Saturday, 25 April 2009

Five Pentatonic Scales

April's free Game of the Month at is for two players at a time, sharing a xylophone. It's based on a West African balafon playing technique and is very good for developing rhythm and co-operation skills as well as exerting a calming influence on players and others in the vicinity.

Here are five scales that can be played on most 'school' instruments. Nearly all of these come with extra keys for the notes F# and Bb intended for substitution of F and B as required. Obviously, if you have a fully chromatic xylophone you have more possibilities but I think you'll find a lot to interest you in these scales:

C Major pentatonic: CDEGAC

D Minor pentatonic: DFGACD

'Japanese' pentatonic: EFABCE

C Lydian pentatonic: CDEF#AC

E Blues pentatonic (with passing note): EGA(Bb)BDE

To avoid wrong notes, remove from the instrument any keys that don't figure in the chosen scale. Also, extrapolate the scale over the range of the instrument using the high A key etc.

Oh, and what is a pentatonic scale? Any scale containing only five (different) notes. Many have no semitone intervals, making them easier to sing in than diatonic scales. You don't need a xylophone to try these out. Play them on whatever you have to hand.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Instrument etiquette

Why are so many instruments in schools in such poor condition? I have heard poor storage facilities cited as an excuse and, while there is certainly some truth in that, I believe the problem has a cultural basis. Why? Because from the time I went to high school, and was first exposed to instruments that were neither pianos nor pictures on record sleeves, I have come across instruments that have been mistreated and misunderstood regardless of the space given over to their storage. Like social attitudes to death, sex, children, gender, race and class the prevailing attitude to musical instruments will take time to change. If we want to see that change in our lifetimes we must start now.

Those of us familiar with gamelan music will know that the term 'gamelan orchestra' refers not to the musicians, who come and go during a performance, but to the instruments in a particular set. Each gamelan has a soul that resides in the large gong, 'gong ageng', of which there is one in every set. The instruments of a set are all made at the same time and their tuning, taken from gong ageng, is unique to that orchestra. When the orchestra is ready it is inaugurated with much ceremony. The gamelan is used in religious and social rituals and is accorded due reverence. Children grow up respecting the instruments of the orchestra and this attitude has endured for generations.

I am certainly not suggesting a cult of musical instrument worship. I know many musicians who have a very close relationship with their chosen instrument but this is more akin to that between craftsmen and their tools. But ask any carpenter why tools are abused and they will tell you it is a lack of proper education. A carpenter only looks after the tools of the trade. A music teacher, on the other hand, looks after a lot of instruments they don't play and possibly don't even like. But they must still treat them with respect and teach that respect to their students and colleagues who will learn best by example.

So what brought this on? I gave a workshop in an infant school the other day and neglected to lay down the ground rules. Fortunately the children were very well behaved but I was forever playing catch-up in terms of conveying what was acceptable behaviour. So, to remind myself, I will list some below. Please feel free to add to them.

1. Treat the instruments with respect, they are expensive
2. Wait until an instrument is passed to you, never try to take one from someone else
3. Explore the instruments to see what sounds they can make but don't treat them roughly
4. Place instruments carefully on the floor (or table) when you've finished with them, never drop or throw them
5. Walk around the instruments, never try to step over them (Stepping over a gamelan instrument is considered a mark of disrespect bordering on sacrilege. The rule prevents damage to instruments and players alike.)
6. At then end of the session, put the instruments away properly

It always surprises me how many secondary school children (and indeed adults) demonstrate a lack of awareness of any of the above. Either they were never exposed to instruments in their first years at school or they were set a poor example. There's a sense in which the music department/cupboard resembling the physics lab would be no bad thing.

Monday, 20 April 2009

My new cuddly toy

Do you enjoy buying new bits of kit? It would appear most of us do and when we feel the urge but can't afford a major item, we go for something minor instead. I used to wonder, when I began taking music seriously, why music shops are full of rulers, rubbers and post-its adorned with clefs, staves and all manner of hackneyed puns: Gone Chopin, Bach in five Minuets (sorry). Having met a fair number of heads of music over the years I realise they are nearly all stationery fixated and the novelty music-themed mug is a must. The answer to their reliance on retail therapy? Increase their budget so they can afford to buy something real.

My latest purchase is a 'Dead Kitten'. The name amused me as a 'dead cat' is the name horn players give to the fluffy pad-saver they stick down their saxophones after playing. My beloved Buescher Aristocrat (pictured) is modelling one. The Kitten, however, is a bag of long-haired, synthetic material with an elasticated opening, designed to fit over the end of a Rode NT4 (below), which is a stereo microphone. It reduces wind noise, making outdoor recordings possible. Even in a light breeze the action of air on a microphone, especially one of high quality, can ruin a recording as it obliterates all other sound.

Happily the Dead Kitten also fits over the end of my Zoom H4 hand-held recorder. More on that machine another time but it's enough to know that its poorly thought out wind shield blew away on its first outing.

