Year 7 Can – Reflections on Transition and the Monks Walk School Community Music Project

About this post

The Community Music project at Monks Walk began with a blank sheet of paper on which I was asked to write my own job description for a new role called Head of Community Music. I had just returned from maternity leave and having previously started to put into place some new musical relationships with local primary schools, my only remit was to build on this further. I had 2 hours protected time a week but no budget and from those small beginnings the impact was huge.

As a result of 5 years of growing that role and putting in place the structures and relationships that still exist between the schools today, I have realised that I’m passionate about how we can use music to lead on improving the transition and transfer process for students and how to unpick what is potentially a bit of a can of worms when it comes to curriculum and planning at year 7 and beyond.

Using the transcript and slides from a keynote presentation I gave some years ago, and with transition now coming back into the #MusicEd discourse with the release of the new Model Music Curriculum, I’m going to open up that can of worms again and share a few of the things I learned. I will share what I called my ‘Year 7 Can’ initiative which informed curriculum development and planning for the Music Department at Monks Walk and details of the transition work that this grew out of via the Monks Walk Community Music Project.

About ‘Year 7 Can’

Year 7 Can completely changed our approach at Year 7 and the knock-on effect was that we also had to make significant changes in Y8, 9 and above. It consisted of:

  1. Transition work via the Community Music Project to better understand the musical experiences of our Year 7 students coming from primary school and to break down barriers between primary and secondary school music
  2. Revisit our Year 7 baseline, curriculum, planning and delivery to put a greater focus on year 7 music than had previously been in place
  3. To carry out research and to embed more student voice into the process, especially to better understand the expectations students had of music at secondary school and how these matched the reality of what they actually found themselves doing

Baseline

I have written about this elsewhere, but our Y7 Can approach to baseline was founded on the following:

  • How do you allow every child to demonstrate what they can do regardless of what they may have done before?
  • What is a level playing field to assess what they can do when they may have had little or no musical experience through which to demonstrate what they can do?
  • How do you engender confidence in the students to be able to show what they can do?
  • How do you allow enough time for all students to show what they can do? (Baseline assessment is continuous not a one-off activity)
  • What are the right questions to ask before you start? Mine were:

• What do you want to know?

• Why do you want to know it? How will you use that information?

• How can everyone demonstrate their ability regardless of prior experience?

Student Voice

Year 7 Can involved regular student questionnaires based around themes such as student expectations of music at secondary school, memorable musical experiences they had had, things they liked and disliked about music and so on. These started in Year 6 and continued through every project at KS3 with questions selected to support future planning and to dig into which aspects of our curriculum and approaches had been the most successful. I used to assume the students were enjoying, achieving, attaining, now I knew much more. We set regular online surveys as homework and most importantly we wanted them to care about their music lessons and their work, so giving them time and space to reflect and feedback via a questionnaire went a long way to them feeling that their voices mattered in our music department.

Here are some examples of the feedback that helped us to plan, develop and deliver our Y7 Can curriculum

Our year 7 Can Curriculum Plan

  1. An adapted version of Musical Futures Find your Voice project which started with vocal work but then integrated instruments using aspects of the Musical Futures Just Play approach to build some foundational instrumental and whole class ensemble skills (Currently available for free if you click here!)
  2. House Music (whole class songwriting) example here
  3. Small group songwriting to consolidate what was learned in the whole class project
  4. Cover songs – a version of Musical Futures In at the Deep End

OK so this might not look like much. It’s light on detail and doesn’t prescribe content other than what was in the resources we drew on to support learning. But the learning journey involved in each of these projects was immense and personalised to each class and the approaches we used were firmly grounded in non formal teaching and informal learning. We did lots of whole class workshopping inspired by pieces of music chosen by them and by me. We learned through playing and hearing music and I used my blog MrsGowersClasses for feedback and as a record of each project as it went along. For homework I would post playlists or pieces of music for them to listen to and I wanted to ensure that class music time was used for things that. they couldn’t do at home. Playing and making music, learning subject specific language, theory and skills in the context of music they were playing, listening around their classwork and becoming familiar with a range of different starting points. They did start to care about ‘their’ music. They wrote letters to Nicola Benedetti challenging her views on what a good music education should be and one of them actually sent theirs and got a reply. They started turning up to extra curricular music clubs, especially our Year 7 Music Club which was open to all and billed as ‘more of what you do in music lessons, just after school!’ And there were wider impacts of the Community Music Project as a whole including:

  • Ensuring continuity, In year 7 when I left the school, having worked with 10 schools in 5 years, were students I had known since they were in Y3 or 4
  • Collections from our concerts went to charity, we raised over £600, and we were self sustaining. With no budget from the school we were able to buy a whole class set of ukes to take from school to school and a class set of guitars that ‘resided’ at primary schools on a rota across a year
  • The project was rated outstanding in a department review and acknowledged positively by OFSTED
  • A department review found that the 6th form music leaders were getting a positive experience that they would not have got if it weren’t for Community Music. Scroll down to see an interview with one of them who said “now I want to be a teacher”
  • Take up at KS4 for the first group that engaged with the project and then went through the revised KS3 experience was the highest the school had ever had
  • We established a school orchestra of over 60+ students as students with musical experience started to choose our school

About The Community Music Project

The reflections I went through while writing this helped me to realise why I think it worked so well. It’s because the relationships between us and our feeder primary schools weren’t forced. They evolved from a shared vision-we all wanted to create better opportunities for music for our students, to identify shared values which sometimes really did vary from teacher to teacher and school to school, but mainly to find more of those moments where you know that the students have really benefited from something they have done in music. I wanted to create opportunities for experiencing those moments you and they will never forget, and to establish an equal partnership that saw both sides really committed to improving our own practice, learning from each other, developing a shared pedagogy, being willing to try new things, to take a few risks and put ourselves out there. And perhaps most importantly, to accept that perhaps we were on a learning journey too, sometimes maybe only being one step ahead of our students as we found our way through.

Also key to this was that the result was sustainable. I’m not at the school any more, but the primary work continues with minimal additional contact time being allocated and that’s vital to making transition work effective.

How it Started

The evolution of the Community Music project started 2 years before I took on the role. I was doing a few days consultancy work for Musical Futures UK around my teaching job and we were developing a resource for transition. I realised that to be involved in the development of this work, I needed to know more about primary music than just my impressions as a secondary music teacher. Also a driving factor, was that as my own children started at primary school I began to take a greater interest in what they were up to each day. The music at my closest primary school at that time was led by a specialist from the music service who taught one day a week at the school. As I was working part time then, I asked if I could shadow her for a day and following that we found ways to start to collaborate. I also approached other local schools, starting via someone I knew there (a fellow parent I got chatting to at dance classes, a friend of a friend) who often then introduced me to someone in a different school. So a little network had already started to form around these preliminary visits.

Those primary visits were the most eye-opening experience of my career, alongside the lessons I watched out in Australia and which I have blogged about many times before. They inspired change in my own practice and as I blogged my reflections, that change became embedded in how, what and why I taught music day to day in my classroom and drove a longer term vision for expanding that across our school and more widely working with local primary schools.

Here is one of the primary music teachers sharing their wishes for transition from primary to secondary music and some of the challenges.

The beginning….

In that first year, whilst I was still Head of Music, we ran a programme of events with a couple of local primary schools, organised in my free periods and sometimes on my days off.

A foundling primary school choir came and sang at one of our concerts. We took over our Taiko Drumming group to perform to the children in their arts week and I spent some more time in the school. This informal work came to an end as I was about to go on maternity leave but before I left I said to my head teacher that if there was ever an opportunity to more work with our feeder primary schools I could see a massive value, not just in connecting through music, but also in easing the transition from what I now saw as an entirely different ethos, pedagogy and approach into the world of secondary school. I also told him I thought we had a lot to learn from our primary colleagues and that this could have a far wider impact on the whole school not just in music. So after a year on maternity leave where working a day a week for Musical Futures took me into a range of schools and full of ideas to take back with me into my classroom, I was offered a new role called Head of Community Music and that blank sheet of paper on which to write my own job description. It was an amazing opportunity to develop a strategy and a vision for something I had started to feel really passionate about. I was incredibly lucky.

Getting Started

As I started to pull together what Community Music might look like and filled my blank sheet of paper with some ideas, I realised that to be successful, this would have to be a 2 way partnership where I was completely honest about what was happening in my own school and my own classroom if anything I did with the primary schools was to have an impact or be sustainable. To ensure continuity and progression I had to find out where my students were coming from and build on this. And as I was no longer head of department and lots had changed in my absence, this wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy job. I had no budget, few direct contacts and no idea what I was going to be doing!

