The making of an East London Song Book

The last three years have seen decisive shifts in educational policy in England. Counterpointing a National Plan for Music Education and the creation of Music Hubs are changes in curriculum along with new measures of accountability likely to affect the place of music in the curriculum. At the same time has come a rapid growth in Academies, the introduction of Free Schools, Studio Schools, Co-operative Schools and University Teaching Colleges, and some of these are designated Teaching Schools. With all this comes a review of educational priorities and fresh ideas about the organisation of music in the school. Here I report on the establishment of music in the curriculum of the Isaac Newton Academy (INA), just one example of how music in the school is being re-imagined in order to recognise instrumental learning as integral to general music education.

The above was written in 2013 and you can read more of that account John Finney – Music Mark Magazine – Winter 2013-2014

Or here:

John Finney - Music Mark Magazine - Winter 2013-2014_Page_1

2John Finney - Music Mark Magazine - Winter 2013-2014_Page_2


Now I have returned and find that large numbers of students have embraked upon their GCSE course and that preparations are underway for a Barbican Gala event.

It is the latter that I report on here.

Remarkably all 540 year 7-9 students auditioned for the 40 places. Repertoire had been placed on the school’s youtube site along with tutorials.

Tonight after school is the first rehearsal of the Gala Band.

12 saxophonists; 8 trumpets; 6 trombones; 6 percussionists; 2 keyboardists; 2 guitarists; 1 Eb bassist and 1 sousaphone player; 2 absent.

The rehearsal is fast paced, material chunked, call-copy, repetition, refinement; some kind of heterophonic mashing.

Talking to Greg afterwards he refers to the INA Song Book, the repertoire of songs introduced through years 7-9.

I usually pick music that the students will know.  Music that they have come across in their own musical listening (Problem, Shake it Off) or by discovering it through Core Music lessons (Umoja, Waka Waka, Big Band Bhangra, Time to Tango).

When picking pop songs I like to find instrumental examples by New Orleans style Hip Hop Brass Bands.  These performances tend to have an energy to them that can be inspirational to watch and the comparative conversations between the original song and the Hip Hop Brass Band versions can often be really interesting.  (We now have two Hip Hop Brass Band enrichments with over 100 students who sign up to them.  These groups are now branching away from instrumental covers of pop songs and individuals within them are finding, loving and learning original HHBB songs like Brooklyn and Overtime)
The arrangements are very often riff based with two, sometimes three, contrasting sections. There is usually a bass riff, homophonic backing rhythms and a melody (Dance wiv me). There is often an anthemic simplicity to the melodies that makes them sound successful even when played by multiple instruments (Crazy Love).
Sometimes we choose songs which are well suited to students arrangement either by mashing two songs up (Seven Nation Army & Sweet Dreams) or by mixing together two sections of a song or simply by messing around with the structure and texture. [2]
‘Get Lucky’ is a good example. It was an anthemic smash hit pop song that all the students knew by Daft Punk. There is a version of the song by Soul Rebels Brass Band which is really enagaging and has similar instrumentation to our classroom set up (minus the electornic instrumets). The song has three sections but has the same 4 chords throughout so three sections can be played at the same time and so students can create their own versions of the song. It has a bass riff, rhythmic backings and melody texture that works well.’
I leave with a lot of questions coming to mind.
More next week.
[1]I am grateful to Music Mark for allowing the reprinting of the article Music at the Isaac Newton Academy published in the Music Mark Magazine Winter 2013-14.
[2] In my visits to secondary schools this week I noted that ‘mashing’ as well as meaning ‘an explosion of contrasting things, stuck together’, can mean a medley of songs.


Harmony unbound

I didn’t see you at the Kronos Quartet concert last evening. There was a piece by N. Raja. arr. Joacob Garchik ‘Dadra in Raga Bhairavi’ and there was no harmony. Ah! what bliss!

Posted by jfin107 | May 15, 2016, 11:16 am

  • I was sad to miss the Kronos Quartet. I relish the absence of harmony as much as I do its presence in my life.

    Posted by Hanh Doan | May 15, 2016, 9:12 pm

    • “I relish the absence of harmony as much as I do its presence in my life”.

      Good for a student talking point and preparation for university.

      (Kronos played Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov. Hanh, a piece for your chamber choir to sing and harmonically analyse.)

      I came away from the concert wondering why we don’t concentrate more on the wonders of contemporary musical practices and leave the heavy hand of history behind.


      The above is part of discussion promted by Jane Werry’s May editorial on the teachertalkmusic site (See asking questions about the place of harmony in Advanced Level Music Exams.

      The repertoire presented by the Kronos Quartet was post 1970 and in cultural-artistic terms postmodern.

      While the high spot of the programme was set up to be Steve Reich’s Different Trains of 1988, other pieces were likely to be less familiar to the audience. These were fascinating in their originality and freshness bringing together rock, multi-media, cultural hybrids, theatre, electronics and together revealing the global interchange of culture – boundaries crossed, categories dissolved, hierarchies challenged – the heavy hand of history and tradition becoming the light touch of a distant imagined authority – harmony a frequent metaphor, less a musical imperative and much less significant than the meanings opened up, the discourse created and the imaginations fired by the music present and exonerated from its past and future.

      The postmodern cultural turn is usually associated with the 1960s and much the same time as modernism’s late arrival in music education. Perhaps it’s time for postmodernism to have greater impact now on post 14 music education and place harmony in a global context; and relish ‘the absence of harmony as much as its presence in our lives.’


Worldly-wise music education

The 3rd edition of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School [1] is fresh off the press and in my hands. It feels good, and there are lots to read and think about.