Today was unusually still in my neck of the woods but initial tests suggest the Kitten makes a real difference. With summer on the way there'll be plenty of opportunity to find its limitations.

And now I'm sure you'd like to know how much I paid for five square inches of nylon-backed fake fur and a sort strip of elastic. What was my karmic punishment for being so superior about kitsch mugs and cheesy stationery? Well, including manufacture, delivery and VAT, a cool £25.19. But, before you laugh, I could have much more. OK, now you can laugh. I just hope it brings me at least as much pleasure as your over-priced, Mozart fridge magnet.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Music for Shakespeare Week

Next week I'll be helping a couple of Year 1 classes make some music to enhance a Shakespearian forest scene. When I was first introduced to Shakespeare, at the age of 14, I remember my English teacher being very enthusiastic but the rest of us finding it hard going. The language was a bit of a barrier. We would try to read the play, The Merchant of Venice, out loud in class but the jokes all needed explaining and the insults were like being sworn at in Mandarin by someone with no expression and a speech impediment. But in the end I 'got' Shakespeare and he has given me a great deal of pleasure since.

Over coffee yesterday a friend of mine, head-teacher at a rural primary school, and I discussed the merits of Shakespeare Week for five and six year olds. He needs to decide whether Shakespeare or Darwin, celebrating his 200th birthday this year, would best suit suit his children. I can't help thinking that Darwin is easier to understand, the theory easy to illustrate. Little boys really go for dinosaurs for a start. Even in Norfolk, UK, we have the occasional Darwin denier but that's no barrier to teaching the theory. We happily teach children about a whole variety of religions without claiming to believe in them all so why not science? I'm not sure what sort of musical accompaniment would suit but there are plenty of 'survival of the fittest' parallels in the music industry.

But I digress. Music for Shakespeare. The play selected is A Midsummer Night's Dream, presumably for its fairies and woodland scenery rather for its drug-induced hallucinations or bedroom-farce plot-line. Come to think of it I'm not sure how five-year-olds will cope with the play-within-a-play in the last act. However, there's a job to be done. Fairies frolic in the woods and Athenians stumble around in the dark. I'll steer the children towards tinkly bells, rustling leaves, creatures of the night and perhaps a mysterious whole tone scale played on pre-selected chime bars. I'm sure they'll have a great deal of fun, whatever they think the play is about. What the Bard himself would make of it is anyone's guess but I promise to give you my own, less literary, impressions when all the playing is done.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Albatros

Continuing the 'favourite unusual venues' theme I was pleased to see one them moored in the harbour in Wells-nest-the-Sea last weekend. The Albatros is a Dutch merchant vessel built at the end of the nineteenth century. I've played on it a couple of times, once in Great Yarmouth for some nautical festival or other and again in Wells when Ton, the captain, was experimenting with running a café/bar on board.

It's a cramped venue - a three piece is possible but only just. On both occasions I began on deck and ended up downstairs where I abandoned attempts to play the tenor sax and stuck with the clarinet. I remember in Wells it was threatening rain and when I felt a couple of drops I thought it must be starting. I discovered, however, that the drops were not coming from clouds but from a flock of starlings perched in the rigging. I've been pelted with other things at gigs but that was definitely a first. Very good luck, of course.

Ton seems to have settled into the real ale and Dutch pancake business and I noticed he still puts bands on. He was late getting back to the ship with the shopping when I met him on Staithe Street so didn't ask about a gig. But it turns out that Sandra, our new bassist, was the cook on the Albatros on a few voyages so I imagine it's on the cards.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

More Disappearing Sounds

I went to Wells-next-the-Sea for a few days and enjoyed the change in the soundscape, especially the relative absence of cars and the fuller, louder dawn chorus. I stayed in an old cottage with a mix of features. The modern outside bathroom, which must have superseded the privy which still sits at the bottom of the garden, is now a utility room having been replaced, in its turn, by facilities in the house. It still boasts a fabulous high-level cistern, however, and it occurred to me how seldom I come across these once-familiar objects. Like members of endangered plant and animal species certain sounds become increasingly rare until they finally disappear. Is the high level flush heading for extinction?

I love this sound that once I took for granted. The metallic creaking of the chain and clank of the mechanism. The silent moment of energy, unleashed but without realisation. And finally the joyous rush of water down the pipe and into the bowl. When the spectacle is over there is the steady re-filling of the tank before the return to silence as the cistern waits patiently, like a spider on a web, for the next event.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Resistant materials

This area of study, which didn't exist when I was at school, is concerned with wood, plastic, metal, glass etc. This has nothing to do with electrical resistance. They are resistant in the way that water isn't and the primary concern is with their strength, durability and suitability to different applications.

The easiest way of exploring these in relation to sound is to put examples into containers, themselves made of different materials, and shake them about. Is the sound of ten glass marbles being shaken in a glass jar different from the sound made by the same marbles being shaken in a tin can or plastic box? What if we shake some wooden beads in the same jar, can and box? What does this say about the density, resonance and other qualities of the materials involved? From this experience can we make predictions about the sound of other combinations of materials acting on each other? If you wear a blindfold can you tell what materials are involved in an experiment by the sound alone?

