they can move the sound up into their nose for a more nasal tone. And down into their throat – is it less buzzy on the lips down there? Humming at a higher pitch can help bring the sound into the head, a lower pitch can bring it naturally into the chest.

All this, useful as it is, is just to distract them so they are willing to attempt the next step. By now they should be happy to copy whatever you are doing. As you hum and smile, let your lips part for a moment, making a mummmm sound. Repeat this action: mum-mum-mum and so on, on a single out-breath. If your students are copying you then they are singing. Before you share the fact with, try the following escalation.

Instead of just opening your mouth slightly to make a mum sound, make longer mah-mmah-mmah sounds. The mouth should alternate between open and shut in a steady and even rhythm. Make a big show of opening your mouth wide and closing it again. Your students will naturally copy this, some more emphatically than others, and now you can tell them what wonderful singers they are. A simple song for them to sing would be a good way of consolidating your gains at this point.

Don't dwell on any stage of this activity. As soon as you think they are getting it move on quickly. Time in which to become self-conscious will be stop the flow and scupper your efforts.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


I am starting work on two projects in different primary schools later this month. In both cases the schools are interested in encouraging the exploration of soundscapes. Although their approaches differ, each school has recently invested in a number small microphones that contain a 128MB memory. Called Easi-Speaks, they look and feel like toys which is great because they are lightweight, robust and not in the least intimidating. Being unfamiliar with them I borrowed an Easi-Speak and took it on a trip to Amsterdam last weekend.

I have a Zoom H4 that I use for location recording because it is very portable and records high quality wav files. It has phantom power for external mics as well as a stereo pair of high quality built-in mics. It runs on a pair of AA batteries, records in a variety of formats and has virtually limitless memory, especially if I take along a spare flash card. It will fit in any large pocket.

The Easi-Speak records mp3 files at 128kbps or wav files at64kbps, neither of which makes for hi-fidelity but which makes its memory go much further. To charge its integral battery it requires a dedicated charger or else a computer that will charge it via its USB port. This can be a problem in the field, as I discovered when I accidentally left it switched on, although not recording, and the battery went flat. I don't know how easy it would be to incorporate an automatic switch off if it has been idle for any length of time. I can see this being a problem for children on field trips. The good news is that files already recorded into the memory are not lost.

The microphone doubles as a loudspeaker and there is a headphone socket so it is possible to play back files although, without any kind of display, playback is best done via a computer when back at base.

One feature I am very pleased to find omitted is 'automatic level control'. When ghetto blasters came fitted with a microphone – useful for recording band rehearsals onto cassette back in the eighties – they automatically adjusted the volume level to prevent overloading the medium. A crude form of compression, in fact. In a nutshell it makes the loud sounds quieter and the quiet sounds louder, including all the background noise you would rather do without. On my test-run I recorded myself approaching a barrel organ, passing by and walking on. If I play the sound back now and close my eyes I can see it all vividly as the music fades in and out again. With automatic level control the volume would have remained fairly constant with background noise and hiss morphing into music and back to noise again.

The downside is that it is possible to overload the microphone by holding it too close to the mouth when singing or speaking, but good microphone technique is a useful skill that is easily acquired. Given the choice I would always opt for the ability to control levels myself, even if the odd take is ruined by overloading the mic.

So, all in all, a fabulous piece of kit for the money – a mere £29.99 from the manufacturers (less if you buy five at a time). Just as for some trips you just want to take along a little point-and-shoot camera rather than a bulky SLR, so this is tiny enough to carry on the off chance of coming across something interesting. I want one! And I'm looking forward to learning a few tricks from the kids when we take them with us on field trips.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Of birds and Bach

What's your favourite sound? I have many and would have found that a very difficult question to answer until some years ago when something very pleasant, but completely unexpected, happened. At the time I was working in a number of schools in Norwich and Norfolk and spending far too long in my car driving between them. The car was not a great place to be and this was largely because it was filled with the sound of its driver cursing other road users for clogging up the roads. One day I was looking for something on the radio to take my mind off yet another stressful journey when I came across a station broadcasting birdsong. It turned out that the soon-to-be-launched Classic FM was using the sounds of birds for the purpose of testing its signal.

I was reminded of this when I woke this morning. Although I live close to the city centre my bedroom looks out over the well established gardens of large Victorian houses. The trees are many and various making for a habitat that supports a respectable population of birds. I've seen plenty of sparrows, robins, blackbirds and blue-tits as well as woodpeckers, magpies, pigeons and collared doves. A heron visits occasionally, to clear urban ponds of fish, along with a raptor of some kind that I'm told is after the pigeons.

As the dark and dreary winter drags on, one compensation is that one does not need to rise very early in order to hear the dawn chorus. But a city dawn chorus in February is no substitute for a forest in June, however leafy the streets and gardens. When I was studying for a diploma I was required to harmonise Bach chorals from which one or more parts had been removed. (It's a kind of Sudoku for musical theorists - puzzling, satisfying when completed and there's a vague hope that it's doing some good.) Like those incomplete chorals February's dawn chorus seems too thin, missing the parts played by birds holidaying elsewhere and lacking the majestic fullness of sound that a bigger population would provide. Roll on summer and holidays out of town.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Sweet sound of success

Last week I sent an eleven year old home with instructions to persevere. She had been unable to get a sound out of her flute in her first lesson and was rather despondent. She came back this morning complaining that she hadn't been able to get a sound out of the instrument. There followed the reasons that I love so much. The flute needs a polish. The head joint is dirty inside and we've lost the cleaning rod.

