Wednesday, 10 September 2014


I first came across Boomwhackers about 9 years ago when I was running a music store in Ireland.
All of a sudden, teachers who would normally be buying recorders and Tin Whistles were suddenly demanding Boomwhackers and I'd never heard of such a thing.

Well for those of you feeling the same way, Boomwhackers are sets of tubes, cut to lengths that will play a particular note, or Boom, when whacked against something solid, preferably with a bit of padding, for the best sound. Thighs, and carpeted floors work particularly well. Desk edges, wooden floors, other Boomwhackers etc. also work but can be a bit harsher in tone as they pick up the resonance of the struck object.

Boomwhackers are also colour coded too so that the Cs are red, As are yellow etc. This is immensely helpful when organising an exercise.

So here is a robust pitched percussion instrument that sounds great, stays in tune and doesn't hurt your ears. That alone puts it in a fairly exclusive group when it comes to classroom instruments. Good quality xylophones and chime bars might fit that bill too but a set of 8 Boomwhackers is going to cost you about the same as a reasonable ukulele,  (and by reasonable I mean stays in tune and the intonation is fine at least on the open chords.) 

A boomwhacker will always stay in tune and the intonation is pretty good as a result.

And being pitched, Boomwhackers lend themselves to rhythm, melody and harmony, as shown here.

Now that's fairly advanced stuff. I had a class last year who after seeing that clip wanted to reproduce it for a school concert item. It took many hours of practice but we got there in the end.

There's a lot that can be done with them before reaching for that sort of performance level. In fact, I've found recently that many of the games and activities that I use in my drummers' circle work equally as well, and occasionally better than my trusty buckets.
One such activity is one I like to call fruit salad. I've done it for years using colour coded buckets but the change to a pentatonic set of boomwhackers suddenly brought in harmony as well. The idea is pretty simple.
Each colour plays the rhythm of a fruit's name. The rhythms are written on the board. For this, I use a set of laminated notes that I made myself and attached 1cm magnetic squares to the back of. This saves me a lot of time and is significantly cheaper than an IWB.

We have apples, grapes, oranges and  boysenberries. Bananas are a little trickier with the accent on the second syllable. Groups learn their fruit rhythm in isolation them we play in parts or all together as fruit salad.
Here's today's fruit salad, as written on my board:

And here's what it sounds like ( from 20 second in until end).

They're great for teaching the mechanics of harmony too. I use this slide to guide classes through a simple accompaniment to Radioactive by Imagine Dragons using just 4 boomwhackers that are arranged to play open chords on Bm, D, A and E in a continuous cycle through the song. It's one of my favourite musical activities at the moment because the kids just hit the groove immediately and play the whole song with great gusto.

So in summary, easy to teach and learn,  a lot of fun and a great tool for warm ups and teaching harmony.

Just don't believe the part on the instructions that says they are indestructible.  They're not.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Uke Till You Puke

Hands up, who's sick of the ukulele?
Good, that's all of you, so I will go on.

It seems that these days, I can't go through town without being aurally assaulted by a godawful Flash Mob of ukulelists, keen to let me hear their rendition of "Bring Me Sunshine" and "I'm Yours".  To which I'd like to reply "bring Me a Bonfire of Ukuleles"and "Up Yours"
And has there ever been a greater oxymoron than a Ukulele Orchestra? 

Sorry, sorry, sorry. For a few minutes there I thought I was Jeremy Clarkson. 

Truth be told, I think it's one of the best, if not the best, instruments to teach music with.

Also, I just became proud owner of this little beauty.

The ukulele is not just the instrument du jour because it's a little bit quirky and appeals to a certain aging demographic. Its popularity lies in its simplicity and the fact that even played badly, it's not too harsh on the ears. 

No other instrument makes it so easy to play chords in the keys of C, G and D. And when you're playing along with popular music, that's a real bonus.

So the start point is the C chord and its relatives.  Compared to the guitar, this is a walk in the park. 
One finger on the first string (always count from the bottom up) at fret 3. 
Then A minor. Finger 2 (Middle) on string 4 fret 2. We all have a good laugh at the way our middle finger is now extended...

About now I get the first complaints. "My fingers are not good at this", "I can't keep up" etc.

So we stop for a moment. I reassure them that the marks on their fingers will be gone by the time they leave my class and that the only thing standing between them and success is a few short minutes of commitment.
I ask them how their fingers know where to go on a phone or a gaming console. 
"Awww, you just learn it. It's not hard..."