And finally, can you think of any reluctant KS3 children who might find this aspect of resistant materials sufficiently diverting to interest them in other areas of the topic?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Sainsbury Centre

The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, designed by Norman Foster, is a wonderful building and one of my favourite 'unusual venues'. I love the height, the light, the best hot chocolate in Norwich and of course the art collection it was built to house. On the first Sunday of every month there are free activities for the children, free newspapers for the adults and free music for all. This month the music was provided by Eastern Straynotes, a trio in which I play clarinet. We do klezmer and jazz and the mix seems to go down well with old and young. We are still settling in new girl Sandra on double bass and were pleased with how well it went.

It's not an easy place to play. The sound gets lost in the hangar-like space. Not only that but the audience can feel dwarfed by the enormity of the setting and takes some warming up. However, we did extract a fair amount of applause and foot-tapping. And there were plenty of dancing children for whom we must be just another strange phenomenon in a building that's full of them. A lot of people left when we stopped playing and I like to think it was the music keeping them there.

We were very fortunate that a musician friend, Tom, who does live sound from time to time, turned up and could give us some pointers on the mix. I made a point of photographing the mixer settings at the end for when we next play there in July. I find myself wondering what the weather will be like then. We had warmth and sunshine last weekend and in the break I wandered out onto the grass to look at the lake and the University of East Anglia's famous ziggurats.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Jack and the Beanstalk

Last week I found myself in a reception class of nearly thirty four and five year olds. I was helping them tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk with musical instruments and I have to say it all went very well. Not wishing to overstretch the attention spans of such a young group the class teacher and I split the project into three half hour sessions which we spread out over the course of the day.

The first session was spent demonstrating some of the instruments and passing them around the circle. These were mainly percussion instruments of one sort or another. The children were very good at having a quick go and then passing it on. With the more unusual instruments I would wait until it had returned before placing it in the middle and handing round something else. If I had more than one of anything I would send one to my right and the other to my left, collecting them when they met across the circle. Familiar instruments would be demonstrated and placed in the middle of the circle straight away.

After about half an hour of this we put all the instruments on a table and allowed the children to play there in groups of five or six at a time in rotation with the other (non-musical) activities on offer. At no time did we mention the story.

The second formal session took place after morning break. The class teacher read the story and the class 'spotted' it for potential sound effects. To involve more children in the process, and to develop their acting skills, characters from the story were enacted by members of the class. There was a certain amount of prompting, especially to begin with, but they quickly got the idea. Occasionally we would steer a child in another direction if they chose something very inappropriate. There is an understandable urge to choose the instrument you want to play regardless of its relevance to the task at hand. However, for the most part we went along with their choices. The bell tree gave us the magic I had hoped for when Jack trades in his cow for a handful of beans. But somehow the bell for the cows neck was passed over. We did get some coconuts for the sound of the cow's feet on the road but I confess I may have seeded this idea in the first demonstration session. By the time half an hour had passed we were only half way through the story but the children were beginning to lose their focus so we stopped for a free play period. Again, the instruments were available to small groups for this.

The final session took place after lunch. We recapped the story so far and continued to the end in the same manner as in the previous session. The children remained engaged in the process. By this time the familiarity they had gained with the instruments was leading to noticeably more informed choices being made. I have never worked with this particular class before so can't say how their behaviour was in relation to this activity compared to other things they have done. However, the teacher appeared well satisfied with the way the day went and more inclined to use musical instruments from the school's music cupboard in future.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Bionic ear anyone?

Would you like your hearing restored to it's initial clarity? If, like me, you have spent too much of your life at loud gigs and rehearsals then the answer is probably yes. Up until now I believed there was no way to reset my ears to the factory default position, in spite of having grown up with the $6 Million Dollar Man. But today I read on the BBC news about stem cell research that appears to be offering just that. There may be hope for old headbangers after all. And if ever I do get my flappers refurbished I promise to look after them. No more Hawkwind for me.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Balafon Game

Many schools still have a xylophone knocking about. I have seen some fine examples but, with the steady rise in popularity of the electronic keyboard, they have fallen into disuse. Their presence is the result either of historical accident or of an appealing photograph in a catalogue. Along with the cabassas, guiros, vibra-slaps and glockenspiels they have become musical toys largely ignored by the school music curriculum for anything beyond colour and sound-effects. Teachers recognise the beauty of the xylophone: a wooden instrument in an increasingly plastic world with a real sound of its own. But how can you use them today?

April's free music game at is based on West African balafon technique. I have taught it to primary and secondary-aged children as well as adults. It's versatile, educational and very interactive. It's an instant compositional tool. It provides a new avenue of approach to a number of issues, musical and otherwise. And that's largely because it's great fun.