The first chapter, which I authored and titled The Place of Music in the Secondary School, has two new sections. The first addresses Chris Philpott’s Hard and Soft Justifications argument [2] and the second, Music Education Now, brings the story up to date.

Chris’s Hard-Soft dichotomy is important because it gets us to think about on what basis we value music, how we think about what is it? Is music simply a good fairy that exists to shower us with blessings or something more complex in the way it exists within a maelstrom of human action and meaning making?

Chris points out that music can be tribal, exclusive and enshrine prejudice; manipulative of behaviour; gendered; reflective of social structures; propagandist; and can enshrine ideology.

I write:

‘In this way of thinking, music is already in the world, living within complex webs of meanings and continually being understood and reunderstood, interpreted and reinterpreted.’ [3] (Hence the you tube clips: Bach recontextualised in the ancient city of Palmyra for propoganda purposes; Puccini in the King Power Stadium, Leicester for celebratory purposes.)

I go on to report on Chris’s central claim that music be conceived of as a language. And here I try to clarify because this is tricky.

‘…this is not to see in music the properties of speech, such as speaking tempo, vocal pitch and intonational contours, which can be used to communicate attitudes or other shades of meaning; nor is it to see in music grammar, syntax or dialect characteristic of a musical style; but more fundamentally to see music as a language in itself, as characterised by a openess to acquired and multiple interpretations where meaning and value are determined by usage in particular contexts.’ [4]

What is important is that we are reminded that music is educative because it is first in society, in the world, embedded in culture.

We like to say music is all around us, music is everywhere. Yet the way music education is organised frequently treats music as a thing apart, abducted from the world of messy human discourse and cleansed from its social and political reality.

In chapter 2 of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School titled Culture, Society and Music Learning Gary Spruce takes this further exploring the relationship between music, society and culture and some of the assumptions we make about the nature of music that have influenced the development of the music curriculum and the way in which it has been taught. [5]

Gary shows how contemporary thought and scholarship reorientates the basis of music education. Here is a fresh ideology to critique.


[1] Cooke, C., Evans, K., Philpott, C., and Spruce, G. (2016) Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience 3rd Edition. Routledge: London.

[2] See Philpott, C. (2012) The justification for music in the curriculum (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching, Routledge: London.

[3] Cooke, C., Evans, K., Philpott, C., and Spruce, G. (2016) Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience 3rd Edition. Routledge: London. (Page 13)

[4] Ibid, 13-14.

[5] Later chapters provide support in making a curriculum.





Five scenes from the music room

This week I was pleased to discover Jane Parker’s rich description of a scene from the early years. This is scene 1 below. In her blog Jane goes on to analyse what is thought to be going on here – the theory of instruction that lies behind the teacher’s actions. (See Jane’s Blog

Thus I was prompted to celebrate five scenes from the music room, each showing a music teacher’s advanced music teaching skill. Each teacher has a well-developed theory of instruction.

Scene 1:

The practitioner sits on a chair facing her preschool children who are gathered on the carpet in front of her. She takes out a puppet called ‘Songstar’ and hums the first phrase of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ as she moves Songstar’s mouth. The children excitedly shout out, “Songstar wants to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle!’” She asks the children if they all have their ‘twinkly fingers’ ready. She then sings (on her starting note) “Ready, steady, let’s all sing.”

The children and adults begin singing together, while simultaneously opening and shutting their hands eight times as they quietly sing the words of the first phrase. The song continues, but then the practitioner stops just before the word ‘sky’. She smiles and listens as a few children very quietly sing “sky”.

She joins in again with the rest of the song, but this time stops leading the song at the very end, allowing the children to sing “are”. She then asks the children if they have magic lips like Songstar, and gets them to have a go at miming the first line of the song – only instead of singing, they’ll clap each word so that they’re essentially ‘Clapping the rhythm’. She sings, “Ready, steady, let’s all clap” and leads the children in clapping out the words of the first line, miming the words while at the same time moving the puppet’s hands in a clapping motion.

Scene 2:

We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.

Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.

Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?

We are getting to know each other.

Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.

Scene 3:

They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.

The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.

‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.

Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.

The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.

Scene 4:

Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmitting the musical material.

calmly persisting,
patiently repeating,
incrementally extending,
imperceptibly accumulating,
few words,
key words,
sometimes recoiling,
always advancing.

And as the rhythmic texture enlarges, and as we together master the rules of engagement, we seek our own solutions to the skills-challenge equation and find flow and fluency.

In the ongoing interplay between Katy and the group the locus of control is passed back and forth. Yes, there are times of impersonal learning where the acquisition of content and skills dominate but then times of personal learning as each gains control, self-regulates, gains agency, no longer shaped by the teacher, but shaping self.

The highlight of the Samba workshop comes when there are sectional breaks and when the side-drumming quartet fizz with virtuosity. I think we are by now all feeling a bit virtuous.

Scene 5:

Now it’s back to reggae which started last week and ‘Three Little Birds’. First, instrumental warm up time, then some rhythmic and pitch calling and copying, including that clave rhythm and of course lots of reggae rhythms and melodic twists. Into sectionals with pupils mostly directing each other in their making and playing, and sometimes teacher directed assisting movement into a self-sustainable groove. Lilian is having a whale of a time on keyboard. There is a powerful rhythmic reggae idiomatic feel to her playing and making, and she is vocalizing at the same time. Amarose on drum kit is quickly into the groove and like others, once in the groove, and as a consequence of repetition, new material is made. Tshian asks me how to play A on her trumpet and we have a short discussion about pitch and embouchure. Perhaps unsurprisingly the keyboard, bass guitar, drum section get well-grooved first and ready to welcome back the rest who with some ease join the music. We have ten minutes of whole class playing with the teacher leading the ensemble round a circuit of possible structural combinations without a break.