Taking An ‘Adult’ Approach To Music Lessons

I must confess that I much prefer to teach adults! For a start, they’re usually taking lessons for the right (for them) reasons and so have a much clearer idea of what they want to achieve. Often, they will have had lessons as children and, when they stopped taking them, their music-making stopped with them. These prospective pupils are disappointed that they have so little, if anything, to show for their efforts and are ready for a fresh start music tuition.

With all my pupils I endeavour to take a creative and holistic approach to their programme of study but adults, being less pressured by other people’s expectations of them, are better able to relax and enter into the spirit of it. The creative approach isn’t just about improvisation and composition, although we certainly do those things if the pupil is interested. It is also about being able to adapt learning to new situations, being open to new styles, taking a fresh approach to the music at each performance and making it one’s own. If they have had lessons previously, we look at new ways of using whatever skills they already have; we explore what opportunities there are for local music-making and, where appropriate, ways of making music within the family.

Adults often feel it’s too late to begin lessons but, truly it is never too late! They are far better equipped to benefit from tuition than are their young counterparts and, certainly, the benefits of music-making for older people are both great and numerous. So, if you have been secretly envious of your young relations’ music-making, delay no longer and find yourself a teacher!

A More Accessible and Versatile Clarinet?

Would you like to play a simple, versatile instrument with a good clarinet sound that’s light and easy to carry around and works great for playing jazz and folk? Yes?- then you need a chalumeau. This isn’t, as you may think, some newfangled instrument but, rather, a very old one. The chalumeau seems to have been the forerunner of the clarinet. It is a a recorder-like instrument but played with a single reed. It was essentially a diatonic instrument with a range of a ninth and came in various sizes, each producing the notes of a different scale. Some chalumeaux have pairs of half-holes for the lower notes, as do recorders, and this allows for some chromatic notes. Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with adding one or two keys and, eventually, this led to the instrument we recognise today as a clarinet.

Early music afficionados have often had reproductions made of chalumeaux and early clarinets. Naturally, these were expensive to produce and so were available only to a small circle of people. Then, a few years ago, a British firm created a chalumeau tailor-made for the “Wider Opportunities” scheme introduced in UK schools. This was a very modestly priced instrument in one piece and virtually indestructible. I blogged about it in my post “Chalumeau Clarinets and Wider Opportunities”  There are now several thousand of these instruments in use in UK schools. It is not only children who can benefit from these instruments, though. Anyone who wants to achieve a clarinet sound without the weight and complexity of the modern instrument will appreciate this alternative.

Having no keys and rings, the chalumeau responds much more readily to pitch modifications as practised in jazz and many folk music styles. Several instrument manufacturers have created their own versions, with or without one or two keys to extend the range. Online stores for folk instruments are good places to look for them initially.

To whet your appetite and demonstrate its versatility, here’s the response of clarinetist Heribert Eckert when he encountered one at a trade fair:

Fireworks – A Round for Bonfire Night


The lyrics of this piece also work well as a spoken round and repeated phrases. We can play with words like “fizzling”, “spitting”, “whoosh”, “shoots” to create sound pictures, so even non-singers can get creative with this one!

This can be sung in unison or as a round. Place lots of emphasis on the consonants of the words, creating vocal sound effects. Selected words and phrases can be used as a repeated accompaniment. Create your own ‘firework-display’ by singing or reciting sections, in your own sequences or combinations.


Bonfire Night is lots of fun,
Launching fresh fireworks one by one.
Fizzling sparklers’ silver light,
Spitting, spinning Catherine Wheels, spirals bright!
Whoosh, bang! Rocket shoots up high.
Then a shower of fiery rain falls from the sky.
Splutter, splutter, whizza, boom! Up into the sky
Shoots another rocket,  speeding high, so high!
© Audrey Podmore, 2003

Click Here to listen to the audio and download melody and lyrics of this, and other seasonal songs, from the Autumn Fun page

New Chidren’s Music Activity Page

The latest addition to our ‘Kids’ Pages’ of creative approach music activities is a traditional 3-part round. Words and music are given for both C and Bb instruments, with suggestions for learning and performing the song. A jukebox presents audio files for unison and 3-part versions and each section repeated as an ostinato.  It is hoped that children will also create their own ostinato accompaniments. Readers of my earlier post on Singing Rounds in The Classroom who downloaded the materials to which it linked may find this page a useful additional resource.

