Monthly Archives: September 2014

Finding Traditional Songs

Bartok Recording Folk MusicI’ll be honest. I don’t like trying to find traditional songs! Ever since I read the ABRSM advice and heard about the poor examiner who had ten renditions of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ on one day, I am super keen to find something different or unusual for my students to sing. So, how do you find that elusive song which is both appropriately challenging, enjoyable and unusual?

Ask your students

This might seem a total no-brainer, but with my most recent exam, I asked my student to find a song from her own cultural background and family traditions (Geordie in this case, so not particularly exotic or far flung). This turned out to be a great experience for my student because she was able to spend time with her family learning about their interests and heritage. Singing in a native/family language or accent can be a really positive experience for students too. It’s important to vet the songs to make sure they are not too difficult or too hard, so it may be a good idea to ask them to come up with two or three options if possible.

Browse in strange places

Books of folk songs often show up in places you’d never think to look for music books. Volumes of traditional songs can regularly be found in tourist shops, independent book shops and second hand stores. ‘Music’ shops are actually less likely to carry these kinds of books as they’re often considered to be a specialist market. I’m always keeping half an eye out when on holiday for books and recordings of local songs. Remember, there is no requirement to have sheet music for the song – only a translation of the words if the song is not in English. Audio recordings can be a surprisingly good source.

Find hidden gems on the internet

Audio recordings can also be found online in unusual places, such as university archives. The School of Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh has an online archive of oral history recordings including recordings of traditional songs. Other institutions have these kinds of resources.

Another good source is IMSLP. Many of the Victorian ‘collectors’ of folk songs published books which are now out of copyright. One example of this is the page of Cecil Sharp’s collections from around England.

Avoid the traditional books

Sadly, while ‘Sing Together’ is a solid text, the songs in it are overused and not terribly inspiring. The suggested songs in the back of the ABRSM Songbook collections are more varied and unusual, but are likely to be frequently used.

The search for the right traditional song can be time consuming, but it can be a gateway for the student to explore their own heritage, that of the country they live in, or indeed the culture and heritage different to their own. A well-taught traditional song can also bring with it enlivening discussions about the fundamental nature of music, and how we came to have the musical traditions that we do in the West.

Why bother with music theory?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Let’s face it, music theory does not have a good rep. It’s like arithmetic and spelling. And actually, that’s the problem…

Most people only ever really encounter the kind of music theory which feels very similar to learning your times tables or how to spell ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. No one enjoys memorising the letter names for notes on the stave, or what key signature is what.

So why bother?

In the same way as arithmetic can, eventually, lead to the kind of maths that can discover the secrets of the physics of the universe or build a skyscraper, so basic music theory eventually leads on to symphonic masterpieces of every ilk from Ode to Joy to the theme from Star Wars. Just the same, I couldn’t write this blog without having a basic grasp of spelling and grammar – nevermind some of the great literary works of the age from The Luminaries to Harry Potter.

Music theory is the key that opens the lock to the secrets of music. Understanding how to construct and deconstruct chords and harmony has made music more interesting to listen to and look at. Knowing how music works can help me to work out how to fit my own voice into the shape of the music – I know whether I am in harmony or dissonant, on the beat or syncopated.

Even simple things like knowing letter names can help with our communication around music. It’s much clearer to say “I’m having trouble with that high E” than it is to say, “Well, I’m having issues with that note there” or “I’m not sure about the note I sing on the word ‘tree'”.

Lots of what we learn in early music theory is actually about learning how to talk about music with other musicians. There’s a whole language which has grown up as a ‘shorthand’ – it’s quicker to say “at the crescendo” than to say “where it gets louder”, and it’s even easier to know what to play when you’re looking at a pair of expanding lines instead of text that reads ‘get louder here’!

So why bother with music theory? Because it’s actually all about learning shortcuts! And once you know the shortcuts, you can get into the heart of the music so much quicker.

I’m not saying it’s not dull, and I’m not saying you won’t find bits of it boring. But, it’s worth fighting through and getting it into your head so you can discover secrets and create masterpieces.

Why is music theory important for you? What helped you to get interested? Or do you not bother with it?

To Enter, Or Not To Enter…?

It’s September. That means for all us music teachers, like the children we teach, it’s back to school and back to work. In the UK, as well as abroad, a new term means we once again face the question: do I enter my pupils for an exam this term?

Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. Maybe it’s a last opportunity before a student moves away, or maybe you put it off the previous term to give yourselves a few more months. Your student might even need to take the exam to get into university. For others, it’s more tricky to decide. Here are a few really important questions to ask before you enter a student for an exam.

Have I covered all the material required for the exam?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

If you’ve not actually taught all the material, this should be a big warning light. There can be as little as five weeks between entries closing and the first possible exam date. Five weeks is not enough time to teach whole songs or concepts. You want to be able to spend the time working on refining and improving what your student can already do.

Would my student pass if they sat the exam tomorrow?

This can be a really good acid test of whether your candidate is ready. If you reckon your student could get the pass mark or a little better if they sat the exam now, then you have plenty of time to ensure that not only will they pass, but they’ll do so comfortably, or even gain a merit or distinction. If your candidate is looking ropey, it might be time to push back a term and give you both a little more time.

Am I considering entering them because their parents/they have asked to even though I don’t think it’s a good idea?

It can be really hard to say no to a parent who is keen for their child to excell, but it’s not kind to a student to enter them too early. If they fail, you may crush thier confidence. If they pass, they (and their parents) might gain unrealistic ideas about their abilities. If you are not happy entering them, bite the bullet and say ‘no’.

Would my student do better by waiting an extra term?

Some students will improve massively with more time, allowing them to slowly and surely build towards success. Others will continue to procrastinate until you put a deadline in front of them. Get the measure of your student – are they likely to work hard in the extra time, or do they need pressure? You can wait forever for a procrastinator to be ready for an exam and many of them may give up entirely if you wait too long.

There’s no right or wrong answer about when to submit for an exam. It’s a careful balance between knowing your students, listening to the parents, and forming your own judgements. Make sure everyone has a say in the choice. It’s often easy to give in to pushy parents, or decide you ‘might as well enter’, so if in doubt, leave it one term and see what happens.

Good luck to everyone who is entering candidates this term. I hope they do really well.