A Sol-fa Song and Activities (Ages 3-7)

Here’s a song with which to step the beat, sing a do-mi-so tune to tonic sol-fa and lyrics and improvise 3-note tunes and accompaniments. “The Grand Old Duke of York’s Soldier” is one of two tunes included in the “Marching” grid (a grid is like a mini-app) from our software “GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 1. (See the YouTube video below) This song can now be found on our updated ‘Kids’ Pages‘ with audio playback.

“What a grumpy soldier, I,
Tired of marching – me, oh my!
Up the hill and then march down,
Marching all the way to town.

Marching Song Score

Marching Song Score


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  

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.




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.


Encouraging Young Pianists to Accompany

Most piano pupils live a lonely musical life compared to their friends who play other instruments. Many of the latter play with bands and orchestras from an early stage, Nowadays, instrumental teaching in schools is predominantly group-based, so there are many opportunities to play in parts. However, when it comes to solo repertoire for the early grades, the piano accompaniment  frequently demands a more experienced performer than the solo part. This leaves elementary pianists hopelessly out of their depth. When opportunities do arise, however, they provide a whole new dimension to piano-playing and are very motivating for the young student.

It is often said that ‘many accompanists are fine pianists, while few pianists are fine accompanists’. This is, no doubt, due to the isolationist way in which we educate pianists, often not exposing them to accompanying until they reach an advanced level. By that time, many amateurs will have discontinued tuition, having attained a level of skill sufficient to play the music in which they are interested.

Happily, today’s composers of music for young players are more alert to the need for manageable piano accompaniments, if we check out other sections of the music shop while browsing for new repertoire, we will find pieces to suggest to piano pupils for sharing with their friends. In my own pieces for beginners, the “Stars from the Start” books and the, downloadable, “Flutes (Recorders, Violins) Start Here” series, I have endeavoured to provide piano scores which can be played and enjoyed by elementary pianists, thus encouraging friends and families to make music together from an early stage. A little more demanding (but still fairly easy) are the accompaniments for other pieces. like those in the “Creative Flute Pack“.

There are few activities more absorbing and satisfying than playing music with one’s friends!

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.


A Strummer for 1-Handed Guitarists?

I was very interested to see this contribution to the Disrupt SF Hackathon 2013, in which Yu Jiang Tham introduced ‘Strumbot’, an automated guitar strummer which he had, literally, created overnight. With this, a metal lever moves the pick across the strings according to strumming patterns controlled from a computer, leaving the performer free to concentrate on the chords and lyrics. Yu Jiang created the device to accompany his own singing because he felt “rhythmically-challenged” in the strumming department but I’m sure it would be possible to adapt it  so that a 1-handed player could control the strum patterns with foot-switches. It looks as though this might be a solution for some guitarists.

Yu Jiang intends to work on refining this prototype and would welcome readers’ feedback on it. For many, of course, it’s the picking that’s the main thing and they would prefer to automate the chord-formation side of things but I have been asked for information about mechanical strumming, so for others this could be a distinct possibility. I understand that Yu Jiang is interested in looking into chord formation, as well, so do all contribute your comments.

Update 7/02/2014: Here is another adapted guitar with a pedal-operated strummer. With this Ian Pearce can play again  after 47 years:

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!

Did You Miss Music Education Expo?

I was all geared up to visiting the Music Education Expo at London’s Barbican Centre and looking forward to meeting people I had previously communicated with only online and hearing more of their ideas. However, personal commitments prevented me from leaving home. So, I decided to do a virtual Expo visit. I sat down with the March edition of Music Teacher magazine, which included details of the full programme, speaker biographies, exhibitors and sponsors. Armed with this, I visited the websites of speakers whose presentations I had hoped to attend and also looked up references to them and their topics on the wider web. I had an absorbing time, watching videos, learning about their resources and really getting a good ‘feel’ of their work. In fact, because I was able to follow links and aspects that really resonated with me, I think I probably got more from my virtual visit than I would have done from being physically present, especially as I couldn’t be in two places at the same time! Of course, I was not able to be present at the informal gatherings of teachers in the TeachMeet Lounge but I suspect (hope!) that the conversations initiated there will be continued online.

I’m sure there will be a lot of teachers who were not able to attend, for one reason or another. If you were one such, why not make your own virtual visit? If you don’t have a copy of the March ‘Music Teacher’ which, by the way, was a great edition, you’ll find all the information on the Expo site.