The Level 2 Kids’ Pages, of which this is an example, are directly addressed to children but, as with all our resources, we really hope that parents and teachers will explore and share music with the youngsters. We can’t overestimate the value of such shared activity!

Sing Together – A Round

Get Creative with 2-Chord Tunes!

2-chord tunes are a wonderful resource for a creative approach to music teaching! A vast number of melodies can be harmonised with just chords I and V – folk tunes, of course, but also melodies by major composers. See the teacher notes for a classroom project based on “Carnival of Venice”, which can be downoaded from our Easy/Classroom Ensembles page. This uses classroom, or other available,  instruments and body percussion. In my software package, GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 2, though, one of the fifteen grids (mini-apps) is IVTUNES, in which I’ve designed a self-contained resource for exploring the subject. Teacher notes in the accompanying e-book make it even easier for a non-specialist teacher to introduce a project, with suggestions for using the computer as an integrated classroom resource.

A first step to improvising and composing 2-chord melodies is aural recognition of the chord changes. In IVTUNES, I have designed a grid with which pupils can practise this skill. Words, music and chord symbols for these tunes are included in the e-book. As each tune plays back, accompaniment patterns based on the the two chords can be triggered, allowing experimentation until pupils are confident that all sounds right. Beneath each chord’s accompaniments, cells contain individual notes of the chord, stacked vertically. Pupils can use these chord tones to accompany one of the melodies. Later they can record a 2-chord backing track over which to improvise their own melodies.




Christmas Carols – Creative Exploration and Flexible Ensembles

Christmas carols are some of the tunes most readily played by ear, so giving the performer a sense of comfortable familiarity and ‘ownership’ which paves the way for improvisation and creative arrangement. In the early stages, improvisation doesn’t need to wander far, if at all, from familiar melodies. The carols in my personal CD collection, for example,  take on subtle changes of character when performed, in turn, by a cathedral choir, a Celtic band, a pop singer and a flute soloist. Rhythmic ‘feel’, dynamics, changes of register, timbre and articulation all enable us to hear a tune anew.

It can be daunting for a teacher or music-leader to be presented with an ad-hoc mixed ability group but, at Christmas time, players of many different persuasions and skill-levels are united in a desire to share traditional music with their communities. This is a wonderful opportunity for creativity and cooperation, taking simple melodies and harmony parts and fashioning them into a group’s unique arrangement.

The Full Pitcher’s “Simply Carols” download series provides flexible arrangements of familiar carols for mixed ability groups of mixed instruments. The full score for each shows just one way in which the song can be performed by a group of instruments, with different parts combining in each verse. Groups can use this version, if they wish, or experiment with the timbres and characteristics of the group’s specific instrumentation to arrive at their own version. Silent Night (below) is one example. You can listen and download this score and a refreshing range of other seasonal music at http://fullpitcher.co.uk/christmas_music.htm.


New Accessible Instrument for Young Music-makers

This year was the first time since it began that I have not attended BETT, the UK’s big educational technology exhibition. I’ve been disappointed with it in recent years and thought, “I doubt I’ll miss anything”. Then, recently, I was sent information about an exciting new musical instrument, intended to enable any child to play music, which made it’s debut at the exhibition:

‘Skoog’ is a squashy cube. Technology within its soft tactile surface is linked to a computer. This converts the way Skoog is touched into musical sounds. The development project came to fruition largely as the result of reseach, led by Professor Nigel Osborne of the University of Edinburgh, in Scottish schools.  Nigel Osborne is also a professional composer, interested in all kinds of creative music-making and in improving access to music for disadvantaged groups.

The website describes the instrument thus:

“An expanding range of musical instrument sounds means that there’s sure to be something for everyone. Give a gentle squeeze on Skoog™ for a smooth swell of brass, or how about a subtle twist for a screeching over-blown flute? And with a different note on each side it’s a piece of cake to create chords and melodies.”

The Skoog has been commercially available from March 2010 and has received widespread interest from the education community.
A new company, Skoogmusic Ltd, has been spun out of the University to commercialise the instrument. See the website, www.skoogmusic.com

Recordings to Inspire Amateur Players

Just recently, I was delighted to find that Cramer Music have launched a new publication of  “The Classic Experience”,  for flute, wiith 2 CDs. This book of popular classical pieces now comes with recorded performances and practice tempo piano accompaniments. I do hope that, in the very near future, they will do the same for the clarinet version.

There is such a dearth of recorded wind music that is suitable for less advanced players to tackle for themselves! Yes, I know that there are now CDs to accompany ABRSM graded exam repertoire and various method books but this is a far cry from an expressive soundworld that will inspire pupils to explore music and make it their own, without worrying about what grade it might be. I can tell pupils that professional performers put just as much love and thought into preparing a simple tune as they do with advanced sonatas and concertos but they’re not going to believe me unless they can hear the  for themselves the magic of simple music beautifully rendered. One such moment for me was hearing Nigel Kennedy play at , I think it was, the Brit Awards. We had been treated to some amazing virtuoso performances, when along came Kennedy to play “Danny Boy” – breathtaking!

Flute players are a little better served than other wind players and I attribute this to the inspiration of James Galway. He had the courage to bring the flute ‘to the masses’ and to perform music of all kinds. Even so, my regular scout round the instrumental section HMV, et al, usually results in disappointment, even as regards flute. For clarinettists, there are a few pieces recorded by Emma Johnson and that’s about it! I was thrilled, though, when I installed Windows 7 to find that one of the audio samples was of Richard Stoltzman playing Debussy’s “Maid with the Flaxen Hair”. I don’t know how Microsoft came to select that – perhaps, it’s well-known  ‘on the other side of the pond’. I hadn’t come across it before.

Do you folks out there know of collections of simple music beautifully played on flute or clarinet that should be better known to teachers and pupils? If so, please share!

More Than Notation Software

This year, I think the best new software on the music education scene is PROTÉGÉ , From NOTION Music. This is a program with the emphasis on real music! The range of features and ease of use is quite remarkable for a product in this price range (under £50) and it makes a really useful set of tools available to beginner and expert alike.

PROTÉGÉ  is, first of all, score-writing software. In this respect, it has features one would normally only expect at the top end of the market and shows a real appreciation of composers’ needs. Yet, methods of inputting and playing music are easy to grasp, with the most common requirements conveniently to hand in the initial side-bar setting. Consequently, beginners are not confused by too many options, although these are available to the advanced user. A tutorial is available, designed to enable pupils, including those who have only a minimal aquaintance with standard notation, to learn to use the software when the need arises and they are, consequently, most motivated to do so. It introduces elements of notation, along with the ways in which they are entered into a score, in the order they are most likely to be required.

A big selling point is the set of onboard sounds -instruments played by members of the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road Studios. For those who don’t have external studio equipment, the package is well worth the purchase price just to have access to sounds of this quality. Dynamics, articulations and performance techniques will play back with the utmost realism.

The NTempo performance feature allows pupils to have real-time control over tempo, including rubato, fermatas and breath marks. This also makes PROTÉGÉ a very useful resource for instrumental teachers, enabling them to provide an accompaniment without distraction from the pupil’s performance.

After my own company’s MIDIgrid and GridPlay software, I consider this to be the most creative music education resource around. Visit www.notionmusic.com to learn more.

Failure, The Price of Success?

How often does the fear of failure prevent us from making the beautiful music of which we are capable? It seems that the more we worry about sounding good the less well we perform. Perhaps we should forget about ‘performing’ (just see what negative associations the dictionary throws up for that term!) and remember that music was mankind’s first means of communication.

I have been brought back, once again, to pondering this question by a young pianist who says she is giving up the piano because she has been told that she doesn’t have the ability to excel as a performer, or even to pass advanced grade exams. My response was that, if she plays the piano just to be better at it than other people, she should give it up and find some channel for competition outside of the arts. However, if she plays because she loves music and wants to share it with other people, she should just get on and do that and her love will communicate itself to others.

We often do not play well in auditions, competitions and exams because we are conscious of being judged. It’s not like taking a driving test or a maths test: communicating through music is much more personal and we find it hard to separate our innermost self from its physical expression. But we will never find joy in sincere music-making unless we have a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on an assessment of our musical skills. In other words, we have to accept that we may fail and make music anyway. Paradoxically, once we embrace the ‘death’ of failure, we can begin to live and grow as musicians.

I find it really hard to put all this into words but I recommended to the disappointed young pianist the book entitled “Effortless Mastery” by jazz musician, Kenny Werner, in which he explores the failure/success paradox and its implications for musicians. Many have found reading this deeply spiritual book a really life-changing experience and Kenny is ever generous in responding to his readers, encouraging them to put its principles into practice. In recent weeks, he has been running a series of tele-seminars on his website, answering readers’ questions and these are available for replay. See Effortless Mastery