So I made this my starting point. To take what I had seen and reflect on what I knew best, my own school and my own classroom. I took what I had seen so far in primary schools and re evaluated everything. And ironically in my first year in this role, I wasn’t given a single year 7 class to teach! So I watched and listened objectively and compared what I saw in the year 7 lessons with what I was learning in the primary schools. And I learned SO much….

I realised how little I knew about the previous musical experience the year 7s had. I discovered that not only was life in a primary school completely different in terms of everything – from how the classrooms were laid out and decorated, how behaviour was managed, how the children worked and responded to each other, the relationships between teachers and their classes – but I was thoroughly ashamed that I had made assumptions that were completely wrong about the enthusiasm for music, their musical ability and engagement and how music was being delivered in primary school and I realised that my approach had been based on ‘year 7 can’t’ and not ‘year 7 can’

I had fallen into the trap of assuming that what we offered at secondary with our music rooms and resources, and specialist teachers was far better than anything they could have experienced at primary school and therefore year 7 would have to start again in order to achieve what we wanted them to in our school. In addition to that, Y7 were normally pretty well behaved and so the Y7 curriculum took low priority when it came to revamping projects and thinking about what we did with them. If they were behaving, they must be loving it right?

It seems I wasn’t alone in these assumptions. I started to look through online forums to see how other teachers started the first year with their new intake. Here’s some of what I found:

“I would probably NOT do a whole lesson on theory, but have half the lesson on theory sheets and then get them to do some short practical project that used the aspect of theory I was teaching.”

“I gave my yr7s 5 mins to do the ‘exploration’ on keyboards in the first lesson – this was to get it out of their system! They will now not touch them til at least half term and then will do Ode To Joy”

“My year 7 already have been able to do happy and sad chords. I use these as starters. Pupils have laminated cards and hold up different colours if they think it is major or minor happy or sad. Ticks lots of boxes including AFL”

“Learn to play ‘Ode to Joy’ demonstrating loud and quiet dynamics. Play ‘Eastenders’ theme tune using different timbres. Compose a piece demonstrating 2 different elements of music. Learn to play either High Tune or Low Tune of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ using Right Hand”

I also found reference in these forums to things that I had seen already happening in primary schools which raise the question of whether our year 7 curriculum was challenging enough or in any way built in prior experiences

For example:

1) Still a popular way to start year 7 is an introduction to the elements of music, yet I saw elements of music posters on the walls in a year 3 classroom

2) Graphic scores-I saw these being used to created haunted house storyboards on the wall in a year 5 classroom – at the time this was a popular project to do with Y7

3) I saw lots of singing yet I wasn’t confident leading singing so didn’t really do much in year 7 – how could I build on this in a way that they would perceive as ‘grown up’ and relevant in their new-found independence as big Y7s at secondary school?

I also asked the children in year 6 across 4 different primary schools to complete an online questionnaire about what they were most looking forward to in music at secondary school to compare with the forum posts and some of their responses included: 

• Building my confidence with singing

• Play in a band as a guitarist and singer song writer

• To take part in a show

• Learn to play an instrument

• To learn to play the electric guitar because I have one but I can’t play it.

• Learn more complicated songs

• I Would Like To Participate In A Musical Trip And Concert

This mismatch between the expectations of year 6 and what the forum posts suggested that they were actually experiencing is what underpinned the focus of the Community Music Project. There was no initial budget (so we fundraised to create one), limited time given to this, I had 2 additional periods a week (so I asked for my non contacts to be grouped together so that I could get out to schools), but fundamentally underpinning all of it was that it had to be sustainable, something that we could embed and grow across subsequent years. So here are some of the things that we did.

Music Leaders

First I got some help in. I recruited some 6th Formers as our first Music Leaders to come into schools with me. We got the 6th Form Enterprise group at school to make T shirts for them and promised to pay when I could and off we went. Our 6th form had an afternoon of outreach each week so we were able to use that time and I was very honest that we would all be learning together and so we did! Very quickly! Here is one of those students, Jonathan, reflecting on his experiences

Workshops – Assume Nothing!

We started our primary workshops in a nursery class because one of the Music Leaders’ mums worked in one. We took in some instruments and played to them, let them touch and explore them and then when I asked if they had any questions they all put their hands up and said things like “I like bread” or “I’m called Katie” and that threw us a bit! This was my first musical experience with very young children and I learned a lot from it. Ironically I am now doing a year as a Year 1 class teacher, if you had told me that following that first workshop I would never have believed it!

I then made contact with a local primary school through another mum who sat next to me at my daughters dance lessons and worked as SENCO there. We went in across a few weeks and ran a series of one off workshops with Y2-6. I used what I knew which was the Musical Futures whole class classroom workshopping approach, so we did some name games and simple warm ups then moved on from there. For instruments I used what I could find. Some old guitars in a cupboard, a bit of tuned percussion in the music box, some shakers and tambourines we found in a classroom and I used those sessions to try and judge whether I was pitching it at these right level as I had no idea what children that young could do. So I adopted my Community Music Project mantra to assume nothing and their teachers and I were completely blown away with what they COULD do!

With Y2 it was bonfire night so we said names using different vocal timbres and some body percussion to recreate the sound of fireworks. Year 6 were studying the 2nd world war so we started by sharing how they thought a child of their age at the time might have felt (scared, excited, sad) and we pulled together a piece that started with a heartbeat then used minor tonalities as we picked 2 chords and threw them together on glocks, recorders, whatever we could find.

A note here about instruments. None of the schools we worked with had a class set of instruments and very few had keyboards. By far the most common was a box of untuned percussion, one or two keyboards with or without adaptors, a variety of tuned percussion, usually ‘kiddie sized’ rather than the more robust metallophones you might find in a secondary classroom, occasionally some recorders that the children didn’t know how to play, a couple of guitars with missing strings. So the only way forward was a classroom workshop where we mixed those instruments together with voices, body percussion. I worry that the expectations in the MMC regarding primary music will require investment in class sets of instruments and some training for teachers in how to use them before it will be possible to meet the transition objectives in there.

Cross – Phase Performances

That first school had just started a choir run by their non specialist music co-ordinator and asked if we could help. So one of our 6th form pianists went after school each week and played the piano for them and I decided that creating a community performance opportunity would give the choir something to work towards. The aim would be to come together in a local venue, a choir from each of the schools would sing something then we could do a big sing together to finish. We started with 3 primary choirs and our school choir in year 1 and year on year this event grew. In my last year on this project we sang with 4 primary choirs, one class of year 6, an adult community choir and 3 school choirs from Monks Walk. This was a low maintenance gig. Doing it at Christmas meant that schools had a little extra class time available to prepare for performances they were already working towards and many had music ready. The schools rehearsed the music themselves so all I had to do was organise it all! Here is a video of some of those performances. There were absolutely the highlight of the school year for me.

Practice Sharing Group

A growing group of primary music specialists started to form our own little network. We started with cross phase observations, informal but informative on both sides! They saw how their students had settled into school life and how they had progressed musically. Our staff learned more about where our students had come from and how huge the jump from primary to secondary school can be.

This then progressed to a twilight CPD session across 3 subjects which I co-ordinated in my role as Head of Community Music. This was the start of the roll out of the project to other subjects and brought together English, Maths and arts co-ordinators from feeder schools with our staff. Sadly it was really hard to engage non specialist primary music co-ordinators with this. In many cases, music was one of a number of additional responsibilities that teachers held and there was no dedicated CPD time for informal networking events.

Transfer of Information Between Schools

With 244 children coming from 15+ different schools, information about prior musical experiences was patchy. Knowing that a child once played the violin for a term in year 3 or attended the choir for a year doesn’t tell me much about them. It can also create some issues. For example, here is Jack. His teacher said:

Jack is very hard to engage during lesson time

Here is what Jack said:

• He most enjoyed the olympics song project

• He Least likes it when people talk over the teacher

•He hopes to learn to play guitar at secondary school

• He tries very hard to accomplish a task

So as an outcome of the Community Music Project, we provided Google Forms for the students as well as the ‘official’ transfer information that came via schools. Our information transfer included:

  • Online questionnaires for teachers and students (and eventually parents as well)
  • Word of mouth via our network.
  • Identifying students eligible for Free School Meals and therefore free instrumental lessons early so that we could get paperwork in place, recognise those who have shown aptitude in music, share strategies for those who may not engage at first.

Projects

Our projects were designed to be led mainly by primary staff with support from the Music Leaders and me. We would choose a theme, for example The Olympics, devise some outcomes which were a mixed model of delivery shared between me and the music specialists at the school. The music leaders and I supported schools more which didn’t have a specialist, but with all of the schools developed it further via class teachers on their own.

We would come together to perform and celebrate. Spending time at our school and using the facilities helped the children to feel more comfortable with the idea that at some point they would likely be joining us. The strength of the projects was that whilst I started them off, but class teachers continued with them with the 6th form music leaders supporting them. This empowered the class teachers to take a musical role so that it was more a collaboration than a delivery model.