We began trying to make a sound. Each out-breath was followed by at least a minute spent telling me that she couldn't do it. We tried various positions to no avail. We made sure the air was being directed in a narrow stream. Eventually I realised that the child was exhaling so slowly that her breath wouldn't have misted a mirror on a cold day. It was like a kettle on the stove, just beginning to make a sound but nowhere near whistling. When I asked how hard she would blow to extinguish the candles on a birthday cake we made a breakthrough. And then we'd run out of time but there was relief and smiles all round.

She came back at break (recess), full of enthusiasm, so while I waited for my next student I taught her her first note. I'm looking forward to hearing how much her tone has improved after the half term holiday.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Ant music

Well, not really, but did anyone else hear the article on BBC Radio 4 yesterday about naturalists who had managed to insert microphones and a tiny speaker into an ants' nest? Apparently it has been known for some time that these insects make sounds when they are under threat and of course any disturbance of their nest will be seen as hostile. On this occasion the researchers succeeded in recording sounds of 'happy' ants. Different ants make different sounds, depending on their function in the colony, in order to communicate with their fellows. The sounds were played back to them and their behaviour observed.

This was all done in order to learn how some insects manage to live as aliens inside ant colonies by tricking their hosts into believing they are neither aggressors nor food. I have searched the BBC for more about this and drawn a blank. I must assume I have received a lesson in the importance of attentive listening but it is something I will try to follow up.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The sounds of the thaw

I realise that for many this may be a little premature or even irrelevant. If so then bear with me because this post is really about ephemeral sounds. This morning, walking with my daughter to school, I heard sounds that only happen when snow is melting. The sounds of slush: feet in slush, wheels of bicycles and cars in slush. There's a wet but slightly crunchy quality to that.

The sounds of water dripping without it raining at the same time. Water dripping or running onto surfaces and objects. These sounds are audible with a clarity that doesn't exist if they are accompanied by the patter of rain. My favourite was water dripping from gutters two stories up onto the new blue wheelie bins we have in this part of town for our recyclable waste. They must have been emptied very recently and had a hollow, tubby sound to them that only they could make.

So what could have been a pretty miserable journey, with my inadequate shoes letting in water (to remind me to polish them), became something in which I could take pleasure. Enough, at least, to take my mind of the coldness of my feet. And the moral in case you haven't already guessed? Enjoy the sounds around you, especially those you don't hear often. Listen hard enough and there's nearly always something to reward you.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Teaching disturbed children

Some years ago I taught woodwind to students aged 11 to 18 in a special school for children who were being given one last chance. If this didn't work out for them their next home would be secure accommodation of one sort or another. Some had been traumatised by severe abuse at home, some were from good homes but were chronic offenders and others had mental health issues that gave rise to antisocial behaviour. In short, they were challenging.

Enter me. At the time I was teaching woodwind in a number of private and state schools, as well as privately in a desirable part of town. My expectations of my students, and of myself, were high. Success meant achieving good marks for my pupils in their Associated Board exams. If one of them had an issue with an aspect of their technique, or made a mistake in a piece, I would point it out and together we would address the problem.

What I wasn't used to was students who would assemble their saxophone with the crook (the top part) pointing the wrong way week after week, students who wouldn't accept they'd made a mistake in a piece of music and would fly into a rage if I even suggested it, students with attention spans shorter than a chocolate commercial, students who storm out of the lesson shouting and swearing and students who weren't in the mood that day so decided not to come.

I spent the first few weeks wondering how best to explain to my employers that these kids were unlikely to pass their grade one exams any time soon. When I finally plucked up the courage I discovered that they didn't care. They were interested in giving their students a new experience. They wanted to add value to these kids of a kind that a pass or fail at grade one couldn't measure.

And so I began to see things differently too. I learned to tell when a very angry fifteen year old was in a receptive mood and when to forget the clarinet and listen to her rail against the world instead. I learned to savour moments such as the first time a boy whose body, the visible parts anyway, was covered in burn scars, put the crook on his saxophone the right way round without prompting. I learned to appreciate the gradual increases in his co-ordination skills.

It won't surprise you to know that my attitude to teaching 'normal' students changed as a result of working at that school. People learn for all sorts of reasons that are not goal-oriented and to assume they all aspire to greatness is a mistake. My students in the special school were extreme examples but the principle is the same: strive to find out what it is they need and add value where you can. For most of your students that really is the best thing you can offer them.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Leader Follower

I have just posted this month's free game at It's an exercise called Leader Follower that I've played at many workshops, my own and other people's and its enduring popularity is testament to its usefulness. It's very good for building trust between the members of a group as well as being an effective bridge to games involving blindfolds. It involves a group of 'leaders' each of whom guides a temporarily sightless 'follower' around a space At the end of the exercise the followers almost always feel disorientated when they open their eyes. I thought it would be fun to explore this feeling so I've given the game a sonic twist, making it more of a listening experience. This, in turn, may help players relax into their sightless state.