The class of thirty pour into the room and quickly take up their positions two-to-a-keyboard sat cross-legged on the ground. It’s 9.30 and there is an air of expectancy. Any teacher would recognise that this is a class ready for action! There is a brief moment of fuss because two children have decided to sit with different partners. This is quickly rectified and we’re ready to go.
I start clapping 3 beats to the bar (pat the legs and then two claps). The class join in and almost immediately there is a pull to go faster. I draw attention to the tempo. Nearly everyone picks up the pattern. We bring it down to a quieter version and then I sing a simple call and response:
“Follow me (echo) In this singing game (echo)” etc * At first no one responds because they don’t know the song but soon they are singing the echo and keeping the 3/4 beat going. There is still a desire to push the tempo and I choose to emphasise the critical importance of all of us staying on this steady beat.
We move onto the piece that we worked on for most of last half-term. It is a simplified version of the main melody from The White Rose of Athens (a huge hit for Nana Mouskari in 1963) from a book called ‘The Complete Keyboard Player’ by Kenneth Baker (1994). This simple version is in C major with five notes from C to G and every note on the beat. In the past I’ve written out all sixteen bars of the piece on our stave-board but this time I have modified this by using a repeat sign and a ‘first time’ and ‘second time’ section at the end thus introducing these features of written music to the class.
Sitting in pairs allows one player (on the right) to play the melody and the other player to simply play single notes that, being an electronic keyboard, will sound whole chords. This arrangement allows the more confident player to play the melody, or the players can swap around as they please. I tell the melody players to have a cup of tea and a Kit Kat (imaginary!) and I work with the chord-players on their very simple two-chord accompaniment. I test some basic knowledge by asking “How many bars long is each chord?” (2) and “How many beats do you play each chord for?” (2) Next it is the chord-players turn to sit back and the melody players run through the tune.
Next I play the beat on a tambourine to help keep things together and the whold class plays melody and chords together. Even the first time it sounds reasonably together (for thirty players). This represents a massive amount of progress since the beginning of term two months ago. I attempt to focus the group as listeners by sitting in silence to encourage acute listening. It’s not clear if this has any real benefit. Having played it quite well three times I explain that this piece is now part of their ‘repertoire’ as keyboard players! I also tell them that next week I am expecting the class to perform it from memory. This is something I am confident they will be able to do.
Everyone stands and we shake out our arms and legs, roll the shoulders a bit and have a moment of ‘downtime’. It’s been an intense session with high levels of concentration. We sing Follow Me again with the patting/clapping actions. In a week or two I will ask a volunteer to lead this little exercise.
The class sit and I sing the opening phrase of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind (with a somewhat simplified rhythm). This melody is written on the board and I encourage the class to follow it. It’s another tune from ‘The Complete Keyboard Player’. I ask the class what words in the phrase have two pitches. By listening carefully and following the melody on the stave it is quite easy to recognise that the answer is ‘walk’ and ‘before’. I like these little questions as they make careful listening into a challenge where there is a reward for doing so. I hadn’t planned to ask this question. It just struck me as a good idea at that moment. I really like this spontaneous aspect of teaching; there are so many little moments like this in lessons.
The class learn to sing the phrase with a simple process of call and response. There is an unwillingness to find the correct pitches but this is a responsive class with numerous capable musicians and it doesn’t take much encouragement to produce quite a good sound. By this point in the lesson we’re running out of time. We make the very beginnings of an attempt at playing half of this phrase. It ranges over six notes so the melody players need to immediately move out of the ‘comfort-zone’ of the C-G range with some clever fingering. This is Year 5 and I think they can manage that.
The lesson has been an intense one and a rewarding one.
*From ‘The Song Stack’ (Sue Nicholls, 2007)