Family Music

Our local Music Hub heard about the Community Music Project and asked us to host family music sessions as part of an initiative they were running. We jumped at the chance to be involved because for the first time it enabled us to get the whole family involved in music making at the school, in the music classroom. Djembe workshops ran in the evenings across 4 weeks and I negotiated to keep the drums and replicated these in all our KS3 lessons so we got full benefit of this for more students in the school.

The MakeWaves Online Hub

Makewaves was an online network that allowed students to create and share work across online networks. Sadly it no longer exists, but we used it to keep up with how schools were getting on with projects. On the platform each school had their own area to upload content, but other schools could watch and enagage with it. I went into school and trained up teams of ‘reporters’, these were higher achieving students who would be responsible for creating the content. Students were awarded personalised Community Music badges pinned to their user areas. This was such a great resource, however the downside was having the time to moderate the content as it grew.

Cross Curricular Whole School Events

We also worked in partnership wth sport and languages departments, both of whom were also running transition initiatives. We developed an annual one day event for our biggest feeder primary schools held at the end of the summer term aimed at Y4 and 5 (as these would be looking ahead to choosing their secondary school the following year). For music, I went in to prepare a piece for performance for a couple of weeks before and on the day the children took part in activities led by student leaders in sport, languages and later maths and english. We always tried to hold this the d ay before the ‘official’ transition day and it was lovely to hear “Hi Mrs G” in the corridor the following day and, more importantly hearing the children say hello to the students they knew from the projects in the corridors gave that sense that the new children already felt at. home in our school.

Transition at a Whole School Focus

The impact I am most proud of has been that transition moved much higher on the whole school agenda and that over time other subjects got involved in what had initially been ‘just a music project’. An exciting outcome was that one of the Heads of Year was then designated solely to work on transition for a year to nurture groups coming through.

Getting started with Transition Work

Despite these not being normal times , my top tips for getting started are:

  • Try to get into a primary school and watch some lessons, music or others
  • Make links with one school and work towards a joint performance
  • Revisit your baseline tests and ensure that they allow the students to show what they can do musically rather than tick boxes against a narrow range of pre-determined criteria
  • Think about transfer of information about music and reach out to primary schools for ways to collect this that involve students in the process
  • With all information think about what you want to know, why you need to know it and what you will do with the information – how will it inform your planning for your new cohort?
  • Look at your existing Year 7 curriculum and identify exactly what the students are doing musically.
  • Define your own ‘Year 7 Can’ criteria and map your curriculum to these
  • Think about what approaches to music will engage the students from the very first lesson and how once engaged you can layer in the musical knowledge, understanding and skills that you have identified as essential for your students in your school
  • Always start your planning with assumptions about what year 7 can do rather than what they can’t.

Resource Review and Activities – Musication

You can see a full list of resources and reviews by clicking here. If you have a resource that you would like me to review, please drop me an email at anna@annagower.com

You can access the Musication Channel on YouTube here

Musication is a collection of video play alongs for boomwhackers, percussion, various melodic versions and you could sing along with the Do Re Mi versions as well. Versions with new layouts have also been added for home learning that are designed to use body percussion or junk percussion.

I have been using the percussion videos with students from reception – Y5, just differentiated slightly depending on the age of the students. For example with older classes, we divided into instrumental sections and took it in turns to play our parts in the right place. Younger students clapped the rhythms.

Each piece of music that I used linked to a wider theme that then became the focus of the lesson or series of lessons supporting one of my overarching musical objectives (there are many, pitch matching, pulse, embodying sound, playing and creating music etc.) learning to follow – a conductor/visual cues for playing along with music. These were first introduced through our warm up games and then consolidated in the other activities.

My favourite thing about using these videos was being able to show the children a performance by a full orchestra or opera company and then ask – shall we play the piece now? It didn’t matter that their part would be playing a tambourine or djembe, they felt that they were playing a ‘real piece of music’,and it really engaged them. No MIDI string sounds here, all the pieces we used were original so the children really were part of the orchestra!

Note – we all swapped instruments all the time so everyone got a turn on the djembe… We also took some time to listen to the sounds that the instruments made, grouped them by timbre – shakers, scrapers, bell sounds etc. and made sure we knew how to hold and play them properly to get the best sounds.

Once we jumped to online learning, we used ‘Found Sounds’. Younger children played just one instrument, while the older ones built their own ‘Found Sound’ orchestras so they could follow the colours and play each on a different ‘instrument’ at home. I wish I was allowed to share some of the video the children submitted, there were some great performances!

Here are a few ways that I used these resources.

Hall of the Mountain King

Our ‘scary themed’ warm ups included:

  • 5 Little Monkeys sitting in a tree from Voices Foundation Inside Music 0-5 book. We played a game where we were all crocodiles and had to snap at the monkeys together. To get it right they had to watch me (the conductor) really carefully
  • A Monster Came to Visit from Voices Foundation Inside Music 0-5
  • Ghosts from Cool4School
  1. First we discussed what a piece of music with the title In the Hall of the Mountain King might sound like. What is a Mountain King? Why might a King live in a mountain?
  2. Then we watched this performance which I chose because of the shots of the low pitched instruments, bassoons and cellos, the conductor. I also like the pace of the accelerando and crescendo in this performance. I asked them to listen out for what changed in the music as the piece went on and whether when they heard the music they thought the Mountain King was a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ and what in the music made them think that

3) Finally we played along with the Musication video, clapping first, then practising the quaver/crotchet patterns and finally adding in instruments

Can Can

Our over arching theme for this piece of work was about music and movement so our warm ups included:

  • Standing in 2 lines and stepping towards each other and stepping back in time to a backing track – this was hard enough for some classes!
  • Adding in some clapping inspired by this video
Rob Kitchen warm ups session for Musical Futures, OMEC Ontario 2014
  • My name is Joe inspired by this video
Sharon Durant warm ups session for Musical Futures OMEC Ontario 2014
  • Throw and Catch inspired by this video
Sharon Durant warm ups session for Musical Futures OMEC Ontario 2014
  1. We watched this performance of the Can Can. I asked whether the children thought the first singer was happy or not and how they knew.

2) We then used the percussion play along to play along

Note – it was really hard to find videos of female conductors that did what I needed so in this performance the conductor turtle that we all had to follow was ‘she’.

For fun we watch 42nd street and talked about singing and dancing at the same time and whether that might be easy or difficult to do (referring back to mixed success with the warm ups above!)

William Tell Overture

We just started this before schools closed so we didn’t have a chance to get far with our theme of exploring music that tells a story. However we were able to to discuss the tale of William Tell shooting the apple from the head of his son and talked about how the music sounded like horses galloping. I chose this video for the children to watch first as we were able to then discuss how the orchestra were separated into groups just like we were in our own orchestra! They loved how the conductor looks like a wizard with music coming from his baton and the fast tempo in this performance!

Resource Review and Activities – Rob’s Kitchen Music

You can see a full list of resources and reviews by clicking here. If you have a resource that you would like me to review, please drop me an email at anna@annagower.com

Click to visit Rob’s Kitchen Music YouTube Channel

I have always loved collecting activities and ideas which become absorbed into my portfolio of warm ups, ice breakers and games. A simple game or song, something rhythmic or some body percussion these activities are practical, flexible and fun (and they don’t just have to happen at the start of a lesson…)

Rob Kitchen, a fantastic practitioner with a wealth of experience working in schools and as a community musician, has started a YouTube Channel full of these during lockdown. Here he posts daily music activities using ‘found sounds’, body percussion, vocal percussion, cup songs and much much more.

There are 2 things I really love about these videos. Firstly the activities are often inspired by Rob’s travels and work overseas and he makes the links with the different parts of the world that the ideas originate from at the start. This means that you can go and find out more, work outwards from the activity into more depth, find other examples or create your own.

The other thing I love is that a little really can go a long way. Using these videos, I often found myself choosing one activity and then building other tasks around it and they are really valuable during live, socially distanced and remote learning with all age groups.

There are also activities that Rob models with his own children at home which is an important reminder that making music together at home is great for wellbeing, relationships in lockdown and a break from screens during online learning.

Here are a couple of Rob’s ideas that I have used recently and the others will remain firmly in my stock of warm ups and ice breakers to revisit in the future.


  1. EYFS classes loved warming up to different pieces of music using some of these Finger Exercises and creating their own!

2) Year 3 spent several weeks exploring activities inspired by the Table Top Rhythm.

In primary lessons we were using Charanga Musical School (currently offering free trials) Home Learning projects. It was great to integrate a new and different way to perform with the songs at home and to get started with composing their own rhythms to build on the rhythm work we had been doing in school. At the end of our project, the children were given a week to complete and upload their work.

