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

Summer Songs for Family Music

Got a musical family? Then our summery songs and music activities may help you share music with family and friends during the summer break. Activities are suggested with voices and simple instruments.There’s a song to keep the children creatively engaged, improvising new lyrics, during long journeys, rounds to sing in unison or in parts,  and an arrangement of Schubert’s exhilarating “To Wander” with new lyrics. Words and melodies of all the songs can be downloaded from the “Summer Fun” page and, if you have more able instrumentalists in the family circle, full ensemble parts can be purchased from the “Miscellaneous Music” page. We are in the process of changing the way our music is streamed and tunes on the “Summer Fun” page now play on iPad. Lyrics can be viewed online . Please let us know if you have trouble viewing any of the files.

Schubert: To Wander  

Summer concert item with audience participation?

Looking for a real mixed ability piece to challenge able players whilst remaining accessible for all? Then this arrangement of “One Man Went to Mow” might fit the bill. It’s a flexible 4-part arrangement. The melody of the children’s song can be sung or played alongside the arrangement, so it could be included in a summer concert featuring audience participation. This and other seasonal songs can be found on our “Summer Fun” page, where melody and lyrics can be downloaded. The 4-part arrangement is available for purchase on the “Miscellaneous Music” page and can be supplied (at very low cost) with custom parts. Contact us for details.


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


Have You Got A Musical Ear?

When musicians say that someone has a ‘good ear’, they are not referring to the physical apparatus of hearing: a person can be profoundly deaf and still have an acutely ‘musical ear’. It is the ability to internalise sound that is important to a musician, to be able to imagine a sound when its physical waves  are not present, in order to reproduce it in performance or to notate it.  Many lay people, (and, perhaps,  not a few musicians) think this ability is a rare gift, little short of a miracle. Why is it that many can share the same exposure to music, with some able to  memorise it and play it by ear while others can’t? The magic ingredient is awareness. We are predisposed to let most of what we hear go ‘in one ear and out the other’: we hear but we don’t listen. If we didn’t listen selectively, the barrage of sounds around us would drive us crazy!

Those with a good ear for music have just developed their awareness of how certain musical elements feel to the listener. Singers often recognise the pitch of a note by remembering how they have previously placed it in their voice. Instrumentalists may not be able to notate a melody but have no trouble playing it by ear because they associate the rise and fall in pitch with certain positions and fingerings on their instruments. Some have developed greater awareness and recognise the ‘signature’ of musical elements without reference to a voice or an instrument. Jaques Dalcroze, who developed the famous system of eurhythmics, claimed it was impossible for us to hear a rhythm without tiny muscular responses occurring within the body. I guess we are generally insufficiently aware of our bodies to notice. For most of us, context is important and aural skills developed out of context make very little difference to our musicianship. So, pupils can get full marks in aural tests for grade examinations and still be unable to play anything without notation or to absorb the style of a piece of music in a genre that is new to them. The time spent ‘teaching to the test’ for these exams could be put to better use!

Some years ago, I published a little resource entitled “Rhythmic Reading Through Improvisation” It could equally well have been called “Rhythmic Awareness Through Improvisation”. It is based on the premise that most pupils find their own ideas far more interesting than those of teachers and composers of elementary pieces and will spend much longer focusing their attention on the characteristics of rhythmic phrases if they are being employed in their own improvisations and compositions. The same principle holds true for developing aural awareness of other musical elements: improvisation/composition provides an excellent context for musical learning. Tonic Sol-fa is another example of the benefits of context for aural training. It very quickly facilitates playing by ear in a way that interval identification tests, out of context, do not seem to do.

I revisited these ideas recently when I was introduced to the excellent ‘MusicalEar’ aural training software. This truly is the most musical approach that I’ve come across in a software package and it’s clearly a real labour of love! Training exercises are something most of us stick with because we know they will ‘do us good’ – a bit like taking a dose of medicine, but working the exercises in MusicalEar is thoroughly enjoyable and each is multifaceted. There are, of course, the basic elements of musicianship  but also music  in a variety of genres to explore, some with suggestions for students to try in their own compositions. It consistently links aural and notation skills. There is music to sight-sing with accompaniment, vocal backing groups and choir pieces to take part in. There is also a comprehensive section explaining the theoretical context of the elements studied and lots of ideas for further study. This is a great package for composers, performers and students working in any genre, by ear or from notation, to hone their skills. It will surely give teachers many ideas to develop with their own pupils. You can watch some videos on how it works here.

Music Education Matters!

They say “you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until you lose it” and the danger, real or perceived, of losing  music education has galvanized many to proclaim, at every opportunity, the extra-musical benefits of the subject. I fear that this is a dangerous path to tread!

