A day in the Life. Halloween

I arrive at school at 7.45. I spend the first part of the day making sure I am ready for the various activities ahead. At 8.30 I teach a one-to-one piano lesson for half an hour. We look at a two pieces together. I draw attention to the chords that makes up each bar of these basic I-IV-V tunes. At 9 o’clock I take a call from the office: one of the trumpet students has returned her trumpet because she is going to stop. I did not know about this. I look at some emails and see that the trumpet teacher is ill today. I go to several classrooms to let the trumpet students know that there won’t be any lessons today.

The student who is stopping explains to me why she cannot carry on. Finding the time and space to practise an instrument regularly is not a realistic possibility for some.

My friend who volunteers at the school arrives. She teaches some piano lessons, helps with the Junior Choir and sometimes joins in with Class Lessons. I chat to her briefly and then look in to the logistics of having a harp player from the Royal Academy of Music on site next week. Full size harp or smaller? Will there be a space in our small staff car park? Will the road works block access to this car park?

Just before 9.30 I walk over to the other site to lead a thirty-minute music session with the Nursery (our school is now spread across what used to be two schools). I enter the room and the twenty or so children are brought to sit down at the carpet. I launch into my usual mixture of songs to clap along with, songs to march around to, songs to listen to etc. One boy clatters and bashes blocks of wood against a dolls house right next to where I am sitting. It is very noisy. He eventually pulls the dolls house over. I soldier on as if nothing has happened. There are three other adults in the room who all have their hands full with keeping other children either placated or occupied. The boy with the wood blocks makes a grab for the soft-toy cat that I am holding. It’s a violent grab and, thwarted, he launches himself at my guitar. Eventually, one of the other adults removes him from the room so that the session can continue. I am standing and leading a song when a fist-sized lump of plasticine hits me on the back. It has been thrown by another boy who has been taken to one side after bothering other children. Despite these considerable distractions the great majority of the children are quite happy joining in and enjoying themselves. In the end it is a good little session.

I go up to the staff room for a quick cup of tea before leading a 15-minute Year 1 Singing Assembly with the forty children in that Year Group. We sing some call and response songs – always good for warming up – and then launch into a medley of well-known songs. Like the Ramones I don’t leave any gaps between the songs. It’s one song after another! At the end I sing them ‘There Was an Old Woman all Skin and Bones’ as a Halloween special. They don’t know it. I ask them to join in with the ghostly ‘oooohs’ between each short verse. It’s good fun because it ends with an unexpected ‘Boo!’

I say my goodbyes and walk back to the other site where the Music Room is. On the way, I check with the workmen about access to the road next week for our harp player. I email the Royal Academy to let them know all is well. I’ve decided on the small harp to make things simpler. I would love to have the full-size harp though! Two Year 6 girls come in during playtime, as they always do, and they set to work at the piano developing the little piece that they have been working on. This is a different sort of learning compared to the piano lesson earlier. It’s completely informal and not even led by a teacher but there is still learning going on. I encourage them to play more softly. Straight away with less bashing it is a more mysterious sound that draws the listener in. The girls are certainly having fun as a pair. Music has social value, perhaps it is the most important of its non-artistic values.

Slightly after 11 o’clock, nine Year 5 children come into the Music Room for their second ever ‘Musicianship’ class. The first one was yesterday. It’s a new initiative. This is my seventh year at the school and that means I have been teaching the children in Year 5 since they were in the Nursery. Some of them have absorbed more than others. These nine pupils have taken on board a lot of the pitch-awareness and rhythmic understanding that I have been teaching – only one hour per week – during this time. I have decided to lead two 15-minute sessions each week to take their musicianship a lot further. I am inspired by the National Youth Choir of Scotland (a country with a more enlightened approach to education than England) and its Bronze, Silver and Gold level qualifications. These children are at about the Bronze level 1.

Yesterday we sang Row Boys Row together (a simple three-note song they know from Year 3) and they all wrote down the rhythm. Today, we are looking at how to write the rhythm with a time signature at the start and bar lines to show the two beats in each bar and a double bar-line at the end. In their regular Class Music Lessons we haven’t done this level of written work. It doesn’t take them long to understand what we are doing. After the session I have several ideas about what to do in the next session. I make a note of them.

I set up the chairs for Junior Choir. Today only half the choir, the Year 4s, are going to come because the Year 3s are out on a trip. It’s the third rehearsal (out of six so far) that the Year 3s have had to miss. I pack as much as I can into the 30-minute session. We sing Osprey, a lovely song with long held notes and my basic guitar accompaniment. This gives us a chance to really work at producing a full, rounded tone, not pinched. There are some simple canons in our next song and we work at these too. I introduce a simple three-note round for some more two-part singing. The children know that this is a time for focused work and the behaviour has improved a lot since the first session two months ago. There are still some children who find it really difficult to stay engaged with the work we are doing. I like this little group of singers. It is starting to feel like a choir.

At 12.15 I have some lunch up in the staffroom. There are only a few staff in there because most of the teachers work while they eat lunch in their classrooms marking books and preparing lessons. It really shouldn’t be like this! Everyone deserves a break, especially teachers. It’s a stressful job. Back in the Music Room the two Year 6 girls are at the piano again. This time one girl is teaching the other a piece she has evidently been taught herself. The ‘student’ in this case is a girl who has been actively discouraged from learning an instrument by her family. These two have found a neat way round this. It interests me that the ‘teacher’ says to her pupil “Your thumb always stays on C.” It’s typical of beginner piano books to give this impression but it’s not very imaginative.

I then walk back up to the other site to teach two Year 1 lessons. These are both successful lessons and two hours later I walk back down to the Music room. It’s been a fairly typical Tuesday.