The video below gives an idea of how far this simple idea went to refresh an existing project as we switched from asynchronous to live online learning during the course of our closure.

With older students, the opportunity to use the ideas at the end of the video to dip into some minimalism would definitely be a great next step and the fact that you don’t need any equipment makes this a great warm up activity for all ages in a socially distanced music lesson.


3) Year 5 have been exploring Motown music, again as part of the Charanga home learning projects. As we switched from asynchronous to live lessons, I used the ‘Original Cup Song’ video below to incorporate some new opportunities to perform and compose whilst still holding onto the Motown theme.

We started every live lesson listening to some music as everyone joined the call. In the chat box, students answered questions about what they could hear.

Across several lessons we chunked the cup song task into parts – learn the cup pattern, chant the words, sing the song then put it all together. With very short lessons and little time for students to practice between them, these tasks spread nicely across several weeks. Students then composed and performed their own cup patterns to fit with a Motown song of their choice.


As our students have now started to return to school, the ‘Found Sounds’ projects that we started remotely have gone on hold. However, Rob has shared plenty of videos that show just how creative it’s possible to be with the different sounds and objects you can find around the house.

With older students, I will definitely be adapting some of these for warm up activities and to consolidate learning in wider projects. I believe that if you have a musical objective in mind, whether that involves pulse, movement, listening and responding, co-ordination, building ensemble skills or just having fun, practical warm ups are an essential part of every lesson and this bank of ideas is a fantastic resource to draw on, thanks Rob!

Resource Review Cool4School

You can see a full list of resources and reviews by clicking here. If you have a resource that you would like me to review, please drop me an email at anna@annagower.com

Cool4School are currently offering a 2 week free trial and you can view information about subscription here and visit their website here.

About the Resource

The official Cool4School blurb describes it as

a music resource for primary schools. Top quality, accessible, relatable, songs, spanning different genres. Reggae, Latin, African, Funk, Pop, Rock and much more. Videos accompany the songs, encouraging the use of movement and dance making it ideal for performance, or simply a fun classroom experience. 

What you get is a bank of songs with videos and audio supporting resources and a selection of rhythm warm ups, all broken down into easily accessible activities. Children can learn to sing the song, and/or follow the movements and start to really embody the groove as they learn. And boy do these songs groove……

My favourite things about Cool4School are (obviously) the grooves, the quality of the recordings and the fact that you can link the songs to cross curricular topics such as World Book Day, Ghosts, Animals and many more. The songs can be used by non-specialist teachers and can also act as great warm up activities or to break up a lesson with younger children who sometimes just need to get up and move! This can be done in a socially distanced classroom (just be careful of any furniture around) or online. Subscribers get a student log in so that they can access the videos at home if need be.

Here are some ways which I have used Cool4School in the last few months in both face to face lessons and remote learning. For live lessons via Google Meets, I just cast my screen for the children to watch and hear.

  • Reception and Y1 LOVED the Animals song. After we sang and danced along, we mixed in some animal songs (incorporating our own games) from The Voices Foundation (click for a free sample). Once learning went online, we adapted the 5 Little Monkeys Rap from Charanga Musical School (click for free trial) so that all the cuddly toys that came along to the live lessons had a chance to take part and dance along to the beat in front of the camera. They were mostly very well behaved….
  • Also in EY lessons, the Ghosts song led us to sing some songs about monsters, also from the Voices Foundation books. We watched a video of an orchestra performing In The Hall Of The Mountain King and before we heard the music we tried to work out from the title what the music might sound like. Was the Mountain King a villain or a superhero (the topic for that term in reception class)? We weren’t really sure. Maybe there would be a clue in the music. As we listened we heard how the low pitched instruments and slow moving pulse sounded pretty scary and we used music language to describe how the music gradually builds up to a exciting cacophony of sounds as the tempo, pitch and dynamics change. We also noticed that there was a conductor and so we were ready to play along with this fantastic video from the YouTube Musication Channel and try our best to play our parts in time with the conductor. The children were so excited to be able to play the music they had just heard and seen played by a full orchestra. In face to face lessons we used percussion instruments and body percussion. At home we built Found Sounds orchestras so that we could all play along together.

My head of department also shared the school log in with primary class teachers so that they had the option to use the songs if they linked with any topic work or relevant themes.

Although Cool4School is aimed at primary schools, my teenage children and I had great fun at home dancing along to ‘The Beat of The Drum’ and singing ‘I Feel Free’ at the tops of our voices after a long day of home learning and being stuck behind screens.

There is a subscription cost for Cool4School, but it is a versatile resource that works when socially distanced in a classroom, can be adapted for online learning and in face to face lessons by non-specialists and specialist music teachers alike. I hope that the addition of more songs and warm up activities over time will continue.

The songs link well to primary topics and it’s easy to dip into other resources to create some really exciting musical projects around the central themes of the Cool4School songs, always reinforcing those foundational skills of pulse, embodying sound, recognising changes music heard and listening and responding in a variety of ways to different pieces of music.

It’s refreshing to find a resource that has paid real attention to the quality of production, creating super catchy grooves to move to. Cool4School is adding new activities including rhythmic warm ups, a great move toward supporting teachers who are less confident with leading these activities with their classes.

Resource Review and Activities – Musical Futures Chair Drumming

You can see a full list of resources and reviews by clicking here. If you have a resource that you would like me to review, please drop me an email at anna@annagower.com

Chair drumming workshop at Music China, Shanghai, October 2019

About the resource

Musical Futures International and Musical Futures UK both offer resources for chair drumming. This review focusses on the version that delegates are given for free when they attend a Musical Futures International workshop. However, I hope that something in this article is relevant regardless of which version of the resource you are using.

This unit is from Just Play a whole class approach to instrumental learning. Consisting of audio/visual resources and play alongs that support whole class instrumental performing, composing and improvising, Just Play encourages the development of holistic musical skills through playing and creating music as a whole class band. Click to read more…

I am proud to have been one of the original developers of the Just Play resources and training program and this review has a focus on how I have adapted the resources for use with my primary classes during remote learning. Click to read my reflections on home learning and remote teaching

I chose to use this resource with my Y5 classes (although it’s a great resource for use with students of any age) in conjunction with other resources that are free and open-access. I also simplified it with the help of ‘Cartoon Mrs G’ to supplement some of the activities we did in one of our weekly year 3 live music lessons.

My objectives were for students:

  • to be able to play kick and snare in time with music heard
  • to be able to interpret and follow simple rhythmic grid notation
  • to be able to hear and maintain a pulse
  • to recognise different rhythms in the music they heard

What’s in the resource?

This resource consists of videos that scaffold students from beatboxing through lap drumming to being able to drum along with real songs using a chair as a drum kit. This makes it ideal for home learning and social distanced learning in classrooms as it doesn’t require access to a musical instrument and videos can be played from a mobile device or via a shared screen as students play along at home. 

Contents

  • Video: Beatboxing intro
  • Video: Rock beat lap drumming
  • Video: Rock beat overhead
  • Video: Chair Drumming 101 play along – includes how to set your chair up as a drum kit, some practice beats and songs to play along to
  • Video: Disco beat, 8 beat, 16 beat lap drumming
  • Video: Disco beat, 8 beat, 16 beat overhead
  • Video: Disco beat, 8 beat, 16 beats drumming demo
  • Video: Chair Drumming 101 play along – includes how to set your chair up as a drum kit, some practice beats and songs to play along to

Tips for online learning using Musical Futures Resources

  • Extract the video/audio files from the full powerpoint and share with students using the online platform that your schools uses
  • Try to set students tasks that don’t require instruments at home. You might encourage them to build their own drum kits from household items using chopsticks as drumsticks
  • If your school and online platform allows, try to encourage students to share a video, photo or recording of their work each week so that you can assess engagement and suitability of tasks and to support assessment

Using this resource for online learning

It’s important to note that there is a huge difference in how much content is needed for an online lesson – far less than when we teach classes face to face. Some of the activities below may take much longer than one online lesson to achieve success!

As lesson starters or music to play as students join the online lesson – watch various performances on drums or listen to related music.

Please note that some of these videos may not be available on the Musical Futures UK version of the resource. However you can replace them with the suggested related resources, all of which build on the core skills needed to achieve the learning objectives

LessonActivityLink to related resources
1BeatboxingShlomo beatboxing tutorials
Little Kids Rock Hip Hop resources
Beatboxing Basics from Rob’s Kitchen Music Lessons
2Lap drumming and body percussion (1)Beat Goes On free online tutorials
For younger children Musication Percussion Playalongs (YouTube)
Pen Drumming from Rob’s Kitchen Music
3Chair drumming play along (1)You can chair drum with any song or online tutorial – freely available on YouTube! Here’s a video of students at Shrewsbury International School getting creative with socially distance chair drumming
4Lap drumming and body percussion (2)Cool4School rhythm warm ups are great for younger children
Check out Rob’s Kitchen Music Lessons channel on YouTube for some fantastic ideas
5Chair drumming play along (2)You can chair drum with any song or online tutorial – freely available on YouTube!
6Review and reflectMake this as interactive as possible using the platform allowed by the school. You might consider a google form or online quiz to get more detailed answers from individual students

Next steps:

Consider a Junk percussion project. Check out:

  1.  The Found Drum Challenge from Little Kids Rock https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfl9eaMvCqPmS280lgeqgyeUrlVzj2LPR
  2. Junk drumset from Little Kids Rock https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK_SMg9j-34&list=PLfl9eaMvCqPmqfXWSpx8W_oZZ-On7eaTU
  3. Various activities linked to music from around the world at Rob’s Kitchen Music https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRzblmZainYDDQaPaOnDX8A
  4. Heaps of ideas and online workshops for STOMP style body percussion from Beat Goes On UK http://www.beatgoeson.co.uk/

Back to (home) school on Monday – a few reflections

Platforms/products we have been using to set work for EY- Y9 students

  • Google Classroom used across the whole school to set and assign work and to communicate between staff and with students
  • Musical Futures International – the entire resource catalogue is free to anyone who has attended a workshop. Some free resources for uke, songwriting, Music for Film and Soundtrap are available here . Lost your login? Just go to this page, enter the email you used to register for the workshop and reset your password. No luck? Click here for help
  • Charanga digital music programme EY/PRIMARY – currently free for 30 days. Ready made home learning units available for ages 4-11 and Yumu, which enables work from within Charanga or created yourself, to be set and monitored via an easy to use platform
  • Cool 4 School funky, Fun, On-Line Songs with Movement and Dance EY/PRIMARY – Currently free for 3 weeks then 25% discount on subscription until September
  • Music First SECONDARY – free subscriptions to the MusicFirst Classroom and a range of integrated software for students and teachers which includes Focus on Sound are available for the duration of closure. However any work created or completed by teachers and students is only available during the free subscription period and will be deleted once in-person school sessions resume.
  • Musication percussion play alongs EY/PRIMARY – YouTube
  • Beat Goes On Body Beats – YouTube – Daily live sessions and some pre recorded resources ideal to use as warm ups or fun activities
  • Soundtrap for Education – online collaborative music studio SECONDARY – extended free trial available

There are so many organisations offering free trials, free resources, free support, it’s tempting to sign up for them all there and then only to find that there just isn’t time to explore what is on offer and think of ways to integrate it into what is already in place and going well. I have also found that it takes me ages to get my head around the operational aspects of each platform or resource, for example how you set and assign work, add students to groups, create tasks and if necessary to seek support! My aim this term is to keep it simple, manageable, realistic and do more of what works well and what the students are telling us they enjoy.

Reflections so far

There is a lot of white noise around on Social Media with the same questions being asked over and over (how do I do an online ensemble rehearsal? Does anyone have an online project for Y7/8/9…). The constant round of sharing and gathering information  – here’s a list of free things, here’s another, right let’s all add free things to this google doc, I’ve listed lots of good things on my blog, shall we all share ideas for free things, we are an organisation wanting to help… This means that some days, filtering through all of this really distracts me from the job in hand. So I need to focus on setting work that is meaningful, engaging, fun and as musical as possible for my own classes and try not to get distracted by what everyone else is doing!

I have decided to just contribute to and follow one list of ideas. I chose the thread in the Musical Futures Chat group on Facebook as it’s very much teachers sharing what they have found and hasn’t been spammed by organisations looking to push their own products across multiple groups.

A key filter when it comes to resources is that we can’t assume that students have access to a musical instrument at home, especially the little ones. So any work that we set has to be able to be accessible for all students. This sadly rules out many of the ‘how to play’ videos or online lessons unless they can also a part for chair drumming, body percussion, junk percussion or voice.

A few specifics

The other day I emptied my brain via a series of tweets about some more specific things I have learned so far home learning with my own children (aged 10, 13 and 17) and home teaching – my husband and me, both teaching at different schools. I want to expand a little on some of these and to make sure that these reflections are at the front of my mind as we head into term 3, still unsure of how long schools will be closed here in Thailand.

  1. Remote learning for music requires an entirely new approach. I had forgotten how much of music teaching and learning is social and democratic. Warm ups, games, singing, playing are all so much more fun when you do them as a group, supported by a teacher who can read the room, direct the pace, bring it to life. This term I am looking for activities for EY and primary children that also work if you are doing them alone at home. I am also going to try harder to support the music work my own children are set. We can all take part in Ollie’s Body Beats session or dance along with a Cool 4 School track. And in a house of 5 musicians we should probably be playing some music together – something we never seem to get around to….

2. Most of the platforms we use require a log in for individual students. But no matter how easy we try to make the process, click here, log in with these details, complete this task which you will find HERE… it’s too easy to forget what that actually means the children need to do in practice. They have to find the work for that lesson, be able to sequence and follow activities right through to the end, perhaps not always sure what they are aiming for. We can’t always rely on parents being on hand to help. Like me, they might be working from home as well or helping other children and some just struggle with technology. We have had the most success with platforms students have already used at school like Soundtrap. They know how to log in, they are familiar with how it works and how to collaborate. So this term I will stick with things they are familiar with and do more of it, rather than try to introduce too much that is brand new.

3. Over the last few weeks, we started to notice a pattern with our KS3 students using Music First where we can see their activity and notice patterns in their engagement. Most would look at a few of the information pages then skip straight to the quiz, score badly and claim to have finished! In a year 9 songwriting project using Soundtrap, rather than complete the 3 clearly defined tasks we set in order with step by step tasks to complete, they jumped about, didn’t read the instructions and the result was no complete tasks, just bits and pieces of work not quite what we wanted, that were really hard to feed back on coherently. I have watched my own children do that as well.

It was silly of me really not to realise that would happen because this is exactly what I do! If I can skip to the end of something and not bother watching or reading the detail then I’ll do that because I am always in a hurry.

I’ve noticed that in some of the instructional videos teachers are making have a lot of talking at the start. I’ve seen some examples where after all the explaining, the task is so simple – today we will learn to play the chord C on a ukulele that I can imagine my own 10 year old hearing the lesson objective, playing C once on his ukulele, not watching any further then settling back to watch an hour of YouTube!

With that in mind, I liked this example. Straight to the point, something students can watch, play as they hear and enough challenge that they might need to do it a few times to get it right!

4. This one speaks for itself. I have 5 of these hello videos to do this week and I am dreading it. I would love to play some music for them, have the kinds of conversations we have in lessons, but I have always struggled talking to a camera because I am so reliant on reading the room and engaging with the people in it when I am teaching. I need to remember that just seeing me and having a little hello message from their teacher is the most important thing to students as they continue to be isolated from the school community, their friends and teachers. Hopefully as I do more of them, I’ll feel more confident and do a better job.

5. Outcomes. Asking for a video or photo is one way to get an idea of what they have been doing. We made these optional for primary children, but I found that they either all came in across the week as and when, which makes feeding back on each an endless task, or loads came in on a Friday afternoon or over the weekend which made it hard to have looked at them in time to plan the next lesson.

Younger students don’t always understand HOW to submit something so we make videos to demonstrate the process so that parents can help. Some children may only have an iPad or phone to do all their work on, so creating a video, saving it, uploading it can take time that we should factor into the allocated lesson time, not expect it to happen outside that time when they need to have moved onto other subjects. In a 30m primary lesson, filming an outcome and uploading it could take that whole 30m to do. This term I might suggest a ‘performance’ week where their one task is to submit something they have been working on – their choice – rather than try to cram that into every lesson.

6. In the same way that when we are in school, music is much more than just a curriculum subject, I think there is a balance to be found between encouraging families to participate in music, enjoy music as part of their downtime as well as ensuring that complete their weekly lessons. We have started to collect some of our favourite video examples to share with class teachers or to be included in online assemblies. All class teachers have access to Cool 4 School and Charanga and we are also looking at how we can provide some fun, optional music activities that families can take part in at home if they want to. My childrens’ school are starting up a Community Choir this term, hoping that teachers, students and their parents will take part. That includes me I guess!

7. I’m going to finish with my favourite part of all this. Although I am sad that I haven’t had as much opportunity to teach in the wonderful Bromsgrove music spaces (I finally got my dream classroom and a desk in an office!!) and I haven’t had much time to get to really know the children and staff before we closed, it is great to be part of a team working together to get this right. We catch up daily, we share ideas and laugh at the realities of working at home, weird cat behaviour and the sad implications of the current booze ban in Thailand that we are navigating through.