But the unspoken part here is that you have to want to.

Kids have exquisite control over their gaming console because they understand that the better they get at playing that game, the more fun they will have. By contrast, I am hopeless on a gaming console because no one has convinced me that I need a Playstation in my life. And I'm fine with that.

I just want to convince my classes that they need a bit of music playing in their life and that the ukulele is a pretty good place to start. Because most of these kids are fine with not being able to play a ukulele, or any instrument for that matter.

So where to start musically? Well Stand by Me is a pretty old song but still reasonably well known. It's got a nice easy chord progression that loops through c, Am, F, G and back to C throughout the song. There's even a great playalong version here with chords displayed. 

You can also play Somebody That I Used to Know with just 2 chords- Dm and C. (Ok, there's an F in the chorus but D minor sounds pretty much fine to a bunch of 12 year olds playing along for the very first time)
I've managed  to boil Ed Sheeran's "I see fire" to Am, F and G with occasional Dm but to play along you will have to tune up a semitone or run the backing track through a program like Audacity that will tune the original down a semitone.
For New Zealanders, Anna Mac's "Girl In Stillettos" is always popular. (For the rest of the world, that's not as racey as it sounds). Anyway, Am, F, C, G repeat...

And a final song suggestion and one that never ever fails, you can't go past Call Me Maybe. 
This infectious little earworm starts with 8 counts on G then it's C and D all the way, only stopping for another 8 on G after the first chorus. 
Have fun!

All this frothy pop music on ukulele is especially good when you consider the alternatives. For many years the go-to instrument in the classroom was the recorder. And on balance, that's an instrument that probably did more harm than good.

In the hands of a well trained player, a wooden descant recorder is capable of playing beautiful baroque music. But a class full of cheap plastic recorders, honking and squeaking through 5 note folk tunes is hell on earth. Last year I experimented with some Tin Whistle lessons, as an easier to play and more pleasant sounding alternative to recorders but even they had limited success because they are no good for playing songs that kids want to play.

So let's throw the recorders on the bonfire instead of the ukuleles. They won't burn as well but it might be more satisfying. 

Today's kids don't want to learn how to play Mary Had a little Lamb and nor did the the previous recorder playing generations if we're honest.

They want to be able to play along to Ariana Grande and 5 Seconds of Summer and they need an instrument that lets them do that easily. So, if it's good enough for G.R.L. to use a ukulele for breakthrough single Ugly Heart, it's good enough for me and my students.

If you know a great pop song that works on ukulele, please leave the title and the basic chord pattern in the comments. 
Uke on...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Further Adventures with Buckets- The Drummers' Circle

We were sitting in an open circle today, bashing away on our buckets and having a merry old time when it occurred to me that we were playing out an activity that has been with us for many thousands of years. So all of a sudden, my music lesson took a sideways turn into a bit of basic anthropology/ sociology.

My makeshift drummers' circle awaits its next class.

We stopped playing and I shared my thought with the kids. They got it. I asked them why our ancient ancestors might have participated in drumming circles.
I was pretty impressed with the list of possible reasons they came up with in just a couple of minutes.

1) As a part of a ritual
2) For entertainment/fun
3) As a group bonding exercise
4) To ward off threats such as wild animals or the supernatural
5) To shard the warmth of the central fire
6) Because there was nothing else to do at night

Not a bad list, I thought.

We went on to talk about what the instruments might have looked like then, before I appointed a chief of the group and gave him a woodblock to lead us all in some call and response drumming. After a few chiefs had been deposed , (mainly for their lousy sense of rhythm), we wound up the exercise and moved on. But what a great way to start the lesson. It had us all energised for the remainder of the lesson and while I'm not sure if we scared off any wolves or evil spirits, I'd like to think we all bonded a bit.

My makeshift drummers circle only happened this week when I finally realised that my classroom was just far too dominated by tables. Tables are fine when you need to do some writing but since that accounts for about 10 minutes of my 10 week programme, I just couldn't justify the space they were taking up or the fact that for most of the time, there was a physical barrier between me and my students.

It was a bit scary re-organising the room so that the main feature was an open circle. It's a mind-shift for the kids too, but it does make transitions between parts of the lesson easier and for that reason alone, I think I'll stick with it for a while. I'll let you know how it goes.

Update: 04.09.14

It goes a little something like this: