The class have hardly sat down and I am clapping the rhythm of ‘Lil’ Liza Jane’. By the end of the song the class is singing along. This particular class are very keen singers. I write a simple rhythm (ta ti-ti ti-ti ta) and ask the class to clap it. I am moving along very quickly at this point and many don’t do it. I ask them to do it again. Once they’ve done it I tell them we are going to clap it as an ostinato. Someone asks “What’s an ostinato?” I repeat the question in mock horror and ask another pupil to answer.
I ask them all to clap the rhythm four times. They do so and one boy claps an extra beat; this causes much hilarity. I ask them to clap the rhythm eight times. This time I sing the whole song. Next it is their turn to clap the ostinato while I sing the song. Then I demonstrate singing the whole song while clapping the ostinato. “What did I do?” I ask. It’s a chance for someone to use some musical language in answering. They have a go at combining the singing and the rhythmic ostinato themselves. Most do so quite well. I split the class and they sing the song in canon at four beats; it has a good sound to it. The intervals are ringing true. They sing it as a canon at two beats. We go back to a four beat canon and I ask the class to walk around as they do so. This causes the canon to fall apart the first time but the next time it works well and the sound blends together nicely. Of course they are more immersed in the two voices when they sing it like this. They are enjoying the challenge of it and they are on their feet so it’s more active and fun.
We come together and I ask the class to sing the song once more. I add a simple bass harmony. I ask what I was doing. One pupil says I was singing the song at a lower pitch. I don’t make any more of this; it’s a little informal introduction to ideas of harmony that we will slowly begin to explore more when they’ve heard it quite a lot. I point to ‘l s m r d’ (la, so, mi, re, do) written vertically on the board. They know it is a ‘tone set’ and someone tells me it is pentatonic. I sing Hello Everyone using variations of these pitches. They are good at identifying what I am singing and they sing back the melody each time using the correct pitch names and the accompanying hand signs. In truth there are a core of very capable individuals in the class who are able to lift the whole class and help everyone develop. I bring out a collection of cards that have simple four-beat melodic phrases on. All the phrases use notes from the pentatonic scale. Most cards are little melodic turns they will recognise from songs they know and there are a few new ones as well. They do really well at reading these. I am delighted by this as I have some guests from the London Centre of Contemporary Music watching the lesson (LCCM, now called the London Centre for Creative Media). The children haven’t been drilled to read these cards. It is genuine sight-singing.
I hold up one card that shows crotchets F G A F on the stave (do-re-mi-do). I ask the class where they can see this on the stave board. You can see it hear in a photo of the excellent ‘3-4-5’ book published by the National Youth Choir of Scotland:
This question allows the class to talk about bars and count them, to talk about the phrases if they want to and to become a little more familiar with music on the stave. The class sing this bar in solfa several times. Then they attempt to sing the whole tune in solfa. There are parts of the eight bar melody that are tricky to get just right. I ask them what we need to practise and I explain that this is what musicians do: identify a passage that needs attention and work at it, perhaps at a slower tempo. Now we are musicians. They sing it again and then I flip the board over so they are forced to do it from memory. Now that it’s secure I add the simple but pleasing piano accompaniment. It sounds good and I ask the class if they like it; they say they do. As a music teacher it is these shared moments of enjoyment that are particularly memorable. One girl asks if we can sing it with the words. I explain that we will next week.
I sing Rocky Mountain and everyone joins in with this short, simple pentatonic song. I ask them to sing it in solfa, something they have done in the past and then I establish groups of three with one playing the melody on a xylophone, another playing the beat on a little drum and the third person playing the same ostinato rhythm from the beginning of the lesson on a pair of claves. It is together, the class play it accurately and with a sense of purpose.
We finish by singing Bob Chilcott’s ‘Be Cool’. It’s a jazzy number and it’s a favourite of mine from the www.singup.org website. I’ve introduced this song for Year 5 because they have been studying the environment, climate and global warming. I was a little controversial when I introduced this song to the class as it was the day after Donald Trump had appointed Scott Pruitt to be the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US; I explained to the class that he is an enemy of the EPA with close links to the fossil fuel industry. Is this too ‘political’ of me?
Whatever the answer to this particular question today’s lesson was a great success.