But I think that the most important thing I have learned so far is that I miss teaching. Making videos and setting work just isn’t the same. I miss the children, their music, being part of the school community. And I imagine that if I am missing these things then the children and parents are missing them too. I hope that when the world reopens we will really appreciate what being a music teacher is about and build on what we have learned as we navigate through this huge and sudden change in the way we teach and learn music. Good luck everyone returning to ‘school’ this week. You are not alone….

“We don’t do D”

I have come to believe that it’s not the system, the approach, the instrument, the qualification or the content that defines what makes a good music teacher. It’s the difference between ‘doing D’ and ‘we don’t do D’.

As part of my training and development role with Musical Futures International, I was recently involved in leading workshops to support the implementation of a new curriculum for music. One session we were asked to deliver was approaches to teaching whole class ukulele – an instrument specified in the curriculum to be taught at upper primary level. The curriculum specifies that at this level (ages 9-11) that,

“Repertoire should be based on the following tonalities:

• C pentatonic mode

• C, F, G major and A minor.”

Note: I am deliberately not identifying the curriculum as I don’t want to be in any way critical of what is in it. What I am interested in is how literally it has been taken by teachers and that is why Musical Futures International was there – to start to challenge teacher mindsets, not about what is being taught but how and why through a series of intensive and practical CPD workshops for teachers.

Part way through the workshop we put up the uke chord D on the screen and my colleague Stephen asked the teachers whether they recognised it and could play it on their ukes.

Their reply, ” We don’t do D”.

Surprised, we asked why not. What do you do if a song has D in it? The answer – teachers transpose the songs into C and only use songs that have C, Am, F and G in them.

I wanted to ask whether they had thought about why their students are learning ukulele at all. Is the instrument just a tool through which students can tick the required boxes – I can play C, G, Am and F on the uke, I can almost play C, G Am, F on the uke, I aspire to playing C, G, Am and F on the uke etc etc….

It seemed a missed opportunity to give students whose only engagement with music might be in the classroom the incentive to go home, pick up a ukulele and play any song that they want to learn that isn’t in C.

Perhaps they might compose their own songs, using a range of chords other than C, Am, G and F to create a mood, a feel, a tonality that allows them to express themselves musically or to tell their own story.

Where is the stretch and challenge for students who can or want to play more than just those 4 chords, but might never get the opportunity to try or demonstrate this in class?

And a quiet voice in my head was wondering how quickly the students might get bored and disengage if all they were ‘allowed’ to play was C, Am, F and G…

The next day we taught a model lesson to a class of 40 upper primary students all of whom had their own ukulele. We used a current song, one that many of them knew and they immediately started to sing along as soon as we played them the track. It had D and Bm in it.

In 10m they were able to give a class performance. Some students just played one chord, some played two. Others played the full sequence of Em, C, D, Bm using a simplified one finger, one fret, 3 strings hack that we showed them to move from D to Bm. At first, they played along with the song so the track became their safety net. Those playing just one chord had a part which fitted within a wider musical context. All could assimilate and copy aspects of the musical style as they played along.

Everyone participated. Some sang as they played. Some embodied the pulse or mimicked the sounds in the music through movement. Some came to life where previously they hadn’t stood out in the warm ups and rhythm activities we started the lesson with. Most left the classroom humming the song. Some asked to take the resource (something I had just thrown together to use with my own classes) so they could practice.

It was raw and unfinished but it had an outcome that went from nothing to something. It was an experience for those students of an end point which then revealed possibilities for unpicking and rehearsing and improving and learning over subsequent lessons.

Our hosts were pleased to be able to video that lesson as an example to the teachers of how restricting the content or making assumptions about what students could or couldn’t do could lead to missed opportunities for valuable musical learning and participation.

My reflections

  • Perhaps the limiting of the repertoire in the curriculum is there to get teachers across the starting line with instruments and approaches they probably haven’t experienced themselves. If that’s the case, then that’s a great start point. So if CPD like ours is pushing the teachers beyond those initial boundaries therein lies the key to bringing a curriculum document to life. Put it in the hands of teachers then offer regular CPD to make what is in it engaging, contemporary and relevant to their students. The best way to improve is to keep learning and developing as teachers and as musicians and it never stops. For as long as we are teaching, we are learning….
  • Developing hacks that get all students playing first, engaging them with a real musical experience is important. Then diagnosing what they need to do it better, teaching through a range of approaches and strategies until defined musical objectives are reached, makes classroom music more democratic and keeps teachers searching for fresh approaches to keep classroom music musical
  • I am worried about the continuing debates about one approach being better than another. The need to be trained in Kodaly, Orff, EYFS pedagogy etc to be able to successfully teach primary or EY music, questions about whether secondary trained music teachers are in fact qualified to teach primary or EY music, can generalist teachers ever successfully teach music – on and on and round and round it goes.

I am sensitive to the discussion as I am now teaching EY-Y9 music in an international school having spent 18 years teaching secondary music in the UK. I have also worked in teacher development, leading workshops with adults for the last 17 years. Some of these debates have led me to question whether I ‘should’ be doing these things. Am I sufficiently qualified to be teaching primary or EY music as my initial teaching qualification was secondary?

Perhaps if I considered that my development as an educator stopped when I got my QTS certificate then some of these accusations might have some merit. But in my experience visiting and teaching in classrooms across the world, some my own, others as a guest or an observer, I have come to believe firmly that it’s not the system, the approach, the instrument, the qualification or the content that defines what makes a good music teacher. It’s the difference between ‘doing D’ and ‘we don’t do D’.

I believe that teachers who ‘do D’

  • are creative and confident enough to risk failing before they succeed
  • find their way to CPD whether that’s attending in person or reading, learning, engaging in debates
  • can build relationships with their students and their colleagues that allow for democratic learning to take place – learning can come from teacher to student and equally teachers can learn from and with their students
  • recognise that there are many ways to learn and teach music and that being open to these is the first step in finding your own approach and voice
  • have thought about what their students are learning, have asked why, and then considered how they will get there, in ways that allow for everyone to be a participant in their own musical journey
  • create opportunities to tease out what their students can do rather than start with assumptions about what they can’t do

About Musical Futures International

The Musical Futures International approach is to start with music that students recognise, like and engage with. It suggests using the music itself (rather than notation or theory) as the start point for learning. It advocates student choice where possible/appropriate and explores strategies for learning through large-group, small group and independent music making.

At our teacher development workshops we encourage teachers to look at alternative approaches to teaching music that might be different from the way they themselves learned.

We ask what happens if you start from the music rather than from notation or theory? If you can sing it can you play it? If you can hear it can you play it? If you can play it, can you better understand it and learn through and from being immersed in a musical experience? Can you become more musically creative if music itself becomes the tool for learning? is there value in making music together in groups, large and small as well as developing through personal practice that often takes place in isolation? This isn’t unique to Musical Futures by the way. There are overlaps and synergies with other approaches and we aren’t dogmatic about it. There are many ways to learn music…..

12182709_429702253901645_6494282431312617426_o

From the Archives – July 2014

Background and Context

The inspiration for this post came from my first trip to Australia. Musical Futures Australia had been up and running there for 4 years and finally I had the opportunity to see first-hand how something I had been so immersed in in my own classroom, my teaching and as part of the Musical Futures UK project team had transferred to a different context. 

(My blogs from the trip are archived here  and here and will be the focus of future reflective archive posts on this blog.)

The 2014 trip had 3 key objectives.

Firstly, we were taken to several schools to watch some Musical Futures lessons. As a classroom teacher, this opportunity to visit schools was the best professional development I had ever had. I brought back ideas for better organisation of the space in my classroom and across the department. I watched completely practical lessons, free from some of the pressures that I felt I was under from various OFSTED and whole-school directives of the time. I came home with so many new resources and lesson ideas to try. What stood out was that it was OK to be a practitioner in the classroom and play and learn alongside the students. I also saw Musical Futures informal learning work with primary children for the first time as part of the fabulous Trafalgar Primary School Music Program led by Ben Smith.

One other thing I learned from the school visits was that at their workshops, the MF Australia team had initially put an emphasis on whole class music making and non-formal approaches rather than start with informal learning as we had done in the UK. This had been something of a hurdle for me as a teacher, with whole class composing and improvising being so far from my own experiences as a learner and a teacher that I was finally inspired to go back and give it a go. It eventually became my preferred approach for all my teaching, moving away from my comfort zone of using small groups in practice rooms that I had always gravitated back to previously regardless of my good intentions.

It is interesting that the development of supporting resources for whole class music making originated with the MF Australia development team. They acted on feedback from teachers who said that they needed some support to get started with using more practical approaches in their classrooms and these are given free of charge to all teachers who attend a Musical Futures Australia or Musical Futures International workshop. For teachers like me who have attended a workshop and bought into the approach, but aren’t sure where to start, these have been a great support.