I can’t deny that active involvement in music can bring physical, intellectual, social and, yes, spiritual benefits.  I think of  the emotionally disturbed child who would not submit to normal classroom discipline until his desire to be part of the class music session led him to accept that intrinsic to making music; of the lifting of the spirits experienced by friends who joined a choir; of the increased alertness and engagement of profoundly disabled youngsters after music sessions, of improvements in coordination, strength and respiratory condition brought about by playing instruments; of the timid girl whose song-writing enabled her to step confidently out into the world.

So, why am I worried about using these examples as justification for music provision? Well, the tension between music as therapy and music as education has haunted my professional life. I became a music teacher because I wanted to enable access to music for everyone,  as a valuable experience in its own right. I was thrilled when the National Curriculum was introduced into UK schools and, with it, every child’s entitlement to music education. In my innocence I thought it meant that schools now had a responsibility to explore ways of teaching those who couldn’t respond to the ‘one size fits all’ lessons of tradition. There was a growing acknowledgement that music was ‘good for special needs’ but, sadly, it wasn’t seen as an essential part of ‘good teaching’ within the system. The emphasis on the therapeutic benefits of music enabled the educational establishment, in many instances, to leave provision to music therapists and charities. Most young people with special needs were not in a position to challenge this but, for many years, I ran workshops for people with physical disabilities. Music was of huge importance in their lives, deprived as they were of many opportunities and experiences most of us take for granted. Some were very bitter about the poverty of the education they had received in schools and the emphasis on therapy. We were all agreed that therapy was hugely valuable and must be available for those who need it but it is not a substitute for music education.

I fear that the present emphasis on extra-musical benefits will weaken rather than strengthen the subject’s place within the curriculum. Some would like music to move out of schools into the wider community and there are, undoubtedly, great strengths in that model but we would lose ‘entitlement’ and a common experience and body of knowledge which are important to our culture, Great changes are afoot in education, generally, not just in music. We are just letting it happen without any reflection or discussion. I think we have to overcome our natural laziness and identify what is most valuable in music education and not, in our rush to adapt to the 21st century, ‘throw the baby out with the bath-water’! There are inherent values in music education and it must not be treated as a utility!

Learn Tonic Sol-fa with GridPlay

Tonic sol-fa is a way to aural recognition of the relationship between the various notes of a scale. This supports inner hearing, singing from solfa notation and, ultimately, sight-singing from music notation. It facilitates memorisation, playing by ear and transposition, and also makes it easier to learn scales and to grasp many aspects of theory. Because it is a matter of internalising aural impressions of melodic intervals, it is extremely difficult to master it without a teacher, unless one can already read music notation sufficiently well to play the intervals on an instrument. Frequent patterning and checking of the pitches is necessary before a ready aural recognition and identification can be achieved.

Nowadays, there are few teachers in Europe and North America who teach the system to adults. Children start with just two pitches and gradually extend their range, following a developmental sequence of pitches common in the spontaneous singing of children from an early age. Adults do not have the luxury of growing up in this gradual progression and generally find it quicker to follow the stepwise movement of notes in a scale, moving on to leaps between notes of the tonic (Key) chord, and then to leaps in the primary chords built on the fourth and fifth degrees of the scale.

Several years ago, I published printed resources for  those who can already play an instrument from notation which helped some people. However, some  readers of this blog, who are not instrumentalists, would like to learn sol-fa. I have now prepared some GridPlay resources which I hope will enable them to do that. With these grids, learners will be able to check their accuracy in reproducing the intervals by playing the notes on  ‘modulators’ and ‘staves’. They can also practise playing familiar tunes ‘by ear’. They are in the treble range, since most melodic material is written in the treble clef, but they can be sung by male voices an octave lower.

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GridPlay: Learn Tonic Sol-fa will probably also prove useful for classroom teachers who are learning with their classes. Several Grids in GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 1 (ages 3-7) are suitable for Kodaly-based classes and, as an example, I have included one, LSMRD.GRD, in this sol-fa set. If you are a teacher and would like to create resources like this yourself, or customise my grids, you can do so with MIDIgrid, the parent-program in which I authored these materials. You will find a free download of GridPlay: Learn Tonic Sol-fa at the bottom of the website Software page: GridPlay: Learn Tonic Sol-fa

Several posts on my blog deal with aspects of tonic sol-fa, so if you don’t see what you want in this post, check the ‘Category’ menu in the sidebar for more on this subject.

