Back to school

The teaching year has started in earnest. I missed my second week of term due to illness, but last week made a good start and with the teachers, have chosen some fun themes to work on for compositions this term.

(Check out The Language School tab at the top of the page to know more about the school I work in each week as Teaching Artist).

There are three classes, and lots of new students this term. Lots of new students means the median level of English language understanding in each class is drastically reduced. However, the good news is that a couple of the truly disruptive elements from Lower Primary last year have moved on to other schools, and early indicators are that we have three very happy, peaceful, functional classes this term.

Here’s what I plan to work on:

Lower Primary

The theme this term is on the beach and water safety. Fun! I do like creating music projects around rules and words of warning for this age group. A couple of years ago the theme was Germs (trying to increase their awareness of Personal Hygeine), and we had a lot of fun in Lower Primary writing a song with a forthright, sing-your-heart-out chorus that described how

Germs live… on your hands

Germs live… in your bottom

Germs live… in your ears

Germs live… up your nose

They loved it. We all loved it. But I digress.

Water Safety. The Beach. The class teacher I am working with is just fantastic, she has lots of ideas and keen to reinforce anything we do in music in her other lessons with LP during the week. I knew they had been looking at some picture books that showed the different things you might do at the beach, so we started with a brainstorm on What things do you bring to the beach? and What things do you do at the beach? We listed various useful nouns (bucket, spade, towel, sunscreen etc) and verbs (jumping waves, building sandcastles, digging holes).

We will use these words in a chant and a song, I think.

I also invented a very simple song that I hope we will use as a warm-up game. It involves turn-taking, and accumulating voices. It’s very simple, but sounds good.

Middle Primary

With MP I am going to work on alphabets. This is a project I’ve done before actually – the alphabet dance and using the letters on the tuned percussion instruments to spell then play words. I am planning on writing a book later this year so intend to fine-tune some projects that will feature in that.

The Alphabet Dance is inspired by a fabulous dance performance I saw about 8 years ago, performed by the Leigh Warren Dancers, Quick Brown Fox. I always say you can get your ideas for music projects from anywhere, and this performance was rich fodder indeed.

The idea for the Alphabet Dance is simple – create an alphabet of 26 discrete movements, one for each letter of the alphabet. Then choose words or names to spell.

The hard part is memorising all the moves. Last week we got as far as letter ‘L’ which seemed an excellent start. Past experience tells me that it gets much harder from here on in.

Rather than post information about how the dance is progressing each week, I think I’ll post some ideas about helping groups memorise things like dance steps or musical phrases. I think that finding different ways to repeat things, so that they start to go into the memory but the students don’t get bored with the repetition, is key.

Upper Primary

At recess the class teacher and I talked ideas. Sathy told me that the theme for the term is food, and Taste of Australia. The students will learn to cook some different recipes and be talking about different cultural foods and recipes in class.

‘Food’ is another rich topic. Sathy and I came up with lots of possible things to focus on:

  • foods form different countries (my colleague Sheldon King wrote one of my favourite songs ever with some students at this school – “I come from China…. I eat a lot of dumplings….” It had a reggae feel and was very cool…)
  • building chants or songs from the text of recipes (a bit like the way Spicks and Specks contestants have to sing familiar tunes to words from completely unrelated tomes – such as customer charters or car manuals)
  • Measurement – using all the different kinds of measurements (cup, teaspoon, ounces, grams) that you find in recipes
  • Actions into dance moves – using all the verbs you find in recipes (chop, knead, mix, stir) and performing them as dance-like gestures.

Lots of possibilities. I am most taken with the idea of the different measurements and creating a recipe from that. Maybe we won’t make ‘food’ our overall focus, perhaps we will jsut draw inspiration from the format of recipes and create a musical piece on a different theme, using those formats.

Warming up the groups

I haven’t invented any new warm-up games in a while. But my tactic is still to create a warm-up routine for each group and repeat this at the start of the class for at least 4 weeks. This is to give all the students, including the newest ones who have the least English, the chance to feel familiar and confident with each of the games, and so get the most benefit and learning from it. I think it takes at least 4 weeks for a whole group to reach this point.


Each class learns at least one new song with me each term. We tend to sing these near the start of the lesson, as a unified ensemble way to finish the warm-up section before moving on to the composing component.

Sometimes I teach the same song to every class, which means the teachers can then use it as a shared song in the weekly primary school assemblies. This term I am teaching everyone As I walk this country by Australian singer-songwriter Kavisha Mazzella. It’s a very moving, peaceful song, and they sing it with a lot of sincerity and expression. We often sing it at the end of term when we are saying good-bye to students who are moving on to mainstream school.

Otherwise, songs I am planning to teach this term include:

Little Sandy Girl ( a game-song from the Carribbean. I sang it to my nephew last week – changed the words to be Little Sandy Boy as we were coming home from the beach and he loved it).

If I had a hammer (60s protest song. It’s always a winner. I wish I played guitar a bit better as it really benefits from a bouncy, rhythmic accompaniment, and my strums are a bit on the wet, church-y side of things. Well, that’s where I learned to play guitar!)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Negro spiritual. I really love this song. I have a nice 2-part arrangement for it that I’ll use).

“Gur-Lump” Went The Little Green Frog One Day (a song I learned from one of my nephew’s Playschool CDs. It’s a Lower Primary song and such a winner. They love the drama of it, and the La-di-da-di-da chorus, and it teaches them excellent ensemble skills for pauses and tempo changes).

Brixton Market (a colleague Duncan found this one and taught it to me. I haven’t used it before so looking forward to teaching it).

Linstead Market (another Carribbean song. They are so catchy and joyous).

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll add more later.


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