Next we were introduced to the organisational structure of Musical Futures Australia. Their strategy was underpinned by a need to commercialise – something which as a fully funded project in the UK, we hadn’t previously needed to consider, but which was to become important in the next couple of years as Musical Futures UK sought to retrospectively commercialise what had previously been offered for free. There had been plenty of discussion about whether the ‘context’ in Australia was different and what we could learn from our differences and similarities.

There was a declining focus on subject-specific CPD for music in the UK at the time and increasing demands on music to align with a ‘one-size-fits-all-subjects’ approach to teaching, learning, monitoring and assessment. So it was refreshing to be able to reflect on what really had an impact on student engagement and achievement in music and how as an organisation, Musical Futures UK could continue to keep this at the centre of our work in the next stage of the organisation’s development.

Finally I led several workshop sessions at the first MF Australia teacher conference, #MF2 and live blogged the whole event to share with our growing teacher networks back in the UK. 

One of my sessions was about assessing Musical Futures and the following is lifted from the blog that I wrote at the time. 

I am left with just one question. Are we any closer to finding solutions for meaningful and  musical assessment for music, particularly at KS3? I worry that much of the Music Education narrative in the UK consists of the same people having the same conversations, whilst in schools, music teachers become even more isolated than ever in shrinking departments and coping with declining numbers. Just as I advocated then, the call to action from these reflections is for teachers to look at what is working in the classroom and do more of it. If an assessment activity isn’t helping students to get better at something, then question why you are doing it and try something else.

Originally posted on MrsGowersClasses, July 2014

Assessment: The solutions are there we just need to find them.

In Australia, assessment seems far simpler. Teachers devise rubrics and assess students against these. I felt quite envious that they don’t have to deal with some of the issues we do as teachers of music in England. I won’t list them here as they make me depressed and I’m coming back from this trip with so many ideas and positive thoughts about music in schools that I want to hang onto those rather than dwell on the frustrations I’m coming back to.

However, as I led the session, I realised that whatever we have thrown at us to cram into our teeny hour per week (literacy, numeracy, key words, levels, speaking and listening, DIRT, marking policies and on and on it goes…) we MUST look first at what already exists in our lessons before bringing some new piece of paper or work book so that we can say we’ve complied.

One of the examples that came up in the session was of teachers asking students to fill in a log sheet. This could have their lesson objective at the top and at the end of the lesson they could make a note of what they have done. This is a great idea and I’ve seen it done a lot in the UK.

However, I’ve also seen how this can make more of a burden for us as teachers if it’s scrutinised too closely by an observer.

What happens if the students veer away from their original objective as so often happens in Musical Futures lessons? It’s usually quite a good thing, they start with one intention then realise they need to address something else first, so we help them to do this. The conclusion that ‘they didn’t meet their learning objective’ could be damning if that’s a non-negotiable for the observer. If they hadn’t written it down, the observer may have talked to the group about what they want to achieve in the lesson and what they hear could be far more complex and sophisticated than they are able to write down underneath the date.

Similarly, I find the ends of the lessons to be the most productive time in my lessons. The faffing with instruments and equipment is done, minor squabbles settled and they are often producing some quality work. So if this is the case, why stop them, give them a piece of paper and tell them to fill it in unless you are sure that it’s going to help them in the next lesson?

There are still rooms to be tidied, decisions to make amongst the group about who is doing what before next lesson, so often they will scribble a rushed few words dump their sheet and disappear. Again, the observer could argue that the quality of their written work, spelling, literacy isn’t acceptable in that lesson, that’s not what we want either!

There may be better ways to do it. Get it recorded or videoed, they may record it on their phones so they have a marker of where they have got to and what they have achieved.

Or why not play dangerously and every now and again just let them work right through. They can share what they have done verbally with anyone that wants to know! I’m a fan of regular performances as well, but not at the end of every lesson. I’ve heard too many forced Q and A sessions where a teacher is desperately trying to to coax a keyword out of the class in response to a group performance and ends up giving them the answers as they dash out of the door because they are out of time.

These are examples of music teachers trying to prove what they already do well. I’m wildly generalising, I’m sure there are some real quality examples of these log sheets being completed to a high standard and impressive quality discussions and performances at the end of every lesson. But in my classroom I find the hour goes too fast and I can’t get my students to recognise the value of this when they could still be working on their piece.

We do it in other ways, at various times in a project they complete an online questionnaire or do a piece of written feedback, but it’s given time and importance and I explain how it will be used to help me plan or support them better or to assess how they have understood the musical processes they are going through.

So the next time you are told to include something in your lessons that could be in danger of getting in the way of musical learning that’s going well, stop and step back. There’s a chance it’s already happening and you might be able to tease it out, rather than invent something that creates more work for you and doesn’t do much to move their musical learning forward.

If it’s not there then there may be a way to do it, but let’s look inwards at our musical practice first before we look outside the music classroom for solutions.

From the archives: 10 things I loved about teaching music back in July 2012

This article was originally published on my classroom blog mrsgowersclasses here.

At the time, way before platforms like Google Classroom, Show My Homework, Seesaw etc. became widely available, I had started to look at different ways to give students immediate access to recordings of their work and the opportunity to comment and reflect on what they were doing.

I used this form of ‘student voice’ as evidence for SLT work scrutiny and to try to keep the increasing demands for evidencing ‘making progress’ as practical, relevant and musical as possible.

But ultimately this was about creating a deeper understanding of what individuals were thinking about their learning to help me offer more targeted and useful support during the madness of a typical music lesson at my school.

With students spread in groups across any available space we could find, my challenge was in doing my best to ensure that they all had the opportunity to make the best use of the time, resources and spaces available to them.

This article is comprised of quotes from students in years 7, 8 and 9, taken from the various forms of online feedback and reflection that we were using at the time (please note that typos are theirs and not mine!)

As I was very much involved with bring much of the emerging and developing Musical Futures pedagogies to life in my classroom, I was also trying to stay true to Lucy Green’s 5 principles of informal learning across all my teaching (LINK HERE and more information HERE) and the original title of the post referred to that. However I think the 10 themes that emerged from the student feedback are relevant no matter how music is taught or learned in the classroom.

With many of the links to the original work no longer live, I have left number 10, “We are creating musicians”, blank. The fantastic piece of writing that one of the year 9s created that I chose for number 10 was lost forever when the platform it was held on was ‘retired’.

So perhaps teachers in music classrooms in 2019 can fill in some related quotes from their students for that one.

It would be good to collect more evidence that keeping music learning musical remains a focus in schools across the world. Perhaps this is much needed in times where justifying a Music Education for all students is becoming increasingly important.

You can read more about the background and history of Musical Futures here


Original Title: Why I love my classes: 10 reasons to try Musical Futures in your teaching – Anna Gower, July 2012

1. They know how they are making progress:

“Last weeks lesson for our cover song project went very well. We all are making progress. The singing part is going really well and I think we could maybe even add some harmony parts in the chorus. The drummer part is good, we know what we are doing we just need to put it together. I think that everyone is working hard and at the end it will be amazing”

“In our last lesson we carried on learning how to play our chosen instruments and the track ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson. I’m playing ukulele and the notes I have to play are E D and C. It’s quite hard to play but when you get the hang of it it’s quite easy as you get used to the places where your fingers go”

“Last lesson, we carried on coming up with how we are going to play our instruments. We learnt how to play more notes in the song, my group and I have decided to play. The song has been easier to play each week. We improved our rhythm and timing in our last lesson”

2. They are having fun

“The lesson today was one of my favourite lessons so far. This was because we are doing our cover songs and we have actions and drama in our piece as the song is ‘Loser Like Me’ by Glee.It was a shame we didn’t get to show it at the end though as we were really looking forward to it. There’s always next week though!” 

“Todays lesson was really fun. We were again like last week working on our cover songs and my group is doing great”

“In last weeks lesson I was improving my keyboard skills by practising our groups band song that we will record next lesson. I had lots of fun because I enjoy music and how we do practicals every lesson:’)”

3. They understand how their part contributes to the piece as a whole:

“We are just finishing learning the words and we are adding harmonies. I am doing the lowest harmony all on my own because I have quite a loud and strong voice so I can project louder”

4. They are problem solving:

“This week was hard to start off with because we had technical difficulties with plugging the bass into an amp, but after that it was coming along really well. I love it”

“Today in music we practiced our version of ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson. Megan and Chloe practiced their bit on the piano that they had learnt. I practiced my part that fits in between the breaks in their parts on the acoustic guitar. I also learnt most of the song over the half term, so I could sing it with Chloe or Megan maybe. Adam practiced on some drums but they weren’t the same ones that we used last lesson as we were not in the same room due to an exam. Becky wasn’t in, so it was quite hard to practice it all together, but we all know what we are doing and hopefully next week we can properly practice it all together in A47”

5. They know how to improve:

“In my last music lesson my class practised again in our bands. In my group we played the whole piece all together for the first time but it was a bit simple. Miss Gower helped me make my piece on the piano more advanced so I now also play the chords as well. As I had only just been taught the chords, when it came to recording time our performance wasnt very good. I should have been playing slower, the singing needed to be louder and we needed a more steady drum beat. Hopefully when we come to record our piece next lesson it will be a lot better and we will get high levels”

“I thought that today went quite well. We got loads of practice and made barely any mistakes. I think that we need to work on our timing because when we were singing we didn’t know when to come in. We are also not in time with the piano. We could improve it by having the backing track and counting how many beats there are before we have to come in”

“I had played the drummer of the band, with Luke, Hannah and Maia. We have finally sorted out our parts and who is playing what instrument. The main structure of the song is going well as on the first week, we couldn’t find a suitable rhythm/beat to go with it. In the future we will add, once all of the song is completed, some improvisation parts to make it better. The lesson was productive”

“Lately we have been working on our Michael Jackson project. We had to perform “Beat It”. I played the piano with Charlie. It sounded quite good but there is definitely room for improvement on the timing and mastering our separate pieces. The drums, Louis, keep the timing well and it is everyone else, including me, that needs to keep up. A way of improving would be to slow Louis down and let everyone get in time and then speed up”

“In yesterday’s lesson we carried on working on our piece; I carried on with the keyboard part which is fairly easy. After practicing a few times the part got easier and I’m slowly managing to put the two hands together”

6. It challenges them:

“Today we were learning how to play along to beat it by Michael Jackson I was playing the key board. I found it easy to find the right notes I found it hard to play the notes fast and not get mixed up”

7. They want to do well:

“In our last music lesson we got quite a lot done because my group went at break to set up so we had the lesson time to focus on the work. The lesson went well, it did take a while to set up the bass and I couldn’t find one that worked however that did mean I could focus on learning my words and singing along with the riff on the keyboard. We didn’t have a backing CD which could be seen as a downfall however I think it helped us because it meant we could hear ourselves really easily and we could work on things more and improve anything that didn’t quite sound right. Chloe is doing a really good job learning the guitar part and so is Phoebe on the keyboard. Amy is a natural drummer however if something does go wrong just carry on instead of stopping the whole piece. Overall I think our group works really well together and what we are all playing sounds good and we could make it very good if we have time. I am enjoying what we are doing in music at the moment”

“This lesson in music I learnt my part on the keyboard. I found it difficult to understand the notes and play my piece of music in time. But towards the end of the lesson I had learnt my part. Our group decided to stay for 10 mins after to practice as a group and it sounded really good! I am pleased with my work that lesson”

“In this weeks lesson we practiced our ‘Beat It’ performance. There are four people in my group: Me, Rachel, Phoebe and Amy and between us we are (slowly) forming the song! Our last performance of Pachelbel’s canon went really well, so we are all quite confident. I am playing guitar, which is a new instrument for me, and so far I am really enjoying it even though I have already gained a blister on my thumb! So far, I can play an E major, D and C but I am struggling to keep in time with everyone else as the song is quite fast. I am really enjoying this unit so far and I cant wait to hear the final performance!”

“In the lesson, I was play this drums, I wasn’t sure who beat to play, but by the end of the lesson, I think I may have worked the beat out”

8. They help each other:
“In music today I played the drums. I was practicing for the Michael Jackson song. I was doing really well but I need more practice so I can get really good at it. Mitchell needs more practice but I will help him with the keyboards.I am on the drums as usual as it is my favourite instrument to play”
“Our group has potential but still needs to work hard at it to get the mark we want. I think I know my part on the drums so I am going round to help people with theirs parts that they are struggling with. However I hope our performance is good as we have put a lot of effort in to song!!”

9. They make me smile

“On the 11th June we began preparation for a recreation of Michael Jacksons Beat It. The power drumkit was used to regenerate the style of the music into the 21st century”

10. We are creating musicians …

From the archives: Do you have to be a specialist to teach music? July 2016

This article was first published on Teachwire in July 2016. You can read the original article here . I am republishing it because some of the links in the original are now out of date and I think that the content of this piece and how I feel about it remains as relevant for me today as it was 3 years ago.

My reflections on reading this again are all about the idea of primary teachers feeling like they couldn’t or shouldn’t teach music. How strong and important that sense of identity as being a musician and being/feeling musical is. And what different perceptions are of what that actually involves wasn’t just amongst the teachers. I had seen similar in classes of students. “He is the musical one-he plays the clarinet. I just make things up on the piano”.

Over the course of our Just play pilots in the UK, as we tried to reach and engage primary teachers who hadn’t had any musical training, we often heard “music isn’t my job” “we have a visiting music teacher who does the music” I am not musical, I can’t even sing”, things that were replicated in the experiences our friends at Musical Futures Australia had as we co-developed and rolled out the programme together.

So originally in the development plan, Just Play was about creating a training experience that helped the teachers feel confident and supported to give music a go with their classes-we found the starting point for that in the work that Little Kids Rock were doing in the USA. The idea was that the scaffolded Just Play resource would be there as a support for those teachers to give it a go.

We found that although it was virtually impossible to get these teachers to workshops, independent evaluations of the pilot opportunities where teachers were encouraged along by their schools, as in the case of Fiona below, showed that it did work. Sadly these evaluations aren’t available online, so you’ll have to take my word for it!

However without establishing partnerships in the UK to expand the reach and message and help teachers and primary schools to feel ‘yes this is for me-I can and should teach music!’, plus the changing climate of some subjects being far more important than others in a crowded primary curriculum, plus a lack of access to instruments and the cost of investing in these as cuts started to bite this area of the work eventually fizzled out. 

Perhaps one day there will be a concerted and joined up effort to design and implement a training programme for UK primary teachers, ideally in partnership with the hubs and organisations here that all want the same thing – more music in more schools for more children. I hope so, because the impact we saw, even in these early pilots suggested that the early Just Play programme had some potential with its mix of practical and experiential workshops and take home resources to get started with straight away. 

“I’m really sorry, I’m not sure I should be here. I can’t play anything. I just sing Frozen songs with my kids in the car. I’m really not the right person to do this.”

Fiona is the headteacher of a primary school, and she has come to a taster session to find out if she’d like her school to get involved in a pilot project called Just Play, which is about whole-class music making at KS1 – designed to be delivered by any teacher that wants to make music with his or her class, regardless of musical experience.

Fiona isn’t the first person to come into the room, look at the guitars and keyboards all set up ready to play and panic. In fact, the faces in front of me often show a mixture of fear, skepticism and in some cases even tears.

Yet as we play together, support each other and experience music from the perspective of learners, I begin to see some incredible progress being made. Not just in actual musical skills, nor the perception that you need to be a specialist in order to teach music – but also in what music means to each of the teachers, and how they would like their pupils to be able to have these experiences too.

What is a ‘specialist?’

With restrictions on the time devoted to specific music training for primary teachers, and many members of the profession having had few music experiences in school themselves, it’s no wonder that “I can’t teach music” has become a deep-seated belief.

But what actually constitutes a music ‘specialist’? Is it having some instrumental skills, a music degree, performance career or specialist subject training? Are these sufficient to ensure that what pupils experience in those precious few hours of music – often squeezed into a hugely tight curriculum with so many conflicting priorities – will be enough? Or is there another way to make music accessible and sustainable in our primary schools by breaking down the specialist / non specialist barrier?

Those involved in the pilot project who were about to embark on teaching music with their classes described the characteristics of a Just Play teacher as:

• Confident
• Willing to have a go
• Knowing when to take take a step back
• Not afraid to repeat things
• Able to make it relevant
• Willing to let go of the traditional teacher / pupil relationship

Essentially, a list of characteristics you could apply to a good teacher of anything!

Leading by instinct

Watching Just Play in action in classrooms, I have had to throw aside many of my own preconceptions. Looking past things that, as a specialist, I would find easy to identify and correct – such as some wrong notes or slips in timing – I have had to accept that the benefits of whole-class music making don’t necessarily lie in just playing the right notes at the right time.

There’s another level of broad, transferable learning happening, and it’s happening in music lessons being led by specialists and non specialists alike. I’ve seen counting skills, listening skills, collaboration, focus, coordination, increased memory and improved wellbeing, among many other benefits – none of them expressly musical.

In addition, I have seen teachers leading musical activities instinctively, moving with the music, modelling, working with the children to shape sound into their own creations, and building on the strength of that teacher / pupil relationship that underpins so much in primary teaching. I have witnessed children jump ahead of the teacher, differentiating themselves and allowing space for the teacher to help those who need it.

Perhaps coming to music teaching without some of the preconceptions of what it should be like allows us to explore what it could be like for the children in our schools. Now there’s an exciting thought.