Creating Resources for Non-Specialist Music Teachers

Seeing so many non-specialist teachers struggling to teach music, it is sad that music coordinators, local authority advisors, etc., don’t make extensive use of  professional music software to create the repertoire/ materials  for non-specialists to access, as they require. I guess that the main hindrance is the lack of a suitable playback only version of some of the software. Even where these versions exist, though, they can still be too forbidding for the non-specialist and are mainly notation-based. But a solution has existed for many years, in the form of MIDIgrid. Although it was originally designed as a tool for composers, it is a superbly simple authoring tool and, even though I can play several musical instruments, read music, compose and improvise, I have found it invaluable to have my resource material available through this software. It means any repertoire I might need in a session can be recorded into a single grid. I can play a new backing track, without fumbling through a book or trying to locate a track on a CD and I can give my full attention to interacting with the class, without distraction. Full recordings, constituent tracks, virtual instruments can all be there on a single screen.

MIDIgrid is such a versatile tool that it has proved almost impossible to ‘market’. How do you describe software, the benefits of which are dependent on the user’s imagination? It was originally created at University of York, as part of the Composer’s Desktop Project, and I hassled York for a long time to create a cut-down version for teachers. This they did and, when the York Electronics Centre closed, I offered to publish and distribute it. They also created GridPlay, a playback only version through which I could distribute the resources I had authored.

GridPlay is a great way to put creative music teaching resources into the hands of non-specialist teachers! It treats the computer as a basic classroom resource, providing instant access to backing tracks, virtual instruments, improvisation resources, inclusive activities, etc.. Excepting where it provides virtual instruments for disabled users, the software is not essential to explore most activities described in the ebook included with each set of grids. The software is a limited version of MIDIgrid, without editing/saving. This means that beneath its simple user interface are some sophisticated MIDI facilities for those who know how to use them.  Visit my new blog at to learn more.

Solfa for ABRSM Aural Tests 4B, 5B

Aural tests at Grades 4 and 5 of ABRSM Grade Exams require that the pupil sing from score. Although at both these grades the notes will be in free time, singing at sight, even without the added complication of rhythm, is a skill that takes time to develop. Time is very much at a premium in instrumental lessons, so this test is often poorly-prepared. No doubt, the examining board hopes to encourage sight-singing from the earliest grades, even though it is not required in Grade 1-3 exams. However, if pupils come to the Grade 4 exam without previous experience, Test 4B is problematic.

A crash course in basic solfa can certainly help pupils, but the pitch-range required at Grade 4 does not correlate with the starting points of the more common solfa-for-beginners resources in this country. These start with the falling minor third, “so-mi”, next adding “la”, a tone up from “so”. Next comes “do-re-mi”, before adding the lower “ti” and “la” required by the Grade 4 test. This sequence is a developmental one, based on the singing of young children in British and North American cultures. Establishments which focus on solfa training for young children usually work on the premise that the youngsters will master the basics before they begin instrumental instruction.

The youngster preparing to take Grade 4 without a foundation in solfa-singing needs a different approach. Some years ago, I published several printed and pdf resources for beginner instrumentalists, encouraging them to sing, as well as play, the first five notes of a major scale Another resource “An Introduction to Solfa for Instrumentalists, Part 1” covered a major scale and the tonic chord. These were more suited to support self-help by the instrumentalist but they did not cover the precise requirements of the Grade 4 and Grade 5 aural tests. The need for instrumentalists to master these has now been made more pressing by the introduction of more advanced sight-singing tests at Grades 6-8, so I have prepared two resources tailor-made to the exam requirements. They can be found on the Resources for Instrumental Teachers page of The Grade 5 resource follows on from the material covered at Grade 4.

Update 4/1914: Introduction to Tonic Sol-fa for Instrumentalists Part 1 may prove  a useful starting point for those preparing for the Grade 6 test. I will add part 2 shortly.

Several posts on my blog deal with aspects of tonic sol-fa, so if you don’t see what you want in this post, check the ‘Category’ menu in the sidebar for more on this subject.

Piano: Absolute Beginners Can Improvise!

To some extent, improvisation is a state of mind. A lot of people feel they could never do it because they have a model in mind that is unattainable. When piano teachers adopt a creative approach to tuition, though, the pupil feels free to explore the simple resources to which they are exposed in the early days of tuition and it is more likely that they will continue to experiment when left to their own devices.

The latest addition to improvisation-based resources on is an article suggesting simple improvisatory activities for absolute beginners. The important word here is ‘simple’ because, in truth, great music is essentially simple and the same resources can be used by players at different levels of ability and experience, with very different results.

The article quotes the Dalcroze teacher, Laura Campbell, whose book “Sketching at the Keyboard” won the ‘Music Teacher’ Magazine Music Education Award in 1983. That publication and its  follow-up, “Sketches for Improvisation” is full of examples of famous composers building their works from the same simple ideas suggested to the readers. These courses have been followed by ” child piano pupils, amateur adult piano pupils, professional music students and class teachers”. Highly recommended!

So, what I am saying is: don’t dismiss the ideas suggested at the following link because they are accessible to absolute beginners. There are things we can all learn by focusing on the basic building blocks of music from time to time.  :>)

See: Improvisation for Beginner Pianists.